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The five most important things I learned as a courier
Some years back, I was challenged to put some tips together based on what I'd learned back in my despatching days. It didn't take much head-scratching to come up with the following short list.
1) Learn to use the brakes hard, then stay in practice... the last emergency stop that most riders make before they find themselves in the middle of a crisis is the one in front of the examiner. That might be ten years ago, and a very bad time to discover we've forgotten how is in the middle of an emergency. Practice practice practice. Practice wet and dry. If you change bike, see how it responds on hard braking. If you change tyres, find out how much grip they have. If you change pads, bed them in, test them out and discover whether they respond the same way as the last lot. There can be surprising variation between batchers.
2) Learn when not to use the brakes... we'll all experience an "OhmigodImgoingtodie" moment. Instinct is screaming at you "STOPSTOPSTOPSTOP". But hitting the brakes hard stands the bike upright which may take us straight into the very situation we were trying to avoid.Very often our best route out of trouble is not stopping but changing direction - bikes are pretty small, can change direction quickly and fit thru small gaps, and lean much further than most riders can cope with. But to change direction, we need to understand HOW to steer (counter-steering is the answer), then to practice adding more and more steering input to generate a quicker and quicker change of direction. Practice is the only way we'll learn this technique and just how much we can trust that front tyre (more than you might expect)
3) Learn to search... most road safety literature - the USA's MSF course excepted - talks about 'observation'. The problem is observation is passive. It implies we simply swing our gaze around till something interesting catches our attention. A few moments watching most riders and you'll see they don't actually look for anything in particular. They're hoping their attention is drawn to hazards - the danger is that if they don't see them until they are a real threat, they'll suffer SURPRISE! and then survival reactions kick in - see the target fixation tip for more on this. So what we need to do is turn passive observation into a focused and active search. We need to know WHERE to look and WHY we're looking for it. It's no good knowing that side turnings are a place that must bike collisions happen but hoping we spot them, we have to search for them - we need to actively seek out road signs, gaps between parked cars, breaks in the lines of house roofs, white paint at the side of the road, dropped kerbs and so on. Searching to either side of our path helps us being taken by SURPRISE!
4) Hang back to make better progress... as a courier, I always wanted to get where I was going with the minimum of delay conversant with keeping the risks down. Most riders follow far too close, and then they don't look any further ahead than the vehicle in front - next time you're following another rider look to see when his or her brake lights come on - if it's a moment after the car ahead, they're watching that vehicle. Opening up a gap not only gives us a safer following distance and opens up a better view of the road ahead, it also frees our attention to start searching beyond the car ahead. And this is how a good courier will make progress. Rather than simply looking to overtake it, the courier's planned where they're going next too. When filtering, the courier will know when to hang back as the impatient riders overtake into a dead end or get stuck outside traffic turning right. Hanging back gets you further ahead mentally and physically.
5) Discover that slow is fast... too many riders think that being on a bike means they should be at the head of the queue. Ever heard anyone say "if I sat in the queue I might as well be in a car"? I have, regularly. But it's not the right approach. Because they're in a hurry, they're stressed and prone to mistakes. And mistakes lead to spills. That's no good to a courier because a bent bike means no earnings. And no earnings meant no food or rent money. There's nothing wrong with using gaps where it's sensible to use them but I would also slip back into the queue when it got too tricky or too risky to overtake or filter. My aim as a courier was always to flow unobtrusively through traffic, neither wedging myself into impossible gaps nor forcing drivers to slow down to let me through. It might have cost me a few seconds, even minutes, but being restrained and patient minimised stress and anxiety and helped me to stay relaxed. Being relaxed meant I could ride for long hours. And that meant the tortoise nearly always overtook the hare in the end.
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