Chick magnet (errr...until the helmet comes off of course)
During our lives, many of us are fortunate enough to experience a few seminal moments. One such moment which has had an on-going impact on my motorcycling occurred in 2003. It was a riding course, less than a day long and I thought I might mention what it covered and the impact it had on me. I've done other courses since then, including an advanced car handling course but it was that first one in 2003 which has continued to have the biggest single impact on riding to survive.
It's been mentioned before that I've been riding for ummmmm... a long time. Apart from basic training for a motorcycle learner's licence way back in 1963 (eek - THAT old????), most of the learning was through the School of Hard Knocks! Trouble is, whilst you learn a few survival techniques, you also pick up bad habits along the way.
Buying a Honda Blackbird back in the early 2000's was the catalyst for needing more skills. I'd owned a BMW K100RS since the mid 90's but was completely unprepared for just what a modern "hyperbike" is capable of. Far too easy to get yourself into trouble with the blinding acceleration and effortless top speed; not to mention controlling the sheer mass when you're on the edge. It didn't take long to realise that I was out of my depth if it was to be used anywhere near as intended. Loss of licence, handing over contents of wallet, extended hospital stay or even worse were all seriously realistic scenarios. One of the biggest problems was that everything seemed to be happening faster than I could anticipate. It was clear that better roadcraft (as opposed to other riding such as trackday skills) was of immediate importance. In other words, I was unconsciously incompetent but knew I needed help!
Enter a gentleman called Ward Fischer. I'd heard about Ward's reputation from a couple of sources. Ex-chief traffic instructor for the Ministry of Transport which included high level training of police pursuit drivers, diplomatic protection driving and so on. He was also a major contributor to formal motorcycle training programmes in the public sector. In other words, someone who really knew his stuff and was able to walk the talk. Ward had retired and set up his own motorcycle training business in the city next to where I lived at the time.
"The Man" - Ward Fischer
Somewhat nervously, a call was made to Ward and after some questioning from him about what I wanted to achieve, my riding experience to date and so on, he suggested a 1:1 session to evaluate my current public highway skills (or more accurately, lack thereof) and implement remedial action if required. A date was set and the butterflies in the stomach started...
Arriving at Ward's place on a very windy day, nerves were jangling a bit because in addition to the course itself, the Blackbird tended to move around a bit in crosswinds and I was worried about showing good control in the conditions. However, Ward was very personable and explained that as the biggest proportion of motorcycle accidents, irrespective of whether they involved more than one vehicle or not; was caused by "looking but failing to see"; he would be spending a good deal of time on situational awareness (which I've harped on about in some previous posts). He had a checklist that looked like a cockpit sheet for the Space Shuttle, breaking down observed riding into sub-categories of Scan, Identify, Predict, Decide, Execute, with a whole bunch of further sub-headings. That was frightening enough in itself!
Equipping me with helmet-to-helmet communication, he explained that he would follow on his 1200 Bandit and periodically issue instructions and comment. After telling me to head for the city's main street it was time to front up. Trying to do my best Captain Sensible impression with exaggerated looks in the mirrors and excessive indicating, we worked our way towards the city centre. Suppose he'd seen it a million times before and was therefore singularly unimpressed with the display! As we entered the main drag, Ward's voice comes over the R/T and says, "Right, I want you to give a running commentary on all the actual and potential hazards, and what you are doing to reduce risk". The bastard - no warning! My mouth seemed to be totally disconnected from eyes and brain and I was gabbling like a parrot on acid. It seemed like Ward had bribed every motorist and pedestrian in the street to put on a demo of incompetence and under severe stress, I could feel sweat not trickling; but pouring down my back. Several times, I forgot to cancel the indicator when switching lanes and felt like a complete muppet. Added to that, the Blackbird is hard going in slow, heavy traffic and the radiator fans whining away and blowing really hot air all over my legs wasn't helping either. Ego was in tatters and I had to give myself a bit of a talking to in order to avoid losing the plot entirely.
City congestion - hard work on a big sport bike
Having more or less safely avoided jaywalking pedestrians, cars pulling out on me, parked drivers opening their doors and so on, Ward gives directions to go to a particular spot in the countryside and I'm no longer operating in the supposed comfort of familiar surroundings. The road is predictability twisty, a complete mix of right-angled bends, blind corners, sweepers, adverse cambers, bends made in heaven - the whole 9 yards. The wind is fair piping through and it's hard work staying on line. Having Ward watching from behind and not saying a thing over the R/T is distinctly unsettling but at least I don't seem to be melting in my own sweat any more. At one stage, I lose sight of him entirely which is a clear sign that the mirrors haven't been used enough but a few seconds later to immense relief, he reappears.
