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Wednesday 20 April 2011

Book Review: Proficient Motorcycling, 2nd Edition. David L Hough

I've never undertaken a motorcycling book review before so wasn't really sure how to start. Let's begin with a photo which might give a clue to my overall thoughts about this book!

Tags, tags and more tags!

I'd like to think I'm a reasonably proficient motorcyclist after 4+ decades around bikes but that raises the question of what sort of rider should I be reviewing it on behalf of?  Would it matter whether the rider was experienced or not?  In the end, I started reading it from cover to cover and every time I found a sentence, paragraph or whole chapter which said to me, "Hey, that's pretty important", I stuck a self-adhesive tag close by.  By now, you'll get the picture that this is one heck of a good book and it's not stretching things to say that if it was given away with every motorcycle sold, motorcycling accident statistics might be a whole lot lower than they are now.

Even though you might have been around bikes a long time, the book demonstrates a couple of things....

- There's always something new to learn.
- The brain leaks like a sieve and the book is a fantastic refresher for stuff that you'd forgotten.  Use it or lose it!

David Hough has been riding bikes, talking about bikes and writing about bikes forever.  His 70+ years of age and over a million miles on two wheels make him a person who is seriously worth listening to.  Before we get into the book content, a word about his style.  There are other good books about motorcycling proficiency but some of them are a bit technical or evangelical which can be hard going depending on how you learn best, or what your current level of experience is.  David's approach is both rare and extremely effective.  Let's take his section on braking as an example.....

The first thing he does is gets your buy-in straight away by giving real-world examples of the consequences of failing to use good braking principles, often citing his own mistakes or those he's witnessed in simple, uncomplicated language.  It immediately takes you to your own shortcomings and grabs your attention.  David then moves to the theory of braking, aided with photographs, sketches and again, uncomplicated language.  He then shifts to the proper techniques for braking in a wide range of environments, how and why they work and even sets you practice exercises!  And whilst he's dispensing this wisdom, David does it with gentle humour and is never condescending.   As an example of his humour getting the message over, he's having a discussion with a young rider who is recovering from a broken leg from a collision with a car.  The rider was outraged that the other person didn't have right of way which reminded David of a little ditty  his father used to say:

He was right, dead right, as he sped along
but he's just as dead as if he'd been wrong.

When read in conjunction with the detailed advice he gives, it's a powerful message to hone your situational awareness skills.  So is his comment, "You're only paranoid if they AREN'T out to get you"!

The other thing about this book which I really like is that each topic is treated in a holistic manner.  Not only are improved technical riding skills covered but the psychology of situations and their importance in getting a good outcome are superbly covered with the aid of both photos and clear explanations.  Being aware of your surroundings is a vital and recurring theme but your emotional reaction and the reactions of other road users to various everyday situations also has a major impact on outcomes. Not reacting adversely to a perceived slight by another road user and getting distracted from the task of staying safe is indeed wise counsel - and too often ignored!

Your job is to get out of the way and get over your indignation!

Everything in this book is valuable but if I may pick on some additional examples which have a personal connection, they also serve to demonstrate the tremendous breadth of the topics covered.  These sections are extremely detailed and I'd be willing to bet that most readers will learn a heap of stuff about the effects of riding in adverse conditions, how to recognise you're in trouble and what to do about it.  People are a lot more susceptible to risk than they perhaps realise.

Physiological effects of heat and cold on motorcyclists.
Some years ago, I was on a weekend ride with friends in extremely hot conditions.  I knew about dehydration risks from a largely academic viewpoint so drank what I thought was an adequate amount of water, but in reality, nowhere nearly enough and began to feel a little unwell.  That evening when we got to our destination, a beer and a delicious seafood dinner were setting me up for further grief which didn't appear until arriving home the following day.  Dehydration, exacerbated by eating shellfish triggered a dose of gout in a big toe.  I'd never previously experienced gout and I wouldn't wish the pain on anyone.  Our family doctor explained that dehydration and often in combination with seafood is a fairly common cause.  Had I read this book at that time, I'd have certainly been much better informed about some of the real risks of overheating and dehydrating.  The impact of cold and wet are also excellent.

Riding a road bike on dirt.
Sooner or later, most of us will find ourselves on a section of dirt, either from a wrong turn or road works that make a moto-cross track look tame by comparison!  Growing up in urbanised areas of the UK, I didn't have the early off-road riding experiences that many of my fellow Kiwi and Aussie riding mates seemed to get as a matter of course.  I owned dirt bikes after emigrating to NZ but by then, I didn't bounce too well!  Consequently, I've always been nervous about significant dirt riding on a road bike, especially with big sports tyres and loaded for a few days away.

That sinking feeling......

David discusses the topic of riding a road bike on dirt both from a practical and theoretical viewpoint so that you clearly understand what's happening and why, and what course of action to take.  I'm sure it's going to pay off in spades from a personal viewpoint!

