Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Irony of Training Wheels

Like Riding a Bike

The other day, I was coming home from work and saw a bunch of kids out riding their bikes. These kids were probably between 6 and 8 years old.

I took a second to observe how they maneuvered on their bicycles. The intriguing thing I noticed is how they instinctively, although a bit awkwardly, stabilized the lean of their bikes. As the bike started to lean too far in one direction, these kids instinctively knew to swing their handlebars in the direction of the fall to stop it. To them, they were simply weaving their way down the street.

It strikes me as odd that kids learn countersteering instinctively, despite all our attempts to teach them incorrectly.

Countersteering in a Nutshell

Even motorcycle riders who are clueless about countersteering will tell you that bikes turn by leaning...if you want a bike to turn, you have to lean it over. Yet most of them still think that they lean the bike with their body and steer with the handlebars.

Motorcycles and bicycles both "countersteer". This means that to get them to turn, you have to lean them over by turning the bars in the opposite direction that you want to turn in. This action destabilizes the bike, essentially "steering the wheels out from under you". Once the bike is leaned in, depending on the front-end geometry, the bike either turns on its own or allows the rider to steer it into the turn.

Training Bad Habits

We don't teach children this, though. When a child gets his first "big-kids bike", the parents inevitably attach "training wheels" to it. These training wheels sit on either side of the bike and prevent the bike from falling over.

Now training wheels have a purpose, but it's less to train riding techniques than it is to allow the child to build confidence in riding the bike. A child left to ride without the benefit of training wheels does not yet trust the bicycle to stabilize itself as it gets moving, nor are they comfortable moving at any speed. So training wheels keep the bike upright enough for a child to learn that, in a straight line at least, a bicycle at speed is stabilized by motion.

The downside to this is that with training wheels, a child learns to steer a bike the same way they would steel a turning the bars TOWARD the direction they would want to go. Without training wheels, a quick turn to the right would make the bike suddenly fall to the left. But in this case, the left training wheel arrests the fall and the child confidently steers to the right, not realizing that this habit will require a lot of time un-training.

From Four to Two

Inevitably, the child becomes confident enough that mom and dad finally remove the training wheels. On the child's first trip out, one can often observe a "wobbling" behavior. As the child steers, the bike leans in the opposite direction, forcing the child to steer back in the other direction. But he commonly oversteers and has to correct back again, creating a gradual weave that all averages out to a straight line.

Turning is another matter. Most kids slow down severely to turn a bicycle when they first start riding. They do this because as they ride without training wheels, they notice how the bike falls to the outside of any turn initiated at speed. This makes it next to impossible to turn the bike while it's moving fast.

Fast Learners

Children, however, are very fast learners. They cleverly discover that if they "wind up" before the turn, i.e. steer the bike quickly out to the left before attempting to bang a fast right turn, they can take that right-hand turn with more speed than they ever could without the "wind-up" motion.

The "wind-up" motion is really a subconscious discovery of the art of countersteering. Although consciously the child is still thinking that they turn the bars in the direction they want to turn the bike, subconsciously, their "wind-up" motion for fast turns is what is REALLY doing the steering. By steering away, the bike leans into the turn and allows them to steer at high-speed without toppling over, since gravity and centripetal force are in balance.

Conscious vs. Subconscious Countersteering

Kids learn countersteering subconsciously. That means they're not really thinking about it and don't really know how it works. They're using it, and they likely understand that "something weird" is going on with their bikes. They know that turning into a fall stabilizes the bike and that swinging out before a turn lets them take the turn faster.

The problem is that kids' bicycles are still riding fairly slow. Once you throw a leg over a motorcycle, you're moving at highway-speeds. In a tight turn, you often don't have room in your lane to lean your bike by "swinging out".

Many riders simply slow down to a crawl to compensate for this. Others come up with other subconscious steering methods, thinking that they're leaning the bike by pressing their knee into the tank or weighting a footpeg. The truth is that they're still countersteering, they just don't know it.

The problem is that when an unexpected situation comes up, if you consciously believe that steering the bike in the direction of the turn will make it go in that direction, you're likely going to try to escape that situation by steering in the direction you want to turn, which will cause an uncomfortable bobble at best and a veer-off into the other direction at worst.

To be a safe and effective street-rider, let alone a FAST street-rider, learning to consciously countersteer a motorcycle is an absolute must.

That means learning to consciously push the inside bar forward and turn the bars in the opposite direction to lean the bike and thus steer it through a turn.

