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Book Review – “How to be a Better Rider”

After I mentioned to one of my trainees over lunch one training session that I hadn’t got the very latest version of the IAM’s own riding handbook, he very kindly sent me “How to be a Better Rider: The Essential Guide”.

Penned by IAM staff examiner Jon Taylor and motorcycle titles editor Stefan Bartlett, the book was released in July 2009 and is intended to be the basis of the IAM’s advanced riding test preparation; it comes as part of the starter pack when you sign up for their ‘Skills for Life’ programme.

“With new graphics and images illustrating how to deal with tricky riding areas such as filtering, positioning and revised steering techniques, the IAM manual will be of practical use to all riders, whether relatively new or with many years experience”, says the IAM.

According to the IAM, it’s intended to be the “definitive guide to defensive riding”. Chief Examiner Peter Rodger said:

“The new IAM motorcycle manual is all about guiding principles. It’s not a ‘book of rules’.

“The advice is contemporary, topical and fully accessible to riders, whatever their level of skill and experience.”

As I opened my copy, I didn’t get off to a good start as virtually the first thing I spotted was:

“It’s a jungle out there”

Whilst I don’t claim to be the first to have said it, it’s probably just as well I didn’t trademark that particular byline, as it has been in use on my Survival Skills website and paperwork since 1997!

The very first page of the previous book got off on the wrong foot with me by talking patronisingly about riders who don’t ride the IAM way.

Things don’t improve with the new book. The very opening section strikes a similar patronising tone but this time about ‘basic training’. It was guaranteed to wind up this particular former qualified basic trainer.

The book makes a totally ludicrous claim by arguing that that basic trainers don’t teach learners in difficult weather conditions. As any instructor engaged in CBT, restricted access or direct access training will know, this is simply laughable.

Training schools operate throughout the year and only the most extreme conditions of snow, ice, floods, gales and fog will cause training and the DSA’s practical bike test to be cancelled. If anyone doesn’t ride in difficult conditions it’s the fair weather bikers who make up the majority of the sportsbike crowd these days, and who are in large part the IAM’s target market!

Quite simply, if you pass the DSA test your basic training instructor HAS equipped to deal adequately (and ‘adequately’ is all the law requires) with 99% of any traffic situations you will come across.

Maybe we ‘basic trainers’ ought to start calling the skills we teach new riders ‘core’ training rather than ‘basic’, to make the point that it’s CBT and DAS trainers who teach the most fundamental skills a rider will ever learn.

Why an authoritative book has to resort to such unjustified and unjustifiable claims is beyond me. All it does is devalue the rest of the contents.

Anyway, after I’d got the blood pressure back down again, I carried on reading.

Text is a bit “sound bite” in places, rather long on exhortation, and rather short on explanation.

The two pages on road signs do little more than say “read the Highway Code”, and do nothing to explain WHY road signs are actually there, or how to link the information (for example, why you might see broken and solid white lines, a bend hazard sign, SLOW painted on the road, chevrons in the distance, or even new technology like flashing warning signs etc.) to gain an overview of the hazard before you see it.

When we get to cornering, the text observes that there have been “thousands of words written about steering” or words to that effect. Nevertheless, the authors find the need to add their own quota to the total by inventing yet another new take on an age-old technique. They talk about “positive steering”.

I believe this came about in partnership with Andy Ibbott and the California Superbike School. Certainly, there was a demonstration at one of the UK race tracks when “positive steering” was shown to the DSA as a revolutionary new way of steering. Whilst the DSA have resolutely opposed moves by basic trainers to get steering included in the syllabus because it’s “too complicated” for new riders, there’s no justification for what appears to be an attempt to lay a claim to ownership of basic steering technique under a new name, because of course what the text goes on to explain is what we all know as countersteering, a technique that has been understood since 1905 or thereabouts, when one of the Wright brothers wrote a description of the method of steering a single track vehicle.

One wonders what “negative” steering must be.

Where riders understand motorcycle steering, they are nearly always familiar with the concept of countersteering. There is simply no need to muddy the waters by inventing a new piece of terminology. I can just see it now:

“No, I don’t countersteer, that’s only for old fashioned bikes. New bikes require positive steering to get them to go round corners”.

