Sunday, April 03, 2011

Levels of Competence: A Closer Look.

A couple of posts ago I shared what I feel are the four levels of gaining competence. I used the backdrop of a basic riding class. I did this because it's often easier to more clearly see the steps with rank beginners.

The thing is, it's easy to miss the deeper implications because we say "Those are beginners but I've been riding for a long time. I've already reached a high competence level."

That statement would be totally true. For some skills. For others, maybe not so much. Experience levels vary. One of the great things about this motorcycle related blogosphere is that so many of us from different walks of life ( and differing experience levels ) can find a common ground here. That's led to some great friendships. Last summer in Bend, when our first official blogger meeting was held, is a great memory. Sprawled all over the hotel room were nine riders. Some were relatively new to riding while others had been riding for longer than they care to admit. They were proud of their years spent riding but didn't want to give away their age! No matter the experience level, though, there is always room for improvement.

There is always room for improvement. Did I say that, already? Must be important. I'm a better rider than I was five years ago and I thought I was a pretty good rider then. Friday I sent an e-mail to an old mentor. For whatever reason he saw potential in me even as a new instructor. This mentor offered me a chance to take a leadership role in our motorcycle training organization. I was thinking about him and sent an e-mail of appreciation. Notice his response:

"That is just awesome to read - thanks for taking the time to send it. Your growth in the organization has been a joy to watch and to be a part of, and yes - you have lived up to faith and potential I saw in you (and then some). Here's my coaching for you now:

* Keep finding ways to take your game to the next level ('cuz there is ALWAYS a next level...)

* Look for Instructors who are ready to grow towards a leadership position and mentor them (in other words - pay it forward)"

In light of the above sentiments I feel it's worthwhile to go back and look deeper into the four levels of competence. Both for ourselves and for being able to pay it forward. Accurately. This time let's look specifically at how those of us who are past the beginner stage can benefit. For the sake of space, I'll split the four steps into separate posts.

Starting with number one ( a nice place to start, don't you think? ) here's the step:

I don't know what I don't know.

I could also add that some of what I think I "KNOW" is actually wrong!

Using myself as an example, let me tell you a story. I think it clearly illustrates my point. Even at the risk of looking a bit foolish. Hard as it is to believe, I haven't always been a highly skilled and technical rider. If I'm even there now. Like I say, I'm much more skilled than I was but there is always a next level.

In the story are something I didn't know I didn't know and something I thought I knew but was wrong.

More than three decades ago. A corner in the countryside a lot like this one. Posted at 20 mph. No mailbox or posts. Just a muddy field with which I would soon become more closely acquainted. "I didn't know what I didn't know" point #1. Proper cornering technique. Getting all the transitions done before the corner.

I'd done ok for a long while because I'd never really gotten in over my head. I had just graduated from my beloved Suzuki 185cc dual sport that I'd had since I was 14. The bike was a pretty blue and white and had a seat large enough for a passenger. The dual sport and I spent a lot of time off road until I got my driver's license. After that we spent a lot more time trying to impress the girls in high school and making the other guys jealous. Life was good but eventually I outgrew the Suzuki.

Now I was on a Honda CB750. You may laugh now, but back then this was a bike powerful enough to get you into trouble in a hurry. Moving to it from the Suzuki was like moving from a Shetland Pony to the Appaloosa stallion named Terry that Gramp used to ride when we did rodeo events.

Instead of a leisurely trot we were now at a full gallop towards this corner. I'd let the reins lie a bit too loosely and we were covering ground at a scary pace. Rolling on a throttle connected to an engine four times bigger than I was used to was pretty heady. Until I got a bit carried away. The corner kept looming larger and larger in my vision.

It was time to pull back on the reins, yell Whoa!! really loudly, and scrub off some speed. Seriously quickly, too, I might add. Enter villian number 2. What I thought I knew was actually wrong. I found that out later but at this moment I had full faith in the truth of it. After all, it had been drummed into my head by many riders more experienced than me. I'm sure you've heard this solemnly pronounced yourself:

"Stay away from the front brake because it will throw you over the handlebars."