I'm sure I'll write more on Countersteering. It's one of my favorite topics.

Monday, April 27, 2009


Ever have one of those days where you get out for a ride and nothing seems to go right?

I got out of the gym at maybe 6:00 PM yesterday. I went upstairs and took a shower and started debating whether to take a ride. I was feeling a little lazy from just having worked out, but it was such a beautiful day that basically every bike in the state of Maryland was out on the road. I had had a hell of a ride the day before, but I felt like I "ought" to get out on so nice a day. That was my first mistake.

By the time I got to the garage, I was pressed for time. It was about a quarter to seven and the sun was low in the sky. I quickly laced up my gear and jumped on the bike with only a minor stretch.

My throttle free-play had been way too large on the last ride and it was giving me fits, especially when shifting, so that, stacked on my already pressed-for-time feeling made things even worse.

Then just as I got to the turn-off on to my favorite stretch of twisty road, my gas light comes on.

Oh well...the closest gas station takes me down that particular'll give me a good chance to warm up and have some fun. Wrong...I get stuck behind a Buick. Sometimes I feel like the county purposely dispatches old people to maintain speed limits. Oh well...their road too, right?

I finally arrive at the gas station...only to find that it's Sunday and the station is CLOSED. So I have to drive another 2-3 miles into civilization and traffic to fuel up. Then the pump doesn't want to take my credit card, so at this point I'm fuming.

Deep breaths...maybe it just wasn't meant to be. The one thing I don't want to do is ride frustrated. It's very hard to contain my ire, though, as the sun continues to fall.

So I FINALLY get gassed up and head back north to the twisties. As I'm about to dive into the first really gnarly turn of the run, I notice DIRT streaked right across where my line would be. It looks like someone drove a truck full of dirt down this road and dumped some of their load. It was only a small streak, nothing heavy, but enough that I felt better adjusting my line. Then as I came into the next turn...dirt, next turn...dirt, next turn...dirt.

After that, I had changed my line so much that I couldn't hit turns for s**t. Don't get me wrong...I was clearing the corners just fine. But I couldn't put the bike on the line that I wanted to save my life. My entire rhythm was thrown off.

I turned around and tried to run down the road in the other direction, since it was clean in that direction, when BAM, another Buick in front of me. 7:30PM on a Sunday and people just don't seem to have anywhere to be.

Deep breaths...don't ride frustrated. It just wasn't meant to be today, I tell myself as the sun begins to set in earnest. I may as well turn off on a back country road and head home.

As dusk starts to settle in and I'm cruising along, suddenly....*tick*....*tick*..*tick*.*tick*.....*tick*.......*tick*...*tick*, the sound of a billion insects rising from the grass to plaster themselves against my visor and windscreen. *tick*...OW! That one got me in my neck.

By now, I'm tired, frustrated, the throttle free-play is pissing me off more than usual, and I'm taking awkward lines through every corner on the road. I catch my route back to home-base.

The last traffic light on my trip is an intersection with a major highway that I have to pass over. And wouldn't you know it? It's red.

I try to position my bike along the road sensors. One cycle goes by, then another. No green light. I wait for a car to come up behind me to trip the sensor...but every car that comes up the road simply turns right and takes off.

Deep breaths...

I finally just bust a right and take off down the highway to an alternate turn-in. I pull into the garage, frustrated as hell and go searching for wrenches to fix that damned throttle free-play.

Some Days Just Don't Go Right

I've had days like this before, but it had been a while. Every now and then you'll get out on the road, only to find that things just aren't lining up the way they ought to. Whether it's a cruise up and down the highway or a brisk jaunt down a back-road, some days things just don't feel right.

Usually it's a combination of circumstances and the rider's state of body and mind. Feeling pressed for time, slow drivers, dirt in the corners, no gas, bugs, mechanical issues...they all add up. Sometimes it's something more subtle. I've had days where it felt like I was just out of touch with the road.

Sometimes you try to drive harder to escape the frustration. That's one of the best ways to get yourself into trouble on the road.

The best thing you can do, I've found, is to just take it a little easier than normal, take a deep breath, and accept the possibility that today's ride was just not meant to be. It's OK to keep riding and see if things don't straighten themselves out...often they do. But I always have that voice in the back of my mind (and believe me, that voice was formed through many hard lessons) that there are times when it's time to just settle down and go home. It was not listening to that voice that contributed greatly to my mishap on the Dragon last year.

