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To Ride Or Not To Ride
(That crisis of confidence moment)

By: Cash Anthony

Whether you've been riding a motorcycle for days or for decades, a time may come when you find yourself wondering, "What on earth am I doing out here?"

Where and when this happens is important in trying to figure out what it means, if anything. If you are trying to stay on two wheels in high crosswinds with 18-wheelers passing, a fleeting wish to be elsewhere is understandable. Wanting to "get the ride over with" is probably not an abnormal attitude even for the hardcore, if the landscape you're looking at resembles a nuclear test site or if you've got a storm at your back.

Sometimes, though, this question hits, and it just seems irrational.

Remembering what learning to ride was like for me, and my sense of breathless amazement at going 50 the first time, I suspect new riders frequently wonder what on earth they are doing out there. When first learning to handle a motorcycle, whether it's on motocross trails or in the middle of city traffic, it's natural to be concerned for your own skin.

Riding a street bike is risky. Dropping a bike is embarrassing if not painful, and the pavement can be soooo hard. Until the skills required to operate these complex machines become well-practiced, a rider might be asking "What am I doing out here?" several times in a day's ride. But for a more experienced rider who knows her own limits and can better manage her risks, this could mean she's riding too far, too fast -- and a part of her knows it.

If a person is scaring herself regularly, maybe the search for adventure has become reckless thrill-seeking -- and dangerous to herself and others. One rider's loss of control creates an enormous risk for a group. This is one reason the Lone Star Ladies (LSL) regularly discuss and practice our group riding safety rules, especially with those new to us, and they are asked to ride toward the rear.

Once motorcycle touring gets into your blood, and you gain experience on your bike, your skill and confidence increase. Because you keep your bike well maintained and practice safety in the everyday details of riding, you learn to relax. Fear is forgotten in the glorious fun, in the sights and sounds and smells and people encountered on a run, in the companionship of the "family" as you travel, and in the interest you generate in the people you meet. A bout of irrational, stark terror becomes a rarity -- but it can still happen.

Several years ago, as I started the first leg of a major trip, I had a panic reaction that stayed with me for several hours and was very hard to shake. (I needed sleep.) But I've heard about it happening to riders with far more years and miles on them than I have, and I've even seen several examples of it when, for no particular reason, a turn or a U-turn just looked "too hard" to make on a Gold Wing, despite the rider's demonstrated abilities.

What should you do when you can't shake a negative feeling? Are you losing your nerve? Are your riding days over?

Without attempting some kind of "biko-psycho-analysis," I suggest that a crisis of confidence or intense fear while riding first calls for that rider's attention. The rider should signal for a stop if necessary to allow her to pay attention to what is going on without endangering herself or others. It should not be ignored.

Even in a moment of terror that comes out of nowhere, sudden movement on a motorcycle is not recommended. A street rider expects to maintain control at all times. Unless you decide to put your bike down and give up control for some definite reason, chances are you will be fine if you just keep on doing all the right things.

I've experienced a number of moments of discomfort when riding that seemed unrelated to road, traffic, or rain. It may have been a memory, or my imagination running away. I have ridden through them, but I couldn't ignore how uncomfortable I was. I continued to question whether I needed to make a "head-check" stop, whether my riding skills were being affected, whether I could "breathe through it," and what was really nagging at me. I stopped "casually" before many more miles, but I didn't want to let my paranoia take over and make sure I crashed.

After encounters with my demons of the road, I've looked back and tried to analyze the circumstances. I've realized a lot of things can cause my pleasure in riding to seep away, and my awareness of risk to grow irrationally. These include not eating and getting low blood sugar, fatigue, dehydration, cramped muscles, riding an unfamiliar bike, starting out on a trip without understanding the route or the stresses it would take, believing I should do something differently to please someone else in the group, and not personally checking some aspect of my equipment. Any of these things can cause extra stress in the midst of what can be a stressful sport. Dealing with some of these factors takes a change in habits; some, a change in attitude. To ride safely and keep enjoying it, across, say, a 400-mile day, confidence has to play a big part.

What about peer pressure to get through a bad ride or a shaky moment without "inconveniencing" the other riders? Most LSL fellow riders would tell you this: "If you've ever been 'inconvenienced' by having to follow a friend to the Emergency Room to see if she makes it, you can handle an extra five-minute break to keep a rider out of there."

Besides, motorcyclists expect help from each other along the road: a helmet placed on the ground by a bike's front wheel is the universal signal that a rider needs assistance. In a Lone Star Lady group, as in many others, if a rider needs to stop for any reason -- or no "rational" reason at all -- that person will not be left to deal with a problem alone. Neither should a rider who has a crisis of confidence expect to be criticized.

"Ride your own ride" puts the responsibility on each individual rider to exercise the proper degree of care and skill needed under the circumstances. Group riding LSL-style is not for everyone, but it has some definite advantages in the give-and-take.

Some riders are sensitive to pressure from peers to test their skills and try something risky. If you want to experiment, don't take a dare. Do it in an environment you can at least partially control: on an empty parking lot, or in a quiet neighborhood, or on the training range at a Motorcycle Safety Foundation course. Being pushed into riding longer, faster, harder, on a bike you can't handle, or under conditions you find unsafe -- especially out in the boonies with people who don't respect your limits -- doesn't set up good conditions for success, or learning, or having fun, or being uninjured and well enough to ride the next day.

When the Lone Star Ladies and Gents acknowledge and recognize our members who take a safety course or perfect a new skill, this attitude encourages all our riders to practice, share what is learned, and to feel good about it.

"What on earth am I doing out here?" If it happens, the decision is yours: to ride or not to ride? If you just can't get to relaxed-but-aware, you may not enjoy yourself. If you have to stop to regroup emotionally and mentally, don't beat yourself up. Take a break, find a friendly back-seat, or come to club events on four-wheels. Attend to your needs, and don't ignore the signs: a candy bar might be all you need to feel safe again.

If there's no 'real' reason for panic, perhaps you can ride through it and trust your common sense to keep you safe. Finding a way back to the fun is one of the challenges of motorcycling that has involved real personal growth, for me. It has taught me courage and self-control to deal with my fears. Like the old farmer, I find "I've had a lot of worries in my life, but most of them never happened."

Copyright © 1992 - 2024 by The Master Strategy Group, all rights reserved.

(James R. Davis is a recognized expert witness in the fields of Motorcycle Safety/Dynamics.)

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