Monday, September 24, 2012


No, not that clown in the mirror.  Well, sometimes.

Self-reflection in this case is your ability to evaluate your own performance of any skill, activity, knowledge, whatever.  In this case, let's assume it has to do with riding motorcycles, and evaluating your own abilities, and based on that evaluation, make positive changes in the way you ride.  Is this something you do?  Is it something you think about?

Assuming you're not a riding god, and assuming you know that, and you're not a victim of the Dunning-Kruger Effect, most of us have some room for improvement in our riding.  Barring having regular sessions with a riding coach who observes your riding and provides useful feedback, we're pretty much stuck with evaluating our own riding.  We may read all the best books on becoming better riders.  We may post questions on internet forums and eagerly sift through the answers.  We may even ride with more accomplished buddies who demonstrate how they get up and down the local racer road.  But even after we do all that, we still have to compare these ideals with an unvarnished look at the way we're riding now before we can hope to figure out the steps to take to improve.  Yep, self-reflection. 

Here's what got me thinking about this.  A few weeks back I was with some motorcycle friends talking about (what else?) riding.  One of these friends - who will remain nameless for now - knows more about what it takes to ride a motorcycle quickly and well than anyone else I have the pleasure to know.  When the topic of conversation moved to embarrassing events, I related what happened when I crashed my motorcycle about a year ago.

Crashing my motorcycle is not something I like to do, and it had been 5 years since my prior crash, and 20 years back to the one before that.  Last year's crash had been a bit of a mystery to me, and the only thing that seemed to explain it was too much throttle in a low traction situation, but the quickness and violence of the crash made that explanation a bit unsatisfying, and no one I'd talked to about it had any better of an explanation than that one.

When my friend heard how the crash happened, he said that he'd seen a lot of people crash by getting back on the throttle before they finished setting the lean angle for the turn, and in those cases these riders experienced losing the rear tire and low-siding even though their lean angle wasn't terribly steep and traction was not that bad.  This seemed odd, and it stuck with me.

The next day a group of us were riding over the Sierra headed back to the Bay Area, and I began to reflect on what he'd said, asking myself, "Am I opening the throttle before I've finished setting the lean angle?"  I didn't think about it every turn, but when I had time to think, I posed the question.  Any time I felt like the rear tire had been squirming or skittering across the road, I posed the question.  Here's what I found: yes, in some cases in some circumstances, I sometimes start opening the throttle before I finish setting the lean angle for the turn.  Exciting!  A new insight! Once home a brief exchange of messages confirming what had been suggested, and some helpful feedback, and more to work on.

The moral of the story is that it doesn't matter how much Code, Parks, Ienatsch, Hough or others you read, you've got to bring them with you when you ride.  The only way to do that is save a little bit of bandwidth to observe and record your own riding, then - perhaps later - reflect on what you observed and how it compared to what you read.  Is there a gap?  Can you learn something from that gap?  Can you bring that gap back to another reading of the book to see if you learn something else?  I hope the answer is in all cases "yes"!

Self-reflection is a key skill to develop in becoming better at pretty much anything, including riding, just don't let staring in the mirror overwhelm everything else.  We all know what happened to that Narcissus character. 

Thursday, September 6, 2012


Tomorrow begins the annual Bay Area Riders Forum (BARF) Rydther Rally bound for Hawthorne, NV.  I think this is the 5th annual, or thereabouts.  We travel to Hawthorne each year in memory of a deceased member whose motto was Ride There, wherever it might be.  Going there by motorcycle is better than going just about any other way.  We ride to Hawthorne every year to remind ourselves of the truth of his motto.

Why Hawthorne?  Lots of reasons, but I'll start with four:
  1. Tioga Pass
  2. Sonora Pass
  3. Ebbetts Pass
  4. Monitor Pass
Any of those can be on the way to Hawthorne and back, and they are among the highest, wildest, and most beautiful passes in the Sierra Nevada.  Throw Yosemite NP in there if you're taking Tioga Pass, and there's another reason.  We're going to make those passes even more fun by taking some entertaining goat trails leading up to the high Sierra to avoid the car traffic, and to have some fun!

Once you're over the passes, the fun doesn't stop.  You can have lunch at The Whoa Nellie Deli at The Mobil in Lee Vining to experience fine dining in a truly improbable setting.  If that doesn't suit you, there's always Mountain View BBQ in Walker, CA, a worthy destination even if you chose to turn around and head back home.  

