Learning From Mistakes

17th Sep 2012

I like to think one of THE reasons I'm an effective riding instructor is that I'm not blessed with much natural talent. Consequently I've had to learn nearly every aspect of high-performance riding firsthand and often from my mistakes. It's good to learn from your mistakes, but it's even better-and often less painful-to learn from those of others whenever possible.

Learning starts with being unbiased and keenly observant. This applies not only to your own riding but that of others as well. It's wisest to take notice of mistakes early on, before they become big ones with big consequences. The best riding instructors develop a sixth sense when it comes to riding safety; they're not only perceptive at picking up on safety issues, they're able to anticipate and predict them before they occur. At typical track days I see warning signs and red flags in riders' behavior that go largely unnoticed by other riders and even instructors. Unlike the movie character who sees dead people, I see crashing people before they crash. Spooky, huh?

I spent a good part of last fall traveling to racetracks across the country with Harley-Davidson and Buell training dealers on the Buell 1125R. The majority of our 600 or so dealer participants had never been on a sportbike, let alone a racetrack. Most hadn't ever twisted the throttle on a 146-horsepower motorcycle, either. In spite of all those factors we had less than a one percent incident rate in our program. What we did have was an experienced and dedicated crew of instructors that kept them safe. Sportbikes and racetracks don't have to be dangerous.

The greatest risks and the most common mistakes happen when a rider enters a corner faster than is comfortable. Notice I didn't say enters a corner too fast, because too fast is typically faster than the rider is comfortable with, not faster than the bike is capable of.

Usually it's our perception of speed rather than our actual speed that gets us into trouble. Be honest: If your eyes are getting big with panic or your grip is growing white-knuckled, those are early warning signs you need to pay attention to before they become big, painful problems. The same goes for the precision of your lines. Going a bit wide here, braking late into a corner there are early indicators of costly errors. Back it down a bit until your confidence and timing return before gradually working back up to pace in small increments.

Whether you're riding a favorite road or a local track, you're probably aware of particular corners where a high percentage of crashes happen. Study these problem areas carefully and figure out what triggers riders to crash there. Often it's a combination of factors that play on riders' vulnerabilities and catch them out. Most often they're tight corners with slick or slick-looking surfaces and/or visual distractions that sucker people into making mistakes. Break down the factors and be aware of how they apply not only to those corners but others as well.

At my home track of Willow Springs the two most crashed-in corners are turn 3 and turn 5. This always struck me as strange, because those two corners have less effect on a rider's lap time than any others on the track. Yet this is where most people fall down. Both are slow corners with flat camber (no positive banking): one uphill, the other downhill. Both also sucker riders into thinking they need to brake deeper than they actually do.

A favorite local road has a notorious corner known as Squid's Leap. A vastly disproportionate number of crashes happen in this one of hundreds of corners along a 60-plus-mile stretch of wonderfully curving road through Angeles National Forest. Among the factors that lure in the Leapers are a blind approach, a slightly decreasing radius and an inviting pullout area that goes slightly off-camber and is often dirty with a dusting of sand or pea gravel. The result is an astonishing array of broken bodywork fanned out on the hillside below.

These problem areas on both the public road and the track are similar in that they are relatively slow corners that trick riders into thinking they need to slow more after they've already entered the corner than is necessary. It's generally additional braking while leaned over that overtaxes traction, or a fear of leaning farther that causes some riders to stand the bike up and run off the pavement, that catches unwitting riders out.

If you're unfortunate enough to find yourself or someone you ride with in an accident (hopefully not seriously injured), realize the only positive thing that can come from the crash is a gain in knowledge that prevents it from happening again. This is where things get tough, because our internal defense mechanisms often have trouble accepting responsibility or blame. Be honest-brutally honest-in assessing your contributions to the crash. There are many factors, and it's all too easy to focus on those that aren't our fault and stop there. Don't. Trust me when I say the scariest crashes are the ones where you don't figure out what you can do differently to avoid their happening again.

We all know people who frequently crash through no fault of their own. Ever notice that they usually crash more often than most, too, over and over? Everyone makes mistakes-only fools don't learn from them.

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