By Rupert Paul – Riding Skills  11 June 2009 15:05

Jon Taylor has been a racer (he’s a former double Bemsee club champion), bike cop and long-time Nürburgring instructor. He’s now part of Rapid Training and one of the most senior IAM examiners in the UK. I can personally vouch that he is a superb rider, and an ideal man to ask about how to ride on country roads.

“I use the Roadcraft system,” says Jon. “Getting your road position, speed and gear right, and trying to see things before they happen. It works for me so well – I even used it when I was racing. I find with students that when things aren’t going right, if they go back and put the Roadcraft system as a template over what they did, things often make more sense.

“So many people try to go fast by going quickly into bends and sorting it out afterwards. If they just concentrated in getting their road position, speed and gear right they’d not only be faster, they’d be safer too.

Jon chose four areas to focus on: reading the situation, knowing your own ability, multiple hazards and – the modern sportsbike rider’s favourite – riding in groups.

“They say you start off with a full bag of luck and an empty bag of experience,” he observes. “And the trick is to fill your bag with experience before your luck runs out. Training tries to help you do that.”

Read the situation

“The biggest cause of problems is when people are losing vision, and they don’t lose speed. They fly into a bend, and it’s, ‘Oh my God I’m going too fast’. So what do you do?

“The solution is to use the vanishing point, the place as far ahead as you can see, where the two kerbs meet. Everybody gets the chance of an information stage going into a bend; it’s what you do with it that counts, and the vanishing point gives you your approach speed. Think of it like playing with a puppy: when you run towards it, it backs away, and when you turn away it chases after you. Now put yourself in the place of that puppy and you have it. You’re using the throttle as a time control: less throttle, more time, and vice versa.”

“The other big factor is not using vision effectively. You can see something and not react – or you can see something and it doesn’t even occur to you. Yet a good rider might pick up an aerial, or a reflection in a window, and modify their plan accordingly. When I was in the police heading for an accident scene I could guess what people were going to say: ‘I was driving along when suddenly…’ That word ‘suddenly’. If we had five seconds’ warning there’s no way we’d have an accident. Yet you can gain that time – maybe not five seconds but perhaps just enough to prevent the accident – through planning, and that comes especially through training.

“A lot of times fatal crashes were just the wrong circumstances – something caught them out. You prepare for one thing, but other things conspire. A car pulls out part way, and the rider has to choose between braking and changing course. So he tries to go in another direction that was unplanned, into a lamp post or whatever, not having got rid of his speed.”

Know yourself

“Few people know how hard a bike can stop or turn, or how to do it. There’s a Japanese martial art – I think it’s Bushido – where there’s a saying: to make something instinctive you have to do it 10,000 times, so that when it happens you can do it as an automatic response. An Olympic skier has to train six hours a day, six days a week, all year round, just to stay where they are. So when riders get dialled back in for summer it’s always a sudden jump. This is where road training, track days and off-road training days are so useful.

“The type of rider who sorts everything out purely on reactions and machine control can spend a long time riding without accidents. Maybe he can get away with it time after time. But he’s still relying on his dice coming up six. And one day it comes up one instead.

“The big thing is realistic self-evaluation. That rider might have a near-miss, become aware he’s not invulnerable, and re-adjust his clock. But some people just refuse to believe they are the problem, and it’s almost impossible to deal with a closed mind. If you try and tell them something they’ll rebel against it. Maybe if they happen to see someone riding really well, better than they are – and can admit it – maybe they’ll ask themselves, ‘How do they do that?’.

Multiple hazards

“Many riders don’t prioritise hazards. For example, imagine going into a right hand bend with a blind junction on the left just before it. Many people will position themselves on the visibility line for the bend, right in the mouth of the junction.

“Now that bend isn’t going to change too much. But the junction might hide a fast-approaching car, and for the driver, the last bit of their vision to clear is the bit on the right hand side hiding the motorcyclist. Many riders won’t take account of the junction until a car appears there. But if the timing is wrong you can be in a very vulnerable position: it becomes a done deal straight away. So you choose a more central position, and a speed that balances the two priorities.

“A Harvard professor came up with the phrase ‘inattentional blindness’ to describe the phenomenon of looking but not seeing. It was on telly recently – he showed a short piece of film with about 20 basketball players jumping around. You were asked to concentrate on the ball. Immediately afterwards, he asked, ‘Did you see the gorilla?’ When he re-ran the film there was this guy in a gorilla suit striding in and waving at the camera. But because you weren’t looking for it you didn’t see it. And bikes can be in that role.”

Group riding

hebbian curve“The biggest problem with riding in groups is different abilities, and the temptation not to be left behind. Suppose a trailing rider falls back. To close the gap he’s now got to ride faster than the rider who got away, maybe on ability. And the only way to make that up is to eat into his safety margin. I use a simple psychological tool called the Hebbian curve to illustrate this.

“First, imagine 10mph on a motorway: not much information coming in, very boring. You’re getting too little stimulation.

“Now imagine a series of lovely, easy bends, with you getting that fun feeling inside. You’re engaged, you’re close to performing at your optimum, and you’ve got a little in reserve.

“Finally, imagine trying to stay with a better rider on a greasy road. Now it doesn’t feel fun. It feels fast. And that’s a danger sign: your vision comes down, your shoulders tense up, nothing works properly. So come down just a few mph, back to where it feels fun, back to the meaty part of the curve.

“Many riders won’t admit to themselves that they’re getting beyond their peak. Often in training I’ll see one person struggling, fighting the bike, where a more thoughtful rider would back off into his comfort zone. And it’s all internal pressure. Very often if he stopped trying to catch up and just got into the fun zone he’d be quicker. Ride well and speed happens naturally.