Is it Spring Yet? Get Ready!

Damn you, Polar Vortex!

Polar Vortex Express
Polar Vortex Express photo by Jeannine Condon

Nobody can deny that this winter has been a doozy! Even as March has arrived, it’s well below freezing and the snow cover is still measured in feet where I live. Thankfully, the sun is noticeably higher in the sky and the days are longer, which points to the inevitable spring thaw.

This means that it’s almost time to ride!

But, wait. Before you thumb the starter there are a few things you need to take a look at before your first ride of the season.

The first step is to make sure your bike is ready to roll. Next up is the importance of getting your mental and physical skills in shape for the new season.

Adjust and lube your chain
Adjust and lube your chain

Bike Prep

Here’s a quick list of pre-season maintenance tasks. I’m not going to go into detail about how to perform these duties, because that would be a very long post. Most of these things are covered in your owner’s manual. If you do not feel comfortable tackling these projects, find an experienced friend to help you with any of these jobs that you can’t do yourself.

Put a gauge on those stems before you ride!
Put a gauge on those stems before you ride!

Do these things:

  1. Charge your battery
  2. Check your air filter
  3. Check your tire pressures and condition
  4. Check your drive system
  5. Change your oil and filter
  6. Check your brake pads and fluid
  7. Check your lights
  8. Put a wrench to all fasteners
  9. Lube cables
  10. Wipe her down, Start her up!

Mental Maintenance

After you’ve taken care of the motorcycle, then the next thing to give some attention to is your mental and physical skills.

With all the anxious anticipation of the first ride of the season, it’s easy to forget that motorcycling is a challenging endeavor that requires you to be on top of your game. Starting your riding season without considering the consequences of rusty skills could end your season prematurely.

If you’re like me, you’ve probably been spending the winter months getting around town behind the wheel of a car. This can cause you to forget that your survival instincts and riding “edge” are dulled. It’s easy to become oblivious to motorcycle issues like visibility or road surface hazards when you’ve been off the bike for a while.

It’s likely that you haven’t been too concerned about being seen by others the way you are when riding your bike, because it’s easier for others to see you when you’re driving a 3-ton vehicle. Now is the time to get that mental radar fired up so you can deal with all the distracted and complacent drivers. Remember that drivers haven’t seen bikes on the road for several months or weeks and won’t be looking for you.

Also, you probably haven’t been too concerned about road surface hazards, because most surface conditions are of little concern when you have four wheels beneath you. Get your road surface sensors sharpened before you roll out of your driveway.

Thawing Your Skills

Formal training courses are a great way to sharpen your skills.
Formal training courses are a great way to sharpen your skills.

Some riders begin their season by taking a refresher course with their local motorcycle-training program, which usually offer the Motorcycle Safety Foundation (MSF) suite of courses. Others take some time on their own to brush up on their emergency skills in a parking lot, but most simply take it easy until the cobwebs blow away.

Whether you choose to attend a formal rider course or go it alone, I recommend that every rider practice critical skills by performing some cornering and braking drills.

Skills are perishable, which means you have to keep practicing whenever you can. Not just at the beginning of the season! That’s why I include drills in my Riding in the Zone book and DVD.

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Sad, But True

tommy-Aquino-3I know not every reader of the Zone Blog follows motorcycle roadracing, so you may not have heard about the recent death of 21 year old young gun Tommy Aquino who was involved in a collision with a fellow rider while training at a motocross track in California. Even though Tommy’s death occurred on a motocross track, it is one more example of the sad realities of riding a motorcycle, whether on the dirt or the street.

It Happens

I don’t know the details of Tommy’s crash, but knowing that he was a very skilled rider begs the question, “If it can happen to him, what chance do I have?” Of course, most of you aren’t training to become a future world champion, but that doesn’t mean that you are immune to a similar fate.

The fact is that the public roads present as many or more dangers as a motocross track. Safety guru Larry Grodsky died while riding home from a safety conference. My friend and coworker, Chappy lost his life commuting home after work. My wife’s cousin died on a Sunday ride with a friend. The list of street riders who have died goes on and on.

I often say that most crashes are avoidable, and I stand by that statement, but the reality is that even the best riders can find themselves at the pointy end of a bad crash. Larry Grodsky is an excellent example, but there are many others.

Fred Rau, a colleague at Motorcycle Consumer News wrote a poignant column in the latest issue about a fellow rider who met his end on a group ride. The article illustrates the cold truth that sometimes shit happens even to the best riders. Being in the wrong place at the wrong time is the only reason his friend is dead now.

Hopefully, you all understand the realities of motorcycle safety and act accordingly. Not that you should ride scared or never push the envelope from time to time, but one key to survival is to know the real risks of riding and how to manage those risks. Unfortunately, many riders don’t take risk management seriously enough.

Don’t Give Up, Get Smart

I’ve been riding motorcycles for almost 40 years and have survived this long partly because of luck, but mostly because I am very conscientious of where and how I ride. I don’t take my safety for granted.

I’m not saying that those who have met their demise were not conscientious. What I am saying is that life is unpredictable. But, we can minimize the risks.

Read this post to learn how.
And this one.

Risk versus Reward

I often tell people who are on the fence about whether they should ride a motorcycle to carefully measure the risk versus reward ratio. If there is not a big payback in terms of enjoyment, then I suggest they find something else to do. The reward must match or exceed the risk.

This is what I told my daughter Jeannine when she first started riding on the street back in 2006. I wanted her to know that the decision she was making to become a street rider had serious consequences. Of course, intellectually, she knew this, but it is important that we remind ourselves frequently about the risks of straddling a two-wheeled machine and then riding it at speed.

Is your risk to reward ratio acceptable to you?

Fight Complacency

If you haven’t evaluated your mental and physical skill sets lately, I suggest you do so. Why? Because it’s too easy to become complacent about the importance of excellent survival strategies and riding skills. As we ride more and more miles without incident, we gradually assume that we have this riding thing figured out and that the bad things won’t happen to us. Wrong!

We can’t control everything, but we can hedge our bets by increasing our knowledge and skill and making sure our behavior is in line with minimizing the risks of riding a motorcycle. Take this post as a reminder to do all you can to be the best rider you can be.

Proficiency-PledgeProficiency Pledge

Earlier this past year, I included a pledge in one of my MCN columns to encourage readers to think about their responsibility to be the best they can be. Take this pledge for yourself AND for the ones who love you. Feel free to add your own points.

Pledge:
  1. I will expand my knowledge of motorcycling safety and control through continual reading, and by taking one formal safety/skills course per season.
  2. I will practice my physical skills on my own to keep them sharp.
  3. I will wear protective gear on every ride.
  4. I will develop mental strategies for managing traffic and other hazardous situations.
  5. I will never ride while intoxicated or impaired in any way.
  6. I will choose not to ride if my ability to manage hazards is compromised.
  7. I will choose not to ride with others who do not share my commitment to safety.

Signed:___________________________

Feel free to copy this pledge and print it out.*
Then hang it on your garage wall and give a copy to each of the people who care about you.

*Anyone wanting to distribute this pledge to more than their immediate friends and family should contact me for permission.

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How to Survive Hairpin Turns

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Practice tight turns in a parking lot.
Practice tight turns in a parking lot.

The biggest problem riders have when dealing with hairpin turns is their anxiety about being able to make the turn. It’s a good idea to practice tight turns in a parking lot before you encounter challenging hairpin turns. Read more about slow speed riding techniques.

Slow Approach

One of the most likely reasons for a crash in a corner is entering too fast. When dealing with downhill hairpin turns, you also have the additional force of gravity pushing you downhill.

The trick is to get your bike slowed early and smoothly and then carry a bit of brake force past turn in to keep the bike stable, Read about trailbraking for more detail. Just be sure the surface is clean enough to allow slight braking while cornering.

Throttle On

The timing of when and how much you crack the throttle is critical for maintaining stability and direction of travel. In general, you want to begin rolling on the throttle as you release the brakes (see trailbraking seminar)

A bit of forward drive takes some of the load off the front tire when going downhill and gives you forward momentum when going up a hill. It also maximizes ground clearance.

But, be careful. If you are abrupt with the throttle, either by accelerating too hard or by chopping off the throttle, you risk running wide, overtaxing the tires and upsetting the chassis and balance

Downhill turns are challenging enough to put a sign up.
Downhill turns are challenging enough to put a sign up.

When approaching a downhill hairpin curve you need to slow down more and hang onto the brakes a bit longer (see trailbraking) to manage gravity, You then gradually crack the throttle slightly for maximum stability. Be sure to look well into the turn, at the corner exit.

Uphill Hairpins

When going uphill, you can approach with a bit higher speed. But, slow down enough to allow steady throttle throughout the whole turn. Be sure not to use too much throttle that you cause the front tire to lose traction and “skate”, which can push your bike too far to the outside of the turn.

You also don’t want to overload the rear tire with too much acceleration force. Steady, gradual throttle at the beginning of the turn is the key. Again, keep your eyes pointed all the way to the turn’s exit.

Look through the turn and accelerate slightly.
Look through the turn and accelerate slightly.

Enough Speed

Whether going up or down hill, you need to keep your speed up to maintain balance and stability. Sometimes, people simply fall over because they are going too slow. At very low speeds, slight deceleration or shift in body weight (tell passengers to remain relaxed, but still) is enough to upset balance and cause a tip over. Aim for smooth, steady drive.

Look Toward the Exit

Your eyes help direct your bike to where you are looking so look where you WANT to go. Turn your head to ratchet your eyes through to corner, always looking to the next visual target…entry, apex, exit. Read more about visual skills here.

What’s My Line?

It's important to get this right.
It’s important to get this right.

Try to select a cornering line that allows you to get your steering inputs done early and so the throttle finishes the turn. This usually means an outside-inside-outside path of travel. There are many advantages to this line, including a wide view through the turn and the ability to perform a quick turn-in that gets the bike turned early. It’s common for riders to fall in slow, tight corners because they introduce mid-corner steering inputs at the time when the front tire is already working hard.

Obligatory Crash Video

Here’s a video of my friend Matt who found out how a slight miscue in a slow, tight turn can put you on the ground. He was a rather new rider at the time and was spooked by the traffic. The bike was borrowed, so it was not familiar to him, either. He was unhurt. Erik from Twisted Throttle evaluates the crash protection from SW-MOTECH.

Why do you think Matt crashed? I’ll give my opinion in the comments below after some of you respond.

What tips do you find useful when dealing with hairpin turns?


 

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Tell Me Where it Hurts

Say no more.
Say no more.

The type of injuries sustained by motorcycle riders may not be what you think. We all know that a traumatic bonk on the head is the most likely way to become dead. The brain just cannot handle being bashed around inside your cranium without suffering some bleeding or bruising.

That’s why those who understand the risks of riding a motorcycle wear helmets, and not those skull cap, yamaka, pseudo brain buckets, but a real DOT or ECE (“Economic Commission for Europe), or Snell approved unit; preferably one with really cool colors and graphics (if that’s your thing).

Legs and Feet

Take a look at the pie graph (mmmm, pie, source: CDC). While the head and neck are understandably high on the list of parts we injure. Statistically, it is even more likely that you will have some pretty beat up the legs and feet.

I’ve experienced this first and second hand. I’ve broken a foot from a parking lot tipover (note to self: remove disc lock before flight, dumbass) and tore my ACL (it’s in the knee) from a dirt biking tipover. And Caroline broke her foot falling over in gravel on (or should I say “off”) the racetrack.

This is why I wear armored boots and riding pants with knee armor. I guess most other riders in the U.S. have not heard this fact, because very few I see wear more than sneakers and jeans with the occasional person of questionable intelligence wearing flip-flops and shorts.

Really?
Really?

Leg Protection

As a person who promotes track days, I often get questions about what riding gear is acceptable when riding on the track. Most serious riders have riding jackets that are decent enough to pass tech at some track days, like Tony’s Track Days. So, that usually isn’t a problem. But, invariably when I ask about what riding pants they have, they look puzzled and say “None. I ride in jeans”. Oops.

I get it. I didn’t begin wearing riding pants until after I had been riding for about 15 years. That’s when I started thinking more about the risks of riding. Back then, there weren’t a lot of riding pants to choose from.

I discovered that Motoport gave a discount to MSF instructors, so I bought an Ultra II overpant that I wore for several seasons. It provided years of comfort and protection. And from the looks I got from the ladies, it looked good, too. OK. there were no ladies, but I can dream, can’t I?

I digress. Today, there are tons of options in protective pants that are not expensive and offer pretty good protection from at least minor leg injuries.

Lookin' good in my Motoport Riding pants.
Lookin’ good in my Motoport Riding pants.

Now, I always wear leg protection when I ride, usually my high-dollar MotoPort Ultra II stretch Kevlar zip-on uber-pants. I know these look good because I’ve been told so (by my wife, but she counts, right?) These are undoubtedly the most comfortable and protective pants I’ve seen, except when it gets to be over 85 F.

But now I have another option. Jeannine just bought me my first pair of Kevlar jeans (with knee armor). I was quite surprised at how well they fit and looked (maybe the ladies will notice me now). I haven’t worn them yet, but I like having the option of wearing protective pants that look “normal” when I walk into a store.

Twisted Throttle (and others) sell armored mesh pants that offer great ventilation and enough protection for one small-to-medium sized crash. That’s enough to make them well worth their relatively inexpensive cost.

Do yourself, your knees and your legs a favor and wear protective pants.

touring boots are comfortable with good protection.
Touring boots are comfortable with decent protection.

Foot Fetish

Caroline and my foot injuries happened even though we were both wearing motorcycle boots, which just goes to show you that not all boots are equal. Had I been wearing my Sidi race boots at the time I may have avoided the broken foot…maybe.

But, I was on a street ride where I was doing a fair amount of walking, so I was wearing my touring boots. These are good, but are a compromise between protection and comfort. I’m in the market for new street boots and will be selecting one that leans a bit more toward protection than my current boots.

Believe it or not, even with my history of foot injuries, I do ride wearing work boots from time to time. Convenience and practicality sometimes trump maximum protection.

race boots aren't made for walkin'
race boots aren’t made for walkin’

What injuries have you suffered? Is the pie chart in line with your experiences?


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10 Ways to “Look” Like a Pro

Look where you want to go!
Linda Blair, The Exorcist?

No doubt that being able to quickly and precisely flick a motorcycle into a corner can make you a cornering hero. However, the physical act of cornering is only one aspect of cornering mastery. Safe and skillful cornering also requires that you gather information about the corner—information gathered through your eyes.

The Eyes Have It

When cornering, your eyes alert you to any obvious hazards, help you determine how tight the curve is and allow you to identify any corner characteristics that might affect your safety. But, simply looking ahead isn’t enough to get the information you need. There is a difference between “Looking” and “Seeing”. Also, how you look is critical. A lazy gaze will get you nowhere fast. Aggressively scanning and searching for specific targets is much more effective.

Linda Blair head turn.
Look well ahead.

1. Look well ahead

The first thing to do is get your eyes up! The earlier you spot a hazard or identify a corner’s characteristics, the less likely you are to act out of panic.

Looking well ahead also reduces “speed anxiety” by slowing down the landscape. A slower perceived rate of speed offers a greater feeling of control and minimizes the effects of speed-induced anxiety.

When cornering, look as far ahead as you can, all the way to the corner’s exit if possible.

How far ahead you are able to see depends largely on the environment. You can scan to the horizon in corners that are open, flat and unobstructed. However, in forested or hilly locations you will encounter many blind corners that provide little sight distance. This lack of visual lead time can make it difficult to see unexpected roadway hazards until it is too late.

2. Match Your Speed to Your Visual Distance

Ride at a speed that matches the amount of visual lead time you have. If you are riding too fast to process the information, you will be behind the eight ball and not have enough time to react.

There are often roadside objects that hide critical information. Always enter turns at a speed that takes into account the lack of visual information and allows you ample time and space to avoid whatever might be around the bend.

3. Identify the Right Entry Speed

Skillful cornering requires accurate visual information about a corner’s radius, camber and surface quality so you can determine the right entry speed.

A too-fast entry speed is responsible for the majority of single-vehicle crashes as the panicked rider target fixates and runs off the road or grabs the brakes and crashes. Use visual information to determine whether your pace is within your comfort zone.

There's a lot to look for on the street.
There’s a lot to look for on the street.

4. Identify visual clues

By looking well ahead you can evaluate a corner’s unique characteristics and come up with a cornering plan. Certain roadside features can help you identify a corner’s character and allow you to establish a plan to help you decide what line you’re going to take and where you’re going to get on the gas.

One useful visual target that helps you make this plan is the “vanishing point” where the white painted fog lines or painted centerline visually converge.

