Katie and I did something fun Sunday. We went for a jaunt in a canoe. This was actually a frequent pastime when the kids were still home. Eventually, we gave the canoe to our oldest son. Recently, the canoe came back. Looking for a relaxing way to spend an afternoon, we took it up past Foster Dam on the Santiam River. No pictures. It was just a quiet getaway for the two of us. Nothing fast and furious. I've got a birthday coming up next month and I'm getting mailings from the AARP! It's time I learn to take it easy once in a great while.
For the first bit, though, we did do some spirited running down the river. The water's more shallow upstream and runs quickly through the rocks. I'm feeling a little guilty. In order to run downstream and not have to carry the canoe for miles, we took two vehicles to the lake. A motorcyclist burning fuel in two cages. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa!
As we piloted the canoe I soon fell back into the once familiar routine of scanning the water ahead for visual clues. A different color here, a different texture there; they were all indications that we might have a rough spot coming up. I'm nowhere near where really experienced canoers are but I know enough to keep my eyes open. Once back in calm, deeper water and enjoying a picnic lunch, I was thinking back on the run downstream. Looking for clues that point to possible hazards is pretty much second nature. It's what I do all the time on two wheels. The hazards are different but the process is the same.
I really think one of the reasons riders get into trouble is that they fail to successfully make the transition from "driver" to "rider". Being proficient on a bike requires a totally different mindset. Let me see if I can explain this in a somewhat succint manner.
In the world of cars, judging by the commercials, a "five star safety rating" is the currency of the land. Things like airbags and crumple zones are featured. I notice that the advertisers hawk their safety features. Have you ever seen a commercial urging drivers to just become better drivers? It's like they're being told they will be protected no matter what. Since a car driver is encased in so much metal and protected by so many safety features, they feel like they can divert more attention to other things. They're wrong, of course, but they do it nonetheless. Who can resist on-board entertainment systems, drive-thru fast food, lattes, and the ever present cell phones? Traction clues? Patches of gravel in a corner? A fuel spill? Who needs to bothered by such things?
In direct contrast, on two wheels traction is the currency of Shiny Side Up Land. We ain't go no five star safety rating devices available. Things like loose surfaces, debris, roadway irregularities, and wet roads might never even make the radar screen of a car driver. To a motorcyclist, though, these things can be critical. In our kingdom, everyone's on a fixed income. The traction level will vary but what doesn't change is that there's only so much to go around. There's no provision to make a deposit to cover overdrafts. The best piece of safety equipment we have is that grey matter between our ears. I don't know about yours, but mine don't resemble an airbag at all!
So far I know I'm stating the obvious. What isn't obvious is how riders fail to make the mental transition. On a bike one must think like a motorcyclist. That's a totally different way of thinking than being a driver. Getting onto a bike doesn't magically turn on a switch in our heads. Thinking like a motorcylist is a skill developed by practice. Just like any other worthwhile endeavour. Visual clues have to take on a whole new meaning to a rider. There's really no substitute for experience. The more seat time the better. Without seat time, a person has to make a tremendous mental effort to try to make up the difference. A lot of riders are in this category. I'm not implying any sort of character fault on anyone's part. It's just circumstances. A rider needs to be aware of them and then compensate. Consider.
By the way, be warned that this post may go a little longer. I try to keep the posts short enough to read on a break at work or lunchtime. Far be it from me to be so egotistical that I think people want to spend a long time reading what I write. This post, however, is being given it's head, as we say with the horses. I think it's important enough to spend some time on. I've seen too many crashes that could have been avoided by more awareness of this subject. Once in a while I like to think I'm doing something worthwhile for the riding community. This post feels like it could be just such a thing.
Back to the riders. Many of us are on bikes almost every day. It seems like we live on the bike. A lot of folks are more infrequent riders. As much as I'd like to see a lot more people commuting on two wheels, it's just not happening right now. Many ride to work once in a while as weather and circumstances allow. That's awesome. Ride to work as much as you can. If it turns out to be only once in a while, we're still glad to call you one of us! It's a simple fact, though, that someone who drives a lot more than they ride is going to naturally keep thinking like a driver. It's going to take a conscious effort to unplug the "driver chip" and plug in the "rider chip". The transition gets easier with repetitions!
What does it mean to think like a rider? That's a subject that's too detailed to cover in a short time. Generally it means looking for clues and becoming mentally armed as early as possible. It means looking at things in a new way. Paying attention to things that we might not give much heed to in a car. Here's an example of how a rider can be adept at using clues to their advantage. I want to share this one with you and then provide some scenarios dealing specifically with traction issues.
Blind intersections are dangerous. I know, I'm preaching to the choir, here. We want information as early as possible. I hate nasty surprises! As I get close to the intersection I notice something's blocking my view. By now I'm fairly close to the intersection before I recognize the situation. I crane my neck and I'm really pleased with myself that I saw the bumper of the car moving forward from behind the fence. With that early notice I was able to use some brakes and avoid a collision. That's thinking like a driver. How could I have used my senses like a rider should?
Let me ask you this question. What are the signs that tell you there's an intersection? Go ahead. Think about what you normally look for. What one thing will almost always give you a clue very early that an intersection's coming up?
