Wheel alignment

Sunday 20 November 2011

Raising my riding skills - some reflections

 A study in contemplation!

 When I started out on the journey to raising my riding skills in April 2011, little did I know where it was going to lead and how I’d feel at different stages along the way.  I’ve made periodic posts since April about the on-going IAM training but thought it might be useful to condense the experiences and thoughts into a single post in case it’s of use to others who are thinking of re-skilling or upskilling, but have yet to do anything about it! 

It’s naturally a personal view, but I’ve tried to quantify the reasoning for choosing the particular path that I did.  I hope it all makes sense.

I’d written a couple of posts about motorcycle accidents and how both regulatory authorities and many motorcyclists too, seemed to avoid the root causes and propose solutions which would have limited impact on reducing accidents.  I was 63 at that time and the idea of upskilling seemed a good one but also like many riders, hadn’t actually done anything about it because I thought that I was an “ok” sort of rider after 40+ years in the saddle.  Trouble is, "OK" is normally "Not OK" to an impartial observer.  The majority of motorcycle riders might justifiably complain about the standard of the average car driver, but often do little to help themselves.  Fair comment?

Eminent American motorcycle safety author David Hough had seen one of my rants on motorcycle safety and in typically forthright fashion, sent an email asking what my plans were to ensure that I continued to ride safely as I aged.  This was his opening salvo – the first of some wonderfully direct and productive correspondence:

Some of your words lead me to believe you've also been thinking about how age is affecting your riding, and how it is likely to affect your motorcycling in the future. So, I'd welcome your observations, both in terms of how the aging of the body and mind affect someone like you or I who have been riding for many years, and also for the "return" riders who have gotten back into motorcycling after years of raising the kids, building the house, etc.

David is an exceptionally astute guy and reading between the lines, he almost certainly thought that I was saying the right things but may have been procrastinating about actually doing anything - and he was right!  Over a number of weeks, refreshing or raising skills was only one of many topics we discussed with respect to ageing riders but he’d prodded my conscience – time to put my money where my mouth was!  Looking back, if it wasn’t for David, I almost certainly wouldn’t have taken the route I did.  Simply put, I owe him an awful lot .

As well discussions with David, I’d been having some correspondence around the same time with fellow Kiwi rider and blogger, Roger Fleming and Dylan Rogers; an advanced instructor living in the UK.  Chewing the fat with these guys was incredibly valuable as it helped to crystallise the direction which seemed appropriate for me. Also, it introduced me to people who started as strangers and are now cherished friends as is the way with motorcycling!

Any form of training has to be followed up with practice for it to be effective.  Not only do the skills have to be practised, they require periodically refreshing to stop the inevitable slide back into bad habits mainly because we lack discipline (errr… a polite way of saying we get lazy)!  The only true way of stopping this slide from happening is to be periodically evaluated by an independent, qualified 3rd party.  Potentially tough on the ego but great in terms of acquiring good skills.

Whilst taking a series of one-off commercial advanced riding courses over time was a viable option for me, the approach advocated by the Institute of Advanced Motorists (IAM) seemed to be the most appropriate one – genuine advanced training. This is a summary of the IAM approach.
  •  There are formal, measurable, standards based on UK training of police motorcyclists.  Arguably one of the highest levels of riding skill available in terms of roadcraft, as opposed to track skills which are rather different compared with advanced roadcraft.  The training “bibles” used are available at a very modest cost to any member of the motorcycling community who wishes to buy them.  These are the ones:

  • The level of instruction, mentoring and testing is delivered by people who consistently meet these standards and are trained to evaluate others.  The instructors donate their time on an entirely voluntary basis.
  • It’s a progressive path, not a one-off so there is little chance of letting the skills slip.   It starts with a no-cost, no obligation assessment ride where current skills (or lack of ‘em in my case) are assessed against the aforementioned criteria.  A formal report is given to the trainee.  The trainee practices to address any improvement areas, followed by a series of further observed rides and evaluation reports until the standards are consistently achieved, not just sometimes!  That process can typically take up to two years depending upon commitment.  The trainee then takes the demanding full membership test and if successful, becomes an IAM full member.  It’s worth mentioning at this stage that the evaluation rides take two hours or so per occasion in heavy city traffic, on motorways and narrow, twisty rural roads.  There’s no place to hide with something that comprehensive and like any worthwhile endeavour, it’s darned hard work.
  •  A full member may then elect to remain a full member and attend monthly IAM rides or similar events to maintain skills.  In many cases however, full members continue their training to become Observers (instructor/examiners) and voluntarily donate their time to raise the skills of others.
 The on-going nature of the training was particularly appealing, as was the challenge of trying to consistently ride to measurably high level standards.  Also, being retired, I had the time to put something back into motorcycling provided that I was good enough to go all the way. 

