Go Faster or Safer or Both

Adapted from Bike U.K© August 1997

“Speed”: it does matter what your responsible self says, speed is a key reason for biking and if you do not like speed (any kind of speed) you should stick to different sports. If, on the other hand, you want to use motorcycles not only as a transportation vehicle but also as a sporting/touring tool you must understand speed. A racer is safe at 180Kph on a circuit while extremely dangerous at 40 KpH in a village. Speed per se is not dangerous: speeding it is.

What makes speeding dangerous is the level of experience and the lack of training and self evaluation common to most riders. Testing speed riding without proper knowledge it is not only stupid but also criminal for all road users. Speed should be our friend: the conclusion of the Bike U.K© August 1997 article points out an important consideration: “ If you’ve done your homework (improving riding techniques) right, you’ll be faster and smoother. More importantly, you’ll have a bigger safety margin. You can ride at the same speed with less risk, or keep the risk the same and go faster. Whatever you do, remember you don’t know it all – no one does. Treat every ride as a lesson, learn what you can and, when you find people faster or smoother than you, check their level of self-evaluation and, if good, pick their brains and their skills”

Sort your mind out. You will need this in top working order. Without it, you are just so many stone of bone, flab and sinew, careering hopeless towards a big accident. Every action you take is controlled by your mind. Think to yourself: what do I want to do? If the answer is “Go bloody fast regardless,” then forget it. The right answer’s something like, “Ride as fast as I can and still live to be 80”. Tell yourself, aloud if necessary: “I am going to be aware of every single action I take on the bike”. You will get some funny looks, but not so many as you will get lying in a ditch.

Sort your body out. Ever had that tight, cramped sensation between your shoulder blades? Blamed it on the riding position’? It’s actually tension and if you are tens you cannot ride well. You cannot move about smoothly on the bike, and every action is slower, jerkier and harder. The trick is to start relaxed, then you have a chance of staying that way, and especially if your head is right and you are riding smoothly. So every few minutes when you are riding check if you are tensing up. If so back off, breathe deeply, hold a half-smile, and stay slower for at few miles while you work on getting smooth again.

Scan the horizon. If you look just in front of the front tire you will wobble around and react to things after they have happened. If you look as far ahead as you can see you will follow a smooth, accurate line, anticipating and dealing with whatever happens in advance. So, make looking further ahead your mantra and you will notice the difference straight away.

Take the wide view. Just looking miles ahead is never enough. You need some attention in reserve to check in all directions and keep you updated on anything likely to affect you. Think of it like radar in a low-flying plane.. On the road you’ll be continually updating your mental reports on following traffic, side roads that could spill slow-moving cars into your path, road surface and feel, and a hundred other things. You’ll quietly be keeping tabs on your bike, too: fuel level, revs, gear, it is all going on in the back of your mind, only coming to the front when an alarm goes off. That’s it.

Meet Your Brakes. Brakes are not on/off switches. They are capable of being used as subtly as your throttle. When most riders try going faster, there’s a temptation to do it by braking later and harder. Think: “Do I need to brake at all?” We have been conditioned to brake, turn, go, but it should be stabilize speed, turn, and go. The crucial thing is to arrive at the turn-in point at the right speed – whether you have had to brake, accelerate or keep a steady speed. In emergency stops it is not enough to hit the anchors hard and pray. Although the front tire does 75-90 per cent of braking, the front/rear balance of every bike is different, and changes with weather, pillions and road conditions. You are searching for the point just before lock-up. You can only get that from long practice and plunging your head into a state of concentration where you focus on nothing else.

Defensive Riding. Basically, assume everybody and everything is trying to maim you, and ride accordingly. Try to cultivate a state of mind where every accident would secretly be your fault for not seeing it coming. On a bike, there is no point being in the right if you have no legs.

You Go Where You Look. Whether it is a car pulling out or a brick in the road, you seem to steer straight at it as if pulled by a tractor beam. It is partially because you are staring at what looks like inevitable disaster, and partially because it is impossible to steer anyway with the brakes on hard. So drag your eyes off the danger (and your hand off the brake, until you are sure you really want to commit yourself to stopping) and actively look for the gap.

Reading the road. You cannot be a fast, safe road rider unless can read the road, any more than you can be a top musician without being able to read music. It means taking every scrap of information from your environment, and processing it in terms of two main questions: What is going on? There is obvious stuff, like the car that might have seen you, jaywalking pedestrians, and lurking cops. You should spot these half asleep. However, get subtle: every piece of evidence has to be sifted, weighed and acted upon or discarded. As someone famous said the price of peace is eternal vigilance. He didn’t add that the price of not looking is a big insurance claim. Where does the road go? This is where a trick of the trade can bail you out. It’s called Vanishing Point and it is the point where the right and left sides of the road appear to meat. If that point gets closer to you back off: the bend is about to tighten up. If the point is staying the same distance away, the bend continues as it is. And if the point is running away from you chase it: the bend it is opening out and it is safe to get back on the gas.

Riding in the rain. “Rain – I hear you cry – we thought this vas supposed to be fun”. It is, honest. Vet riding really tests how much you have absorbed the doctrine of smoothness and relaxation. If you ride tense, the wet will make you tenser, so you’ll be afraid to touch the throttle and brakes, so you’ll ride more jerkily so you’ll become less happy, so you’ll get more tense and so the cycle continues. If you are smooth you’ll find of grip, brake nearly as hard as in the dry and grin like a loon.

Easy, isn’t it? That’s it. If you’ve done your homework, right, you’ll be faster and smoother. More importantly, you’ll have a bigger safety margin. You can ride at the same speed with less risk, or keep the risk the same and go faster. Up to vote. Whatever you do, remember you don’t know it all – no one does. Treat every ride as a lesson, learn what you can and, when you find people faster or smoother than you do, pick their brains. The ultimate compliment is when people start to do it to you.

By Paolo Volpara

"Si sta come d'autunno sugli alberi le foglie"