Monday, August 4, 2014

Pay Attention - Then Anticipate!

Last week, I read a really great post on LinkedIn in which the author argued that the best advice anyone could get is to pay attention, better even than "wear sunscreen".  As someone who has survived malignant melanoma, that claim doesn't go down without skepticism, yet the author convinced me.  I suggest you take a couple of moments to read the piece.

What has any of this to do with motorcycling?  Well, there's the obvious:
  • Pay attention to what other road users are doing
  • Pay attention to the road surface
  • Pay attention to the vanishing point
  • Pay attention to the condition of your machine
  • The list goes on....
All great stuff.  All important to riding safely and well.  And yet, not enough.  Necessary but not sufficient.  You can do all these things, and still be surprised.  You can do all these things, and still screw up.  You need to go further.  You need to anticipate.

Paying attention is necessary, and utilizing the information gathered through paying attention, over time and with a little reflection, can anticipate that which has not yet happened, and that which we cannot yet see.

A few stories follow to illustrate the point:

Eight years ago when I had the opportunity to ride with Colin Barlow, one of the things I learned was that if I was going to keep up with Colin and company, I was going to have to pay attention.  Riding an open road TSD rally in the high Alps meant that conditions were demanding and the pace was brisk.  If I was going to hang with the guys doing the navigating and timekeeping for me, it was going to be necessary to know what they were doing before they did it, rather than react to it after the fact.  I would have to anticipate. 

Were they getting ready to overtake a line of traffic?  Were they getting ready to turn at a junction? To do this I had to not only 'ride my own ride', but to ride theirs as well.  Where was Colin, the team leader, in traffic?  Were there cars holding him up?  Was the oncoming lane clear in front of him?  Were David and Dominic keying off Colin?  What gear am I in?  If they go, will there be room and time for me to follow?

Rather than waiting to be surprised by Colin's overtake, by anticipating it I could eliminate my own delayed surprise, and the need to work extra hard to catch back up.  Paying attention to my ride, paying attention to their rides, and projecting into the future. 

Second story, same event, but with another rider, we'll call him riderX.  This rider had many years of experience, and decent bike handling skills.  On the basis of strictly physical capabilities, riderX was well within his depth.  And yet, he wasn't.  RiderX was often caught by surprise by the actions of the rider in front of him even though he was keenly focused on that rider's every move.  What was more dangerous was that riderX could not anticipate the actions of the riders behind him.  When riderX would overtake, he would often linger at the completion of the pass, not realizing that the riders behind had followed him and that he was blocking, leaving those riders needlessly exposed to oncoming traffic.  RiderX certainly could not anticipate in 360 degrees, and he probably didn't think or pay attention in 360 degrees.  No tragedies occurred, but riderX didn't make many friends. 

Third story, different place, different year, different rider, we'll call him riderY.  RiderY has years of experience, and has ridden many places.  He rides a very capable bike, and in many cases his bike manages to do his paying attention and anticipating for him.  Riding narrow, poorly surfaced, technical roads on steep hillsides, when the road you can see going uphill around a corner suddenly disappears, you might reasonably anticipate that you're about to go around an uphill hairpin at a speed well under 20 MPH.  You might further anticipate that no matter how wonderful your bike is, that a gear lower than third could be useful, or failing that, you might cover the clutch to make up for the too high gear.  Conversely, you could hope that your bike might sort it out for you.  Which bet do you want to make?

The moral of the story?  As your skills increase, and your motor skills used for riding become more automatic, use the increased availability of your attention to pay attention to more things, to develop more situational awareness, and then take the next step - you might call it the meta step - and use all that information to anticipate that which will happen.  The objective of this is to avoid being surprised .  Surprise is the enemy of safe motorcycling.  When you can't avoid being surprised, at the very least, put yourself in the position of being able to deal effectively with the surprise.  For instance, by having your motorcycle in an appropriate gear for conditions, not the gear you're in as a habit developed by having a bike that's always bailed your butt out in the past.

Pay attention, anticipate, execute, have fun! 

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