Our discussions of motorcycles from here on out will invariably reference the idea of what it means to be a good rider. We should get clear on what I take to be a good rider before talking about bikes.
Hunter S. Thompson has said many things better than others have said them. We still start with his clues into the nature of good riding, taken from his legendary review of the Ducati 900 Supersport:
“But when we ride very fast motorcycles, we ride with immaculate sanity. We might abuse a substance here and there, but only when it’s right. The final measure of any rider’s skill is the inverse ratio of his preferred Traveling Speed to the number of bad scars on his body. It is that simple: If you ride fast and crash, you are a bad rider. If you go slow and crash, you are a bad rider. And if you are a bad rider, you should not ride motorcycles.”
Okay. Let's see what we can learn.
"Immaculate sanity." The rider does not ride while in a state of distress. The excitement that the rider feels is gleaned from riding and not from some unrelated life problem. One must strive to recreate the same level of focus each time one gets on the bike. Riding is not for drifting minds or ungoverned impulses.
Good riders don’t crash. Or, at the very least, they are not crashers. They may crash on occasion, but they do not do so stupidly and for reasons that they cannot reconstruct or understand. They will rarely crash alone and they take care to not find themselves amidst the circumstances whereby they can get in accidents with other vehicles. Some will speak of accidents that, from the perspective of the law, are not their fault. But a good rider knows how to avoid the possibility of those accidents, knows how to stay away from the driver who does not see bikes, or is generally careless. The good rider knows that even the accidents that are “not his fault” were still nevertheless within his power to avoid.
A good rider is also a fast rider.
There is some confusion surrounding what it means to be fast. It is often supposed that, because a rider is traveling along the highway at a high rate of speed, that this is a fast rider. Not so. Anyone can get on a bike, accelerate to triple digits and cruise the highway while managing to stay on the motorcycle. But this is merely “going fast on a bike.” So be a fast rider, one must know how to negotiate all of the road conditions that one may encounter as quickly as possible given the conditions. This is no easy task.
Often, you will encounter on the road a person who blasts down the highway, but who slows the pace drastically at the sight of the slightest kink. Or those who will travel exponentially slower when it is raining. These are not fast riders. But notice, that in order to be fast, one must gain skill and proficiency, to learn how to get around turns and to ride in adverse conditions like rain. That is, one must become a good rider to be a fast rider.
And being a good rider means, I think, having a margin.
A margin of error, I guess is what most people call it. That space that is leftover for error or for error correction. Two riders can go around a corner at the same speed in the same conditions, though one is the better rider because he has left more space in his mind and on the road to deal with a sudden obstruction or loss of traction. The rider who does not have such a margin just has an extra helping of foolishness.
And please, do not confuse foolishness with courage. To be courageous as a rider is to use your knowledge to push just a bit past your comfort, to ride out and meet your potential. Within courage there is risk, but much less than people often think. The foolish rider maneuvers on the road in ways that are beyond his knowledge. He does not know how close he is to ruin but still he flies along. Remember: “We might abuse a substance here and there, but only when it’s right.” Its right when it is courageous.
It must be noted that sometimes reckless ignorance can result in genuine skill. If I go into a corner in a manner that I in the moment think is “too fast,” traveling far beyond my margin, but nevertheless successfully navigate it, I can come out of this corner with knowledge. And I can use this knowledge to build my skill.
Speaking personally: I have crashed, made stupid maneuvers that were well past my margin, and in general used the full measure of my luck to get out of trouble. My growth has been slower than many, but I feel that it has been healthy. I don’t ever know what challenge the streets will bring. But for the most part, my margin is quite wide.
This is perhaps the most difficult acknowledgement to make. It is often difficult to know about your skill level. I can say, yeah, I am a good rider, I am a fast rider. I can reference to my general lack of crashes, or the fact that I learned from my crashes, or my notes on riding. But none of these are sufficient for me to know without doubt that I am a good rider and not just a lucky squid with poor criterion of judgement. Which, I think, it part of the reason why we reference other riders. As we will see, this is also part of the problem.
Many, if not all, riders (who are concerned with being skillful or good or fast) feel the need to confirm for themselves that they are skillful or good or fast. So we ride in groups and use other riders as the measure. You can hear the quest for self certainty play out in the conversation at the gas station. “Dave doesn’t ride with us anymore because we are too fast.” “I could have followed that guy, but I knew you guys were behind me and I didn’t want to lose the group.” “I’ve had a lot of people crash trying to follow me…”
These may very well be statements of fact. But they are mainly the outcome of the internal ranking system that provides a rider with security and confidence in their own skill.
But notice. This external comparison does not accomplish its goal. For a rider can fail to account for general facts about other riders. Like, the guy you thought was too slow simply did not want to ride with you and your recklessness. Or, the fact that someone crashed behind you cannot be taken to mean necessarily that you are faster. You might just be luckier. On a racetrack, when the riding goal is harmonized to one simple result, these comparisons may be effective. But out on the street, the comparative quest for self certainty is distorted by each rider carrying a different criterion.
This means, quite simply, that, outside of a racetrack, one should be hesitant to stake a full claim on their goodness as a rider. Instead, one must simply dedicate to improvement, to always seek out ways to ride better. And this dedication is itself the first and truest marker of goodness as a rider. That, and developing a wide margin.
Even as these reflections end in their keystrokes, I see now just how vague my ideas are on this subject. Maybe if you have some thoughts, you can comment.
Let’s talk about bikes next time.