Category Archives for "Book Reviews"

Nov 24

The Virtues of Practice

By kevin | Book Reviews

A friend passed along a piece by Jim Citrin on Geoff Colvin’s book Talent is Overrated. His key point, and it’s been made by others, is that people who achieve at super high levels don’t get there on talent. Some have freakish talent–Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods are usually put into that category. But most if not all high performers get there through practice, something that’s absolutely true of Jordan and Woods.

[amtap book:isbn=1591842247]

A couple of snips . . .

Contrary to popular belief, what makes certain people great is not inborn talent. Rather, it is something called “deliberate practice,” a sustained, often life-long, period of purposeful effort designed to improve performance in a specific domain. This turns out to be just as true in business as it is in sports, music, medicine, chess, science, and mathematics.

Deliberate practice is characterized by several elements: It is an activity designed specifically to improve performance, often with a teacher’s help; it can be repeated a lot; feedback on results is continuously available; and it’s highly demanding mentally. It is far different than the general notion of “practice makes perfect.” Instead of repeating a task over and over again in your comfort zone, deliberate practice requires that you identify certain sharply defined elements of performance that need to be advanced and then work intently on them.

Once a highly specific capability is improved, whether it’s mastering a passage from a demanding music composition, delivering an investment recommendation in a staff meeting, or answering a key question in a job interview, then it’s on to the next step. Top performers get the help of coaches or mentors to select and design the best practice activity, repeat them to a stultifying degree, adjust their techniques based on objective feedback, and concentrate so intensely on their efforts that it strains their mental abilities.

And from Colvin himself . . .

In my interview with Colvin, he said “The heart of the matter is that this is demanding stuff. To excel, you have to pursue these activities at length and with intensity.” He added that it’s difficult to sustain the effort in something if you’re continually doing a cost-benefit analysis. “You need to look deeply into yourself and select something you will find rewarding for its own sake to which to devote yourself.” Of course, it’s relatively straightforward to do this if you have a deep passion for an activity; but how do you discover it when it’s not obvious? “You may not have the passion a priori,” Colvin said, “but as you pursue an endeavor with focus it will often develop.”

Colvin is hardly the first to write on this topic. One of my favorites, and I think it has probably reached classic status, is George Leonard’s lovely and little book called Mastery: The Keys to Success and Long-Term Fulfillment.

[amtap book:isbn=0452267560]

His five keys to mastery . . .

1. Surrender to Passion
2. Practice, Practice, Practice
3. Get a Guide
4. Visualize the Outcome
5. Play the Edge

I remember reading the book the first time (yes, I’ve read it more than once) and being struck by his thoughts on practice. I’m not quoting here, but the gist of it was that you have to learn to love practice, because you’re going to spend most of your pursuit of excellence on what he calls “the plateau.” That’s where you keep working and working and working at something without any obvious progress or improvement, and then all of a sudden, you’re at a new level. Except it really wasn’t all of a sudden. So in his mind, what separates out the high performers from all the rest is that they can live with, and ultimately transmute, the frustration and pain that goes along with the plateau.

Good to think about.

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Jul 13

Faster Now on I-Tunes

By kevin | Book Reviews

Call me a shill (okay, “shill”). Some online colleagues sent me a note asking me to notify my vast readership that the most excellent motorcycle film “Faster” is now available. on iTunes. Delighted to help out.

If you’ve never seen the movie “Faster,” let me encourage you to remedy that unfortunate state of affairs. Covering four seasons of Moto GP racing, “Faster” nicely lays bare the really-really of the ultimate two-wheeled circus through interviews with top riders, mechanics, commentators, and fans. And if that’s not enough, the voice over is provided by star motorcycle freak Obi-Wan MacGregor. Needless to way, the race-day action is first rate with lots of footage of Rossi, Biaggi, Hayden, Edwards and more.

Alternatively, you can get a DVD from Amazon if that floats your boat.

[amtap amazon:asin=B0003JAO5Y]
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Jun 28

Book Review: Jupiter's Travels

By kevin | Book Reviews

[amtap book:isbn=0965478521]

Ted Simon sits comfortably at the table reserved for motorcycle Gods, “long distance division.” I say “comfortably” in reference to his unassailable adventure credentials and iconic book Jupiter’s Travels. By every account I’ve read he’s actually a bit embarrassed by all the accolades. 78,000 miles over four years through 45 countries on a Triumph no less is one hell of an accomplishment. He has inspired legions of others to head off on their own heroic journeys, perhaps most famously, Ewan McGregor and Charlie Boorman of Long Way Round and Long Way Down fame.

[amtap book:isbn=0743499344]

I’ve been wading through what I previously described as the “canon of motorcycle literature,” a term and list of my own creation, for various reasons, not the least of which is that it feels important to hear the voices and imagine the vistas. These books were written with an eye on an audience and perhaps even a payday, but first and foremost they exist as a necessary part of the author’s journey. The fact that they make it past a publisher and onto a shelf is more a comment on the publisher than anything else. But to my point: They’ve been written, they’ve been published, and I want to honor the whole of it.

To that weighty set-up, let me add more. I say this with no disrespect, but motorcycle-journey books finds their primary audience with aficionados . . . if you’re not keen on bikes, you’d never know about these books much less read them. An obvious exception is Prisig’s break-out book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, a book, depending on your point of view, that has very little to do with riding motorcycles.

[amtap book:isbn=0060589469]

Jupiter’s Travels falls into another category of books completely. Yes, the motorcycle figures prominently in the sense that it’s the mode of travel, much as Rocinante is the hero’s vehicle in both Don Quixote and Travels With Charlie, both literally and figuratively. But in all cases, it’s just the vehicle. While this is arguably true of plenty of other motorcycle related books, the sweep and depth of Ted’s story and storytelling move Jupiter’s Travels into a special class of literature that anyone interested in journeying should read.

