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Common Tread

The best advice: look where you want to go

Aug 15, 2014

In all my years of riding, I've learned a lot through experience, often the hard way. I've been lucky to hear the wisdom of teachers ranging from a former world champion, Kevin Schwantz, to the professorial safety columnist, Lawrence Grodsky. If I had to sift through all that good advice and choose just one tip that every rider should remember, I'd choose this: Look where you want to go.

Wait a minute! Where are you going? Oh, you were expecting something more profound? Some technical secret I pried out of Valentino Rossi that time I caught him vacationing incognito in Cartagena, trying to escape his inescapable fame back in Europe, and I plied him with rum and lemon until he finally let me in on the secret? Sorry, but that never happened (and nobody's sorrier than me that it didn't).

I will argue, however, that my little piece of advice is indeed profound. I've learned lots of skills and tips in my decades of riding, then forgotten a good portion of them, but I always try to keep those six words in the forefront of my mind. I think you should, too. Here's why.

The power of "look where you want to go"

The power of "look where you want to go" is that it taps into the way our bodies work, whether you're riding a motorcycle, trying to hit a 98 mph fastball, or aiming a rifle at the wild boar charging you. A golfer keeps her eyes on the ball, because that's where she wants the clubhead to go. An archer keeps his focus on the target's bullseye, because that's where he wants the arrow to go.

In all of those sports, the implement, whether a baseball bat, bow and arrow or golf club, becomes not just an extension of our bodies, but functions like part of it. The most cerebral analysis of motorcycle riding skills I've read is "The Upper Half of the Motorcycle," by German psychology professor and accomplished motorcycle instructor Bernt Spiegel. The title alludes to the fact that he considers the rider and motorcycle one unit, and the human is just the upper half. And so it is. The motorcycle is an extension of our brains and bodies, and acts as such.

The advice applies just as much to street riders as it does to racers riding at the limits. BMW photo.

The power of "look where you want to go" is also that it applies to everyone. The expert-level racer has long ago engrained this knowledge, but still benefits from it when riding at the limit and trying to make a sketchy pass. He knows to look way ahead, through the corner he might not make, because that slows down the action. The new rider nervously weaving toward the parking lot cones on the first day of his MSF Basic RiderCourse will also benefit from looking where he wants to go, if he didn't miss that part of the instruction. The opposite of looking where you want to go is target fixation, in which that new rider focuses on the cone he's afraid of hitting. So, of course, he nails the cone. The motorcycle thought he was looking where he wanted to go.

There's one more source of power in this saying. That's in how it applies not just so uncannily to riding, but also to life. "Look where you want to go" means keeping your gaze on the real prize, the big goals you want to achieve during your finite time on this sphere. Staring at the spot just ahead of your front tire, either literally or metaphorically, ensures you won't be ready for the next curve life throws at you.

So that's it. If you're only going to remember one thing about riding, remember that one.

That, plus go easy on the rum when in Cartagena.