While you're taking in the natural beauty, you'll pass right by the legendary Mono Lake, which is slowly returning to its earlier water levels.

As for Hawthorne itself?  Well, Hawthorne is an old munitions town, with bunkers dotting the hillsides surrounding the town.  It's a remote spot, a relatively quiet (unless they're disposing of old munitions) spot in the desert.  It's inexpensive to stay there.  It's inexpensive to eat there.  The locals have always been happy to see us, and to share their hospitality over the course of a few days of days of riding and hanging out by the pool, and evenings of having fun over in Joe's bar.  It's tough to beat.  

See you when I get back.  

Hairpins (again!)

Two weeks ago I enjoyed a great goat trail ride!  Some of my favorite Marin and Sonoma roads, little traffic, nice weather, and ripe blackberries by the roadside for a little al fresco feasting.  Combine that with riding with good friends, and that's just about ideal. Throw in a new learning, and it gets even better.

I've posted before on the topic of hairpin turns on a couple of occasions because they cause problems for lots of riders.  One of the varieties of hairpins that I've seen cause the most difficulty are downhill right-handers, and I devoted a post to that particular variety earlier this summer.  Our ride two weeks ago demonstrated that uphill right-handers can be problematic too, and that's the topic of this post.

What do the two varieties have in common beyond the obvious fact of turning to the right?  In the ones I've seen cause the most problems the other common feature is very short sight-lines - the rider can't see where the road goes beyond some obstruction (tree, hillside, wall, house) that is on the inside of the turn.  The result of that short sight-line is one of the following, or some combination; the rider slows (not a bad idea), stiffens (not so good), stares at the ground in front of the front wheel that is visible, stares out the opposite side of the road which is also visible, forgets to shift down to a gear appropriate for the slower speed, etc.  With the exception of the first one, not optimal responses.  Let's examine them.

Slowing down is not a bad idea.  The conventional wisdom is that you should travel at a rate at which it takes you four seconds to reach the edge of your line of sight so that you have adequate time to react to any obstruction of your path.  It's pretty hard to argue against that even when your line of sight is so short that your speed drops to what feels like a crawl, however unless your path actually is obstructed, I can't remember seeing a hairpin so tight that you need to get your feet off the pegs.  Keep your feet in the pegs, shift to a gear appropriate for your road speed, cover the clutch if necessary, and be very careful of using the front brake unless you actually have to stop.  You're going uphill, so you should  be able to control your speed by rolling off the throttle and/or using the rear brake.

Stiffening is pretty much always a bad idea, in hairpins or otherwise.  It your elbows are stiff and/or you have a death grip on the bars, you're too stiff, and nothing good can come of that.  This is the time when you need to be a little self-aware (difficult if you're frightened), and wiggle your fingers and waggle your elbows to loosen them up.  Two of the most common causes are the following:

Looking at the ground.  The old saying in motorcycling that shows up as more and more true the longer I ride is that you go where you look.  Meaning in this case that if you look at the ground, that's where you're going.  Looking at successive spots eight feet in front of you will mean that even at very low speeds the world will be a continual surprise, you'll be frightened, you'll stiffen as a result, and you make bad things more likely to happen.  Get your eyes up.

Looking at the outside of the turn.  Where you look is where you go, right?  If you're looking at the opposite roadside, where do think you're likely to end up?  Bingo!  Across the road and in the ditch, unless you're really unlucky, in which case the local in the F350 heading to pick up the day's second sixpack may turn you into a hood ornament before you get there.  

So, if it's okay to slow down, but it's bad to stiffen, or to look at the ground, or to look at the other side of the road, and your line of sight is blocked, where in the world are you supposed to look?  I'm glad you asked.  You want to keep your eyes probing the place where the road is about to appear.  You're always pushing your eyes out in front so you can see the road surface at the earliest possible point of visibility.  Your eyes won't be in just one place, you'll scan to the farthest point you can see, then let your eyes come back, then scan ahead, moving quickly to take it all in.  Ideally, you should be scanning the roadside, the trees, the local geography to see what other cues about that emerging road you can pick up.  I'll post something in the near future about reading the road, but for now keep looking ahead to where the road disappears (the vanishing point), keep on looking for the right-hand edge of the road, keep your eyes up, and your elbows and grip loose, and keep the bike on your side of the road.  Enjoy!