Since few of us are masters of every aspect of motorcycling, we invariably experience bouts of low-level anxiety or even panic. Anxiety mostly sucks, but it can also be a useful tool for helping you be a safer and more proficient motorcycle rider…if you pay attention.
“The best riders frequently check themselves for signs of stress and then act to regain relaxed composure so they can enjoy a safer and more gratifying ride. With anxiety out of the picture, they can also identify where the stress is coming from, whether that’s a lack of confidence in their ability or trepidation about a particularly risky environment, such as a rain-slick corner or a route riddled with dangerous intersections. Whatever the source, these riders use their awareness of stress to recognize their comfort limit and then back off so that anxiety does not affect control, safety, or fun.”
Too bad I couldn’t follow my own advice.
I figured perhaps upgrading to a more capable and lighter machine would help. So, I sold the sturdy and rider-friendly KLX250/351s and bought a beautiful KTM450 XC-w. I never intended to buy the KTM, but the price was right, it was in a nearby town and it was sexy as hell.
I knew from the day I bought it that the 450 was more bike than I wanted or needed. It’s not that I didn’t think I could manage the power or the edgy handling, but the fact that it was a less rider-friendly bike made my anxiety worse. Ugh.
So, I remedied the situation by buying a Honda CRF250x. It’s the bike I should have bought in the first place. It’s more like a play bike than the KTM, but more capable than the KLX. Let’s see if that was the cure.
With the confidence of a less intimidating bike I went riding with my friend Paul at his local dirt track. This area features a motocross-type sand section and some tighter technical trail stuff with some steep drops and climbs, as well as log crossings. The last time I was at his track on the bigger KTM I managed to overcome the challenging sections, but with difficulty. Going in, I totally expected things to go easier on the 250x.
Turns out that the cure was not a different bike. Sure, it helped, but the anxiety was still there. I stared at a particularly scary looking traversing hill wondering WTF? I got past it and tackled the hill several times, but was tense and on the edge of panic much of the time. The rest of the course was easier, yet I still felt anxiety.
Paul, being the supportive friend he is, told me to slow down and just roll around. I was trying to ride the way I am used to riding…sliding the rear and zipping at a decent pace. Well, that was just adding to the anxiety. Once I slowed down to a novice pace, I started having fun and things went sooooo much better.
Emotions trump Logic
So, why wasn’t I able to follow my own advice as outlined in the Motorcyclist article? Because emotions tend to trump logic. I wanted so much to overcome the fear that I pushed on instead of doing what I tell my students…slow down to reset your sense of confidence and competence.
I’ve never been as confident off-road as on pavement or on the racetrack, so I tend to think of myself as a rookie rather than the reasonably competent dirt rider I really am. By slowing down, I am reminded of my true competence. This reinforces the positive. And the more I ride this way, the faster I substitute anxiety with confidence.
By riding in complete control at all times I am (re)building a solid foundation that then allows me to climb out of this rut. If I were to fruitlessly keep pushing without stepping back, I would surely dig the hole even deeper and just reinforce the hold anxiety has on me.
I tell my on-street studentsat the beginning of the day that we will be riding well within their comfort zone, becasue they can’t learn and build confidence if they are using all their attention on managing anxiety. And when it comes to my track day students, I tell them that they gotta go slow to go fast.
Pressure to Measure
This all sounds like solid advice, but I can tell you that it’s not easy to follow. If you’re like me, you have an established image of yourself as someone who can manage the challenges of a typical dirt (or street) ride and not be so slow as to hold up the group’s pace.
I’m also competitive, which doesn’t help. I tend to ride fast when the right thing to do is hang back and not feel compelled to keep up.
The takeaway here is to listen to your anxiety and respect it for its attempt to alert you to SLOW DOWN. Instead of forcing yourself to tackle challenges with abandon, take it easy to build back your confidence.
Ignore your anxiety at your own peril. As the saying goes: check yourself before you wreck yourself.
Share your experiences in the comments section below.
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