Riders hate surprises. Well, the unexpected birthday party maybe, but on a motorcycle surprises are bad. On this day, on this bike, at this speed, in this corner, on this line, with these tires, at these pressures, in this heat, wearing this helmet and these gloves, we want to KNOW what the motorcycle will do in the next few seconds. And we want this kind of knowing over and over and over because it’s a long trail ahead. Trail? Yes, trail. This article is about the dirty secrets of risk management. Dirty because we are going off-pavement. Even if you don’t ride off-road keep reading because there will be times when all riders have to deal with less than perfect conditions. A unpaved detour, for example, or a construction zone. The mental skills we use off-road work well in traffic too. So back to our story…
How can I possibly “know” what my bike will do in the next few seconds?
The precise answer is we can’t know exactly. But we can make an “educated guess” about what will happen. Using an “if then, what” decision process we can collect information about the trail ahead and then draw conclusions about what might happen under certain conditions. But please notice I said “conclusions” (plural) about what might happen next. This is because you have choices and each one can lead to a different outcome. Riding safely is being able to see the choices ahead, picking the best one and then making it happen. Risk management is a form of educated guessing.
The Milk Stool. Most professional riders and their coaches know that specialized training is needed to improve decision making at speed. We often visualize this sort of training as a three-legged milk stool. The seat of the stool represents traction. Without it we can’t go, stop or turn. Each leg of the stool is critical, if one breaks the stool falls and traction is lost. The three legs are (1) control function (2) body position and (3) decision-making. The first two are for later articles but the third leg is our current subject: how to make good decisions to reduce risk.
Whatever the speed of your motorcycle, your decision-making has to be faster. One way of making faster decisions is to reduce how much you have to think about before you start moving. In other words confirm as much information as possible in advance so issues don’t pop up as random thoughts to distract you at speed.
Preflight Checks. All riding decision are made “in context” meaning in your current situation. Before you clutch-out take a deep breath and do a quick assessment. Here are some common examples of things to think about before you go:
- Comfort level: Am I ready for what’s ahead? If nervous, why? What are my limits today?
- Physical condition: Am I fit and ready? A little sore? Where? What do I need to do?
- Power to Weight: Panniers overflowing? One up or two? Single or twin? Shock settings?
- Surface: hard pack or soft? Most likely both. Where will they change? Tires? Air?
- Conditions: hot and dry? Cold and wet? Out or back in the headlights?
- Did I check my oil? Chain? Fuel level OK? Water aboard? Tools? Tire kit?
- Maps, roll chart or GPS? Spot receiver turned on?
- If an emergency happens, what do I have to deal with it? Phone charged? First Aid kit?
- And so on…
Doing a preflight check will increase your comfort level by reducing the number of things you have to think about while on the road or trail.
One more thing before you leave. Riding a motorcycle is an athletic endeavor. That makes you an athlete every time you ride. Please don’t enter the game cold. Just like your tires your performance will be down until you warm up. Take a minute to stretch and do some light range of motion exercises. After you have ridden awhile and are taking a break do some light strengthening exercises before you get back on. Visualize yourself as an athlete in training.
Risk Tolerance. You’re warmed-up and have done some miles. The hill in front of you is steep and rutted. You have a choice to make: try to climb it, find a way around or go back. Of course you can always do nothing but you didn’t bring your sleeping bag. So how will you decide what to do? Many riders use a mental playground teeter-totter approach.
They put the risk factors on one end and their skills and their bike’s capability on the other. If the teeter-totter tips down towards risk — they turn back or go around. It’s too dangerous. If the mental teeter-totter tips down on the ability end, then they climb the hill. But what happens when risk and ability are in balance? That depends on something called “risk tolerance.” How much risk are you willing to accept? In training we have a very low risk tolerance. We don’t want students to get hurt. The other end of the scale is racing. Sometimes we roll the dice to earn a podium. Most riders are somewhere in the middle.