Around an hour after setting off, Ward calls me to a halt for debriefing. "Not too bad", he says, "Just a couple of things to work on". Instant relief and able to relax for the first time! However, he proceeds to tell me that from both the running commentary I was giving and my head position, I clearly wasn't scanning far enough for potential hazards. This would lead to tears sooner or later if left uncorrected. He cites the "12 Second Rule", where you scan up and down the road and adjoining countryside, junctions, buildings etc, equivalent to the distance you'd cover in 12 seconds at the speed you're currently travelling at. He also says (note: we drive on the left in NZ) that my positioning for left hand bends is fine, but that I move over too early before the apex on right handers; limiting my options and also restricting vision through the bend. I wasn't aware of either of these important shortcomings, so there's clearly plenty to work on.
After a bit of verbal coaching on some other items, Ward asks me to re-trace our route so that he can see if I've learned anything. Now that my failings are out in the open, the riding is a lot more relaxed and enjoyable. Perhaps a bit too relaxed as I enter one sharp bend far too hot and the sphincter clamps right down onto the seat! Under normal circumstances, I'd trail a bit of brake to scrub speed but don't want to give Ward the heads-up that I've over-cooked it, so crank it well over and get away it; but feeling my face colour up under the helmet. Lots of encouraging R/T chat on this part of the journey which is great.
A few minutes later, Ward asks me to turn off down a narrow, bumpy country road and pull over. The road is arrow-straight and I can guess what's coming next. Oh shit, high speed emergency braking practice! I'm paranoid about this part of the course as I've had the odd panic stop in the past which was pretty ugly and barely controlled, and I'm worried about going down the road on my arse or over the bars! Ward correctly makes the point that I'm going to need to know just how hard I can brake as one day, that may be the difference between serious harm and getting off scot-free. I voice my misgivings and Ward says not to worry as it will be a progressive build-up in applying the skills. He then coaches me on the staged braking technique. He advises that on the first run, I should brake firmly, but not to the extent where I feel out of my depth.
Ward tells me to ride down the road for about 800 metres, then turn round and approach him at the open road speed limit of 100 km/hr. When he raises his clip board, I'm to start braking hard. Down the road and turn round, feeling nervous as I accelerate towards him. Ward's arm flies up, in with the clutch and sqeeeeze those brakes, then squeeeze even harder as instructed for proper staged braking - no snatching and locking up. Nervousness vanishes under concentration and time seems to slow down, taking in far more detail than I would have thought possible. Ears straining for a lock-up, the Blackbird simply squats down without any drama whatsoever. I've just braked harder than I've ever done before and it wasn't at all scary either.
The exercise is repeated several times to refine the technique and each time, stopping distance is progressively reduced. The force on the wrists and elbows is enormous and the wedding tackle is painfully wedged into the back of the tank on each occasion - ouch! Ward is very positive which means an awful lot to me. I must have shaved a good 10 metres or more from the first run to the last and am really impressed just how good the brakes on modern bikes are. The mental limits of a lot of people, certainly mine; are set way below the capability of the machine and this course has been outstanding in broadening my awareness. I've subsequently practised staged braking so much that it's totally second nature now. Trying it on each new bike is important as they have different characteristics under heavy braking. For example, the Blackbird mainly squats whereas the Triple lifts its rear wheel.
After chatting for a few minutes, Ward and I head back to his base where he completes the assessment. Those hours under his critical gaze are probably the most worthwhile I've ever spent on two wheels. On the 50 minute ride home with the pressure off, various parts of the body begin to ache quite badly, partly through the various exercises but also through being stiff with tension during the day. I wonder how accident statistics would decline if a course like this was made compulsory every 5 years or so for all road users. The concentration has taken its toll and after a meal, it's straight into a deep sleep in the armchair. A fitting end to a wonderful day.
Seven years later, I'm still of the opinion that acquisition of these skills should be mandatory at an earlier stage of learning to ride or drive. We might stand a chance of making a substantial dent in the road toll without it being a perennial political football. Finally, if the image of me insanely gabbling my head off into the R/T about hazard identification eludes you, take a look at this 2-part video on You Tube: Great roads, great rides pt 1 and Great roads, great rides pt2. This is an excellent example of situational awareness commentary and sometimes, if I haven't ridden for some time; talking out loud for a few minutes when setting off is helpful to dial back in. Making this technique second nature has certainly saved me from harm a few times - thanks again, Ward.
It's been mentioned before that one major difference between car drivers and motorcycle riders is that the former group think that passing a learner test qualifies you for life and the latter group believes that you never stop learning. Long may it be so! Hoping to do a California Superbike School trackday next year just for fun.
Link to later post: Speed doesn't kill, stupidity kills
Emergency braking practice :-). The Britten in NZ