Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Brake time!

Time to shake off the new baby euphoria and get back to work.

I had a meeting in Portland. Afterwards I cruised by Lloyd Center Mall. I like to park the bike inside the parking structure. Seems more protected that way, for some reason. There's a place near Barnes and Noble that's not really motorcycle parking but where Security never bothers a motorcycle that happens to land there. Riding up Halsey Street, I was greeted by this.

Seriously. True story. What's the military term? NSTIW, I believe. "No s**t, there I was!"

Not only did I avoid trouble, but my skill level was so high I saw it early enough to get stopped and take a photo while it was happening.

All right, so I admit to coming back and taking a photo of a different car. Despite my jesting, this was a real life situation. The kind riders encounter all the time. It seemed a great illustration of what we had talked about earlier.

What's the difference between one year's experience repeated several times over and having several years' progressive experience?

Let's use this scenario to break it down a bit more. We'll look at other situations down the road as I see things that are applicable. Remember how I said we would look at the three levels in situations? This is a good case to use as an illustration.

The worst of the winter weather is past. A rider deems it safe, or comfortable enough, to pull the bike out of hibernation. What a rider also needs to be aware of is that their skills have been in hibernation as well. We humans are interesting creatures. There are two kinds of storage space available in our brains. Most of the space is dedicated to what you might call deep storage. This is where things go that aren't needed too often. Think of this space as the back of a filing cabinet drawer.

Some space is dedicated to storing things that are needed often and quickly. This is like the front of the top drawer. Unfortunately, the space available here is much smaller, and thus more limited, than the deep storage space. If something in this space ends up not being used for a while, it's moved elsewhere to make room for new things. Motor skills, or what you might call "mind-muscle connections" are examples of things that get shuffled between these file drawers. Often used connections are kept readily accessible while less frequently used ones get filed deeper. Which means it takes the brain a bit longer to find and put them on the table. That can be a bad thing if we need them RIGHT NOW!

It's a good thing for a rider to go out and encourage the brain to move important motor skills back to the quickly accessible storage space. In this case, to go out and re-establish the mind-muscle connections involved in smooth braking. Simply put, to practice in a parking lot or someplace where it's safe to do so. It's important to be smooth when braking. It's also important to be able to stop quickly.

I've talked to many riders who practice quick stops. Once or twice. They get up a little speed, pick a braking marker, then do the squeeze and press thing. Since their skills are a bit rusty to start with, and might not have been at a high level in the first place, the first couple of attempts are pretty rough.

"Oooh, that was scary!"

No more attempts are made. A rider figures that's good enough and they will just deal with it when the time comes. After all, they know the basics of brake application in their heads. For far too many riders, that is the extent of the quick stop practice.

This is what I call Level One. It's a well populated level, unfortunately. These riders might be lucky enough to go a whole riding season and not have a close call. The question always remains, though. What if? Some have to answer that question without quite being prepared. Ouch!

Remember that "mind-muscle" connection that's supposed to go into the front of the file drawer? Guess what? This ain't no magical drawer. If we didn't put it there, we aren't going to find it there. Putting it another way, I had a training sergeant who told me,

"You won't rise to the occasion, you'll default to your level of training."

When we face that "moment" the only thing our brains will be able to pull out of the drawer is what we have put in there. Oh sure, we might think we know how to brake on an intellectual level and we'll think of what we need to do in order to stop quickly and correctly when the time comes.

I've studied what happens to humans under stress. Actually been there several times, too! You know the kind of high adrenaline situations I'm talking about. When every orifice in our body wants to pucker. When we will never fall off the bike because we have the seat's fabric tucked tightly up you know where. I'm here to tell you that there's not much intellectual activity going on. That's why our responses are called "reactions".

Another way to look at it is to say we react with whatever our habit is. Which makes the secret easy to figure out. Make sure the habit there to fall back on is the correct thing. You knew it would come back to this, didn't you? The answer is practice. Lot's of it.

What really needs to happen is repeated quick stops. That one went well? Good. Do it again. And again. And again. The muscle actions involved need to literally become second nature. They should happen without too much thinking about it going on. I'm not going to go into the specific actual application of the brakes. This is more about strategy.

I do want to mention one quick thing, though. If we do slide the rear tire, and avoid falling down or a high side, does the sliding tire matter? Definitely. The net result will be longer stopping distance. It might only make a difference of three, four, or five feet. Take a look at the photo above. Notice how Elvira's sidestand is at the 15 foot mark. Now look at this photo.

