Monday, April 11, 2011

"That skill could use some work!" aka That Sucked!

So it is when we are at Level 2 on the gaining competency ladder. It's that moment when we discover we're not all that good at a particular skill or skills. My desire would be that this discovery is made either during formal training or when practicing on our own. I sincerely hope that it's not after having done the wrong thing during a critical incident on the street. Sadly, though, this is how way too many riders discover that they're a few vital tools short of a well stocked toolbox.

After having missed my corner, washed the bike ( and a personal garment ), and ridden a little more, the urgency of getting some formal training subsided. It's so easy for us to justify things to ourselves, isn't it? I reasoned that it wasn't a fundamental lack of cornering and braking skills that had led to my mishap. Rather, I had simply made a single mistake and I'd be sure not to repeat that same mistake. What is it about guys and ego? Especially when it comes to something like riding a motorcycle. There's this pervasive thinking that guys are just naturally born with the inherent skill to do certain things. When this proves to be more wishful thinking than reality, ego prevents the admission of said truth. I'm sure that this keeps a lot of guys from taking advanced formal training. Ego and the fear of looking foolish in front of equally inept guys.

So a lot of chest pounding takes place accompanied by a figurative waving of clubs. There's a lot of noise but no improvement in riding happens. I reluctantly admit that I was a member of that clan for many years. Two more bikes came and went. I was three bikes removed from my previous unintentional off road excursion. I tip-toed through the streets and bragged by the campfire. Life would have gone on like that except for a visit from a particular man.

I was the Road Captain for a motorcycle club. The core of the group was comprised of L.E.O.'s. There was Larry, a lieutenant in the sheriff's office ( my supervisor, in fact ), Bob V. and Clyde who were also patrol guys, Bob W. who was a state patrol guy, and Jeff from a local city PD.

One morning a guy from a motorcycle training organization came to our breakfast meeting. He stated that there was this new program being offered to experienced riders. ( the newly launched MSF Experienced Rider Course ) This guy also stated that he thought we would all greatly benefit from taking the course. Yes, the guy made it out alive. On the way out, however, he had to run the gauntlet of several pairs of firmly crossed arms in front of chests below very stern and intimidating looks. The last words he heard from us on the way out were:

"We're macho cops. We don't need no stinkin' training!"

That's where it would have remained if not for Larry. A friend of his had taken the course earlier. Little by little the friend was getting to Larry with things he'd learned. Larry probably needed training more than any of us. Seriously. One example was a recent ride we'd taken. We'd stopped at a little store out in the middle of nowhere. The parking lot was gravel. The drop-off from the paved road to the parking lot was about 5 inches. Larry dropped his bike ( a standard bike with a Windjammer type add-on full fairing ) making the transition from road to gravel. In the process he shorted out his battery.

To show you all some mercy I'll make the long story short. Ultimately Larry and I decided to take the class. Although I do have to share another story ( but very short ) about our arrival at the training site.

The parking lot was cordoned off by means of flags strung between various poles and trees. Very similar to what you can see in the background of the photo below.

Larry picked a stretch of flags strung between two poles about 10 feet apart. Since the poles were close together the flags were fairly taut with no sag. Larry starts under the flags. He ducks his head. His short windshield cleared the flags. So did his helmeted head. Not so fortunate was the sissy bar sticking up on the back of Larry's bike. The flags were surprisingly strong. So much so that the flags against the sissy bar arrested the bike's forward motion. Larry fell over in the process of arriving at a course for experienced riders. Hmmm, maybe it was a good thing we were here!

I learned a lot about head turns and how the bike goes where you look. Look where you want the bike to go. Don't look where you don't want the bike to go. I was grooving on my newly developed low speed control skills. My face was wearing a big grin. This was fun. Until the instructor announced it was time to work on maximum braking. My south end puckered so much it pulled the corners of my mouth into a deep frown.

OMG!!! You want me to do what? The instructor repeated what had been said in the classroom earlier in the day. We were expected to use a LOT of front brake.

I was really getting pissed for a while. The instructor kept urging me to use more front brake on my stops. I kept thinking that this fool was getting his jollies by getting me to do something that everyone KNEW was dangerous. Hadn't they heard of how touchy and unpredictable the front brake was?

As I was waiting in line I was watching other students making much shorter stops than mine. Ego reared its head, but in a good way this time. I was determined that these guys weren't going to show me up. Larry and I had made no secret of who we were. The instructor had used that to describe how to apply the front brake. He'd said to squeeze just like we would a trigger if we were shooting for accuracy.

