On Balance  

Feeling the ride

Most of us are in a strange sort of limbo right now, experiencing a “separate reality” of a whole other sort.

Normally, at this time of year, I’m busy with new rider practical training, but this year, we’re working from the textbook of Covid-19, and it’s scary weird. 

I notice, from my listening post in the woods, that the usual roar of motorcycling enthusiasm is almost entirely absent. The North Okanagan 200 is eerily quiet, with no practitioners of the art threading their way through the bends of the Westside Dragon and Commonage Pass.

Well done all, for doing what we’re supposed to be doing, and staying home. 

Our Health Minister makes a point of telling us that it’s working in more ways than one.

Not only are our infection rates staying at a manageable level, but also larger numbers of our hospital emergency and acute care beds are available, because our paramedics aren’t delivering the usual number of casualty victims to their doors.

That’s very good news, but it still isn’t easy, doing without the terrific buzz we get from riding. Which has prompted some thinking about what it is, and how it works.

Motorcycling is a tactile thing. A lot of what we do, and how we do it, revolves around the feel of the experience. We tend to sense, rather than think about, when to shift, when and how far to lean into a curve, how the motor’s responding, what’s going on between the tires and the road surface.

We feel our way through the wind resistance and the air currents around us, the changing air temperatures as we move through different surroundings.

This is a very big part of the learning mountain, one that both new and returning riders have to climb.

  • What “the feel” means
  • How to translate nuances in vibration to an understanding of what’s happening
  • What to do (or expect) next.

On a bike, our feeling of direct, immediate connection to what’s going on pretty much defines how it happens, and at the same time how we feel about it.

People struggle with this. Some folks just instinctively seem to “get” one or another aspect, while others just, well, lack rhythm. 

Mechanical sympathy’s a good example. In a world where we’re increasingly isolated, not by COVID, but by microprocessors, insulation, cushioning, and surround sound from the raw data emitted by engines, transmissions, and tires, many people struggle to have any sense of when to shift, or how hard to brake. How hard to pull or push on a lever, how smoothly to give the machine direction.

The resultant roaring, screeching, clashing, and crunching only adds to the distress and the disharmony. Tears before bedtime, with or without broken bits.

Patience, dedication, and good guidance for the most part seem to overcome this, and we see riders go from lurching about in a panic to gradually feeling their way to an easier sense of how, what and when.

That first clean, smooth shift to second gear is a moment of sweet bliss. It happens when a rider puts together the feel of co-ordinating a myriad of involved senses into a deftly timed and executed set of actions.

You can’t learn this stuff from a book. You can learn about it from books, and videos, but you can’t learn “it” until you feel it for yourself.

The Lean is another of the mysteries of the senses. You’re not going far on a bike without first finding comfort and joy in the feeling of leaning into the direction you want to go.

Again, some struggle more than others with letting go of remaining upright. Much failure to turn results.

This is a trust thing, if we want to get all psychobabble about it — or recognizing that most riders just have different levels of this struggle.

It comes down to how attuned we are to the feel of balance, our sensed experience of when we have just the right amount of momentum, traction, and lean angle to arc that turn in sweet control. 

Not fully describable, only fully experienced. Same as any number of things we do in motion, leaning into an edged point of connection in tension. You have to do it, to feel it work, to do it. 

The importance of feel can’t be overstated. If you want to ride a motorcycle, especially if you want to ride well, start by paying close attention to controlling stuff by feel.

Whatever you physically manipulate, feel your way to the difference between rough and smooth actuation. Go for smooth. That’s the feel.

Bicycles let you play with both mechanical sympathy, and The Lean, by feel. Lots of our students haven’t been on one for many years, and their sense of feel reflects that.

The usual note of caution: feel defines why and how we ride. But it doesn’t define our safety. We often “feel safe” when we’re unknowingly at high levels of risk.

COVID-19 is doing a perfect job of teaching us this lesson. Apply it to riding.


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About the Author

Bill Downey is a retired professional social worker in support programs for people with congenital or acquired physical and cognitive challenges, who was also a volunteer firefighter and a BCGEU health and safety advocate.

For many years, he has been a motorcycle riding coach/instructor with Kelowna Safety Council who spends too much time studying international traffic safety research and not enough time doing all the outdoor things a boy from the Okanagan should be doing.

He has lived a very large portion of his life on two wheels as a commuting and travelling cyclist, but, for the extra challenge, he is also as a motorcycle commuter.

By nature, he has a balanced approach to all things.

[email protected]https://kdsc.bc.ca

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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