Armchair Riding - how to improve summer
skills in winter
In the last riding tip, I looked at the concept of "Spidy Sense" and
how riders develop an early warning system to danger, and the roles
played by the various parts of the brain in avoiding harm when
In particular, I looked how the Mid-brain filters incoming
information and decides whether to allow the conscious Neo-cortex
part of the brain to continue to operate, or if there is a threat,
whether control should be handed to the unconscious Reptilian brain,
which may switch into automatic panic 'Fight or Flight' mode.
For many developing riders, the Mid-brain seems to hand over to the
Reptilian brain not only when the rider is facing a threat, but as
soon as it faces an unfamiliar situation;
ie. one that is not in the stored database of
events that we have already experienced.
Only if the Mid-brain finds a match (or at least a near-match) in
the database will the Neo-cortex be powered up for some real-time
decision making. This explains why developing riders often panic or
freeze in situations that an experienced rider would deal with
without hesitation. It should be obvious why it's important that the
Mid-brain handles tasks in a way that avoids an unwanted
What's not so obvious is that the conscious Neo-cortex can only
handle a very limited number of conscious tasks at the same time.
(See Tip no 56 for more info on this!)
For instance, road signs provide information about hazards which we
need as we ride, but searching for them consciously takes up a lot
of processing power. So as soon we give ourselves some other complex
task - for instance overtaking - the Neo-cortex will ditch the road
sign search for all the other complex speed/distance/time
...so the rider does an otherwise perfectly judged pass...
...right through a junction, because the road sign wasn't seen!
This is what Keith Code means when he talks about $10-worth of
That's all very well you might argue, but if we're already saturated
with information, how can we train ourselves to process MORE
Well, the answer is that it can be done - aircrew have to learn to
take in and process lots of information, and so do police drivers.
Even riding instructors have to learn to ride safely for themselves,
whilst monitoring what the trainee and other drivers are doing, plus
anticipating what might happen, have a plan to cope... and at the
same time as all that, we have to communicate with the trainee too!
It's a much more complex task than most people who haven't tried the
But can a 'normal' rider do it too? Certainly. The key is automation
of the simpler tasks. You already handle mechanical tasks like gear
changing or positioning on the road in this way - using peripheral
vision to locate the bike plus unconscious steering adjustments. You
only think about either consciously when there's a difficult
decision to make. So why not hazard perception too?
Trigger:Reaction - in the previous tip, we explained how 'Spidy
Sense' comes from a vague sense that something isn't quite right
somewhere. The problem is that the rider may not know what caused
the sense of unease, and so won't know what the correct response is.
As already suggested, one fairly simple way to automate things is to
learn to recognize "visual cues" subconsciously and how to respond
automatically. If you doubt this, consider the simple example is a
red traffic light - when you first started riding or driving, you
look for the traffic light
check what colour it was
decide what to do next
But with a bit of time on the road, all this becomes automated.
You've now learned how to spot the trigger (red traffic light) and
apply the correct reaction (slow down and stop if you are close).
All of which works just fine till you go to France or the USA and
the lights aren't where you expect them. I've driven clean through a
red light in both countries because the lights weren't where I was
subconsciously searching for them! So no room for complacency
Better yet is to get into the habit of using pre-planned "pre-shot
routines", where we respond to a trigger event with a reaction we've
already worked out so we've time for all the other stuff - mirrors,
signals, positioning, checking out what other people are up to,
'timing' the lights so you don't have to stop suddenly.
This is the concept behind any planned riding, from the Roadcraft
'System of Motorcycle Control' via OSMPSL from UK basic training to
the Motorcycle Safety Foundation's 'Search Evaluate Execute'.
The important part of a pre-shot routine is not WHICH system you
use, but that you respond to a trigger event with a reaction that
For our traffic light example, it might be that we've spotted the
lights are green, but our "pre-shot routine" involves planning how
and where we'll react if the light goes amber then red. Here are two
a 'give up some space' response to an oncoming
vehicle if I'm positioned near the white line
a 'roll-off, check mirror, settle the bike using
the brakes, cover the horn & prepare to stop' if I see a vehicle
starting to edge out at a side road.
