The Death Spiral

Yesterday I spent the afternoon with some pros working on my skills.

I also gave my brake lever a cooooool new custom bend…and ordered a new one at the Honda shop.  I got off lucky though, another rider decided he needed a new wind shield and used gravity a tad more robustly than I.  When I had my gravity attack it wasn’t a big surprise because I’ve learned one thing while leaned over at 3 to 7 mile per hour.  There’s this thing I call “The Death Spiral”.   It’s a point where as the bike leans and slows, instead of throttling up and out we tend to roll off, slow, and fall.

Go do couple of low speed figure 8s, then just start doing full lock 360s and 540s…you’ll see what I mean.  There’s this magnetic vortex in the middle of your circle that pulls you in like Odysseus to a Siren…you….just….seem….drawn…in.

It’s like a reverse Fibonacci Spiral.  You know–that increasing series of numbers that, when correctly graphed looks like:

Graphic interpretation of the Fibonacci sequence.

I had been feeling it all day but I didn’t really see it until another rider went down in the “Snowman” (a series of  540 rotations of decreasing radius).   You just suddenly start losing speed and then things just spiral in from there.  To stop a death spiral you have to commit what seems to be an unnatural act: use the damn throttle.   You power out of the spiral, by applying power you can stand that bike up and break the sequence.

Power works.  By throttling up and feathering the clutch you get control back.  The unfortunate natural reaction is to power down which means less momentum, less control and, finally, gravity takes over and you get a brand new brake lever/fairing/scar out of it.

This spiral, the collapse into gravity is very, very real and is one of the principles of riding that is often ignored.  Once things start going bad we allow a cascade to happen that drags us faster and faster to voidable disaster.  Read that carefully, avoidable disaster.  There’s an almost universal feeling that motorcyclists get when things are going wrong.  Even accomplished motorcyclists will surrender control and allow a situation to spiral in.  I believe part of this is due to the fatalist vision that “Everybody crashes”.   We pre-program ourselves with the idea that we will fall ingrained into our vision as an unavoidable outcome.

Myself? In my head, after falling, I said, “Knew that was going to happen today.”  A resignation to fatalism.  Which it shouldn’t have been.  I should have thought, “Power, throttle, clutch,  needed more…just let that thing suck me into the ground…gotta fight.”

As riders we shouldn’t surrender to fate.  When you feel that “Knew that was going to happen” turn it around and make it “HOW did that happen AND what can I do to avoid that in the future?”   To quote The Clash’s Joe Strummer:   “The future is unwritten.”   May I add, “Keep it that way.  Don’t stop breathing.  It ain’t over until you decide it is.”


Bright Lights, Big Sound

Here’s the dealio:

I really, really dislike it when riders run around with their brights on.  It gripes me in my car and on my bike.  Also, it’s eye searing and annoys the general public.  I have heard the refrain that says, “If they are annoyed who cares, at least they know I’m there.”

Just like loud pipes.

Granted loud pipes don’t blind you to the point you’re unable to look out the front of your vehicle nor are you potentially endangered as your body strains to constrict the iris in your eyeball and you put up your hand to shade your eyes…  (*Foot note: cops shine their flashlight in your eyes at night to make sure your iris contracts, if you are impaired that pain in your eyes as the iris contract  won’t happen, your eyes will remain large dialated pools of happiness, like SpongeBob when he speaks of the Krabby Patty…which is a big hint to the cops that you’re wasted.)  Yes, I am saying that when you blind other users with 10,000 lums of light you are potentially placing them at heightened risk.   Are you drowning puppies?  Are you among Satan’s legions?  No.  But you are creating a situation of divided attention that goes beyond, “Oh, look!  A motorcycle.”  And occassionally folks like me throw their hands up in the air and shriek, “I’m blind, I’m blind I tell you!”  And my car pinballs a little in the lane.

More importantly if I’m annoyed (and I LOVE bikes) you’re probably pissing other folks off as well.

Just like loud pipes.

“Wait a second,” you say, “Loud pipes don’t save lives!  There’s no comparison.”

Oh, but there is my friend there is.  The point of crossover is contained in one word:  Selfishness.  Selfishness is the act of being selfish and shelfish is defined as:

1. Chiefly concerned with one’s own interest, advantage, etc, esp to the total exclusion of 
the interests of others

2.  Relating to or charactorized by self-interest.

OH, and the evidence on running with your brights is as conclusive and anecdotal as the evidence for loud pipes.  Generally it runs along the line of, “I run brights/loud pipes and I know they’ve saved my life.  Nobody every turns left in front of me.  Ever.”  Hmmmm.  I’ve smoked a few cigars in the day and I don’t have cancer–therefore cigars don’t cause cancer!  Makes good sense to me.   Correlation is not Causation and your experience may be totally unique.

