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Finding the balance between miles and theory

Some years back I was reading an industry mag and in one article the point under discussion was about how much time on an advanced course is actually run on the road in terms of mileage.

The article revolved around two contrasting approaches. One letter had referred to a discussion with the owner of another school who, he claimed, boasted of controlling his costs by: “padding out talks and never covering more than 50-60 miles during a full day’s training”. The letter writer, by contrast, claimed to offer “maximum on-road instruction”.

So who’s right?

Well, if the first trainer really is “padding out” the day with unnecessary theory discussion, then clearly that’s not in the trainee’s interest.

But the key word there is ‘unnecessary’.

There is undoubtedly a fine the balance to draw between theory and practice but good teaching demands both. Practical exercises have to be set, but they require explanation.

Simply piling on the miles on its own is not good teaching technique, just as endless “talk and chalk” neither challenges riders to develop nor offers an opportunity for improvement to take place or be assessed.

The idea that miles alone will do the job is flawed. Simply correcting mistakes as they happen isn’t the best way to teach people to ride, not least because they might not make any particular mistake in front of the instructor – few riders (myself included) can actually ‘ride normally’ when being assessed and most instinctively put on a show of what they think the instructor will want to see.

It’s easier to go back to basics and start by reconstructing what the trainee thinks they know. If they turn out to be familiar and competent with a particular technique, all well and good – we can move on swiftly to the next stage. But this approach avoids the risk of missing out some fundamental step just because they seem to know what they are doing.

A good course will use short, sharp training routes with debriefs rather than a high mileage random ride. Whilst it may not be the most interesting ride for the instructor to use the same routes over and over, the use of well-known routes means they can be risk-assessed as well as targeted directly to the task in hand.

There is also the very important consideration of fatigue. Think back to your basic training and remember how knackered you were at the end of each day. An experienced rider (such as a police rider or an instructor) may well be able to ride all day with just short breaks, but commuting or recreational riders are unlikely to be able to manage it with such ease.

Well designed theory sessions, and short stretches of well-designed training routes as well as off-road practice in slow control and brake use can give the trainees a physical rest as well as a mental change of gear.

And something to remember is that whilst we are likely to start training from our own base of operations, our trainees have already had a ride to get to us and have to get home again! (As an aside, I’ve often wondered if there would be fewer crashes on trackdays if they started at a more reasonable time – signing on at 8am means many riders will have been up much earlier than usual and fighting their way through rush hour traffic to get to the circuit – they won’t be fresh on arrival.)

As concentration slips, learning deteriorates and worse still, the risk of a riding error is magnified. I worry when I hear of trainees doing eight hour days and 200 miles plus – that’s over 5 hours riding time at an average of 40mph which would have been a fair ride when I was despatching!

In any case, different trainees will respond to different teaching styles. Some will be overwhelmed by a discussion session and will need the techniques demonstrated, which requires riding. But others will respond well to detailed explanation and discussion, perhaps with visual aids, long before they get on the bike. It’s up to the instructor to vary the balance of the lesson to suit.

I get the feeling that high mileage courses are a hang-over from high mileage police training, where at least part of the exercise is undoubtedly to get trainee police rider used to sitting on the bike and maintaining concentration all day long!

Of course, the least charitable view would be that the trainer running the high mileage courses is actually padding out the lack of theory in his training by simply keeping the trainee sitting on the bike all day! After all, spending £6 on another gallon of unleaded is much easier than writing a decent syllabus and lesson plan for the day’s training.

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