Group rides
About 10 years ago, some of my regular riding partners and I met some other riders at the remote coastal village of Kawhia and decided to ride the 40-odd km of largely blind corners and narrow road back to civilisation with them.  I won't go into detail but their riding was so appalling that every other road user on that stretch was put at extreme risk of serious harm and we pulled out after a handful of km.  It was that ride which made me gun-shy of riding in large groups.  On the same theme, we live a few scant minutes away from a stretch of road called the Coromandel Loop, one of the most popular roads for bikers in the north island.  It's a safe bet that on a fair percentage of large group rides on the Loop, it will result in one or more people decking their bike.  As a result of past experiences, the only people I'll group ride with are half a dozen or so mates whom I've ridden with since time immemorial.

The relevance of  the paragraph above to Proficient Motorcycling is that it covers group rides in huge detail, including the organisation and dynamics of such events as well as a fascinating insight into the psychology of what can happen on such rides.  Some people love organised rides, others steer well clear.  I'm in the latter category but at least I know in more detail why!  For those in the other camp, reading this section of the book will definitely help you to stay safe and organise much better rides if that task ever falls your way.

It's a job to judge whether I've done Proficient Motorcycling any real justice in the main part of the review but let me say that if I was going to recommend just one single book to a rider, either new or experienced, it's going to be this one.  Both the content and style lend themselves to an easy understanding of each topic, as does the practical advice.  Going back to an earlier comment, experienced riders need skills refreshment as much as learner riders benefit from upskilling and the book will help immensely in this regard.  I'll confess that I'd heard of David Hough a few years ago simply as a prominent American Motorcycle author but had never read any of his work until our recent collaborative posts on this blog about ageing riders.  The most honest and contrite way to sum it up is that I'm very pleased to have corrected that omission.

One final comment for the benefit of the part of the world that drives on the left.......  the photos, sketches and narrative completely transcend whether you drive on the left or right hand side of the road so don't worry.

Proficient Motorcycling - the Ultimate Guide to Riding Well, 2nd Edition*
David E Hough
Bowtie Press
ISBN 978-1-933958-35-4

* Includes a CD of additional motorcycling information

Have a wonderful and safe Easter everyone!


  1. I've been reading that book right now. I picked up a copy from him after one of his talks at last summers BMW rally. It was too heavy to haul around on my trips so I picked up an electronic copy that I've been reading on my phone and iPad while sitting in airports. I agree that it is an excellent book and enjoyable reading.


  2. Looking forward to reading the book Geoff, I also not keen on group rides, and when I do I always keep a very large following distance. Just dont trust some guys abilties.

    These are the kind of books you keep by the bed, and even after you have read them, the information contained is always great and you always get some thing out form it no matter how many times you read it.

  3. I have this book, and one other. It's one of those books you can return to over and over again, and learn something new everytime. I don't have a motorsport history myself, coming into riding with only a handful of rides (pillion) in my arsenal of experience, and no dirt biking. One of the things I like is that he explains things very well, for us newbie riders, including some of the physics that go into how a bike works, how it handles in various situations, and why. Yet plenty of good advice for more experienced riders as well. Actually I can't remember which of his books said what, I may be mixing them up, but both are excellent, and as a resource both are great.

  4. Group rides can always be a bit of a problem. There are a select few riders that I do not mind riding with but every now and then we seem to pick up an idiot who is well worth avoiding. (Our summer Friday night rides are an example).

    One charity ride which I have supported over the years (The Coast to Coast) always brings out the idiots and after a senseless double fatality I skipped a few years. I'm back into them again as it is a good charity but I tend to leave the lunch break early so that I ride the more treacherous part of the ride while the idiots are still parked up. Rain on the ride has also helped over the past couple of years as these same riders don't tend to turn up (perhaps confirming their lack of skill).

    I also cannot understand the attitude of some riders when the talk about the Coromandel Loop. The terrible incidents in the past seem to be funny to them and they accept them as part of the risk of riding. I do not go riding thinking that maybe if I ride hard I might come off - I go riding concentrating on riding safely and getting home. A ride that ends in an ambulance or hearse is not a ride, it is a stuff-up.

    Sorry for the rant! I need to go for a ride...

  5. Richard,
    I was recently introduced to the benefits of an iPad as a travel reading tool by fellow blogger Raftnn. I see that I'll have to enter the 21st century before too long!

    Coming your way soon mate. There's a lot of great stuff to refresh yourself with in it.

    Yep, David is a rare writer and can connect at all levels. I've just received the UK Police Rider's Handbook to Better Motorcycling which is required reading for my advanced instructor's course. It's clearly packed with wonderful info, but not written in anywhere near the easily-absorbed style of Proficient Motorcycling.

