The Danger of Misunderstanding

I was reading a new section on advanced riding on another website (know thine enemy, I always say) and was not surprised to see that the first article dealt with cornering - it usually does! Rather than being the work of an advanced instructor, it appears to be written by someone who had completed a two day Motorcycle Appreciation Course in 1998 as part of the Honda advanced training initiative. No problem, I thought, that could throw an interesting perspective on the course.

However, reading it more closely revealed a couple of misunderstandings. At least I hope they are misunderstandings and not what was taught! One was fairly unimportant but the other was more worrying and concerns our old favourite the vanishing point and what to do with it...

He states "quick riding particularly through bends is all about position. Correct positioning will enable maximum visibility and consequently more rapid progress. Therefore moving to the left for a right hander, staying in to the left watching the vanishing point until you can see the exit then drifting away from the left towards the right easing out the bend and accelerating away will open the bend out allowing more brisk progress. The opposite applies for left handers".

No argument so far - every advanced riding course should emphasise that.

He continues "if all this seems rather obvious, it is probably because it is and certainly it came as nothing new to me. So why was I losing speed on the approach to bends and in some cases while negotiating them?

"I had forgotten not the need to assess the line of the road well in advance, but to maintain concentration on where it was going, in other words where I wanted to go... It took me some while to realise that instead of watching the vanishing point and chasing it, my eye was straying to changes in the road surface, the instruments, or minor obstructions. As soon as my concentration strayed, my momentum through the bend or on its approach reduced."

Maybe I'm deliberately failing to read between the lines, but to me (and possibly to someone reading this with little riding experience and looking for advice) it appears to mean the writer now focuses on the vanishing point to the exclusion of all else.

Now I live in the real world, I wouldn't attempt to do that and I'm sure that the writer wouldn't either... Of course we glance back and forth along our course as we ride, not to mention to the sides and behind us - we are not on a race track and we need to keep an up to date 360 degree mental map of our surroundings. Clearly, the danger of fixating on the distant view and thus excluding the wide angle view to the sides, the middle view of the immediate road layout and the detail view of the foreground, is just as dangerous as fixating on the foreground and not looking far enough ahead to get early hazard warning!

Nevertheless, it is important that we do look as far ahead as possible, not only to see where the road goes, but to get as early warning as possible about potential hazards such as other vehicles, side roads etc., but also those changes in road surface which affect us on a motorcycle very directly, but which the writer talks of as though they were a distraction to the all-important task of getting through the corner quickly.

These "distractions" can only be identified and assessed for danger by a glance when closer. Suppose you see a dark stain on the road surface in the distance. Experience tells you it may be a patch of different coloured tarmac (perhaps with different grip characteristics) or it may be a pothole, a damp patch or worst of all diesel.

So by looking ahead we have noted the patch, considered the possibilities and should have begun to plan what we intend to do about it, but the only way we can only make a decision on what action we need to take is when we are a bit closer and and can see it clearly. Common sense tells you are going to have to shift your attention to that patch as you get closer.

I assume that the writer got a lecture about the dangers of target fixation and the need to lift his view and look further ahead as he mentions in the same section "it is a truism that we go where we look. If you doubt me, when someone pulls across your path from a side junction where do you look? If the vehicle or obstruction becomes the centre of your universe then that is where you will end up. If however, you seek an escape route then you have a greater opportunity for emerging unscathed."

What I suspect the writer had been doing was treating the road as one bend at a time, and failing to link a line through successive bends, with the result that after the first couple he arrived off-line and with no clear idea where the road went. Unfortunately he seems to have taken the advice to look ahead to the opposite extreme - I hope that it was misinterpretation and that the instructor was not telling him to do that!

Oddly enough fixating on the distance is rarely mentioned in advanced courses (I don't think it is mentioned in the current version of Roadcraft - I'll have to check - maybe another tip to come), although the phenomenon of tunnel vision is well-known to be made worse by riding at high speeds and pushing your personal limits, which of course is just what our writer is doing.

In my experience as an Instructor, new riders tend to look far too close to the front wheel and fail to follow the line of the road very well, less in an attempt to see what they are about to ride over than because they do not have the mental map that allows them to be comfortable with bike positioning in the lane (see Practice Makes Perfect). More experienced (but not expert) riders will be comfortable with the idea of looking ahead, but will tend not to use much of the lane, leaving big comfort zones to either side and will often forget to check the road surface - on a recent ride I was constantly spattered with stones by someone who rode through the patches of gravel I was riding round - or take any account of roads or vehicles on a converging course so that vehicles emerging from side roads surprise them.

If you find yourself being caught out by the road surface or other surprises as you ride or you feel cramped in your lane, the answer is almost certainly to slow down and give yourself time to scan not only the distance, but also the middle distance and foreground!
Observation = Time = Choices.