Monday, August 31, 2009

Riding a motorcycle the right (less wrong?) way - Part one

This will be a multipart story

So I've been riding motorcycles in one way or another since I was about thirteen. I really do have a great time, and once in a while I convince myself that I'm getting to be pretty good at it. That's about the time I learn some small piece of information that again convinces me that I've got it all wrong.

The most recent revelation of my two-wheeled ineptitude came as such things frequently do, in the midst of a conversation with someone that I reluctantly acknowledge is better at this than I am. I've chased Joe on one motorcycle or another for about six years now. We started on 250cc two stroke dirtbikes, moved on to streetbikes, and eventually made our way to an asphalt racetrack. Early on, things looked good for me. I was able to jump out front and hang on just well enough to make my ego feel pretty good. Joe was somewhere behind me, making and crossing off mental checklists. I was having the time of my life, too much adrenaline flowing to think of anything other than getting in front of the next bike. Fast forward a couple years and Joe is routinely whooping up on me and my attempts to keep up are resulting in more and more personal safety equipment tests.

Riding gear is expensive, and after you've walked away from a few crashes, some nastier than others, you kinda start to think that maybe continuing to play these odds isn't such a great idea. So I swallowed whatever pride I still hung onto and had a talk (actually several, I'm sure, but for the sake of the story we'll pretend that I only need to be told such things once instead of dozens of times) with my friend.

It turns out that at similar lap times, we're having significantly different experiences inside our respective helmets. Once I get within 1.5 seconds of my personal best lap time at the track, things are pretty intense. It's best characterized as the kind of effort that superheroes are portrayed to be exerting when doing things like reversing the spin of the earth. Complete tunnel vision, no coherent thoughts to speak of, just an unbridled push to go harder, faster, NOW! At the same lap time, Joe is crossing items off his mental checklist. He has markers for everything, little variations in surface color mark braking, turn in, apex, throttle on, and shift points for every corner on the track. He's knows if he's on a fast lap based on where in relation to some mark he ends up going for an upshift. While I've been white-knuckling around this place for the last 3 years, he's been studying every inch of the racing line. Joe's speed is smooth and relatively effortless compared with the frenetic display of ever leaning horizon that my brain attempts to consume while navigating my approximation of a racing line.

This isn't the first time that I've witnessed him carefully select a curriculum for himself and through disciplined study and execution march towards an enviable level of proficiency (he's pretty damned good with a guitar too) and it probably won't be the last. So I decided to go back to kindergarten and try to do it right this time. After much discussion (we're playing down how much, remember?) and a bit of thought I decided that the important thing that Joe's method gives him that mine doesn't is calm. He has all of his markers by virtue of leaving himself sufficient brain cycles to acquire them. The plan was simple, remain calm.

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