Compartmentalisation & Practice -  the key to learning new skills

If there are two messages that I hope come over from these tips, they are:

    don't be satisfied, push on and learn new skills
    practice, practice and practice again

Improving technology has put safer bikes in our hands, but they are also a lot faster. Traffic density is increasing daily and the roads are ever more dangerous - the average rider needs every bit of help he or she can get to get safe fun from his or her machine. We've all seen someone perform a manoeuvre better than we can, and wondered about their obvious skill and how they came by it. Read books, talk to mates, attend riding courses, learn from your own mistakes, don't be afraid to ask for help if you have a riding problem - in short, understand there are always new skills to learn, new ways of seeing situations developing on the road and thus always something you can do to make yourself a better and safer rider.

Most people who ring me up or e-mail me about a course mention that they have one or more specific problems. Cornering is the most usual problem out on the road, though many are unhappy with slow speed control or with braking. Quite often, they have read something about the technique but haven't managed to grasp the practical side of the theory. Reading the "how to corner" article in a magazine is one thing, doing it whilst riding is quite another.

One of the most tricky techniques for both novice and not infrequently, experienced riders to master is the U turn. On the other hand, I get messages from riders who say: that we don't need to do a U turn on the road - we can compromise and do what we KNOW we can do - we make a three-point turn or get off and push the bike round. There is nothing wrong with that, it's safe and sensible. Very sensible if you have ever cracked a fairing on a slow speed get off.

However, those same skills are vital when it isn't feasible to get off or back up - like when the turn you have just taken into a side road turns out to be a lot sharper than you expected, filtering through heavy traffic when the gap you were aiming for suddenly disappears and you have to make a car-avoiding swerve or if you are riding a bike with restricted steering lock - the skills required are the same, and it makes sense to master them.

By far and away the best method of improving any aspect of your riding is to break the manoeuvre down into its component parts and to work on improving them one at a time in a logical order - it's the way virtually all learning processes work. The key to to skill/confidence enhancement is compartmentalisation - a progressive building block approach.

Whilst there are some body weighting, clutch, throttle and brake skills needed to complete a tight turn, nothing is beyond the newest rider - in other words profound bike control skills are not really necessary - but a considerable amount of confidence in both the rider's skills and the bike's abilities is required.

One way you can try to learn to corner better is by charging into corners faster and faster until you scare yourself or fall off, and to a large extent this is how most riders used learn to ride - I know I did!

However, there is a major problem with this approach (aside from the very real risk of killing yourself). How do you know what you are doing?

Taking a corner can be broken down into a whole series of skills, both mental (reading the line, judging braking distances etc.) and physical (use of brakes, countersteering, throttle control etc.). What have you done to your riding technique to enable you to get round the corner faster? Was it better braking? More lean angle? More throttle? A better line? And when it all goes pear-shaped, what was the problem?

Many skills are interdependent but must be learned in the right order. Going back to our U turn example, you need to practice several skills:

    clutch and throttle control
    rear brake
    looking through the U-turn
    posture and counter weighting

Clearly it makes no sense to try to balance a bike slowly round the U turn if you haven't learned to control the throttle, clutch and brakes first.

In a bend, it makes sense to make sure you can work out the real and potential hazards of the corner before you do anything else, and to be able to approach at and carry on through the turn at safe speed. Few riders who have trouble with bends have realised that their main problem is either entering too fast or failing to anticipating danger and having to brake mid-turn - if you don't get the speed right on the way in, nothing else will go right all the way through the turn.

Then and only then, should you start to work on reading the line and steering through it. When you are confident you can stop or steer yourself out of trouble, you can start to work on carrying more approach speed, braking later and more firmly, carrying more corner speed and lean angle and accelerating harder on the exit.

Some riders have problems believing in learning skills in this way - but every decent training course from CBT to Keith Code's California Superbike School does the same - start with the basics, master them first and then move onto the more complicated bits.

Think about what you are doing and analyse the results. When your riding becomes untidy and you find that you are starting to make a mess of things, go back to basics. You may well find that you need to go full circle and start back at square one - but you'll often end up at a higher level.

The final point is practice. If you accept that you can improve your riding through learning new techniques, you should accept that practice is worthwhile because it tends to convert what could be difficult into what is relatively straightforward through improvements to skill and confidence.

Keep speeds low and work on one skill at a time until you are happy you've got the hang of it - then and only then move onto the next one.

Don't try to improve lots of skills at the same time - there are too many variables for you to be able to work out just what it was that made that corner or U turn work (or not). Even if you think you can figure out what works and what doesn't, remembering to do everything at once is too much until you become comfortable with the techniques involved.

So, schedule some time on a regular basis and go out and think about your riding, give yourself a goal - a specific part of your riding to improve - and then practice, practice, practice.