Monday, March 03, 2008

A pressing matter!

"Experience is what you get right after you need it." That's a useful statement. I tried to find out who the quote was credited to. For some reason, nobody seems to know. I did, however, discover another quote during my search. Again with an unknown author. It was on a professional soldier's discussion forum. It goes as follows,

"Knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is knowing not to stick it up your ass."

There may be some value in that for me some day. If I ever find myself with a tomato in my hand while riding. For now, though, I'll stick to the first one. As a rider the statement seems to be more applicable. Getting experience right after I need it just feels wrong. Being sort of anal about trying to control my own destiny on a bike, I have this feeling I should try to get experience before I need it.

What I'm specifically referring to is accident avoidance skills. These are things that a lot of riders take up when they're trying to avoid an accident. That's a bummer of a time to start, if you ask me. These are the kinds of skills you don't need until you need them, then you really need them!! Will they be there? If we make the effort to gain experience beforehand the skills will be there for us.

The particular skill on my mind at the moment is the swerve. It's not as easy as it may seem. There's a lot of interesting dynamics involved. Sometimes I think riders don't really think about things like this. It's as if they feel it will just happen naturally when the time comes. Guess what? It doesn't. That always puzzles me. How do untrained riders think they'll just naturally know what to do? In a recent post I wrote about a man and his wife on a bike. A swerve gone bad resulted in her death. I don't even know these people but I take each fatality personally. Hence the keys on my laptop are getting a workout. I want to share what I know. Then I'd urge every rider to go out and practice!

These pictures are from a recent class. There was a third instructor around so I asked him to step in while I took some photos. The instructor in the photos is my pal Pak Ho. Like many of the instructors, I mentored him when he was brand new. Now he's a mentor, himself. Our students get anywhere from 45 to 50 passes during this swerving exercise. It's a great start.

A swerve is two consecutive countersteers. A countersteer is a press on the handgrip to initiate a lean. Understanding countersteering is really critical. Some riders who crashed instead of making a successful swerve did so because they tried to steer around the obstacle. Which actually means they countersteered, all right. Just in the wrong direction which caused them to impact the hazard.

As we move through this, I'm going to ask a couple of questions. Just for fun, see if you know the answers before you read on. A swerve to the left requires a left press followed by a right press. A swerve to the right would be just the opposite. Here's a couple of questions.

What moves a bike farther? A harder press or a longer press?

Are the presses of equal magnitude? If not, which one should be longer?

What does the first press in a swerve do?

What does the second press do?

Holding the press longer moves the bike farther. A really hard press of short duration would just make the bike jerk around. The first press moves the bike onto a new path of travel. A lot of riders seem to think that the second press puts the bike back onto the original path. That's not true. Sometimes a rider can't come back to the original path. It might be a long trailer we're swerving around. It might be a line of stalled cars. The second press only straightens the bike out until we decide what to do next.

Summing up that part, it's a long first press that needs to be held until we clear the obstacle. That part's important. We might get around the end of a pickup only to be hit in the head by the mirrors. The long first press is followed by a short second press. That press brings the bike back upright in the new path of travel.

What kind of presses should be used? They need to be assertive. Remember, it's an effort to avoid an accident! We're not making a lazy "S" turn. This is a reaction to a situation that happens suddenly in front of us. Our preference would be to stop quickly. A swerve is something we do when stopping's not an option. The bike needs to move, and now! Properly swerving requires assertive presses. Assertive, but still,oh, so smooth! The faster the speed, the more pressure it will take to move the bike. I've swerved at 70 and 80 mph in front of a bunch of motor cops in training. It's surprising how much pressure it takes to move the bike 8 feet to one side or the other. I've also swerved at freeway speeds. Comfortingly enough, it's just like in practice. With a little more adrenaline thrown in, of course!