The short version of the long story follows standard journey fair. Ted feels compelled to load up a motorcycle, in this case a Triumph, the last of the wounded British lions, and use it to travel down Europe, over to Tunisia, across the top of Africa, and from there to South Africa. In an echo of the Shakleford expedition to the South Pole (beginning as WW I commenced), Ted steps off in the lee of the ’73 Arab/Israeli war. Not the best time to be riding through Arab-Africa.

This first part of the trip occupies a big part of Ted’s story telling as perhaps it should. I’ve never ridden Ted-miles, but I can tell you from experience that the first part of the trip always seems to contain the real emotional, spiritual, and even physical depth for the rest of the journey. Themes are established. Tones are set. Precursor experiences are laid in like new hay.

In the final acts of a long trip, your attention to the richness and detail of the moments and miles flickers and flees. In the first miles, days, or weeks, you notice and catalog everything. Once you turn for home, you focus on finishing . . . which could feel like a good or bad thing just depending. As you head out, your focus is on the wonder of it all. On the way home, you wonder if you really got what you went for. You worry about hanging onto what was special. On the way out, everything has the capacity to be special, to be revealing, to tap some existential root that’s lay dormant.

Ted’s journey continues, after an interregnum at sea, in a Brazilian jail . . . his journey, not his forward progress. If Jupiter’s Travels weren’t a journal and instead was written as a piece of fiction, this would have been a necessary opening to the story’s second act. Heroic literature requires a wrenching test of the traveler’s intentions, fortitude, and commitment. While the trial is often framed in terms of the end goal, it is truly about the hero’s sense of self. “Why are you really on this trip?” “What are you looking for?” “Do you not know that what you seek is already inside you?”

Once again mobile, Ted works his way down through Brazil and ultimately, in another echo, this time of Che Guevara‘s adventures, up the western side of South and Central America, to Northern California, there to pass a pleasant season communing and falling in love.

[amtap book:isbn=1876175702]

Based on how the book opens–with the story of how Ted came to be called Jupiter in a town in India–you would expect that the spiritual and mechanical axis of the book would turn on his time in India, which in my reading it really doesn’t. By this time in the telling, the story has taken on a quicker pace, an urging along that tracks the turmoil and doubts that often accompany the turning towards home. In classic heroic literature, this is the point where the hero faces a test bigger than actually winning the obvious prize . . . going home and facing people who didn’t travel; integrating the new learnings with the old doings. You never get the sense that Ted found the depths he was looking for in the epicenter of new age yearning, which is not to say that he found nothing in India.

Finally, Ted turns home; actually it’s more like a gallop. The miles through the various ‘Stans disappear in a flash of paragraphs where before pages barely did the job. And then, just like that, the roar of the Triumph is quieted for the last time. The years of packing and packaging an entire life into the confines of what could be carried on a bike no sane person would have ridden further than the next town over were finally at an end. We readers have the benefit of experiencing the entire sweep of the enterprise in the few days it takes to read the book. Reading Ted’s closing stanzas, you feel how hard he struggles to remember the opening verses of his epic and what they meant against the wildly conflicting emotions of finally being back. In much smaller ways, any of us who have headed out with the thought of finding something, vs. simply seeing stuff, know the feeling.

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Mar 28

Book Review: Riding with Rilke by Ted Bishop

By kevin | Book Reviews

[amtap book:isbn=0393330745]

The excitement at setting out is what I’ve come to think of as the andiamo phenomena. Andiamo is Italian for “let’s go.” D. H. Lawrence calls it the most beautiful word in the Italian language. Certainly, the English “let’s go” feels flat-footed in comparison, pedestrian in the worst sense. The Italian is like a whip about to crack; the throb on the third syllable marks the wave pulses through the word. Both command and response, with a built-in exclamation mark, andiamo conveys the exotic, carries the excitement of taking off. It’s the word you breathe inside your helmet when you finally clear traffic and the road opens in front of you. It’s the feeling you get when you finally clear time and space and settle in with a new book. Heading into the silence, the platitude and possibility of silence.

What a delicious book. By all means read what I have to say about it, but also don’t be afraid to just run on down to the local book store, or click the link, and add a copy of Riding with Rilke by Ted Bishop to your reading list.

Let me caveat by saying I’m a fan of words. I like to read them. I like to use them. I like to write them. Love words I do. And Ted spills them across the page like so many truffles. Or if that imagery is too girly for you, reading Ted is like sitting at your favorite bar with a pint of their finest. You get the idea.

Ted’s an academic, something you’ll not be able to forgive him in this instance as threading the drama of chasing books, authors, libraries, and archives with riding a Ducati Monster—a bike no sane person would ride further than the next town—from somewhere hell and gone in Canada to deep in the heart of Texas is the whole point of the book. Me? He had me about three paragraphs in.

I found Riding with Rilke while poking around Amazon. Never one to do anything without at least three agendas in mind, I was: a) Looking for some good summer reading; b) Researching what I’ve come to think of as the “canon of road books” in preparation for perhaps taking a swing at making a contribution of my own; c) Looking for some grist for my blog. And yes, I read with a yellow marker and a pen. And I make notes. And it takes me forever. I can’t seem to just read.

Somewhere deep into Ted’s prose I started to get it. Reading is just like riding. You can rush and miss the texture and detail of it all. Or you can put down the pen, put down whatever it is you were thinking about, and just read . . . just ride.

I should say that this little revelation came as a bit of a shot. I am easily seduced by the idea that every human activity needs to have a purpose. And purposes need to be accomplished with dispatch. Doing something with purpose beats doing something “just because” by a mile. And getting it done faster is better than slower. No savoring the smells. No dallying about. No stopping just to take it all in.

Just typing this makes me sad. 51 years into the game and it finally occurs to me that there’s more to life than just getting stuff done. There’s more to reading a book than finishing it. There’s more to riding a bike than getting there. Actually, that thought occurred to me some years ago—a story for another time and place—but I’m often startled to meet it again and again like a lost dog that just won’t stop following me home.

