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Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Starting to join the dots....

Unlike St Paul on the Road to Damascus, there has been no blinding light to set me on the road to more competent riding - I'm not smart enough for starters to pick up on anything quickly.  It was simply a creeping realisation that were gaps in my riding ability which increased risk. Most regular readers will be well aware of the path I chose to correct this earlier in the year.  When a fellow Kiwi bike enthusiast, Ron Prichard, recently lent me a motorcycle book I'd not heard of; I initially came close to mailing it back with a neutrally-worded note of thanks.  (A euphemism for not initially understanding a bloody word of it for the first dozen or so pages).  This is the book in question:

ISBN 978-1-884313-75-2

Dr. Berndt Spiegel is a psychologist, has lectured at university and has his own consulting company.  It was his academic writing style about psychological theory which which initially put me off , but the fact that his personal blurb said that he was an enthusiastic motorcyclist persuaded me to persevere and I'm really glad that I did.  It's not an easy read.  Some of his chapters required a "once over lightly" approach to get the gist of it, followed by a slower, in-depth second go.  This isn't a book review as such - it would be very difficult to review properly in such a short post.  However, it's the first motorcycling book I've read which has succinctly explained the reasons behind comments about riding which a lot of bloggers have raised in their posts, including me.  I suppose you could call it "joining the dots" of what we might have thought were unconnected observations about the way we ride, but in fact have a common root.  What I'll do is give a few examples and see if it triggers anything - certainly did for me. The title of the book could well have been called "The Top Three Inches", referring to the impact of the human brain on riding skills.

Let's take that that phenomenon that I've always called "Zen riding", where a rider seems to be on rails and in an almost detached state.  The normal thought is, "Why can't I ride a lot more frequently like this than I actually do?"  Conversely, why is it that when you're super-eager to get out for a ride, you often end up riding quite poorly and stuffing things up?  Dr Spiegel explains very clearly and in a lot of depth how some relatively repetitive tasks are much more effectively carried out at a subconscious level.  By way of example, he cites the simultaneous tasks of balancing the throttle, changing gear, braking and other "routine" components of riding.  Where it tends to go wrong is when these activities get brought into the conscious level where you think about them too much, i.e trying too hard or something suddenly going wrong and so on.  Without going into detail here, quality practice and training is a great way of making sure that routine tasks stay buried in the subconscious level more than they would otherwise do.  An interesting example given which is unconnected with motorcycling involves the great jazz trumpeter and singer Dizzy Gillespie.  When asked about the transition between the trumpet solo and his vocals in a particular song, he was unable to answer the question because it was carried out at a completely subconscious level.  We can all think of things we do which fall into that category.

So what about the conscious self - what do you do with that?  Well, one of the most important things is monitoring for external dangers.... what lies round that bend?  How do I prepare for the unknown?  It all makes sense, yet how many riders do we see who don't construct good mental pictures of potential hazards?  Taking racing lines round blind corners, not moving out from the road edge when an entranceway with an obscured view  is observed and so on.  These monitoring and forward-thinking actions are what are commonly referred to as situational awareness.

What can't you see?  A car cutting the corner perhaps?  A mob of cattle?
What are you doing to prepare for any eventuality?

I particularly like that all this fits in with my current IAM training but more importantly, understanding WHY things happen is the best way for me personally to lock any learning into place.  This book does it brilliantly.

Another topic which the book covers extremely well is how to become self-critical of your own riding.  The author makes a valid point that downplaying self-criticism certainly soothes a rider's ego but it also throws away opportunities to reduce error and improve.  The chapter covering this topic gives some very practical advice on how to raise your own self-awareness.  It's only when you're honest in admitting to yourself that there are gaps in your riding skills AND being motivated to want to do something about it that any lasting progress will be made.  Taking that first honest step is probably the most difficult of all - it certainly was for me.   Dr Spiegel's chart below shows the improvement process rather nicely (click to enlarge)

The author gives a telling example of repetition and training which will be recognised by many of us.  He says that he's always amazed at how well overall the British ride in the rain.  Whilst riders in drier countries prefer to avoid those conditions, the British have little choice because of the frequency of wet weather so they are not intimidated by the conditions.  Think about a long ride you've done in challenging conditions - you dial into it and gradually become more relaxed and proficient, don't you?

The book isn't all academic - Dr Spiegel gives eminently practical advice on how to apply the psychology of riding on an everyday basis.  Overall, this is probably one of the most important books about riding well that I've ever come across.  As already stated, it's not always an easy read and it's likely that if you haven't been riding all that long; the impact might not be as great as for a more experienced rider.  It's definitely a book which can be read repeatedly and still learn a lot.  Particularly good for those who are planning to become instructors themselves.  For me, it's helped to join together observations about my riding which I thought were loosely connected at best.  I've just ordered my own copy from Amazon!

Now that's got to be good for someone who is 64 today and trying to stay safe on 2 wheels for as long as possible eh?


  1. Cheers Richard!

    I was even excused our major monthly grocery shopping trip to the nearest big town today - now that's a worthwhile present as I hate trailing one pace behind the CEO whilst trying to look enthusiastic and attentive :-)

  2. Happy Birthday!

    Thanks for the tip on the book.