Ride Your Own Ride. Each rider has their own risk-management teeter-totter. Their own risk tolerance. Their own set of unique strengths and weaknesses. This is where some GS club rides go astray. Just because you all ride the same motorcycle brand and model doesn’t mean you all should make the same decisions about degree of difficulty or pace. There are just too many variables. Unlike you the guy in front may have a garage full of motocross bikes and knows how to use them. Or the rider in the lead may have remembered to let some air out of her tires and you didn’t. Peer pressure means doing what your ride buddies do even if you don’t want to. Ego means riding over your head to save face. Going too fast to hang with the others has led to many, many accidents and injuries. Being strong enough to say no and back-off is an important part of risk management. Besides you don’t want your memories of the day to be of the butt that was in front you or the dust in your nose. Ride Your Own Ride.
Be Smart. Risk-benefit analysis may NOT work if you are under the influence of alcohol. A great rule of thumb is Eight Hours from Bottle to Throttle. Prescription drugs can also impair your judgment. When you are dehydrated or fatigued your ability to assess risk changes for the worse. Ride healthy and wear full protective gear every time you throw a leg over the seat.
Keep It Simple. Decision-making at speed needs to be easy and fast. Things happen quickly even in the lower gears. In previous MotoSafe articles you learned the Motorcycle Safety Foundation has stream-lined it’s recommended decision-making system. The old SIPDE (scan- identify- predict- decide- execute) is now simply SEE (Search- Evaluate- Execute). The SEE acronym describes a three-step speed management system that has been used successfully by racers for decades. Using simple action verbs here’s what happens inside the racer’s helmet.
Step 1 – Scan. Collecting information about what’s ahead is called Scanning, a form of eye patterning. Scanning means to look around in a repetitive pattern of focus points. For example, head up, eyes level to the horizon: look ahead just over the clutch lever, then straight ahead at 20 feet, then straight ahead at 100 feet, then just over the right brake lever. Repeat. This is only a simple example as most scanning patterns have more than four focus points and sight distances are speed related. Eventually scanning becomes a comfortable habit; a practiced dance of eye movement. Going off-pattern for a split-second for turn markers, braking points or the unexpected is normal– just get back on-pattern quickly. Keep those eyes moving. As you scan you’ll pick-up surface changes like braking bumps (washboard) ruts, rocks or other hazards. You’ll also see pitch changes, up’s, down’s, sidehill’s or whoops. You’ll sense traffic– the bike showing a wheel to your side or cars on the road. Collect all information possible as snap shots, then move to step 2 — but keep scanning as you do.
Step 2 – Think. Sort the trail information into options. I can go here, downshift there, and attack. Or I can brake and turn. Or I can STOP! Rank the options in order of outcome. The best outcome is usually the best choice of what to do. Your second best option is usually your back-up plan just in case. As you move to action start the next round of evaluation.
Step 3 – Act. Make it happen, NOW. If your motorcycle has become an extension of your body through training, conditioning and experience, your control response and body mechanics happen almost almost instantaneously. But if you are just learning, slow down or even stop if you need more time. Speed may be fun but it is NOT always your friend. Evaluate how it’s going and be ready to go to make adjustments or go to your back-up plan.
Overlap and Repeat. All three steps continuously overlap. As long as the bike is moving, you are scanning. While scanning you are continuously deciding on your next move. While you are acting, you are already processing new trail information for the next round. It’s a endless circle of mental and physical multi-tasking.
The reason a three-step decision making process works is because of how the human body and mind connect.
Step 1 is called Perception. This is the time it takes for the eyes to send a message to the brain. In the beginning average perception time is about three quarters of a second (.75) per visual focus point. At 30 miles per hour you will have traveled about 33 feet. On a motorcycle in the rough this is almost focus fixation. This is where a rider looks at one point too long and misses important information at other points. Fortunately perception improves with experience, training and conditioning. You get faster because you know what to expect from various conditions.
Step 2 is called Reaction. For the average person reaction time is also about three-quarters of a second (.75). In other words it takes about .75 seconds to perceive (see and recognize) and then another .75 seconds to react (deicide what to do about it). Again at 30 mph average riders will have traveled about 66 feet from the time they see a rock to the time they begin to steer around it. Your goal is to become faster than average– much faster.
