When I find something I love, something that I am passionate about, I want to become as good as I can at that thing. Over the course of my life it has extended to many things, but often my enthusiasm wanes after a period of time, sometimes because I realise that the reality does not match my idealised vision, or sometimes because I realise that I’m just not that naturally talented at whatever I’m trying to master.
But over my life there have been a couple of passions that have remained with me, motorcycles is one of them. Since becoming a “motorcyclist” I have always tried to improve my riding, increase my skills, and be as safe as I can be whenever I get on a motorcycle. Maybe one of the reasons that my passion for motorcycles hasn’t waned is the fact that I think I’m reasonably good at it, not great, not naturally talented, not outstanding, but with effort and practice, I have reached the giddy heights of “good”.
When I made the decision to become a motorcycle instructor I had no idea if I would enjoy it, nor did I know if I would have any talent at it, it was a step into the unknown. I have since found that not only do I enjoy it, I “really” enjoy it. But am I any good at it? Mmmm. That is probably a question best answered by my students, but as with my riding, I try to do whatever I can to improve as an instructor.
Most of the instructing work I undertake is compulsory training as part of the licensing process in the state where I reside, so I work to someone else’s syllabus. This limits the extent to which I can “personalise” my instructing, but it is surprising how different people can deliver the same basic information in such a variety of ways, and styles. One of the main tools I use to improve my own instructing is by watching and listening to other instructors, seeing what, in my opinion, they do well, and taking on some of those aspects, and what they don’t do well, and trying to avoid those aspects.
Recently I attended Breakfast Torque, an annual motorcycle safety day put on in the Sutherland Shire by the three councils in the area, and the local Ulysses Club. During the event I met up with Paul Riley from Skill Master Motorcycle Services, and I immediately recognised an opportunity to learn from an extremely experienced and knowledgeable instructor. Skill Master offers private motorcycle training to improve road riding skills in a safe controlled environment. Catering predominantly to small groups and individuals, the training is intended to equip riders with the skills to continually develop and refine safe riding systems.
A few weeks later I was in a cordoned off car park in Cronulla, keen to watch and learn as Paul conducted an individual course. The car park was a sea of traffic cones, bollards and markers. Some of the training activities were familiar to me, many were not, but it certainly looked like it was set to be a challenging, fun and rewarding days training.
Paul has been road riding since age 22, but his experience and skill as a trainer is based on much more than a long and safe road riding career. Before his career in motorcycle training Paul worked as a trainer with Jaguar Australia. He then trained and worked as a paramedic, before becoming a paramedic trainer. During his time as a paramedic the NSW Ambulance Service began introducing motorcycle paramedics, and in 1995 Paul became the 6th motorcycle paramedic to enter service. The motorcycle training course undertaken by paramedics is an intensive 4 week course, and is in fact the same course undertaken by NSW Police motorcycle officers. Paul went on to help develop the competency requirements for the paramedic motorcycle course, and then became the first civilian instructor on the police motorcycle course. When not carrying out motorcycle training Paul works as an Accident Scene Management Australia trainer, delivers the Cert 4 in Occupational Health and Safety, and also the Cert 4 in Workplace Training. When I asked Paul if he could distil his motorcycle training “ethos” down to a few words his response was “don’t do things to intimidate people when they are learning”. In my experience of motorcycle training, this is advice that many instructors could benefit from.
Paul’s student for the day was June. June has been a long-term pillion, but has only been riding for 5 years. June rides to commute, and for also for pleasure with her partner and friends. Her current ride is a Harley 1200 Sportster
After quick introductions and welcome chat it was down to the business of riding, starting with basic riding activities around the car park. This enables Paul to ascertain what aspects of riding and bike control to focus on during the session, and to tailor the training to fulfil those needs. This is one of the great advantages of individual and small group training, and is often lacking in large group situations such as track days.
Next, Paul sat us down and introduced the concept of WYLIWYG – Where You Look Is Where You Go. The brain is an amazing thing and can process vast amounts of information in a short time, but only if it has the information it needs. When it comes to riding a motorcycle through curves, if you look through the curve, looking to the furthest point of vision, your brain can calculate exactly what it needs to do, and pass that information to your body to allow you to ride smoothly and safely through the curve, but if you look just in front of the bike, the brain doesn’t have the information it needs, so the curve becomes a series of short straight sections separated by small steering corrections. In my discussions with motorcyclists this is one of the major areas new or returning riders have problems with.
Following this Paul put June’s bike up on a stand so she could sit on it with both feet up on the controls, whilst the bike had both wheels on the ground. He then proceeded to set up the brake, clutch and gear levers for optimum control and comfort, and go through riding posture to get June into the most comfortable riding position on the bike, a helpful tip he passed on to June is to “imagine you are sitting on a bar stool”. A well set-up motorcycle and good posture are crucial elements to a satisfying and safe riding experience. If you buy a new motorcycle you should expect that the dealer will take the time to adjust all of the controls for you as part of the pre-delivery service, but unfortunately in my experience, this is rarely done, so people just tend to “make do” when it come to controls and posture. I have never seen this level of service at any other motorcycle training course, and it is another advantage of small group training.
The remainder of the course consisted of a variety of riding activities, starting with basics like slow riding and slow weaving, and gradually becoming more complex and involved as figure eights, u-turns and hazard avoidance were practised. The riding activities were interspersed with explanations and demonstrations on the physics of steering a motorcycle, use of the rear brake in curves, and counter steering. All of the training was carried out in a relaxed atmosphere that was entirely free from pressure or ego, and the results were evident in the changes witnessed in June’s riding, and the smile on her face every time she successfully completed an activity.
After a satisfying lunch next door at the Cronulla Sharks Leagues Club, the three of us headed out for an afternoon run through the Royal National Park to Stanwell Tops. Concluding the on-range training with a road ride is a great way to allow students the opportunity to use the skills they have been practicing on the road, and see the difference it makes to their everyday riding. It also allows the students to observe how a highly trained and experienced motorcyclist applies these principles on-road.
When we stopped at Stanwell Tops for a break I asked June if she felt the training had been worthwhile, and if she felt that she had been able to put the theory into practice on the road. Her response was positive. She was impressed with Paul’s teaching style and his ability to explain complex ideas in simple terms. If she hadn’t understood something the first time, Paul would find another way of explaining it, and it was all done without any pressure. While it was obvious that Paul was extremely skilled and knowledgeable he was able to share that knowledge without being condescending. Having undertaken previous training with other companies June felt that the one-on-one training offered by Skill Master was much more worthwhile and enjoyable than group training. She had certainly been able to apply what she had learnt on the road, and felt that the most important aspect of the training had been “keep your head up, and look where you want to go”, a sentiment that I am sure any motorcycle trainer would agree with.
And what did I learn from the day? The importance of keeping the ego out of training; the need for instructors who are not only knowledgeable, but passionate about what they teach; the importance of explaining concepts in easy to understand ways, and the importance of being able to put those concepts into practice in a safe environment; and the huge advantage that individual or small group tailored training has over large group training. I thoroughly enjoyed my day with Paul and June, and I left in no doubt that any motorcyclist who is keen to improve their riding skills, and let’s be honest, there are ways we can all improve, would be hard pressed to find a better avenue for training.
The Perpetual Motorcyclist
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