The other day while jogging through my neighborhood, I happened upon an amusing and rather interesting scenario. There was a little boy, maybe 5 or 6 years old, on a tiny bicycle attempting to learn to ride it. There were two women watching him and cheering on the little tyke. I assumed one of the women was his mother. Though they were doing a good job encouraging the kid, neither one of the women made any attempt at instructing the little guy other than to scream, “Keep pedaling.” I’m sure the reason for this was that they had no idea of what to tell him.
“In so many things, you should follow your instincts; but not when it comes to riding a motorcycle or a bicycle.”
The street had a slight uphill grade and while going up the hill, he would pedal like mad and was able to maintain his balance. The whole time his head was down and he appeared to be staring at his feet. By the time he got to the end of the street at the top of the grade, he was out of steam. As he slowed to a crawl, he attempted to turn around while staring at his feet, and of course, he fell over.
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I found this amusing because in my classes I see adults with many years of riding experience making exactly the same mistakes. That is, staring down at the handlebars or the ground and attempting to U-turn with almost no forward momentum.
In both cases, instinct is at fault. The brain is telling the body what to do. The body does what the brain tells it to do and the result is a tip-over. Now, I would love to be able to tell you exactly why your brain does this, but unfortunately, I have no idea. In so many things, you should follow your instincts; but not when it comes to riding a motorcycle or a bicycle.
One of the exercises at my Ride Like a Pro course consists of a series of quick left to right transitions. This exercise simulates the swerve you would need to make to avoid a vehicle that turns left in front of you or pulls out from the right. Since the transition must be made quickly, the rider must turn his head and eyes from extreme left to extreme right quickly. The rider must look at the spot he or she wants to place their front tire long before the bike gets to that spot. The rider has to have some speed in order to allow the bike to lean as it transitions. The speed can be from 10 to 20 mph.
Just like the child learning to ride the bicycle for the first time, the riders in the class will at first attempt to make the transitions at a slow walking pace. What’s more, the riders attempt to look where they are at the moment instead of where they want to go next. This of course will not work. I try everything possible to get them to pick up their speed including constantly prodding them over a P.A. system. In real hard cases, I’ll run in front of them on foot while telling them to look at me and try to run me down. This gives them something to look at and at the same time, allows them to see how slow they are actually going. While this almost always works, it’s very tiring.
Another way to get riders to use the head and eyes technique and understand how much easier it is to control a two-wheeled vehicle with a little speed, is to have the rider try the exercise on a bicycle. Since the principles are the same on the bicycle and since the fear of dropping the bike is completely removed, most riders catch on very quickly.
When they get back on their motorcycle, they are much more inclined to pick up their speed and turn their heads faster and further. Once the rider feels the bike lean and transition quickly, it’s a good sensation and they want to repeat that feeling over and over again. When the riders move on to the next exercise, which is more difficult, they do so with more confidence and a better idea of what works. In other words, they are less willing to listen to their instincts and more willing to use technique.
The proper use of your head and eyes is a lifesaver out on the road. Always look where you want to go, not where you are at the moment, but where you want to go next. As an example, at 40 mph you’re covering 60 feet per second. Look down at your tank or your handlebars or the ground right in front of your bike for one second and 60 feet has just gone by.
If instead you look well ahead of your path of travel and through a turn, your hands will follow your head and eyes and you’ll go only where you want to go. If you don’t believe me, try it on a bicycle.
About the Author
Jerry “Motorman” Palladino is the founder of Ride Like A Pro, Inc., a company that teaches advanced rider training classes, and produces motorcycle instructional DVDs and books. Jerry is a former motorcycle police officer who teaches riders the same skills that motor officers use when riding their motorcycles. His classes are aimed at experienced riders who want to enhance their motorcycle skills. Visit RideLikeAPro.com to learn more about the classes and to purchase and download digital copies of the DVDs.