So Riding with Rilke is not a book to be rushed. I came to respect the rhythm of the read out of respect for the man: Given a choice between flying and riding, Ted chose the road. Most of us who ride, heck all of us, would like to make that choice. And as we get later and later in life, we wonder why we don’t.

The highly condensed version of the book goes like this:

  1. Buy a Ducati.
  2. Take a sabbatical to go to Texas and dig around a really cool archive.
  3. Ride “blue highways” stopping often to observe, sample, and otherwise take it all in.
  4. Make a point of visiting places of bookish interest. As it turns out, even lovers of Virginia Wolf and D.H. Lawrence have spots to visit in the great American West. Go figure.
  5. Arrive in Austin Texas and have a swell time.
  6. Get involved with projects that further delay doing what you went there to do but also give you an opportunity to go to Europe, meet relatives of famous people, and present a paper in Rome on James Joyce. Cool.
  7. Come back and more or less repeat in reverse.
  8. Have a really bad crash in order to create a clever intro/outro bookend to the book.

Yeah, that about covers it. And if you stop there, you’re missing the whole point. It’s the words man! It’s how the nouns and verbs and all the connecty bits work together to tell what is otherwise a pretty simple story. Just like it’s the swoops and turns and stops and gos that bring you back again and again to a favorite road, where others only hear, “I rode to Bothell and back.” Oh.

Early on Ted plays with channeling his inner outlaw . . .

Still, you wouldn’t ride a bike if you didn’t want to cultivate a bit of an outlaw status. I was working on my Entrance, one of the most important aspects of being a biker. You come into town and cruised slowly down the main street — rump, rump, rump, cough – REVVvvv-rump rump (obviously a high powered machine, dangerous if not for your expert control) – and to the end of the street do a slow U-turn and come back to the café. You back the bike up against the curb, taking long enough that you know all eyes are upon you, take off your helmet, put your sunglasses back on, and walked toward the door. You use the capital Strut: shoulders back, head high, just a hint of pelvic thrust.

You step inside the door and, chin still high, moving only your head, survey the room (even if it only has four tables). Then you take off your dark glasses and hook them in the left breast pocket of your leather jacket the way fighter pilots do in the movies. Don’t look. This is crucial. If you have to fumble for the pocket, you’ve blown it and you might as well get back on the bike and leave.

Okay, by this point the men are cowed, the women trembling, and the girls behind the counter moaning softly. One flutters over with a menu and you look her in the eye and say, “Coffee. Black,” and then something insinuating like, “And give me a wedge of your… cherry pie.” (I hate black coffee, but whoever said, (Jed ! There is a stranger in town and he drinks his latte with a double shot !”?)

Anyway, I’m still working on it, and there are usually some creamers on the next table that you can snag on the way back from the washroom.

I so resemble those remarks, except that I only do the strut in my mind’s eye. Given my firm belief in ATGATT (all the gear, all the time), my actual strut looks more like the Michelin man’s evil brother. It’s more like a waddle.

And this . . .

Whether you’re writing a cruiser or a dirt bike or a big touring rig, in the eyes of the world you’re a bit of a hooligan or you wouldn’t be out there. We reject it, we deny it, we explain at length that there is a difference between a Rider and a Biker, but we secretly relish it. We like the idea that we’re mad, bad, and dangerous to know.

Anyone who has ducked into the last available hotel room in the last available hotel 40 miles after they should really have stopped will get this . . .

The room had more cigarette burns and TV channels. It was the sort of place where you walk to the shower naked in your motorcycle boots that because you’re kinky at because Who–Knows–What lurks in that inch–deep russet–orange acrylic shag. Stephen King must have a story somewhere about a malefic interstate shag carpet from hell that wraps its greasy tendrils around the toes of comely coeds and drags them screaming into its devouring embrace. I flossed forlornly and watched one of the religious channels, trying to tell myself that this was so bad it was great. The Quintessential Interstate Lodging Experience, I told myself. It didn’t work. I burped softly; the Denny’s fish and chips tasted just as bad the second time. I turned out the light, wondering why the knob felt both greasy and sticky. I decided not to pursue it.

More good words, these about that pesky notion of having purpose and resolve, qualities that occasionally come in handy hours, miles, and days into a big ride . . .

I learned long ago that the only way I could accomplish anything was to tell myself I could quit if I want to – that I could quit hiking and set up camp halfway up the pass; that I could quit high school and go work on a tramp steamer; that I could mow half the lawn and do the other half next week. In short, that I didn’t have to go the distance. All that inspirational stuff about focusing on your goal and never wavering from it just made me want to open a beer and apply for unemployment insurance. But once I’d decided I could quit, things didn’t seem so bad. And if anyone should say, “Wow, what you’re doing is difficult,” or even moderately interesting, I would square my shoulders and think, “Pff, a mere bagatelle.” It’s true I wasn’t certain what a bagatelle was (though I suspected there wasn’t an actual bag involved), but the books I was reading at the time always linked “mere” with “bagatelle” and it was always some beautiful object or difficult exploit but they sure are treated as if it were nothing.

Deep into the book, our hero writer-rider decides to spiff up his ride. Another inclination I respect and follow. My riding pal Ron stands firmly in the other camp, reveling in the grime and grunge that covers his bike or car or gear as noble talismans of a road well traveled or a journey well done. Only when there is no more adventuring to be had will he break out the soap and water. Me? I’m looking for a hand car wash in every town I sleep in, exceptions being made if it’s pissing rain.

I pulled into the bright twenty-four stall car wash and the friendly ex-Marine told me how to get my bike just right, using the final anti-streak spray. I was going to make some excuse for being there – the Monster was just dusty, not dirty – when two Corvettes pulled in that were cleaner than my car has ever been in its life. This was American auto culture, where having your ride clean, so clean, is more important than how it handles. That made sense out here, were the closest curve was in Albuquerque. But this wasn’t about logic, I realized as I bought a chamois and wiped the water droplets off my tank, the backs of my mirrors, the front forks and fender; it was about showing respect, about the ritual adoration of the machine. Saturday night was date night, Friday night was car night. As I pulled out from the clean well–lit bay into the dark street, I didn’t feel lonely anymore. The camaraderie of the car wash.