Guess what? I opened my mind and gave it a shot. Pun intended, by the way. I talked to myself all the way up to the braking chute. Eyes up. Wait for the cone. Squeeeeze and downshift. I made a fantastic stop. I couldn't believe I was still rubber side down but there we were. I had conquered my own worst enemy, which was me.

That day of training has probably saved my riding bacon several times over. Not only from the actual training day, but from the hunger for more. It was also this day that first put the notion into my head to become an instructor though years would pass before that came to fruition.

When we talk about motorcycle training we often think of beginners.

I want to offer something else to think about. It's often the riders who have two or three years of riding under their helmets that are in the most danger. This is just enough time for them to have been exposed to a fair number of real world conditions. We think we've seen it all; that we have it all dialed in, as somebody put it in a comment on a previous post. Complacency can keep us from digging any deeper into training. We may sincerely think we have enough skills to get by so we don't need more. After all, we've done all right so far, haven't we? In some cases we don't know what else is possible. In other words, we don't know what the next level might be. There's another reason we might not train like we should. I'll come back to this one in a bit.

There is always a next level. We never get to a point where we've seen everything. There's always something else out there. A rider should never cease to become a student. I've recycled some photos from an advanced class I really enjoyed teaching last year. These are great examples of seeking a higher level.

These photos are of fellow riding instructors seeking to improve their craft. In the first photo they are in search of the perfect demo ride techniques to better serve our students / customers. In the second is an example of an instructor seeking to master skills on his own bike.

These next photos lead us up to my parting thoughts for this post.

This is a parking lot exit at the south end of a community college in Eugene. As you can see, the slope is quite steep. I watched a guy on a motorcycle trying to deal with stopping on the hill, coping with other traffic, and getting underway. As he was getting underway he dropped his bike. I was watching him as I was approaching the same place myself. This was a very familiar place to me. Pretty much my whole first year of teaching motorcycle classes was spent at this location. I'd mastered stopping on this this hill long ago.

Finding a quick place to park Elvira, ( which is easy on a bike ) I went to help him pick up his bike. He decided to go around the long way rather than tackle this slope again. That was his usual practice. Rather than conquer the situation, he avoided it. This day he had been pressed for time and had taken this route with the hope that he wouldn't actually have to stop.

So here's the moral of the story, as it were.

In my version of gaining skills, Level 2 is a place of discovery. The goal is to discover what we're not particularly good at. Once we find that out we know what we need to conquer to have a complete skill set. We can find this out through our own efforts to practice riding skills. We can also do it through formalized training. I would much prefer that riders make these discoveries by participating in training classes conducted by professionals. Here's why.

Firstly, professionals have the big picture. Training classes are usually designed to cover all aspects of riding. A person on their own may not be aware of what they really need. Professional training provides the 30 thousand foot view. A rider may be at 8 thousand feet and climbing. That's absolutely commendable but the view isn't quite as comprehensive as the higher one will be.

Secondly, there's another factor. We don't always push ourselves in the areas that we should. I've never hit a ball on a golf course ( except mini-golf ) in my life and don't intend to. I do watch people, however. There are a couple of golf courses I ride by regularly. You know what I see the most?

Golfers on driving ranges. Trying to hit the ball as hard and far as possible. I'd venture to say that the majority of golfers concentrate on their long game to the exclusion of their short game. It seems to me that it's in the short game where matches are won or lost, not so much in the long game. Yet people continue to practice what's easy and "showy" rather than the things that come harder.

The same applies to riding a motorcycle in my admittedly not so humble opinion. If something is really hard for a rider or scares them, for that matter, conquering that skill always takes a back burner. I owe that original instructor a lot for goading me into effectively using my front brake. I wouldn't have gone out and conquered that on my own. Possibly to my eternal detriment.

Training teaches us what we need to practice. The question is this:

What will we do once we discover it?

Stay tuned for Level 3.

Miles and smiles,



Dean W said...

I love getting religious sailing* moments from experienced riders. My favorite is teaching countersteering to long time riders who know you turn by moving your body weight around. Get them to ride up to 15mph or so, relax, and press on one bar. The expression on their face when the bike goes the other way than they thought it should is priceless.

* I'm pretty sure that's what it is- you know, when you can tell they're thinking about a holy ship...