On the track, there are no lines, so use the edges of the pavement. How soon the lines or pavement edges converge in the distance help to determine how tight a corner is and which way the surface slopes.

If the lines or pavement edges converge in the near distance, then you can count on a tightening corner radius. On the other hand, a distant vanishing point indicates a larger radius or a curve that is ending.

This information can also help you determine road camber or slope. When a road is positively banked, the road edges do not come together right away.

Look where you want to go.
Look where you want to go.

5. Look in the direction you want to go

Looking where you want to go can help direct your motorcycle through the turn. This is commonly known as “visual direction control”. Visual direction control is essentially your eyes telling your mind where you want the motorcycle to go next.

When cornering, point your eyes to the corner’s exit to help direct your motorcycle on the desired path. Riders who discover the benefits of looking well ahead when cornering often comment on how much easier their motorcycle seems to turn.

6. Keep your vision wide and your eyes moving

Your eyes must move quickly between the corner locations while at the same time scanning for surface hazards. Keep the majority of your vision well ahead into the corner, however you may need to look down briefly to monitor the surface condition as it nears. Do this by using quick downward glances.

Continually gather information from near and far with upward and downward, and side-to-side search pattern. Scan aggressively to gather as much information as you can about the road surface and corner characteristics. Finally, look through the turn to the exit and identify what is in store farther up the road.

Always be looking for reference points when riding on the track.
Always be looking for reference points when riding on the track.

7. Look for Reference Points

Reference points help you place your tires exactly where you need them to be. Reference points are somewhat less helpful or necessary on the street, because speeds are low where precision is less critical.

But on the racetrack where you visit each corner many times a day and where the speeds are much greater, reference points are critical and a relatively small miscue  can result in an off-track excursion.

Once you establish the best cornering line, you can then use reference points to make sure you are always on that line lap after lap. Cones, pavement stains and cracks, as well as distant visual targets (trees) can all be effective reference points.

8. “Ratchet” Your Eyes

To make visual direction control work for you, look into the curve and then continue to move your vision along the desired cornering path all the way to the corner exit as though your eyes are pulling the motorcycle through the turn.

Your eyes cannot help but stop to focus on small targets as you scan ahead. Look around the room, trying to not have your eyes “flick” slightly as you scan. You can’t. So let this natural occurrence work for you.

Imagine your eyes moving through a corner in a sort of ratcheting way, very briefly noticing visual targets and reference points along the way. Put all these “dots” together to make a smooth corner.

9. Look at the solution, not at the problem

Visual direction control can work for or against you. It can work against you if your eyes fix on a hazard that you need to avoid, which is what we tend to do under threatening situations. “Target Fixation” is the term used to describe this response. The problem is that if you look at a hazard, such as a patch of sand or the edge of the road, you will likely end up riding directly toward it.

If a panicked rider were able to keep his vision and attention focused on the corner’s exit he will have a fighting chance of making it. I’ve seen time and again riders who give up on making a corner even when the bike is capable of leaning further and completing the turn. Focus on the solution, not the problem!

The same goes with passing on the racetrack. If you fixate on the tail of the rider ahead you will have a harder time getting by. But, if you look past the slower bike and trust your peripheral vision to monitor the slower bike, then you can dispatch the backmarker much more easily.

10. Practice Your Visual Skills

Avoiding target fixation is easier said than done, because we are naturally wired to closely monitor threats with our eyes. It is therefore important to train yourself not to do what comes naturally and instead look away from a threat.

On your next ride, consciously look away from road surface obstacles, such as a manhole cover, pothole or road kill and look toward an escape route. Continue to increase awareness of this problem and practice to make the solution second nature.

When it comes to cornering, consciously look farther ahead. And don’t just look, but see the information that is most meaningful.

On the track, look farther ahead. If an obstacle, such as airfence, or a cresting hill blocks your view, look “through” it so your eyes are where you need them to be in the next second when the obstacle is no longer in the way.

What visual techniques have you discovered that help you?


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How to Save a Front Tire Slide

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Sometimes it's not possible to save it.
Sometimes it’s not possible to save it. www.motorcyclistonline.com

Is it possible to not crash when you experience a front tire slide? Maybe.

Both of my recent track crashes were the result of a sliding front tire (both were caused by me asking too much of a cold front tire). Sometimes it happens too quickly for you to respond. But, sometimes there is enough time to perform a maneuver that just may save you from a fall.

Survival Instincts Are a Bitch

Let’s say you are rounding a curve and the handlebar starts to feel vague in your hands. At the same time, your proprioceptors (aka kinesthetic sense) tell your brain that balance is being compromised.

Your brain is alerted to the threat and triggers your muscles to tense. The rush of panic and muscle tension happens in an instant. Many riders end up on the ground because their survival instincts cause them to overreact and make matters worse.

Saving the Front in a Corner

I’ve got bad news for you, that vagueness you feel at the handlebars is your front tire losing traction. This is bad, because a front tire slide is one of the most difficult situations to recover from. When cornering, the front tire is responsible for both lateral grip and direction control (steering). More times than not, front tire traction loss is the result of asking too much of the tire. Side forces from cornering, in combination with cold rubber and perhaps contaminated pavement is an easy recipe for tire slip.

When the front tire loses grip, it “tucks” underneath the bike and throws the bike and rider violently to the ground. But, is it possible to save yourself from falling?

To help the front tire regain traction (or at least not lose any more grip) you must first not add to the problem. This means staying relaxed (Good luck with that). With light handlebar pressure, the tire and suspension can work fluidly to manage surface irregularities.

If you tense on the bars, you will put stress on the front tire and risk pushing the tire over the limit of grip. Whatever you do, avoid trying to countersteer the bike into a deeper lean.

Assuming you can remain somewhat relaxed and neutral, the next thing to do is to relieve the work the front tire is doing. To do this, get on the throttle! I know, it’s counter-intuitive, which is why it’s not easy to do. But gassing it transfers load from the overworked front tire to the rear tire.This allows the front rubber to halt its lateral slide and keep rolling.

Yes, you will probably run wide, but hopefully you have enough road/track to let this happen. You can minimize this drift by using moderate throttle application to save the front tire slide. Just don’t goose the throttle so hard that you careen off the road or track or spin the rear tire.

Uphill Unload

A fellow instructor pointed out a caveat  to the common cornering situation. Dan mentioned what can happen to traction when you are going uphill. He witnessed a fellow rider (with a passenger) lose the front and crash in front of him just as the crashing rider was getting on the gas. Why would this happen if what I say about relieving stress on the front tire is true?

The likely explanation is that the uphill slope, in combination with the weight of a passenger and the application of a bit too much throttle, unloaded the front tire too much. He probably also added a bit of steering input that tucked the front tire beneath him. The lesson is that load management and traction management go hand in hand and you need to develop a keen sense of how various factors can affect tire load and grip.

The Knee Save

For those who are accustomed to dragging knee, it is possible to relieve front tire stress by levering the bike with your knee. Anything you can do to take pressure off the front tire will help the tire regain grip.

Saving the Front While Braking

The other way to experience a front tire induced crash is to overbrake so you skid the front tire. This can happen whether you are upright or leaned. If this happens, get off the brake, NOW! This will let the front wheel roll again so you can regain control. Then get back on the brakes (you were braking for a reason, right?). But, this time squeeze the front brake progressively. You can still brake really hard (less so if you are leaned), but it must be done gradually to allow time to put load on the front tire, which increases traction.

Practice? Really?

It takes a good amount of skill and presence to control front tire skids. Like all other tricky situations, practice and experience increases the chance that you can act correctly and save a crash. Practice? How? Ride in the dirt, my friend! Pushing the front tire is a regular occurrence when riding on loose surfaces. Learning to control slides in the dirt is less risky than suddenly needing to manage a slide on your street bike. With this experience, you can train and condition your mind and muscles to react properly when a slide happens.

The other way to train yourself to react properly is to push your bike hard enough to get it to happen. I don’t recommend this, because front tire slides can easily go wrong. But, if you eventually go fast enough at track days or when racing, you will inevitably experience the vague feeling of your front tire on the edge of traction loss.

DO NOT go fast enough to slide the front on the street!! You will die. On the street, it’s not likely that you will have enough time or space to pull off this hero maneuver.

What? You don’t ride on the track or in the dirt? Well, the next best way to practice is to visualize successfully performing the maneuver. Imagine yourself cornering hard, feeling handlebar vagueness and then gradually rolling on the throttle as needed to drift the front. It’s not ideal, but it’s the best way to prepare for saving a front tire slide. Me and the ZX6R Monticello, NY.

Expect It

Another way to prepare for front tire slides (and many others) is to expect them to happen. This pertains to all times when you are in traction-reduced situations, including when cornering or braking hard.

Have you experienced a front tire skid or slide? If so, how did that work out for you?


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Is Crashing Really that Bad?

This crash could have been deadly, but thankfully not.
This crash could have been deadly, but thankfully not.

Crashing a motorcycle sucks. No doubt about that. I’ve had my share of run-ins with gravity and it’s not fun. But, does crashing a motorcycle always mean carnage and a hospital visit? It depends.

My crashes

I’ve had only one “real” street crash and one minor one. The minor one involved a car who rolled into the back of my Triumph Bonneville. I didn’t fall, so it was very minor.  I also had a minor parking lot tipover (note to self: remove the disc lock before attempting to ride away). But tipovers aren’t exactly what I call “crashes”.

The “real” crash happened in 1978 when a car driver turned left in front of me…classic.

Thankfully, most of my crashes were racing incidents. I say “thankfully” because even though racing crashes suck, they don’t suck nearly as much as street crashes where the chances of injury after sliding into a tree, guardrail or oncoming car is quite high.

I’m truly grateful that the extent of my injuries from both track and street crashes were cracked ribs and a broken foot from the tipover.  These injuries were painful, but all healed without any complications.

Unfortunately, the “real” street crash resulted in a totaled 1973 Yamaha TX650 and the rear-end incident resulted in the Triumph’s taillight being smashed, but that’s what happens when you make impact with cars.

In all of the track crashes, bike damage was limited to easily replaceable parts, allowing me to get back on the track later that day. Sure, the cosmetic damage was a bummer, but I got over it–most people do.

Too much throttle, too quickly. photo by Tim Richer
Too much throttle, too quickly. photo by Tim Richer

Safer Crashing

There was a time when crashing on the racetrack was just as likely to get you killed as crashing on the street. This was because racetrack safety was abysmal with concrete walls lining the course and pavement not any better than a potholed rural road.

Thankfully, track safety is much improved. Even though a lot of people complain about the safety issues at my local track (Loudon, NH), the current track is much better than the old Bryar track that had all sorts of safety problems. We didn’t complain much, since all of the tracks were that way.

Another reason there are fewer deaths and injuries today is because of better protective gear. Pudding bowl helmets lined in cork were the racers’ choice at one time. Now, we have helmets that are pretty darn effective at preventing the majority of head injuries. Add to that the improvements in material and armor incorporated into jackets, pants, boots and gloves and it is possible to crash without suffering too badly.

Of course, where you crash is the biggest factor in whether you will end up in a hospital or hearse. Collide with a car and even the best riding gear is not likely to save you from some kind of injury. Crash on a modern racetrack, and you’ll likely get up, brush yourself off and walk back to the pits under your own power.

Unfortunately, road safety has not improved for motorcycle riders. More tar snakes and guardrails seem to appear every year and drivers are more and more careless about paying attention. And road conditions are often allowed to get pretty bad before they are fixed.

Crashing on the street is a
Crashing on the street usually results in injury.

Perception of Risk

It’s been proven that people take greater risks when they feel protected. This is why drivers of large SUVs tend to feel less threatened than drivers of small cars. Most motorcycle riders understand that they are vulnerable to injury and ride accordingly.

This is why Risk Ignorance and complacency is so dangerous. The risks don’t change, but the inaccurate perception of the danger can make a rider think he or she can ride more aggressively or with less attentiveness.

Believe it or not, there were fewer racing crashes back in the day when races were held on road courses lined with stone walls, hedgerows, fences and houses lining the circuit. Racers knew that a fall would very likely result in death. So, most rode in a way that balanced risk and reward.

Today, there are many more crashes, but many fewer deaths and serious injuries because, with the exception of the Isle of Man and a few other “real” roadrace circuits, racing is conducted on closed courses with safety features such as runoff, gravel traps and airfence. Also, today’s protective gear is so much better. This means that racers can push harder, knowing that a crash will probably not be the end of the world.

Now, don’t get me wrong, racetrack crashes can be lethal. It’s just that the risk to reward ratio has shifted so that it’s not unreasonable to expect to get up unscathed after a racetrack crash.

The Perception of Crashing

Another advantage racers have when it comes to crashing is that racers expect to crash. After all, they are pushing the limits of grip and skill and are sharing the track with a bunch of crazies all set on going as fast as they can, determined to take your spot on the podium.

So, when you do crash in a race situation, it’s not unexpected. And if you do go down, it’s unlikely that you are seriously injured, so you get over it rather quickly. This makes the mishap psychologically easier to deal with.

It’s different when you don’t expect to crash. For instance, crashing during a track day will likely be more upsetting, because it is not assumed that crashes are inevitable. But, track day crashes still fall under the category of “not likely to get injured”, so most track day crashers get over the mishap fairly easily.

Crashing on the street is a whole other matter. Street crashes are often particularly traumatic, not only physically, but also mentally. Most street riders assume that they will not crash, even though the risks are actually much greater when riding on the street. It’s understandable, because most street riders go many miles and years without a crash, which makes it easy to think that it won’t happen to them. So when it does, their world is shattered, even if they don’t suffer a significant injury.

Jeannine knows the importance of practice and risk management.
Jeannine knows the importance of practice and risk management.

Thankful, But Skillful

I’m able to write about my crashes today, because most happened on the racetrack in a controlled environment. I’m thankful that I have experienced very few street crashes.

Perhaps some of the reason why I’m still in one piece is luck, but I contend that the reason I have had few street crashes is because of my commitment to riding smart and never becoming complacent about risk. This includes learning all I can about riding and implementing effective strategies when riding in traffic or in the twisties.

Risk is always there and always will be. Learn to manage risk and perhaps you can join me as one who is mostly unscathed after many decades of riding a motorcycle…if we stay sharp and are blessed with a bit of luck.

What have you learned from your crashes?


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The Plight of Women Motorcyclists

My daughter, Jeannine recently started a conversation about the plight of women riders that inspired me to write this post.

Daughter and Father
Daughter and Father

FamilyWomen riders are a significant part of motorcycling’s future, but the motorcycle industry doesn’t seem to recognize this. With relatively few young males entering the 2 wheel world, bike manufacturers would be wise to wake up to the fact that it is worth offering greater selection, as well as more R&D and marketing resources for women riders.

What Do You Know? You’re Not a Woman

No, I’m not a female motorcyclist, but I am the husband and father of two accomplished female riders and I consider myself as strong an advocate of women riders as they come.

Jeannine has been on two wheels since she could reach the passenger footpegs and was twisting her own throttle at age 8. Jeannine is now a control rider for Tony’s Track Days and has worked in the motorcycle industry.

My wife, Caroline learned to ride after we were married and eventually became a certified MSF instructor and track day rider.

With this background, hopefully you can cut me some slack for penning this post. Sure, it might be best written by a woman but Jeannine is busy with nursing school. So when I asked her to write it she gave me a look that said “Really? Another thing?”

There are a couple of topics that came from this conversation that got me thinking. One was the often-heard complaint of an inadequate selection of riding gear. The other more compelling topic was the plight of being in the constant shadow of male riders.

First, let’s talk about the riding gear problem.

What Do You Mean I Can’t Get the Same Boots as my Husband?

Jeannine rocks her men's Macna Night Eye riding gear.
Jeannine rocks her men’s Macna Night Eye riding gear.

Caroline wears a men's jacket and pant combo, because they offered the best features.
Caroline wears a men’s jacket and pant combo, because they offered the best features.

Even though selection is getting better, serious women motorcyclists must often settle for riding gear that is a compromise between style and protection. And, from what I hear, women riders aren’t wanting to wear gear that says “isn’t she cute in that pink outfit?”.

Because a lot of women-specific gear has become a bit over the top in the styling department, many female riders choose to wear gear designed for men, which often doesn’t fit right and may even lack the best venting or adjustability. I can’t help but think that the gear that manufacturers offer to women are designed by men who are hunting for what women really want. To be fair, it could very well be that women don’t quite know what they want in riding gear, since their identity as motorcyclists is constantly evolving.

