This piece is in continuation to this article. During the last 2 years I’ve experimented with a number of different strategies, some of them worked, most did not.
Last month I put up a poll on this website asking people if they noticed an improvement in their riding during 2016. Out of the 141 voter, 73% said yes.
I don’t believe them.
Such extreme positivity about your riding skills is either overconfidence, or a lack of understanding of what “becoming a better biker” means.
When I ask you if you’ve improved as a motorcyclist, I do not mean that you’ve gained a few thousand kilometers worth of experience, or that you finally picked up some proper riding gear, or that you didn’t crash. All those things are awesome, but they are not enough.
A better biker not only improves his riding skills, but evolves as a better human being by using motorcycles as a base upon which he can build himself. One of the biggest reasons why people are unable to change their lives is lack of motivation. A biker has a vast pool of natural inspiration that pushes him to ride. If you don’t channel that energy to improve your life as a whole, what’s the fucking point.
In that direction, here are a few ideas that I’ll try and apply to my life in this year.
1. Give up riding for a few weeks
It is very easy to start enjoying bikes so much that you completely ignore all others means of transport. Some people are actually proud of this behavior, including myself at one point. There are numerous problems with this system though.
First, like I’ve said many times before, motorcycles are nothing special, and dedicating your entire life experience to just one type of machinery is stupid.
Second, by giving up on driving, cycling, and public transport, you also give up on a vast set of experiences that could’ve improved your riding indirectly. For example, if you’ve never driven a car, it is less likely that you’ll be accurately able to predict the movements of others drivers on the road.
Lastly, this lack of knowledge, coupled with the monotony of existence with just one form of transport, leads to frustration. You get angry at bus drivers for overtaking you on a blind turn, you should’ve instead expected that to happen if you’d noticed the life of a bus driver, and hence taken steps to ease their pain and your own.
Cycle, drive, take the train, fly, walk, run, hitchhike, the world is your stage. Not only will you end up with a richer life filled with random ups and downs, you’ll also end up connecting with a much larger and more diverse set of people than what bikes will ever get you.
2. Ride something different
Last year I rented the Daytona and the Benelli 600i. I enjoyed riding them, more so the Triumph than the fat piece of TNT, but the most interesting part of that experience was the way I rode when I went back to my Duke 390. The simple act of me having ridden a bigger, heavier, faster bike made me much more confident on the smaller, lighter, slower one.
The biggest reason for this change was the fact that I wasn’t afraid anymore.
The progression of a rider’s life usually follows a slow path upwards, you start with shit scooties, then you move up to shit commuter bikers, and then over the years you get to own and ride bigger, faster machines. Every time you make the step up, you are afraid. You are afraid of the speed, of dropping the bike, of crashing. With time you get used to the bike, but a small part of that fear never goes away. In the end, you end up never pushing your bike over 60%, because in your mind that’s the absolute limit.
Imagine you are a beginner who just graduated from an Activa to a Pulsar 150. You were a bit afraid of the gears and the clutch, but you learned quickly and now you’re quite happy with your abilities. One day a friend of yours comes along and offers you a ride of his Duke 390. You’ve heard plenty of horror stories of KTMs, so you accept, but with fear. You start her up, somehow struggle through the traffic, and then find an open stretch where you see that speedo climb over 150 kmph like it’s a zit. The braking is better, the grip is phenomenal, the acceleration is mental. After a few hours, the party ends, and you are back to your trusty 150.
Your riding style on the Pulsar changes immediately, you’ve seen level 5, level 2 doesn’t scare you anymore.
This effect is even more pronounced when you ride something that’s smaller than what you normally ride. When I rode the Aprilia SR150, there wasn’t even a single fleeting thought of fear in my brain. I have ridden much bigger bikes for far too long to be scared of a measly little scootie. This meant that I truly enjoyed the experience, I pushed, scraped the side stand, made the tires squeal. The same happened when I rode the Navi, I actually did sustained powerslides in dirt on that thing, apart from some rather gnarly trails. Also, I really had fun riding the RS200 on the track, it was so rewarding to have to work the bike hard to get that swing off the corner exits, to downshift madly, and to actually get to twist the throttle all the way round.
The pleasure of feeling totally dominant on your motorcycle takes years of practice and knowledge. One of the easiest ways to make this process faster is to ride every kind of bike you can get your hands on.
Of course it goes without saying that you’ll need to use your brains in certain situations. I still haven’t ridden a liter class bike till date because I’m quite certain I’ll end up dead.
3. Seek knowledge from books, movies and videos
This is one area where our automotive websites and “influencers” rarely ever put any stress, and I don’t understand why. Experience is a big part of motorcycle riding, it is a very visceral activity that can’t be directly derived from bookish knowledge. However, by giving up on that vast repository of books, movies and videos that concern a biker, you are missing out on some truly remarkable and intellectually stimulating works of art.
