That indefinable gloss

A melange of threads on Visordown and a resurrected topic originally posted by Malcolm Palmer of Cooper Bike Training has got me thinking over the last couple of days.

The first question was "Will I ever improve?". It was something of a lament that a rider's improvement had plateaued, and the feedback given after the observed rides wasn't really any different ride on ride. And he knew there was more to learn, but he didn't know where to go to resume his development.

The second issue was a statement by a rider that after practicing riding without using the brakes that they felt they'd learned a lot about machine control and that they felt smoother.

The two topics led backwards to an earlier idea that whilst a rider seeking to improve their riding is aiming to achieve a higher level of skill, there is somehow an "indefinable gloss" to a really good rider.

So I got to thinking around the subject.

The first rider extended his question:

    "Is this kind of normal - learning a bit, levelling off for a while, learning a bit more, levelling off even more etc or am I right in thinking I'll just never be better than I am now?"

Naturally, there's a plateau-ing effect as you get better, simply because you've got the basics in place, then you add the middling bits, and so on... each new development of your riding is less "new" than refinement so the effect is less noticable - but there is also a cyclic effect as you pass through the stagesof development as a rider:

Initially, you simply aren't aware of the hazard - you don't realise a situation coming up is dangerous. This is the '16er on a scoot' syndrome - not enough experience and not enough of a questioning nature to even see something as potentially dangerous, so when it goes wrong, it's a complete surprise and comes out of the blue.

After a time, you learn to that you don't know how to deal with a problem. Perhaps you know about the hazard but don't recognise it developing, or you might even recognise the hazard but don't know what to do about it. Riders who experience SMIDSY accidents or who constantly run wide in corners tend to fall into this category. You haven't yet learned to recognise the clues that give early warning of a dodgy situation - this is pretty much the level of the theory test. You basically rely on keeping your speed low enough to deal with the problem - or crash!

At the third level, you've learned the hazards and you've learned the correct responses so that you can take action in time, but you have to use "active searching" - in other words you concentrate all the time to actually watch what people are doing to make sure that you come up with the correct solution. This is more or less the stage that a DSA test pass will take you to - it'll keep you out of trouble but you have to keep working hard all the time you are on the bike. With a bit more practice and confidence in your machine control to get you out of trouble, many riders begin to get a gut feeling something is wrong but don't know exactly what till the situation develops. This is the "spidy sense" thing I've talked about before. They don't know why they're worried but they slow down and start actively looking, so they spot the hazard developing before they get caught up in the middle of it. They've instinctively learned the clues but haven't jumped to the next stage of working out exactly what the problem is in an analytical fashion. It's a pretty good state but not the best you can achieve.

The fourth level and the one to aim for is where you analyse and read the road by looking at your riding and how other people drive, so that you fully understand how problems develop, why they happen, and have pre-planned responses to deal them. And you do this so early that you react to the potential problem before the other drivers even begin to do what you know they will do. What you are doing is training yourself to react to the clues to the potential problem - as opposed to reacting to the hazard. See the difference? You subconciously read the way the traffic moves, analyse the view into a junction, work out the angle of the bend. The clues trigger an entirely controlled and concious reaction and in each case a plan for the worst case scenario, so you have checked your mirrors, planned your escape route and scanned the braking/steering surface ready to react well before you might have to put your plan into action. And if things don't get complicated in the way you fear - well, that's a bonus.

The problem with "active searching" in the Concious Competence stage is that it is concentration-intensive and you simply can't keep it up for long. It might work for a short commute or 10 minutes of fast bend surfing, but you'll burn out in double quick time - and then you slip back towards the second level!

This is why it's so important to make the jump to the forth stage.

So, how do you do it? In short, you need to teach your eyes and brain to react to visual (usually) stimuli and "fire up" the concious decision making part of the brain from its "idling" state.

We can take advantage of the fact the brain is good at pattern recognition, and go out and practice looking for clues to hazards - for instance, for junctions we would be looking for junction warning signs, white paint at the side of the road, breaks in the lines of buildings, parked cars or hedges or even a car turning in or out. All this has to be done using concious practice - but once learned and practiced, it very quickly becomes second nature and an entirely unconcious function of your brain.

What we want to avoid is teaching ourselves just to look for the car that is pulling out and responding to that, because by that time, rather than being able to respond early and proactively to a problem, you're responding late and reactively. And if we respond early, we'll have time to consider whether we are taking the right action.

Back to the cyclic development - the key point is that it is cyclic - you get to the top level of Unconcious Competence but there will be something new to learn that you don't yet know about - there are ideas and problems that I point out to people that they've never thought of and have never experienced - so from that point of view they were at the bottom level. And sometimes I have a light-bulb moment too when I think "now why didn't I realise that before?"

If you want to continue to develop, the trick is to realise that the learning process doesn't end. However if you ride with the same people within the same system, and there's no new learning being offered, you'll probably get bored with the experience and not push yourself to learn. Possibly you've reached the point where the trainer can't take you any further. At that point a change of perspective may be the answer.

So where does the no-brakes game come in? Malc again:

    "A 'good' rider might be applying good bend assessment, and using smooth cornering lines. But this can be done in a 'mechanical' way, or it can be done in a way that the process just appears to 'happen' rather than being made to happen.