For what it's worth, I finally sorted out that throttle free-play. Next time I ride, I'll likely have my new gloves as well. I'm hoping for a much better day. :)

Thursday, April 23, 2009

When the Bike Ceases to Matter

One with the Road

The more I ride, the more it seems as if the motorcycle "disappears" underneath me. I reach a point where I'm no longer treating the bike as a distinct entity. It becomes an extension of my body.

I understand when I intend my hand to close, for example, my hand closes. I don't think about it as "operating my hand", I'm just doing it. After enough riding, the same thing starts to happen with a motorcycle. You're no longer riding the're riding the road.

First You Learn to Ride the Bike...

When someone gets a new bike, especially when they get their first bike, most people aren't used to two-wheeled riding. They're used to cars. Cars don't countersteer. They don't have brakes and clutches and throttles up on the handlebars.

Much like a child learning to walk, much of the fine muscle control is learned via trial-and-error. Most new riders notice a period of what's called "ham-fisting", where you learn to tread the fine line between "too much throttle" and "not enough throttle". It's not that you don't understand it...your mind needs to learn to operate your hands in a different way than you're used to operating them.

Think of getting on a bike as if someone suddenly added a tail or third arm to your body. You wouldn't know how to operate it at first. Eventually, through trial-and-error, you would probably figure out the basics, but it'd take a while to develop any dexterity with it.

Now with a bike, it's a little faster because you often have the advantage of mechanical understanding, experienced riders or learning materials to help you pick up the techniques faster, but it still takes a while to put them into practice.

The danger during this time is that most riders have to split their attention between "riding the bike" and "riding the road". While the rider is focusing their conscious attention on operating the machine smoothly, they also have to be aware of road hazards and other drivers. Sometimes, coming into a corner too hot or a hazard in the road seizes too large a chunk of attention from the rider, leaving them fumbling at the controls and leading to a bad situation.

The Most Dangerous Time

The most dangerous time for a new rider is when they're just starting to "get it". As their minds start subconsciously sequencing the actions needed to control the bike, the rider starts to feel the actions flowing together without much thought. This feeling could be called an "a-ha" moment. Suddenly, everything you've been struggling so hard with starts to make perfect sense and flows almost effortlessly.

Because everything suddenly seems easier and more fluid, you lose track of exactly how much attention you're STILL using to manage the sequencing of these events and keep them flowing smoothly.

You may notice that even though you feel a lot smoother, if you take a break for a minute, you feel a rush of mental fatigue. It's because you've been straining to maintain the level of focus necessary to stay at that "next level".

Now imagine if something goes wrong. If you were riding at your previous level, taking your time and focusing carefully on both the bike and the road, you'd have plenty of focus and attention to deal with problems. You'd only be using maybe 75% of your attention. Now, you're so excited about finally starting to interface with the bike that you're driving 100% your attention into maintaining that level of riding. You don't have anything left to give in an emergency.

That's usually when season-ending or bike-destroying crashes occur. A hazard occurs in the road or you end up charging a corner too quickly and before you can even free up some attention to acknowledge the situation, you're sliding across the asphalt. (did you wear your leathers?)

Riding Confidence

If you survive the "dangerous time", eventually your subconscious mind starts to take over. You no longer have to devote a lot of your attention or focus to operating the becomes like second-nature. Like walking, or opening and closing your hand.

At this point, you are no longer controlling the machine. You ARE the machine. The bike becomes an extension of your will. You're no longer worried about steering the bike down the know that the motorcycle will do exactly what you direct it to do, and you finally can fluently speak its language.

You're now free to devote the bulk of your attention not to riding the bike, but to riding the road. Being able to focus on the road or track in front of you allows you to form a more complete relationship with it. With that understanding of the road comes smooth riding, and from smoothness comes grace and speed.

It's only when the bike no longer matters that you can truly start to understand the road.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Scary Corners

What kind of corner scares you? If you ask most riders, they'll quickly acknowledge that certain kinds of turns induce a lot more fear than others. Some riders just feel like they have a favorite "side" to turn to, left or right. Some remember with particular vividness a corner or turn that really made them pucker. Can you think of such a turn?


When I first started riding, I shared the sentiment that the majority of riders here in the states have. The scariest kind of corner for the new street-rider is the dreaded decreasing-radius right-hander. I'm not sure why this is, specifically, but I have a pretty good guess. Here in the states, we drive on the right-hand side of the road.

If you're out in the canyons or the wooded backroads and you run out of lean in a left-hand turn, usually the worst that'll happen is you slide into the dirt on the side of the road...maybe hit a tree if you're unlucky. Broken bones can happen, but likely you'll be able to walk or hobble away from the accident.