For me, they're almost completely automatic and allow me to
concentrate on other aspects of riding safety.
Many of the triggers we use to set off a reaction are visual, though
there are triggers you can hear (horns, engine noise) and smell
(diesel). Road signs warning of hazards are effective triggers
because they are a distinctive shape and colour. If we can get that
triangular red & white sign catalogued in the database of
"important things to look at", the Mid-brain will learn to use the
sign as a subconscious "visual cue"...
...we'll unconsciously see the sign in our peripheral vision...
...the distinctive sign gives the real-time Neo-cortex wake up call
and flicks our eyes sideways...
...the sign jumps into our central vision and we consciously focus,
...and get ourselves the vital warning NOT to attempt the pass just
Phew! One aborted overtake!!
The key is moving a step beyond vague 'Spidy Sense' by identifying
specific trigger events we can observe and use, and linking them to
a specific reaction to deal with the hazards safely, a reaction that
occurs automatically. Other "cues" I consciously practice using as
broken hedge lines
which generate a reaction; I visually scan so that I spot side
turnings and driveways.
We were talking just the other day about how you filter safely past
a car near a junction. The visual cues that would trigger a "don't
filter now" reaction include such things as:
movement of the driver's head to look sideways
hands taking up a different position on the wheel
gap opening up between car and the vehicle ahead
I'm sure you can think of plenty more triggers, and how you can link
the observation of the "visual cue" to the necessary reaction to
deal with the hazard.
Visualisation - So far I've talked as though it's something we have
to practice whilst riding. However, Sports Psychology has proven
that much can be done whilst comfortably sat in our favourite
One of the problems we have teaching riders evasive techniques is
linking them to a REAL emergency.
Take emergency stops as an example. The way they are almost
universally taught is for the instructor or examiner to stand ahead
and to the side of the rider, who rides forward. The instructor then
raises an arm to signal the rider to stop.
Now, from what we've already covered, it should be fairly obvious
this only burns a trigger:reaction pathway where the rider learns to
stop for a raised arm!! The first time the rider finds himself in a
real emergency, the careful "squeeze, don't grab" technique we've
taught (and they've mastered!) goes out the window, they grab the
brake as hard as they can and down they go.
So how do you get the rider to use that well-practiced technique
when he's about to run into the back of a car?
More extreme reactions like going limp before hitting the deck you
might have practiced if you do martial arts - but can you transfer
them to the bike in an emergency? What about standing up and jumping
just before you hit a car - how can you possibly practice that?
Well, fortunately, there's a proven technique to develop routine
skills or to learn something we can't do every day - like collision
avoidance! It's called 'visualisation'.
We make use of the brain's ability to be fooled into thinking "I've
been here before". Sportmen and other performers have used this for
years to avoid "choking" on the big stage - the sprinter who's used
to running in front of a few hundred people suddenly running in
front of 100,000 at the Olympics, the county cricketer making his
test debut at Lords, the actor appearing in the West End for the
How do you do it? Simply close your eyes and imagine you're there.
The more vivid and realistic we make the visualisation, the better
the learning process. Don't just imagine seeing a road sign, 'feel'
the road surface, the 'movement' of the hedgerows, the 'colour' of
the sky, the 'sound' of the bike. Picture the car at the junction
starting to move, the look on the driver's face as he sees you and
stops in your path. Tell yourself what you are going to do to avoid
the accident, and make the real-life muscle movements to your
It gives us the ability to learn the right response so that we know
what to do when we get to do it in real life. By running over
something in our mind's eye, EVEN THOUGH YOU'VE NEVER BEEN THERE,
the brain will think it has been!
It all helps avoid the danger of the Mid-brain kicking in and
saying: "hang on, I don't recognise this situation" and panicking or
Visualisation can also work for complex tasks where parts of the job
go missing. There are a series of steps involved in performing a
safe U turn, but it's easy to forget something like the shoulder
check because the rider is concentrating on balance. Visualisation
helps the rider recall and perform each step in order under stress.
