Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Paying the price.

Should I cross the bridge or play it safe? It's a long ways around if I don't. I've walked over it countless times. The plank on the right wobbles a lot. To the left is where we want to be anyway to avoid that geared axle on the right. The only question is whether the left side plank will support our weight. It's a question of physics, not physical ability.

You see, I know I have the skill to actually pilot the bike over the little bridge. I've participated in training where we rode along raised beams with ramps at both ends. I've ridden planks set up like teeter-totters. Was it nerve-wracking to practice? You'd better believe it. The upside? I don't have to wonder if I can do it. There's no "I think I can". Fact is, "I know I can". Comes from paying the price to achieve the skill.

It's this fear of "paying the price" thing that holds a lot of riders back from achieving greatness on two wheels. Here's an example.

"I'd give anything to be able to ride like you do!"

This has come out of the mouth of a student in our civilian track-oriented course. For any training we do beyond the beginner's classes, instructors ride their own bikes. In this case, I'd ridden demonstrations of track lines, setting up properly for corners, high speed swerving and braking, stopping quickly in corners, etc. We also offer rides on our bikes to those students wanting to see proper cornering technique and lines from a different perspective. Students also spend some time following instructors around the track. This particular student has done this class once or twice a year for several years. This was not the first time this man had said those words to me.

Interestingly, his skills were adequate at best. Each time he came to class his skill level had never really seemed to step up any. I really respected him for seeking regular training. I could also tell that fear was holding him back from reaching the next level.

This time, against my better judgement, I answered him with a comment of my own.

"No, Don, you wouldn't."

"Wouldn't what?", he asked.

"You said you would give ANYTHING to ride like me. If that were really true you'd have the skills by now. You may have the desire but you're not willing to pay the price. How do you think I got my own skills?"

I think Don was a little miffed. I'm sorry for that. I should have kept quiet. At the same time, maybe I got him to thinking about things. Perhaps in the long run I did Don a favor. Don's not unique by any means. We train thousands of students in our beginner classes each year. Proportionately very few come back for more training once they get endorsed. Riders can improve their skills on their own. Sometimes it ends up being a "learn by burn" process, but skill levels can be increased. The learning curve is much better with professional training. My experience is that most riders don't travel either road.

In my humble opinion I think the biggest reason is fear. One thing a lot of longtime riders are afraid of is looking silly or inept in a class. It's rare for riders reaching out for more advanced skills to master it first time out. It's the nature of the beast. There's going to be a little stumbling until the techniques are understood. The same process is happening to all the students. The riders I'm talking about don't see the big picture. All they see is the narrow focus of themselves looking a little less than "cool". Pride holds them back. They may cover it up by making statements about how long they've been riding. Which is supposed to somehow mean they don't need training.

I'm sorry but I've got to make a little side trip here. I once read a column by Larry Grodsky. ( Mister Safety ) In an exercise undertaken just for the fun of it, Larry started scouring ads for motorcycles being sold. He focused on Harleys. Larry would call about the bikes and find out how many miles the bike had on it. Then he would divide the bike's age in years by the mileage. I forget the exact number of bikes in the informal study but it was a large number. Larry came to the average mileage figure of 3500 miles per year. Not that some Harley riders don't put a lot of miles on their bikes. This was just the average for all the bikes he inquired into.

Say a person's been riding for 10 years. That would mean a grand total of 35,000 miles. It would probably be safe to presume that most of the riding was in fair weather. Compare that to the conditions we face as commuters riding most of the year. I'll bet the mileage is a lot higher, too! What I'm stating is that a lot of years doesn't automatically equate to a lot of skills.

The second fear is summed up in the statement: But I might fall down!

Guess what? They're right! There's always a chance that bikes could be scuffed up some. I'd be the last person in the world to tell someone to purposely harm their bike. On the other hand, I'd be the first person to tell someone that it's a calculated risk. Risk has to be compared to the greater good down the road. Better to ding a bike now to avoid more serious consequences later. I think the last couple of sentences explain those of us who might be perceived as "risk-takers" or "thrill-seekers". We accept the risk of a crash as a price we're willing to pay in the pursuit of top-notch skills. I never go out to see how close I can come to crashing without actually doing it.

