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Two books on riding technique for winter reading

If you’ve got some spending money left over from Christmas, a book on riding technique is always a good thing to put in the library at this time of year. Three years back (is it really that long?) I reviewed Lee Parks “Total Control” and David Hough’s “Proficient Motorcycling” – the reviews are on the main site…

First out of the traps this time round is “Smooth riding the Pridmore way”, by Reg Pridmore.

Pridmore isn’t a well-known name this side of the big pond, which is a little odd as he’s an ex-pat Brit, but he was a highly successful racer at AMA level in the States and now runs the well-respected CLASS track-based riding schools.

Pridmore starts by setting the scene, telling us of his early years riding in mid-50s London on a 350 Triumph when it apparently rained or snowed all the time, before starting racing in ’59. In 1964 he emigrated to the US west coast, and picked up his racing career which culminated in three AMA superbike titles, the first coming on a BMW in 76 and then with Kawasaki in 77 and 78. A bad crash at Laguna Seca finished his racing career the next year.

He began informal better riding sessions in 1982 and launched CLASS (California’s Leading Advanced Safety School) in 86. By 1996, CLASS had grown to more than 50 sessions a year.

He covers all the usual areas of machine control you’d expect in a book on advanced riding; attitude, braking, throttle and steering all get a look in. But if there’s one message that Pridmore big time, it’s the need for smoothness. It majors in the chapters on braking and throttle management, but also gets its very own chapter. Pridmore points the finger at lack of smoothness at being at the bottom of some of his own worst accidents.

The concept that usually excites comment is the chapter on “body steering”. Now, most people hear that and make a knee-jerk “but bikes steer by countersteering” response. So they do, and Pridmore doesn’t say that they don’t. The intro page to the section says it all:

“Simply put, body steering is using deliberate weight on the footpegs and tank to promote smooth, relaxed cornering – and to reduce the required pressure on the handlebar.”

There are a couple of chapters on street riding; correct cornering and street strategies.

To be frank, the cornering section has me puzzled. He identifies the problem of early apexes pushing the rider wide. But Pridmore’s preferred line on right hand bends (our LEFT handers) is what he calls the tight line – a line that give up the advantage of the wide “vision” line that we’re used to over here in the UK for a line on the inside of the turn well away from oncoming traffic. The argument is that if traffic cut’s the corner, then the rider’s in a safe place. And he’ll hold a tight line on a left hander (our RIGHT hand bend) which is once again explained as keeping well away from oncoming traffic.

Whilst I fully accept the reduced risk from oncoming vehicles, what doesn’t get a mention is the danger of an unexpected hazard to the inside of the turn that will force the rider to pick the bike up and run wide – generally the last thing we want.

It’s as if the section on lines were written for mountain roads where there’s usually no hazard inside other than rocks and potholes – indeed Pridmore states that the tight line is an advantage because the rider now has space to pick the bike up away from a pothole.

Just to confuse the issue, he goes on to say;

“in either case on the road, be it right or left hander, if there is clear visibility through the turn, I have no problem with stepping up to the double yellow line”.

So is he now saying a tight ‘middle of the road hugging’ line is OK on his left handers where he could sit further out for a better view? I’m left confused, particularly as one justification for the tight line is the ability to get hard on the gas earlier in the turn because the tight line is the shorter route round the bend.

It seems to me what’s missing is balance. Just like riders who use the vision line on narrow roads gain little or no advantage in view ahead at the cost of making an evasive manoeuvre much more difficult, so Pridmore’s argument that the tighter line gives the rider more space to correct problems is only partly true. There are times I’ll be on the inside of a turn, for instance, where I’ve already recognised I’m too hot for a decreasing radius turn, or where the turn switchbacks into a tighter turn in the opposite direction, because an inside line approach gives me more room to brake – but the trade-off is that it’s the worst possible way of seeing the problem in the first place if you start there!

Conversely, his section on Street Strategies may not be an in-depth exploration of town and freeway riding, but it throws up some very important points including the need to position not just so the rider can see but others can see US!