To the inevitable and tiresome question about danger . . .

Non-riders would always ask me, “don’t you think motorcycling’s dangerous?” in the tone of a foregone conclusion. It could be, I agree, but I was a conservative rider. Besides, I said, motorcycling is only one of a million ways you can go. You can just as easily go in your La-A-Boy recliner. In the spring, or when I haven’t been writing in a long time, I have a moment of fear thinking about what I’m going to do, but as soon as I’m up and riding, I’m fine. I would give the answer my father gave when people asked him, “Isn’t mountain climbing dangerous?” “Sure,” he said, “but at least you go doing something you like.” Then in The Stone Diaries I read about a Canadian journalist named Pinky Fulham who was crushed to death when a soft-drink vending machine fell on him. He had been rocking it back and forth, trying to dislodge a stuck quarter. Apparently eleven North Americans per year are killed by overturned vending machines. The next time I approached a vending machine I did so warily. And the next time someone asked me about bikes being dangerous, I told them about the Pinky.

We’re almost there. Being a book by a writer about reading and riding, it’s only appropriate to wonder at why some books want to be read by you, and some don’t. At least not right now. I’ve got books like that. Presently Robert Pirsig’s icon, Zen and the Art . . . falls into that grouping. Has for years now. I’ve also been down roads like that, roads that just don’t want to be ridden, at least by me on that day. Word to the wise. Respect the book that won’t have you. Put it away. Respect the road in the same way.

[amtap book:isbn=0060589469]

I believe a book knows when you are ready for it. If you are not, you might as well forget about it. You can buy it, sit down with it, try to read it. If the book doesn’t think you’re ready it resists. It’s as if you’re trying to pry it open, to heave open a spring-loaded door, but it snaps shut the moment you slacken your effort even slightly. Sweaty, exhausted, your hair plastered to your forehead, you stagger away.

And then, when you’ve forgotten about it, when you didn’t even know you needed it, you glance up from your writing, not looking, just raising your eyes as if you’re looking for a phrase, and there it is. Right there. Within reaching distance. It may even have edged out to the edge of the shelf. It’s a bit scary.

Looking back over the book, and this despite my sternest efforts, I find many more passages than these marked and noted . . . including an especially wild flight of fancy about woman and motorcycles. Decadently sexist and sexy. It’s on page 233 if you care to go looking.

For me, I’m not sure if the book did more to inspire me to read, write, or ride. But I do know that I felt inspired . . . that tugging feeling that makes you want to put down whatever it is you’re doing and andiamo! Yeah, it’s that kind of book.

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Mar 17

Book Review: Smooth Riding by Reg Pridmore

By kevin | Book Reviews

[amtap book:isbn=1884313469]

Reg is a natural for writing a book on technique. He has the requisite credentials and scary personal stories. He has a coherent philosophy for riding a bike well. He has successfully taught zillions of riders to ride better and safer. He’s built a successful business or two in motorcycling. He’s a member of the Motorcycle Hall of Fame. He’s the full-meal deal.

Reg is one of the original Ton-Up boys, those wild and wacky post-war hooligans who hung around the Ace Café, Ted’s Diner, and Ma Johnson’s over in Blighty scaring the beejeesus out of the straights with loud exhausts, lunatic antics, and high speeds. If you haven’t read anything about this period in UK cycling, you should. The stories of getting round and back before Elvis stopped crooning on the Wurlitzer are just priceless. Hair raising, but priceless.

Miraculously, Reg survived his adolescent craziness and went on to achieve great success on the race track, winning on superbikes when riding them was a really bad idea and the Isle of Mann piloting side car rigs. During and through it all, Reg developed his maniacal devotion to smoothness that was his hallmark as a racer and is the foundation of his hugely successful CLASS riding school.

The book is organized into the following chapters. I’ve included a quote or three from each.

Introduction

On Control

“Control is the core of my writing philosophy. It starts with the proper attitude, including such things as discipline and focus. In this book I devote an entire chapter to attitude and mental awareness. With this foundation in place, you had the proper technique to make the writer and machine flow as one.”“The philosophy of control is valid both on the track and on the street. Control is the essence of being fast, and it is the essence of being safe, wherever you write.”

On Smoothness

“Most of my techniques were honed at the race track. For instance, I put a lot of emphasis on smoothness. I believe that being smooth isn’t just an artful or elegant way to ride the bike (though it is those things, too). You need to be smooth before you can go fast, and you need to be smooth to be safe. Elsa put a lot of emphasis on (body steering): using subtle weight shifts to initiate turns, rather than being forceful with a handlebar.”

Chapter 1: Attitude. Starts in your head.

I can’t think of a book on riding that doesn’t start here. Early on, riding is, or should be, all about technique. Until you know how to do the right things in the right ways, you’re a danger to yourself and the people around you. After that, it’s all attitude all the time.

Building technique requires practice. Few of us like to practice anything. I remember when I took up golf some years ago (I went from aspiring golfer, to golfer, to someone who golfs, to someone who golfs occasionally, to ex-duffer in the space of about five years). The first pro I worked with said I would have to hit 500 balls a week and practice on the range for a year before she would let me out on the course. I’m strange that way, so that’s what I did. Me and three other people are like that.

For normal people, practice is drudgery, and that’s where the part about attitude comes in. The penalty for lack of practice, for lack of consistency on the gold course was a lost ball and a high score. You can finish where this thought is going without my help.

So Reg begins by making the case for consistency, something that is mental long before it’s physical.

On Consistency

“One of the ways I challenge my students is on their consistency – or lack of it. I’ve known a lot of my students for a long time, and some of them can get around the track very fast. One of the things that makes me faster, and safer, is my consistency.”“I define consistency is the ability to repeat a certain exercise properly, over and over. You should constantly critique yourself and strive to be better. Don’t repeat bad habits.”