IAM was the training path I finally chose.
As mentioned earlier, the individual rides and tests have already been detailed in previous posts but there’s much, much more than that going on in the background and it’s worth summarising some of those things.
  •  Actually committing yourself to start training is the hardest thing.  Far easier to simply procrastinate and stay in your comfort zone.  Unfortunately, that does nothing to reduce the risk of coming to serious harm so just bite the bullet and get started!
  • Any worthwhile training is going to stretch the trainee and probably cause initial ego damage – it did to me!  You soon shake that mindset off and regard any riding errors as an opportunity for improvement.  I think that testosterone is a real inhibitor in admitting that your skills need some work and that women are likely to be far more honest in this respect!
  • You do need a bit of experience to get the best out of an advanced course.  Some of the techniques aren’t intuitive unless you can apply some judgement.  Good commercial training is often a useful adjunct to IAM work.
  •  Riding to a system and constantly revising your riding plan caters for ever-changing road and traffic conditions.  The process becomes completely automatic with practice.
  • In the early stages, my situational awareness (observational skills and consequential planning and execution of appropriate responses) was lacking and it was oh so easy to be overwhelmed by all the inputs from external sources.  Further on in the training, you become aware of just how much more information you are processing to make the correct judgement calls.  Riding in challenging conditions becomes easier and more pleasurable.
  • The improvement process isn’t linear.  There are times, particularly in the earlier stages when I struggled to implement the skills and apply them on a consistent basis which was a bit depressing.  This was normally as a result of trying to apply too many new concepts at the same time and going into overload.  The enjoyment of riding suffered at these times and a bit of self-doubt crept in.  It was solved by taking smaller bites at the cherry.  Getting things right and locking them in place was a huge boost to confidence and even small gains opened the possibility of going all the way.  In the early days of training, it was fear of failure which drove me on.  Somewhere along the way, the motivator switched to wanting to execute a near-perfect ride.  That difference might not look particularly important in print, but the mental switch is a HUGE one.
  • Meeting other people doing the same training at end of month rides makes you realise that you’re not alone in your doubts and fears and there’s a huge amount of mutual support.  The Observers and Examiners have all gone through the same or similar processes.  They’re there as volunteers so they’re committed to great outcomes on your behalf.
  • Being followed by an IAM Observer/Examiner becomes progressively less intimidating – they’re there because of your commitment to improve.  However, there’s absolutely no compromise in the standard they set and like anything worthwhile, who would have it any other way?  Life for most of us is generally comfortable and a true challenge is a great way to remind us that we’re alive.
  • Passing through the various stages of IAM training is a source of quiet pride and a certain amount of relief rather than loud celebration.  People who simply want to wave a certificate about probably won’t have the mindset to complete the incredibly demanding course.
  • I don’t ride anywhere nearly as fast as pre-IAM days.  The biggest thrill comes from riding well, not breaking speed limits by a large margin.  On the few occasions nowadays when riding fast for a bit of fun, the IAM skills are always there to make good judgement calls about how fast and where you do it.
  • The training makes you aware of the generally poor skills of the average road user.  A bit scary in one respect but at least it allows you to identify and address potentially hazardous situations in a timely manner.
  • IAM training is available in very few countries.  However, the general principles apply to all good motorcycle training, commercial or otherwise.  The trick is to carefully research what is available in some detail, what suits your circumstances and only then, commit to training.
  • Whether you're a fast rider or slow rider, riding on the open road or in town,  good training still applies.  As a motorcyclist, you're vulnerable and greater awareness of your surroundings and the ability to identify and mitigate hazards are are critical for us all to survive.
 As this is, and will continue to be a highly personal journey after quite a bit of research and thought, I wouldn’t presume to advise anyone else to follow suit.  What I will say however, is that if you’ve been considering raising your skills, don’t look for reasons to put it off – please, please find something that suits and get stuck in!

At 64 years of age, I passed my IAM full membership riding test last Friday. Eight months after starting the journey, the first stage has been completed.  To put something back into motorcycling and to prevent a slide in skills, the next stage is to qualify as an Observer (Instructor/Examiner).  Not a bad outcome arising from a chance email sent by David Hough eh?

One of the greatest discoveries a man makes, one of his great surprises, is to find he can do what he was afraid he couldn't do.
Henry Ford

Addendum:  After intensive training and much blood, sweat and tears on my part (and undoubtedly teeth-gnashing by the Examiners), I passed my theory and practical examinations and became an Observer in January 2013.  The post on that momentous day is HERE


  1. Congrats Geoff! Hard work paying off!

  2. Thanks Andrew - it has indeed. I feel much more in control these days, especially around idiot cagers!

  3. A great post Geoff & big CONGRATULATIONS on your achievement.

    Best wishes Jules.

