From Embarrassment to Excellent

Learning From Mistakes

You learn from your mistakes. I can attest to this old adage. When it comes to motorcycling, there are three caveats. It hurts a lot less if you learn from someone else’s mistakes. It’s a lot cheaper if you learn from someone else’s mistakes. And, if you must make the mistake yourself, it should be in a controlled environment, like during an advanced rider training class or while taking a track day with professional instructors. And, if you make them while riding someone else’s motorcycle like I did, even better. So, read on and learn from my mistakes. You’re welcome. LOL.

The Importance of Advanced Rider Training

After taking a long hiatus from riding, I decided the first thing I wanted to do would be to take an intensive two-week advanced rider training course, even before buying a motorcycle. It was a unique course, but I’ll save that for another post. As a former ski guide in the French Alps, one thing I knew for sure: the better you are at something, the more fun it is. I was pretty sure that this would also apply to motorcycling, and I wanted to be as good as I could be as fast as possible. And, of course, with motorcycling, the better rider you are, the safer you’ll be. That was also a strong motivation.

After doing some research, I discovered a two-week advanced rider training course that was taking place in Victoria, British Columbia. The following mistakes I made while taking this course. Even though I made some mistakes on the road, it was still in a controlled environment. 

The Bed & Bike Experience

With help from the rider training company, I found a one-month rental for a B & B, or what I like to call a Bed and Bike because it included a basement apartment and a BMW 1200 GS motorcycle. But it didn’t include breakfast. No worries, the motorcycle was a much better deal, and did include a kitchen. Great, I was all set. I flew out to Victoria to take the course.

The course started with the essential lesson of how to safely pick up our motorcycles. Little did I know this skill would come in handy more times than I could count. Pushing myself on this course unavoidably led me to drop my bike. This time, I wasn’t embarrassed because no one was immune.

Eyes Up, Look Where You Want To Go

One of the most important things I learned early on was to put my feet immediately on the foot pegs as soon as the bike began to move. It sounds simple, but I often see motorcyclists, on all styles of bikes, duck walking their bikes at intersections, in parking lots, and at slow speeds all over the place. This was not tolerated on the course. So, I dodged a bullet on that one and never adopted that bad habit. One of the things they taught us about this is that getting your feet on the pegs gives you better balance and immediate maneuverability.

Part of the training involved doing ever more difficult orange-cone patterns. Success in almost all the patterns was based on a single skill: keeping your head and eyes up and looking where you want to go. Repeatedly riding the patterns was meant to create the heads-up-look-where-you-want-to-go habit without us ever having to think about it. At least, in theory.

The “You Go Where You Look” Lesson 

Of course, the opposite way of saying look where you want to go is: You go where you look. I learned this when the group was out on a ride. We were on a country road making an uphill 120-degree left turn from a stop sign into a narrow country lane, which incidentally had a very soft grassy ditch. You guessed it. Because my starting-on-a-hill skills hadn’t yet been mastered, I took off from the stop sign too quickly, panicked, focused on the ditch, and rode right into it. I wasn’t injured, except maybe a little embarrassment and a bruised ego, and there wasn’t any damage to the bike. But it was a good lesson. If I had focused my attention on where I wanted to go on the road and not on the ditch, despite the quick start off the line, I would’ve been OK. Lesson learned, or was it? 

On another occasion, we practised doing figure eights on a steep residential cul-de-sac, the eight lying perpendicular to the slope. For this exercise, you had to use your head and eyes correctly to successfully get around the eight because even one wrong focus would cost you. And, of course, it did me. I got all the way around to almost finishing the second loop. All I had to do was look back into the centre and ride my bike to do the final cross to complete the pattern. But that’s not what happened. Unfortunately, I spotted a rosebush in a rock garden abutting the cul-de-sac. I was transfixed. I kept my eyes on that thorny rosebush until it and my fanny became too closely acquainted.

“I never make the same mistake twice. I make it three or four times just to be sure.” That’s accredited to an Anonymous source, but it applies to me. That said, keeping my eyes up and looking where I wanted to go was starting to sink in.

My ability to do the orange-cone patterns improved. But, it wasn’t until months after the course that looking where I wanted to go totally sank in. The instructors told me this would happen. There was too much thrown at us during the course to grasp it all at once, especially if you’d been away from riding for a long time like I’d been. As I got more riding experience under my tires, they told me that various parts of the training would drop into place. It did. Cool!

The Magic Of A Proper Head Turn

One of the reasons you don’t get it while on the course is because what beginners think they are doing and what they are actually doing is not the same. For example, imagine where you’re looking is based on a clock face with 12 o’clock representing straight ahead. Making a 90-degree right turn requires looking at quarter past the hour. Making a U-turn requires looking at half past. But, as a beginner (because I’d been away from riding for so long), I would turn my head and eyes to about seven minutes past the hour for a right turn, believing I was turning my head to quarter past. For a U-turn, I’d be lucky to turn my head to a quarter past, believing I was looking all the way around. No wonder I found riding the orange-cone patterns so difficult. 

I don’t know what triggered the change, maybe an increase in road hours and confidence, but one day, I started to turn my head all the way. For a right turn, I turned my head to a full quarter past. For a U-turn, I turned my head to half past. WOW! My bike suddenly felt like it had an elastic connected to it. It whipped around. It was magic. Ah ha! This is what they meant in the course. The coin had finally dropped. My riding instantly improved.

That was going on seven years and 100,000 kilometres ago. Since that time, there have been many times when I’ve come across obstacles on the road, vehicles over the centre line, and unprotected cliffs along the roadside. Keeping my eyes up and focusing on where I want to go has kept me out of trouble and safe. Although my early lessons were hard-won and embarrassing, it was worth the experience to learn one of the most fundamental lessons in riding a motorcycle.

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