On Discipline

“On the street, discipline means positioning yourself in a way that makes you visible to other vehicles at all times. It means always maintaining the right RPMs to accelerate out of a bad situation. It means constantly painting a picture of what might happen around the next corner. In a blind right-hander, you need to imagine the biggest, ugliest thing possible waiting for you around the bend. This way, you can meet any challenge that’s ahead.”

“Consistency doesn’t just apply to the track. You must be extra disciplined and focused on the street. Do you ever ride around without knowing what gear you’re in, or with your foot poised over the rear brake? When crisis strikes and that car pulls out in front of you, these things can mean disaster.”

On Focus

“Focus is another key. Often on the road or track, our thoughts are in the wild blue yonder. We are thinking about what’s for dinner, family matters, or our jobs. There are times when you can get away with this – but there are times when it will bite you.”

Chapter 2: Smoothness. How to be a smooth operator

This chapter is the heart of the book. Everything that follows builds on what’s laid out here. I’ve recently read it twice and have lots of underlines. I’ve highlighted many of them here. Much of it tracks with what you’ll find in other books.

One bit that does stand out, particularly if you’re recently graduated from a basic skills course, is Reg’s counsel to use only two fingers on the front brake, rather than grabbing a handful. From my own experience, I’m with Reg. I don’t see how you can smoothly modulate the right lever with all four fingers, particularly when the adrenaline flows. Try picking up a pencil with all five fingers or maybe squeezing a tube of toothpaste this way. You’ll get the point.

How to hold the throttle

“Here’s a specific technique for gripping the throttle that will help you “roll it on.” Start by placing your third and fourth fingers around the throttle. Then place the first and second fingers on the front brake lever. I “cover” the brake this way 90% of the time I’m riding. With your fingers in his position, the action is like that of a “rocking horse”; if you’re rolling on the throttle, you should be easing off the brake. If you’re squeezing the brake, you should be rolling off the throttle. These two actions should flow seamlessly into one another.”

Don’t pull a clutch all the way to the bar

“I recommend that you pull the lever and about one-third of its total throw—just enough to disengage it. If you pull the lever all the way to the bar, you’ll tend to quickly “dump” it again and to engage the gear: Not good for smoothness, or traction.”

Err on the side of more RPMs.

“In CLASS I draw an enormous one-foot tachometer on the board and tell people: RPMs are your friend. It’s one of my golden rules. So much of good clutch technique involves “matching” RPMs to your speed. When you pull the clutch, don’t let the RPMs drop or the engine will become a brake, and you’ll risk locking the back wheel. Your engine speed should be at least at the same level as when you pulled the clutch in.”

Do it right now

“Don’t be lackadaisical about your clutch work. Master the timing so you can do it quickly, but smoothly. Don’t procrastinate!”

Braking

“The initial squeeze should be gentle: just enough to achieve contact between the pads and rotor. Then you should squeeze a progressively harder, as needed.”“One key technique to smooth the front braking is using just two fingers. Many instructors emphatically teach the use of four fingers, but with modern bikes, two fingers are adequate and this method will encourage you to use the brakes with moderation. Also, don’t “dump” the brake when you’re done with it. Try to feed to brake back out as smoothly as you applied it.”

Chapter 3: braking. The art of slowing down

I’ve probably read this some place else, but it stands out with Reg: Use your gearbox. He makes this point here in conjunction with managing corners, and again later when he talks about the importance of keeping the revs up around town.

“A lot of writers navigate the twisties by simply rolling the throttle on and off. I tend to avoid this. I always prefer to downshift. This slows me just a bit, and enables me to come back on the throttle very quickly. It puts me in a more commanding position, and keeps the RPMs up. (Remember: RPMs are your best friends!) I always prefer to manage a corner by accelerating through it.”“I also have a “golden rule” that applies to deceleration for corners: downshift first, then apply the brakes. Many people find the timing difficult if they try to brake first and then downshift. What generally happens is they try to blip the throttle for a downshift fall maintaining pressure on the brake, and his hand action fluctuates the brake, unsettling the motorcycle.”

Like many other instructors, for example Lee Parks agrees here, Reg is a believer in the back brake. He makes this point after making the point that the front brake does most of the work. Apparently, and I didn’t know this, there are folks out there under the impression that the front brake is for decoration and not to be used. If you’re one of those people, and you’re not riding dirt bikes down steep descents, you should bone up on your physics. For the rest of us, particularly sport bike riders, here’s what Reg has to say about that little pedal on the right.

“You need to understand the rear brake and its qualities. Envision the application of the rear brake “stretching” the frame. In effect, it drags the rear wheel and settles the front.”

Chapter 4: the throttle management. The secret to control

I ride big twins and a big-torque FJR1300, so I’m guilty of up-shifting and riding around in a higher gear much of the time. Some of it is I can “get away” with it given the bags of torque available on my bikes. Some of it is left over from the gas-crunch days of the 70s when we all lugged our engines in search of a bit more mpg. But reading chapter four has me rethinking my gear selection strategy. Hint: this doesn’t work well if you’re not otherwise smooth on the gas and brakes.

“You’ve heard me say it before, but it bears repeating: RPMs are your friend. This is one of the basic corollaries of throttle management, and it will pay dividends that you won’t believe.“For the sake of instruction, let’s look at how not to do it. Say you’re in a corner at about 2000 rpm. Here’s what’s happening with the dynamics of the bike: First, when you try to accelerate in mid-corner, the bike simply won’t respond. The engine is not in its power range. Second, the bike will not hold the desirable smooth line. Third, suspension action will tend to be unresponsive because it’s near the bottom of its travel. Because the bike is “squatting” in this way, ground clearance will be reduced. Weight distribution is also altered, with an inordinate amount on the front and not enough on the rear.”

“Now let’s look at how things are changed with ample RPMs. First, you have power at your command for proper corner entry and exit speeds and anything you might encounter mid-corner. Next, by simply rolling the throttle on or off, you can widen or tighten your line in minute increments.”