Look where the leading edge of Elvira's front tire is. It's at the 19 foot mark, just four feet farther forward. Just four feet? No big deal? What if the car's bumper were at the 15 foot mark? Where would that put the front wheel of our bike? On a small car that puts it somewhere in the back seat. Yes, every foot counts. Which is why repeated practice and developing the proper mind-muscle connection is so critical.

The good news is that a lot of riders come to our more advanced classes to practice these kind of skills. At the least, they do it on their own. That's wonderful. That's highly commendable. However, it's still only

Level Two.

The next level adds another component to the physical skills. Our definition of an expert rider is

"A rider who uses excellent judgement to avoid using expert skills."

Expert skills are wonderful and, in fact, necessary. By themselves, however, expert skills aren't really enough to keep riders out of trouble. The really great news is that developing these mental skills is more a matter of effort than the passage of time. Many riders go year after year and don't pick up the proper mental skills. A motorcyclist with a short riding season can still work on and develop great mental skills. The key is to carry them over year to year and build on them as we get more saddle time.

Riders who I would call truly experienced and successful have great mental skills. This is how they reach the highest level.

Level Three.

Here is where the skill of getting critical information early does so much to help a rider take care of themself on the streets. I plan to write much more about this skill in coming posts but this one is getting long already. So let's look at it specifically in the context of our opening scenario.

I stated that a rider should be able to stop a motorcycle in no more than 79 feet at 40 mph on a non-abs bike. So let's say that we're 80 feet from the car that pulled out in front of us. Due to our repeated practice we can stop the bike quickly and safely in 75 feet. Score? Not quite.

There's this little thing called reaction time. At 40 mph we're covering 58.66 feet per second. Let's just call it 60 feet per second. If it takes us a half second to react and start braking, which is actually pretty quick, we've covered an additional 30 feet. Suddenly we find that if we can physically stop the bike in 75 feet, we actually need 105 feet to pull off a successful stop. If it takes us a bit longer to react, if we were distracted, or whatever, that distance will vary considerably. Does your head hurt, yet? Is there a better strategy?

Actually, there is. Take a look at the opening photo again. One measure of our success might be how soon we saw the car pulling out in order to have the quickest reaction time possible and get stopped. What if we were to take another look and see if we could be even more prepared, car or no car? Take a look at this photo.

I took this photo before the car pulled out. I don't see a hazard. Or do I? Remember when I introduced this series I stated that key to success is to think like a motorcyclist? Let's do that and see what we find.

Firstly, I know I'm riding in an area with a lot of congestion. It's a major shopping mall in a city of over half a million people. Cars darting in and out of multiple places. Thinking like a motorcyclist, I know I have less protection than if I were in a car. I know it's trickier to stop the bike quickly than it is in a car. I know quick reactions are essential. So I'm covering the clutch and brake levers.

I know it's critical to get information early so I'm aggressively scanning my surroundings. Once I see something I have it on my radar and can track it. However, I find that there's a place I can't see. To my right is a parking structure. I can see into it when I look that way. Cars have to enter and exit this structure someplace. I see the big box truck coming up on my right. I can't see around the front of it. What I do see, however, gives me an early clue to what's there.

Notice how the truck is parked in a painted box sort of parking place? You can see the white lines on the roadside. Now I see there's no parking space immediately in front of the truck. Looking farther ahead, I see the orange cone at the left rear of the big food service truck. It's a little compressed due to my zoom lense, but there's a long space of plain black roadway between the two trucks. Why do you suppose that is?

Probably because that's a way in and out of the parking structure, I figure. An intersection. Since I can't see for sure, but make an educated guess, I'm taking preventative measures. I slow down and move slightly left in my lane. Which means I can see the driveway sooner and any car coming out can see me sooner. I don't count on them seeing me, but I make sure I see them as early as possible.

Sure enough, a car pulls out but it's not even a close call for me. I made use of all the available clues and prepared accordingly. I call the top skills level three, for simplicity, but I personally want my skills at Warp Factor 9!

Again, a rider can get these skills independent of time in the saddle. Riding time will only help hone these skills by putting them into practice. First and foremost is the mindset to acquire mental strategies.

Success secret #2: Physical skills are necessary. Don't rely on them. Get critical information as early as possible. This includes clues, not just the hazard itself.

