by David L. Hough

Recently, there have been a number of nasty motorcycle accidents that have generated a significant  buzz on the Internet. Many riders are understandably  shocked when an experienced rideróeven a trained motorcycle officeróbites the dust. Accidents and fatalities are a wake up call to everyone that motorcycling is a serious business with potentially fatal consequences. Becoming a skilled rider is not just a matter of putting down the miles and assuming youíll absorb something from the wind in your face. Rather, itís a long, hard education, peppered with mistakes. The more you can learn from others, the less likely you are to have to repeat the same mistakes. Some riders have to get a personal lesson from a seasoned rider.

Fearless Phil

Fearless Phil was one of those "take no prisoners" motorcyclists who could ride at speeds far in excess of what most of us were willing to risk. But looking at Phil and his bike, it was easy to misunderstand. Neither his tatty old airhead BMW nor his riding gear gave a clue about his skills. Most of the time, Phil was content to ride his own ride, but once in a while someone would beg for a lesson, and he would oblige. Weíre not talking a training course here--Philís "curriculum" didnít include riding around cones in a parking lot.

One day at a restaurant midway up the Sunshine Coast north of Vancouver, an arrogant young rider began to brag about his exploits- with occasional disparaging remarks about old guys and old bikes- his comments obviously intended to insult Phil.

Phil sipped his coffee quietly as he considered whether the arrogant young rider was asking for a lesson. After a few more insulting comments, Phil decided to oblige. As the younger rider strutted out to his street-legal roadracer, Phil ambled out and asked apologetically if he could ride along. Young Mr. Arrogant sneered "What makes you think an old fart like you on that old slug can keep up with me?"

With that, Mr. Arrogant zipped away, with Phil in pursuit. Phil pretended to have a tough time staying with Mr. Arrogant for a few miles, but eventually pulled off a surprise pass in a tight turn, gripping his handlebars in mock nervousness, chin pushed out over the headlight. Mr. Arrogant rocketed out of the corner so fast he could barely get his front wheel back on the pavement for the next turn.

A few corners later, Phil wobbled up on the outside, passing Mr. Arrogant again. It was the ultimate put down, this old geezer on a tired airhead, passing a macho young rider on a high-zoot, four-banger with wide-oval tires and ram-air induction. Mr. Arrogant really put the hammer down, blowing by Phil so fast it seemed as if the old guy had slammed on the brakes.

In fact, the "old guy" had slammed on the brakes, knowing this tricky road like the back of his glove. Phil had planned his pass just prior to a nasty decreasing-radius, off-camber downhill left corkscrew. Too hot and too late realizing what was happening, Mr. A snapped the throttle closed and jammed on the rear brake, quickly highsiding himself into a snap roll. Phil eased to a stop as the shiny bike cartwheeled off the road and splashed down into the swamp, its ram-air tubes swallowing a full gulp of non-compressible water. As Mr. A clambered to his feet spluttering mud and skunk cabbage, Phil shouted. "Boy, thatís some curve, eh? You want me to go for a wrecker?"

Speed is so intertwined with our images of motorcycling that most of us canít help but evaluate our self-worth based on who is the faster rider. The trouble is, the road can bite you seriously, even if you werenít being tutored by someone like Fearless Phil.

Learning

How do we learn to ride fast, anyway? Well, some riders start by taking a course at their local training site. A small minority have studied under Reg Pridmore, Keith Code, and others. But most of us just go out riding and gradually keep bumping up our speed to the edge of the envelope until we either scare ourselves silly, or have a nasty crash. Some riders buy bigger and bigger bikes, assuming that bigger must equal faster.

Somewhere along the line, most of us gradually figure out that skill, knowledge and technique are more important than horsepower. I always admired Mike ("The Bike") Hailwood, because he made racing on the complex Isle of Man circuit look as easy as touring, whether on a big race bike or a little 250. Mike didnít even scrape his knees on the tarmac. Maybe your personal role model is a race winner such as Doug Chandler, or Eric Bostrom, or Nicky Hayden. Or maybe you look back towards the veteran racers like Wayne Rainey, Jim Redman, Giacomo Agostini, or Geoff Duke. Those guys were all fast on the tracks.

