Last month, MotoSafe thought about the benefits of riding smoothly, managing the weight-shifts that occur as we speed up, slow down and change direction. ‘Riding Smoothly’ is often talked up wherever riders gather. After a brisk ride through some entertaining, hilly roads, followed by a stint on the Interstate and five miles in big-city traffic, Steady Stan and Sam Smooth start in on a couple of burgers at the end of the day’s ride.
“You talk a lot about riding smoothly, Sam,” offers Steady Stan, “but you don’t really ride all that smoothly! You speed up, you slow down, and you’re always moving around inside the lane. And you don’t stay in the same lane on the freeway, either!”
Steady Stan continues, extolling the ‘benefits’ of holding a steady speed and maintaining the same position on the roadways. “It’s really a pain to follow you; you never stay in one place, and I have to work too hard to keep up with you!”
Sam Smooth smiles, “I never said that I rode ‘steady;’ I said that I try to ride smoothly.”
Who is right? Steady Stan, who rides at the same speed and stays in the same part of the lane nearly all the time, or Sam Smooth, who seems to move all over the place? Do ‘Smooth’ and ‘Steady’ mean the same thing? Who may be under greater traffic-risk, Stan or Sam? Are you more like Sam, or more like Stan?
MotoSafe has noticed that a high percentage of veteran riders are more like Steady Stan, particularly as we grow older. But let’s think about WHY Sam Smooth rides the way he does; does Sam know something that might help all riders?
Consider how you see and think about your twelve-foot wide travel-lane; accomplished riders visually divide their lane up into three sub-lanes approximately four feet wide. Let’s call these the ‘LP1 (Lane Position 1) to the far left, LP2 is the center segment, and LP3 is the portion to the right. Which is the best one to ride in? Steady Stan will quickly tell you that he rides in the LP2 nearly all the time, since it keeps him away from other traffic. Sam, on the other hand, plays no favorites, and can be found in any of the three sub-lanes at any given time. Why, Sam?”
“Well, as a legal vehicle, I ‘own’ the full width of the lane, and I use it, all of it, to make sure I can see ahead as far as possible; when another car, or usually, a truck, blocks my sight-line, I move somewhere else in my lane to get my sight-line back.” When riding on multi-lane roadways, like freeways, Sam does not hesitate to change to another lane to improve his ability to see what’s going on ahead, too. Sam considers how well other traffic can see him, too.
“I know they may NOT see me, even if they are looking right at me, but I’m not going to hide out, either. I try to put the bike where the cages CAN see me as soon as possible.” Sam keep his modulator-equipped headlight on high-beam during the day, wears a high-viz vest and a white helmet to improve the likelihood that the cagers WILL see him, but Sam is proactive, too. He is continually moving around on the pavement, side-to-side, up and back, from one lane to another, to keep the channels of two-way visibility open and effective. Sam goes on to talk about space, too.
“I don’t want anyone else near me, either!” So, even if it means slowing down, Sam is always creating and re-creating space around him. Sam recalls an important lesson from the late Larry Grodsky; ‘Presenting Yourself to Traffic;’
“When I’m on a two-lane, and there is oncoming traffic, especially more than one cage, I usually move to the LP3 so that the cars behind the lead car can see me sooner; I’ve had’em pull out to pass the lead car before they saw I was coming; I want ALL of the cages to see me, especially the second or third guy in line. Then I’ll usually go back to the LP1 after all the traffic is past, but it depends.”
Steady Stan, on the other hand, locks himself onto one position, and has to depend on the other guy to both see, visually, and mentally recognize Stan on his motorcycle.
But why not a ride at a steady speed? Does Stan have something here? Why does Sam Smooth change speed so much?
“Well, pretty much the same issues; I want people to see me, and that means that I need to stay out of blind spots and ride to ‘gaps’ in the traffic-mix to get my space back. So, sure, I do change speeds a lot, but I do it SMOOTHLY! And I try to be smooth when I move around, side-to-side, too.
MotoSafe is reminded of advice given, over forty years, ago, to a gaggle of motorized paper-delivery boys; we delivered the days’ news from smoky two-stroke motorcycles; the local police department sent two Motor Officers to ‘train’ us in the art of surviving city traffic.
“We ride our motors just a little bit faster than the surrounding traffic. This keeps most of the things that happen in traffic in front of us, instead of having it come up from behind and surprising us.” The well-known NHSTA ‘Eighty-Five Percentile’ Study seems to validate this advice; NHSTA found that the ideal traffic conditions exist when 85% or more of the traffic is travelling in the same direction at (or within 5%) the same speed, regardless of the flow-of-traffic speed. On multi-lane roadways, riders can avoid many surprises that come from behind by riding at a pace that just ‘creeps’ past most surrounding traffic.
MotoSafe does not advocate extra-legal speeds, of course, but safer riding is a continual series of ‘risk-and-reward’ calculations; competent riders will often take the safer course of action, even though the law may officially frown upon it for the moment.
While the boys were entertaining themselves on the curvy back roads, Stan stuck to his fixed position and speed through the turns, while Sam Smooth accelerated coming out of the turns, and used the entire lane to reduce the radius, taking ‘some of the curve out of the curve.’ Sam entered the curves from the outside, aimed for the inside part of the lane just beyond the geometric apex and accelerated towards the outside part of the pavement as the tarmac straightened out. Going in, Sam smoothly set his entry-speeds using modified trail-braking techniques that eliminated drive-line lash and jerky off-throttle/on-throttle transitions as the delayed apex was passed.
Steady Stan rode the twisties as if his cruise-control were switched on; while Stan’s speed was generally low enough to avoid most problems, he did have an interesting moment as he came through a blind right-hander and encountered a farm-tractor pulling a load of hay just beyond the vanishing point. Steady Stan awoke suddenly from his reverie, grabbed a handful of front-brake, producing a chilling squeal from his front tire as he slowed abruptly to avoid colliding with the hay-wagon. Did Stan’s steady speed into the turn give him enough time to brake or swerve if he encountered something in the roadway? Did Stan’s steady speed lull him into a false sense of security? Sam Smooth, on the other hand, consistently set lower-than-necessary turn-entry-speeds that allowed him to maneuver safely and CALMLY when the unexpected suddenly appeared inside the vanishing point. When his sight-lines opened up during the curves, Sam rolled on the throttle enthusiastically as his grin got wider.
Well, who do YOU resemble while riding; Steady Stan or Sam Smooth? Are you actively engaged in the riding-task as you manage other traffic, as you communicate your intentions to your roadway neighbors, as you work to maintain your sight-lines and your own visibility, and as you make adjustments to speed and position to keep as much space as possible around you? Do you strive to ‘command respect’ from others on the pavement? Or, do you ‘put it on auto-pilot,’ pick your spot in the lane and mentally zone-out as you enjoy the passing scenery? Think about these two riders: Sam Smooth continually makes the best use of whatever the roadway and traffic conditions give to him – and that takes constant, active mental effort in addition to frequent control-inputs. Steady Stan, on the other hand, is content to hope that others on the roadway DO see him, and do give him enough space and visibility. But he IS steady!
Think about your riding practices; do YOU continually work to keep a smooth and stable motorcycle chassis, while at the same time, moving around to get the best views and the biggest ‘margin for error?’ Can you improve your abilities to ‘stay in view, with a view,’ while balancing an imaginary drinking-glass of water atop your gas tank? If you can keep the imaginary water inside the glass while getting the most of what YOU need from current roadway conditions, you are well on your way to joining Sam Smooth as a skillful, mentally-engaged and always-calm motorcyclist.
Ride safe, ride often and write to MotoSafe with your thoughts!