Thinking like a rider, I'm aggressively scanning ahead of my bike. There's an intense scan going on in the area ten seconds ahead of me. I'm also looking down the road twenty seconds out. The faster I'm going the farther that is. Whether I'm in town or in the country, I notice way up there that there's a break in the fog line. Right away the intersection shows up as a blip on my radar. Having been alerted way early, I'm able to give it attention sooner. As soon as I see there's a visibility issue, I'm able to move left which both helps me see better and gives me more space to react should I need it. If I still can't see I can slightly slow and cover my brake and clutch. You see the difference?
I've gained precious time that allows me to deal with a hazard more on my terms. The break in the fog line is an obvious but often overlooked clue. Thinking like a motorcyclist means taking advantage of every shred of information we can hunt down.
What are the clues when it comes to traction issues? We're looking for colors and textures. Anything that looks different than where we're at now could signal a change in traction. It may or may not turn out to be a problem but at least we knew about it early. We can't ignore things like darker colors, rough looking material, and shiny surfaces. A bump in a car could well be a crash on a bike. I know it seem obvious. Then why are there so many crashes? The clues don't trigger the right signals to a rider who's still thinking like a driver. Take a look at some of these photos. These are from some of my actual rides as you'll see by Sophie's posing for me!
This is a wet spot under some trees. On the other side of the opening is a long straight stretch. A rider could get up some speed coming into here. Just a wet spot on the road, you say? There was ice earlier in the morning. Now look behind me.
That's a corner that's posted at 10 mph. Guess where you'd be doing your heavy braking setting up for the corner? Right in the wet and possibly still icy spot. Thinking like a motorcyclist, the dark spot should trigger the appropriate reaction. Better to see it early and brake sooner.
Here's another one.
This is one of my favorite rural roads. Just off the interstate is this farm land. Right here the road's wet but doesn't look too bad, does it? This road's got plenty of these kinds of curves. A quick left followed by a quick right. Check out what's just around the left turn.
Thinking like a rider, I know it's fall. I see the trees. If I'm keeping my eyes up and scanning ahead like I'm supposed to I see the texture of the leaf mush as well as the strange color. The clues trigger my reaction to roll off and be ready. Much better to rob Murphy of another "Oh sh#@#t!" moment. This is a typical scenario for crashes. Haven't you heard riders claim an accident wasn't their fault because they were "surprised" by something? They need to get a clue. Literally. Maybe two or three while they're at it.
Here's another. This one's doubly tricky.
Wet road covered by leaves. Hopefully, we're already riding prudently. Wait, there's more. Another potential surprise waits around the corner coming up. Sure would like to have a clue as early as possible. As bad as this road is, I'm still aggessively scanning for possible changes for the worse. Sure enough, I see a shiny spot.
The extra shiny spot was this puddle. Can you say "hydroplane"? Not only that, but what if someone were to suddenly pull out of that driveway? A car driver might not really be alarmed but it's all kinds of bad to a rider. Talk about multitasking! Being surprised by a puddle of water, wet leaves, and a blind driver pulling out all at once. No thanks. Too much drama for me. Far better to be thinking like a motorcyclist. I'll get my clues early and take the appropriate actions before I'm in a critical situation.
I don't have a riding contract that guarantees I'll only have to deal with one hazard at a time. My experience has been that if things are bad, that's when they'll get worse. Wet roads can be a hazard all by themselves. Then some unseen imp with a devious sense of humor thinks it would be funny to put a fuel spill on top of the water. Like this situation:
I'm already watching for shiny spots. Manhole covers, steel plates, street markings, and track rails are part of what I'm looking for. Not to mention puddles. On top of that I've watching for any other differences. Notice I used the words differences. I figure where I'm at is a known quantity. Anything that looks different than "here" is suspect. One of the differences I'm seeing here is the colors on top of the water. Getting the clue early lets me reduce my speed as I go through the spill. Once past I'm still not in the clear. Check out this next photo.
Oils, fuels, and antifreeze stick to tires for a while. You can clearly see the track here. It's not a problem so much if you continue straight on with no incident. What if you need to make a quick turn? A swerve is two really quick turns. Hard braking will be tricky for a little bit. Like I say, it's when things are bad that they get worse. With my luck some fool is going to slam on his brakes in front of me right after I go through the fuel. Catching the clue early lets me help set myself up for success rather than failure.
There are just some of the examples of things I encounter and think about every day. You're experiencing the same things. That's why I wanted to write this post. Anything we can do to turn the odds towards our favor is great. So much of motorcycling is mental. I love ole' Yogi Berra. I saw a quote that said,
"90 percent of this game is half mental!"
Practice thinking like a motorcyclist, not a driver. Getting our eyes up and looking for clues that indicate things like reduced traction is only a part of it. There's so many things that affect a rider more than a driver. Fender benders in a car can be fatalities on a bike. Be aggressive in scanning. Be aware of clues and what they really mean to a rider. If you're doing it right, you'll be "on alert" a lot more than when you're driving. It sounds scary but your riding will actually be much more enjoyable. It's always more fun to feel like we're in charge instead of being a victim!
Miles and smiles,