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Riding with a 4 mph brain

After nearly 20 years of riding and 10 years of teaching motorcycle riding courses both public and private, it appears that there is one common barrier that all riders share� we are all riding with 4 mph brains! No matter what level a rider is, beginner to expert, street to dirt, track or road, there seems to be one primary obstacle that every rider has to overcome. Sifting through all of the fancy talk, concepts and advice, the reality is that we are dealing with a brain that has evolved to travel at 4 mph not at 30, 60, or 100 mph. We are all operating within the perimeters of a brain that has evolved over thousands of years.

During the Total Control Advanced Riding Clinic taught at Puget Sound Safety, students learn how to combat the one element that holds every rider back� FEAR. Fear is what causes us to brake early, turn in too soon, dump the throttle in the middle of the corner, tense up, and worse yet keep us from mastering visual acuity. Understanding and knowing how to cope with fear is how you advance to the next skill level as a rider. The root cause of fear is "evolution." Fear is the process our brain goes into to survive. The unfortunate byproduct of this survival instinct is that when riding a motorcycle those instincts are often opposite of what we need to do, causing us to ride poorly or, worse, crash.

This is the goal... Bret Tkacs showing how it's done during an advanced riding class with Puget Sound Safety

Before you can master things like body positioning, perfect line selection, becoming a smooth rider, minimizing negative effects from rider impute, etc, you must first be able to remain totally relaxed as a rider. Fear and poor visual acuity will prohibit you from reaching that goal.

During Puget Sound Safety's Advanced Street Skills course held at Pacific Raceways twice a year, we work on going straight to the root of riding with a 4 mph brain. The theory is that evolution has taught our brains that if we travel at 4 mph, we can safely look 20 to 50 feet ahead and have ample time to plan for changes in direction or deal with upcoming hazards. This also applies to lean; if we lean more than approximately 15 degrees, our brains set off an alert that we are likely to lose our footing and fall over, followed by the fight or flight syndrome, increasing blood flow through body, pumping out adrenaline, tensing up and preparing for the fall. This is exactly what we don't want to happen while riding.

Practice leaning and looking with freinds

So how does talking about how our brains evolved make you a better rider? As soon as we straddle an internal combustion engine with wheels at both ends, we have launched ourselves well beyond our brain's natural evolution. No matter what level we are as a rider, this issue remains constant. Even Valentino Rossi and Nicky Haden have a limit where fear sets in - it's just way beyond yours and mine. Even they have to train to fight the effects of evolution.

Most discussions on riding techniques address that how and where you look effects your ability to ride well. Every motorcycle course I have ever seen or taken talks about where to look. I am trying to illustrate why some riders may have so much trouble looking where they should. I am amazed how many riders don't understand how far ahead they should be looking. Many riders only scan one corner or even only partially into a corner when looking ahead. The way I like to describe it is that if you are looking to where if feels natural� you're wrong, look farther. If it feels right it probably isn't.

Understanding concepts like fear and poor visual acuity and how it affects our riding will help us understand how to overcome it. I am hoping that if you know why you have a hard time looking where you should, that you will be able to improve your riding and overcome those poor instincts that will lead you into harm's way. You may not know you have a visual acuity problem if you haven't challenged yourself by taking an upper-level training course.

One of the simplest ways to trick our brains reducing our fear level is by looking farther ahead. Next time you watch SBK or GP racing, pay attention to how far ahead those riders are looking. This speed perception phenomenon can be tested easily while riding or driving a car. While you are going down the road at a relatively slow speed 20-40mph look down at the ground and notice how fast if "feels" like you are going. Next, head out to the highway and while riding at a highway speeds look out at Mount Rainer or some other distant object� now how fast does it "feel" like you are going. The idea here is to trick our brain into "feeling" like it is going closer to 4 mph than 30 mph or 70 mph. The farther you get your eyes up and looking through each corner, the less you feel the speed and lean of the motorcycle. This is part of the reason we should constantly be searching for the vanishing point.

Mark Needham perfecting his head turn.

Just keep reminding yourself that if it feels like you are looking far enough through a corner or down the road�. you're not. If it feels natural, remember that motorcycles don't come from nature so it doesn't have to feel natural to look where you should. Visual acuity is what gives us direction and relaxes us. The farther you look, the more relaxed you will become.


Bret Tkacs is a Northwest motorcycle riding instructor and the president of Puget Sound Safety .


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