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.

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