Style is one thing, but a more significant issue is protection. Most women-specific riding gear provides inferior protection compared to gear that is routinely offered to men. Riding jackets and pants may not have the best armor or the most rugged materials.

One of many examples is the selection of Sidi race boots. The most advanced women’s boot offered by Sidi is the Vertigo Lei, which in comparison is middle-of-the-road Sidi boot for men. If you want a boot with all the protection and features of the top of the line boot, you’re plum outta luck, girls.

Here is a great post from GearChic about how to design motorcycle gear for women without being sexist.

Get Out of the Shadows

The second point Jeannine made in our conversation was quite intriguing… and that was the fact that women riders cannot often detach from their significant other who also rides. In the beginning of Jeannine’s riding career, she learned from me and rode exclusively with me (and often with her Mom).

Only recently has she realized that being in my shadow has held her back from gaining a deep level of confidence and being fully immersed in motorcycling. Her trip to Alaska with MotoQuest afforded her the opportunity to ride with a group of male riders, none of whom were her Dad.

This made her more dependent on her skills, knowing that I wasn’t there to take care of her (not that she needs me to take care of her anymore… although she will always be my little girl). With this freedom, Jeannine experienced riding at a deeper level of self-competence.

I’m Going Riding with The Boys, Have Dinner Ready, Okay?

It wouldn’t be inconceivable to think of a man saying that to his wife (or girlfirend), but can you imagine a woman saying that to her husband? Since most women riders probably have a male partner that is a motorcyclist himself, it is not bloody likely that the woman would think she could ride with another male rider who wasn’t her boyfriend or husband.

What does this mean? It means that a serious woman rider can’t ride with other male riders, lest she be scrutinized as a sort of loose harlot who would rather ride with someone else rather than her husband. To avoid this situation, she must either ride with other female riders (it’s easy to imagine her saying, “I’m going riding with Sheila”), or be stuck riding with her significant other (S.O.).

Yeah, But My S.O. Sucks at Riding

Imagine the conflict that a female rider would have to deal with who is more accomplished than her S.O? I can tell you that the male ego doesn’t tolerate being told that he is not as good as he thinks he is. This is a problem for anyone in this situation, whether male or female, but it rarely goes well when coming from a woman. Just ask Jeannine who is a track day control rider to mostly male riders.

Time to step aside so your shadow casts away from your partner.
Time to step aside so your shadow casts away from your partner.

What to Do?

So, what’s the secret to the harmonious motorcycling relationship? First, if your wife or girlfriend wants to ride without you, ask her why and then listen carefully. If she mentions feeling stifled, encourage her to arrange a ride without you. She shouldn’t need your permission, but she needs your support.

If she says something that suggests that she doesn’t like how you ride, then listen carefully without your hairy ego getting in the way. Be a man of the 21st century and believe that it is possible that a woman can know more and ride better than a male.

The fact is that men weren’t born as proficient riders. If you accept that you don’t know all there is to know, then you’ll be a better S.O.

I can see where this topic could upset some riding couples’ status quo, but I think it’s worth a discussion, with the hope that both partners can reach their full potential as motorcycle riders. There is a lot more to consider around this subject, including the pressure women have from overbearing male partners, the intimidation that goes along with branching out, and the evolution of a self-identity that is more than being the second half of a riding couple. Stay tuned for more. In the meantime, give me your thoughts.
And check out this interesting post from Ride Apart about marketing to women.


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5 Bad Habits You Must Fix, NOW!

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Crash-SignNo matter how “good” a rider you are, it’s likely that you have at least a few bad habits and attitudes. Poor habits and dangerous perceptions can develop over time without us even knowing it. That is, until we experience a close call or crash. Let’s take a look at a few bad habits that many riders possess.

1. Believing You’re a Better Rider than you Are

A lot of RITZ blog readers would be considered “experienced” riders. But, the truth is that experience alone does not make you a proficient rider. I can’t begin to count how many so-called experienced riders I’ve encountered who demonstrate a significant lack of proficiency. Unfortunately, unless the rider admits that he or she has a problem and asks for advice, their poor riding will continue indefinitely and ultimately lead to a mishap.

Unsolicited advice usually is not appreciated, so knowledgeable riders are reluctant to share their wisdom to the riders who need it most. Attempts to enlighten the problem rider often results in exclamations about how many years of riding experience they have and that they know all they need to know to get by…never really knowing the danger they are in.

The solution? First, take a good look in the mirror. What skills are you lacking? (I’m sure there are many, but let’s stick with motorcycle-related skills for now). Next, get the knowledge and training you need to bring all of your skills up to snuff. Thirdly, remind yourself that what skills you have are perishable and need to be kept fresh.

Promise yourself that you will purposefully practice braking, turning, and swerving. It doesn’t have to take a lot of effort to keep skills sharp. Learn about proper cornering technique and then practice it on your Sunday rides. And be sure to learn about all the ways to keep yourself safe in traffic and practice on your way to work every day. Over time, you just might become as good as you think you are.

Always remember that you are vulnerable...and hard to see.
Always remember that you are vulnerable…and hard to see.

2. Forgetting You Are Vulnerable

Experience can often lead to complacency. If you ride many miles without an incident, you are at risk of thinking that riding a motorcycle is not as dangerous as it’s made out to be. This perception leads to many crashes and fatalities. Complacency and overconfidence can occur when you don’t recognize subtle signals that indicate just how close you are to catastrophe.

Get into the habit of recognizing clues that should alert you to threats. Make a concerted effort to scan the landscape and roadway for anything that can turn into a hazard, such as a reflection on the windshield of a car that is rolling toward you. Ask yourself whether the driver sees you and what are the chances that he will accelerate in front of you.

Evaluate each clue to determine whether you can reliably read what is being communicated. For instance, direct eye contact with the driver may indicate that the he sees you, but don’t count on it!

What's around that corner?
What’s around that corner?

3. Assuming the Coast is Clear

You know what they say about making assumptions, right? “They make an ASS out of U and ME”.

One of the most problematic situations is when a motorcycle is approaching an intersection with other drivers waiting to turn left across the rider’s lane. Part of the problem is that the approach speed of a narrow vehicle is much harder to judge compared to a wide vehicle. This is why motorcyclists experience drivers “cutting them off”.

The drivers aren’t necessarily out to get you; they more likely misjudged your approach speed and thought that they had plenty of time to make the turn. The message is to never assume that a driver who appears to see you will not cut in front of you. See “The Top 2 Survival Tips That Will Save Your Life” for more on this topic.

A lot of riders also assume the coast is clear around corners. Depending on the region you ride in, many, or even most corners you encounter do not provide a clear view of the corner exit. Hillsides, vegetation and roadside structures all conspire to block your vision.

Too many riders approach corners at a speed that does not allow the time and space to stop or maneuver if a mid-corner hazard were present. It’s a good idea to enter blind turns slow enough so you can confidently avoid a hidden hazard. If no hazard exists, then you can roll on the throttle and accelerate safely though the turn with no drama.

Caroline
Caroline wears ATGATT
No Gear=Greater Risk of injury
No Gear=Greater Risk of injury

4. Not Wearing ATGATT

ATGATT is an acronym that stands for “All The Gear, All The Time”.  MY definition of “All the gear” means helmet, appropriate eye protection, jacket and pants with protective armor, gloves, and over-the-ankle boots. The obvious reason for buying and wearing all this gear is for protection in the event of a crash. Since motorcycle riders don’t have bumpers, airbags, crumple zones and safety glass surrounding us, we must wear our protection.

Unfortunately, way too many motorcyclists choose not to wear full protective gear. In states where helmet laws are enforced, riders are compelled to wear this most important piece of protective gear, but helmet choice states leave the option of helmet use to the rider. Whether you agree with helmet laws or not, it’s hard to dispute the benefits of having a helmet strapped to your head when you and your bike separate at speed.

Currently, no states require any other protective gear to be worn, with the exception of eye protection. This means that you can ride legally in a tank top, shorts and sandals. Good luck with that.

The reasons why riders do not wear protective gear often include image, peer pressure (you gotta look cool), and cost. But, there is plenty of inexpensive protective gear that meet most rider’s fashion sensibilities while providing decent protection (at least for a single crash).

Both speed and lack of visibility caused this crash.
Both speed and lack of visibility caused this crash.

5. Being an Idiot

This topic can cover a lot of ground, but let’s focus on your attitude when you ride. This pretty much means riding with your head securely screwed onto your neck. Letting destructive influences like ego, peer pressure, intoxication, and distraction make decisions for you will eventually lead to a hospital visit. So, just say no to stupidity. ’nuff said.