    No need for an apology mate, what you're saying is right on the money. I lost respect for a lot of Kiwi Biker forum members after those 2 members died on the loop a few years back. They were being eulogised as great riders and in response, someone mentioned that whilst it was an utter tragedy, a mistake by at least one of them cost 2 lives. The adverse reaction to that comment whilst in part understandable, showed a complete disregard for the truth of the matter. And therein lies the problem...

    Good comments, thanks Andrew!

  6. Geoff

    I've just ordered it and hope mine comes with lots of yellow stick tabs too!

    IPSGA? Have you seen the new IAM handbook too? It has recently been republished so we don't see pictures of Ford Anglias anymore. This tells you where to do life savers and how to approach roundabouts etc. the IAM way. So you can pass the test. It also mentions, wait for it, "countersteering" that mystic action that we all do without knowing it (almost).

    Just done my first long bike trip (for me) this season to Durham - the Yorkshire Dales would have been glorious apart from all the bikers out...Anyway the GS still works after me servicing and overhauling it this winter!

    Happy Easter, N

  7. Yo' Nikos!

    Don't be a tight arse - buy your own stickies. (Me being two-faced, having "liberated" those on display from the office stationery cupboard pre-retirement).

    IPSGA indeed! Haven't got the new IAM handbook yet as still waiting for associate membership to be confirmed. However, have been enjoying the "Advanced Biker" videos on YouTube. We call them Shoulder Checks in the Antipodes. Life Savers are imported confectionery from the UK.

    Learned countersteering when I had the BMW K100RS. Had to use it to steer anything other than a shallow arc!

    Never did the Yorkshire Dales on a bike, only by car. Trust other riders to ruin it for you. Bet they rode Gixxers and had little willies.

    Enjoy your great weather and look out for the loonies in cages over the long weekend!

  8. Geoff

    Small willies indeed! Although the smallest willy award goes to the driver of a Ford Focus ST (Stupid tit?) who took great exception to being overtaken by my leading companion from the Beemer club....

    I am told that shoulder checks are different to life savers - personally I have fitted better mirrors for most of it!

    We are spending the weekend down sarf in Windsor to visit old friends and haunts of mine.


  9. Nikos!

    Oh dear, how sad - a Ford Focus. In NZ, I don't know whether Boy Racers in souped-up Jappas are worse or Holden Commodore/Ford Falcon GTS/GT owners of more advanced years. Both groups take offence readily.

    Hmmm... thank you for that, must see if I can find out the differences.

    Windsor eh? The Duke in residence then? ;-)

  10. Great review Geoff - much appreciated.

    I wrote a long response that included some of my analysis of one group a accidents - only too have Blogger crash as I went to confirm!!

    Another time.

    Cheers Jules.

  11. Thanks Jules - sorry about the blogger crash!

    Currently working my way through the Police Riders Handbook, mandatory reading for the course I'm doing. Excellent but would be very hard to absorb if you haven't got a reasonable level of experience first.

    Safe riding over Easter!

  12. Nice review Geoff! I bought this book before I got my Vespa a few years ago. I read it cover-to-cover before I got my permit and endorsement. I think it's required reading and I too keep re-reading and referring to it. The first time I read it I read as though my life depended on the information it has. I think that approach helps the information stick in the old bean better. Thank you Geoff!

    Have a Happy Easter!

  13. Thanks Mike!
    That's a really nice way of describing David's book and it may well have helped to keep you from harm! Totally agree with respect to his style.

    And very best wishes for Easter to you too!

  14. In regards to all the sticky notes:

    Perhaps more to readers than to you, but it can be overwhelming and counterproductive to try to learn it all at once. Sure, read the book through to have a big picture in mind. Whatever will stick will stick.

    Then go back and progressively work on skills. One this ride, one next, and so on. Not that any will be mastered in one ride. Simply that it is an orderly approach.

    All our rides should have a purpose, anyway, in my humble opinion. Why not make the purpose one of honing a skill?

    Thanks for sharing the review. You seem to have whetted appetites which is what a good review does, right?

  15. Dan:
    Couldn't agree more! That's why I flag stuff so that I can go over it again later. I mentioned in the Advanced Riding Masterclass post comments about the UK Police motorcyclists handbook which is one of the required texts. Although a superb document, it's written in a pretty dry style so I've given it a once-over for the big picture you mention and now it's time to absorb the detail and again as you say, practice, practice, practice.

    Thanks so much for your comments - I'm doing battle right now on a Kiwi bike forum trying to generate interest with respect to upskilling.

  16. Geoff,

    Thanks for suggesting Hough's book. I'm reading it now, and have suggested it to a friend. I enjoy reading your blog.

  17. Thanks for getting in touch Steve and glad you are enjoying the book. David is working on 2 new books at present. I've had the privilege of seeing some of the draft material for book 1 and it's going to be exceptional.


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