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.
HOW IT ALL STARTED
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 .
SOME THOUGHTS ABOUT TRAINING OPTIONS
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.
THOUGHTS ABOUT THE PROCESSES AND OUTCOMES
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.
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