Monday, May 30, 2005

Intermission - How I Learned To Love Riding Again

I'm waiting for the driveway to dry out after an early morning rain (sounds like a song), so I figured I'd spend a little time (after a conversation with mt brother-in-law's girlfriend, Jan) documenting a challenge that has faced me for the last ten years.

My motorcycling history extends back to the spring of 1970. Actually a little before that if you count the 80cc Suzuki I drove through a weeping willow tree, but it was in 1970 I got my own bike for the first time. After five years I had progressed to a 1000cc GoldWing which Sandy and I rode 100K miles over the next five years. We rode it fast. We rode it well. I would start out on a run tired and stressed from work, drop into a theta state and be more rested and refreshed after a couple of hours than if I had been napping. I spent a lot of time in The Zone. We travelled North America without a second thought.

Motorcycling as I knew it changed in 1981 when our twin girls were born. I had seen others give up riding, ride solo or confine themselves to going down to the coffee shop and back when their progeny arrived. After kicking it around, Sandy and I decided to do none of the above. We bought an 1100 GoldWing Interstate and Motorvation sidecar and kept on riding. By the time our kids were three years old, they had been to both coasts by motorcycle. Between 1982 and 1995 I, exclusively in sidecar mode, had covered over 70K miles on two different outfits.

At this point, I need to take a moment to describe motorcycle riding. There was a long thread on VROC recently arguing about how to make a motorcycle turn. Do you lean or do you countersteer. Personally, I think everyone does the same thing but, like with a golf swing, different people focus on different key moves. The same physics apply to bicycles and, as everyone knows, you never forget how to ride a bicycle. Unless you have exclusively been driving a sidecar outfit for many years. Because sidears don't lean and if you countersteer them you will end up somewhere you don't want to be. So I spent 14 years and many miles schooling myself to do exactly the opposite of what it takes to make a two wheeled bike go around corners.

I'll jump forward to 1995 when I decided to remove the sidear and go back to the freedom of two wheels. Ontario roads aren't too challenging, so the problem didn't become apparent right away. I had a feeling that I wasn't as carefree and aggressive as I had been, a feeling that progressed over time. The '99 and '00 trips to the north Georgia mountains and the twisty roads there put me out of my comfort zone. I started thinking about how to make the bike do what I wanted it to do. I'd done it before easily, so why was it so difficult now. Couple this with acrophobia, and I started triple guessing myself in mountain areas. I got tenser and my riding got shakier. Being of sound mind, I left a lot more room. This continued to progress over the next few years. I didn't stop riding. In fact, from 1998 to 2004 I rode over 100k miles. But I wasn't in The Zone. I couldn't find it. Towards the end, I started to actually feel disoriented while riding, not sure which way was up.

So why am I now a happy rider again? The cure has occurred over several stages.

Last summer as we were riding out west, I was having some severe difficulties. One thing I did notice was that when I was faced by a situation in which I "expected" to be uncomfortable, I would start to tense up. Then I would start to lock up. In my rigid state, I would fight the bike and the turns and be very tentative and jerky. My layman's diagnosis was that I was suffering panic attacks. At bro-in-law Malcolm's place in Vancouver, I did some research and found that panic attacks (and other autonomous nervous system problems) are prevalent in people who suffer from Mitral Valve Proplapse, which is a leaky heart valve. Enough so that the term MVP Syndrome has been coined to describe it. Guess who has MVP? Luckily, Malcolm's very capable and engaging girlfriend, Jan, has a degree in psychology and we talked about things like Cognitive Behaviour Therapy and how one can self treat panic attacks.

Armed with my new insight, we happily headed east. I was able to identify the onset of the panic attacks as I would subconciously stiffen up and slide forward in the seat. I countered with deep breathing and viualizing something pleasant, something other than the conditions which were triggering the stress. I had one particularly successful morning coming out of Golden BC through the HooDoo Canyon. I was even able to look way down at the river as I was navigating the twisty road clinging to the vertical cliff face.

So things were now better. But the bugbear still remaining was that I continued to have difficulty getting the bike into sweeping turns. The tight twisties were now not bad but the higher speed sweepers were still giving me fits about how to get them started. I know it sounds strange, but try running down a flight of stairs and, midway down, start thinking about what your feet are doing. There's a pretty good chance you will trip. It was the same with the curves. I was thinking too much but couldn't for the life of me, figure out how to stop and still get around the turn. This spring we road Arizona, Texas and then North Carolina in this tentative mode.

The final piece clicked into place between Lexington, Kentucky and Cincinnati, Ohio on a sunny afternoon in May. We were running up I-75 heading back from NC and our stop at Bushtec trailers. I was at a point where the broad curves in the highway were being a problem. I was staving off the panic, but wasn't doing well on getting a cornering line so I had slowed down a bunch. In short, I wasn't having fun. Then, in my mirror, I saw another GL1800 catching up. As it came by, two-up and towing a camper trailer at about 85MPH, I tucked in behind in the right stagger position. I rode behind him from Lexington to Cincinnati holding my line with no thought about how to corner. I just did, running a steady 12 inches from the right side of my lane. Bike going where I wanted without concious thought like it should. In this carefree mode, I reflected on the whys and wherefores of this improvement.

Slowly it dawned on me. I ride well behind someone else. But when I am leading or alone, and when I think I am going to have trouble with a curve, I look at the entry point. I stare at the entry point. I try to figure out what I need to do with my hands and body to get the bike to start turning at that entry point. I FIXATE on that entry point. When I am behind someone else, I ignore the entry point and just follow them. How could something so simple and so elementary have been bothering me for so long? Look through the curve. One of the first things you learn and I knew the words but had forgotten what they meant. When the other GL and I parted company on the south side of Cinci, practising what I had realized put me back in my comfort zone as I rode on alone. I didn't worry about the corners and they just happened all by themselves.

It's been several weeks since then. I got home, led several bikes to Port Dover and back, ran the back roads of Eastern Ontario, rode down south on some interesting roads and then returned hauling the trailer without one single second thought. I'm more relaxed riding, less tired and have even slipped into The Zone a couple of times. Crosswinds are less trouble, too. Towing the trailer would have been hell without knowing this.

I'm sure anyone who has been riding for any length of time will wonder how I could have been so screwed up for so long. Put it own to my ability to think myself into any kind of trouble and to overanalyze any situation. Regardless, I'm back now and looking forward to riding more than ever. I'm even looking forward to that Hogback thing in Utah they've been telling me about. Bring it on!!

BTW, I have seen other riders who, by the way they corner, must be experiencing similar problems. Maybe now, if they are interested in advice, I can be able to provide some insight.

No comments: