As usual, I was harping on front brake use in a Basic MSF class when one of the students told me that a sniper's rule is "Slow is smooth, smooth is fast." Good rule. A military source for the context of this phrase describes how in combat situations "moving fast, or rushing it, is reckless and will likely get you killed. If you move slowly, carefully and deliberately however, you are really moving as fast as you can without needlessly increasing the risk on your life." My co-instructor said, "The slowest hands on the track belong to the fastest rider in the race." That all seems counterintuitive, doesn't it?
On a motorcycle, almost anything you do in a hurry will be wrong. I don't mean a little wrong, I mean life-threateningly wrong. We all know that the overwhelming majority of braking horsepower is in a motorcycle's front wheel; at least 70% in most situations. Experienced and inexperienced riders know that improper use of the front brake can put a rider on the ground nearly instantly. The difference between great breaking and a sudden dismount and road rash is, mostly, speed.
A few years back, I wrote about panic reactions and how they are always wrong and how they will kill you if you don't control them. It takes a lot of restraint to be slow and smooth when something sudden happens. Mostly, we're trying to control our panic reactions, those nasty fight-or-flight impulses that tell us exactly the wrong thing to do when emergency situations arise. Like money, panic reactions don't talk, they scream. When Bambi the hoofed rat jumps out in front of you, that's when all systems are blowing their "emergency, emergency" sirens and when "slow is smooth, smooth is fast" either happens or . . . you're on the road leaving bits of clothing and skin to mark your trail.
Practice is crucial to mastering a mechanical skill. In his book, This Is Your Brain on Music; the Science of A Human Obsession, Dr. Daniel Levitin said, ". . . ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert — in anything. In study after study, of composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals, and what have you, this number comes up again and again . . . it takes the brain this long to assimilate all that it needs to know to achieve true mastery." One way to get to ten thousand hours is to practice for three hours a day for ten years. That is a lot of braking practice. Hell, that's a lot more riding that most people can accomplish in a lifetime. But maybe we don't intend to become a "world class" motorcyclist: we just want to be safe and competent.
So, settle for something between the hours you've already put in and that magic 10,000. You can start by practicing a perfectly executed stop, balancing the front and rear brakes to accomplish a smooth and rapid deceleration, every time you stop your motorcycle. By practicing the technique as perfectly as we can manage every time we stop, we're making the beginning of an attempt at achieving our ten thousand hours. If I take the freeway to work, I have found that I apply my brakes about twenty times, each way. If I take surface streets, I brake about 60 times each way in normal traffic. That is a lot of opportunities for practice, five to seven times a week. Add the errands I run on the bike, occasional recreational travel, and the time spent on the range teaching motorcycling and I have a lot of available practice time. If I had this mindset when I started riding almost fifty years ago, I might be "expert" by now.
Studying the masters is a short-cut to mastery, too. The DVD/Blueray extras in movies like Faster give us all an opportunity to watch the hands of some of the greatest riders in history. I am always amazed at how deliberate Valentino Rossi's movements are; considering the insane speeds, powerful acceleration, deceleration and cornering forces, and close-quarter, high-traffic maneuvers involved. The only way to remain smooth under those conditions is to be absolutely habitual about the control use. The only way to develop those habits is to do them repeatedly, correctly, and intentionally.
We can argue about whether every day motorcycling is a sport, but there is no question that riding competently requires an uncommon skill set. Motorcycles bare little resemblance to cars. Any fool can balance a car and traffic indicates that lots of fools are doing just that with no knowledge of physics or mechanics. Motorcycles require exponentially more talent, experience, and attention than cars and trucks and that means we either have to develop those skills or risk becoming part of the increasingly depressing highway statistics. Working on using the brakes slowly, smoothly, and with power is a big part of the path to becoming an "expert" rider.
MMM September 2012