Thursday, August 23, 2007

Bike talk.

Three instructor's bikes sit waiting patiently for us to get done with our "thing". Soon it will be time to do what they love so much. Gliding gracefully down the road instead of sittting still looking beautiful. You recognize Sophie on the right. In the middle is Al's bike. He who swore that black was the only acceptable color for an ST. Al makes the excuse that this color is called "Black Cherry Red". I notice, though, that his ZX-12 looks suspiciously red, too. I think Al just likes having some color in his life. On the left is Jeff's bike. A sleek Aprilia Falco.

What do they do as they sit waiting? Are they chatting quietly among themselves? I hope they're not gossiping about their riders. I can hear Al's bike telling Sophie how gentle Al is with inputs. Sophie's probably saying she wishes I'd be more gentle.

"He's always so aggressive! Smooth as butter but you always know who's in charge."

Jeff's bike is probably just keeping to herself. This sleek Italian beauty probably doesn't feel she has much in common with two matronly Japanese sport tourers. I could see her butting in now and then, though. When the two sport tourers are swapping lies, I mean, adventures, the Aprilia's telling them they haven't seen anything compared to the escape velocity speeds and daring corners she's achieved. There's some stuff I sincerely Sophie remains discreet about!

What? You don't think bikes talk? I'm here to tell you that, not only do they talk to each other, they'll talk to you, too! No, I don't think I'm some sort of Dr. Doolittle to the bike world. Nonetheless, bikes will talk to their riders. The challenge is for the rider to give them a chance. Once they start talking, we need to learn to speak the language. It's a language like no other. Once we master it, though, a whole new world of adventure opens up to us.

This post is somewhat inspired by Harv the Roadbum. There's a post on his blog, Midwest Scooter Enthusiast, about the eighty percent rule. You can read the post if you click here. Here's a quote from that post. Sorry Harv, I didn't ask permission first. I kow your attitude and I knew you'd be intrigued to see what you started!

"When you ride, don't ride at your limit. Whattayagonna do if you need a little extra an it ain't there? Keep it under 80% kid, and you'll live."

It's the part about limits that sparked this post. I've written about "pushing the envelope". I'm one to see how far limits will stretch. I encourage others to push their own limits. Staying within one's own comfort level is important, to be sure. However, what if circumstances arise that make one "uncomfortable"? Will we be able to rise to the appropriate level required to deal with it? I've written about skating close to the edge of the cliff while being careful not to fall off. I'm also a dedicated and enthused advocate of motorcycle safety training. How do the two things reconcile with each other?

Reaching back a few years, I remember a well respected Sergeant telling me,

"Never bring a knife to a gun fight!"

What he was advocating was acquiring every skill possible that might help us go home alive at the end of shift. His advice was to keep our skills sharp and our guns clean. Then pray you never had to use them, but if the world went awry one day we'd have a better chance to avoid becoming a "statistic".

That's my approach to motorcycling. There really is no such thing as riding a motorcycle in a safe manner. Sounds weird coming from an instructor but it's the truth. Don't believe me? Let's check with Webster. You know, the dictionary guy?

"Safe 1: free from harm or risk."

Stand there and look me in the eye. Tell me a person can ride a motorcycle and be free from risk. There's risk in everything we do. Some pursuits are riskier than others. Riding a motorcycle is chock full of risks. Our task is to manage the risk. What that means is that for every conceivable risk we need a tool to deal with it. Believe me, there seems to be no end to the variety of risks. The two things we have at our disposal are physical skills and mental strategies. People don't seem to have much problem developing mental strategies. Once they decide to start paying attention when they ride, that is. There's no risk in developing mental skills. Oh, we might hurt ourselves by thinking too hard, but that's minor!

Interestingly, there's a fair amount of risk involved in developing physical skills needed to manage risk. It can be easy to damage our bikes and / or bodies. That's why so many riders just choose not to go there. The fear of falling outweighs the fear of risks on the road. It's easy to see crashing while pushing to grow our skills as an immediate threat. In contrast, risks they might encounter while riding seem to be easier to minimize. The fear of washing out the front end while practicing maximum braking is pretty much "here and now". Having to brake really hard to avoid a car in traffic is part of a fuzzy picture called "possibly some day". Guess which picture rules the day?

So many riders have woefully inadequate skills for this very reason. I'm sorry, but there's no other way to get these kind of skills. What if we had sophisticated simulators? I've heard there's one or two around. We could call them "Chair-a-saki's" or "Chair-ley Davidsons". Sorry, the practice on these simulators might help some but wouldn't directly translate to the bikes we ride. There's just no substitute for being on a bike and getting real time feedback. That's where the bike's ability to talk to us comes into play.

I push the envelope because I want every skill possible. I want to know to the most accurate degree possible what I can expect from my bikes. I want to be assured that I can call upon anything the bike is capable of doing if I need it as an option. On the flip side, I want to know definitely what the bike won't do, either. I want to know exactly what options I do and do not have available. Sometimes we find ourselves in high adrenaline situations. By that I mean that every orifice in our body is starting to tightly clench. The consequences of trying to use the wrong tool are too high. Learn what tools will work for each job and become experts at their use.

Ok, let me take a minute here and get something off my chest. This sounds so noble, doesn't it?

"I'm only doing this to improve my odds of survival on the streets."

That's not the whole truth. Sometimes I work real hard at mastering an extremely difficult skill because I get such a heady feeling of accomplishment when I do. On the track I sometimes see how far I can push a bike just because it's so much fun!

I'm not advocating riding on the streets like you would on a track. Use street lines instead of racing lines. What's the difference? Street lines always leave you a way out. There's always some room for a margin of error, small as it may be at times. The best place to push one's limits is in some area off the streets. Dedicate the time period to be able to concentrate on the task at hand without the distractions of traffic, etc. There will be opportunities to do a little envelope pushing on the roads, but it's better to push in an environment that requires as little multi-tasking as possible.

Time to return from the detour and get back to the subject of bike talk.

Have you ever heard someone describe an incident with words like these?

"It was weird. One minute I was braking and, before I knew it, I was sliding down the road!"

"I don't know what happened. I was cornering really hard and suddenly I was off the road!"

Notice the mention of "before I knew it" and "suddenly". One of the big mistakes riders make is committing to something without allowing their bikes to offer feedback first. I don't mean to brag but I've become a master at deciphering what a bike is trying to tell me. Not infallable, but pretty darn good. The bike tries to tell a rider what's going on, but only if they have time to do so. Looking at a specific example, let's talk about how it applies in cornering.

One of the reasons we provide high speed training for motor officers is to give them a chance to learn how the bikes talk to them at these speeds. This is oversimplified, but the key is to be smooth. Think about something round like a broom stick. Picture it running through the bike from front to back. It's at about the same height as the center of gravity. A great cornering method will have the bike slowly rolling around that pole. Another way to look at it is to picture a barrel on its side. The barrel rotates around its center. A bike should look similar, but not nearly so portly!!

As the degree of rotation is gradually increased the bike leans progressively. At each point the bike will offer feedback. Feedback like this.

"I'm ok here. No problem at this angle, either. Oh, we're leaning a little more. I'm starting to get a little uncomfortable. Can you feel me squirm just a bit? I'll be fine if you stay smooth with your throttle and pressing inputs. Ok, Master, this angle's got my tires sort of howling in protest. Can you feel the tension as the tread slips and grabs? If you ask anymore I won't be able to hang on for you!"

Like I say, it's simplified and maybe a little corny! Suspensions and tires will make a difference in how much feedback a rider gets and when. The trick is to learn what the bike, as it stands right now, is telling us. Unless there's ice or some other unusual condition, tires will seldom just "let go" without some kind of warning. Mental skills should pick up the traction clues if there's something like ice, etc. I can't stress it enough. Allow the bike time to talk to you!

What I see a lot of riders do, including the motor cops, is to "throw" the bike into a corner. There's no rolling around the axis. One minute the bike's upright and the next, bam!, it's heeled over into a steep lean. A lot of times it works out all right. When it doesn't, it hurts. This kind of style increases the chances that it won't turn out all right. The higher the speeds the greater the chance of disaster. The bike doesn't have time to get a word in edgewise. It can only talk to the rider after the fact.

"Dude, I tried to tell you, but you slammed me down before I could even send a signal!"

The same situation applies with other physical skills like braking and swerving. My illustrations are just that, a way to create a mental picture. You need to actually feel it to fully understand it. Which means it actually needs to be practiced on the bike you ride.

I hope this explains a little better what I've been writing about over the past year and a half. Pushing the envelope, expanding our limits, exploring the edges, whatever you choose to call it, is neither crazy nor reckless. It's something every rider really needs to do. It's going to be uncomfortable at times. Growth almost never happens without reaching past our comfort levels. Work with the bike by pushing at a pace that enables the bike to be your partner. It will tell you what you can and can't do before things go too far.
Hopefully, you'll never face a hazardous situation that calls upon you to use these skills. In fact, you should keep them in reserve. Take the sage advice of the man whom Harv quoted in his post. Leave a little traction and ground clearance in the bank. If you do need these tools, though, they'll be available and sharp.

Maybe this will make it easier to have enough confidence to continue the journey of discovery.