  4. Jules:
    Many thanks mate! A way to go yet!

  5. That is indeed an excellent and well thought out post Geoff and thank you for sharing it with us. Feed back is so so important to the Observer, (as you are soon to find out)it is the only way he/she can evaluate their own continuous improvement. I have no doubts whatsoever that the IAM have just gained a valuable advanced motorcycling trainee Observer. I also look forward to your choice (Kiwi style)of Communications systems.......Commentry/Demonstration rides here we come.......

  6. Geoff, that first picture is certainly header-worthy.
    I do admire your decision to begin and pull through with the IAM training. Others would have said, with so many years of practical experience nothing needs to be learned.
    What you have done is inspiring for the motorcycle community.

  7. Geoff

    I like your study in contemplation aka admiring the fantatsic view!

    Whilst you mention that this training makes you aware of the poor level of skill of the average road user, this is particularly true of seeing other bikers behaving stupidly! I witnessed some guy on the M6 recently undertaking traffic across all three lanes like a slalom show. Of course he was wearing a hi viz jacket but I did not notice a green badge on his fairing!

    All the best from Cheshire, N

  8. I know I've said it before, but I'll say it again: Congratulations on your successful completion of the IAM membership test last Friday. Your commitment is commendable.

    I think this paragraph you wrote sums it all up perfectly and what we should all strive for: "I don’t ride anywhere nearly as fast as pre-IAM days. The biggest thrill comes from riding well, not breaking speed limits by a large margin. On the few occasions nowadays when riding fast for a bit of fun, the IAM skills are always there to make good judgement calls about how fast and where you do it."

    That paragraph more than any of the others in this post stand out to me. Well said Geoff, well said.

  9. Geoff,

    THanks for the kind words. I guess I am sort of a catylist--or perhaps a co-conspiritor in getting motorcyclists to gain knowledge and skill.

    But I applaud your move to position yourself to help other riders. If you haven't discovered this so far, you will soon realize that the more you try to give yourself away, the more you gain personally. Or, to put this another way, "the teacher always gains more than the student."

    David L. Hough

  10. Thanks so much Trobairitz, it's very much appreciated. Up to now, the focus has been on riding consistently enough to pass, but writing this particular post has been a good emotional release by thinking about some of the things which helped me to raise my standards. I guess Troubadour is experiencing exactly the same things on his journey.

    Thanks again!

  11. Dylan:
    Thanks so much for all your encouragement, especially when I hit the inevitable low points! Really looking forward to the next stage.

    I'm going to take my time choosing a comms system as both that I've used so far have had some issues, albeit relatively minor.

    That's really kind and thanks so much. Knowing what I do now, there's been a fair element of the last 40 years experience being 1 year repeated 40 times. This year has been massive and it's hopefully going to get even better!

  12. Knikos, hehe!

    You've hit the nail on the head! A Ducati which passed us during the test over a blind crest made me grind my teeth. The average rider might be better than the average car driver, but there's still an awful lot of room for improvement!

    Thanks so much for dropping in! I think being a catalyst and inspiring people to want to do better is the ultimate use of your knowledge and experience. Guess that I'm fortunate that being retired, I have time to put something back into a pastime which is a passion. I agree with getting more out of it - never stop learning.

  13. Interesting post Geoff. It might just be enough to get me off my bum and start to see what is available over here (W.A.) I've done a couple of 1 day courses, but, good though they may be - always leave me feeling somewhat...deficient.
    Basic motor skills are all well and good, but, judgement seems to be something which is sorely lacking in most riders - incl. the missus, who has been riding since she was 14!
    Good to see you've cleared the first major hurdle.

  14. Thanks very much Jon! There's an ex-UK IAM instructor (pretty sure he is) who emigrated to WA a couple of years ago (Bob Pinder by name), I think he's still in the business over there. I love the on-going nature of IAM - means you can't slack off!

    Planning to visit WA next April for the first time to celebrate our 40th wedding anniversary. Margaret River right through to Broome. Done most of the East Coast and looking forward to heading west.

    Safe riding and thanks for dropping in!

  15. If we had IAM training here I would be all over it. I like the format. So...congratulations on seeing it through and eventually having a little fun.

    But one question: who keeps the skills of the Observers up-to-date? ;) As an Observer, do you have to periodically be "observed" to verify you are maintaining your skills?

  16. Lori:
    With any luck, I'll be "Trainee Observing" Roger or myother mate Andy on Sunday and putting them on edge :-).

    And an excellent question it is too! The Observers have to re-qualify every 2 years, tested by the Examiners or Chief Examiner. I don't know who re-tests the latter group simply because I haven't asked. If you ever wanted to look at the revised admin manual I'm putting together with the Chief Examiner on testing criteria and processes, just ask!

