Saturday, April 22, 2006

Is "good enough" really enough? Part 1

"Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go".
T.S. Eliot

I was reading an article in Motorcycle Consumer News about long distance riding. In a sidebar was this quote. I had never come across it before and it intrigued me. What a great quote! It moved me to address a couple of things again.

One thing to come back to is to briefly touch on why some of us need to keep looking for "how far we can go". The other thing is to bring it back to commuting on a bike. There's been some discussion on Gary and Steve's blog about things like how much power do you need in a bike. How much skill do you need? Is 'enough" really enough these days? How wise is it to be "adequate" but have nothing in reserve? A rider can probably get by with "just enough" skills as long as nothing goes horribly wrong. Isn't it better to have "more than enough"? I prefer to have cards I'm not showing rather than be riding at the edge of my limits to just deal with normal traffic and small surprises.

Previous posts have touched upon why some of us do things on a bike that most folks might consider "extreme". I'm not going to go too far in that direction again. Suffice it to say that some of us have different reasons for finding out "how far we can go". In the process we sometimes find we're at that point where it's a fine line between "farther" and "too far". We accept that risk. Obviously we try to avoid falling over the edge but it's a constant factor to be contended with. Armed with our skills, resources, and with a little daring thrown in, we approach the edge one reasoned step at a time. In the end, I suppose, an accident is an accident. I just like to think if it happens that I "eased" over the line, rather than went over in a big, leaping bounce.

In the case of my Bro' Gary, he's found a great role with Baron Scooters. As near as I can tell Gary's job is to see if he can break them. It's like giving a kid a new toy and actually asking him to break it. I heard a story about how a father explained to his son how engineers knew the weight limit of a bridge. The father tells the son that workers keep driving heavier trucks over the bridge until it collapses. The weight of the last successful truck is recorded then the bridge is built back exactly how it was.

Gary's a test pilot for the Baron machines. When he finds the limit, the company determines if that limit is adequate for most of it's customers. If so, things are left alone. If not, changes are made and testing begins again. That explains the scooter thing. There's no explanation for the rest of what Gary does except that he's psycho crazy like me. We just don't like to be told we can't do something, I guess. Are we brats, or what? ( brats with skills, I'll have you know )

In my case I'm no test pilot except unto myself. There's this strong inner need to keep growing through meeting challenges. Specifically addressing motorcycling, I'm also looking for credibility as a trainer. The pursuit of increasingly stretched limits also gives me more of value to share with other riders. In my role as an "instructor" I meet a variety of skill levels both formally in classes and in my social interchanges.

Some of our advanced classes are attended by riders with more years in the saddle than me. I totally respect their desire for periodic tuneups. One of the challenges as an instructor is to establish both a rapport and credibility. To complicate matters we ride our own bikes for demonstrations. Our premier class is taught on a track and we're continually having students follow us or ride with us. For me, it's not enough to say I'm teaching a course designed by experts. To tell students that, despite the lack of my own skills, they need to just concentrate on what's in the course. For me to be satisfied with myself as an instructor I need to have the skill to be the shining example.

Isn't that the point of formal training? I've always thought the purpose was to sharpen the existing skills PLUS step up to a slightly higher level. For me, as well as for most dedicated instructors, I want to be in a place where I can reach out to the students and encourage them to stretch up a little to meet me. That's just not possible if my skill and experience aren't up there, too.

One of my prized experiences had to do with teaching an Experienced Rider Course a couple of years ago. We've replaced that course with something called Rider Skills Practice since we've split with the MSF. The morning was taken up by classroom and we'd go to the range after lunch. After my usual sandwich and V-8 juice I fired up the ST to warm it up. I was going to ride demonstrations which is harder to do with a cold engine. So I'm out in the parking lot running through the drills the students were going to be doing later. Ok, my riding had a little extra flair and swooping. Katie's watched me do this and can't belive the saddlebags almost scrape in the parking lot. I'm just having fun, thinking I'm pretty much out there by myself.

As I finally get tired of playing I ride off the lot. Much to my surprise, the whole class of twelve students have been standing and watching me. As I dismount, one of the students comes over to me and extends his hand.

"If that's what's called "E.C."; congratulations, you've done it. You've certainly Established Credibility with us!".

The other instructor said the students made the comment "Um, he rides real well, doesn't he?"

I don't mean it to sound like bragging. It just supports my philosophy that the Master should be a few steps ahead of the student. That's very serious to me. I'm literally giving riders tools to stay alive with. As long as I put myself in front of riders as an instructor my skills better be up there.

I always loved the old Kung Fu series with David Carradine.

"Snatch the pebble from my hand, Grasshopper".

Some of our classes are for motor cops. Life is more extreme in this kind of riding. Having explored "The Edge", I can pass on tips on how to handle these kind of extreme conditions. For example, did you know that in maximum braking for a quick stop there's actually two times you have a bigger danger of skidding the front tire out from under you? Once at the initial application and again right at the end when the weight starts to rebound off the front wheel? Nothing like doing maximum emergency braking from 75 MPH at a dragstrip to show you what that's like. That's plain scary with entirely too much time to think about it. These guys and gals face these kind of things on a regular basis.

