Skilled and Safe

Ran into a conversation on the web and a rider was talking about how he wanted to be “more skilled” and “safer”.   Direct question here:  What does “more skilled” and “safer” really mean?  For background this rider had been attending track days and decided they weren’t helping him be more skilled or safer on the street.  The measuring stick he was using is that as his speed increases on the street, so does his discomfort.

Duh.  The faster you go the more, ahhh, energy you might have absorb should things go astray.

Often when speaking of being “more skilled” folks are actually saying something along the lines of, “I want to know I’ll be able to get myself out of a jam if I end up in one.”  The easy answer is always, “Don’t get into a jam.”

Duh.  That runs along the line of “If you don’t want to be in a motorcycle accident–don’t ride motorcycles.”  On my bikes I get into jams once in a while.  Generally minor ones which lead to that palm on face slap of “shoulda known better.”  Therein lies part of the root of what a rider’s desire to be “more skilled” and “safer” actually means; I believe they are saying, “I want to be more comfortable on the bike, in traffic and on the road.  I’m frightened I may get hurt…and I don’t want that.”

This is a bit of convolution I admit but we’re talking about where desire & ego met pragmatism & reality.  Ride long enough and you’ll suddenly understand the risks you’re taking, desire to minimize them often gets twisted into desire to have enough skills to evade them at close range.  To put this in military terms they seek to improve their close quarters combat skills instead of working to be able to solve a problem with a “stand off” weapon.

A stand off weapon is one that you use from a safe (or safer) distance.  Remember the old “Never bring a knife to a gun fight”?  Well, the knife is a close quarters weapon and the gun is a stand off weapon.  In fact, the saying should be “Always take a gun to a knife fight” because you then have the clear stand off advantage.  In motorcycling this is the difference between simply reacting to a situation as opposed to using SIPDE (Search, Identify, Predict, Decide, Execute) to avoid the problem completely.  Or, as the saying goes, “Use your expert judgement to avoid using your expert skills”.

I will not argue with the idea that the more skilled you are the more confident you will be.  If you know you can get yourself out of a jam that’s good…unless it leads to complacency because you figure you’ve got the chops to handle anything in which case you’re probably in the situation where you’re bringing a knife to a gun fight.

If you want “more skills” and to be “safer” you need to ask yourself:  what do I really want?  Odds are you’re getting surprised by events and that’s not a matter of physical skill that’s a matter of honing your mental skills and solving problems before they real dangers.

Be Safe.  Live a little further into the future.



We measure things like growth in animals by using percentiles.  A percentile is how you break up a population to measure specific traits or characteristics.  It is a means to literally say:  You are right here. In a population of 100 if you’re the 5th tallest person (5th place) then you’re the 95th percentile.  It’s a wonderful means to position size, weight, speed, height…or just about any objective measure in a large group.  In fact, when we speak of 1%ers we’re actually speaking percentiles!  One Percenters are the 99th percentile.  Odd yes?  Never thought of it that way have you…but then again you’ve probably not been hit in the head as much as I have.

As interesting as percentiles are they’re a super crappy way to measure your motorcycling ability.   Every rider rates themselves.  Generally the categories fall into things such as “Skilled” or “Experienced” or “Fast” or, well, whatever weird way we group ourselves.  It’s a normal process of self evaluation and comparison.  Trying to divide riders into categories is a tough business…akin to deciding what “beauty” is.  There’s lots of room for personal interpretation, words mean differing things to different people AND although we can measure and rate things like braking distance, corner speed or reaction times there is no real accurate way to measure the mental aspects and applications of riding.  So.  What is it that makes a rider “good” or “experienced” or “skilled”?

Let me share some internet standards I’ve encountered:

1.  The 20 foot u-turn.  Plenty of cyber-cyclists will tell you that if you can’t do this you’ve got no place on a bike.  Not particularly sure why but they seem to think its very, very important.  The odd part is that after a good 12 hours on the instructional range most Novices, who have never sat on a bike before can pull that one off.

2.  No Duck Walking.  I’m guilty of this one.  If you’re paddling out into the intersection I think “Rookie”.  So do lots of other folks.  I also mutter, “Feet up, get your feet up”.  Unfortunately it’s the measure of one launch, one time, in one unique situation.  If I ride with you and it’s consistently happening then I’m gonna ask what’s up; but to judge a person entirely from one duck walking adventure…well, that’s silly.  There is a true danger in duck walking because you could hook a foot or, worse, try to stop a 800 pound bike going 15mph with your spindly human ankles which snap surprisingly easily.  

3.  Accidents.  Anyone who crashes (unless a friend) is probably “not riding their own ride” and that’s the hallmark of an inexperienced rider.  Ninnies.  I always ride my own ride…yeah, that’s it…

4.  Figure 8s.  Yeah.  Ask me about that some time.  I may start drinking again.  Let’s just say 300 hours of figure 8’s doesn’t make you a good or experienced rider.  Could be a symptom of something else though…Figure 8s are a wonderful way to play with lean angle and feel the “flop” as you transition from right to left, left to right etc.  But if you’re worried about timing them as a hallmark of riding ability–I’m not on board.

