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Stranger equals danger

By Mario

A new bike, or one that’s new to you. Roads less travelled. Even a winter’s lay-off. There are a host of risks associated with the unfamiliar when it comes to riding. Here’s how to spot the dangers and avoid the consequences.

I really enjoyed the article by racing legend Graeme Crosby on the Motorcycle Awareness Month website. Mostly because it was well observed but also because I had just been through exactly the same experience.

After Bonneville Speed Week, I travelled to the UK and met up with one of my oldest mates. He usually lends me a bike to use for the duration of my stay. But he’d just let the S 1000 XR go and, apart from his daily ride, that only left his old classics.

Not to worry, because although an ageing BSA or Triumph wasn’t going to handle the usual mileage, we did arrange a couple of decent bimbles. One to a quirky aerodrome’s club rooms for tea and Eccles cake, the other cross-country to a pub’s popular ‘bike night’.

And this exposed a problem. The same problem Croz encountered riding a 1972 Norton Commando: the gear change on my borrowed Triumph Tiger 100C was on the right, the rear brake on the left. Croz is bang-on about the distractions, fixations and other problems this caused him, and how he overcame them–have a read of the article linked to above.

In theory I should have an advantage because I started out riding old British motorcycles with the gear change on the right (I was a perverse teenager, determined to rebel against my mates riding RDs, GTs, KHs etc.). But that was an awfully long time ago, and any residual co-ordination skills were hard to find. So, trying to cope with this strange arrangement of pedals, I occasionally locked up the rear wheel, stabbed down a gear inadvertently and generally had my attention diverted into operating the controls.

Forced to adapt
It got me thinking about just how much unfamiliarity eats into our ability to ride well. Then I heard about a friend of a friend nearly running off the road on a new bike because it steered so differently.

Bike journos are perhaps the most familiar with jumping off one bike and straight onto something radically different. It tends to build an unusual degree of adaptability, and it’s also part of a critical-thinking toolkit that gets applied comparing one bike with another.

The vast majority of riders don’t get that opportunity. And, even for we journos, adapting to a new machine takes a while. It requires intense concentration to recall a half-remembered set of responses to how a certain bike might behave when you brake, steer, open the throttle mid-corner, flick from right-to-left, etc.

So there’s definitely a risk factor here. Jumping on a new or unfamiliar motorcycle–whether that’s your shiny new purchase, a test-ride from the dealer or your mate’s loaner–means there’s a lot to process. But it doesn’t end there.

The unexpected
Croz talks about the need to continuously and actively scan for hazards, something drummed into him when he undertook Ride Forever coaching. It really is essential, because it’s your best chance of picking up something unexpected early on. That gives you time to process and act, which can make all the difference in the world.

Riding on unfamiliar roads comes with a higher probability of encountering something unexpected. But there can also be a risk in riding familiar roads complacently: because you’re firmly expecting everything to go a certain way, something unexpected can really catch you out.

The answer, as Croz says, is to continuously scan and go through the checks you will learn on a Ride Forever course.

Returning rider
Debate rages not only about the role of returning riders in the crash stats but also what you would define as one.

Here’s a contentious thought: unless you ride all day, every day, and you were riding yesterday, you are a returning rider. The basis for this personal contention was a riding holiday with a group of mates through the Pyrenees. Every single day was exceptional riding: outstanding, challenging roads in the company of some very skilled riders (one a four-time UK national race champion). At the end of the trip we arrived at the Med, took a couple of days off, then split up to do other things. By the time we parked the bikes I’d say my road-riding skills were close to an all-time high; after the days off I could notice a marked difference. No, I wasn’t reduced to a bumbling fool, but I was acutely aware that the sharp edge honed from the trip was just a few microns duller. I was returning to riding, and there was a subtle difference.

The phrase I’ve heard from more than one of the Ride Forever instructors is that ‘skills are perishable’. It’s just one of the ways that the scourge of unfamiliarity lies in wait for us. So, if you’ve not been riding much over winter and this is your return to riding, take it easy. Better yet, take a Ride Forever course and actively sharpen those skills.

See which Ride Forever course is right for you and book online.