Oz said...

Good info. The CMA chapter that I ride with periodically has some riding/safety training. No matter how long a rider has been riding practice is always helpful.

Steve Williams said...

Just when I think you've peaked in your teaching posts you come up with something like this. Outstanding and full of reminders for me.

I've been to the Basic and Experienced MSF courses and each time I learned a lot about my limitations. Was able to take the Experienced course on the Vespa which was pretty neat. Both courses I rode away with much better braking skills.

I do hope you've not let Larry forget his run in with the flags. Guys need all the ego busting and deflating they can get. Weird 80 percent idiot, 10 percent fool, 9 percent oblivious, and 1 percent smart. It's the one percent we use to ride...

Steve Williams
Scooter in the Sticks
Follow me on Twitter

irondad said...


I echo your sentiments. It must be a religious experience. Whenever the student is thinking about a holy "ship" I think of rolls of really thin paper. You know, like what scriptures were written on.

Take care,


irondad said...


Thank you for commenting. As one FJR rider to another I also offer thanks for stopping by. Dean W rides an FJR, as well. What great company here!

Take care,


irondad said...


I'm honored by your compliment. There is always a next level in many things to reach for. My sincere wish is that my blog prove useful to riders.

Larry crashed a few months after the class. It was way out in eastern Oregon. I was not with him. He was with a group we didn't normally ride with. Larry said he was swerving to avoid some deer and lost control. He injured his shoulder. The bike fairing was smashed to pieces but the bike itself was in fairly good shape.

Larry gave me his bike and quit riding. We get together once in a while and remember all the wild times we had. Life with Larry was quite interesting!

Take care,


redlegsrides said...

Good stuff Irondad...never did develop much of the "I'm a guy and I know how to ride a bike" attitude. Day one of the BRC was the first day I rode a I was quite receptive to the training.

The training, both in the BRC and the ERC, gave me the tools you mentioned. It was and is up to me to use them and practice them so it's muscle memory not recalling the instructions in an emergency.

Your comments re "emergency stops training" ring a bell with me now that I am riding the V-Strom, it's definitely not a motorcycle to rely on just the rear brake to stop you safely. I'm getting better at hard stops but must practice more I believe.

Quite amusing, your friend dropping his motorcycle due to the flag line. I admire his ability to pick up his bike and carry on in spite of the embarrassment. I trust you gave him a hard time later though.

Again, good points and good reminders, thanks for writing such articles.


Redleg's Rides

Colorado Motorcycle Travel Examiner

Allen Madding said...

There is one thing I am confident about when it comes to riding, I have plenty left to learn. Thanks for another thought provoking post.


Roger said...

Excellent and I mean excellent post. Propbably exactly where I am, I am aware of the skills I am lacking, and now have stuff to work on. It has also created a hunger in me to improve and encourage other riders to do the same. Great stuff Dan, keep it coming. It is a great feeling when you conquer a skill you couldnt do before.

irondad said...


I never pictured you as a chest thumper. You were the one quietly and methodically setting traps and snares while the other guys made noise. Your preparation allowed you to feast while they drooled!

Muscle memory will be in Level 4.

Yes, I still give Larry crap from time to time. We keep each other somewhat humble.

Take care,


irondad said...


Thank you for the kind words. Yes, you're right. We're all a long ways from learning it all.

Take care,


irondad said...


I'm humbled by your compliment, admiring of your attitude, and will expound more on the good feelings of mastering a skill. That is what Level 3 is about.

Take care,


Bluekat said...

'Nother good post. Reading things like this really does encourage me to not blow off some of the challenges I've set for myself. Not that I'm gonna say what those challenges are, just in case I do decide to blow them off ;-)

That was the case with ART last year. Between posts about classes, and moral support from everyone else taking the class, I went through with it, and am very glad I did.

Jack Riepe said...

Dear IronDad (Dan):

Despite passing the basic safety course, I had a real problem with leaning into turns, and looking in the direction I wanted the motorcycle to go. My turns became a joke.

But then a couple of long-distance BMW riders took me under their wing for hundreds of miles of turns... Wide ones... Tight ones... Blind ones... Decreasing radius ones... And I improved greatly studing the line and the manner in which these guys went about things.

I am far from expert, but I no longer waver, hesitate, or whack the brakes in desperation any more. I do believe in training... And carrying that training out to the street.

Fondest regards,
Jack • reep • Toad
Twisted Roads