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How far is too far?
There is undoubtedly a fine balance to draw between theory and practical time on the bike but good teaching demands both. Genuine riding exercises have a definite place but they require explanation. Simply piling on the miles is not good teaching technique, just as endless 'chalk and talk' offers limited opportunity to practice the theory.
Reading an industry mag some years back, the star letter writer - a training school owner - referred to a discussion with the owner of another school who, he claims, boasted of controlling his costs by: "padding out talks and never covering more than 50-60 miles during a full day's training". The letter writer, by contrast, claimed to offer "maximum on-road instruction" which reminded me of an ex-police instructor who claimed never to cover less than 200 miles in a day when out with his trainees.
So how far is too far?
There's a simple answer to this. If the trainee is getting tired, then the session has gone too far.
Fatigue is dangerous. When we're tired we make mistakes. Think back to your car lessons and remember how knackered you were after a two-hour session behind the wheel. Or remember how exhausting CBT and each day's subsequent training was. As concentration slips, learning deteriorates and far worse, the risk of a riding error is magnified manyfold.
An experienced WORKING rider (such as a police rider, an instructor or a courier) may well be able to ride all day, but I worry when I hear of trainees doing eight-hour days and 200 mile rides. If the rider averages a reasonable 40 mph, that's 5 hours riding time. 200 miles would have been a fair distance to ride in a day when I was despatching. These kind of distances will push typical commuting or recreational riders to (and possibly beyond) the limit.
And we still have to fit in the theory training, any off-road exercises and some breaks. Given the need for rest stops, I really wondered what the 200-miles-a-day instructor was actually managing to deliver in his eight hour day. It's a lot more informative to ride short stretches for ten or fifteen minutes with interim debriefs whilst everything is still fresh in the trainee's head, than hack fifty miles up the road between cafes. Well-designed theory sessions, as well as short off-road practice sessions, give the trainees a physical rest and a mental change of gear.
It's also often overlooked by training schools that whilst the instructor is likely to be close to home, the trainee may well have had an early start and a long ride to get to the school. Even starting from an inn just ten minutes from the circuit, I had to set off at 7am for a race school to arrive in time to complete the formalities. By 1pm - six hours later - I'd spent two hours on track and another two hours in briefings and debriefings, and I was shattered. That's why my own Survival Skills advanced rider training courses are pegged at five hours; beyond that fatigue sets in and learning drops off. And trainees have to get home again! I had 170 miles to ride back after that session. I left at 2pm and missed the afternoon session completely.
The perfect balance will vary from rider to rider since different trainees respond to different approaches. Too much talk is a turn-off for some, who want to get on the bike and ride, but others actually want to talk - they may want to discuss particular issues at length or be willing and able to learn from in-depth question and answer sessions. It's up to the instructor to vary the lesson to suit each client, and not to make a teacher-centric decision about how the course should proceed.
The least charitable view would be that trainers running high mileage courses are actually padding out the lack of theory by simply keeping the trainee sitting on the bike all day! After all, spending a few ££s on another five litres of unleaded is much easier than actually writing a decent syllabus and putting together a lesson plan for the day. But mostly I get the feeling it's simply lack of imagination and a case of "that's the way it's always been done" and yet another hangover from police training.
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