Wherever we are on the development path, we can always look to improve our riding skills. I’d always recommend training with a decent rider coach as the most effective way but it’s certainly not the only way we can learn. Over the years, I’ve learned a lot from reading books. Although reading doesn’t suit everyone, if that’s a way we can learn, there’s nothing wrong with that. If we have a good book as a source, we can learn about riding in places and environments we haven’t yet experienced, and discover new techniques to try out. Books are particularly useful during the winter season when we might not be riding as much as we would in better weather.
Looking for a present? A book is always welcome! Why not take a look at my own books too?
Here in the UK, the standard text for many years has been ‘Motorcycle Roadcraft – the police riders’ handbook’, and as there’s a good chance you’re already aware of that book, I’m not going to look at it. Instead, I’m going to point you at four books you may not have heard of by authors from the other side of the Atlantic. A couple you may have heard of, two you may not have. All four are part of my own library. You should be able to find them via an online bookseller, although you may find the UK distributors out of stock from time to time.
First up is my particular favourite: ‘Ride Hard, Ride Smart’. Author Pat Hahn is barely known this side of the Atlantic and this book is not aimed at new riders, but more at those with some experience. An easy trap to fall into after taking any training is that by employing what we’ve been taught we’re automatically ‘safer’. It’s only partly true and throughout the book, Pat’s thinking mirrors my own – that to ride in relative safety, in addition to the technical skills, we have to understand two things. Firstly, we have to know just WHERE accidents happen. Secondly, we need to appreciate the potential CONSEQUENCES for the rider if things go wrong. The importance of this ‘risk analysis’ approach was something I’d concluded for myself was an essential strategy for all riders.
You might be put off by Pat’s frank appreciation of just how we can end up hurting ourselves on a motorcycle, but that would be a mistake because it’s understanding where, how and why things do go wrong that empowers us to take positive steps to manage the risk. Pat shows how risk analysis can be used to rate every motorcycling activity from 1 (safely home in bed) to 10 (moments from certain death!) then uses the ‘three degrees of separation’ concept to illustrate how we can manage the risk by keep our riding between the two extremes.
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‘Ride Hard, Ride Smart’ is not an all-in-one DIY book about riding, focusing as it does on hazard reduction, so at number two on my short list is ‘Proficient Motorcycling: The Ultimate Guide for Riding Well, 2nd Edition’. This is a well-respected book from the Motorcycle Consumer News column writer David Hough. According to the cover notes, “amusing anecdotes, helpful instruction and detailed photos and diagrams… will develop your riding skills”.
I’ll be straight up. I didn’t find it easy going. Maybe I’ve not got a Transatlantic sense of humor (sic!) but if Roadcraft is ’50s British Pathe News and dry to the point of coma, this is 90’s US comedy ‘Friends’ -laboured jokes and canned laughter. Although there is an immense amount of good content in this book, I found that instead of reading the same style of anecdote for the n’th time, I began to skip past them. Take the section on ‘Superslabs’ – or motorways to us Brits. We get to the advice in the end (a bit like riding on a motorway, really), but unless you force yourself to read every comic word, the danger is you flip to the next section and miss a nugget of gold.
As a do-it-yourself riding course, the scope of the book is as wide as we could wish, covering just about all the bases from riding kit to road surfaces. There are some imbalances that might seem a bit odd to a UK-based rider. Deer might be a big threat to riders on rural roads in North America but do they really rate FIVE pages (plus another half-page under night riding!) when ‘smarter cornering lines’ rate just four? After all, even US riders have to go round bends.
Having said all that, get it, read it, strike out the less-relevant sections and absorb what you need because there is so much good stuff in here that mirrors my own thinking on riding.
Another author you may not have heard of is former AMA road-racing champion and ex-pat Brit Reg Pridmore, founder of the track-based CLASS riding school in the USA. His book, ‘Smooth riding the Pridmore way’, is another of the less well-known texts.
‘Smooth Riding’ has a distinctive style. The text is broken up into bite-sized chunks, with each chapter divided into short sections, and the book itself broken up with anecdotes from Pridmore’s racing career, check-lists and tips, as well as mini-articles by his instructors and even multiple GP world champion Freddie Spencer. You may find this ‘flash card’ approach easier to follow as it gives clearly-defined areas to think about and work on. But if, like me, your preference is for flowing text, it can be a bit difficult to follow.
If there is a weakness, it’s that Pridmore’s approach is a bit too much “it worked for me so you should also do it this way”. He tends to treat issues as rules and rarely offers any consideration of alternative strategies.