It's more like this. From past experience I know I can ride in this kind of weather. Or I can take a corner on a track this fast. Whatever. Now I want to know if I could go just a little faster, ride in a little bit worse weather. Not that I need this skill right now. One day I might, though. I don't want to have to spend time wondering if something's possible. I want to have already had the experience so it's there when I need it. Later on conditions might not be under my control. Right now they are. So I conduct an experiment. I push the boundary just a little. Growth comes from a series of small increases. Once in a while things go wrong. It's not a totally precise world. Roads, tires, weather, and my own physical being inject unpredictable variables into my equations. Instead of creeping to the edge we fall over it. Sometimes it's a pucker moment, sometimes it's a little worse. Always the rewards are worth the price.

The reason some of us appear to be risk takers is that we are. I've already described that process. To a lot of riders it might seem like we're thrill-seekers. It's because they have no frame of reference to speak of. Our boundaries are so far out there compared to theirs. No insult is intended. That's a common situation in life. It's the difference between those who fly radio controlled model planes and those who are commercial airline pilots. Different worlds.

We conducted an interesting test involving things that were holding riders back from coming to training. We offer a class where un-endorsed riders can come in to get some training. The class lasts one day. There's a skills test that, when passed, allows the students to skip the riding test at DMV. Not many riders were taking advantage of the class. We felt that one of the reasons was because riders had to bring their own bikes. One change we made at the start of the last training season was to allow students to use our training bikes. Guess what happened to the number of students coming through? It nearly tripled. We'd removed the fear of dropping their bikes as well as the prospect of looking silly trying to wrestle their big bikes around the parking lot. I think it backs up my statements really well.

I warned you that I was going to let this post have its head. It's got to finish in its own due course. If you're still here I respect your stamina!

Let's go back to the track oriented course. Don only saw one aspect of my track riding. Sort of a finished product. Have I run off the track while practicing? Yeah, more than once. Luckily I never fell down but did have a couple of thrilling rides across the grass. Most importantly I know exactly why and how to fix it. Except for the time I just totally tanked my entry speed and line in a sharp hairpin. Nothing there to fix except remembering not to be so stinkin' incompetent!!

Another aspect Don didn't see was all the hard work I've put in over the years. On top of all my real-world riding was a lot of time spent under a microscope. This part isn't meant as bragging on my skills. I'm only trying to show that even someone who could be considered a "guru" has had to pay a price to get there.

In our training organization all instructors start out teaching the beginner type courses. We have approximately 140 instructors. In order to teach the more advanced classes an instructor needs to be invited. Somewhere around a third of the instructors are certified to teach our experienced rider course. The track-oriented course is our premier class. It's called Advanced Rider Training. These instructors are hand-picked by the Director. There's about a dozen certified for this course. We serve an internship with Mentors. Our riding, our coaching, our ability to evaluate riders at higher speeds, and other things are carefully scrutinized. Only after receiving a final sign-off by the Director are we declared certified to teach on our own. It's a big price to pay but the rewards are being a part of an elite group. Not to mention the skill levels that come with it!

The top level is police training. There's 6 or 7 certified for this. You can imagine the skill level required to conduct high-speed pursuit training. This is done at Portland International Raceway. Instructors follow cops as they speed around the track. The idea is to observe and evaluate so we can give feedback back in the pits. Oh yeah, we're also rocketing around the track on our own bikes! Talk about multi-tasking. Then there's the dragstrip.

Here's where I have to share one of my own personal demons with you. Remember how I wrote about having to let go of your comfort level? Remember the risk of falling down part? Here's a story about both of those.

My first police training session at the drag strip. There will be twelve officers with their bikes. There's actually 24 officers. While one group is at the track one group will be at the drag strip. Then we'll switch. At the strip we're going to work on maximum braking from 45 mph, 60 mph, then 70 mph. We're going to work on swerving at those same speeds. Two things I know ahead of time. I'm going to be working with the Director. I'm also going to have to do the demonstrations.

