A friend I was touring with oncecommented to me after a leisurely lunch break, "I am getting so old that when I am off the bike for more than a few minutes, I have to learn [how] to ride all over again."
That may be overstating it, but it does make a point about experience. Motorcycling is something that you constantly have to teach yourself if you are to do it to your fullest capability. We tend to assume that years of riding experience, whether recent or before a hiatus from the sport, make us more competent riders than someone who has only ridden for a year or two.
Though the years of riding give you some advantage over a newcomer, it may not be the benefit you believe it is. If you ride infrequently (less than once a week) or most of your seat time occurred in a previous lifetime, your skills have probably atrophied a bit.
Are You Experienced?
Sure, total experience counts. Many of the lessons learned riding a decade or more ago still help your judgment. You can read about others' incidents and advice, but there is nothing like having a bus turn in front of you, for example, to teach you the value of being visible and conspicuous.
Most motorcyclists learn the essential basic lesson that, er, stuff definitely does happen, even to them, during their first couple years of riding. Some don't survive that lesson and some walk away from motorcycling altogether once they have learned it. But those who learn it are unlikely to forget it, even if they take a hiatus.
There are a lot of smaller, less dramatic lessons that we probably retain as well. They can affect all sorts of motorcycling behavior, from how we sit on the bike, to what we perceive as hazards, to what we wear when we ride.
However, total experience is not the only kind of experience that matters. Recent experience is equally as important. While the two-hour break my friend joked about probably won't diminish your riding ability, a two-week layoff probably would. And if the ride you took two weeks ago was just an hour or two that followed another lengthy break, you might be developing a bit of an experience deficit.
The Motorcycle Cruiser staff participated in a variety of group rides this summer. I typically size up the people I am riding with, based on their bikes and riding gear, before we take off. I've gotten to the point that I can make pretty good estimates of which riders will ride confidently and briskly, and which riders will be clumsy pulling away, hesitant entering corners, and hold up the group or even be a bit scary to ride with. Generally, riders with better abilities ride bikes that are more amenable to aggressive cornering and are set up for comfort and control. Their gear tends to be comfortable, versatile and functional. However, one guy I took for a mid-pack rider, based on the limited capabilities of his bike, turned out to be the quickest and most confident rider along. I found out that he rides his bike all over the country on sales calls. He gets lots of miles and rides all the time. It showed.
Working to Ride? Ride to Work
Another rider, though on a very capable bike, I assessed as a nervous slowpoke. I saw that his helmet fit poorly and his riding gear showed little use. Sure enough, even though he often went quickly along the straights, in corners he would slow way down and other riders would bunch up behind him. I learned that, although he returned to motorcycling in the early 1990s, he only rides a weekend or two a month. He didn't look like somebody who had almost 20 years of riding experience. At the end of three days of riding, his skills and technique had improved noticeably, which he recognized too. I mentioned that three days of riding every week would do that.
"Unfortunately, I can't always ride every weekend," he lamented.
"How about riding your bike to work?" I asked.
"It's only a ten-minute ride each way," he rejoined. "Will that make any difference?" "
I think you'll be surprised," I told him.
"Give it a try."
I have since received two e-mails from him. The first message told me that his commutes were not just brief rides because he had rediscovered the joys of taking the long way home. A month or so later, he wrote again to say that both his occasional riding companion and his wife had commented on how much smoother and more confident his riding had become. Because of his newfound confidence and the ensuing comfort it brought his wife, he was actually doing more of the weekend rides that he enjoyed most. He was also arriving at the office and returning home feeling "more upbeat and clear headed" as a result of commuting by bike.
This rider's original riding pattern -- short rides on free weekends -- seems to be increasingly more common. However, the move to weekend riding appears to have been accompanied by some changes in the accident pattern as well. Not surprisingly, more crashes happen on weekends and more involve cruisers, which are the most popular type of motorcycle. As has been much reported, the crash-involved riders tend to be older as well, but a look around at any motorcycle gathering will tell you that's because motorcyclists are getting older. However, the fact that motorcycle crashes are now more common in rural settings and are likely to be single-vehicle accidents suggests a lack of experience.
Though there are no data, my guess is that these crashers tend to have little recent experience. They may have been riding for years, but not more than a few days in the last two months.
How Much Have You Ridden Lately?
Though safety researchers have not been able to quantify the precise advantages of recent experience, it appears to be considerable. I suspect there are two parts to it.
One is something like muscle memory. The routine tasks of controlling the bike, such as engaging the clutch, covering the brakes, shifting, etc., become automatic when you ride frequently. Your conscious mind is not engaged in these matters, and it can focus on the more complex aspects of the ride.
These are the strategic parts of a ride such as picking out possible threats, ignoring distractions, plotting an approach to a busy intersection, choosing and executing a line through a corner, and so on. However, even some of this becomes routine if you ride every day. You automatically deal with what matters when motorcycling becomes second nature.
I rarely go more than a few days without riding -- thankfully, we don't have weather that keeps us from riding in Southern California. Even most of my vacations involve motorcycling. In more than 30 years working at motorcycle publications, I have been knocked out of the saddle a couple of times by medical conditions (once from an off-road crash and once by elective surgery on my leg). Even after a two-week layoff, I could discern a difference in my physical control of the bike as well as my mental control of the ride. It took a couple of days of more intense riding to get me back to where I wanted to be.
For many riders, a winter layoff is inevitable, no matter how much they want to ride. Those months of inactivity are sure to dull your skills.
There are a few ways to hasten redevelopment in the spring though. One is to take some sort of rider training. The new Experienced RiderCourse (ERC) developed by the Motorcycle Safety Foundation will probably do this much better than the old ERC, and will take less time as well. One of the racetrack schools would probably be even better because it provides more room to stretch your skills and abilities. Dirt riding is another great skills enhancer.
If street riding is your only option, plan a weekend that starts out easily but challenges you with winding roads on the second afternoon. No matter what your approach to sharpening your skills after a layoff, make a vow to ride to work at least twice a week. Commute by bike more often if you don't ride several hours on the weekend.
If you have been riding infrequently, expect to be impressed by your improved skills after a couple of weeks.