  3. Thank you Keith! Really impressed with the book ~ US$19 from Amazon.

  4. Happy Birthday, Geoff, with many more happy and active years to come.

    Not sure if my English is advanced enough in order for me to be able to follow the book. I already had a hard time understanding your synopsis ;-) but the analogy to the jazz artist did it for me. Thanks for that.

    This progress of improvement might work as a technique per se... as long as emotions or testosterone don't come in the way. Plus one would have to have the ability to actually notice the error and admit to it. I guess that's not all that easy...

  5. Cheers Sonja!
    It's written by a German so you should be able to get it in the original language! It really is worthwhile.

    I'm way past the testosterone stage but it would be a handicap for the younger males on bikes at the weekend round the Coromandel Peninsula ;-)

    With respect to noticing one's own errors, that comes more easily when you've had some formal roadcraft training as you then have a standard to measure yourself again. However, reading some good books is a reasonable start too. Of course, testosterone might get in the way too :-)

  6. I will definitely check on the German version, thanks for the advice. Cheers!

  7. Mark [Marcus Argentus of MV]18 October 2011 at 20:20

    Another birthday and may there be many, many more to come - all enjoyed on two-wheels :-)

  8. Good to see a positive review of what I still find to be quite a challange to read, I think the origin in a different language and a different era makes it more unusual. I just found it great to read/study a book by an instructer who has not moved from racing to training. Provides a useful, and different perspective to Keith Code etc.

  9. Many happy returns of the day..........I'll read your musings when I wake up.....

  10. Happy Birthday! Joining the dots is something generally done when in your earlier years. Glad to see you are still doing that. May you have many more happy years of riding.

  11. Geoff:

    Happy Birthday "BIG GUY". Take a deep breath before you blow out that bonfire of candles.

    Riding the Wet Coast

  12. 64? You can't be that old. You meant 46 right? Happy Birthday to you......

    Thanks for the info on this book. I also like to know the how and why. When I ask riders that have been riding a long time how they do something a lot of times I get 'I don't know, I just do it". It is so automated that they have a hard time explaining how they do it. I want to be there someday with my riding too.

  13. Mark,
    Thanks very much indeed! Yesterday would have been nice out to a lavish lunch on 4 wheels in Jennie's sports car had the weather been better!

    Yes, perhaps the translation and most certainly the refreshingly new concepts and terminology does make it more of a challenge but like you, the different perspective makes it a valuable piece of work. Thanks for dropping by!

  14. Dylan:
    Thanks mate - what's with all this laying about in bed then? ;-)

    Cheers! If you listen to Jennie, I've never progressed to more than a mental age of 5 so joining the dots sits well!

  15. Bob:
    Cheers buddy! No candles... there would be so many it'd constitute a fire hazard!

    You're far too kind thanks - if only....!!!

    You've hit the nail on the head and it only comes through thinking and riding! I'm certain you're a lot further down the track than you're letting on!!!

  16. YEP we can never stop learning. Paul & I completed Level 1 Calafornia Superbike School a couple of weeks ago. I loved the class rooom & was terrified of the track. The day after while on the bike on state highway 16, it was a huge slap in the face to come to the realisation that I had been riding my bike without knowing what I was doing, therefore had no stability or control should the situation change. At school I learnt what I could do on the bike - cornering & throttle control - at any speed and in any conditions. Our aim for the day was to learn our own limits on cornering with stability and control in any conditions. We will certainly be back to do Level 2, even though the poor guys out there never want to see this quivvering female near the track again.

  17. Hi Niki - thanks for dropping by!

    Really impressed that you've done Superbike!

    One of my friends up here in Coromandel who races a Norton Commando in post-classics did Stage 1 Superbike last year and was blown away with how much he learned. Once I get my road skills up to IAM Observer (instructor) level, I'd be keen to do Stage 1 Superbike too. Have never done a trackday if you discount a few laps of the IOM TT circuit back in 1969!

  18. Geoff,

    Looks like an interesting read. The way you described the opening reminds me of "Shop Class as Soulcraft," which is an exemplary read that I would definitely recommend to anyone who enjoys motorcycles, wrenching, or feels that there is merit to hands-on experience.

    I'm glad to hear that his book, like Soulcraft, is a good read once you get past some chewy nuggets in the beginning. Good moto books can be tough to find.

    Behind Bars - Motorcycles and Life

  19. Geoff

    Happy belated birthday!

    The situational awareness thing is interesting - there have been a number of bad aviation accidents recently that track back to loss of situational awareness of otherwise well trained pilots.


    All the best from blowy Britain, N

  20. Hi Brady - thanks for the heads-up, haven't previously heard of it. Some of the best books appear to be the ones you need to wrestle with a bit - good for the brain!

    Thanks pal! Funny you should mention aviation as I've just finished Chesley Sullenberger's book which culminated with his ditching the airliner in the Hudson River. He goes on at some length about situational awareness, both in his military and civilian careers. Sailing, flying and riding motorcycles all use the same skill set of course.

  21. Geoff

    Now, Chesley knew what he was doing: Like most pilots he probably started on gliders like we bikers start on bicycles!

  22. Nikos:
    There's a photo of him in a glider in the book!