Updated: Aug 16, 2022
Why we need to lift our eyes
Open any book on advanced riding skills and you'll undoubtedly see the advice "lift your vision", "keep your head up and look further ahead", or "turn your head and look through corners".
But what does all that really mean?
Just saying "keep your eyes up" or "look further down the road" is pretty meaningless unless we know a few more things. We need to understand:
WHAT to look for
WHERE to look
HOW to look
WHY we search
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
Let's take the WHAT first. So what are we looking for? Well, the answer is that we're looking for what might be termed 'clues'.
These could the racer-style clues we use as we ride through a corner; the reference points that help us plot our way - the entry, the turn-in and the exit points - or the places where we need to brake (and stop braking!), where we steer and where we accelerate.
It could be watching the actions of drivers around us; ahead, to the sides and also behind - yes, we can pick our view up by using the mirrors to gain earlier warning of hazards behind us too!
Or they could be the more conventional 'hazard awareness' clues to dangers ahead. And one source of information I find that many riders almost totally ignore are some of the most obvious clues to hazards ahead - the road markings and particularly hazard warning road signs. If the council have gone to the trouble of changing the white centre line markings, painting SLOW on the road and putting up triangular warning signs then we should pay them some heed.
WHERE TO LOOK
So just where can we search for these clues? The answer is "wherever we can see them".
What this implies is that we don't want to over-focus on simply looking as far ahead as possible, and particularly not to get carried away trying to follow the 'Limit Point' to the exclusion of all else. Yes, seeing hazards earlier is good, but we also need to examine things in more detail we get closer to a potential hazard.
Maybe we're looking left and right of our path for intersecting roads or blind entrances. We could be keeping an eye on other vehicles in neighbouring lanes. Or we could be zeroing in on a particular hazard that we've spotted to try to analyse it further - watching animals beside the road, for example. And maybe we're turning our heads to look BEYOND the Limit Point to gain a sense of where the road is going. It's not unusual to see over or through a hedge or a wall lining the road and get a general overview of the layout of the bend. There are usually plenty of other clues like lines of the hedges visible across a field or a series of trees that may follow the line of the road. We might see the tops of other vehicles ahead, telegraph poles, and the tops of buildings, etc.. All these clues, put together properly by riders turning their head and lifting their eyes, can give us a lot more info about where the road goes. And following the road around a roundabout or even a hairpin bend can even mean looking at 90 degrees or more to our path.
And sometimes we need to look down at the road surface. We'll only spot the difference between a wet patch of tarmac and spilled oil, or an irregular road repair and loose gravel when we're quite close.
In other words, an over-emphasis on 'lifting our vision' is actually an artificial constraint which can limit our ability to SEE the bigger picture. We need a proper scanning technique that gains us full situational awareness. Simply looking further down the road cannot yield this level of information.
HOW TO LOOK
So to get a full picture, just looking to the limit of vision isn't the answer - we need to exercise a scanning procedure - we need to move the focus of our eyes up to the far distance, then backwards the middle distance and from side to side to close up directly ahead of us... and then back again to the distant view.
The 'long view' gives us the broad overview of what we're facing. The 'middle view' gives us more detail about the hazards and allows us to plan a path through the problems. The 'short view' keeps us on track and allows us to fine-tune our progress.
WHY WE LOOK
Why do I say all this, when so much of the advice about 'lifting vision' implies that if we simply look further ahead, all this information will fall into our laps?
Well, the simple truth is that this just ISN'T how the human eye works in practice. Try avoiding a pothole if you're looking a long way ahead. The chances are you won't even see it before you hit it.
There's good reason for this. The eye has only a very narrow cone of focus (the foveal zone) and if we look a long way ahead, the road surface in front of us is in the blurred zone outside that sharp focus.
Small but oh-so-important details like a pothole, spilled diesel, or a damp patch may be too small to spot when we're lifting our eyes and looking far down the road. And that means we could run over them before we're even aware there is a problem. Even if we get a sense of an issue, we need to turn our foveal gaze onto the problem to fully analyse it.
And then, having gathered information, we use it. For example, say we see a junction warning sign indicating a crossroads ahead as we approach a bend. What's it telling us? It shouldn't be that tricky to work out that the junction is likely to be a blind one just around the corner. And because they've put the sign up, there must have been accidents at this junction.
So knowing that, we can guess what might be the problem - there could be a vehicle pulling out from the blind side road - worse, it could be a slow-moving and very articulated lorry - or a stationary car stopped ahead of us waiting to turn.
In short, ask yourself: "what am I going to do with the information I've gained?"
Yes, it's important that we don't ride staring under the front wheel. It's important to have the confidence to be able to look far ahead, and down our path to give us early warning of potential problems.
But it's vital to know that simply 'lifting our vision' isn't the answer.
It's essential to know WHAT we are looking for, WHERE we'll find that information, HOW to scan around us, and WHY we need to gather than information.
So next time someone says "the key to advanced riding is looking further ahead", just remember this article, and maybe even suggest they read it form themselves.