I had actually experienced this on a bicycle. You think a macho young man raised by a cop/cowboy wasn't going to be doing deeds of daring and bravado on anything he could make move quickly? First a bicycle and then a dirt bike?

Weirdly enough, my having grown up on dirt bikes reinforced this so called wisdom but in an opposite manner. I'd lost count of the number of times I'd washed the front wheel out from applying too much front brake in the dirt. Another technique for steering a dirt bike was a lot of rear brake. You'd slide the rear wheel from side to side like a rudder. When you were pointing in the right direction you'd let off the pedal. Great in the dirt. No so much on the street.

Something had to be done for this corner. Time to pull the trigger. I fired the ammunition I had available. A brass shell made of ignorance with a bullet cast from falsehood. How did it turn out?

A little front brake along with a lot of rear brake. The rear drum shoes clenched as did my entire digestive tract. I remember some noise. Funny how a sliding rear tire never makes much noise in the dirt but seems to be quite loud on the street. There was this huge jarring sensation then silence as the motor died. We were still upright. We were also definitely not moving. Ironically, I'd almost gone over the handlebars. Not for having applied the front brake. No, we had simply stopped quite suddenly. Bike and rider nearly parted company. The Honda forgot to tell me it was going to stop so abruptly. Perhaps, in all fairness, it really didn't know that itself.

As you may have guessed by now, my braking technique was not overly successful in scrubbing off enough speed to make the corner. Ok, it wasn't at all successful. Heavy rear braking caused the bike to fishtail. In an interesting contrast, my dirt bike experience that caused me to screw up the braking helped me keep the bike upright. I instinctively looked up and kept the bike headed straight. Straight off the road and into the field. Actually, with the rear tire sliding, I didn't have much choice as the bike will continue to travel in whichever direction the front wheel was pointing. It would be more accurate to say that I kept the bike from falling over as we launched over the ditch and into the muddy field.

By the way, did I mention that the bike was now buried up to its axles in the mud? That would probably explain the sudden stop and the fact that we were still upright. Oh yeah, the force of hitting the ditch made my hand let go of the clutch which was probably a good thing. Although the rooster tail of slinging mud could have been quite spectacular. I'm also pretty sure that the other reason we didn't fall over was the fact that the low slung muffler system was acting as outriggers on each side.

Did you ever try to pull a 500 pound motorcycle out of mud to its axles? I tried for a while. There didn't seem to be any real damage to the bike. The spoked front wheel was tougher than it looked. My hope was to pull the bike out of the mud then go wash it off before I got home. The second part of the plan was dependent on the first part. Which wasn't happening.

A Good Samaritan in a small gray sedan stopped to help. Between the two of us we got the bike back onto the roadway. I'm still deeply ashamed of what I said. I've always been raised to own up to my mistakes and have practiced this religiously in my life. Except for this one time. I somehow couldn't seem to tell this stranger that I, a macho rider, had simply screwed up. I blamed it on a farm dog that ran out into the road and had then proceeded to disappear. It must have been a sheep dog because I sure felt sheepish telling the story. Based on the fact that I wasn't able to look him in the eye, I'm not sure the kind stranger believed me. However, he was polite enough not to challenge me. Perhaps he didn't know anything about motorcycles himself except for how to pull them out of the mud.

The good news was that there was no permanent damage to either the bike or me. Except to my ego. However, it could just have easily been just the opposite and I wouldn't be here writing this story. Which you may have preferred.

It was time to get some actual professional help. I'm talking about motorcycle training. What kind of professional help were you thinking of? Shame on you.

Which will lead us to Step 2.

Miles and smiles,



Steve Williams said...