What would you add to this list of bad habits?

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Why Automatic Transmissions are the Future of Motorcycling

Will tachometers become obsolete?
Will tachometers become obsolete?

Little attention is paid to shifting. I suppose it’s understandable, since shifting quickly becomes an unconscious, mechanical procedure.

Skillful shifting increases the likelihood of tapping into the illusive Zone. Think about how satisfying it is to smoothly click through the gears with a barely detectable interruption in forward drive. Your hands and foot perform flawlessly with perfect timing and minimal effort. Nirvana!

It’s not only motorcycle riders who experience the joys of manual shifting. People who drive cars with manual transmissions know how shifting gears “involves” the driver.

Shifting Impairment

However, with only a small percentage of autos in the US available  with a stick shift, manual shifting has become a lost art. This means that some younger people thinking about becoming motorcyclists can be anxious about learning manual shifting. Manufacturers need to provide machines with automatic transmissions because manual transmissions intimidate potential new riders who see the clutch and shifter as a barrier to learning to ride.

And with shockingly few new riders entering motorcycling, it is important to entice them any way possible. Which is why it makes sense to offer full-sized automatic models (not a scooter, thank you very much) to a potential new rider who is inexperienced in manual shifting. It just might encourage them to make the decision to enter the world of motorcycling.

Shifting is not that hard to learn...really.
Shifting is not that hard to learn…really.

Auto-shifters

Motorcyclists have not needed to choose whether to purchase a manual or automatic transmission, because all motorcycles came with a clutch and gearshift lever. However, manufacturers are now offering models with automatic transmissions, such as the Honda VFR 1200.

Past examples of automatic motorcycles never sold well, but that was a long time ago, so why would manufacturers do this?  To help motorcycling grow (or even maintain) its numbers, but also because the technology has improved enough to make DCT auto transmissions viable for not both experienced and new riders alike.

Shifting is Fun...if done well.
Shifting is Fun…if done well.

Learning to Shift is not Hard

The fact is that of all the skills a new rider must learn, learning to shift gears is one of the least problematic. The newbie student in a MSF Basic RiderCourse learns to shift during the first couple of hours of their introductory day of riding. Sure, some people struggle with the coordination of clutching and shifting, but most get past the difficulties and go on to pass the course. The reasons students fail the course is because of more critical issues, such as braking or cornering problems, but not shifting.

Shifting is your least worry when riding a motorcycle.
Shifting is your least worry when riding a motorcycle.

Shifting is Your Least Worry

There are a ton more important aspects of riding that should deter borderline new riders from riding, such as surviving riding in traffic, being able to make a corner at speed, stopping before colliding with a Buick, or losing traction on a sandy road. But, shifting really shouldn’t be one of them.

Long live the Clutch

However, the fact that shifting can be a barrier that stops potential new riders from taking the plunge means that manual transmissions could become more and more rare. On one hand, the sport desperately needs a new generation of riders to replenish the ranks. On the other hand, I would be very sad to see the manual transmission go the way of the kick-starter. Do you think this is possible?

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It’s Easy to Ride a Motorcycle Really, Really Fast

KenMOtard-Rain
giddyup

Whenever I tell people I ride a motorcycle on a racetrack, the first question they usually ask is “How fast do you go?”

I invariably begin my answer with “Depends”. No, not the product found in your grocer’s personal hygiene aisle (although there have been times when I coulda used one under my leathers). I tell people that it depends on which racetrack I am riding and how long the straightaways are.

Since my partners in conversation are looking for a wildly high number that satiates their need for sensationalism, I tell them the highest speed I have ridden on a racetrack…155 mph. That was the indicated speed on my 05 ZX6R with stock gearing while going FLAT OUT on a very long straight at the Monticello, NY racetrack.

“You ride at 155 mph?!” Their judgement of my lack of sanity is usually pretty transparent. But, not all people judge me negatively. Many seem to revel in the fact that they can now tell their friends that they met someone who defies all reason by going really, really fast on a motorcycle. I ego-maniacally imagine myself being the topic at many a dinner conversation.

Fast is Cake

The fact is that reaching top speed in a straight line is a piece of cake. The way a motorcycle works, the faster you go the more stable it becomes. You’ve probably seen video of racers who get ejected from their bikes, but the motorcycle stays upright even without the rider in the saddle. The reason the bike stays upright on its own is because of the many factors associated with motorcycle dynamics…gyroscopic precession, inertia, trail, etc.

This is why riding a bike fast in a straight line is easy.

Going Fast and Surviving

Going really, really fast is not as simple as twisting the throttle all the way (actually, it is, but you just might not get the chance to do it a second time if you don’t know what you’re doing).

Even bone-headed people with no business riding a motorcycle can do it. Unfortunately, many end up on the next morning’s obituary page.

The first thing to do to avoid calamity is to choose where you ride fast. Smart people figure out that the street is NOT that place. Those riders know that the place to ride fast is on the racetrack. No, you don’t have to race to ride on a racetrack. Yes, it costs money to do a track day or to race. Riding on the street is mostly free, but fast riding on the street is a false economy. Just one wrong move and you could find yourself wrapped around a sign post or wedged underneath a guardrail. And the future of your bank account and license are in grave jeopardy if you get caught going really, really fast on the street.

Being able to brake before a corner makes going fast possible.
Being able to brake before a corner makes going fast possible.

It’s not the speed that kills you, it’s the sudden stop.

No matter where you ride fast, you need to know how to do it without scaring the pee or poo out of yourself (see comment on the personal hygiene in the earlier paragraph). This requires you to be confident that you can control all that speed before you careen off the track (or road) in a flaming ball of glory. Braking skill is deliberately developed over time. Brake control, visual acuity, speed perception and timing all need to be at their best to manage really, really fast speeds.

Cornering is what takes skill.
Cornering is what takes skill.

Cornering is Funner

Going fast is indeed easy, but I’ll tell you what is hard…cornering. What interested people should be asking is, “How fast are you going in the corners?” Cornering at 45 degrees of lean angle with your knee skimming along the pavement at anywhere from 40 mph up to 100 mph (or more, depending on the corner) is something to be impressed about.

Fast is fun, but cornering fast is funner.

Until next time…Go FLAT OUT.

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Ask Me How I Know- Episode 2: Exposed

In our last episode, I told the tale of a young lad who needed to show off to his friends and just about pulverized himself against a line of trees. If you recall, that lad was me when I was 16 years old.

Well, there are more examples of the trials and tribulations that I experienced as I went through the arduous task of learning how to survive at motorcycling. Today, I’ll tell you of the time I tried to be a good guy and was rewarded with a tough guy with a bad attitude.

My 1971 Bonnie. I owned it until 1989.
My 1971 Bonnie. I owned it until 1989.

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished.

Unlike other anecdotes I will be sharing in this series, this story does not involve any failure on my part, except to assume I would not be threatened for trying to be helpful.

It was 1981 and I was riding home at night on my 1971 Triumph Bonneville on Commonwealth Ave. in front of Boston University. I was minding my own business when I noticed a car in my rear view mirror without its headlights on. At the next stoplight, I kindly signaled to the driver that his lights weren’t on.

Well, the passenger must have been looking for a reason to pick a fight, or perhaps my well-meaning comment triggered a childhood trauma. Either way, the next thing I know, the passenger door swings open and an angry guy brandishing a baseball bat comes toward me.

Not wanting to see how well my full-faced Shoei helmet would withstand the impact of a Louisville slugger, I promptly got myself outta there. This meant running through the red light and accelerating as fast as the 650 twin would go. I figured that getting out of there was all I needed to do to shake my would-be assailant, until I looked in my mirror to see that he too had run through the red light and was in hot pursuit.

As it turned out, I was able to shuck and jive through enough side streets to encourage the angry young men to give up the chase.

I made it home in one piece. Although my perception of the kindness of man was left tattered on Comm Ave. that night. Wow, there really are people among us who would choose violence over reason.  Alcohol likely fueled their hair trigger response to my attempt at being helpful. Which just goes to show the kind of people we share the roads with…drunk and angry.

Here is a photo of a bagpiper. It has nothing to do with this article, but it does show the weird things you come across when on a motorcycle. Jeannine and Caroline look on.
Here is a photo of a bagpiper. It has nothing to do with this article, but it does show the weird things you come across when on a motorcycle. Jeannine and Caroline look on.