I gotta go and saddle up Sophie. I can't believe she told Al's bike about that!

Miles and smiles,



Eric Link said...

Great post Dan, thanks! I've been working on smooth but this is a real a ha moment for me!

- Eric

Vespa GT60

Nick T said...

Yes, a great post! i'm still learning how to ride, and have experienced a lot of what you describe as the bike talking to me. i can feel how it reacts underneath me, especially on turns that are difficult. sometimes, even, the bike is telling me to do more, and i'm still a little hesitant. i'm getting there, though.

thanks for spelling it out in terms i can remember. your advice does not fall on deaf ears!

all the best,

Birmingham, AL

irondad said...

Eric & Nick,
Thanks for stopping and leaving comments. I'm glad the blog is of help. My hope is to offer some entertainment and riding tips. Sometimes I go a while and don't really get feedback on how either objective is being met.

Comments like yours help keep me motivated!

Bryce Lee said...

Three machines, all of a similar
colour, and all of course two-wheeled.
Yep, you've got to wonder what they talk about eh?

Have tried one short haul on the Goldwing which has been sitting so patiently for me to recover from the chemo and before that, major surgery last year.

I had no idea how completely
tired (physically and mentally) I was after the short ride. Yes full leather, full-face brain bucket and gloves and warm weather.

Not sure if it was the protective gear or me. I slept all the afternoon of the same day. Awoke very stiff and sore, a hot shower and visit to the chiropractor helped somewhat.

As to pushing the envelope, suspect most of us figure first get the envelope delivered, then figure how to open it, and then and only then see if the contents will fly.

Have proved to me I can still ride by my oh my am rusty, and to be honest scared.

Although my size is a deterrent may well sign up for the new riders course next spring. Here in Ontario you
have to belong to one of those
snotty "clubs" like GWRRA or BMW to be able to get in on some form of experienced rider courses. And having long ago found the GWRRA or GWTA crowd weren't my style have been a happy solo rider ever since.

So Dan, any constructive suggestions or can you perhaps direct me towards some sources as to how to remount the horse after being surgically removed from same for an extended period of time??

Bryce Lee
Burlington, Ontario

1981 Honda Goldwing Interstate

(and for those wondering virtually all of the new motorcycles are way way too small for me!)

Steve Williams said...

This is a fantastic reminder of why I should practice the physical skills. I have become lax in that though still occassionally do some work. Most of late has been practicing how to manage the scooter on gravel and dirt roads and the practice has paid off. What was once something I considered entirely off limits for the Vespa now is simple once I learned how to, as you say, listen to what the scooter was saying.

I have become comfortable with emergency braking. The Vespa stops in almost a surreal fashion. I'm sure having two handbrakes makes a difference over the footbrake.

While riding and processing options for managing sudden left turns in front of me I often wonder if I have the skill to bear hard right onto the sidewalk via a handicap access point, keep the Vespa between the bus sign and street tree, manage the uneven sidewalk and not slam into the barberry hedges so neatly manicured along the way.

The scooter is extremely nimble and that is a blessing and a curse because it is so easy to slam it over. I'll endeavor to follow your advice and listen enough to hear what it is saying.

Steve Williams
Scooter in the Sticks

Kano said...

I know what you mean Dan and I agree. Just two days ago I was pushing the envelope of what my bike and I can do.

I rode a Harley about 10 miles up a steep graveled logging road and back down. I would never have willingly made the choice but neccessity demanded it.

I have very limited off road riding experience but enough to know that loose gravel and brakes are a bad combination.

Using extreme caution I managed without dropping it once. As a result I have gained some confidence in what I can do. I would never choose to repeat the experience again but if I had to I now have some experience under my belt.

Some of the practice I got with loose gravel can also apply to road riding. Since even paved streets sometimes have gravel, such as after road crews put gravel down for icy spots. And of course there is the road shoulders, often gravel.

I have a new respect for off road riding, even with a dirt bike, I think what I did would have been difficult.

Thanks Dan for your excellent post! You always have good stuff to think about and learn from.

irondad said...

I dread the day it might happen that I am actually prevented from riding by some malady. Hang in there. Envelopes come in different sizes. Circumstances may shrink ours.

Your request for getting you back on the horse could take up several posts. Let me pass on a simple but powerful piece of advice.

Your base skills are probably still intact, although perhaps a bit rusty. Impairment is the issue right now. I'm not referring, of course, to alcohol, etc. I'm talking physical and mental due to your medical condition.

Here's my advice. Listen to your body and adjust accordingly.

Maybe I'll be able to incorporate this subject into some upcoming posts.

Hang in there, Sir! You have my respect for enduring.