If you slide out in a right-hander, you're drifting right into oncoming traffic, possibly into the path of an oncoming pickup truck. Vehicle-to-vehicle accidents are much less forgiving. The last thing any rider wants to do is get run over.

(I'd be interested in finding out if our friends across the pond in the UK feel the same way about left-handers.)

Feeling the Squeeze

Decreasing-radius turns, turns that "tighten up" midway through the corner, only compound this fear. Now you don't even have to slide out of the corner. All you have to do is come in a little too hot to end up running into the "line-of-fire".

A decreasing radius often comes as a nasty surprise to a new rider on a new road. When the road starts tightening up, that's usually when panic sets in and mistakes happen. Fear draws our eyes away from our intended path (where they should be) and toward our potential untimely end, the guardrail or ditch on the other side of the road. And as everyone learns, the bike goes where you look.

Worse yet, many riders chop the throttle and start squeezing the brakes, overwhelming the front tire. The best-case scenario at that point is that the braking force causes the front wheel to turn in further, standing the bike up and running it right where you don't want it to go. The worst-case scenario is that you lock the front brake in the middle of the turn, tucking the front wheel and smashing your machine (and you) into the asphalt. Then you're sliding in the wrong direction instead of rolling there.

It's About Control

The interesting thing about the street-rider's fear of the tightening right-hand turn is that it's based on the rider's level of confidence in controlling the motorcycle. It's the idea that the rider may encounter a situation that he or she cannot control that will cause them to drift into oncoming traffic. This fear is indicative of a couple of attitudes that one should look to outgrow as one matures as a rider.

A mature street-rider should never get "surprised" by a turn. If you do, you're just going too fast. Not too fast for the turn, but too fast for YOU.

A good rider won't race into turns he doesn't have an intimate knowledge of. If it's your first time on a road, you shouldn't feel compelled to keep up with a rider who dives into a corner faster than you. Slow down, take your time, and leave plenty of lean in reserve your first time through.

This will give you the opportunity to discover how that corner works. Does it get looser? Does it get tighter? Is there wash-out or gravel in a certain part of the turn that you should be expecting? Is there a driveway? Does it lead into a set of switchbacks or a long straight?

Once you know a decreasing-radius right-hander, you can plan for it. You can hold some lean in reserve for when the turn tightens on you. Or you can get deeper into the turn before you commit to it and steer more aggressively to take a tighter line.

To be a mature street-rider, you also need to have full confidence in your ability to control the bike. That means if you DO end up getting into a corner too hot, you have the presence of mind to consciously control the bike, instead of letting your panic reactions take over.

That means that you have to develop the discipline to keep looking through your corner, even if it tightens on you. It means you have to know how to countersteer your motorcycle to lean it over further and tighten your line, if necessary. And it means you have to have the nerves to keep the gas on and leave the brakes alone.

In other words, you have to be confident that you, as a rider, can control your motorcycle enough to make that turn.


I realized a strange thing when I was out riding a couple of days ago on my favorite patch of back-road. I'm no longer as nervous about tightening right-handers. If I come on one that's particularly spooky, I just back off the speed a little bit. But even now I find I'm becoming faster and faster through those turns, mainly because I'm starting to acquire confidence in my ability and the machine's ability to make those corners. The idea that I am out of control of the machine doesn't typically cross my mind.

Now, I'm still more concerned about the decreasing-radius right-handers than other turns. Here's the kicker, though...they scare me more going the OTHER way.

A decreasing-radius right-hander going one way is an INCREASING-radius LEFT-hand turn coming the other way. So why should I be concerned about making this turn?

Truth be told, I'm not concerned about ME making this turn. I'm concerned about the traffic coming the other way. As I'm entering a loosening left-hand turn and setting up an early apex, I always feel this reminder in the back of my head that for oncoming traffic, that turn is still a tightening right-hander. That means if the truck coming the other way (or the squidly noob-rider) isn't prepared for it, they will end up with two wheels in MY lane.

So as it turns out, I can't really take the line I want to, because I have to account for the other traffic on the road. I'm comfortable with my ability to make the's the OTHER guy that makes me nervous these days.

Right-handers, I know as I approach my apex, I'm hanging close to the side of the road, so even if a car DOES drift into my lane, I'm well-over out of his way. And I have enough confidence that I'm not going to drift wide, that I know the road, my bike, and myself well enough to keep the bike in my lane...whether that means quicker steering, better line, or just slowing the hell down. :)