IronDad: As usual, a great post that triggered a lot of thoughts as I was reading. I always worry about the things I don't know, especially when riding. I'm looking forward to Part 2.

Having the opportunity to ride a lot of different machines often leaves me feeling uncertain and a beginner. I tell myself those feelings are a good thing and will help keep my riding reasonably paced.

What's missing though is actual training. I recently took up the guitar again after 40 years of tinkering. I figured I had some bad habits that a teacher could help me sort out. After one lesson it seemed like bad habits were all I had. So I am a beginner again but a mindful one.

That's what I like about your blog. You continually serve up perspectives and experience that keep me mindful of my interaction with road and machine. I think you are doing just fine in the paying it forward department.

I haven't plummeted off the road yet. My only mishaps involved snow, cameras, and mud. And the fastest unfolded at 5mph. Hardly the stuff of stories or bragging.

Considering the levels of competence I have to hope I am approaching number 3. But that may be wishful thinking.

Steve Williams
Scooter in the Sticks
Follow me on TWITTER

Geoff James said...

An excellent post, more so because I had an almost identical episode on my BMW K100RS many years ago, minus the mud. I sold the BMW 6 months later, Bought a Blackbird and enrolled in my first advanced course. The instructor taught me the life-saving staged braking technique which I reported in one of my previous blog posts.

That started me on the "More you learn, the more you realise how little you know" journey.

Incidentally, I have a nice diagram of the stages of competence as you describe it if it's any good to you. I used it for industrial teamwork training prior to retirement.

Best wishes,


Raftnn said...

Excellent post, and very very relevant to me at the moment. I thought I knew how to ride, since embarking on some training I am discovering how little I really know. I have just completed another session of my Advanced rider traing, blog to follow, but your post just re enforces what , and why I am learning.

Good Stuff Dan, keep it comiing.

Mike said...

Timely post for me too. At just three years of riding regularly I sometimes feeling like I have it all "wired". Then that thought scares me into the reality that there is so much I probably don't know.

The long stretch of not riding since the teenage years was after an unplanned get-off on my friend's Honda 50. Your story brought back memories of that. No sheep dog involved though. Thank you...

RichardM said...

I feel like I don't know a lot. Unlike most riders, I get these six month long gaps from riding. Every Spring, it feels like my first time on the bike and feel a need to go out and practice. Also missing is any training beyond the BRC. Just doesn't seem to be available.

Anonymous said...

Interesting observations. I had the same issues with street vs. The dirt and use of the rear brake. They are opposites street a little rear mostly front. In the dirt the front much of the time is a wash out and the only time I could hit it hard was straight up in a straight line, very rare.

Due to the increase in sales of the Adv type bikes , I think programs really need to go over the differences or else the 20k GS will take a dirt nap...

Allen Madding said...

As you well know, I have learned the hard way about getting too much rear brake in the hard stop equation. Now anytime a sudden stop scenario arises, my memory quickly replays the video segment for me.

Some lessons are hard learned, but they certainly stick with you.

Looking forward to Part Deux


Charlie6 said...


A good reminder as a lot of riders start their riding season with this past weekend.

Ironically or fortuitously, riding a sidecar rig has embedded into me and constantly reminds me to pay close attention to curve maneuvers as sidecars are particularly unforgiving when it comes to taking corners and sharp curves too fast.

I've had the rig up to its exhaust pipes in snow and mud so I've experience the joy of pulling my rig out. Balancing the motorcycle as well just adds to the experience.

Also looking forward to part two.


Redleg's Rides

Colorado Motorcycle Travel Examiner

bobskoot said...


what you describe was exactly what happened to this new rider, recently. There are photos within the thread which looks a lot like your curve, and the bike went across the road and luckily there were no cars coming the opposite direction. Lucky there was no ditch.

I also had something like this happen to me in the early '60's on a Suzuki X6 Hustler. I knew nothing then. There was no such thing a M/C endorsement. I still don't know what I don't know.

