Wheel alignment

Friday, 17 June 2011

Advanced rider training - reflections so far

 Off on another mission.....

My good mate Roger Fleming  (Raftnn) and I both set out to raise our riding skills this year .  We chose slightly different tuition routes, principally because having retired and wanting to put something back into the local motorcycling community, I'm undertaking formal training to become a voluntary advanced instructor (an Observer in Institute of Advanced Motoring terminology).  However, the techniques themselves are pretty much identical.

Roger has recently written an excellent review of his progress and thoughts so far (HERE) and I thought it would be useful to do the same both from a personal viewpoint and from the structured process which the IAM uses.  This approach to riding more proficiently is a strictly personal one and hopefully,  I'll avoid sounding too much like a boy scout or showing too much missionary zeal.

A quick and dirty summary of the method of training
The IAM train to a very high standard and it's used by professionals such as police riders and drivers.  They use a system called IPSGA  and without going into fine detail, here's the basics of each stage.

InformationContinuously knowing what's happening in front, behind and to the sides of you.  This means taking in what's happening, using that information to plan what you're going to do next and giving information out to other road users (signals or any other appropriate form of communication).

Position.  Putting yourself in the best possible position on the road to deal with hazards or any other events either seen or anticipated. (e.g. preparing for an overtake, positioning for a blind bend etc)

Speed.  Adjusting your speed for an impending hazard, accounting for visibility, road surface, cornering, actions of other road users, the possibility of unseen hazards etc

Gear.  For example, are you in the right gear  for good control such as engine braking in slippery conditions, or in the correct gear to allow a rapid overtake when a safe opportunity presents itself?

Acceleration.  Using the throttle to maintain appropriate progress through bends, accelerating smoothly away to regain the normal road speed under the prevailing conditions.

Each stage is dependent on the one before.  If road conditions/events change, new information needs to be considered and you re-enter the system at an appropriate phase, continuing in sequence. At first reading, it all sounds very formal and a bit anal but it's very easy to apply with a bit of practice.  The system must be flexible in response to actual road conditions.  During observed rides, the examiner has a detailed checklist applicable to these stages so that you are assessed against them in considerable detail.  At the end of the ride, the examiner will discuss your performance against the criteria and what aspects if any, you need to work on before the next stage.

That's all the description of the process I'm going to give at present; it's simply setting the scene for reflecting on how it's all been going so far.  The two posts previously made about the observed rides I've done so far are more to do with what happened rather than how I felt, so now it's time to share the latter bit; tough as it is for a guy!

Mind Games!
All the stages of IPSGA are well-covered in the two IAM-recommended books HERE and HERE.  Because observed rides were already scheduled, I  read them exam-cramming style rather than at a leisurely pace. The reading was followed up shortly afterwards with practice rides, trying to implement all I'd read.  HUGE MISTAKE! Doing it that way simply put me into overload.  I wasn't enjoying the rides and made too many mistakes.  On subsequent rides, I stuck to doing one or two things well until they became habitual, then a few more and and so on.

At the outset, fear of the unknown was a bit overwhelming - not knowing how I was going to be assessed, what the examiners would be like, road and weather conditions and so on.  All of them contributed to some stomach-churning moments. After the first check ride and having got through it with just a few improvement recommendations rather than a massive across the board fail, it was possible to relax; at least from fear of the unknown.

What hasn't gone away is the pressure from fear of failure although it has eased a little as I pass each stage. That fear isn't because of what others might say or think, it's simply an internal compulsion to do well.  Can't honestly say what causes it but ever since school it's been the same where something challenging is involved. Nature vs. nurture? Not a clue, but although it's not as bad as maybe a couple of decades ago, it's still present to some extent.  You need a bit of pressure to perform well but it could be quite easy to let it get out of hand.  I'd be interested in other's views on this aspect.