I know a lot of you are already a Level 3. I figure it never hurts to review. There might be a new way of looking at things that helps put it all in perspective. Whatever your skill level I hope this is useful information.

More to come later.

Miles and smiles,



Orin said...

Irondad, it looks like you've got some comment spam...

The idea of gathering information so as to make unnecessary the use of expert skills is one they emphasized a lot at Skip Barber. Running in a pack, you need to be thinking about the trajectory of other cars, should their drivers screw up. And when that happens, "what's my best crash" is a question you need to answer. A lot of times, what you think might be your best crash turns out to be no crash at all.

Racing and riding both demand a very high level of awareness of what's going on around you. That which I gained in racing has helped enormously in riding...

Scootin' Old Skool

Conchscooter said...

I think the photographs are striking. Compare the ones you used to take and see how much more involving they are. It's quite interesting. The words are okay too but I want to see you go and take some pictures.

Sojourner rides said...

Excellent, excellent post! I actually enjoy practicing and lots of it. I don't start or end a season without taking an advanced class and one track day--at least.

I really appreciate your stress on the mental aspects of riding and thinking like a motorcyclists, anticipating what could happen even if the situation doesn't appear challenging. One book that this post reminds me of is Ken Condon's book, _Riding in the Zone_, which has become one of my all time favorites.

Your photographic examples are great!

Chuck Pefley said...

Great post, Dan!!

Anticipation is key along with the always with you question "what if". Thanks for the lesson and reminders.

Jack Riepe said...

Dear Dan:

I got a lot out of this post, especially from the data regarding the stopping distances. I can tell you my first few days on the bike this season will see me practicing panic stops.

Interestingly enough, my first crash (detailed in my current blog) was similar to the circumstances you detailed here. Now, I tend to slow down and take my time approaching unseen "voids." Now I expect a driver to step out of the parked truck, or someone to push a baby carriage out in front of the truck, or a ball to come bouncing out with a kid hot on its trail. The possibilities are endless.

Good piece today.

Fondest regards,
Jack • reep • Toad
Twisted Roads

bluekat said...

As always, I enjoyed reading your article on braking. A good reminder - It's been a while since Ron or I have been out practicing. Must be the cyclist in me but scanning my environment seems to be one of the few skills I do all right with. Even when I think I'm not all that alert, I generally spot things amiss quickly. Probably to make up for the lacking skills elsewhere.

I don't know how your photo's used to look, but along with what Conchscooter said, even though the focus is on motorcycling instead of photography, your eye for composition is showing in your photos. Good use of the elements around you to tell the story. I especially like the 2nd and 4th with Elvira in the parking lot.


Arizona Harley Dude said...

Another great reminder on how to stay alive in the jungle of the streets. There is another great reason to practice panic stops and that is the bike does something different every time. This has saved my bacon on more then one occassion.

And the reminder part? Because I am riding two up more now I need to take Linda out for some 'panic' practice. Need to know what she is going to add to the mix to be able to keep us safe. Thanks Iron Dad for dusting the cobwebs from my brain.

irondad said...


That's a great point about running in a pack. We always presume the others will do the right thing. Doesn't always happen. When one drivers screws up, several others can do strange things to avoid them. Hyper vigilance is key.

On the streets I try to avoid being in a pack as much as possible.


Thank you. I think I can handle going out and taking more photos.

Take care,


irondad said...


Wow! You're good for my ego. Thank you. Being compared to Ken Condon is pretty cool.

You are a great example of how to do it right, judging by your blog posts I've seen.


You've nailed the essence. Like a good photo! What might happen? How do I make adjustments to avoid it?


I read your post about the crash. You have a lively mind so I'm sure you are aware of, and prepared for, possibilities.

Instead of calling it panic stops, how about controlled quick stops?

Take care,


irondad said...


I would believe that anyone who has survived a lot of bicycle trips has to be good at scanning.

Composition is a funny thing. Once we sit down and figure out what exactly it is that draws us to photos, then we can duplicate it. The trick is figuring exactly what those things are.

Thank you for the kind words.

Arizona Harley Dude,

You are welcome for the cobweb dusting.

It's great to have excellent braking skills. I also wanted to remind everyone that the best skill is prevention by seeing things earlier and making small adjustments to avoid trouble.

Take care,


Steve Williams said...

Another post that enters the pantheon of important riding lessons. You've authored quite a few now.