None of my bikes have ABS. I decide to take Sophie. She's still pretty new. The cops will be mostly on BMW's. Riding a big bike like Sophie will help my credibility. Trouble is, I've never done maximum braking at the higher speeds. Done it at 35 to 40 mph. That should cover the 45 mph thing ok. 60 and 70 are totally different animals. The stopping standards go up dramatically at higher speeds. Not only do I have to avoid falling down, I have to show good technique and make a stop under standard for each speed. That means concentrating on the feel of the front tire, the front brake lever, the clutch, and remembering to downshift four times while resisting the urge to look down. Head and eyes up and well ahead, you know.

Sleep was fleeting the night before. Let's see. I could fall down. I could go way over standard. I could forget to downshift. I could look stupid in front of the Director, 12 cops, and the other instructor. I'd had plenty of practice stopping quickly at lower speeds. I was pretty sure I could pull this off. Still, I'd never actually done it before. It was tempting to call in sick but I wasn't about to quit. Besides, think how good it would feel to conquer it.

All too soon it was morning and time to set out. Having a 45 minute ride made it a little worse. Too much time to think. Riding in a slight rain drizzle made it worse yet. While setting up the strip I made another awful discovery. The swerve gate wasn't going to allow for any error. There was 23 feet of an approach gate leading to the swerve box. I was going to have to swerve to the right. I needed to move the bike exactly 8 feet. That doesn't seem like much but it's amazing how much pressure it takes to move a bike that far at 70 mph. 8 feet. Any less and I'd run through a whole line of big cones. Any more and I'd hit the cement wall that was the outside of the barrier. Ouch.

The rain drizzle had stopped. There wasn't much water on the track. It was enough to worry me, though. Rubber on the track. Water on the rubber. Sophie's tires on the water on top of the rubber. Boss Man said it was dry enough to ride. Ride, I would. In order to have enough room to reach 70 mph the start gate was way down the strip. From where I apprehensively sat and waited for the signal, it looked like the brake chute was a mile away. John waved an orange flag and off I went. I'm pleased to say that all three runs went well despite the pucker factor. Instinct honed from years of skills practice kicked in when I needed it. I also survived the swerve.

I faced my fears and paid the price. Since then I've done it several times more. Now I know that if I need to, I can successfully perform a maximum braking stop from 70 mph. As well as a swerve if braking won't work. Think you'll never need it? Do you ever ride on a freeway or fast road? Weird stuff happens.

So what's the take-away lesson here?

Like I wrote before I strongly believe that if someone's going to ride they have a responsibility to continually stretch their skill level upwards. A rider needs to care enough about themselves to make sure their arsenal is well stocked. I'm not going to delve into it here but there's also a collective scene that's much bigger than the individual riders. This scene includes public perception and legislation. Then there's family and loved ones. Fatalities and serious injuries affect them, too. Think about passengers. Katie regularly rides pillion with me. You can bet your riding gear that I want every shred of skill at my disposal to take care of her.

So we agree that we should keep working on skills. Good enough just isn't good enough. I'm sorry, but that's the way it is. It's time to let go of what we're hanging onto so tightly. Our feeling of comfort. Did you ever hear the story of the monkey and the coconut?

The essence is that this monkey reached into a hole in a tree and found a coconut. So he wrapped his monkey paw around the nut. Trouble is, with his fist clenched around the nut the monkey couldn't get his hand out of the tree. It was too big to come out of the hole. Our little ape was unwilling to let go and move onto bigger and better things. Like staying alive. While holding firmly to the nut in hand, the monkey was devoured by a passing lion.

Sometimes you just gotta let go! It can literally be life or death. The cost of letting go can seem high but consider the alternatives. There will be a price to be paid. Maybe it won't be as large as it seems up front.

Don't look too far ahead in the journey. Maybe this will help. The longest journey starts with a single step. The largest elephants are eaten bite by bite.

I would urge you to seek some sort of professional training in this coming year. Practice on your own in small steps. Find a quiet road and practice quick stops at 20 mph. Keep your eyes up. Concentrate on being smooth. Do it again. Work on smooth until it becomes second nature. Then bring the speeds up a few miles per hour. Go to 25, then 30. Step by step, always smooth. You'll be building good habits. Guess what you'll fall back on in high-adrenaline situations? Habits. Make them work for you. Do the same thing with cornering speeds. Get the technique for entry speeds and lines down as habit. First we get good, then we get fast. There's other skills but you get the idea. You'll amaze yourself at some point.

