Tuesday, February 21, 2006


Know your limits. Ride within them.

This post is a result of a phone call I received at home last night.

First a disclaimer:

Due to circumstances I am bringing in another BLOG. If you are reading this one then you will know of Gary Charpentier. He is the dashing pilot of The Baron. I DO NOT speak for Gary. The words I write are my own intrepretations and opinions.

Gary-- I know you read this and am honored that you do so. If I mis-state please use this forum to publicly correct me! I would also be pleased to have you use this space to add what you feel I might have missed.

The phone call.

I received a call from a woman who was one of my students last summer. I shall call her Melissa. As you may know, or have surmised, I am an instructor for our state's motorcycle safety program. Melissa had found Gary's BLOG, and through it, mine. She put things together and then called. I am listed in the phone book. The gist of the conversation was that she felt somewhat betrayed. I continually stress the above mantra. Know your limits, ride within them. The key to managing risk on the streets. Having read certain things in the BLOGs Melissa felt that I was not living what I preached. Wasn't I her instructor? Did I not have an obligation to set a good example?

In the short time I had available I tried to offer explanations. It is likely that it was not as effective as it could have been. I lay awake many hours thinking about this. It really bothered me. Credibility with my students is important to me. Personal integrity is equally so. I thought of how this BLOG thing is so intertwined. Some of us write for what I call the "hard-core". Those who are committed to two wheels. Those who know what it is like to ride in the most adverse conditions. It tends to narrow our focus. It came to me that we are being exposed to more "casual" riders. Those who are exploring commuting. Newer riders who are mapping their future and weighing their options. Consider a quick example.

I support "Ride to Work". On their site I found Gary's BLOG, "The Baron In Winter". Through him and the RTW folks I started my own writing adventure. Now there is a link to my site on Gary's site. ( sorry, Gary!) In this process I found the interesting site "Mad TV". mad's blog has a link to his father's blog. There is now a link on my site to Steve and his wonderful Vespa pictures. On his site there are links to other places. And so it goes. Wow! That's just the first half. There's more!

We trained over 6700 students last year. The vast majority of them were in basic classes where we hand out a workbook. In this workbook are ads from entities in the motorcycle industry who support rider training. Each book has a postcard size advertisement from Aerostich. ( Thank you, Aero Design, for supporting rider training! ) Guess who is the impetus behind "Ride to Work"? Aero Design, of course. On the Aerostich site is a link to RTW. On the RTW site is a link to Gary's site. On Gary's site is a link to mine. You see how it goes? "Ride to Work" is becoming more widely supported all the time. The exposure to newer riders is becoming greater. One thing leads to another. This is just one state out of 50.

Sorry to be so long on this part but is was necesary to set the background. We have a more varied readership than we realize, I think. I personally wish to still appeal primarily to my "hard-core" group. So I will not change what I write about. At the same time, I want to create a platform. A place to view the writings from. A place from which to gain perspective. It will now be on record and can be referred to. If you have a need to explain to newer riders and aquaintances please free to use this. Perhaps you have no interest at all. It is important to me to put this down here. It is important to me that these ones have the whole picture as best as I can paint it with words.

At first glance I understand how we could be considered 'thrill seekers". People who care only about the next "victory". Even among our own core, those who comment on the blogs, there are different levels of understanding. There are those who use the word "crazy" in jest, and those who use it seriously. There are some who sort of "get it". There are some not even close but enjoy the reading of the tales. And these are mostly longer time riders. What must it look like to new riders? Or to those who have had a bike for a long while but have little riding time?

Know your limits and ride within them.

So let us go back to "limits". There are three areas where limits are found. The bike, the rider, and the environment. The very term "know your limits" implies a process of discovery. You might also say "Go and find the limits". This means that there has to be a journey. A process of exploration. In this search there is a method.

The Bike

I will put Gary center stage here. He is the perfect example of this area. What Gary does, folks, is product testing. Pure and simple. Oh sure, there's a certain romance to it. The situation calls for an adventuresome spirit and personal fortitude which Gary seems to have in abundance. Boiled down to its essence, though, it's an attempt to make a better scooter. The makers of the Baron seem to be proud of it. The wish is to make it better. What better way than to test it? Not an easy test. What would that prove or help? No, a bona fide test to find the absolute limits of the machine. They have given it to Gary who has the skills and experience to truly see what the scooter can do. Notes are being kept.

Riding this scooter in the ice and extremely low temperatures has nothing to do with being "reckless" or "irresponsible". This is a controlled research project. Did the scooter do ok at 20 degrees? Good. Tomorrow it will be even colder. Did we do ok at 15 degrees? Mostly, but there was a certain problem. Step by careful step the machine is evaluated and tested. Is the problem due to a design flaw? Good, we've found it and can fix it. Is there a point that the machine just will not tolerate the cold or conditions? That can only be determined by taking the next step. Then the next. Each step builds on the previous to go a little further each time. Only in this way can the manufacturer find the absolute limits. When these absolute limits are found it can be determined if the machine will serve its riders well. If not, the limits can be changed by improving the machine based on the test results.