For me it does not take long for my brain to begin filing things in the back of the file drawer. Even a few weeks of not riding will do it. I've noticed this winter since I have not been pushing as much to ride that my skills and reactions feel rusty.

So I have begun taking a bit more time to practice. Not a lot but some.

Thanks for continuing to share you expert advice. And for free!

Steve Williams
Scooter in the Sticks

kz1000st said...

This isn't really appropo of this post but I came across it in another blog. Wonder what you think?


It mentions your group specifically.

cpa3485 said...

Very good thoughts here. And your pictures illustrate the situation very well.
BTW, I failed to really congratulate you on the new grandbaby. So consider yourself congratulated (a little late) by me.

Dave said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
kz1000st said...

P.S. I'm recuperating from a heinous auto accident, of all things, totaled my Scion xB and have all kinds of time to sit around looking at the web. Nothing permanent. Will be riding again in the spring.

Dave said...

Iron Grand Dad
Conrats on the new little one and you will never shake off the all of the euphoria.

Top notch info as all ways .
As to bike hibernation here is some thing you mite get a kick out of

Many thanks till your better paid.

Old F

If the link doesn’t work
Go to You tube and search
Bike Hibernation - Secret Life of Bikers

Dean W said...

half a second reaction time is really, really fast.

I hope the lane position demonstrated is a function of stepping into traffic on foot, and not where you really were. ;-)

Anonymous said...

Dear Grandfather:
You don't act your age!
This is good! From the foreigner in eastern Canada, hearty
congratulations; mind it isn't your child and with grandchildren, you can give them back after the visit.

As to this braking in level 1, 2, or 3.
One of the major problems I had on the Goldwing was a tendency to skid the rear tire, (front tire as well sometimes) even when using both front and rear brakes. And this was even more apparent in the heat of summer. Round here summer temperatures can quickly become blistering hot. And local high traffic country roads are frequently tar and chip surfaced. The tar melts, the surface is liquid is slippery and bingo, rear wheel lockup. Have found it to be one of the most disconcerting problems over time. And even though may have been traveling well below the posted limit (Rode for my enjoyment, not covering terra firma rapidly), skidding was often a factor,
And in all cases the tires themselves were of good tread depth and were just fine. Others who sometimes rode with me did not skid or slide the same way.

It can be quite disconcerting sliding along knowning only Mr. Newton's laws would apply if I was to strike something. Riding cautiously made me appear as a wimp to some friends; they too rode large machines, albeit newer machines with various braking additive devices (ABS) and yes they too slid infrequently, often the same surfaces as well.

I was always a fervent practicing motorcyclist, yet never could make the brakes work; and I might add in my earlier years of riding never had the same braking problems. Suspect the cause was a number of things, perhaps related. First of all I was aging, physically and mentally. My physical reflexes were not as responsive as they once were, time ages us all. Then too as my own riding time diminished found the joy of using a motorcycle for transport was lessening, for any number of reasons. Some days which dawned lovely were miserably warm, and in full leathers I perspired profusely, a wet jacket or undershirt does often not make a ride pleasant. Then too the machinery, in this case a 1981 Honda Goldwing was maybe not up to the task at hand.

Then too, those friends who rode daily enjoyed doing so, a daily
to and from work rider I was not, more so in the last few years. Others would load their gear and take off to a foreign land on weekends or for a few days, I had no desire to do so, nor having to deal with the tiredness that often followed.

Oh, and as to those slippery tar-chipped roads? ABS machines owned by friends had little or no difficulty stopping under such conditions. Was it the ABS supplement or was it me and my lack of skill? Suspect both.

And like so many others never really moved to level 2, or 3...

Mike said...

Thanks Dan for another informative post! Very well written as usual and with great photos to make important points.

Young Dai said...


I may be jumping ahead of your post order, but your word picture of the thought process of a Level 3seems to aline very closely to the structure adopted by the Roadcraft system. Used here in the UK as a way of teaching, guiding and defining a safe riding strategy.

The cornerstone of The System (it is always capitalised in the UK, I don't know why, but then we drive on the wrong side of the road as well) is IPSAG:

1 : Information - a continuous and ongoing assessment of the whole riding/driving environment.

Take, use and give information as required.

2 : Position - dependant upon the information received.

3 : Speed - adjustment (if needed) using brakes or throttle - NOT the gears (unless very poor onditions - snow, ice etc.)

