Thursday, May 8, 2008

Learning to Ride the Hard Way

motorcycle accident sceneA popular saying among motorcycle riders is, "ride within in your abilities". Meaning, don't push yourself beyond what you're comfortable with.

That statement became a point of discussion yesterday.

Five of us were sitting down eating hamburgers at Nessie's in Bonsall, CA, after a ride around the back country. One of the guys had crashed his bike during the same ride.

I had said that you can't look at it as having damaged your bike, or having injured yourself. But rather, look at it as gaining knowledge. Besides, he needed to come up with an explanation for his wife, who he felt certain was going to give him an "I told you so". And what better explanation than to say, "Well Honey, I'm a better rider now"?

We were on a stretch of road here in SoCal known as "Mesa Grande", in northern San Diego County, and popular with motorcycler riders. The first few miles of this road is straight, with almost no traffic, encouraging people to crank the throttle. Then it takes a hard turn to the left in a 20mph switchback. Many riders have gone down here, with yesterday being the latest.

The bike got the worst of it, but it turned out to be rideable. He suffered only some scrapes and bruises. And despite the CHP, the Sheriff, and the ambulance, we pulled the bike out of the ditch, and he continued on with the ride.

One of the coincidences, is that another guy riding with us made the same statement I made on this blog last month, "There are riders who have crashed, and there are riders who will crash."

The guy who crashed responded back with, "I always wondered what it would feel like, going down." Well, he knows what it feels like to go down easy into a ditch, around 35mph, even though it was still a painful experience. Hopefully he won't experience a more worse accident.

But let's get back to the conversation at Nessie's.

He said "While I should definitely ride within my ability, how am I supposed to improve if I don't try pushing myself?"

This guy had been riding for about a year. I had ridden with him several times, mostly in the past couple of months, but I've known him for about a year. He's witnessed how most of us in our riding club ride, and used us to measure his skill level.

He's always been a cautious rider, riding slower than most people I normally ride with. I can't fault any of that. But I was in the same place he had been in, riding slowly and cautiously, until I started riding with a group. I noticed most of the riders possessed quite a bit more skill than I. I would push myself beyond the comfort level because I wanted to improve.

To answer his question, he certainly should push himself. Part of the benefit of group riding is to improve your riding skills. He simply went into the switchback faster than he was accustomed to handling, and scraped his floorboard. Hearing the sound of the scrape jarred his conscience and caused him to straighten up, and into the path of the ditch. He just needs to spend more time scraping his floorboard and getting used to the sound.

You could also argue that Mesa Grande is not the place to scrape your floorboards if you're not used to the sound. Maybe. But then again, I'd argue that roads in and of themselves are not dangerous; it's how hard or soft you ride that makes it dangerous. I think pushing himself on Mesa Grande is fine, he just pushed himself too hard than what he was prepared to handle.

One thing that some of us in our riding club have said, is that we want to spend time doing practices. That's something we didn't do in the other clubs we've been in. Brian and I actually spent some time doing this about a couple of months ago, riding up and down Wilson Valley about three times in each direction, each time practicing how we approached the curves, and each time discussing what we could do to improve.

I'm going to start doing more of those practices in this club.


  1. Ouch! My broken wings were 100% cager inflicted, and there wasn't anything I could do about it. It must be a humbling experience to run your bike into a ditch. I'm glad your friend's ego is bruised more than the rest of him.

    I've gone into a few corners and realized a bit too late that I was going too fast for the turn. There's that panic pain in the pit of your stomach that comes with a simultaneous lump in the back of your throat... Luckily I was able to lean my Sporty for all she was worth, tap the rear brake, throttle up out of it, and not crash. So far, anyway!

    BTW, I crashed about 6 weeks after bragging to a guy about how proud I was I'd ridden so long and never crashed!