    What I'm working to here is that the rider doesn't just react to the situation ahead, they use it to their advantage, and if that's not possible they 'blend' or 'flow' with it. In some instances they will arrive at a situation at the optimum moment - perhaps as the lights change or the gap appears - at other times they may even 'manage' the situation to their advantage".

The usual argument for not using the brakes is that it forces you to look further ahead and is better machine control. A poor instructor will probably trot out the "showing a brake light meant you misjudged your throttle sense" argument or the daft "riders who don't brake are faster than those who do" nonsense.

What I generally look for with a developing rider is to see if, where and how the brakes and throttle are applied and decide on practical machine control and safety criteria. Generally this means being able to go with the flow, making smooth use of the brakes when upright, and having the throttle rolled on as the rider begins to lean into the turn.

But no two riders respond the same to a hazard and have different thresholds at which they start to worry - I wouldn't heavily criticise a rider for "comfort braking" on the approach to a corner if it made them happy with their speed. Yes, it might signal a slight misjudgement, but so long as it is done before the bend, who is the judge of what isn necessary/unnecessary? I have to say it's the rider with his hand on the brake, not whoever is behind. As a trainer I can think that I wouldn't have braked at that point but who is to know exactly what is going through the rider's mind?

Equally is any one technique "righter" than the others? Does engine braking work for every bike? Certainly not. Can you brake in a corner? You certainly can.

Simply arguing that being able to use throttle sense to adjust your speed to a corner rather than brakes is a better technique is far too simplistic and it might be argued that all we've done is one lap of the "Competence Cycle" and feel satisfied with that, failing to progress by doing another lap and learning another range of skills. Just like I'd argue that a rider who rushes up to bends and bangs the brakes on hasn't learned the early observation skills that allow smooth deceleration whether by throttle OR brakes.

And what about the guy who brakes smoothly INTO the bend? What are we looking for there? Slavish application of the "brakes upright, throttle through the bend" rule? Argue it's a "technique not applicable on the road" even though the rider is clearly in perfect control? I'm not talking about sudden, harsh or late braking, but well-controlled braking going into bends.

Ultimately if the rider is:

    entering at the right speed
    using a good line
    able to tighten the line in a decreasing radius corner
    understands the traction issues of braking and leaning and has some margin for error
    able to use the alternative techniques as well

then I can't see what the problem is. He's simply moved yet another lap further round the "Compentence Cycle" than the rider who can use acceleration sense AND brake positively in a straight line.

So if a rider who has previously been braking is converted to no-brakes and claims it makes his riding "smoother" then there is either something wrong with his braking skills so room to improve on the brakes OR there is a fundamental lack of appreciation of the "Competence Cycle" and the continuing upward development by the trainee.

It's easy enough to recognise errors when you are better than the rider under observation, but what you inevitably do is recognise that 'error" within your own frame of reference. If the rider under instruction is better than the trainer, then you have a problem.

Asking "why did they do that" is a question the trainer may not be able to answer. But - just because I can't answer why the rider ahead of me is doing something, doesn't automatically mean it's wrong.

I've had my own experiences where I've been assessed by other trainers where their own frame of reference didn't match mine.  I remember being told that I wasn't keeping far enough left to improve my view round a right hand bend, and pointed out the reason as being three blind driveways on the left in the corner. I was greeted by a blank look. The guy who was assessing me simply didn't see those as hazards in the same way that I did. My frame of reference was different to his.

Another rider following me criticised me for not holding a constant speed on a dual carriageway. What he didn't realise was that I was minimising the time I spent alongside long vehicles by gently accelerating past them, then using the slight deceleration and longer pause between hazards to assess what to do next. As there was nothing behind me (except the observing rider) there was no hazard in this.

So Malc suggested a fifth, offshoot to the cycle:

    "Consciously Unconscious Competence

You can 'just do', but also you're aware and able to 'break down' what you do. 'Task analysis' sort of thing".

This is the layer that allows you to be effective as a trainer - the ability to perform effective reflective thinking.

So, back to the "indefinable gloss". Once you've got the "autorecognition" mentioned above working, that's when the "effortless flow" of riding becomes evident, not only to yourself but to other people watching you. How would an ordinary rider see Unconcious Competence?

One suggestion was that a rider would demonstrate it by "allowing for other road users in a way they never realised". That's what I've said before about the best couriers. You just don't notice they are there. They don't impact on other road users and they are always ready when someone else does something that would impact on them.

An alternative comment was that such riders are "at one with their bikes and display complete confidence. Watching them ride is like poetry in motion, right position for every situation. Even at high speed their riding appears to be effortless, every bend assessed correctly every overtake executed with perfection". On reflection, I don't think this is the right answer. It's back to those frames of reference - if someone appears to be doing something "correctly, that's only within the observer's frame of reference - you're simply matching their standard against your own.

I suspect that if a rider was much better than the observer, they would fail to spot the extra observations or the often very subtle changes of speed and position that give a clue to the way the rider is thinking, and if they did see them, they wouldn't know why they were doing them.

Which ultimately puts a limit on how good an instructor can be. Given a trainee who is a better rider than I am, as an instructor I'm no different a position. Will I recognise or understand why someone is doing something? If I can't apply the task analysis coming from Conciously Unconcious Compentence to try to break it down and understand, then it's time to admit I can't take the rider any further and encourage them to find someone who can.