Years ago we had a student come up to us at the end of the day and say, "I thought I had 20 years of riding experience. It turns out I had one year of riding experience 20 times."
In other words, time isn’t a predictor of improvement if there is no focus on skills. And while I’m a proponent of getting miles in the saddle, I’m a bigger one of pursuing a structured path of improvement. The question is, how can you tell you are getting better as a rider?
Editor's note: Dylan Code is a rider coach and the COO (stands for child of owner) of the California Superbike School, with 23 years of full-time experience in the area of rider training. He works closely with his father, Keith Code, on curriculum development and figuring out how to provide the best possible motorcycle riding experience for their students.
One metric is whether one is faster or slower than their riding friends, or if they are generally faster or slower than random riders they encounter. However, on public roads, excessive speed is more a measure of how much unnecessary risk a rider is willing to take in order to earn clout. In my opinion, excessive speed on public roads is a measure of how insane someone is. Additionally, I have seen plenty of fast riders with poor technique.
If speed is not a good measure, what about safety record? A large number of years without incidents is something to cherish — but that is not a guarantee of a high level of skill. Also, very skilled riders can get unlucky due to the carelessness of others. While safety record is an indicator, it would not be the main metric I’d use to determine a rider's skill level, or whether they were improving.
Minimum necessary inputs
I’d say the best metric or gauge for a rider’s skill is how closely they compare to the standard of "minimum necessary control inputs."
On a racetrack we could observe a pro racer compared to a novice rider. If we counted up the total number of control inputs for both riders, we would see a vast difference. The novice would be observed modulating the brake pressure with perhaps a few nervous taps at corner entry. The number of steering inputs in a single turn would stack up after the primary steering action, as several follow up steering adjustments would be seen. The throttle would vacillate along with the steering corrections.
A casual observer would refer to the novice rider as “shaky.” The pro rider would be observed to make far fewer control inputs. For most corners they apply the brakes once, steer once, release the brakes once, roll on the throttle once. Complicated corners, such as a decreasing radius, double-apex corner would have more inputs, but the point is the same: minimum necessary control inputs. When I learned how to read race datalogger graphs, this became even more obvious to me. I recall a BMW World Superbike engineer telling me that the biggest discriminating factor between a pro and a novice is how their throttle looks on a datalogger graph.
Does this mean being smooth?
This also brings us to the topic of being smooth. Smooth is a good word, but in my opinion too open to interpretation. I’ve seen riders smoothly apply too much and too little brakes. I’ve seen riders smoothly lean a bike over until they ran out of lean angle and crashed, or smoothly understeer and run wide. The phrase “minimum necessary control inputs” ticks a lot of boxes if we are trying to see if a rider is competent or improving, smooth or not.
I have also seen riders make the error of too few control inputs. For example, in a decreasing radius turn, a second steering input is often necessary, as well as a reduction of throttle, sometimes accompanied with trailing of the brakes. If a rider tries to take the entire corner with one steering input and application of the throttle, they are likely to run wide and the situation quickly deteriorates.
Where does this lead us to in regards to our own riding? I would say on any ride, including to the store, one should strive for minimum necessary control inputs. This challenge all by itself can lead a rider to focus on accuracy and make whatever adjustments to their technique to facilitate fewer control inputs so as to arrive at the minimum necessary. Additional control inputs are unwanted and undesirable, but they have their uses: They are useful data points and can indicate an area for improvement. If a rider is on and off the brakes for a corner, pulsing the lever, one could ask, "What about that initial brake input was flawed?" Was it too early, too late, too light, too hard, too sudden, etc.? This can give the rider some hints on what to do in order to improve.
How can the rider tell if they did in fact improve? That’s easy. Are they closer to minimum necessary control inputs?