“Keeping on the gas in the proper RPM range also lifts the bike slightly, putting it in the middle of its suspension range and increasing ground clearance.”

Chapter 5: Body Steering. A full body approach

This is where Reg departs from other instructors, most notably Lee Parks. I won’t recount the physics of how bikes go around corners other than to remind you that the bike needs to be leaned over for that to happen at anything above walking speeds.

Once up to speed, there are three ways to cause the bike to lean and thus turn. One is counter steering: pushing on the inside grip to momentarily deflect the wheel in the opposite direction you want to go, causing the bike to lean in. A second is weighting the inside of the bike; literally pushing down on the peg with the expected results following. A third is to move your weight to the inside of the bike’s centerline. You can think of this is pushing the bike in with the outside knee or pulling the bike in by getting your body mass inside the center of gravity. Same thing.

If you read my review of Total Control, you’ll see that Lee has you moving your mass inside the bike’s centerline. He doesn’t really talk about counter steering, so in that regard, he and Reg are on the same page.

Where they diverge is in how you get that done. With Reg, it’s all smoothness all the time. You move your body in increments off the bike, smoothing it over while you round the corner. With Lee, the strategy is almost completely different. You hold the bike up with your off-hand while you move your weight inside the centerline. You wait to the turn point and then release the off hand, allowing the bike to flop into the turn. It’s a sort of auto-counter-steering sort of thing. The “flopping” in part doesn’t come out quite this clearly in the book, but it’s there. And that’s where he and Reg differ.

Which is better? I’m not sure I’m the guy to ask.

“I’m always seeking ways to eliminate tension. When your input comes from of the whole body-body steering-you are reducing tension on your arms. You should have so little tension in your upper body that you can literally “flap your wings”-move your elbows up and down with total ease. Do this as a reminder to release tension in your upper body.”“Does counter steering work? Of course it does. You can get a motorcycle to follow the desired path exclusively by applying pressure to the handlebars, with no other body movement. Is it the best way? Not in my experience, and not in the experience of most racers I know. Try riding a tight figure eight with your feet off the page. It’s not too easy, is it?”

Chapter 6: correct cornering. The best way around a bend

Yet another place where Reg has a firmly held belief that runs counter to what others teach is the whole theory of the best line on the street. A lot of people are big fans of the idea of setting up as wide as you can so that you can see further down the road. So on right hand turns (in the US), you set the bike as close to the centerline as you dare and cut across the apex of the turn as late as you can, maximizing your sightline and keeping the bike upright for as long as you can.

Reg doesn’t argue with the physics, but thinks it’s a bad strategy given how sloppily people drive their cars. In his mind, and it’s hard to argue, the centerline on a back road is last place you want to be.

Keep a tight line

“On the Road for most right-handers and on the track for most turns, I recommend you keep a tight line. It’s another one of my golden rules.”“The tight line keeps you safe by maintaining ample distance between you and oncoming traffic. By entering a corner from the middle of your lane, you keep distance between you and vehicles in the opposing lane. This is especially important when these vehicles drift into your lane—as they so often do.”

Decreasing radius turns

“What you need is more lean angle. One of the things that will pull you through is to look through the corner. This means swiveling your head—not just your eyes. Look as far up the road as practical, and the bike will follow. On bikes without a lot of clearance, leaning farther may not be an option, so you will need to be even more careful about getting into a turn like this too hot.”

Chapter 7: Street strategies. Effective everyday tactics

If you’ve never read or thought about staying safe around town, this is as good a place to get into that as any. You must surely know that most crashes happen around town, quite close to home, often involving cars, usually when the biker has the right of way. The bit that really stood out to me here was the importance of being predictable.

“We’ve already talked about the importance of discipline and focus in all your riding. On the street, these things translate to predictability for those around you. It means operating at or near the speed limit in town, avoiding rapid lane changes, stopping in a smooth and controlled fashion, and not cutting back in too close to a car you just passed.”

Chapter 8: special conditions. Dealing with hazards

A lot of riders hate riding in the rain. It’s not like that’s hard to understand, particularly if you’re not geared up for it.

Living in the Pacific Northwest, I’m well acquainted with the stuff. The first few minutes when it starts to come down suck. Besides putting a bit of a damper on, the roads immediately turn to squirrel snot. This goes double for white lines on the road, and triple for white arrows and anything metal. I know about the white arrow thing from painful experience. So you slow down and pay extra attention.

Once past that part, riding in the rain has its own rhythm and can be decently fun. I’ve racked up some big miles in pissing rain. I’ve also dragged pegs going round a 40-foot circle in a parking lot. Modern tires, assuming they’re in good shape and a proper street compound, are pretty damn good in the wet stuff.

The bit that caught my eye was Reg’s rejoinder to use your body in the rain. Don’t just sit there like a frozen-dope, bolt upright in the saddle thinking that if you don’t twitch the bike will be just fine. You’re going about it backwards.

“If the handlebar is your primary means of steering, it will get you in trouble. Handlebar input tends to be too abrupt, and will cause the front end to break free in slippery conditions. You need to eliminate tension in your shoulders and arms to avoid giving the front and a bad message.”

“Time and again, people try this body steering method in the rain, and come back to me and say: “I see what you mean about releasing pressure.” By easing up, they find the control they are looking for.”

Braking in the wet

“Low gears and throttle management should be your first means of control in the wet.”

Chapter 9: Equipment, Setup, & Gear. How to choose the right stuff.

If you’ve never read or thought about gear, again, this is as good a place as any to start. I’m a gear hound. I’ve read leagues of stuff and own more of everything than I care to think about. So I must confess, I didn’t pay a ton of attention to this chapter other than to note that I agreed with everything.

Other writers devote entire chapters to suspension setup, so in this, I was a bit surprised to see all these bits lumped into one place.

Having said all that, I actually did learn something I had not read before: how to set sag without actually sitting on the bike. That doesn’t make a lot of sense to me, so I’m still waiting to give it a try. For a counterpoint on this, see Total Control by Lee Parks for how to do it on the bike (requires two other people).