One thing is fur sure:  you are annoying as hell.  Now, imagine a world where motorcycles had a volume control–a knob that goes from zero to eleven and then a click louder to “severe hearing damage”.  Wouldn’t it be cool if you could run loud pipes out on the freeway, knob set to “ears bleeding” and then dial it back down to “angry german shepherd” when you were  in town?   Crash think, Crash want.   I would love that.  Loads of folks would love that.  I was sitting in a turn lane the other day and suddenly I felt the sound of idling v-twin behind me.   Heard and felt.  Watched a couple of cars roll up thier windows.  Unhappy citizens.  Image if they had dialed it down to “pleasant rumble” instead…or you could just have a switch–one that went from LOUD to QUIET with the roll of a rocker switch!  That would be great!  Fabulous!  It would would work just…like…your…

Highbeam switch.

See where I’m going here?

Be Safe

Braking Prejudice

Recently I came across this curious exchange on a motorcycling website:

Person #1 –I try to use 70 percent front and 30 percent rear brake when stopping, That’s the guideline. If you get a different bike take your time to get used to the brakes and how much pressure you have to use before they start to grab.

Person #2–Reality is that the front is 90-98% of your stopping power. They use 70%-30% as a guideline since 95% of the population doesnt know how to brake correctly.

Person #2 is saying a couple of different things.  First, that they ride a sportbike which due to geometry and design really do rely very, very heavily on the front brake, particularly while completing braking (after the wieght shift has fully compressed the front).  Second, he/she is calling the MSF and others generous liars while denigrating most of the riding population.  A tad…grandiose or narcissistic; which is my turf so stay off it!

Where was I?

Oh yes, the idea that the MSF is telling generous lies in order to create safer riders.  Wrong.  The 70% – 30% number is used because all bikes pitch forward under braking.  As they load up you can apply more brake.  The rear gets lighter and you may have to ease off to keep from skidding.  Is every stinking motorcycle running on a 70-30 ratio? NO.  In fact we just discussed how the ratio can actually be a sliding scale as the bike compresses on the front.   Folks in the safety community are using a “rule of thumb” and that means that they have picked an average number that best reflects the power of the front in order to emphasize it’s under-utilization.

There are two basic basic belief traditions in the motorcycling world (Positions are portrayed in the extreme for dramatic effect–however I regularly hear both.):

1.  The front will kill you.  Never use it.

2.  The back is useless.  Save some weight and remove it.

There are two corresponding groups to these beliefs.  Riders of V-twin and other low slung bikes have very little trust in the front while riders of high performance bikes with higher centers of gravity (CG) have no use for the rear.  Think.  Why would riders of low CG bikes worry about the front while riders of high CG bikes feel the rear of little value.

I like the term “Pitch” to explain this.  If you want a nifty animation go here:  Cool NASA graphic

Pitch is rotation on what we’d normally call the X axis on a graph.  It means the the front goes up and the rear goes down or the front goes down and the rear goes up.  You can see where I’m going with this, yes?  Cruisers, with a low center of gravity that is set further back don’t “pitch down” as profoundly as a Sportbike with a high, forward CG does.  Bluntly:  Sportbikes reward greater use of the front and Cruisers reward greater use of the rear.  Simply do to pitch.  Yes, this is vastly oversimplified but that’s the issue.  You need to understand how other bikes work so if you ride one or are giving advice about motorcycles you can avoid words like “Always” and “Never”.   Always and Never as words that are very dangerous to employ.  Once you say “Always…” you may have a listener who thinks that makes sense and decides to use that advice out of context.

And thus are born prejudices that when widely applied fail because prejudice means you’re unwilling to consider other ideas and clinging to a stereotype or wrong observation you apply the wrong solution to a situation because you don’t even consider that bikes and their design make them handle differently.  Yup.  If you think every bike behaves like your bike you are wrong.  Sure there are overarching principles of physics but the mechanics and application change.

It’s no different than saying “Only stupid people didn’t graduate from High School.”  It’s a blind statement that may carry a shred of truth but when applied to all situations is dead nuts, flat out wrong.  Take it from a guy who didn’t graduate with his friends–it wasn’t because I’m an idiot.  Every situation is different.  In motorcycling we need to remember that bikes and those that choose them are different.  We all have different reasons we ride.  To put it in terms I like:  I don’t care what you ride, I just love the fact you ride.  I don’t care if you like a parade or a solitary ride in the desert–I just love the fact you ride.  I don’t care how you brake, 90/10, 70/30 or 50/50 as long as you’re getting the most out of your bikes ability to brake.  It’s time to stop assuming everyone is just like you and everyone’s motorcycle acts just like yours.  Learn to brake on your bike…and break some prejudices while you’re at it.

Be Safe.


Enigmatic Doors lyric to consider:

Oh, yeah!
Made the scene
Week to week
Day to day
Hour to hour
The gate is straight
Deep and wide
Break on through to the other side
Break on through to the other side