There is one particularly controversial section – at least, to a UK rider more familiar with the ‘Roadcraft’ approach to cornering lines. Pridmore’s argument that the tighter line around a bend gives a rider more space to deal with hazards than the UK-favoured wider line that offers a better view around the bend. My own thinking is that neither approach is entirely right. Firstly, – rather than position rigidly, which side we favour depends firstly on which side we’re most likely to encounter a hazard, and that could be either offside or nearside at different moments. Secondly, there are times when neither line is right and a compromise between the two would be a better choice. As I said, we shouldn’t expect to find clear-cut ‘rule’ but instead look for explanations – that’s how we’ll discover the exceptions and alternative strategies that make for a flexible rider.
There are times too when the book is geared a bit too much towards track riding. His often-misunderstood ‘body steering’ concept is an example. He talks about how leaning into corners will increase ground clearance and I’d agree that this is vital on a track where modern tyres permit extreme angles of lean. We don’t need to get round the corner as quickly as possible, and so we don’t need extreme lean angles. How often does a modern bike run out of ground clearance on the road? He also is in favour of smoothing out cornering which may pay dividends at high speed, but on the road I believe that moving our body around on top of the bikes increases the machine’s response to steering inputs. That allows us to use ‘fast steering’ to make more rapid changes of direction, which as a technique comes in extremely useful when the road ahead throws us a curveball we weren’t expecting.
So ‘Smooth Riding’ has some good bits, and it has some sections that will make you think. But I’d also suggest that you shouldn’t rely on it for your ultimate source of information for road riding. The same really applies to the final book.
‘Total Control’ is written by Lee Parks, another US racer turned author. Parks is already fairly well known here in the UK and his intended audience is obvious. The back cover states: “Parks demystifies the techniques used by top racers and demonstrates how to apply them to high performance street riding”. If that didn’t give the game away then the first paragraph title should be clear enough. It’s called:
‘The Problem of Learning to go Fast’
Hmm. You can ask yourself whether or not this is the best approach to riding, or just a soundbite to sell the book. My own approach is to help riders understand where, when and why we may need to drop our speed. Get that right first and foremost, and when we’re sure we’ve eliminated the risks, then we can choose whether or not to add some speed. But speed should never be the starting point.
So I didn’t get off on the right foot with this book and things didn’t get much better. Parks makes sweeping statements then fails to back them up with any detail or explanation. The opening chapter on traction rightly says: “it’s important to know what traction is and how it works”. There follows a page on hot, cold, soft and hard tyres, then quickfire statements about road conditions, suspension, braking, cornering, acceleration and lean angle. But nowhere in the chapter on traction is there anything that really explains to the reader the fundamental question: why DO tyres stick to the road? The final section entitled ‘Traction Management’ simply says:
“As you can see, there are many things that affect traction. Learning to manage them all might sound overwhelming at first. However by reading the following chapters, you can learn exactly what you need to know, without being bogged down by oversophisticated academic theories. Just stay focussed on the drills as you do them and traction will take care of itself.”
You can call me academic if you wish, but I don’t like trusting anything to “take care of itself”. I like to understand how things work, and that’s the biggest problem with this book. It’s full of broad-brush generalisations and snappy soundbites and lacks any serious depth. The more I read it, the more I thought Parks experience suits the book for the circuit rider rather than the road. If your interest in riding is restricted to trackdays, then you may get something from the book. But if your interest lies in improving your road-riding skills and not just becoming a faster rider trusting in faith, there’s not much in it.
Who am I? I’m Kevin Williams, a full-time BTEC qualified post-test instructor with experience at advanced and basic levels who is also an MSc in science and a qualified e-tutor with an NVQ in Distance Learning Techniques.
It often a big surprise just how much diagnosis and correction of riding issues it’s possible to do online. A lot of it is down to my experience – if there’s a riding problem, I’ve almost certainly seen it AND know how to fix it. If you’ve got a riding problem drop me a line direct for free advice. I can help with all aspects of riding from novice to experienced.
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Why Survival Skills?
…because it’s a jungle out there
Since 1997, Kevin Williams MSc and Survival Skills Rider Training have led the way in making high quality rider training courses and advanced motorcycling skills accessible to all riders. The goal of Survival Skills has always been to help motorcyclists at all levels – newly-qualified, intermediate, and advanced – to develop skills and ride with more confidence and enjoyment, not just by offering practical training courses but by offering books, online advice and even working on numerous rider safety projects – often for free!
“Ordinary training? No, extra-ordinary training” Barbara Alam