Track vs. Public Roads

When weíre trying to acquire high speed skills, hereís the rub: the rules are completely different for riding on the track than for riding on the public roads. Consider that on a closed track, everyone is riding in the same direction, everyone has qualified to be there, the machines they are riding have been meticulously prepared and inspected, and their sticky racing tires have been warmed. The racecourse surface is prepared and inspected. There are no grated bridge decks, railroad tracks, patches of loose gravel, pools of diesel oil, or plops of cow poop; no aggressive Labradors, wild deer, alligators, wandering bicyclists, or farm tractors. And if a problem does occur, corner workers wave warning flags.

Out on the public roads, weíre on our own. We must expect a wide variety of surface and traffic hazards. And weíre usually just as clueless about a particular road as Mr. Arrogant was, not sure where the road goes, where our tires need to be, or what the limits are. In August, 1998, two motorcyclists were killed on a Sunday morning canyon ride in Colorado. They were just cruising along through Boulder Canyon enjoying the scenery when a 25-year-old hotshoe zipping along the other way crossed the double yellow in a blind curve and slammed into the oncoming bike. The 30-year-old motorcyclist was decapitated. His female passenger died later at the hospital.

Letís put things in perspective. Even winning roadracers will admit that public roads are more dangerous than the track. A number of famous racers have died trying to go fast in events such as La Carrera, held on public roads. Every year, during TT week on the Isle of Man, more "spectators" are killed than racers, as the spectators get on their own bikes after the race and try to emulate the racers when the circuit is clogged with normal traffic. Mike The Bike was a master of road racing on Man, but died in a stupid motorway accident on his way to work in Birmingham. The important lesson in all of this is that when we are riding on public roads, we need to be just as serious as those professional racers, whether weíre just motoring along at a relaxed pace smelling the sage, or dicing with our buddies.

Distance Divided By Time

The first lesson about riding fast is that "speed" is simply distance divided by time. If you could sustain warp 9 on your roadburner for four hours without having to stop for a chat with Officer Friendly, your average speed would be 90 mph, and you would cover 360 miles. But if the road takes a bite out of your crankcase at mile 359, and you spend the next two hours scabbing an epoxy patch over the hole, your average speed drops to 59.83 mph. And if you high-sided while not wearing a good crash suit, and manage to hobble out of the ER swathed in bandages after only 12 hours, your average speed drops to 22.4 mph. That other rider who droned along at 55 for 6 hours on his old BMW airhead is now twice as "fast" as you. So the first tactic for riding swiftly is to know how to avoid accidents.

Avoiding Accidents

Obviously, riding a motorcycle on public roads requires skillful control of the bike to make it do what we need it to do. If you havenít actually practiced your "slow, look, lean & roll" cornering calisthenics, or mastered quick stops from 60 to 0 without sliding the tires, or figured out how to cross an edge trap without falling, you most likely will not be capable of avoiding an accident.  Such control skills are a prerequisite to safe faster riding. When the road reaches up to bite you, your habits will take over instantly. There wonít be any time to pull special avoidance tactics out of the back of your brain. Whatever skills you practice as you ride along will be the skills you resort to when the chips are down.

It  might even be suggested that if you allow yourself to be suckered into a "killer corner" while riding over your head there may be nothing you can do to avoid the bite. And letís of course note that inattention, distraction, intoxication, or poor judgment can send you cartwheeling into the swamp just as easily as a lesson from Fearless Phil. The more you assume about what you canít see, the more youíre asking to get bit. Mr. Arrogant didnít crash simply because he was riding quickly: he crashed because he didnít keep his speed within his sight distance. By the time he realized the curve was tightening faster than his bike could turn, it was too late.

So, you need to be skillful at controlling the bike, but a good portion of your motorcycling education needs to be focused on mental skills ("strategies") for keeping the risks within your acceptable limits.