5.  Gear.  With or without.  You’ll find several campfires out there.  If you don’t ATGATT you’re a bonehead and unfit to ride.  Go ATGATT and you’re a frightened mouse with no place on a bike.   This runs down the same road as the great helmet debate.  I’ve chased more than one unruly mop of hair and beard down the road and thought, “Damn, this cat knows what he’s doing”.  Gear may be a measure of danger awareness and risk calculation but trust me, there’s fast guys in full leathers and leather vests.

6.  Mechanical Ability.  Yup.  There are those who figure if you can’t fix it you shouldn’t be riding it.  Not a fan of this measure–because with ECUs and smog stuff…who can really fix a bad ECU on the side of the road with gasket glue?  I’ve pulled and replaced clutch baskets, springs and plates and I know I wouldn’t ride a bike I’ve cracked the case on…

7.  Hours, Miles, Years.  What if they’re crap hours, miles and years?  Dude’s been riding since 1967.  Cool.  But what, where, how and how often has he been riding?  I’ve played the guitar since age 15.  I suck. Why?  (See No. 8)

8.  Practice.  I don’t practice my guitar enough and who knows if I’m practicing well?  Heck, I’ve been playing for 35 years and practice, what? Once a month?  How much?  When?  Observed?  Don’t practice scales. My fingertips aren’t calloused enough.  Mrs. Crash thinks I’m great but in reality I play Christmas Carols at that time of the year and hymns once in a while the rest.  OH, and like any American teenager I can do the intro to Stairway to Heaven…and Don’t Fear the Reaper but that’s a generational thing.  There are plenty of folks out there practicing bad habits so how can practice be a measuring stick?

9.  Track time.  Love the idea.  If I had a track near me I’d own a little Ninja and flog that darn thing.  Unfortunately track riding is at its very core:  RACING.  Sure, you may not be racing that guy who just blew past you but you’re racing yourself, your own clock and times.  Yes, there are transferable skills like trail braking, line selection, situational awareness, traction management–all those good things.  However, track time is not street time and track behaviors and goals are not street behaviors and goals; take it from a guy who spent every available moment in the Santa Cruz mountains trying to go as fast as possible (yes, I regularly timed myself from 84 to the sea and from Alice’s to Highway 9).  In the hills playing fast and loose track time will undoubtedly help out.  Other than more finely tuned response times a stint on the track ain’t going to help you that much in stop and go traffic or in the subdivision.  Sorry.  Just is. Going through turns faster doesn’t mean safer or more skilled. 

If I don’t like your favorite measure don’t worry!  I don’t care.  If you’ve got one single means by which you decide on your own or other’s skill set then I think you’re dangerously myopic.   One of the troubles with motorcycle licensing is that we have to use objective measures when handing them out.  As an Instructor I’ve seen folks pass an intro course by the skin of their teeth.  Folks who scare the hell out of me end up with a waiver.  I’ve stood at the end of the last bit of the test and thought, “Shit.  They made it…should I add a foot to their stopping distance and fail them?”  NO.  That’s not ethical.  Instead at the end of the day I’ll say, “Friend?  You passed, barely and I’m frightened for you.  You need a lot more saddle time.”  Followed by suggestions to avoid high traffic areas and a ringing endorsement of ‘take the class again’ or ‘take the next level’ sooner than later.

Some very, very sketchy riders get endorsed but everyone has to start somewhere and perhaps the most important thing a course can do is help with self-awareness.  How good you are and where you stand on the journey are important takeaways from instruction.  I also get folks in a beginner’s class that clearly have skills.  I then tailor their individual instruction to the level of proficiency I see them produce.  Suddenly I’m not worried about that rider falling I’m concerned with getting them quality, useful information for their skill level.  Oh, I keep to the curriculum but I can work on higher level skills.  I can see the rider’s ability and skill just by watching them ride which means I can see where the spit and polish needs to happen.

In the end I’m not sure there’s any objective standards, a “do this and you’re that” measuring stick for riding.  Riding is so complex both physically and mentally that it requires mediation between those disparate parts of your ability in order to say:  “They’ve got chops.” Self measure ends up either too harsh or too forgiving, we give ourselves a break or we microscopically inspect every flaw and grow it into Godzilla wreaking havoc on our skill set Tokyo.

If you want to know how well you ride, how good or bad you are, if you must find your category then you need to find someone you respect and ride with them.  Don’t be observed by sycophants who are going to lie to you because they like you, or that guy who–though good–hates you, find that someone who’s dispassionate enough about you to really watch you.  When you ride you’ll see who’s got the chops, you will feel it, that connection of brain and bike that makes you look and think, “They’ve got it.  Damn they’ve got it”.  Here’s the tough part:  they may be your kind of people or they may not.  Good riders are male, female, short, tall, on v-twins, parallel twins, inline threes and fours, L-twins, long travel suspension, short travel suspension, green, red, purple, blue and orange motorcycles.

An accomplished rider is where you find them.  If you want to be one then associate yourself with them; sometimes what we are is dictated by where we are.

Choose wisely.

Be Safe.



*Not so random lyric:  Don’t care where the past was, I know where I’m going.