Thursday, September 6, 2012

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!

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