by Thomas Day
My daughter’s latest short story, “A History of the Small Press”, tells a teenage-angst-filled tale of how the world didn’t understand the main character and drove her to the radical edge of rich-and-middle-class-kid punk rock society in the tough, unforgiving world of southern California teenage drama.
Holly, a kid who had always been the “smartest kid” in her small Midwestern schools, was overwhelmed in a 3,000 student California high school taking AP classes with 30 other “smartest kids.” Rather than kick up her game, she quit playing and hung out with the dumb kids so she could feel smart without having to work for it.
I see that same attitude in a lot with newbie motorcyclists; and folks who ride like beginners and appear to be proud of it. Motorcycling requires the development of a lot of skills and practicing those skills often result in the rider’s looking pretty foolish. Most people spend more time pretending they look cool than doing the things that actually are cool.
People buy motorcycles they can “flat foot” because they’re afraid they won’t be able to make a smooth stop, or start, if they can’t paddle their way up to speed. For rank beginners (with less than a few hours on the saddle) there might be something to this, but anyone who rides well learns how to change velocity without using his feet as training wheels. Bicyclists learn how to deal with not being able to touch the ground from the seat pretty early on, but not all motorcyclists are competent bicyclists. Some have never ridden a bicycle, hard as that is to believe. Even more to the point, there is nothing about paddling from start to stop that looks cool to anyone but the same characters who think pirate outfits and gangster tats are hip. The rest of us just shake our heads and do whatever we can to disassociate ourselves from what the public calls “bikers.”
Developing any physical skill requires only one thing; practice. Hours and hours of practice; 10,000 hours, if you want to get really good. Many of us don’t ever “practice” mastering anything. In fact, learning how to practice is one of the necessary skills every “expert” has to acquire. Doing what you know is not practice. Doing what you suck at is practice.
I rode and raced motorcycles for forty years before I seriously began to practice riding technique. Other than working at trail riding and off-road racing techniques, after three decades of riding I had not much more real practice under my belt than I had after a few weeks of riding my brother’s Harley Sprint to work. Including those hours of off-road work and what I’ve learned since becoming an MSF instructor, I suspect I have about 3,000 hours of actual riding practice. At this rate I won’t live long enough to become half of an expert. Just being in the saddle isn’t practice. I probably have logged 8,000-20,000 riding hours (depending on how you time approximately at least 350,000 miles of motorcycling). Little of that riding time lives up to the higher standard of practice.
Because motorcycling is a life-support activity, getting good at it is an all-or-nothing affair. When your skills are called for, you either have them or don’t. If you don’t, you may not get a second chance to decide what kind of motorcyclist you’re going to be. When I admonish other riders to practice life-saving skills, it’s another case of the kettle calling the pot “black.” I also need to keep practicing those skills because they are the difference between me riding jelly-side-up or skidding down the road jelly-side-down.