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KISS - 'Keep it simple, Stupid' and Low Effort Biking
If there are two ways to achieve the same end, which is the best? If the end result is the same, then it's probably to keep using the method that's least technically difficult. It's a general rule that the more complicated a procedure, there more there is to go wrong and thus the more likely things are to go wrong. And guess what? An accusation that can be thrown at advanced motorcycle riding is that we like to make things complicated. Just look at the way positioning gets described; not "left, right or centre of the lane". Instead, it's "position one, position two, position three". There are plenty more examples of how rather than simplifying riding, we seem to want to make it more technically awkward. There is absolutely nothing wrong with learning new skills and mastering new techniques - after all, it's what I'm in the business of developing for riders on my Survival Skills post-test training courses. But shouldn't we be looking for ways to apply those skills in ways that make life a bit easier, not more tricky?
Let's start with a simple task - turning the bike round so it faces the other way in the road. How can we achieve that? Most of us would immediately say "by making a U-turn". But is that the SIMPLEST way? I once got an e-mail from a trainee who'd hospitalised himself just a few weeks after I'd shown him how to make a three-point turn. He'd mistaken his route, found himself facing a gate on a dead-end lane and tried to perform a U-turn. Realising it was going wrong, and that he was about to lose his balance, he stuck out a leg to try to stop the bike toppling. He saved the bike but at the expense of a leg fracture. Ouch.
That may be an extreme injury, but there are plenty of bikes sporting the scars of a 'dropped it doing a U-turn' incident.
So are there easier ways? For sure. I can do U-turns - I've demo'd enough over the years. But when I'm NOT demonstrating the manoeuvre, I rarely bother. I'll ride around the block or find a petrol station or car park to reverse direction. I'll even perform a three-point turn. Why? Because it keeps things simple, and removes some unnecessary risk because as we've just seen, U-turns DO go wrong.
I'm not saying that being able to turn the bike accurately in a tight space is not a necessary skill, because it is - the technique is needed for tight turns or junctions where there is restricted space, to move around parked vehicles, to negotiate mini-roundabouts and hairpin bends. But there's little point in making awkward manoeuvres if we don't NEED to.
Here's another example. Have you watched someone riding at walking pace twenty metres back from a red traffic light? Have you ever wondered what possible advantage they are gaining from their maneouvre? I have. That rider is not going to make any 'better progress' away from the lights than I am, sat there stationary at the STOP line. Any arguments that it's easier on the engine or saves fuel are nonsensical. And whilst I am sat stationary and nicely balanced with a foot on the floor, I have all the time in the world to watch the mirrors for vehicles coming up from behind. Balancing at slow speed, where's our focus - on maintaining our balance, or on the mirrors?
Once again, this isn't saying I'm advocating rushing up to the lights and banging the brakes on at the last second. I'll roll off and slow down smoothly, in the hope that red will turn back to green allowing me to roll through without stopping. But the walking pace performance seems to have been taken to a point where it serves no useful function except to make life more complicated for the rider.
Some years ago, I was being given a demo ride by a police rider. His tyres were alongside the white line on left-handers and almost in the gutter on right-handers. After a bit he stopped and asked: "why aren't you following my lines?" I gave him one reason - his sticky back tyre was picking up stone chips and flinging them at me, so I was riding inside his lines to stay clear of the pebble-dashing treatment. But the real reason was that I simply didn't need to. We weren't riding at such as speed that we needed to widen the line to stretch out our stopping distance by extending "the distance we could see to be clear", even if moving another half-metre left or right would have given me a much better view. Instead, it becomes an exercise in maintaining a very precise path - get it wrong and we're either over the centre line or off the tarmac.
The general technique of using the width of the lane makes sense. But taking it to extremes doesn't.
And there's one area where keeping things as simple and as fool-proof as possibile really should get more airtime. And that's when overtaking. In terms of risk - the chance of something going wrong multiplied by the impact on us when it does - overtaking is almost certainly the most dangerous manoeuvre we perform on a motorcycle. But we treat overtaking as a 'skill', and we even try to demonstrate how 'skillful' our overtakes are. I once watched another rider coming up behind me on a busy road. He performed a whole series of overtakes, leapfrogging past HGV after HGV. Each time, he waited for a gap in the oncoming traffic and moved forward one truck. Technically proficient, indeed. After ten minutes of this, he was a couple of HGVs ahead of me.
Then we stopped at a red light, and as the queue formed, I filtered back past him to the front of the queue. Which manoeuvre was easier? Who took less risk? OK, the lights may not have changed but each pass put him a couple of seconds further ahead. Even if I'd trailed him into the next town I'd have been just a couple of minutes behind. If there's one thing I learned back in my courier days, all overtakes are risky, and complex overtakes have a habit of going wrong. 'Just because we can' is not a justification for overtaking. I'll take the easier option. And if an easier option doesn't appear? Well, I'm not in that much of a rush.
I'll conclude with two other observations.
Firstly, the more technically complex our riding, the more we have to focus on what we're doing. And that's tiring. I still spend long days in the saddle and reducing stress and staying as fresh as possible has major safety benefits because a knackered rider is a rider at risk. Stopped at a red light, I get a few moments to move around and stretch muscles that haven't moved for a while, and can mentally switch off (rear observation excepted). Overtaking is physically and mentally tiring, above and beyond any progress benefits that may accrue, so seeking out the low effort overtakes is entirely beneficial.
Secondly, whilst there's absolutely nothing wrong with gaining new and improved skills and knowledge, that doesn't mean we have to exploit them. In fact, the deeper we can operate within our own skills 'comfort zone', the more margin for adjustment we have. It doesn't matter whether it's confidence at outright lean angle, our braking technique or the ability to judge the speed and distance of an oncoming car to a nicety. The more we push towards those limits, the less we have in hand in case things go wrong. And remember, the Survival Skills approach to advanced motorcycle riding is always to remember that things CAN go wrong.
So how do we manage a three-point turn on a bike when we don't have reverse?
Quite simple. Have a good look round and start your turn just like you were about to perform a U-turn but stop with the front wheel in the centre of the road. Here's the clever bit. Most roads are cambered, so gravity substitutes for reverse, making it easy to paddle backwards - just remember to turn the front wheel the other way. Back at the kerb, you're probably angled where you want to go next, so one final check and you're away. If the road's really narrow, make it a five point turn. 'Less-skilled'? Maybe, if our definition of skill is making life difficult for ourselves.
And there's a safety benefit. When performing a U-turn a motorcycle cannot block the road in the same way that a car performing a three-point turn will. I've had cars cut past my learners in mid U-turn just because they can. If it was scary for me, it must have been heart-stopping for the trainees. Now, if you're performing a three-point turn, as soon as you stop, half the road is free for any impatient driver to pass.
So my take on riding is that eliminating complex techniques makes life easier. Ask yourself - are you doing something because you need to? Or because it's nice? Remember KISS - Keep it simple, Stupid.
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