Since a swerve happens so quickly, only our hands are involved. By the way, this is another reason to ride with our elbows slightly bent. I see a lot of stiff-armed riders. Not good for pressing. We don't have time for upper body leaning. The bike moves underneath us while we remain upright. I call it the Elvis Presley School of Swerving. Just let your hips swivel, baby! Notice there's no picture of me doing that move!

Now that we have the presses down, let's talk about target fixation. Where should we look during a swerve? That should be pretty obvious. We need to look at our escape route. Weirdly enough, a lot of accident involved riders ran into what they were trying to avoid. Why? You know. What's a surefire way to run into something? Stare at it. It's amazing how many so called experienced riders tell me they finally figured out why they crashed into something. It's the classic,

"I don't want to hit that guard rail. I don't want to hit that guard rail. But, by golly, I'm going to stare at it until I do!"

Researchers discovered target fixation when studying fighter pilot crashes. The pilots would stare at something and fly right into it. The same can happen to a motorcycle pilot.

I don't care if there's 48 of those little Shriner's cars on fire in front of me, the most interesting thing to me is that few feet that's my escape route. Look where you want the bike to go.

So far so good? One long press followed by a short press to straighten the bike. Both presses are assertive. We look to our escape route. Now let's move on to the really interesting part.

Does everyone agree that braking at speed eats a lot of traction? How about swerving? Yes, both things eat bunches of traction. With two things both hungry for traction, what's the strategy?

Separation. Brake, then swerve. Or, Swerve, then brake.

There's not enough traction to go around. Did I mention that a rider should never brake and swerve at the same time? Did I mention how critical it is to separate the two? I did? Well, then, this must be really, really, important.

Sound simple? Here's another question. How many brakes does a bike have?

Did you answer two? A lot of people do. Do I hear three?

Yes, a bike actually has three brakes. The engine is the third. So what do we need to do with the throttle during a swerve? Exactly. Steady throttle all the way through. That means until the bike is back upright after the second press.

I see a lot of students start a throttle roll-off at the same time they start the first press. The whole swerve is done under trailing throttle. At low speeds the traction isn't so much an issue. At higher speeds, though, engine braking can be just enough to make the bike fall down. Even if engine braking's not the factor that puts the traction account into deficit spending, there's another consideration.

What holds a bike up? We've talked about this before. It's speed, isn't it? Think of what we're asking a bike to do doing a swerve. We're asking the bike to quickly lean over one direction, then snap back upright. With trailing throttle, what's going to help the bike come back up? What do we have to press against? Without power, trying to accomplish a swerve is a lot like punching a marshmallow. At best, it's not too confidence inspiring. At worst, it's the difference between avoiding an accident or being the accident.

A swerve is a maneuver that seems simple but turns out to be complicated once we peel back the layers. No wonder so many riders actually end up crashing despite trying to avoid doing so.

Swerving is a skill we hopefully won't ever need. If we do need it, though, it's important to know what to do. That means making opportunities to practice ahead of time. Hope this has been useful.

Why don't we try to change the quote? How about,

Experience is something we make sure we get before we need it.

Miles and smiles,



Conchscooter said...

Well, here's another thing to practice on my way into work. I will look odd, but I only knew two out of three (I went for the back on the original course line).

Doug C said...

A great refresher, Dan. Reminds me to get out last fall's safety course material.

I love the part about staring at the guard rail "until I hit it." Shortly after I got my endorsement, the wife and I were riding on a secondary road. I could see some kind of road kill in my lane and while I stared at it in an effort to identify the carcas... thump, thump.

Moral of the story: Look where you want to go.

Oh. It was a ground hog. Fortunately, not too ripe!

Heinz & Frenchie said...

Thanks for this wonderful post. We always learn a valuable lesson here. Even though we ride scooters, the premise is the same. One question we need to ask is how do you train for this? When one panics for some reason there is a tendency to squeeze that right handle and accelerate rather than brake or decelerate. How do we overcome that? Is it experience or do you have an exercise for that?

irondad said...

You have a great attitude towards improving your skills. Sometimes I put up a post and people think they already know how to do something. Then they dismiss it. Happens to anyone who tries to impart riding wisdom.

