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Touring Tip: Riding In A Proper State Of Mind

Written By:  Jim Parks, RoadRUNNER Motorcycle Touring & Travel

It’s been observed that operating a motorcycle is 90% mental and only 10% physical.  In addition, scientists tell us that we are not consciously aware of most of what the mind is doing in everyday life.  Do you consciously think about breathing or making your heartbeat or which foot operates your bike’s gearshift? Like an iceberg, some 90% of the brain’s activity is taking place below the conscious surface. This may fly in the face of some historic perceptions of motorcyclists as brawny he-men muscling heavyweight cruiser-type bikes down the road.

The predominance of an expert rider’s mind, over his or her physical strength, was never made more clear to me than during a track school day.  The students were overwhelmingly males, riding large displacement bikes.  They would streak down the track’s straightaway at warp speed, but then almost panic and brake to a near stop before entering the upcoming hairpin curve.  This was followed by them riding tentatively around the ensuing chicanes, s-curves and sweepers before again launching into rocket-mode on the straightaway.
Meanwhile, the instructors, one of which was a petite female riding a Suzuki SV650, were passing the students with such ease that the scene was almost comical.  Clearly muscle power and physical prowess were not ruling the day and, for that matter, neither was the significantly higher horsepower of the students’ mounts.  Through the course of the class, it became painfully obvious (although not in the physical sense) that superior riding skills were mostly due to mental training and focus, not bicep size.  The day ended with a cadre of humbled, but wiser and more proficient student riders.
How does this all relate to your next motorcycle tour?  The mental aspect of riding a motorcycle safely is of paramount importance, regardless of whether you’re riding to the neighborhood Starbucks or going cross-country.  I’ve organized my tips for “riding in a proper state of mind” into the following three categories:
  1. Before the Ride:  Similar to going through a mechanical checklist of your bike before riding it, perform a mental status Q & A before hitting the starter button.
  • Am I fit, relaxed and calm?  As noted above, riding a motorcycle proficiently and safely on the street requires a high degree of mental focus.  That focus will be impaired if a rider is tired, emotionally upset or mentally distracted with other pressing matters.  Make sure you’re rested and able to concentrate on the mental demands of motorcycling.
  • Have I considered the weather, road and other riding challenges I’m likely to encounter on today’s ride?  Mentally project the riding conditions you are likely to encounter during the upcoming day’s ride so you will be mentally (and physically) prepared to deal with them; this also will reduce the likelihood of you encountering unanticipated problems.  This is somewhat like an athlete envisioning a winning performance. 
  • Was the last bike I rode different than the one I’m on now?  Each motorcycle has its own unique handling and riding characteristics.  Once your subconscious mind has been programmed on one bike, it usually stays programmed for that bike, at least for a period of time.  Consequently, it’s usually wise not to ride your current mount aggressively, until the reprogramming has taken hold.
  • Am I preoccupied with thoughts other than those about today’s ride?  If your conscious mind becomes focused on something other than the ride, the important external sensory information needed for safe riding is probably being compromised.  Your subconscious mind may well know how to operate the motorcycle, but it may not be perceiving and processing possible threats, such as a stray dog running loose, debris in the road, a car entering from a driveway or a hundred other potential risks.  Sometimes, distracted riders will automatically slow down, miss a turn, blow a curve or exhibit some other warning signal that lets them know their mental focus is compromised.  If this happens to you, or you observe it in a fellow rider, it’s time to take a break and get refocused.
  • Are riding conditions distracting my concentration?  Much of our passion for riding emanates from our experiencing the surrounding environment with all five senses.  Those sensory experiences, though, can become mentally distracting if they’re too intense, usually in the form of heat or cold.  Riders also can become distracted from physical discomfort, like a full bladder, a headache or some other malady.  Riders should identify and eliminate the distraction at the earliest opportunity.  Whether it’s stopping to cool down with a cold drink, adjusting layers of clothing, using the restroom or something else, it’s important to alleviate the cause of the mental distraction. 
  1. During the Ride:  It’s important to monitor your state of mind and how it’s affecting your riding while you’re motoring along. Ask yourself these questions:
This is not to suggest, however, that riding a motorcycle will always be as comfortable as riding in an air conditioned car.  It clearly won’t be, but riders should take the actions necessary to minimize physical discomfort when that discomfort is sufficiently high enough to compromise their mental focus.  If the discomfort is moderate and not physically threatening, here’s a technique I’ve used quite successfully:  just don’t think about it!
  • Am I in “the zone”?  When someone first learns to ride a motorcycle, they have to consciously think about the actions necessary to operate their machine: let out the clutch, twist the throttle, change gears, look through the corner, push on the handlebars, properly apply braking, etc.  Before venturing out on the street, however, these actions have to be practiced and become second nature, not requiring any conscious thinking.  
To obtain a high level of riding proficiency and safety, however, motorcyclists must substantially expand and refine their basic riding skills.  There are literally hundreds of additional techniques to be learned and riders should make progress learning and mastering them every year.  Each new skill, whether it is learning how to ride through curves more effectively or adding new street survival skills for avoiding accidents, the process is always the same.  Practice the technique until performing it becomes automatic or until it has migrated from your conscious mind to your subconscious mind.  Riders always know when they’re riding with their mind, because they get that very pleasurable “Zen” or “in the zone” feeling of effortlessly flowing with the road.  If you’re not flowing with the road, figure out why.
  1. After the Ride:  To continuously improve your riding and safety skills, it’s important to answer several questions after the ride:
  • What did I do or not do today that could have led to an accidentAt the conclusion of the day’s ride, debrief yourself on whether you made decisions or took actions that increased your risk of an accident.  For example, was I riding too aggressively around several blind curves or was there a “close call” that I could have avoided?  
  • What were the lessons learned today for future rides?  After your debriefing and self-evaluation, make a mental note of any changes needed to your riding style and strategy that will make you a better and safer rider in the future.  
There’s no reason that proficient riding lessons learned have to be learned the hard way.  Use your head and ride safe.


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