  17. Awesome news Geoff....so happy for your acheivement. Well done.

    Do you get to put the letters IAM after your name to look important now? Or perhaps you could add it before your name with a dot after the "I".... and your official title will now be:

    I.Am Geoff James: Motorcyclist

    I've been at work since 6:30 and haven't had enough coffee yet.... :) Have an awesome week mate.

  18. Anthony - thanks so much mate, it's been quite a journey and the next stage is going to be far from easy either.

    Oh ha de ha!!! The road has been too demanding to get any fancy notions and even if I did, the Examiners would be quick to kick it out of me :-). I do get a hi-viz jacket with the IAM insignia on though which I'll be extremely proud to wear.

    As well as your coffee, don't forget the rest of your medication, hehe! That's disgustingly early mate, preparing to fleece some poor client with outrageous professional charges? ;-)

    You have a fantastic week too!

  19. Nice recap of your journey down this path, and your thoughts about it all. Congratulations on your success, and kudos on the desire to give back. That's awesome!

  20. Thank you Kari - just got to get into the right headspace for the next bit of the journey now!

  21. King or Queen Mother gets to examine the Examiners. ;)

    YES! I would love to see the manual. I'm hoping Santa brings a couple of the previously recommended books this year, as well. ;)

  22. Right you are Lori - coming your way when I've had breakfast and a shave!

  23. I know a very late reply on my behalf. I really wasnt sure what to say. Every thing you have talked about and your journey I relate to, as you well know. You were certainly a more advanced rider than I was when we started this journey,

    You have an amazing gift of putting things down so well in writte format.

    One of the things I have enjoyed most about IAM is the feeling of riding to a system, and feeling confident and more in control of what i am doing. ONce upon a time I would of been nervous riding with you and all your years on a bike. Not so now, because we are both riding to the same system.

    I was always amazed that by showing restraint , I seem to ride smoother and am far more relaxed, yet more alert. I am enjoyng my riding more than ever. Hopefully, one day soon, I may be able to wright a post like this.

    For me to, humility has paid a big part in my training, I have never been afraid to accept correction and have been open to learning. This is the first part of becoming a good rider. Interesting the first chapter in "Handcraft" talks about this very topic.

    Well done mate.

  24. Roger:
    Thanks mate, knew you'd understand completely. Yep, the IAM "system" takes away all the disparities and even when you want to show a bit less restraint, the system is still there to govern how you ride.

    Your comments about humility have really got to the core of the matter - bloody well said. That's really at the heart of why I felt relief rather than making a big deal from it.

    Catch ya Sunday!

  25. Geoff - very interesting post on your journey. I am new motorcyclist and enrolled in a Novice course and a traffic course in October. It wasn't as extensive as what you have completed, but it has given me basic knowledge and skill set that has me safely out on the road. I am committed to learning and realize I have a long way to go yet motorcycle wise. I think as motorcyclists it is our responsibility to ourselves and loved ones to continue learning and upgrading. I don't kid myself about the dangers in traffic and know all too well what can happen as I work in the medical field. I routinely go out and practice my skills in a parkinglot because I want to be the best I can be when I am out in traffic. I just recently went to a winter/wet weather riding workshop and learned a lot. I think next year I am going to take an advanced riders course to hone my skills even further. Along with skills I have learned the importance of good gear and riding ATTGAT - even an a short jaunt. I think it is very admirable what you are doing and wonderful that you are going to be an observer/examiner - this is what motorcycling needs people who are committed to the betterment of riding through good sound skills and aren't afraid to admit that they need to refresh. You don't get many second chances when you are sharing your space with cars.

  26. Hi Dar - thank you very much for dropping by!

    I must say that I'm extremely impressed with your attitude given that you say you're new to motorcycling. That's a rare trait, certainly in New Zealand but maybe elsewhere too. Long may you continue as learning NEVER stops. I just looked up your profile as I'd seen you post on some of my Canadian friend's blogs and note that you're female which explains a lot! In all honesty, one major problem which seems to inhibit training is a guy's testosterone which is a real shame. We should hang our heads...

    Very best wishes for your on-going training,


  27. Geoff

    In my class of 10 - 6 were females. I have been riding pillion for 28 years on my hubs bike,. In January I decided to purchase a 50cc scooter, I wiped out on the test drive, got back up & rode. I was voraciously reading everything I could because I was untrained. I discovered early on that ATTGAT is only way to ride. After putting around on my wee scooter I knew I needed to take a motorcycle course and learn to ride properly and safely and this is where I am today a happy motoing diva.

  28. Dar:
    Way to go!! I rode in jeans a lot until 20-odd years ago and cringe when I think about it. Good for you in terms of ATGATT and training. God training allows you to control situations which could have intimidated you and put you at more risk. Looking forward to hearing how you get on.


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