Sunday, November 10, 2013

Editorial: Riding motorcycles made me a better cyclist

Like many people, I learned to ride a bicycle pretty early in life. The basic skills came easily, like pedaling and steering, but things like balancing or more advanced skills, like jumping off of home-made ramps, took some time, and some injuries, to really nail down. However, once these skills were pretty well ingrained, there was not a whole lot of progress made towards furthering my biking skills, especially since it was largely recreational to me, having grown up in car dominated Southern California. That all started to change when I began to ride my bicycle more for transportation after moving into DC proper a few years ago. Conveniently, it also coincided with when I started to learn to ride motorcycles. Without even realizing it, there were a number of skills that I carried over from the motorcycle to the bicycle.

Some of the skills that started to develop were mainly focused around survival. On a motorcycle, the ability to reach significantly higher speeds than on a bicycle means that one learns to scan the road much more effectively and much further down the road. On top of that, the ability to anticipate the actions of others at 65 mph or greater meant a heightened sense of awareness anytime I was on two wheels. All of a sudden, I was finding myself much more comfortable riding at increasingly higher speed on the bicycle, comfortable that I would be aware enough of my surroundings to help reduce and minimize dangerous situations.

In some ways, this also translated into a comfort with speed, not only being able to identify potential threats, but also simply a familiarity with being on a two-wheeled conveyance moving at 30 mph. As I became a stronger cyclist, I found the higher speeds I was able to obtain, particularly during descents, much easier to cope with because of my time on the motorcycle and because I had a much better appreciation for the physics of how a two-wheeled vehicle moves at speed.

Of course, what good is speed in a straight line if you have to bleed most of it off in order to make a turn, right? This is where the concept of counter-steering, turning the wheel the opposite direction from from the turn in order to induce lean in the desired direction, comes into play. As a kid learning to ride a bicycle, you sort of inherently pick up the mechanics of counter-steering, but I suspect few parents are fully able to explain it, much less demonstrate it adequately, for their kids. For me, it was one of the hardest skills to master on the motorcycle, but once I did, it became second nature to apply it to cycling. Suddenly, I went from struggling with high speed corners to sailing through them, in particular during fast descents. I also found myself using the same weight shifting techniques I use on the motorcycle to reduce lean angle and maximize the grip of those skinny bicycle tires through the corners. It opened up a whole new level of cycling to me.

I am sure that the longer I engage in both disciplines, the more I will find ways that the skills can translate from one to the other. This is part of the fun of being multi-modal is to discover these skill sets that translate well. While the similarities of being on two wheels is obvious, most of these carryover skills were really discovered by accident, making for a very sudden, but fun, moment when it all just clicks.