Developing and Refining Riding Strategies

Think about your riding style for a minute, specifically how you start the motorcycle, look when pulling from a stop, how far you look down the road or all the little things you do on a motorcycle which make you, well… you. Now think about how you learned them – overnight or through some other influence? Chances are you were influenced in ways subtle, but very strong, by informal discussions around the coffee table or hanging out at the dealership with someone you never met before. Maybe their Aerostich suit was very dirty and had lots of miles on it while standing next to a hard-ridden K 75. Maybe it was the dirt-encrusted boots kicked onto the GS’s bent engine guard. Either way, the sum of all these influences got you into the RIGHT PLACE.

I (DG) will refer to being in the RIGHT PLACE as a state of mind, and Max van Orsdel (MVO) will use RIGHT PLACE as a place on the road. Together we’ll show how the mental preparation, and being a little curious about a new strategy and making that strategy our own, are where we want our mind at for the next five minutes while you read this article. Then you can take that feeling and use it to find the RIGHT PLACE on the open road.

MVO: The following discussion is based solely on my opinions, gained from my riding experience. It is intended to help you think about your riding techniques and hopefully give you some ideas that help you to ride safely.

DG: A basic principle of any roadway user is risk awareness and management. As with anything new, there’s always a risk to be assumed. For some, risk is a harsh reality, and for others, the essence of opportunity. Under or overestimating the risk posed by our surroundings and actions can have the negative results we’re trying to avoid. A technique to use in order to keep us in the middle of the risk balance beam is to believe in the act of learning.

Learning a new street strategy is akin to learning how to play chess, but this chess game is on the road with rules not so easily understood for each piece (cars, trucks, bicycles, other motorcycles, etc.). We’ll take our lesson, learn from it, then refine our traffic chess lesson to get us to a common goal – managing and maintaining a negligible threat of a collision with a moving object, stationary object or critter. This basic lesson will be the foundation for developing our riding strategy, and how we’ll refine it farther down the road.

MVO: Using the theory of see and be seen, I prefer to ride where I am most visible to other drivers, usually to their left side, not in a blind spot. I also prefer to ride slightly faster than the flow of traffic so that I am gradually overtaking t9raffic rather than being passed by traffic. Lane placement also depends on circumstances, which are constantly changing.

DG: One way to recognize which side of the risk balance beam you’re on is to ask yourself two questions.

  1. When faced with a risky situation, do I shrink timidly away and let the situation control me?
  2. When faced with a risky situation, do I use my skills to assess the situation before deciding on a course of action?

MVO: When I’m not behind another vehicle, I prefer to ride in the left wheel track on two-lane roads. This gives me half a lane to my right for maneuvering around road hazards, potholes or rough sections of road. When I’m following another vehicle on a two-lane road, I prefer the left wheel track since I can see around the vehicle I’m following and I have the right half of the lane to maneuver in.

On multiple-lane roads and freeways, I will usually choose the left-most lane, the fast lane, also known as the Number One lane (presuming the lanes are numbered from left to right). If I’m following other vehicles, I will choose the right wheel track of the Number One lane, since this leaves half a lane to my left to maneuver in and allows me to see forward between the vehicle I’m following and the vehicles in the Number Two lane. If traffic should stop suddenly, the space between the vehicles ahead of me in the Number One and Two lanes becomes an escape route.

DG: Have you ever walked up to a motorcycle, mounted it, blinked and enjoyed the perfect ride on this particular motorcycle – stationary. It’s amazing how this happens, even if you’ve never ridden that particular motorcycle. The capability to visualize our actions is a powerful force; when we use it in the context of another’s experience, we can place ourselves there and learn through them.

MVO: When riding in a group, it is very important to stagger or offset your position from the bike you are following and to maintain two-second spacing from the bike directly in front of you and one-second spacing from the bike you are offset from. When you have to speed up to close the gap created by letting a space develop between you and the bikes ahead of you, you also have to slow down once the gap narrows, causing you to brake, which creates an accordion effect for the riders behind you.

When leading a group, the leader should keep in mind the need to anticipate and plan lane changes, freeway exits and stops as far ahead as possible, since those actions affect the group as a whole and the space and time needed for the group to react. Changing lanes or passing other traffic without allowing adequate space for the group to react and make the same move will result in the group becoming separated or broken into smaller clusters of riders, each cluster trying to imitated or follow the leader’s moves.

DG: Seeing and predicting what others are, and will be, doing takes a set of “expert eyeballs,” as David Hough has written about in More Proficient Motorcycling. Developing the expert eyeballs make take a few miles, a few different road conditions and a few different friends to become an integrated component of your riding strategy. Clues abound on the road, from erratic movements of other drivers to significantly different colored surfaces; different feedback from the back through the seat and handlebars and even the smells wafting through the helmet. These variations will help you develop your riding strategy to become second nature, thereby freeing up your mind to take in and be ready to react quickly, confidently and with fewer surprises to shake your confidence on the road.

MVO: To me, there are two times when splitting or lane sharing is acceptable. First is splitting traffic when approaching intersections where several cars are stopped for a red traffic signal on a multiple-lane road. Second, when traffic on a freeway or multiple-lane highway has slowed to about 25 mph or less, I will split traffic using the space between the Number One and Two lanes. Use caution when splitting traffic under these conditions. Try to pass only when two cars are side-by-side. The chance for one car to move into your path is much less if they are side-by-side, rather than when there is an empty space next to the car you are passing.

At night, on freeways or roads with multiple lanes, I prefer to ride in the right wheel track of the Number One lane. This keeps traffic to my right, allows me to see between vehicles ahead of me and provides room to maneuver to my left if necessary. I watch for road hazards using the lights of the cars ahead of me, preferably those about 200 yards ahead, since that gives me time to react if their headlights reveal something in the road.

When riding on roads that have been grooved for water drainage or serrated preparatory to repaving, lane choices remain as listed above. However, don’t hesitate to move around within your lane to avoid the deepest grooves. I usually will reduce my speed on such roads and, if necessary, move to another lane if its surface is smoother than the surface of the lane I’m in. Some motorcycles handle grooved pavement better than others. Reducing speed, moving to a smoother lane and being careful not to freeze up on the handlebars will reduce the effects the grooved pavement has on the bike’s handling. While grooving or serrations can make you uncomfortable, riding smoothly at a reduced speed will handle most problems.

As I said in the beginning, these are my opinions. I hope that they will give you some food for thought and will help you to become a safer rider. While you may not agree with all I’ve said, at least thinking about what you would do in similar circumstances will help you deal with these situations as they arise.

DG: Now that we’ve got a few bits of advice from Max, who’s been to places we may or may never ride in, how much you take away is up to you. Sometimes you may not realize the impact until many miles later, or maybe the first turn. Either way, you’ve allowed yourself to be immersed in a little bit of a friend’s riding boots to see if his strategies work for you, and how you refine your own strategy based on others’ experiences.

DISCLAIMER: Please check the traffic laws pertaining to your state because not all states allow two vehicles to occupy side-by-side positions in a lane. Thank you and safe riding!

Originally published in BMW Owners News in November 2012.

Authors: David Grant (#143166) and Max van Orsdel (#117922)


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Photo by Gerhard Siebert on Unsplash