Precision riding - or keeping it simple

I recently got into a major discussion on Visordown about the need to be in the right gear. The discussion itself eventually crystallised around the question: "do you need to be in one precise gear for every situation you find yourself in, or will 'close enough' do?

The instructor I disagreed with believed that precision was essential. He quoted various scenarios including accelerating, engine braking, driving through bends and dealing with surfaces of different grip, and claimed that only one gear would give the optimum response to the situation.

My contention remains that this kind of rigid thinking is wrong. You'll find I've written about this before in the tip further down the page "KISS - Keep it Simple, Stupid or low effort biking". But on this occasion I went and dug out some psychological background to prove it.

First, bikes behave differently, with different power characteristics. Some bike undoubtedly need to be in the right gear - many four stroke singles, some twins and most high performance two strokes don't have a great deal of flexibility and have to be ridden accordingly. But, I argued, for the vast majority of modern bikes - particularly inline fours - it simply isn't necessary.

Many of these bikes have close ratio gearboxes, long rev ranges and make reasonable power from low down, and equally offer engine braking over a wide rev range. It simply isn't necessary at the kind of speeds we ride on the road to be "precisely" the right gear, any more than it makes sense to say there is only one line through a corner and you have to stick to it. Very often two or even three gears will give the response the rider needs, just as the " correct line" through a corner will be more like a broad path with room for error either side of the ideal.

Because of the broad spread of power, I also suggested that it made sense to leave the bike in a gear which allowed a sequence of bends to be taken without changing gear. In short, I was drawing on my years of despatch riding experience where attention to the things that matter paid off in a long and safe career.

Unfortunately I was told I was wrong.

OK, so maybe it seems like a facile argument between an old fashioned "by the book" instructor and someone like myself who has learned the pros and cons by experience, and to be honest both approaches have their value. Experience doesn't always teach you the right response - it might work 9 times out of 10, but on the tenth you may find the error!

But on this particular occasion I think I'm right because there's a much more important side to it. The amount of attention you have to spare for the task in hand, viz riding the bike.

In the mid 80s a series of studies were carried out to evaluate the workload associated with a proposed one-man attack helicopter. The proposed cockpit systems used a significant amount of automation. Along with other studies, it was determined that the workload was too high for a single crew member to adequately perform all the required tasks. As a result, the Comanche helicopter uses a two-person crew.

The term workload refers to the total demand placed on an individual as a task is performed. The theory is that workload was not the result of one central processing resource but instead uses several processing resources. For example, we can easily walk and chew gum at the same
time but we cannot talk and listen at the same time.

The argument was that there must be multiple resources for information processing. These processing resources are usually described by four components; visual, auditory, cognitive and psychomotor.

Any task performed by a person can be broken down into these components. The visual and auditory components refer to the external stimuli that are attended to, the cognitive component refers to the level of information processing required and the psychomotor component refers to the physical actions.

For example, the resources required for riding a bike would include the visual component of looking at the road ahead, the cognitive component of interpreting the visual data, the psychomotor component of using the arms, hands and feet to control the machine and the auditory component for hearing the feedback from the sound of the motor.

Rating scales have been developed for each component. The scales provide a relative rating of the degree to which each resource component is used. They were developed by providing surveys containing matched pairs of task descriptions to a range of human factors experts who were asked to indicate, for each pairing, which one required a higher level of effort. The higher the scale value the greater the degree of use of the resource component.

Scale - Value Description of Activity


0.0 - No Visual Activity

1.0 - Visually Register/Detect (detect occurrence of image)

3.7 - Visually Discriminate (detect visual differences)

4.0 - Visually Inspect/Check (discrete inspection/static condition)

5.0 - Visually Locate/Align (selective orientation)

5.4 - Visually Track/Follow (maintain orientation)

5.9 - Visually Read (symbol)

7.0 - Visually Scan/Search/Monitor (continuous/serial inspection, multiple conditions)


0.0 - No Auditory Activity

1.0 - Detect/Register Sound (detect occurrence of sound)

2.0 - Orient to Sound (general orientation/attention)

4.2 - Orient to Sound (selective orientation/attention)

4.3 - Verify Auditory Feedback (detect occurrence of anticipated sound)

4.9 - Interpret Semantic Content (speech)

6.6 - Discriminate Sound Characteristics (detect auditory differences)

7.0 - Interpret Sound Patterns (pulse rates, etc.)


0.0 - No Cognitive Activity

1.0 - Automatic (simple association)

1.2 - Alternative Selection

3.7 - Sign/Signal Recognition

4.6 - Evaluation/Judgment (consider single aspect)

5.3 - Encoding/Decoding, Recall

6.8 - Evaluation/Judgment (consider several aspects)

7.0 - Estimation, Calculation, Conversion


0.0 - No Psychomotor Activity

1.0 - Speech

2.2 - Discrete Actuation (button, toggle, trigger)

2.6 - Continuous Adjustive (flight control, sensor control)

4.6 - Manipulative

5.8 - Discrete Adjustive (rotary, vertical thumbwheel, lever position)

6.5 - Symbolic Production (writing)

7.0 - Serial Discrete Manipulation (keyboard entries)


In general, high workload occurs when excess demands are placed on a single resource component but less when workload occurs across components. That is, if the only task being done is to dial a phone, then there are no excess demands being placed on any one component.