Bring the spotlight back to me and my trusty ST. I am not product testing. This machine has been tested extensively by others and found to be good. I explore limits for a different reason. As do other experienced riders. In controlled environments such as a track I explore lean angles. Will the bike lean this far? Then we explore a little more lean. At some point I will know the limit. I explore braking. Will it stop this quickly? Further exploration reveals that it will stop a little quicker. At some point I will know the limits. With these tires, in these conditions, the bike will go this far and no farther. Proven one small step at a time. Why must I know where 100 percent is? I certainly do not intend to ride at this level on the streets.

Consider a ride on a twisty road. My goal might be to ride at 70 percent. This will leave thirty percent for "just in case". I want traction and ground clearance in the bank. How will I know where the 70 percent is if I don't know where the 100 percent is? By knowing where the limit is I can develop strategies. For instance, my cornering strategy is "double minus 10". If a corner is posted at 30 I know I can safely take it at 50. I have proven it by exploring limits. It is now a valuable tool. It is true that I could ride at, say, 20 percent. I know I would never be anywhere close to the limit. For me, this is not an option. I ride for fun as well as for other reasons. I prefer to take charge of my own ship, as it were.

Knowing limits also serves at critical times. If I need to make a decision the correct information is at hand. I do not assume the bike will do more than it will. I do not assume the bike will do less than it will. I can make intelligent choices based on what I know to be true. We have explored and charted the unknown until it is familiar. Knowing the braking limits will dictate my following distances. There are many examples. It is sad to ride over the limits. It is sad to ride too far under the limits if it is due to ignorance.

Ironically, to manage risk effectively one has to explore the limits. It is a measured process. One step at a time.

The Rider -- The Environment

I lump these together for the sake of brevity. In many ways they are tied together, anyway. I will not go over the same ground again. We know the value of keeping skills sharp. The value of having the proper tool at hand at the proper time for it. It is likely I will not meaningfully add to your knowledge of this subject here. I do want to explore the more subtle side of the equation. Why do we seek challenges and how do we go about it?

Think of being a student of the piano. We have mastered a basic set of skills. Now it is time to tackle a challenge. A piece is selected. One that is within our reach. Using our skills as a platform we reach out to the challenge. Much thought and practise go into it. Now we are ready to be tested. We play for our teacher. Perhaps a small audience. Our skill is evaluated. We are successful! The feeling of having been tested and proven fit is a wonderful thing. We wish to experience it again. The catch is that we cannot do the same piece. That mountain has been climbed. The next piece we pick will stretch our skills some more. Obviously we do not chose what can only be accomplished by an expert pianist. We build on the skills we have. Take them and stretch some more. Our piano is tuned and in working order. Distractions are limited as much as possible as we strive. We take the next measured step. And so the process continues. Each time we relish the chance to be tested. To prove ourselves.

So it is to those of us you are meeting here. We greatly desire the chance to grow. The only worthy measure of accomplishment is testing. Once having passed the test, it will be ours to savor. Ours to build upon for the next test. Each time increasing our skills and pride in having them. We control as many variables as we can. Yet, if everything were totally controlled there would be not the well earned pride of accomplishment. There MUST be an element of uncertainty. There must be the possibility of failure. We look for situations where these requirements can be met. At first look someone further along this process may appear more daring. On closer scrutiny, the measured steps will reveal the truth. It is not an irresponsible leap. It is the progress of the steps that is seen.

At some time in the future there may come a time where we have reached the peak. Just as a pianist who has mastered every style of playing. We can explore subtle nuances but further big steps are not possible anymore. I do not think any of us here have reached that point. And so we strive. If we ever do reach it, at least we will not be left wondering what would have been possible. We will have fully explored. We will have been fully tested. The testing will reveal the truth. Strengths and weaknesses. Only by revealing weakneses can they be strengthened. Testing is the most accurate gauge. That which sheds light in the darkness.

I bring Gary and the Baron back for one more quick example. Testing the Baron in extreme weather also means testing the rider. A first glance might show him to be insane riding in the snow, ice, and freezing weather. Look more slowly, now, and see the process. Having dirt riding experience he is familiar with how a bike handles on low traction surfaces. He knows how to gently steer the bike with the throttle. Braking a dirt bike while heading downhill teaches proper braking in the ice. Drag the rear brake and make it an anchor. Do not load the front wheel by hard braking thus causing it to slide. Use a Fred Flinstone like method of dragging boots for balance as required. When you know of his skills gained by previous testing, you are more understanding. For Gary this is a responsible approach. It is not a large leap, it is merely more small steps taken in succession. The cold weather is handled by adjustments. The bike is fitted with knobby tires. Certain clothing layers and materials have proven effective in frigid conditions. A further temperature drop reveals the need for one more small adjustment. I chuckle at Gary with frostbite on his nose. I want to call him Rudolph or something but am not brave enough. He has just discovered one more area where a small adjustment is needed. One more step. Each step building on the foundation of the last one. The steps have taken him far.

Do you see how the process works? Our limits are higher than many others, to be sure. The limits were explored one step at a time. I know I say that a lot, here. One step at a time. Look not at the leap from where you are. That is the wrong perspective. Look further back and see the steps that lead us where we are. Steps that others can follow. Steps that you can take.