I try to get trainees to do this before the U turn on the bike test,
so that by practicing running through everything in their mind
before they launch themselves on what is a one-off run in front of
the examiner, everything is done where and when it should be.
Process Goals/Cue Words/Cue Actions - Your overall goal is to return
home safely. So break down that wide-ranging task into a number of
"process goals" which help focus on specific aspects of the task
(eg., negotiating a cross roads, dealing with a slippery surface,
arriving at changing traffic lights and watching the mirrors). Use
visualisaton to bring them "alive".
For each goal use a trigger "cue word" which instantly refocuses
your attention to the goal. It helps to 'name' the "cue" out aloud -
the 'multi-sensory' approach helps to fix it in your mind. Making
the effort to name the sign - ie. recognising what it means in terms
of hazard to the rider - helps generate a positive response to it.
This isn't the same as commentary riding where we passively describe
what we see and do, it's much more positive;
trigger:reaction - what would we do if someone
That's a learned rather than an instinctive response - we weren't
born with the ability to recognise the word "duck"!
Some evidence points to cue actions where we actually do something
physical working better than words alone - most of these are part of
possible 'pre-shot routines' anyway; for example, moving your
fingers to cover the brake when you see a car in a side road can be
a reminder to focus on checking the surface, recall smooth
application, muscular relaxation, avoiding target fixation, and so
And one 'pre-shot routine' can lead you straight into another...
...the visual cue of the "broken hedgeline/white paint" should lead
the rider to visually search for a possible emerging vehicle. When
the car is spotted...
...the "car in side road" scenario leads you to cover the brakes
etc. routine, but also prepare for the...
..."car starting to edge out" scenario so you can go straight into
the 'roll-off' routine!
None of this is rocket science, but understood and pulled together
in this way makes it a lot easier for us to respond to situations as
they develop and before they become emergencies.
Psych Plan - many riders get distracted by outside events and find
themselves in dangerous situations they've not seen developing. A
'Psych Plan' pulls together the process goals and cue words/actions
for your entire ride. List every distraction that might reasonably
occur. Next to the listed items, write down what might happen and
what steps you can take to correct them. When it does happen, you
should realise what's happening and what to do about it.
No doubt, some of you are reading this and thinking; "yes but this
is just how you learn to ride". To some extent, that's perfectly
correct, and we do indeed learn most of this by experience sooner or
later. Unfortunately, experience is a hard teacher, often painful,
frequently expensive, and sadly sometimes terminal.
Using these techniques allows the novice rider to short circuit much
of the need for experience and for the experienced rider to develop
Like most skills connected with riding, if you make a conscious
effort to understand the issues and to develop solutions, these
techniques are far more likely to come to your aid and get you out
of trouble than instinct.
None of this is not difficult, and much of it can be learned
quickly, as people who've done my practical courses will testify.
For instance, learning to use road signs or white paint and broken
hedge lines as visual cues and using the trigger to link to the
appropriate response takes just a few minutes and shows improvements
out of all proportion to the effort.
But to be useful it must become a habit, and to keep it a habit, you
need to keep the skills fresh by working on them for a few minutes
every few now and again. The brain is a bit like a cluttered desk.
The stuff you use all the time is at the front, the bits and pieces
you haven't looked at for a few days are further back and things you
haven't needed for a good while have fallen clean off the back!
Practicing regularly keeps techniques in the forefront of your mind.
A good time to refresh is when you're in no rush to get anywhere, or
perhaps stuck on a road with a solid "no overtaking" line for
several miles - back off, give yourself a bit of space and practice
spotting your "visual cues"
Riders who don't cover many miles a year can actively train their
brain in these techniques, but they work too for high mileage riders
who can't practice every situation they might find themselves in,
particularly collision avoidance. The awareness of what might happen
(the "What if" game) and the options open (visualisation) may save
us in an emergency.