Where are the big improvements to date?
Summing it up simply, riding consistently well for much longer periods than in earlier times.  I'd previously ride well in bursts but concentration would lapse at certain times due to external or mental distractions, perhaps a bit laziness thrown in too.  I'm not there yet, but the IPSGA system of riding really aids concentration.  Initially, it soaked up all my riding time thinking about it but with practice, it allows you to ride well almost automatically whilst an area of the brain is still free for other stuff and most importantly; enjoying the ride!  For example, in touring mode, there's time to take in the countryside whilst the IPSGA tools are working for you on another level.  I think that's what advanced riding is all about - self-awareness and safe riding to a high standard all of the time.  In a recent post on a practice ride, I mentioned that for the remaining 80-odd km home, I cut loose and ummm.... pressed on a bit!  Although speeds in the twisties were higher than normal, I felt perfectly at ease because the techniques recently learned were still governing the way I rode.  Does that make sense?  Maybe not very well explained, but hope you get the gist.

In terms of one specific improvement, one definite area is being far more aware of what's going on behind me.  Having had bikes with serious performance for the last couple of decades, you don't get passed all that often and there's a tendency to direct your focus forward at the expense of what's going on behind.  A silly thing to do given that circumstances can change so quickly.  My use of mirrors in combination with shoulder checks/lifesavers into the blind spots has improved out of sight compared with a few months ago.

These are just a few random thoughts which have come up on the journey so far.  They aren't a comprehensive sum of what I've learned which has been immense and will hopefully continue.  In fact, it's the continuous improvement aspect of IAM training which I really like - it stops back-sliding!  In addition, it's also reinforcing the big difference between an experienced rider and an advanced rider.

More to come, but most importantly, I'm loving the experience (now)!

My Blackbird with active volcanoes in the background


  1. Geoff
    The other aspect of positioning is what it tells other road users of your intentions. Its too bad that the average road user does not appreciate this..for instance, as observed from my push bike 2 days ago in sunny Knutsford: a white van moving over to the right means an impending sharp left turn!
    Keep up all the good work and think of me riding through the rain to Calais in 3 hours time!, N

  2. GReat post Geoff, I can so relate.....funny that. Your comment aboout one or two things at a time to work on hits the nail on the head.

    I to am loving the experince.

  3. Good read Geoff. After a check ride IAM style your Observer will give you a MAX of 3 things to work on up till next CR for exactly the same reason as to your findings.....overload. Interesting about your pressure of not failing, I feel exactly the same something I will beat myself up with until I finish that particular project......successfully. Stand back and realise thats why your boss picked you in the first place....he was the clever one!

  4. Geoff:

    Your comments about what is happening behind makes me believe that the best thing you can do is to ride a small displacement scooter . These riders are painfully aware of their limited speed and constantly scan their rears for upcoming traffic. I would say they are looking into their mirrors more often than looking ahead. I think "most" are more aware of their situation than riders of more powerful bikes where riders only look ahead.

    Riding the Wet Coast

  5. Nikos:
    Completely agree with you. If other road users knew each other's intentions, there would be no need for advanced training :-). Hope that the Calais run was both safe and enjoyable, and that you have plenty of duty-free in your panniers!

    Knew you'd understand! I think the first stages were tough simply coming to grips with it all but once once it becomes natural, it's great.

    Thanks for understanding! The trick is not being too obsessive about it but sometimes, I think that engineers can be their own worst enemy with obsessions. Jennie sometimes jokes (partly, I think)that I border on high-functioning autism!

    How right you are - I was like that on a scooter in Rarotonga. Even worse on a bicycle without mirrors! Unfortunately though, scooter behaviour in towns sometimes leaves a bit to be desired too, certainly in NZ.

  6. Interesting read. I guess with so much input you go in overload, and develop the desire to make every move the perfect move instead of letting it flow. I am sure I would (and I am not an engineer).
    The increased awareness seems somewhat scary, and Bob is right when he says that scooter riding does its share of taking you to the next level of understanding one's own vulnerability. I hope that besides proper training and exercising in empty parking lots I am about to grow an eighth sense for the cager's stupidity.

    Let it ride, Geoff!

  7. Hi Sonja!
    I will admit that at one stage, I wondered whether it was taking away my enjoyment of riding and in truth, it did for a short while but now I've got over the hump of putting too much pressure on myself, it's all good and I'm really enjoying it; especially the heightened awareness. (or an instinct for cager stupidity as you succinctly put it).