The book rounds off with a chapter on “Special Situations” that has a few throwaway lines on tension, heat/cold, dark etc, and a slightly more useful section on setup which is a good starting point for a new rider, if not an experienced one.

To be honest, I didn’t find the book an easy read. It’s more like a series of flash cards, with each chapter divided into short sections, and the whole broken up by anecdotes from Pridmore’s racing career, check-lists and tips as well as mini-articles by his instructors and even Freddie Spencer. I also found Pridmore’s approach a bit overbearing at times, a bit too much “do it this way” and not enough “consider these alternatives”.

I’d also argue that it’s geared a bit too much towards track riding for a pure road rider. The body steering concept for example is explained as increasing ground clearance, but how often does a modern sportsbike run out of ground clearance on the road? Rather than smoothing out cornering, the big advantage of body steering to a road rider is SPEEDING UP the response of the bike, which is extremely useful when the road ahead throws us a curveball we weren’t expecting.

It’s a useful addition to the library, but not one to start off with.

The second book is Pat Hahn’s Ride Hard, Ride Smart. The subheading “ultimate street strategies for advanced motorcyclists” gives the target audience away immediately. Hahn’s book is aimed squarely at the road rider.

Hahn’s approach to riding mirrors my own. He starts by looking at where riders get hurt, and spends at lot of time breaking accidents down into how, where and why. This is a key approach if we’re to understand good riding – take out the bad and you’re left with the rather better. It may still not give you the perfect solution to safer riding, but learning machine control technique only goes so far – however good your control, you still have to know when you’re about to do something stupid, even if you can do it perfectly!

Having studied what goes wrong, Hahn moves onto looking at risk. Riding isn’t safe, it can’t be but the level of risk depends on:

* who we are * what we’re doing * where we’re doing it

The chapter “Good Times, Bad Times” explores the theme by sifting a whole raft of data on the influence of time of day, time of year, holiday season, emotional and mental state and more on risk, and opens up a way for the individual to be self-aware of potential problems before they happen. There’s also an excellent section on visibility and the need to see and be seen. These two sections together form the core thinking behind a very good exploration of “Trouble Areas” where Hahn identifies and finds ways out of a range of scenarios that spell risk to riders. As a long-time courier who spend some time finding easy ways round London, I particularly like the way he suggests looking round for alternative, simpler routes that avoid trouble spots, rather than simply bulling through them when you don’t have to.

Hahn considers the powers of sports psychology and the technique of visualisation so that ‘practice makes permanent’, something else I’ve been talking about for some years now, and I also find his approach to changing the attitude of other road users to bikes by the way we ride a refreshingly different perspective to the “they’re all out to kill us” slant we’re usually fed by the biking media.

Hahn finishes up with a unique concept of the road as a river, explains how that can help us predict problems ahead, and suggests a few other distractions we should be aware of that can put riders at risk – group riding, temperature extremes, medication and passengers to name a few. There’s also a short but useful section on how to deal with a rider who’s just been upset by a minor crash – something I’ve never seen treated anywhere else.

Overall, the text flows nicely even if it is a bit heavy going in places, and the illustrations and box-outs correspond neatly to illustrate points in the main text. Hahn’s thinking processes are clearly laid out, but at no time are they dogmatic – he leads you to water, it’s up to you if you drink. The style is conversational and mildly amusing, without the “canned laughter” jokes I found so irritating in David Hough’s book.

In summary, if you’re looking for a track riding book, don’t even open the cover. If you want to know about machine control techniques even for the road, ditto; leave it on the shelf. It’s not a “how to deal with deer/gravel/traffic/bends/whatever” starter book in the way that Proficient Motorcycling is, or an overview of defensive riding like Motorcycle Roadcraft.

But if you’ve looking for a book that really makes you think twice about some of the commonplace things we do on a bike every day, a book that opens your eyes to risks in activities we can too often take for granted, and a book which makes you constantly re-evaluate what you thought you understood, this one is the one to expand your thought processes.

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