Letís Stop At The Start

When we think of "high speed" motorcycle accidents the image that pops to mind is of a macho rider like Mr. Arrogant, overcooking the turn and plowing a brief but exciting furrow into the canyon, leaving a trail of plastic bits. Yes, there are lots of accidents that happen that way. But the most likely "high speed" accident is a collision with an automobile, usually at one of those boring old urban intersections down in the valley, at speeds of merely 35 or 40 mph. So, one key tactic for motorcycling is to master maximum braking. A motorcyclist canít afford sloppy braking because sliding the tires can cause a crash. You should be able to pull off a quick stop in curves or on hills, riding either solo or two-up, on dry pavement or in the rain, and with or without ABS, interlocked, integrated, or power brake systems.

Bear in mind that a motorcycle will stop from 30 mph in just about half the distance it will stop from 40 mph. So, one primary tactic for quick stops is to squeeze on a little front brake approaching any suspicious intersection, both to prepare for a quick stop, and to scrub off 10 mph.

Cornering Skills

Although a motorcyclistís most likely accident is a collision with another vehicle, there are lots of crashes on those twisty canyon roads, especially downhill left-handers. We just donít have any comprehensive statistics on todayís "single vehicle" accidents. After all, there hasnít been a serious motorcycle accident study in the USA since 1978.

But, based on what Iíve seen, I suggest three primary sins committed by todayís riders: failure to master countersteering, failure to immediately get on the brakes when sight distance closes up, and riding after drinking.

Look, itís pushing on the grips that makes the bike lean. If youíre having trouble putting your tires exactly where you want, the solution is countersteering. For years countersteering has been described as pushing one grip, say pushing on the left grip to turn left. But some riders stiff arm the upper grip without realizing what they are doing. So now I suggest pushing both grips toward the direction you want to lean.

And if you lean over into a blind corner at speed, assuming there are no hazards in the road, youíre slipping your own neck into the noose. For those who intend to still be riding a few years from now, I suggest the cardinal rule: always keep speed within your sight distance. In other words, you should always be able to bring the bike to a complete stop within the road you can see. When sight distance closes up, get on the brakes, NOW.

For whatever reason, too many motorcyclists still donít understand the danger of riding after drinking. A couple of beers may not put your BAC up into illegal range, but even a small quantity of alcohol degrades judgment, vision, and reaction time. Approximately 50% of motorcycle fatalities involve a rider who has been drinking. My suggestion: donít drink before you ride. Save the booze until youíve parked the bike for the night.

For A Quick Tune-up

If you would like to gain some accident-avoidance strategies and check out your control skills, consider signing up for a training class. The MSF Experienced RiderCourse (ERC) is a good introduction to accident-avoidance strategies. The cost is typically $50, and you ride your own bike. Instructors are trained and certified, and can help you fix any bad habits you might have. OK, if saving money is important to you, completion of an MSF course also qualifies you for an insurance discount with many underwriters.

The ERC "parking lot" maneuvers might seem to be too slow to learn tactics for the twisties, but they really are an excellent introduction to accurate motorcycle control. Remember, crashing ruins your speed, and the ERC exercises are an easy way to improve your cornering and braking skills.

MSF Training Hotline

MSF courses are offered by independent training sites in most states. To locate a training site anywhere in the USA, call the training hotline (800) 446-9227, and give the computer your postal zip code location. The computer will quickly search in widening rings for training sites, starting with those closest to your zip code. If you canít find a course in your area within a reasonable time frame, check neighboring states.

Other Schools

Once youíve passed the ERC, you might think about one of the schools that provide instruction in higher speed skills. Various schools are offered in different parts of the country, including:

Kieth Codeís California Superbike School, PO Box 3601 Glendale CA 91221
Telephone (818) 841-7661; www.superbikeschool.com

Fastrack Riders (Willow Springs Raceway)
Telephone (661) 256-8660 or www.fastrackriders.com

The independent training schools arenít associated with or certified by the MSF; so the MSF hotline wonít help you find them. If you know of a track school that youíve found helpful, give us the name, location, and phone, so we can pass along the information to other riders. And if youíve taken one or more of the "racetrack" schools but havenít yet taken the ERC, that ought to be high on your agenda. Remember, itís traffic on those mundane city streets thatís most likely to bite you.

 

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