    BTW, the next post is going to be specially for you :-)

  8. Hi Geoff, I believe I understand your experiences with a "more spirited ride, but enjoying it more because of the training". I think it boils down to, you are gaining more skills and muscle memory and approach to the road and riding. Therefore, you aren't "flailing" through twisties like before when you were absolutely having to think about proper execution. Execution and enjoyment are completely different between learning and skilled. (Notice I said skilled and not experienced.) At least, that is how it has been for me. I remember when 45 mph was too fast on country roads for me to look around and enjoy the scenery because I was so focused on execution. Oilburner would ask me if I was enjoying the ride and I would have to tell him no...because I was focused on learning how to ride! LOL.

    And are you going to have any friends to ride with one you complete IAM? Or are they all going to be too mindful that you will be critiquing them on the road? ;)


  9. Geoff,
    Nice post. I identify on some things you bring up. For example, the correct gear for the occasion. I've been experimenting with this lately. In the past I've been reluctant to get the rpm too high. In a car it's okay but the small displacement motorcycle motors seem to really scream. It wasn't until I tried keeping it in a lower gear and then I realized I was missing the fun and control available at the higher power band of rpm.

    Another point you make is riding well in bursts. I seem to suffer from this and would like to keep it all together more often. I think you're right, concentration is the key as well as relaxing. Thank you Geoff! BTW, that last shot is a keeper! The first one of you is not bad either. :-)

  10. Hi Lori!
    You've summed it up beautifully!

    I don't know whether you had your tongue planted firmly in your cheek about having friends to ride with but it's actually crossed my mind more than once! Not that they won't ride with me but will they think I'm watching them as you point out. Fortunately, they're both good riders and great mates so I don't think it will be an issue at all. Because we live a decent distance away from each other, it's always a great reunion when we catch up!

    Hi Mike!
    Pleased you've experienced some of the same things. Most people who have only driven on 4 wheels seem to thing there's nothing left to learn when they've passed their test whereas on 2 wheels, most people (eventually) realise you never stop learning.

    Glad you liked the photo. Taken at about 1000 metres altitude in The Tongariro National Park. It was soooo cold up there!

  11. System overload eh? I hear that. It's always easier to break things up into smaller chunks. Hard to do sometimes when you just want to hurry up and absorb all this great new stuff. I can relate to that.

  12. Hi Kari!
    Yup - gotta stop taking the whole process quite so seriously. I'm a bit more relaxed now than when first starting out as confidence grows. I've slowed the process up a touch now that winter is here which will help a little. Feel free to growl at me if stress shows through on future posts!

  13. I, too, centered in on looking for opportunities to practice a couple of skills on a given ride. And, it's "Gotta' get it in the bones!" Practice until it becomes "habitual". Very good choice of words.

    Thanks for the share. As, always your enthusiasm comes through and is infectious. Great post.

  14. Keith,
    Yep, I was stupid trying to take on too much at once, but that's typical of me :-(. Let's hope I can take the next steps at a more relaxed pace!

  15. It's so satisfying to find out what we're truly capable of, isn't it?

    Like a couple of others who commented, concentrating on one or two things at a time is a critical key.

    Here's another subtle thing to think about.

    I catch an undertone of "I'm afraid to fail". Or, "God, I hope I don't screw this up". That's meant in a good way, I might add. I know where you're coming from and respect it.

    The trick is to think of "riding successfully" rather than "not failing".

    Like I say, it's very subtle. However, once you get into that more positive mindset it makes a world of difference.

    Congratulations on everything so far!

  16. Thanks for the nice words and excellent tip Dan!
    I don't think it was an undertone, haha, more like a pretty public admission! I think the more riding tests I do, the more confident and relaxed I'm getting.

    I've been thinking a bit more about the obsession with "not failing" and think I might have identified a trigger in my adult life. I've always been ok academically but since graduating, hadn't sat a formal academic exam until just over 15 years ago. I was far too casual in my preparation and failed by 3 marks. I can't begin to tell you how much that hurt because it was entirely my fault. I was determined that something like that would never happen again. Studied like crazy, re-sat it 6 months later and got the 2nd highest mark in NZ. Even that hasn't wiped the memory of the first attempt. Thinking back, I'd lay good money that event has had an on-going contribution. We all have a cross to bear of some kind, sigh....

    Thanks again for your comments!