Chapter 10 two-op and group writing. Tips for safely sharing your sport

Good general commentary. I wish I could say more, but It’s not a topic I spend a lot of time thinking about. I do as little of both as I can.

Summary

If you’re still reading, you’ve read a lot. I’m a technique junkie, so my recommendation is to buy the book, read it, and add it to your shelf of resources. More to the point, do something to put something in here into practice.

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Mar 15

Reading the Road Book Canon: A first stab at the definitive list of books about riding

By kevin | Book Reviews

With all this writing and rambling about riding, I find myself drawn to reading what I would describe as the motorcycle rider’s canon. Being a bit pigheaded, I’ve decided to assemble my own, though I suppose there are no end of other’s who’ve already opined on this topic.

In some cases I’ve already read the book; in many cases I’m just getting started. So this list will surely evolve. But to be clear, they are all on my summer reading list.

Broadly I’ve divided my reading list into two categories. The first are books about riding and the road. The two pillars of the genre aren’t even about motorcycles.

The first is Beowulf, the touchstone of European heroic literature. The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars, just to name two current bodies of work, find their roots deep in the eighth-century classic poem of the journey by Beowulf to Geatland to slay a pesky monster. My favorite translation is by Seamus Heany. Why is it on this list? The journey. It’s all about the journey and what you find along the way. (I have read this book many times and will again.)

[amtap book:isbn=0393320979]

The second is Don Quixote, by Miguel de Cervantes. I have an abiding interest in this book for many reasons, not the least of which is the fact that my grandfather was a noted Cervantes scholar. Unfortunately, I didn’t pay any attention to that while he was alive, so I’m coming back to the Don with fresh eyes and a bit of mid-life longing to connect to my ancestors. It is the root-stock road book and the first modern novel.

There are many translations. I’m no expert, but it seems that many regard the Raffel version as the best, but there are many from which to choose.

[amtap book:isbn=039397281X]

A bit closer to the motorcycle part is Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. I’m not sure if this is truly recommendable if you’re under 50, but makes the list at least because it forms part of the DNA of the beat movement. I’ve roundly ignored it for decades but it’s now on my list.

[amtap book:isbn=0140283293]

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is rightly regarded as a classic of several genres. It was a monster seller and has been reprinted a zillion times. No writer about riding since can pen more than ten pages without referencing Pirsig, particularly if there’s a BMW in sight, or if something breaks on the bike in question. I have tried to read it three times now and have never gotten past the first 100 pages. I’m handy with a wrench and embrace technology all too fully. Still, I find the moralizing about fixing it yourself tiring. I’m determined to breakthrough this time.

[amtap book:isbn=0060589469]

Ted Simon sits comfortably at the table reserved for motorcycle Gods, long distance division. I say “comfortably” in reference to his unassailable credentials and iconic book Jupiter’s Travels. By every account I’ve read he’s actually a bit embarrassed by all the accolades. 78,000 miles over four years through 45 countries on a Triumph no less is one hell of an accomplishment. He has inspired legions of others to head off on their own heroic journeys. (Now you can see why my initial references to Beowulf and Don Quixote.)

[amtap book:isbn=0965478521]

Following the threads mentioned in more recent books, I find many references to One Man Caravan, by Robert Edison Fulton, Jr. He put in his miles on a Douglas twin, coursing through 22 countries back in 1932. I have yet to crack this book, but just leafing through it, you get a sense of challenge and adventure that eclipses anything you or I have ever tried.

[amtap book:isbn=1884313051]

Time will tell if Riding with Rilke will take its place alongside these classics, but it’s on my list. Ted Bishop, a Canadian professor, weaves a tale of riding a Ducati Monster from Alberta to Austin, TX and back–a bike I would consider riding across town and back–with tales of pursing the mysteries of Virginia Woolf, D.H. Lawrence, and James Joyce. The words are like truffles. From time to time I would notice myself rushing through a page, much like I find myself rushing down a road, and pull up and wonder why? What’s the rush? When I finish, I’ll be done, and then what. Lovely book. I enjoyed every page of it.

[amtap book:isbn=0393330745]

The Perfect Vehicle by Melissa Holbrook Pierson stands out nicely for it’s wonderful prose (the Forward I found jarring), her ability to capture the spirit of Guzzi ownership, and her ability to give dimension to being a woman rider while maintaining a smile. If that makes sense. This is a fun little book that works well if you like bikes, if you like words, or if you are interested in what a woman rider has to say. As with RWR above, time will tell how it settles into the list of great road books.

[amtap book:isbn=0393318095]

I have several other road books on my shelf waiting further examination. I’ll report later on those.

The other class of books are oriented towards technique. I’ll post that list another time.

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Mar 10

Book Review: Total Control by Lee Parks

By kevin | Book Reviews

[amtap book:isbn=0760314039]

If you buy just one book on motorcycle riding technique, this would be the one to get. It’s clear, well written, and well illustrated. More importantly, it tells you the good stuff. Starting with “traction control.”

Lee is a “motorcycle entrepreneur.” I don’t know how else to describe him. He writes books. He makes fabulous gloves. He teaches teachers to teach his philosophy of riding (I’m an initiate). He probably does some other things as well, but you get the idea. Being a committed motorcycle junkie doesn’t make his book worth reading, but it’s not a bad start. To save you looking him up, here’s what he has to say for himself . . .

Riding since the age of 12, you could say I have motorcycling in my bones. My greatest joy is sharing the motorcycling experience with family and friends. This passion eventually led me to work in the motorcycle industry.

I started racing in 1984 on the frozen lakes of the Midwest with an RM80-based ice racer. Since then, I have participated in just about every form of road and off-road motorcycle competition, and recently earned my first national championship in the 2001 G.M.D. Computrack WERA National Endurance Series in the Lightweight class. I also earned the #2 plate in the 1994 AMA 125GP nationals.

As the editorial director of Motorcycle Consumer News and Auto Restorer, I had the privilege of scientifically testing hundreds of motorcycle and automotive products, often to destruction. This taught me a great deal about materials, production and quality. I now put that experience to work in every product I design and market.