Hard Eye – Soft Eye. Racer’s train to scan at less than .5 seconds per scanning point. They also learn to scan at multiple points at one time using a technique called, “hard-eye, soft-eye.” Racers train to continuously process two visual signals in the brain at the same time. One clear and detailed visual picture from the center of the eyes (foveal vision) and a second less distinct picture from the edge of your eyes (peripheral vision). For example on a track at speed the rider perceives pitch and surface of the jump face 100 feet ahead and at the same time glimpses the front wheel edging ahead on the right. Most people have foveal and peripheral vision but motorcycle riders need to develop them and use them at a much higher level. Until you become proficient at using two sight pictures at the same time practice on a busy track or riding difficult terrain at speed can be risky.
A simple way to hone your sight skills is to sit in a chair and watch television. While you are enjoying the program, count the number of books on the shelf off to the side of the room. If not books, then count something else. When you can easily follow the story line on the TV and precisely remember the numbers at the same time, try it again while wearing your helmet and goggles. It will look funny for sure, but do it anyway. When you are ready to try it on the bike, go slow at first. Work your way up to speed and complex detail. Imagine the desert racer looking up for trail markers at 117 feet per second (80 mph) while at the same time looking down for ruts, rocks, roots and bushes in front of the wheel. That’s hard eye-soft eye in action.
Speeding Up the Process. When first learning to ride we sometimes use a part of the brain called the hypothalamus. That’s the part genetically programmed for survival in life-threatening situations. Sometimes it’s called fight or flight. That’s why we have novice students “cover the levers” with four fingers. If they panic they squeeze both levers (controlling power and stopping the bike) as they hang-on. In training we teach riders to move their decision-making to a part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex. There decisions is not based on a survival instinct but rather on something called executive function. We train riders to be pro-active rather than re-active. They learn to collect and process information, rank options and pick the best course of action. If they use executive function long enough it can become automatic. This happens after enough practice to create muscle memory and a reflex-like thought process in a part of the brain called the medulla oblongata. We train and condition to create this state of performance awareness. Scanning, ranking and acting become almost an unthinking habit. Athletes call this form of predictive motor control “being in the zone” or more simply “flo.” Riding with flo is to ride well with minimal physical and mental energy expenditure. In flo perception times are reduced and reaction times are faster. It is the reward for all the hard work. In flo your motorcycle becomes an extension of your body, the ultimate goal of training.
Exercise For the Mind. Here are some examples of hard eye, soft eye training. On a practice range I will ask riders to do slow speed counter-balance turns around a circle of orange traffic cones. As they are working on body mechanics and control function I also ask them to count the number of cones in the circle. To make it more challenging I will set-up different sizes of circles on the range to be taken in a set order. The riders must do the turns properly, in order and remember the numbers for each circle. For racers I will set cones on the inside and/or outside of high-speed turns. The riders must do the turns well and tell me the number of cones for each turn after each practice session. In more advanced classes I sometimes place cones on the backside of jumps or stand by the side of the track/trail and hold-up a number of fingers to be counted at speed or in mid-air as the riders go past. The training goal is to learn to use hard eye/soft eye scanning patterns at whatever speed and in whatever conditions you will encounter.
Conclusion. We have just scratched the surface of predictive motor control. There is so much more to learn and to do. So where do we go from here? Remember the milk stool? What does your’s look like? Are all three legs fully developed and in balance? If not, then maybe it’s time for more reading or to take a class or two. Perhaps do some track time? Take the time to look for a coach or a school to keep learning or to brush-up. But no matter where or how you train keep at it because safe riding is like a muscle. It needs constant exercise to stay strong.
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About the author. Ramey ‘Coach’ Stroud is an former off-road racing champion, past motocross rider of the year and currently an around-the-world motorcycle traveler. He was recently awarded the BMWMOA Foundation’s prestigious “Individual of the Year” award for his motorcycle training programs and contributions to rider safety. His current goal is to give away his cane and dance the tango.