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Common Tread

My risk is sensible, yours is stupid

Aug 14, 2015

It wasn't the first time I've heard it. At a recent track day, one of the instructors told me, "I don't ride on the street. It's too risky."

Here was a highly skilled rider, more capable than most of us at handling the dangers and variables and surprises that street riding throws at us, and he concluded it just wasn't worth it.

It's not a good idea to argue with your instructor at a track day, any more than you want to annoy your dentist while you're sitting in his chair. And, I'll admit, there's a nugget of truth in what he said. But that nugget of truth is dwarfed by a boulder-sized human blind spot.

It's true that a track day is safer than the street, if everyone rides smart, keeps egos in check and doesn't let — as Casey Stoner once said to Valentino Rossi — ambition outweigh talent. No gravel in the turns, no left-turning cars, nobody texting while driving.

But that's just part of the story. This instructor, like most, had done some racing in his day. I know of nobody who has raced competitively for many years and not been injured. I know plenty of riders who have ridden on the street for 20 or 30 years without injury. So if this person felt the risk of racing was acceptable, why not the risk of street riding, which is demonstrably less?

And that's where we get into an age-old human blind spot. From psychologists to hedge fund managers, some smart people who have studied the issue have found that humans are not very good at gauging risk. What we fall back on, then, is assuming the risks we are used to are lesser.

For Valentino Rossi, the risk of charging into turn one at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway at the edge of traction on a 250-horsepower MotoGP bike amid a crowd of highly competitive racers who desperately want to pass him is a regular occurrence. There's risk, of course, but he manages it without hesitation. For me, that scenario would result in a 100 percent failure rate to make it through the turn. That's unacceptable risk by any standard.

Racers, and former racers like my track-day instructor, are used to those kinds of risks. But when there's a car coming the other direction? Perhaps driven by a teen who is texting his friends while driving? That's when I think of someone like Eric Trow, the Stayin' Safe Advanced Rider Training instructor, who has spent years focusing on the risks of street riding and has multiple strategies for anticipating and avoiding them. The street, to him, is like turn one, to Rossi.

It's a normal (but not admirable) human reaction to take the attitude that whatever risks we are comfortable with are reasonable risks, and anything beyond that is stupid. The ATGATT (All The Gear, All The Time) purist looks at the guy wearing a helmet, but no gloves, jacket or riding pants, as foolish, while the guy in the helmet looks at the rider in shorts and flip-flops and considers him an idiot. Meanwhile, some non-riders who know nothing about motorcycles look at all motorcyclists, from Mr. ATGATT to Joe Flipflops, as one big homogeneous group of death-wish organ donors who must want to die, because why else would they ride those things?

What's my point? (Yes, I do have a point.) It's this: I believe there's only one way we can all live in relative harmony and that's by following these three simple rules:

  • Make informed decisions about risk, choose the level of risk that's right for you, and respect that others will make different choices. Your choices are your choices, not universal truths, so don't try to force them on others.
  • Setting an example is always better than preaching or criticizing. The chance to answer questions from a person who genuinely wants to learn is a rare and golden opportunity not to be squandered. If you have wisdom, share it when asked for it.
  • If you choose a risk level and it all goes wrong, leading you to the conclusion that you made a bad decision, take responsibility for your actions, don't whine and blame others, don't hurt innocent third parties and clean up your messes after yourself.

If we all did those three things, most of our problems would disappear.

Meanwhile, see you on the road. And the track. And anywhere else I can ride, for as long as I can keep doing it.