I Feel So Vulnerable

The bat-wielding jerk made my life flash in front of my eyes because I was vulnerable. Sitting exposed on a motorcycle in the middle of Boston at night made me vulnerable to whatever these crazies had to deliver.

The good news is that a motorcycle is pretty quick and maneuverable (even a 1971 Triumph), so I was able to  evade my pursuers.

What would I do now? I would not risk the consequences of engagement and instead distance myself from anyone driving without their headlights on at night. This indicates a possible drunk driver who has the potential to hurt me. Syonara, sucker.

Have any of you had a similar situation happen to you?


Stay Tuned for Epoisode 3 when I learn that a too-fast entry speed can be very dangerous.

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New Bike, New Track

It’s hard enough to get accustomed to a new-to-you bike, but throw in a new-to-you racetrack, and things can get interesting. It’s kinda like patting your head while rubbing your tummy in a circular manner (I’m pretty good at that, BTW). Normally, I get up to speed fairly quickly when I ride a new track, evaluating each corner for its character: radius, camber, and whether it is an “entry” turn or an “exit” turn. But, it took me longer than normal to sort out the Barber track, mostly because the track consists of blind corners and a layout that is somewhat complex.

This means that it took a few sessions to not feel lost. I would be asking myself, “Wait, is this that tight turn or is it that turn that opens up?”.

Add to that the need to acclimate to a new-to-me motorcycle and the first day at Barber had me not exactly feeling Stig-like. The second day was much better.

Which way do I go?
Which way do I go? Notice the fogging face shield.
Copyright Raul Jerez / Highside Photo

Learning the Barber Motorsports Rollercoaster

I could tell you all the super-secrets I use to learn new tricks, but I would be repeating myself, because I already wrote a lengthy article on tips for learning new tracks on the Tony’s Track Days website. Read it HERE. Share any other tips you have in the comments below.

Even with my book of tricks in mind, I had a harder than normal time figuring out Barber. Now, to be fair to myself and to put things into perspective (lest you thought for one minute that I wasn’t awesome from the start), I was going respectably fast in the Advanced group after the first session. However, my standards for pacing with the fast guys made me rather discouraged. I know many of you slowpokes are used to being passed by half of whatever group you ride in, but I am not (just kidding). But, even after the third session, I was feeling a bit too much like I should be in the Intermediate group.

This would not do, so I consulted with Tony and my faster peers from New England and discovered that I was slowing too much for a few corners and not getting on the gas nearly early or hard enough. The last two sessions were better, as I started identifying the problem corners and applying some of the reference points Tony and the others were using.

Mother Nature's Tire Warmers
Mother Nature’s Tire Warmers

Sunday morning was 25 degrees F, so we substituted the frozen on-track festivities for a walk around and some bench racing around the tire warmers. Tony and I didn’t bring tire warmers, so we opted for Mother Nature’s warmers, which worked surprisingly well (at least on one side of the tires). After lunch, the temps got up to a whopping 35 degrees, so we pulled on our leathers and hit the track.

Nippy fingers and a fogging face shield told me to take it slow, but after a few laps, it became apparent that the track itself had some grip. Since it was 70 degrees only a few days before we arrived, the ground wasn’t nearly as cold as the air and the asphalt was well over 50 degrees…not great but acceptable.

Let the fun begin. The rest of Sunday was a blast. I started getting up to speed hooking up with Keith, Woody, and Rich. Tony, Adam and Aaron were too fast for me.  See the videos HERE.

But, wait! There is more to this story, so read on.

The ZX6R owenstrackdayphotos.com
The ZX6R
owenstrackdayphotos.com

A New Bike

If you’ve been reading the RITZ blog at all you probably know that I sold my most-awesome ZX6R for a Triumph Street Triple R. I really didn’t want to sell the ZX, but a medical issue required me to make the switch from a crouched racer posture to an upright naked posture (oh, grow up).

The differences between the ZX6 and the Street Triple’s spanned only a few areas: handling, gearing, power characteristics, body position, throttle response, drive timing, front tire grip, footpeg feel, shifting ease, wind noise, and color (I wonder how the Striple would look painted Kawi Green).

With all these things to adjust to, it took me most of the first day to get a good session in.

Is this bike twerking? Copyright Raul Jerez / Highside Photo
The new bike.
Copyright Raul Jerez / Highside Photo

Where’s the Power?

In a nutshell, I wished the 675 had more power. I know, I know power just masks poor riding. But, it also is very useful when trying to pace with the big boys.

The Triple doesn’t drive nearly as hard as the ZX636, so I needed to learn to ride the bike more like a small displacement bike, like a SV. To get the bike out of corners and reach acceptable speed on the straights, I needed to go from cracking the throttle to Wide Open Throttle (WOT) immediately to get the drive I wanted. I found myself using full throttle a lot. The 1050 throttle tube helped make full throttle a bit quicker compared to the stock tube, but a MotinPro unit may find its way onto the Triple’s handlebar end fairly soon.

Why is my Bike Twerking?

OK, so power was down, but that is something I found to be rather fun to manage. Full throttle is never boring. I even think I could have kept with Tony if the bike had better manners in the handling department. Don’t get me wrong, for most riders, the Street Triple R’s fully adjustable fork and shock would be awesome, especially for street duty. The bike never scared me, but I was pushing the bike fairly hard and found the bike wanting to wiggle like Miley Cyrus when cresting the turn 3 hill at full honk. I never felt as if I could drag a knee over that hill with the way the Striple was Twerking beneath me.

Perhaps there was some more adjustments that could have tamed the beast, but the temperatures were so low and the oil so thick that any adjustments would probably not net any real benefit, so I left the adjusters at the Loudon settings and dealt with it. Peter at Computrack Boston will be receiving my forks and order for a new shock by the end of the year so I can have more range of adjustment to suit my style.


In a future post, I will talk about my experience as a track day customer, as opposed to an administrator/instructor. I made note of several areas that helped me better relate to track day customers I work with. Stay Tuned.

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Ask Me How I Know- Epoisode 1: Tire Terror

I can imagine that a lot of fellow riders who know me may have a hard time imagining me screwing up. This is because unless you’ve actually seen me screw up, you’re left with a somewhat unreal impression of me as a competent, knowledgeable motorcycle rider who does no wrong. After all, I can talk about advanced riding concepts with a tone of confidence and I ride well enough to back up the impression that I know what I’m talking about.

Well, at the risk of sounding arrogant (am I too late?), I do think I have earned a place at the table with some accomplished motorcycle riding pros. I’m not the fastest guy or the most eloquent, but I have a knack for communicating practical knowledge, both in print and in person.

But, the fact is that a lot of my knowledge has come from some epic screw ups. Let’s step into the way-back machine and re-experience a near-death experience when I was 16 years old.

Don't let this happen to you.
Don’t let this happen to you.

Tire Terror

It was 1976 and I was riding my 1973 Yamaha TX650 behind some friends in their car. Being a teen whose awesomeness was never fully recognized, I took the opportunity to show my four-wheeled friends what coolness looks like, so I accelerated past them to an indicated 100mph. Just before I reached the end of the straight, the Yamaha started wobbling and weaving so violently that I couldn’t make the right-hand turn that was inconveniently placed at the end the straightaway.

What happened next is a bit of a blur, but I somehow stayed upright in a drainage ditch, threaded between a row of telephone poles and trees, and landing upright on someone’s driveway with my heart pounding out from under my Sears windbreaker. My friends drove up and stopped with mouths wide open. With a “I meant to do that” swagger, I rode home at under the speed limit. Later, I asked my brother what could have caused the problem. After a little investigation we determined that  my bald no-name rear tire was likely to blame.

The Lesson: When you ride on a bald rear tire, keep it under 100 mph. Naw, just kidding. How about, always have new tires so you can go 100 mph anytime you want. Wait, that’s not quite right either. I know! Replace your tires before they reach the tread wear indicators so they don’t cause you to have a near death experience. We’ll go with that.


Stay Tuned for Part 2 for more fun when I reveal how being a good Samaritan exposed me to another near death experience.

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The Key to Motorcycle Safety (and Fun)

What kind of attitude about safety does this suggest?
What kind of attitude about safety does this suggest?

It’s probably not what you think.

You wouldn’t be alone if you thought that the most important part of riding a motorcycle is to learn the physical skills, such as braking, cornering, slow speed maneuvers, and perhaps swerving. While those are very important skills to master, it is the mental skills that are the most critical skills to develop when it comes to reducing injuries and death. And the most important mental skill of all is attitude.

