Monday, June 05, 2006

Eyes up!?

I am SO far behind! Sorry if you've been checking in and there's been no new postings. I spent a couple of days just riding and clearing my mind. Then I changed jobs. That brought a chance to take a trip on Sophie but it was a whirlwind two days with no time to blog. I no sooner got home from Seattle and it was time to go teach a motorcycle class. Finally, I'm at my new office with a laptop. The good news is that there's a lot of commuting related stuff to tell about. It will spread over several posts.

Let's start the week out with a little homework assignment. Don't worry, it won't be too strenuous. While you're doing your homework you will be doing something you really enjoy-riding!

Do you remember the postings a while back on mental skills? I wrote that I would come back to physical skills at a later time. You probably thought I brushed it off, didn't you? It's not forgotten, just delayed. Here's the first installment.

Good physical skills are important for all riders. For someone who daily commutes on two wheels good skills are even more critical. We need to be proficient with all the tools available to us. I can hear the wheels turning in your heads. You're probably thinking I'm stating the obvious. That's quite true. Here's the complication, though. A rider might agree that good skills are needed. Ah, but exactly which skills?

A rider might make a list but it will most likely be incomplete. Even long-time riders don't always have a complete list. Self-taught riders don't have a reference point to know that their lists are missing some things. One of the reasons that teaching classes is so satisfying to me is that I get to help riders complete their lists. Most of the students coming through are new riders. For them the barest basics are enough in the beginning. There's no relationship to the real world for them yet. Some of our classes are for riders with more experience. It's a sad fact that the vast majority of beginning students never come back for more training. These ones are missing out on so much.

When the more experienced riders come back to training it gives me the chance to evaluate what's on their lists. Then I can fill in the blanks. Their experience makes my coaching so much more relevant to them. I feel great knowing they've gone away better able to take care of themselves than when they arrived. Most had no idea what they were missing. Sometimes a rider sort of does something but doesn't understand it enough to be effective with it. An example of this is countersteering. A rider has to do it to turn. Yet very few really understand it or even realize they are doing it.

Something similar happened to me in 1987 and that's what motivated me to become an instructor.

I was the Road Captain for a motorcycle club. That means I planned our monthly rides. One day a representative from the motorcycle training organization came to our breakfast meeting. He invited us to take the new Experienced Rider Course they were conducting. You can imagine the reaction from the macho law enforcement guys who had been riding forever.

"We don't need no stinkin' training!"

Nonetheless, two of us decided to take the class. Arriving at the range on the morning of the class proved interesting. I had my Honda 900 Custom with the dual range transmission. Sort of a big and heavy bike, relatively speaking. My buddy, Larry, was on his Yamaha XS 850. It had a sissy bar sticking up in back. By the way, Larry was a Lieutenant in the Sheriff's Office, and thus one of my bosses. The range was strung off with those flag banners. Attempting to duck under the flags to enter the range, Larry's sissy bar caught on the flag's rope. Yes, he fell down coming into an Experienced Rider Course. It was good we were here.

The day can be summed up by saying I didn't know what I didn't know. My eyes were opened to so many things that could save my bacon on the streets. Not just save it, but prevent it from even going near the fire in the first place. That class moved me to share with as many others as possible.

This has been a long preamble, I know. I've missed blogging so much that it's all pouring out. So be patient with me, will ya?

This week I want to start with "Head and eyes". Looking is both physical and mental. We use our eyes to get information which is a mental skill. Looking also has an involvement in the physical operation of the bike. Most riders do not look nearly far enough ahead.

We have had the chance to see and play with some eye tracking software developed in Southern California. This is a pretty cool setup. A video camera records the scene in front of the bike. There are two small cameras/sensors mounted in the front of the helmet. These track the pupils of the rider. When all the data is compiled and combined a video is produced. This video shows the ride with crosshairs superimposed on the scene. The crosshairs represent where the rider was actually looking. The results are surprising.

We saw footage taken from riders with varied experience levels. The purpose of the research is to try to establish some sort of baseline. What do we typically see from riders with little experience? What do we see from someone with a little more experience? And so on. You would think that the more experienced the rider is the better the head and eyes would be. It seems we would be wrong.

Time after time we saw riders with 10 years or more experience not looking very far ahead. One thing that really struck me was a rider on a BMW "K" bike. This was a rider with 12 years experience according to the information he gave. Going through a curve this guy was looking three paint stripes ahead of the bike. He was not unique!

Here are a couple of pictures I snapped with my broken camera. The first shows the perspective of looking closer to the bike. The second shows the perspective of "head and eyes up looking well ahead". In the second picture notice how much more of the horizon is visible. Again, my camera is broken so it's not quite as contrasting as I would like. But you can get the idea. In the first picture my focus is just over the top of the windshield. In the second one, my focus is just past the place where the road starts to curve. A big difference!