As a "competent" rider I'd be in no position to offer any help to these everyday heroes. Thus the search to always "see how far I can go", among other reasons.

Stay tuned for Part 2. We'll talk about things specific to commuting by bike. It's a dangerous world out there and getting worse all the time. The good news is that the risk can be managed.

Miles and smiles,



DaveT said...

Dan, you have caused me more brain sweat in the past few weeks than you can possibly imagine. It's all good though, since they say thinking hard burns calories. ;)

Seriously, I have enjoyed your blog, and this latest post is a real deep one. Is "good enough" really good enough? I don't think so. I've never been in the military (I tried though! They wouldn't take me due to physical defect.) but I respect what they do and how they train. They try to train to such a level that any real fighting they do is not nearly as tough as the training scenarios. I like the idea of pushing yourself hard in a controlled environment, where it is safer than the "real world". Maybe training at a trackday would be the next step up from the experienced rider type courses. You may still get hurt, or bang up your bike, but you won't wind up as the hood ornament on a Kenworth.

Once you're comfortable in those situations, and then get that hyper radar "they're out to get me" sense going full bore, you'll be safe on the street. I practice that too. I practice, i.e. play, in empty parking lots in the morning. I push myself when it's safe to do so. I only hope that, and the training I get from guys like you, will keep me going.

Keep up the great work and the great writing.

Steve Williams said...

Good enough implies a destination and completion. The moment I decide I am done learning I am not "good enough".

I have made two emergency stops on the Vespa from about 50 MPH and it is unsettling. There is time to consider what may happen. Having both brakes at your finger tips is nicer than using a footbrake. You can really exert more sensitive control over both brakes than you can with a boot on a pedal.

I've though about going out to some isolate roads here and practive skidding but I keep seeing myself highsiding off the scooter and laying along the road for a few hours before a feed truck or Amish Buggy finds me...


Gary said...


You are doing such a great job on this blog. I'm really impressed.

Your instructor credentials really show through in your writing. I see you wading into subjects I have always considered too complex to explain, and parsing them into bite-sized chunks that are readily digestible to the novice rider.

This entry is just another example. I have always referred to "the edge" as a mysterious, sometimes-slippery boundary between control and the abyss.

That approach may make for dramatic reading, but it does nothing to help my readers recognize and avoid the hazards of hard riding.

This is some of your best work yet.
Can't wait to read part 2.

Ride well,

Steve Williams said...

Your excellent work on the blog entries is a given Dan. It is always thoughtful and for me initiates new considerations as I ride.


irondad said...

Sorry for the "brain sweat"! I'm just glad to see someone's getting value from something I'm using for personal expression as well as my own growth.

Track days aren't just for folks who want to race and you're on-line with that. If I get my physical skills sharp and take them to the level that they become automatic background reactions, that leaves much more attention for dealing with the "real world". You sound like a wise man!

Exactly. The learning never stops. Very astute comment! There has been some discussion about moving both brake controls to the handlebars. Experts seem to agree with you about it being more efficient. There was a study done recently in Canada that was quite enlightening. I'll see if I can get it to you somehow.

Please don't practice skidding! We used to have students skid the rear wheel on purpose. It was an MSF thing with the reasoning being that if the student felt it they could get familiar with how to control the skid. We decided it wasn't good to teach them to skid. We now just teach proper modulation of both brakes. Wouldn't want you to fall down and get RUN OVER by the Amish buggy!

The pupil is greatly pleased by the gracious praise from the Master! I guess I do have a passion for trying to share knowledge with other riders. My way of giving back, I suppose. I just have to be careful not to come across like some sort of self-appointed expert. That's not how I look at myself. I'm a perpetual student who's always excited to learn something new. When that happens I just enthusiastically share it!

There may end up being 3 parts to this before my head quits spinning.


Mad said...

I've been missing some really good stuff going on over here haven't I?

Excellent post Irondad,
I'm struggling with my riding right now. I feel like I've reverted to how I was riding before I had any real training. I think there's a couple of factors involved in that. Firstly it seems to be a delayed reaction to my off in January. My confidence has taken a big knock. Secondly I've been riding carefully on my own in rubbish weather all winter and not really practising my skills - except the staying upright in awful conditions ones of course. Which involves smooth careful riding and clutch control but not really pushing myself or the bike.
A year ago my instructor said that unlike most new riders he thought I'd be fine with a litre bike and didn't need to limit myself to 600cc's if I wanted bigger. A year on I feel like I should go back to the 125 for a while!

Plan of action?
1. Keep reading your blog ;)
2. Practice, practice and practice!
3. My dearest friends have just bought me a years subscription to IAM for my birthday(Institute of Advanced Motorists - basically this means a years advanced training), this should help loads. They use the police riding methodology.
4. And you've reminded me I really really need to test the limits of my braking. I shall find somewhere quiet and practice.

Cheers Irondad you've perked me up a bit. :D

irondad said...

glad to see you stopping by, again! The flow will come back soon enough. At least you're aware that things might be a little rusty and will take due care. Enjoy the training. It can be slightly frustrating as you try to perfect new skills but you will be so proud of yourself when you master them. Pleased to be of service in the cheer department.