By August 31, 2010

Racers vs Commuters: Two Sides of the Motorcycling Skill Coin

I am going to state up front that I’m biased about the point of this article. I’m a commuter. I see my motorcycle as a replacement for a car and my FJR 1300A is my primary transportation.

That being said, I know that a lot of people motorcycle for enjoyment, and a very very dedicated few motorcycle for the skill involved in order to do so well. I definitely appreciate the mastery perspective, which is one of the reasons I decided to write this piece.

Motorcycling as a pursuit, as a culture, can often be divided into halves. Cruisers vs sportbikes. No- or low-gear wearing squids vs ATGATT (all the gear, all the time) power rangers. US-made bikes vs foreign-made bikes. V-twin vs inline 4s.

There are varying degrees all along the spectrum, of course. There are a growing number of riders here who are “half the gear, all the time” for example, and wear a helmet, gloves, a jacket … and shorts. Or whatever. You get the idea.

One area that has really purchased a lot of my “riding meditation” time lately is racers vs commuters.

I belong to a message board, and right now it is pretty dominated by guys who like going fast and riding very precisely. They aren’t hooligans or squids. These guys have taken multiple riding courses, and have read many books / watched many DVDs on race-style riding. They have full protective gear and have been riding for years.

Yes, they are interested in going fast. They are also interested in the techniques of riding, both at high speeds and at very low speeds. They study

  • trail braking
  • up and down shifting to maximize power and speed
  • how to establish a good line during a turn
  • body positioning, including getting their ass off of the seat at the right time and dragging a knee
  • making tighter and tighter U-turns at low speed without putting their feet down

I respect their desire to get better, and I also appreciate the pursuit of the perfect technique. But I am not this type of rider.

I’m a commuter, and instead I focus on the skills and techniques of riding safely in traffic. For example, I study the art and technique of changing lanes at speed on a highway filled bumper-to-bumper during rush hour. I am completely disinterested in knee dragging on the street, because the world is not a professionally maintained track. There might be something in an upcoming turn that I can’t see, and if I am fully committed to a line and leaned over to the utmost there is no room or time for a correction.

I try to improve my technique at these sorts of things:

  • Anticipating the driving behavior of other motorists
  • How to avoid cars that pull out in front of me at intersections
  • Riding in the rain or other sub-optimal conditions
  • Keeping from being rear-ended at a stop light
  • Staying physically and mentally relaxed so I can ride longer distances during a single day

and many more — none of which are particularly sexy but all of which help to keep me commuting on a motorcycle as safely as possible.

There is some bleed-over of these skills and desires. Yes, going fast is fun. Yes, racer-motivated motorcyclists want to avoid being run over. Learning to brake hard, or to brake as much as possible in a turning situation, are skills that both types of motorcyclists would learn. My contention is that we’d learn them for different reasons.

Racer-motivated riders will learn to “trail brake,” or to lightly use the brake during a turn, in order to bleed off slight amounts of unwanted speed, settle the suspension, and set the bike up for a faster exit. Commuting-motivated riders will learn to trail brake in case they need to slow down on an off-ramp due to an accident or an obstruction in the road.

Learning to lean the bike over to encourage better turning is vital to both types of riders; however race-riders may push the lean envelope more.

Throttle control to a commuter means being able to navigate through stop-and-go traffic without putting one’s feet down too much. To a racer, throttle control means putting as much power to the ground as possible without lifting the front wheel up. Same techniques, different desires, different applications.

I am not saying racing-motivated riders ride unsafely; what I am thinking is that there’s one sub-set of motorcyclists who are driven to increase their skills. Of that sub-set, there are two sides to that same coin: people who want to learn the techniques of riding as fast as possible, and those who want to learn the techniques of riding as safely as possible on the street.

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2 Comments on "Racers vs Commuters: Two Sides of the Motorcycling Skill Coin"

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  1. Brice says:

    I ride in the middle. I ride with a cruiser club where most of the guys don’t even wear helmets. They are about the people more than the ride. I also ride solo on ‘serious’ roads with lots of hair pin turns and very unforgiving run out areas. I also ride dirt, not serious dirt, but Forest Service dirt.

    Personally I ATGATT, but I don’t push that choice on people I ride with. Except my son. :)

    People from all the groups I ride with say those other guys aren’t really riding. They are all wrong.

    Motorcycles give back what you put into them. People that love them, love them for their own reasons. I’m not one to tell them that their reasons are wrong.

    Ride safe, ride long, ride happy.

  2. Tom says:

    I fall into the middle as well.

    Maybe you could add a V4 in there as a bike type?

    Most of my riding is commuting as well, but I really enjoy the acceleration of my specific bike(Yamaha Vmax)

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