I leave you with this. An invitation to join us in our two-wheeled journey. Join those of us who use two wheels for transportation and recreation. Share our passion. The Earth needs you to be gentle. Two wheels use less resources. A single track leaves a smaller footprint. In few other socially responsible endeavours can you find so much pleasure and treasure. The treasure you find will enrich so many other parts of your life. That sounds like a "better than fair" trade off to me!

Ride well, live well!


Rudolph the Red-Nosed Rider said...

Hey Dan, this is an excellent post. Please do not apologize for having a link on my site. I asked you for it, remember? This reminds me that I should link to Mad's and Steve's blogs as well. I will contact my admin today and fix that oversight.

What you have said here is something I should have said a long time ago in the main blog posts. I covered it piecemeal in the comments section, but never put it all together in one coherent presentation.

And you're right about perspective. I always write exactly what I am thinking and feeling at that moment, sometimes without considering how diverse my "audience" may be. I'm writing to the hard core, certainly, because that is what I understand, what I have become. I have always tried to avoid the responsibility of setting a good example for those just starting out. This places limits on my riding that I cannot tolerate. But ride-testing needs my kind of approach. It is not for the beginner, obviously.

Your approach is more in the role of mentor, and I am thankful that you and others like my friend Pat Hahn are out there, showing the way for the next "generation" of riders. I develop machines, but you develop riders. See? It all works out for the best.

Ride well,

Mad said...

Looks like I can stop muttering darkly under my breath about reciprocal links...

Just kidding :p

"Know your limits. Ride within them." Yup, very true. The only time I've been badly hurt on a bike I was riding beyond the limits of the conditions (and my own abilities).

Art said...

Is that the reason why I was alone commuting on a MC while the rest of my friends had their bikes winterize? You are right Dan every rider should know their limits as for me I think I came close finding my own. I know my limit riding when I can only go 45 mph on the freeway, on the far right lane, fighting and leaning against during windy day. All other condition (i.e. cold, rain, etc) so far have not tested my limits. The only elements I won't test my limit would be black ice/ snow combination, but if I get caught under such situation I'm willing to test the challenge..

Art B

Steve Williams said...

I took the MSF course this past August and there was a focused attempt at bringing the class to an understanding of the risks associated with riding and ways to manage that risk. When the class was over I remember our instructors cautioning us to grow our skills slowly and not leap ahead into areas that we were not yet experienced enough to handle. Night riding was one of those areas that careful exploration was the way.

Riding in the winter (read that snow) was just foolish in the eyes of the instructors and I suspect if we had taken a survey among the students at the time the opinion would have been to have two-wheeled machines spend their winters in heated garages.

I think having a student go to the trouble to track you down at home to point out a "betrayal" is just weird. Really weird. Not to mention the fact that the MSF is a beginner course pointing out methods for beginners to practice. I don't see a gap in credibility if you choose to perform at a more advanced level. And I think riding in cold weather (dry roads) is more advanced and cold weather (snowy or icy roads) is even more advanced. The only step left is icy snowy roads riding naked. (We don't need to hear about that in your Blog Gary).

As I write I figure this person is now going to know you are bringing the "betrayal" up to part of the riding world. So, if you are reading this--- "It's OK to ride in the snow if you accept the risk, manage the risk, and have the skill to do both."

I'm no thrill seeker. I don't run with scissors and am always careful. But I do take risks. I ride at night. I ride in the winter. I backpack and hike alone. I swim alone. None of these are about thrills (though I have been thrilled) but are about being alive. And to really live I think a person needs to take risks. Not stupid ones, but considered informed ones.

Anyways I think you more than meet your obligation as an instructor.

On blogs---it is cool how people make connections through these.


irondad said...

Sorry for the delay in replies. I seem to be living life in the fast lane these few days.

Well, SOMEBODY needs to set a good example for new riders!! It's an interesting contrast. A student expects a teacher to bring them along gently and be a good example. Yet the teachers that get the most respect from the students are the ones they know can kick their ass! In addition to my teaching I am heavily involved in training and mentoring new instructors and updating active instructors. I guess it sort of channels my thinking. Keep on working on bikes for my riders to ride!

We have a sophisticated saying over here: crap happens. It's easy to step over the line when we live on the edge.

what can I say? you seem to be having so much fun. Looks like you are pretty proud of yourself. You may be a newer rider but you have the "heart of the hard-core"!

good on you for taking the class. Even experienced instructors here take our advanced rider training. It's good just to have someone else take a look at us and help tune us up. I teach this class but still come in as a student once in a while.
It IS really weird to have a student make a call like this. I often get calls from students who want more information on their riding skills and how they can improve. They usually don't call me with a beef. For that they go past me to headquarters!
Instructors are seen as huge authorities to new students. It would be hard to justify telling a new student that they could ride in the snow, for example. They might be tempted to do it before they were ready thinking "the instructor we could do it". So we err on the side of caution for new folks. What they do on their own as they feel ready is on their own heads. You're exactly right.

If you have the skill and accept the risk go for it!

If you decide to try to ride naked in the snow please don't put the picture on your blog!!