Tuesday, August 21, 2012

§ 5. What Kind of Rider Are You?

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. 

I think.

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. 

Monday, August 6, 2012

§ 4. Okay. Let's Get Some Gear.

It should be clear by now that proper gear is a foundation of good riding. Though a new rider may not think of it in these terms, gear represents an implicit acceptance of risk. Wearing gear is an implicit attempt at managing risk. When your skill or your luck fails, gear is designed to pick up the tab and address as much of the balance as possible. So, regardless of the nature of your riding community, by now it should be clear that you should get and wear gear no matter what. Gear should meet the following requirements: 

1) It needs to adequately protect you. 2) You need to be able to wear it for an extended period of time. 3) You should like the way you look in it. 

The first two points are not surprising. The last point is important because you should minimize any disincentive to wear the stuff, and feeling like a power ranger at your auntie’s funeral could certainly fit that bill. 

Your personal clothing style may entail really baggy clothes or really tight clothes, but neither of these are appropriate for motorcycle gear. Your gear should be as snug as possible while still allowing you freedom of movement through the range necessary for the operation of a motorcycle. If it is any looser, the gear will shift in an accident and not optimally protect you. If it is any tighter, you will not be able to maneuver the bike properly because of the restriction of the clothing.  

Because of this, it is entirely likely that a certain brand of gear will fit you much better than another brand. Some European made stuff, like Rev’it, will be good for the slim tall men. American made gear, like Joe Rocket, will be good for cats who are bigger around the belly. The important thing is to try as much on as possible before you make a purchasing decision.

Some of this gear can be quite costly. You should remind yourself that it is worth it and you can find the same thing for cheaper on eBay. The most cost efficient way to do things might be to get a two piece suit. This way, you can have a jacket for life and some riding pants for long trips and track days. But then you will have to get any gear that is appropriate for the weather in your region. I have a two piece leather suit. But I also live in South Florida. So a mesh jacket is vital, as is a helmet that is good and flowing air. 

Riders often neglect to get boots. In some cases, they wear military boots or something similar that has ankle support. This is okay, I guess. But it is far from ideal. Some motorcycle boot manufactures to extensive testing to insure protection of the ankle and foot in cases of impact and abrasion. Alpinestars, for example. And Sidi. If you are a sport biker, it is in your best interest to get riding boots and wear them along with the rest of your gear every time you ride. 

It is easy to rider around life in a helmet, jacket, gloves and boots. Less easy to roll up to class rocking leather pants with knee pucks on the side. It used to be that we all just compromised our safety and wore regular blue jeans. But manufacturers of gear have addressed this issue by offering Kevlar lined jeans. These jeans might not be the best at guarding against impact, but they will certainly minimize road rash. And in most cases they look like regular jeans, so they will not alienate the conservative dresser. 

Lastly, we must consider the helmet. Much like other gear, the manufacturer will determine the nature of the fit. While Shoei fits me quite well, Arai is kind of tight on the front and back of my head. And Shark helmets are tight on the sides of my head. 

Helmets are rating according to standards set up by the Department of Transportation or the Snell Memorial Foundation. Unless a helmet is “novelty only,” it will be certified by one or both of these organizations and will say so right on the helmet. But, even though most helmets are certified with regard to their ability to protect in a crash, there is a serious gap in helmet price. Helmets can run from 60 bucks to 800 brand new. What is the difference?

Aside from the quality of the paint and finish, I think that the main difference is the amount of time the helmet can be comfortable on your head. A proper fitting Shoei will last an entire day of highway riding. It will fit well and also be aerodynamic enough to prevent excess fatigue of your neck muscles. A super cheap helmet, not so much. You will have a headache by the time you get to the beach. It is worth the money to get a good helmet. One that will fit well and that looks good. For many riders, the helmet is the signature—the most unique piece of gear that tells those in the know about the rider. 

There is another piece of gear that most riders I know neglect: ear plugs. I think you should get a good pair and wear them. 

“Noise” is a judgment that we place on the information source that is sound. That is, sound in noise just in case it impedes our ability to think or concentrate. Sometimes, we will actually turn down the music because we think we smell something, or because we need to have a closer look at the map when out on the road trip. The direction of our attention will determine whether the sound in our ears assists or distracts from the task of concentration. Riding takes concentration and excessively loud wind is just noise.

This is not to mention the general facts about motorcycle riders, tinnitus  and noise-induced hearing loss. If you want to have more mental space available for concentration and such and if you would like to be able to hear things in the not so distance future, it is best for you to wear ear plugs. 

To be clear: your subjective considerations of noise mean nothing. Just because you think “it’s not that loud” does not mean that the the aural architecture in your inner ear will be okay. It is a basic fact of psychoacoustics that physical damage to the ear can be caused by volume levels that the listener believes to be perfectly appropriate. 

It is only after getting the gear that a rider should put leg over bike. Anything else is just a youtube video waiting to happen. Of course, we must remember that gear is a foundation of good riding and not THE foundation of good riding. To have one without the others is equally youtube worthy.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

§ 3. How to Spot a Defective Community.

Here are a few more examples of what I term defective riding communities. They are communities that are not serious about safety or basic protocols, which are intended to protect against these kinds of accidents.

Note that I am not saying that a healthy community will be free of accidents. My claim is that any group that is so lackadaisical about the education of new riders--or so cavalier about its stunt formation on the road--is just not doing enough to prevent the wreckage of bike and body.

There are many bikers with whom you should not want to ride. These are merely a few.

Outside of seeing things go bad in person or on video for defective communities, you can also listen for certain tropes of interpretation when out talking to riders or perusing forums. Here are a few claims that are clear indications that you should not be listening to the speaker.

*Helmets cause neck injuries, so one should not wear helmets.