Riding well truly is living well. Good physical skills enhance the positive physical and mental experiences of riding. We'll feel more confident and comfortable. We'll feel more in control and less like a victim. Keep working at it. I'll try to keep sharing tips. There's so much more to learn. We've just gotten a sneak preview of the big picture. Oh yeah, don't forget to have fun!! Let's make this coming year one to look back on with pride.

Miles and smiles,


NP36 said...

Great post ... I'm new to this motorized two wheel world but appreciate your insight.


Bill Sommers said...

Okay...I'm in. I'd told a friend that intends to take a riding course, that if it would inspire him to actually go through with it, I will do it with him. I had already made the commitment to myself, so with or without him, I'll follow through.

The gent that has run the motorcycle safety program for years in our area had asked if I would like to consider becoming an instructor at some point. I've known him for years, and must have made a good impression.

First things first though. I'll get signed up for round one and let you know how it goes.

Excellent post.

Combatscoot said...

Wow, you have my attention. I could always use more improvement.

Gary said...

Wonderful post, Dan! Written like a true professional.

I believe the riders who concentrate on just getting "good enough" are those who are in it for social reasons. They only have to be good enough to ride in large groups, usually from bar to bar.

Those riders tend not to wear adequate safety gear, and trust mostly to luck and denial to carry them through unscathed.

I feel sorry for them, because they are only scratching the surface of the wonder that motorcycles offer the truly dedicated rider.

To paraphrase my good friend Andy:

"Ya nailed `er today, Dan."

Ride well,

balisada said...

I have David Hough's book "Proficient Motorcycling" and I read it on my lunch break.

He says the same thing. In an emergency situation, we will react with our learned habits.

So I practiced swerving a lot since the cones were my weak point in the beginners class I had taken. When I took the Riders Skills Practice a year later, I did so much better on the cones.

I think that I shall start thinking about practicing quick stops as well. Thanks for the reminder.

By the way, (me with a whole 6000 miles in 1 year experience) I think think that all riders should refresh their skills every several years or so. It allows them to see where they have been getting lax, and also see where they have been improving. The insurance discount I get with a current class (I think my insurance company recognizes the class for 2 years) does not hurt either.


irondad said...

Welcome to our world of two wheels! Might as well start out as you intend to end up. It's never too early to start making progress.

Good on you for supporting your friend! You're also wise to take care of you, too. As my dear friend Laurie reminds me off and on,"Feed yourself".
I often recruit new instructors from our classes. First and foremost I'm looking for a good personality and coachable attitude. If they have good skills it's a bonus but not required. I can teach someone more riding skills but can't cure their attitude problems. You must have the winning perssonality!

We never stop learning. There's so much to be discovered beneath the surface!

You've opened my mind up to a new way of looking at the bar-hopping posers. Instead of being teed-off I'll just feel sorry for them! And hope they stay out of my way.
I'm flattered by your passing on Andy's compliment.

Welcome back. I missed your comments. I can't adequately tell you how encouraging it is to hear from new riders like you. I'm just trying to share my passion for riding and learning in this blog. You've got the enthusiasm and are taking responsibility for your skill development. How awesome!

By the way, isn't the circuit ride for the RSP a blast? When we were developing it you should have heard all the giggles from the three of us as we played with it. I scraped the saddlebags on another instructor's Kawasaki Concours doing the barrel ride. I don't think he appreciated it even though he spent a lot of time as a motor cop.

balisada said...

RSP was extremely fun (the circuit was fun and thought provoking because of the one point where we were crossing each other), and better than Basic because in Basic, there is always at least one know-it-all who is only there because of the insurance discount and the practice before the test.

But in RSP, everyone there is there out of choice, so the group is rather small, but dedicated. There is an honest exchange of ideas.

I also liked that we had the book that we could refer to during the day. It would have been nice if the riding diagram was on all the routes, instead of the first one though.