I try to separate skills into each little part. It's those little things that get a rider. Like pressing way too long on the second press trying to come back where they were.

Isn't it funny how it works? Ever ride on the freeway and try to change lanes without hitting the dashed white lines? The blank spaces are much bigger than the dashes. Yet, they attract our eye and we always hit the lines.

You're exactly right. You go where you look. So look where you want the bike to go.

Heinz & Frenchie,
There's not a convenient or safe way to practice under duress. If you're out riding, with no traffic to pose a hazard, find something to swerve around. Like a stick in the road, car parts, crocs, whatever is down there! Stray tennis balls by the Evert club? Do it often enough and muscle memory will take over. That's what it's really about. Training the motor skills to do the right thing. At some point the brain and muscles will do what's needed by themselves.

By the way. I forget so many of you all ride scooters. Which is awesome, of course. Swerving is slightly different on a scooter.

Be careful with the presses!!!! With the small diameter wheels, the scooter will respond much more quickly to pressing inputs. It's possible to wash out the front wheel by pressing to aggressively. A scooter rider should not press as assertively as a rider of a bigger bike. Another reason to at least go get a feel of how the scooter responds to crisp presses.

Take care,


Tinker said...

Experience is what you get, when you don't get what you want.

How about Hondmatics? Are they different from other motorcycles?

I'd guess not since I haven't wrapped it around a tree in the last year.

Krysta in Milwaukee said...

"I've swerved at 70 and 80 mph in front of a bunch of motor cops in training... I've also swerved at freeway speeds."

::innocent look::
You're saying 70mph isn't "freeway speed"?

We're getting lots of practice dodging potholes this winter... Weather has been just right (wrong?) for a bumper crop. Mechanics are happy, drivers are not.

irondad said...

Hondamatics act just like any other motorcycle. Such low expectations! You've had a successful season because you didn't smack a tree! :)

I can put on the innocent look as well as amyone. The reason I used the generic term "freeway speeds" was so as not to give myself away!

We're getting potholes in new places, too. Makes me sit up and pay attention.

Take care,


Doug C said...

Never understood (nor beleived) the concept of counter steering until the safety class. It's counter intuitive but true.

Changing subject here: Regarding riding in inclement weather, one of my big concerns clear visibility. Having never been caught riding in a rain storm, I really don't know if it should be a concern or not.

Is keeping a clear face sheild an issue when riding in the rain or does it just blow off?

irondad said...

With countersteering it's best to not over-think it. Just trust it works!

As to rain on the face shield.

I looked at the picture on the top of your blog. Looks like you can see over the top of the bike's windscreen. By the way, kudos for riding a cruiser with a full face helmet!

For the most part, the wind will blow the water off the helmet's shield. The only bike that didn't happen for me on was the '94 VFR. On that bike I had to turn my head to one side every so often. That shouldn't be a problem on your bike.

The biggest visibility problem you're likely to have is fogging inside the visor. There's all kinds of goop you can smear on the inside of the shield. I personally prefer not to put anything on mine that can cause a film to form.

Just crack the shield up a little and the fogging mostly goes away. Some helmets have chin vents that route outside air up the inside of the visor. This works really well on my Arai helmet.

Take care,


Anonymous said...

"The biggest visibility problem you're likely to have is fogging inside the visor."

Cracking the face shield open usually works fine, but we also use The Purple Stuff (on visors, glasses, and especially bathroom mirrors). It's always done well at blocking fog. If it's too cold to have wind on my face, I can still see. Their site is (no affiliation, just a happy consumer)

irondad said...

Purple stuff? It's not made of smashed Barney dolls, is it? Have to take a look. Thanks for the pointer.


Joe said...

I so agree with you on the target fixation. I remember driving with my son down Geiger Grade in Nevada (US-50) and I pointed out to him all the skid marks on the center divide. Target Fixation. So, what I was telling him was reinforced with evidence right in front of him.
Good Post.