However, if another task is being performed at the same time that makes demands on similar components, such as driving, the result may be excess workload. Excess workload can result in a number of problems or compensating behaviors including errors, slowing of the tasks, task shedding, or rapid task switching.

When tasks are performed simultaneously the workload for each task must be combined to understand the demands on the individual. The simplest method is to add up the workload within each component. If the person dialing the phone were also trying to drive their car, then the cognitive value of 5.3 associated with the dialing task would be added to the cognitive value estimated for whichever driving task was occurring at that moment.

In addition, it can be useful to sum the individual workload component totals to get a value for the total workload.  A problem is determining what defines excess workload. This can be difficult and depends somewhat on the purpose of the analysis as some level of task slowing, shedding or error occurrence may be deemed acceptable in some circumstances. For example, while it is certainly possible to do multiple tasks at once, and indeed helicopter pilots and police drivers are trained to do so, task degradation might reduce the accuracy with which a task can be performed or reduce the safety margin usually associated with the task.

One suggestion is that any cumulative workload value greater than the highest value on the component scale tables represents excess workload. Any cumulative workload value of 8 or more was defined as an unacceptable workload level.

The component scale has been applied to model the tasks of driving whilst making a call on a mobile phone.

Task                   Vis. Aud. Cog. Psy.

Driving                6    1    3.7  2.6

Stopped at Light   3    1    3.7  0

Start after stop     6    1    4.6  2.6

Dial and
Press Send           5     4.3   5.3   7

Wait to connect    0     4.3   3.7   2.6

Talk                     0     6     6.8  2.6


The model can therefore predict the individual component and total workload of the combined driving and cell phone tasks at any point during the execution of the combined tasks.

Workload     Maximum   Mean

Visual           11.00        6.26

Auditory         7.00        6.62

Cognitive      10.50      10.02

Psychomotor  9.60       5.43

From these figures it can be seen that the Cognitive tasks of driving and phoning exceed the acceptable workload figures at all times when behind the wheel, and that the visual and psychomotor tasks have peaks which exceed the acceptable workload.

OK, so what's the connection with the gear-changing argument? Well, it's long been known in many industries including the airline industry that complexity is not the solution to most tasks. In fact, big money can be saved from eliminating unecessary steps in terms of efficiency, as well as possible safety benefits.

Clearly the same applies to riding where you have a finite amount of attention to pay to the task of riding the bike.

There is plenty of workload in all those categories to keep you more than busy as you ride, and the more inexperienced the rider, the sooner that workload will reach overload. The same can happen to a rider on a training course who is using unfamiliar techniques that he has to think about.

Even the instructor who was arguing for total precision in gear changing had agreed in previous discussions that one of the reasons a verbal commentary on a ride may not be a good idea for an inexperienced rider is that it can distract the rider from the road - in fact, the rider has reached the "workload overload" condition - check out the values from the first table:

Searching the road ahead: 7.0 - (Visually Scan/Search/Monitor (continuous/serial inspection, multiple conditions) )

Think what to say: 6.8 - (Evaluation/Judgment (consider several aspects) )

Say it: 1.0 - (Speech)


We're way over our workload limit and we haven't even thought about the job of riding the bike yet. Only when the rider is absolutely confortable with the machine control skills AND the cognitive skills required to identify hazards should a commentary ride even be considered - and then at a nice gentle pace that allows the rider time to perform an unfamiliar activity safely.

This rapid approach to overload is the reason I use a building block approach to training and keep speeds low when applying new techniques. The extra time given allows for correction when (not if!) mistakes are made during the evaluation and judgement phases.

So, how does this impact on real riding?

A basic understanding of thrust curves and gear ratios tells you all you really need to worry about on the majority of bikes is that you are in a flexible part of the rev range, where the gear can work up and down, where the engine offers thrust as well as the capacity to slow down. Initially this might require a glance at the rev counter, but eventually you can rely on auditory information alone.

Trying to work out whether you are in the exact "most efficient" gear demands a lot of attention - cognitive elements from the task in hand (braking, steering, accelerating, constant speed) and circumstances (bend, straight, road surface), as well as gaining auditory and visual feedback from the engine note and the rev counter..

The more complicated you make tasks that can pretty much look after themselves, the less attention you have to spare for the things that can't.

So, even riding your own machine in your own style, why not take advantage of the opportunity to keep things simple and eliminate unnecessary gear changes? It's not being imprecise but allowing yourself more time to concentrate on the things that matter.

Close enough is good enough.