Looking for a new challenge, I founded Lee Parks Design in April 2001 after spending more than eight years as a professional motojournalist. My mission is to create innovative products and services to help riders achieve “better living through motorcycling,” and help companies better serve their customers. This site is the first step in that direction with a few, select, state-of-the-art items.

There. That takes care of that.

The whole of the book can be summed up in the first sentence of the first paragraph: Riding a motorcycle is really an exercise in traction management.

The book is organized into five sections.

  • Chassis Dynamics
  • Mental Dynamics
  • Body Dynamics
  • Machine Setup
  • Rider Setup

Different people will be drawn to different parts of the book. I’ve read more than a few so some of the content was very familiar to me.

The bits that you should be extra attention to in my mind are these . . .

Steering Technique

I would start by memorizing and then practicing this until it’s second nature.

It is my ardent belief that when cornering, you should use only your inside arm to steer. This includes both pushing and pulling when appropriate.I recommend this because it’s extremely difficult for both arms to put reverse inputs into opposite ends of the bars in precise unison while simultaneously allowing enough “give” in the steering for gyroscopic precision to do its thing. (pg 21)

Suspension

If you don’t know the your suspension basics, this is a good place to start.

Line Selection

Good general advice and excellent drawings of proper lines in the real world.

Throttle Control

I am completely and totally convinced on this one. I use this technique whenever I’m not just poking around town.

After mastering rolling on and off the throttle slowly and smoothly, the next step is to transition back and forth with the brakes. This time, as you slowly roll of the throttle, roll on the brakes. This means you will be applying varying levels of throttle and brakes simultaneously. This may sound strange, preposterous even, but you will be amazed at how this settles the suspension, keeping the bike from pitching forward and backward. (page 63)

I have written about this technique in all my ride reports. For example, here’s a snip from a ride down the Oregon Coast.

The road across the Tillamook forest is brilliant. It darts briefly across farm country and then shoulders its way up and into the woods like some mythic wisp beckoning the hero onward, onward.

I watch the air temperature reading out of the corner of my eye on every approach. The road is shaded as far as I can see and the pavement is still wet from the drenching last night. 48 degrees on the gauge is reassuring, but not conclusive. I don’t press. I look for good lines and move my body off the bike to keep the FJR as upright as possible. I trail the front brake in combination with a live throttle to take up the driveline slack and take out the hitch from right off dead throttle. It’s all about being smooth and I am.

Braking

Lee is a believer in using both brakes. This is hardly a unanimous position amongst riders yet alone racers (very few admit to even knowing where to find the rear brake). I know that on my FJR, the brakes are linked so I’m always using them both in some combination. On Ducatis and Aprilias, the rear brake is for decoration. It does nothing and feels like you’re pressing on wood. Here’s what Lee has to say.

Remember, anything that abruptly interferes with the suspension can cause a significant loss of traction. For this reason, it is important to apply the brakes simultaneously and as smoothly as possible.

Applying both brakes simultaneously will help stablize the chassis and keep it from pitching forward too quickly. (pg 73)

Body Positioning

If you have no experience with “hanging off” the bike, read this chapter more than once. It’s an eye opener. That thing you may have seen racers do on TV is something that all riders need to know how to do. I’ve seen guys do it on dirt bikes (on the road) and Harleys.

The basic idea is to get your mass inside the centerline of the bike before and while it’s leaning over. Not to worry. Unless you chop the throttle closed and coast to a halt, nothing bad is going to happen. Only good stuff actually.

Lee describes ten steps. It feels like a lot to remember when you’re reading it, but with just a bit of practice, it comes naturally.

  1. Reposition the foot (get your toes out of the way so you don’t scrape them). On a cruiser, this isn’t important.
  2. Pre-position the body. This is where the action is. Get at least your upper body inside the vertical centerline of the bike. If you’re riding a standard or sport bike, get a lot more than that over to the inside (looking at pictures helps right about now).
  3. Hold the bike upright by pushing on the outside grip. So if you’re going to go right, your body is off to the right side and you’re now pushing on the left grip.
  4. Find your turn point. Most riders don’t do this. They just sort of go around the corner. Instead, you want to pick a place to turn in and wait for it.
  5. Look through the turn. This is MSF 101. While doing that, definitely scan your line to make sure you’re not missing anything.
  6. Relax the outside grip. I think about “releasing” the outside grip. The feeling is that of the bike dropping into the turn. The first time this happens, it can feel pretty weird. The last thing you want to do right about now is chop the throttle. Maintain some forward thrust please,
  7. Push the inside grip. At this point, if you have your weight to the inside, the bike will be heading off in a whole new direction. Now you can see why you want to find and wait for your turn in point. If you need more turning, this is when you add some counter steer. Gently. Sometimes this feels to me like pulling the bike down to me.
  8. Roll on the throttle. Roll means be smooth with it. Your bike is still leaned over so you’re splitting traction between turning and going.
  9. Push the outside grip. This will pick the bike back up. Keep rolling on the throttle as you do.
  10. Move back to neutral. That’s you and your body back in the center of the bike.

Suspension Set-Up

For many new riders, adjusting the suspension seems worse than witchcraft. Assuming you have a bike that allows for some adjustment, this chapter steps you through everything you need to know to do it properly. You’ll need your owner’s manual, two friends, a tape measure, a piece of paper, a pencil, and a couple of hand tools. It’s helpful if you still remember how to multiply and divide.

So go buy it

There is additional content on gear and some other bits and bobs. Lee spends several chapters on the “mental” aspect of riding. I like these chapters least of all. Not that it’s not important. Read my blog to see how much I think about the mental aspect of riding. It’s just that I find other ways to manage my concentration and attention more useful.

Not wanting to end on a down note, let me go back to where I started. This is an outstanding and useful treatise on how to properly ride and control your bike. It applies to any rider riding any type of bike on the street. Better still, take the class.

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