4 : Gear - to suit the speed of the machine and work involved for the engine. The responsive gear

5 : Acceleration - use as much or as little (i.e. decceleleration) as is required to negotiate the hazard.

The ideal is at all times seek to optimise your VIEW, but not at the expense of the riders safety or the stability of the bike.

And as you say to prevent the need for you to show off your expert handling machine handling skills, by adopting an strategy to identify and react safely to potential hazards before the bear takes a chunk.

BTW re agressive scanning, my instructors told me I should always ride with EMMA.

Before the wife reads this , that I should keep my Eyes Moving and Mind Alert.

In the example that you show, apart from other vehicles emerging between the trucks, (in the UK at least), you could also reasonably expect 'darter' pedestrians, intent on getting to the latest bargains, and cab doors swinging open to brain the rider.

Again possibly a difference in cultures, but in those circumstances would you ever consider a horn sound in that situation, to alert potential darters and pedestrians that you were there ?

I realise that in taking the photo you didn't wish to step into the live traffic flow, but ideally where on the carriage way would you and Elvira be in those situations ?

irondad said...

Steve Williams,

The important part is that you are aware that skills rust quickly. They don't totally go away, just get dulled enough to be less effective. It's amazing how quickly it happens to all of us.

Thank you for helping boost my ego!


I looked at the post you cited. While I agree that government is often concerned mostly with revenue, in this case there is a bit of difference.

The tuition fee for the course goes to fund additional rider training. None of it goes into the general tax fund. We are a rider funded program. TEAM OREGON also receives a portion of the new endorsement fees.

What is telling is that typically, of all the new endorsements in Oregon, somewhere around two thirds of them have come through our classes. While there are certainly motorcycle fatalities here, Oregon has one of the lowest ratios per endorsements, if not THE lowest rate. We have to presume there's a connection between our program and the low fatality rate.

It wasn't our push to make training mandatory. It was the goal of a member of the legislature. We are going to have to do a lot of ramping up to make it happen.

P.S. Good luck on your recovery and my empathies for your suffering!

Take care,


irondad said...


Thank you for the kind words about the post. I hope it was helpful.

And,too, I appreciate the congratulations.


The video was pretty funny! Only why was the hibernating biker who tipped over named Dan? Out here, Dan don't hibernate! Thanks for sharing.


Thanks for commenting. Hadn't heard from you in a bit and was missing you. You're right on the reaction time. It was a "rubber glove" number. Good eye, too. One thing I've finally learned is to not stand in the middle of the traffic lane while taking photos!

Take care,


irondad said...


It might also have been the leverage factor with your leg length. It forced you to use your large muscles instead of being able to flex the smaller ones for finer control.


I sincerely appreciate your compliment. However, the phrase "as usual" is making me freak out. I don't need that kind of pressure!

Young Dai,

No worries about getting ahead. There is no problem with stealing my thunder. What you shared is what I would really like this site to be. A place where riders help each other out by sharing. Thank you for your contribution!

As to your questions, here are my thoughts.

I would certainly sound the horn if I felt the need to alert someone of my presence. Not in any sort of aggressive way, but a friendly beep. I figure it is ultimately my responsibility to avoid pedestrians than them to avoid me. Of course, they do have a responsibility but if I hit them it won't matter who was at fault, so to speak. So I take the responsibility on myself.

Remember, though, that the horn is only one tool of many, not a magic bullet. By all means use whatever is available to you.

For the photo opportunity I only stepped into the lane a little bit. When riding I would have been to the left of my lane. In your case, probably to the right of the left lane since that's where you ride.

In this case, I was watching a driveway to my right. So I would move left in order to give me a bit more space to react, and to increase visibility. I'd go as far left as possible without putting myself in danger from oncoming traffic.

Great questions and information!

Take care,


Anonymous said...

Hey irondad, this is great, you're supplementing your oratory with excellent visuals to make a point.
WRT to the truck, yes it's a blind spot, and while i am always trying to scan through windows and such, shadows are also a huge clue about cars behind cars, in this case you clearly can't see past the truck.
Hence the TRUCK alone should be the warning clue to slow down.
I love the " judgement vs skills" quote, as it advocates the truck clue over the braking skills.
Keep sunnyide up :D

Balisada said...

I haven't practiced quick stops in a while. Did a quick stop this morning though. Should practice some more. Getting rusty.

Thanks for the reminder.