The value of looking well ahead can't be overstated. Stability is increased. I know that when Katie is getting on the bike I feel so much more stable when I look far ahead than when looking down. Turning the head to get the next target is priceless. The bike will go where you look. It is an undeniable fact of riding. Make it work FOR you, not AGAINST you. Use head turns in corners, keeping your eyes up and level with the horizon. Use your head and eyes to guide the bike where you want to go. It's like your brain is a travel agent and the eyes dictate the destination. The eyes tell the brain where to aim for and the brain makes the body do it. If you look someplace, that's where the brain figures you want to end up. Be sure your eyes tell the brain the ACTUAL destination.

Avoid target fixation. It was discovered in fighter pilots. They would stare at something and then fly right into it. What's a surefire way to hit something on a bike? Yep, stare at it!

Time after time I have riders tell me they know why they crashed now. They didn't want to hit the ditch but they stared right at it. They found they were going wide in a corner. Guess where they looked? They were so worried about running too wide that they stared at the side of the road. Yep, that's where they went. I guess riders feel like they can avoid something by looking at it and knowing where it is. They should have trained themselves in looking where they want to go. If a rider is getting close to the gravel at the edge of the road they MUST look where they want the bike to end up. Trust that the bike will go where their eyes tell it to. Same way in a swerve. Look at the escape route, not the obstacle. I don't care if there's 48 of those little Shriner's cars on fire in front of me. The most interesting thing is that few feet of escape route.

A lot of what it takes to be successful as a rider are unnatural acts. Only training and conscious effort will ingrain the proper habits. Proper use of head and eyes is critical to our success.

Did I mention homework? Oh, yeah. Here's what I would like you to do for me. ( and you, ultimately ) As you're riding the next few days, notice where you habitually look. You might be surprised. If you actually do look far ahead as a natural habit, good for you. If you find you could stand to look further ahead, or turn your head more, it would be good to work on it. Get in the habit of always looking for your next target.

If you're in the mood, drop a comment and let us know what you find. Consider it as contributing to the well-being of all of us, your fellow motorcycle commuters.

We'll address some other skills as we go.

Miles and smiles,



Mad said...

I've been doing this homework since I started riding and I agree it's invaluable. It's when my mind has wandered and I haven't been looking ahead that I've got into trouble.
There is one exception the "you go where you look" rule and that is Valentino Rossi. If you ever watch him race he's looking at the tarmac under his bike when he's mid corner. Why it works for him I have no idea but the man is a one off, a genius. For the rest of manking - we need to look where we are going. :D

Steve Williams said...

This is an excellent post Dan, not only for bringing up the general idea that more experienced riders are not necessarily as good as they think they are but also to remind me to keep my head and eyes up.

I remember taking the MSF course and hearing the instructor constantly hollering across the range "heads up, eyes up". I find myself consciously having to do this in curves. Part of what is going on with me is I think I am a bit paranoid about gravel and sand on the road so I want to make sure I am seeing the road carefully. But when I do look down I find my line not as smooth.

I'll keep after this homework. And I'll try not to fall down riding onto the course when I go to the ERC next month! I have to make sure the Vespa appears well among the big dogs...


irondad said...

what can we say about Rossi? They call him "The Doctor" and he writes his own prescriptions.

There is nothing in the ERC that should make an experienced rider like you fall down.
Here's something to think about with your head turns in corners.

Keep your nose pointed at your target. That way, if you want to check the road near you, you can just slide your eyes down briefly. It's much quicker to get the eyes back on target because they will naturally center on where your nose is pointing. As opposed to continually having to move your head. It takes much longer to get back on target when the whole head moves.
Hope this tip proves useful.


Steve Williams said...

Dan, I can tell you are a youngster and don't wear bifocals. That eye shift doesn't work anymore. If I want to see I have to tilt my head down, otherwise there is that dang closeup lens blur.

Being an old coot has its disadvantages....


Episodes from the Maze of Life said...

True, I agree. Riders don't look far enough down the road. Riders have path obstacles, other vehicles, and the unforseen to worry about at the same time. This riders scans the tire path looking for car path indicators like mailboxes, driveweay markers and signs on side roads. Major hiways are to be avoided. If the bike is going too fast the unforseen can overwhelm rider skills; especially if the rider freezes up instead of operating the bike safely out of harm's way. And then there's always rain. Then there are young riders who ain't learned that street racing kills bikers. To be fair I raced a couple of timer and learned that it takes a pretty big armadillo to dump a bike on a dry straightway(they jump when you hit them). But a single leaf will down a bike in a corner if it's wet.

irondad said...

episodes author,
checked out the start of your blog. Interesting post. Makes me think. Thanks for stopping by. There's a lot to look out for. Stay sharp and eyes up!


Bryce said...

Am reviewing Dan's montly blogs
from the beginning.

I look waaaaay down the road always..

So in the two photos I looked beyond
the automobile in the right lane
and saw something? blocking? the right lane?

Ditto for the other photograph

Bryce Lee

irondad said...

Welcome to the blog! You're right. There is something in the lane down there. From here it's hard to tell. Could job picking it up so at least you'd be ready.