Friday, April 22, 2011

I got it!!!

This is the exclamation that often accompanies reaching Step 3 of gaining competence.

Step 3 is when a person realizes that they're making progress on mastering a new skill. Being stuck squarely in Step 2 a rider may be thinking that they'll never get it right. Attempt after attempt is made. During one try a certain element works but another doesn't. Next time the second element works but the first doesn't. Dang it, dang it, dang it!

Then comes the attempt when it all comes together at the same time. Good job. Do it again. And again. I love these moments with a class, be they beginners or more experienced. I never lose the joy of seeing the light come on. Nor in exulting with a rider over their conquest. Step 2 is so satisfying on two counts. Firstly, there's the initial thrill of victory at the conquest. Secondly, the peace of mind in simply knowing we can do something is priceless. We know because we've done it. More than once.

A rider can certainly learn and conquer on their own. As I've written before, however, in my opinion there's a big advantage in learning under the watchful eyes of professional trainers.

This is true for whatever level of experience we have. Here's a group at the end of a Basic class. They're feeling pretty pleased with themselves.

As well they should. These folks have worked hard to master the building blocks. On those blocks they've built some skills that will serve them well on the streets. On top of it all, they conquered a bitterly cold weekend. There's always more to learn, though, isn't there?

This is a group of more experienced riders. They're spending a warm afternoon brushing up on rusty skills plus learning some new ones. The skills being worked on are more advanced but that same joy of conquest and satisfaction is just as strong as the beginners. The satisfaction scale is actually probably a lot higher at this stage. Nothing like having a full tool box and knowing how to use them, is there?

Even professional riders seek out training from qualified instructors. Their investment of time proves that these riders find value in formal training and feedback.

An instructor can share with a rider some valuable feedback. One really valuable thing we might not think of is just plain positive comments. Knowing what we're doing right frees us to concentrate on other things. It's the typical, "I got that down, now I can work on this other thing".

Instructors can see things that the rider often isn't aware of. A great example is during maximum braking. There's more to the process than just a short stop without falling down. We practice under controlled conditions. The braking chutes are clean, if not always dry! There is no conflicting traffic. Students do feel a certain amount of stress and tension. It's nothing compared to what they'll feel on the streets when their maximum braking is done in response to a critical incident. In those kind of situations their technique absolutely must be right. During practice, however, the students can sometimes get away with less than perfect technique. Which is where the instructors come in. We help to make the technique perfect.

For basic riders we're looking for certain things like one smooth and progressive squeeze of the brake lever. That's pretty much what the beginner riders are capable of absorbing. As the experience level of the class goes up, we're looking at things more closely.

We watch how the front cowling progresses downwards toward the front fender, for example. Granted, some bikes don't have a cowling. Like certain Bonnevilles without tachometers in Key West, for example. Nonetheless, we know what to look for, even then. We can then offer very precise feedback for improvement.

While a rider may only be aware of how firmly or smoothly they're squeezing, instructors can break it down further. We see the initial squeeze. We see variations in the whole progression of the lever application. We see the end of the squeeze. Did you know that a rider can skid the front tire at the end of the stop as well as at the beginning? We can see exactly where in the process mistakes are made and help with some very fine tuning.

Same goes with the rear brake application. I've had riders ask me why they keep sliding the rear tire with too much pressure? On the surface the answer may seem obvious. One would be tempted to simply tell the rider not to press too much with their foot. There's more to it than that, though. There are dynamics involved that most people aren't really aware of.

Things like the human response to brace themselves for an impending impact. Isn't that really the thing that's on our mind during maximum braking? Sure, we're hoping to avoid the impact by stopping short of the hazard, but what if we fail? See, that's the thing our mind is thinking about deep down. We hope we stop but our deep primal urge is to brace for the possible crash.

In a car we brace with all four limbs. Or all we have, anyway. Two on the steering wheel and two on the floor. Both feet press hard. The left foot on the floorboard or clutch and the right foot on the brake pedal. In a car we want hard pressure on the brake pedal. Not so much on a bike. Okay, not much at all, really. Yet our brains tell us from deep down to press hard. Both from the motor skills we've picked up from driving and from the instinct to brace for a worst case outcome.

In answer to the rider's question, then, my answer would be to tell the rider to brace their knees up tight against the tank of the bike. With knees out, the large muscles of the upper leg are pressing down on the brake pedal. By pressing the knees hard against the tank, it both helps keep the rider down in the seat of the bike and forces the smaller muscles of the lower leg and foot into service. Since these muscles are less powerful but capable of receiving greater feedback from what they feel, much more control of the rear brake application is possible.

Again, I'm not saying that a rider shouldn't practice on their own. Just the opposite, in fact. Perfect practice is what makes perfect. There isn't enough time in a class to get to that point. On the other hand, there is a big difference between training and practice. I'll go into that in some other post.

Having trained under a professional, our practice is more productive because we're practicing the correct things. We move from "I THINK I got it" to "I KNOW I got it!"

That's where the real fun and satisfaction of Step 3 comes from.

I was going to tell you a story or two about a couple of individuals who are great examples of what this post is about. Going to have to save them for the next post, though. You'll really enjoy them, so please come back!

Miles and smiles,



Geoff James said...

Great post Dan!

I'm delighted to see such an obviously keen bunch of experienced riders re-skilling or upskilling. I don't know about the USA but in NZ and the UK, it's the experienced (as opposed to advanced) riders who are the most reluctant to re-skill as they think they know it all.

Mike said...

I like the fine technical stuff like keeping the knees close to the tank to have better application of the rear brake. Very helpful - thank you!