When I read Zen and the art of Motorcycle Maintenance, I realized that the book had nothing to do with bikes, and yet it remains one of the most profound works of literature that I’ve ever read. When I saw On any Sunday, I realized how unimaginably huge the culture of motorcycle riding is in this world, and what a hilariously insignificant spec I am in it. When I saw this interview of Freddie Spencer, I realized just how intricate motorcycle racing is, and how much effort people put into being who they are.
Sam Manicom’s books have taken me around the world, Twist of the Wrist has scrambled my brains, motorcycle crash videos have taught me so much. Riding kicks ass, but don’t miss out on other aspects of this enormous culture that you’re a part of.
4. Ride in dirt
This is something I did a lot last year, and thoroughly had fun with. Even though my bike wasn’t even remotely prepared for this kind of riding, and neither was I, I didn’t let that piece of logic stop my stupidity.
Riding in dirt is much more than just about riding. It’s exploration, since you usually end up just finding new paths into nowhere. It’s serene, since you usually find yourself far away from civilization. And it’s dangerous, since one little mistake can cost you dearly.
It is such a beautiful feeling to find that your motorcycle is able to take you to places a car could not. It is at that moment that you truly start appreciating the power of two wheels, and the freedom it spawns inside you. You take huge risks, sometimes things backfire, but the overall experience is never ever negative.
Although I enjoy riding alone in dirt sometimes, I usually try to have company. I also gear up at the same level in dirt as I do on the track. The reason for both of these behaviors is the same, dirt is dangerous, and it’s better to be prepared than be sorry.
5. Learn how to service your bike
I am not the kind of guy who likes to get his hands dirty. I am not mechanically sound either. I’ve always depended on mechanics for all my maintenance needs for most of my life.
In the last year, I got fed up of riding into a service station every few thousand kilometers to get my chain tightened. Then I got a bit frustrated with the oil changes. Slowly, I bought the tools needed for both these activities, and started doing them myself.
It started quite disastrously though. My first attempt to tighten the chain ended up with me in a fit of anger since the number of threads on the left and right side of the swingarm never matched, no matter what I tried. One time I attempted to fix a crash protector on the bike myself, and ended up riding a few kilometers without the main bolts that mount the engine onto the frame. I suffer from major OCD itches, and every time I tinker with my bike I end up in circles of minute adjustments that end in some bolt’s threads getting sheared off.
And yet I continue.
After a year’s worth of chain adjustments, I finally understood quite recently the orientation of the bolts, how they should be turned, and by how much. I’m still quite new with engine oil changes, but I enjoy that moment when you remove the drain bolt and your hand gets smeared in stale, black, dead engine blood.
I do not believe that doing these things creates some connection with me and my motorcycle. I’m not a romantic, I still look at my bike as a combination of moving parts that does what I tell it to. However, I like the feeling of control I get from understanding how my bike works, I like the fact that if it misbehaves I know how to make it fall back in line, I like that my dominance over the machine extends beyond what it can do, to why it does that.
Saves money too.
6. Get fit and healthy
Riding is a physical experience, not as sedentary as driving, but it’s still not an alternative to exercise. Some specific types of riding can improve your mental and physical health, but you are the one who has to do most of the work.
A few months ago I tried dirt track riding with the Motovation people, it was a singularly exhausting experience. As my friend Alex put it.
“Rather than calling it a dirt track day, you should call it a weight loss program, that way you’ll get far more people.”
I did some 4 laps of that 3 km dirt track, and all I wanted by the end was the sweet release of death to ease my pain. Asphalt track riding in that respect is far more forgiving, I can do 15, maybe 20 laps before I want to kill myself.
Being fit and healthy doesn’t necessarily mean you must be thin, go to the gym, and have abs. If you’ve ever seen Rossi with his shirt off, you’ll know what I mean. He’s as fit as a horse, but looks like a poor, white, low class rickshaw puller. I exercised at a gym for a few years, and I enjoyed that experience, but nowadays all I do is walk, run and cycle, and that’s more than enough to make me feel as good as being able to bench press 50 kgs.
The more difficult part is mental health. It is true that bikers generally enjoy better mental health than most because of the very nature of motorcycle riding. Riding is adventurous, it opens you up to different people and experiences, and it momentarily helps you forget the unending misery and sadness that pervades life. However, in this respect as well you must make efforts of your own, rather than just depending on bikes.
I’ve been listening to this book about mental health and ways to maintain it, and it’s quite beautiful in the way it looks at the very basics of our thoughts, behaviors and emotions, along with examples of real people. I’ve also been watching this Youtube series that tells you so much about the way human thought has evolved over the millenia. I recently finished a book about Hitler, another about all the philosophers in the world till date, and am finally reading the entire Sherlock Holmes.
This is what I do to keep myself happy, your methods may be different. Whatever they may be, invest time, money and effort in them, and the results will show up in every area of your life, including riding.