To make such as argument, you have to be more committed to riding skull-free than you are to thinking critically. You also have to have a general aversion to peer reviewed research.

*Helmets restrict your peripheral vision and this limitation makes it unsafe to ride.

I suppose it is easy to believe this if the last helmet you wore was made in 1975. Or if you have a non-standard interpretation of the point at which the vision range counts as peripheral. The interesting things about this claim is that the alternative is riding around with sunglasses or goggles, most of which are more definitive limitations on peripheral vision than any helmet could ever hope to be. This is the kind of ridiculousness that Buell motorcycles evoked in its last ad campaign.

It is also worth noting that even the helmets that boast extra vision space, like the Shark Vision R, do not make the claim that this extra space makes riding any safer. I suppose one would never catch a helmet manufacturer throwing around the S word with such frivolity. But I believe that the point stands: The problem of peripheral vision in helmets is a myth used to sway those who are bad at thinking into rejecting safety gear.

*It's too hot to wear all that gear.

This has been said to me a couple times. I always respond that, if it is too hot to wear my gear, then it is too hot to ride. And it is never too hot to ride, so... But seriously, somehow implicit in this idea is that the possibility of a little extra sweat beneath the gear overrides the general concern for protection against injury out on the road. This, of course, is nonsense. It is a claim made by a rider who prioritizes a certain type of vanity over good ridecraft.

*You don't need all that gear, anyway. All you need is a helmet. Now, let's go stunting!

I cannot describe how false this is in words. So, have a look at the following video. Then give a call to your local dermatology practice and ask about the cost of skin grafts.

I want to stress that I am not averse to stunting. It is a perfectly awesome way to ride bikes. However, those who would like to stunt need to take the same kinds of precautions that wannabe racers take, since both groups are taking on substantial levels of risk, namely in the form of speed, for the sake of their passion.

Like this guy, for instance.

§ 2. Gear, Community and Helmet Laws.

Our journey into motorcycling must begin with a consideration of gear. The fractured world of riders has made it such that what should be a clear condition of riding has instead become a question that many do not bother to answer. This is foolish and I hope that you will soon agree. 

There are many cultures within riding. They are distinct and there is shockingly little communication between them. You have only to hear the jokes that sport bikers make about Harley Davidson motorcycles to observe this. How does a Harley go fast around a corner? On the back of a trailer. This kind of antagonism reveals the depth of a given rider community. It is an ingroup; unlikely to reach out for assistance from someone else. Wannabe racers will often not ride with stunters. Cruisers will not ride with Supermotos. We do not see each other on forums or at meetups, because we have different places to go for both. Only those of us who have had the privilege of owning more than one type of bike can peek into both worlds. 

What this means is quite simple. Most riders come into the sport in accordance with the culture that surrounds the bike itself. This is the best case scenario. Some riders do not fall into a community and start off alone, with no one to show them the way. 

When the riding culture is healthy, the new rider learns everything that she needs to know to ride well and safely. She has a community to help her out when she has trouble. And she does not have to ride alone if she doesn’t want to. But the culture can also be unhealthy. It can be a source of bad advice about bikes and riding strategies. Just have a look at some examples from Youtube.

These are mishaps that would not have happened if the new rider fell in with another community or simply spoke to different people within the community. The point here is that it is possible for the riders that surround you to be bad sources of knowledge concerning riding. Now, have a look out on the streets. Find a big group of riders. Notice how the caravan always wears the same amounts of gear and has roughly the same riding style with regard to formation and speed. 

Now, every rider who dons a helmet or a leather jacket does not know in their heart the full benefit of doing so. Being new to the game, they are simply following suit with other riders. Even if one can recite claims like “dress for the crash,” the true meaning of gear doesn’t sink in until after that gear has been field tested. Until then, they are just fitting in with their squad, or adhering to a theoretical reflection on safety, or noticing how cool they look in leather. Or a t-shirt

It is the same with the common perspectives floating around concerning helmet laws. Some riders reject helmets because of vague—and I mean vague—appeals to individual freedom in the face of what they see as overly paternalistic state laws. This is a fat wad of nonsense. 

There may be good reasons to resist state paternalism. But this does not have anything to do with the question of whether one should choose to wear a helmet. That would be confusing the requirements of the law with the imperative of our own reasoned reflection.

In this regard, eschewing a piece of safety gear in defiance of an authority that requires it is a stupid way to lodge a protest. Consider the biker who died from head injuries at a rally in which riders protested the helmet law. This is a cruel and needless irony. It may be the case that everyone should “have the choice.” But it does not follow that the particular option should ever be chosen. The only study I managed to find (from a search of hundreds) that calls mandatory helmet laws into question states exactly this. Sure, maybe it shouldn’t be a law, but given the availability and cost of helmets and safety gear, it would be several levels of unwise for a rider to leave them on the shelf.

On a side note: Do you think that the riders who were right behind the guy who died from head injuries at the anti-helmet ride are still campaigning for a repeal of helmet laws? I can imagine a perspective from which they could still be doing it. But this is a perspective in which ideological commitments to bad principles override basic facts about skulls and low speed wrecks.

There are other advantages to gear that are important. When you feel the back protector pressing against your spine and the knee pads and leather against your legs, that brooding background feeling of your all too human frailty is dimmed and you can ride more confidently. Confidence is a measurable good in motorcycling. An ill placed finger smudge on a visor can debilitate your ability to ride with precision and commitment. Well fitting gear and a good helmet are the natural accompaniments to a finely tuned bike.

So: If your squad is encouraging you to ride, but not encouraging you to get and wear gear, they are being irresponsible with your development as a rider. This is a danger on your life; you have good reason to be suspicious of the advice that they give you.