Riding the Wet Coast

Orin said...

I'm guessing the previous owner of the GTS believed the no-front brake meme as well. The recently-replaced rear brake pads were almost completely worn out, but the fronts looked almost new. This at over 18,000 miles.

Now that I've ridden several different bikes over the last seven years, I really wonder how the belief that application of the front brake will send you over the handlebars ever got started. I've tried stopping with just the front brake. Ain't gonna happen, no matter how hard you squeeze the lever. Okay, maybe I don't have a really strong grip, but still.

In my Basic Rider Course, they kept saying, use both brakes at once if you intend to stop in the shortest distance. In a car, the front brakes are doing the majority of the work, but not all of it...

Scootin' Old Skool

david said...

Haha that was fun to read Irondad! It is very true though, my current limit on the bike is that i only do commuting, talk about bad habits.
Your story is also personal to me, because my first accident was on a cb750, my dad's.
I was only allowed to ride around the neighbourhood, which i did, and it was fun. Until i had my first fright, which was a *lady* that pulled out from a side street. The sun was in front of me, had my headlights on bright, i was only doing about 50km/h at the time, but her daughter was late for ballet. I grabbed the front brakes, which as you say everyone knows, is a bad idea.
I've never lost the respect for those front brakes though, although mixing with the back now. I also learned about gear, i wasn't wearing gloves and i couldn't wipe my bum for about a week after!!
peace ;-)

irondad said...


As usual, I am very honored by your kind words. There are worse things to be said about someone than "they make you think".

It can be a good thing to think like a beginner. At other times the best thing is to step in with the confidence of a seasoned pro. Any less can lead to disaster.

You are right on about training. That will be a part of the next post.

Take care,


irondad said...


I always thought I wanted a Blackbird. What a great bike.

I'd be interested in your diagram. Like you say, the more we learn the more we realize what we don't know. Always looking to add to my knowledge.

If it is something that can be sent via e-mail then I would appreciate you sending it to:

Take care,


irondad said...


I heartily salute you for pursuing advanced training. That puts you a few steps above the majority of riders!


You ARE at the scary stage. Not to rain on your parade, of course. It's just when we think we have it "wired" that we can get complacent. Avoid the complacency and you'll be fine.

Take care,


irondad said...


I share your sorrow at the short riding season. On the other hand, you do have such wonderful whale ribs!

Take care,


irondad said...


I see you share my dirt and street blessing and curse as well! Wise words.

Your reading and commenting is really appreciated. If you feel up to it, how about sticking a first name at the end of your comment? Be great to make more of a connection in my mind.

Take care,


irondad said...


I recently talked to a guy who went down on a cruiser because he applied way too much front brake while leaned way over. A place he never should have been.

He said a similar thing to me.

"Live and learn, I guess."

One advantage of formal training is that it can keep the ultimate cost of the lessons down.

Not aimed directly at you. I'm merely expanding on what you wrote, my friend.

Take care,


irondad said...


Successful riding is a thinking person's game, it seems.

With two drive wheels you still had to pull the rig out?

Take care,


irondad said...


I went and looked at the thread. Interesting how the emphasis was on getting the bike fixed ( and dealing with the insurance ) rather than how to corner correctly.

By the way, you probably know more than you don't know. You're just being modest!

Take care,


irondad said...


I think the origin was from riding a bicycle. People connect two bicycle wheels with two motorcycle wheels. They don't think about the difference in weight, C of G, and so on.

Also, sometimes it does actually look like a rider goes over the handlebars of a motorcycle. Ironically, it's because of a high side, which is a rear wheel thing, as you know.

It's a good thing forward weight transfer doesn't work the same in a car as on a motorcycle. I might spill my latte during a quick stop in the car. If I drank them, that is!

Take care,


irondad said...


All I can say is that you and I have come a long ways! I sure hope it's in a positive direction.

Thank you for reading all these years!

Take care,