  2. Just because something is new to you or you are pushing beyond what you have ever done before doesn't mean that it is out of your comfort zone. In order to become a better rider, you must continue to press right to the edge of that comfort zone. After awhile, that edge moves forward. Riding on roads with more than 2 lanes scared the crap out of me the first month or two that I had my license. But after riding at 25 mph around my neighborhood for hours, it became comfortable enough to pick up the speed to a 40 mph two-lane road. THAT was actually exhilerating the first time I did it! In no time, the speed was a non-issue, so it made the multiple lane road much less daunting. Last week I rode a section of interstate highway! As you climb your ladder of risk, you will eventually feel so at home on one rung that stepping it up to the next level is not out of your comfort zone. Just take baby steps...and there doesn't have to be a "hard way."

  3. Crashing doesn't make you a better rider, it makes you an injured rider. What the act of crashing does is to shine a blinding spotlight on whatever skills you are deficient in and perhaps inspire you to improve on them. I have two words for your friend: Counter and Steering.

    And Joker... Holy crap, you tap your REAR brake in a hard turn? That's just begging for trouble, my friend.

  4. Sorry Chuck, I respectfully disagree.

    There are many myths about proper motorcycle braking, and all I can say is that I wouldn't say it if I hadn't successfully done it.

    While in a curve and leaning, traction and braking efficiency are reduced, but that doesn't mean it can't be done, and done safely. Gentle use of the rear brake cuts your speed and has the advantage of not automatically widening the turn as is the case when you use the front brake.

    In the case of a panic stop, it's not easy to do but you have to straighten the bike up and apply the front brake first, then the rear. The way I was taught, the guy said always "look straight and brake straight."

    Honestly, I've never had to try an emergency stop in a curve, so I don't know if it works or if I could do it successfully. I do know that I have come into a few corners too fast, and easy use of the back brake going into the curve, combined with countersteering works. After all, I'm still here to write about it. :)

  5. It wasn't counter steering, it was being afraid to drag his boards. As soon as he heard that sound, he straighted up, and put himself on a course for the ditch.

  6. Hey Steve, Sorry it's taken me so long to get back to you. I'm not sure if you're aware, but I'm in college and two weeks away from graduation with my AA in Law...IF I get through the next two weeks. I've been spending most of my time working on my studies and as a result my blog time is suffering.
    If I can get there I will definitely take you up on your offer (if it still stands. I have some last minute work to do that night, but I hope to be done before 7:30.
    As for the spill... Your friend is lucky. I've known people who have gone down a LOT slower and ended up with major injuries. I hope the lesson is not lost. Mrs. RC is right, if you stay within your comfort zone, but push toward the limit of it, it will expand. The key is balancing on the line.
    As for the debate over using the rear brake in a turn, I think the emphasis is on the word "gently". You don't want to lock up the rear wheel & cause a skid for sure. I personally use both in tandem most of the time, so that is my reflex.
    So far I'm still in the category of those who will crash, someday.
    Hopefully we'll all find methods that work for us when we need them.

  7. For me it was a dog, it didn't know which way to run so I ran it over at around 60 or 70 kilometres per hour. Unfortunately the dog wasn't one of those fluffy breeds that are all soft and squishy on the inside. It was incompressible and just fractionally softer than diamond.

    Although the dog was running scared after I blasted it with some air horn, I still had ample opportunity to avoid the situation entirely. The single thing I didn't do was bleed off speed as soon as I saw the animal, I had plenty of time, I just didn't do it. In my head I'm thinking the dog will get off the road, they always do. Never thought for a second the damn thing would grab a calculator and tweak the numbers, then run at me with a perfect intercept. (Lesson learned, the hard way)

    I was wearing full gear, so not much more than a few scratches and a bit of a limp for a couple of days after, same can't be said for my bike. Dented front rim, flat tire, damaged head bearings in the steering, bent brake disc, damaged caliper, front brake line severed, fairing damage all over, busted mirrors, levers, and some scrapes and bends here and there where they never existed previously.

    The short story, I was an idiot. The longer story, I was an idiot. The crazy thing is that I'd already gone over this scenario in my head a thousand times. I didn't follow the little voice in my head saying slow it down dude.


About Steve

A vagabond who hauls a motorcycle around the country in a toy hauler, earning a living as a website developer. Can often be found where there's free Wi-Fi, craft beer, and/or public nudity. (Read more...)