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Common Tread

The mistakes street riders make

May 22, 2015

"'Safe' is a four-letter word," says Ken Condon. "Nobody gets on a motorcycle to be safe."

True enough. People ride because it's fun. But getting hurt is no fun. Where's the balance?

When two long-time motorcycle riding instructors and columnists for two of the largest U.S. motorcycle magazines got together for a ride recently, I cornered them to ask some questions about what they've learned from teaching riding skills for so many years.

Condon is the author of Riding in the Zone and writes the Street Savvy column in Motorcyclist magazine. Eric Trow writes the Riding Well column in Rider magazine and is the owner of Stayin' Safe Advanced Rider Training. Both have been instructors for years: Condon providing one-on-one instruction on the street and on the track and Trow in his Stayin' Safe training tours, which I've taken twice and written about previously.

This time, it was Condon's turn to be a student in one of Trow's training tours. On these weekend tours, students ride through city streets and rural countryside with Trow speaking to them through radios, not just evaluating their riding techniques, but also pointing out potential hazards and clues the road provides, usually several times a mile: a stop sign glimpsed through the trees, suggesting a blind intersection or possibly gravel kicked onto the asphalt; the angle of a barn roof suggesting the path of the road over that blind crest; the twitchy movements of an impatient car driver about to make a risky move.

I can tell you from personal experience that Trow's lessons raised my awareness as a street rider to an entirely different level.

After a weekend of riding, I did a quick Q&A with Condon and Trow.

lunch stop
What happens when two motorcycle riding instructors and magazine columnists stop for lunch? They're soon diagramming lines through corners on the placemat. Condon, left, Trow, right. Photo by Lance Oliver.

RevZilla: What are the most common mistakes you see street riders make and what's the most valuable thing students take away from your instruction?

Trow: I think they're one and the same, really. As simple as it is, getting their eyes up and taking in the whole picture is something that's missing for many riders and it's something we hear back about. They say, "Wow, I never thought about looking that far ahead." And the second part of that is giving that meaning. I can buy myself space and time and start to anticipate what kinds of things I might encounter. As simple as it is, that becomes an "A-ha" for a lot of riders.

Condon: You kind of took my point.

Trow: Why do you think I jumped in first?

Condon: (laughs) Low-hanging fruit.

It's totally about vision. But it's specifically about what they look at and how they look. To be vague and say, "Look as far ahead as you can," isn't meaningful. What Eric does is give them specific things to look at. On the race track, it's the same thing. I work with racers that are actually faster than I am. I can get them even faster by using that same concept. Look at your reference point. Great, well where's your next reference point? Look at it well before you get to the previous one. Your eyes are always going ahead.

And then to bring it back to the street rider, we give them the meaning. What's my motivation to do what you're saying? It slows down the landscape. It gives them many fewer "Oh shit!" moments, because it's not a surprise. They saw it coming. So you give them the strategy of seeing, then you show them what they're looking for, which is really the strength of the Stayin' Safe program today. You tell them how to look and you tell them what to look for. It minimizes the times situations sneak up on them. That almost goes away.

Trow: You can get to the point where you say "Oh, there's that danger I was expecting to see." You say, "There are a lot of mailboxes on this road," and just over the crest of the hill is a stopped mail truck.

RevZilla: Stayin' Safe taught me that combining lane position with 360-degree awareness leads to the goal, which is no surprises. So you're really about avoiding surprises, right?

Trow: Everybody has some dramatic story about what happens to a motorcyclist and how they wound up getting hurt or killed. What we're working toward is helping riders tell boring stories. They can tell great stories about the wonderful rides they took, the great roads they were on and everything else. But when it comes to these dramatic stories about bad things happening to riders, we tell boring stories. Things like, "I came over this hill crest and there was an intersection and a car was pulling out and another car was halfway across the center line." "Wow, what happened?" "Well, because of the hill crest I had slowed down so I had time to avoid them so it was a non-issue." It's a boring story. We like those.

RevZilla: Stayin' Safe founder Larry Grodsky said, the first time I took the course, that all crashes are avoidable, and of course that initially struck me as a statement that's hard to defend. But after I thought about it, I decided that while it's not possible to avoid 100 percent of all possible crashes, that's the right attitude to have, because it puts the responsibility on the rider to do everything possible to avoid those situations, even when it's someone else's fault.

Trow: Maybe not 100 percent, but it's north of 98 percent or more. I'll leave that one percent for the deer or the totally freak thing where something falls off a building and lands on your motorcycle. A lot of the time, it's legally somebody else's fault, but the rider could have avoided the accident.

Condon: It's all about managing time and space. I wrote a blog post called Top five ways motorcycle riders screw up, and number five is "Failing to predict danger." Close calls are a warning. If you are having many close calls, you're doing it wrong. As you ride through traffic, your readiness has to be there. If you're just casually riding and not scanning, looking with purpose, you're more vulnerable.

And here's another thing. We have to sell that. "Safe" is a four-letter word. Nobody gets on a motorcycle to be safe. So we try to make them understand that with this comes more enjoyment, not less. My book, Riding in the Zone, is really about that point. Getting in the zone is not just enjoyment, but being fully engaged in the act of being a motorcyclist. With a little time and effort and being more purposeful about their riding, it gets better.

It's like the MSF slogan: "The more you know, the better it gets." As corny as a lot of people may think that sounds, it's true.

Stayin' Safe tour
A Stayin' Safe Advance Rider Training tour is a lot like a trip you'd take yourself. Only with instruction that will make you a better, more aware rider. Photo by Lance Oliver.

Trow: It is about increasing the enjoyment riders have. When Larry Grodsky first asked me to get involved and help him out with the Stayin' Safe program, I was thinking, "He's just going to suck all the fun out of it." And what I found was that I was able to get more out of my riding.

RevZilla: I've taken various kinds of training and I've found them all to be valuable, but what separates Stayin' Safe is the focus on mental skills and observation in the street environment. Track-based schools taught by racers tend to focus almost exclusively on the physical skills and techniques.

Trow: It's important to have the skills to get yourself out of trouble, but everything we do is about staying out of trouble in the first place.

Condon: We'll teach the physical skills. How to corner really well is something we focus on with track-day training. We can get people to be incredibly confident and competent as cornerers and brakers, but out on the street, the goal is never to need those superior skills. If you actually need them, then you're doing it wrong. The best rider is not the person who can do all these supernatural riding skills, but is the person who has them but doesn't need them.

Trow: What you don't know you don't know is what gets you in trouble. So what we tend to see in our programs are people who are concerned they don't know enough. We love working with people who want to improve their skills and are naturally curious. The question is, how do we reach out to the people who really need this?

Condon: The preaching to the choir thing is a problem. We end up with people in our courses who are already thinking about their skills. What about the ones who should be but aren't?

I went to an activity outside of Boston and it was packed. And then I looked around and said, "Damn. I know all you guys." I should have advertised it as a wet T-shirt night and free beer and then I would have reached the people who really need it.

One of my motivations when I went from writing for Motorcycle Consumer News to Motorcyclist, which is a glossy, newsstand magazine, is it gives me the opportunity to reach people who aren't thinking about safety as much. You have new riders who go to the MSF course and then they ride for a while and they think they know it all. Then you have those who have been riding a long time and having close calls and they think it's normal. Then the big one comes and the family tells them it's too dangerous, they sell the bike and go away. Or I read the news story and I think, "We could have saved that one."

One of the things I say is, you might not want to think of safety. You just want to get on your bike and have fun. But who's going to take care of you if you get hurt? Who's going to put you in a casket? You got kids? If not for you, do it for your family.