That photo of the police bike cowling is really nice!

RichardM said...

As usual, a lot of great information and tips. I like the explanation of knees on the tank to help control rear break pedal pressure. I sort of stumbled into this one and unfortunately had the opportunity to use something close to maximum breaking. I was following an old land yacht in the right lane, he signaled left, changed to the left lane then turned right. I discovered that on dry pavement it was almost impossible to lock up my front wheel as I grabbed the front brake hard with no lockup. Squeezed the tank with my knees and pressed the rear brake hard and slowly let up as weight was transferred from the rear wheel.

BTW, as I passed through Albany I stopped to look through my email for your phone number but couldn't find it...

Allen Madding said...

Excellent post, Dan.

What I like the most about it is that you provide such good examples that your readers can quickly grasp making the topic more real to them. For instance, the cowling-less,tachometer-less Bonneville quickly painted a detailed graphical image in my mind.

I have struggled over the years with properly modulating the amount of pressure I exert on the rear brake of a motorcycle. I have sought out advice from several seasoned riders and until reading this post, all I ever was told was "you should buy a motorcycle with ABS." While that might be one solution, I would prefer to properly apply front and rear brakes on a motorcycle in a "panic stop" instead of simply relying on technology.

I greatly appreciate you sharing the technique of pressing ones knee hard into the gas tank. I intend on practicing this technique immediately.

As always, thanks for sharing your wealth of experience and knowledge to make us all better riders.


Charlie6 said...

Interesting points Irondad, specially your advice re pressing in with the knees against the tank in order to bring the calf muscles into play.....

It really is too easy to put too much pressure on the rear brake and lock up the tire. Specially on the Suzuki V-Strom I now ride.

My challenge is three different motorcycles, with three different braking performance/feedback profiles....I have to "switch mental gears" when getting on one of them....makes life less boring don't you think?


Redleg's Rides

Colorado Motorcycle Travel Examiner

Anonymous said...

Today April 23, 2010 is the first decent warm day on a weekend this
year. Most other days have seen either rain or snow or just miserable weather. ATGATT does not seem to be on most
motorcyclist's mind, leather or nylon jackets, full face helmets,
gloves, jeans and runeing shoes mostly. Must be the first time out after the six month layoff. This is the time for ATGATT! Nope. And maybe reading your column would be an excellent refresher course. So many small things to remember, knees against
the tank or what passes as a tank on some machines, balance and braking exercises and a myriad of other reminders.
Keep thinking, somewhere someone will invoke the Darwin rule and be snuffed for thewrong action
at the wrong time.

bluekat said...

This winter I've caught myself pressing knees to the tank during braking and at other times as well. All I know is sometimes it feels right, for what ever reason. Couldn't tell you why. Hanging on for dear life comes to mind. :) I've found it difficult to judge how much pressure I'm applying to the rear brake, so your explanation makes sense.

btw, in my BRT one of the instructors told me my rear brake squealed so that he could tell that I using it...or some such tale.

irondad said...


We have the same situation here. As an organization we put a lot of thought into figuring out how to get more experienced riders in for training.

I like the terms you used: re-skilling and upskilling. Perfect descriptions.

Take care,


irondad said...


The photo of the police bike cowling was taken during one our training sessions at the McMinnville Airport. We had a couple of extra bodies so I stepped back to take photos.

Glad the bit about knees to the tank helped. There's always a little more depth to explore.

Take care,


irondad said...


I wonder if the driver was used to driving big trucks. You know, swinging wide for corners!

Sorry you had to use evasive skills. However, your description of the rear brake pressure is spot on. Light to lighter pressure as the weight transfers forward. Well done!

Take care,


irondad said...


Thank you for your more than kind comment. I'm blushing, already. I've simply had the opportunities and people around me that have allowed me to dig further into the skills of riding. In return, I feel good about sharing with other riders.

Have to agree with you. Much better to have your own skills and use things like ABS as a supplement to those, not as crutches. Worse, yet, a wheelchair.

Remember that the rear brake pedal pressure needs to be decreased as the weight transfers to the front tire. Light to lighter.

It's a matter of lifting the toes of our right foot to meet the fingers of our right hand! :)

Take care,


irondad said...


We should all have problems deciding which bike to ride!

Interestingly, back in 2006 I had spent quite a bit of time thinking about the situation of having different bikes and adapting to each one. At that time I had an 88 mile round trip commute. I thought about how we can get mentally distracted on our commutes and how much muscle memory is needed to fill in the gaps, so to speak.

For whatever value it might be to you, here is the post. Bear in mind that I didn't mean back them that a commuter shouldn't ride more than one bike. These were just my thoughts at the time.

Take care,


irondad said...


All I can say it that there is eventually a harvest for what we sow.

By the way, I'm truly so glad to see you still reading and commenting. Hadn't heard from you in a while and worried about you, old friend!

Take care,


irondad said...


You're at that stage where you've come a very long ways. Now that you have built a fine foundation you need to put some finishing trim on your building, as it were. Or forget the fancy analogy and let's just call it fine tuning.

Geoff calls it upskilling. I like that, too.

Anyway, I went back and found an old post that may prove helpful. Look at the part about keeping your eyes up while braking. Not saying you don't already, just food for thought.

As to your training bike, must have been a Suzuki cruiser. Probably a red one. They seem to have more "character" than the others!

Take care,


Jack Riepe said...

Dear IronDad (Dan):

There is no substitute for quality advice. And I am trilled to see the roundel so proudly displayerd on the demo vehicle.

Happy Riding!
Jack • reep • Toad
Twisted Roads