Aside from the countersteering / positive steering confusion, they also use the term ‘safety position’ to define a position on the road where the rider has a good clearance to hazards. Unfortunately, since 1992 new riders have grown up with the term ‘safety position’ used to explain the left foot down / right foot up approach to holding the bike on the rear brake at a standstill. Whilst the intent to define the need to maintain what is often referred to as a ‘safety bubble’ around the rider is good, the use of an already well-known term from basic training doesn’t help with consistency between basic and post-test training.

Mr. Rodger also said about the book: “Bends have always been an area of uncertainty for many riders, but the limit point for effective bend assessment is now usefully explained.”

In short, the advice given is if the limit point moves towards you, you may need to slow down.

This is still one of the worst pieces of advice you can give a motorcycle rider.

By slowing down, you alter the steering geometry and the loading on the tyres. Moving from a slightly nose-up attitude on the power to a nose-down attitude on closed throttle compresses the front suspension and alters the camber thrust on the front tyre, which makes the bike try to lift out of the turn. Changing the front / rear loading on the tyres by throttling off alters the ‘slip angle’ of the two tyres from slight oversteer (as the rear ‘slips’ more than the front) to mild understeer (where the front ‘slips’ more than the rear. It’s exactly the phenomenom which gives rise to the nasty ‘edgy’ feel that a rider gets when cornering on a closed throttle in the wet.

So how to deal with a tightening bend?

By far the simplest way to deal with a tightening corner (assuming the rider has gone in with a degree of caution, aware that any corner can tighten) is to maintain vehicle stability by adjusting lean angle as the limit point moves towards us. That way we avoid throttling off, and thus avoid destabilising the bike mid-corner. Keith Code (and the California Superbike School) emphasise just this point with their throttle control exercises, and it’s what we should be teaching riders to do on the road.

And if we’re going in too fast, arguably we should have used the brakes positively and upright before we got there, yet this is a technique which still struggles to find a place in the IAM’s collective heart.

In any case, we should go into a corner with learn angle in hand because we should be aware that the ‘limit point’ is just that – it’s the furthest limit to how far we can see. Just as a snapshot gives us no clue what happens in the future, so the limit point can tell us nothing about how the bend develops out of sight. Which happens to be why we have road signs – to warn off hazards like tightening bends that cannot be detected simply by looking.

On the plus side, there’s an explanation of the ‘Vision Line’, which is more or less what I’ve been teaching as ‘Point and Squirt’ for the last fifteen years and more. Although they still caution against sudden, jerky inputs, it doesn’t mean you can’t use positive inputs! (Would that be positive steering?)

There are some odd choices of order of text. One that stood out was that the ‘Police System’ IPSGA and ‘planning’ are in two separate sections, with planning coming second. Surely IPSGA is the means by which you implement a ‘plan’ so the explaining the need for planning should come first.

There’s some weird stuff. There’s a caution against overheating the brakes. I can remember virtually the only time I overheated a set of brakes. It was in the mid-80s, when I was still a courier living on the edge of profitability, and it was my old XBR500, with a single ‘worn pretty much to the wear limit’ front disc. Three flat-out downhill approaches to three roundabouts was followed by a further descent and finally a sharp bend. The lever came back to bar as I braked for the bend, and I just about stayed out of the hedge. I stopped to find the disc smoking and glowing cherry red. I replaced the disc the next weekend. But how many people wear down discs that far?

Whilst there’s undoubtedly some ‘parallel evolution’ in all books and publications covering improving riding skills, some of the sections bear a remarkable resemblance to my “Course Notes” CDROM (which dates from 2006 in its current form), and some of the photo sequences are similar. Which I suppose should be gratifying!

Summary? The IAM test and this book doesn’t cover a great deal that’s not covered on a good basic training course, such is the improvement in training that the DSA’s pursuit test has brought about in the last 20 years. What it does give the reader is a reference guide that can be read during the course of post-test training and it’s valuable for that purpose.

Compared with the previous IAM book, I was impressed with the nice, modern-looking layout of the pages in general, though some of the photos are far too small to be any use. It’s more approachable than ‘Motorcycle Roadcraft’ and far more understandable than Keith Code’s ‘Twist of the Wrist’ books.

But for the cover price of £25 (looking at Amazon today)

At £10 direct from the IAM, it’s not an expensive purchase, but I believe there are still far better books out there, such as Pat Hahn’s ‘Ride Hard, Ride Smart’ and Nick Ienatsch’s ‘Sport Riding Techniques’.

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