Wait, what?

Yes, in my opinion attitude is the most critical thing to get right; before cornering, or braking, or strategies for managing traffic. Attitude colors the relationship a rider has with motorcycling. A positive and committed attitude toward safety needs to be established from the start and maintained throughout a rider’s two-wheeled career. That’s right, I said career, how’s that for a committed attitude?

Shut Up and Ride

I know that this kind of talk can be a buzz kill. I would rather ride without the need to consider the limits of the riding environment. Sometimes I just want to ride like the twisty public roads are my own personal racetrack, and there are times I just don’t want to play well with other drivers. Unfortunately, I know too many motorcycling friends who died too young to not take the limits seriously.

It’s not enough to be very skilled at controlling a motorcycle. If your attitude stinks and you can’t seem to keep a healthy balance between fun and safety, then your days on two wheels are likely numbered. So, I say Shut Up and Ride WELL!

This guy was a student of mine some years back. His attitude for learning to be the best rider he could be was contagious.
This guy was a student of mine some years back. His attitude for learning to be the best rider he could be was contagious.

The good news is that a positive, committed attitude also leads to more enjoyment and fosters the often-illusive “Zone” that most of us covet.

All photos © Ken Condon

You Have to Want It

How badly do you want to survive? Perhaps I’m being melodramatic, but it’s a serious question. When it comes to participating in a sport where people die, you owe it to your loved ones and yourself to ask that question. If the answer is “I really, really want to survive”, then do something about it.

It’s important to have excellent physical skills, such as cornering, braking and the ability to perform evasive maneuvers. However, superior mental skills prevent the vast majority of close calls and crashes. Learn to play the mental game and you’ll be a winner. Refuse to learn the tricks of motorcycle control and survival and you’ll lose.

But, it all starts with a committed attitude. Without an attitude that prioritizes risk management, then it’s unlikely that really proficient mental and physical skills will ever develop. It takes a commitment to be really good at anything, including motorcycling. Without a certain level of commitment, you can count on mediocrity. Can motorcycle riders afford to be mediocre?

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Adjusting to a New Bike- Part 3 – Power Delivery

This is number 3 in a series on adapting to a new motorcycle, whether that means borrowing a friend’s bike, swapping bikes on a ride, or adapting to a new bike. Please share your experiences in the comments section. If you’d like, read Part 1 and Part 2 to see what other challenges we often face when adapting to a new motorcycle.

Too much throttle, too quickly. photo by Tim Richer
Too much throttle, too quickly. photo by Tim Richer

You Can’t Handle all that Power

Testing the brakes is probably the first thing you should do when swinging a leg over a new bike. Many people think that power delivery is the most important thing to calibrate to, because acceleration is a more obvious and intimidating force…fewer people seem intimidated by brakes. Even though more people seem to get into trouble with unfamiliar brakes, plenty of people fail to consider what they’re in for when twisting the throttle.

Throttle Transitions

One of the most common issues I have when riding different bikes is how smooth or abrupt the power delivery is when transitioning from off-to-on throttle. This can be a serious control issue if I am at full lean. When I crack the throttle, I am looking for a smooth delivery of power. But, some bikes are not mapped (FI bikes) or jetted (carbureted bikes) correctly for a gradual, controlled transition. What I get instead is a lurch that upsets the tires and sends the bike off line. One of the worst bikes I’ve ridden was an early model Honda RC51. It took all my tricks to control that bike’s fueling (see below).

I had my mind set on buying a new Yamaha FZ-09, but after hearing about the abrupt throttle delivery, I decided on the Street Triple, which is know for decent throttle control and response. Although it could be better, IMO.

Manufacturers try to find the balance between meeting emissions requirements and acceptable performance, which means that the fueling is often too lean for good throttle control. This is where Power Commanders and other aftermarket products come in. With a little time and a laptop, you can adjust the fueling the way it should be for performance, at the expense of emissions…something the manufacturers aren’t allowed to do.

Getting on the throttle
Getting on the throttle
photo: www.owenstrackdayphotos.com

Throttle Response

Throttle response is another factor that varies from bike to bike. Throttle response is how quickly the engine responds to rider throttle inputs. A snappy response is good for sportbike riders that want immediate results to get the bike launched as hard as possible. This is especially desirable when riding on the racetrack. Many racers install quick-turn throttle housings to get to full throttle with as little wrist movement as possible.

Street riders usually want a less aggressive throttle response so that inadvertent throttle movements don’t result in unwanted acceleration. But, slow throttle response can make a bike feel sluggish, unexciting and lazy.

Managing All That Power

To get a feel for throttle response and power delivery, find a straight section of road and roll on the throttle gradually. Grabbing a handful of throttle grip could land you on your ass if the rear tire spins or if you loop it in a mondo wheelie. In either case, you now own a bike that some idiot crashed (you).

If you are testing a bike with multiple power delivery modes, you may want to set it to the “rain” mode to soften power delivery. After some time, you can try the full power modes. Apparently, the FZ-09 has acceptable throttle transitions using the least aggressive power mode, but what fun is that?

Keep your right wrist in a comfortable down position for better control.
Keep your right wrist in a comfortable down position for better control.

Throttle Tricks to Try

Here are some simple things to do to help manage throttle control:

  • Ratchet Throttle- Instead of rolling the throttle like a rheostat, move your wrist as though you are rotating through a series of “clicks”. This measures your throttle position better to help resist introducing too much throttle at one time.
  • Keep your wrist down- A comfortable wrist-down position “locks” your throttle in position and helps control throttle movements.
  • Relax- Arm tension transfers to the handlebars and handgrips.
  • Anchor your thumb- Stick your thumb out a bit to make contact with the handlebar control pod to lock your hand in place. This is especially useful when riding at slow speeds.

What experiences have you had with throttle characteristics on different bikes?

Part 1 can be found Here.

Part 2 can be found Here.

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Adjusting to a New Bike- Part 2 – Unfamiliar Brakes

Brake control
Brake control

In Part 1 of the “Adjusting to a New Bike” series, I told about the challenges I faced transitioning from my trusty 2005 Kawasaki ZX6R track bike that I had for 5 years to my new-to-me 2012 Triumph Street Triple R.

You may wonder why I think “Adjusting to a New Bike” is a topic worth spending time on. The fact is that I’ve seen and heard too many stories of people getting into trouble while trying a friend’s bike or when riding a new bike.

In this post I will talk about an issue that can lead to a crash if you’re not careful – Unfamiliar brakes.

One story I want to share involves a well-known safety journalist who took a well know safety instructor’s sportbike out and promptly totaled it. By all accounts, the reason for the crash was not a lack of skill, per say, rather it was a lack of familiarity with the power of sportbike brakes.

All photos © Ken Condon

Yikes! These aren’t my Brakes!

The journalist’s brake hand (and mind) were calibrated to a large adventure bike, not the top-spec, radial mount, four piston anchors that the sportbike was styling. All it took was a driver pulling out in front of the journalist to cause the over-braking to happen. A skid ensued, followed immediately by the sound of plastic and aluminum grinding itself mercifully into the pavement. Luckily, the rider came out of it in better shape than the bike.Photo-3-Braking_Skid

I ride a lot of different motorcycles on the street and the racetrack, one of the first things I do is test the power and sensitivity of the brakes. I squeeze the front brake a few times with varying intensity.

I don’t ignore the rear brake as I press the pedal to see if it bites too abruptly and is prone to locking (many are), or is very weak, requiring significant pressure to get any useful brake force at all.

The Street Triple is a hybrid in that the rear brake seems to be weak initially, but then grabs. This is something I discovered the first time I descended my gravel and dirt driveway. Oh, and yes, I do use the rear brake. That’s a topic for another post.

Better Braking

Two fingers or Four? I say two on most sportbikes.
Two fingers or Four? I say two on most sportbikes.

practice makes perfect
Perfect practice makes perfect habits. And habits are what you’ll fall back on in an emergency.

Besides familiarizing yourself with the brake’s feel, you should also use good brake technique (always). Determine whether you should use four fingers on the front brake or if two fingers might give you better control.

No matter how many fingers you use, be sure to always SQUEEZE the front brake lever progressively. Grabbing a handful of brake lever will lead to nothing good. It will likely skid the front tire and you will be pile-driven into an unforgiving bit of very hard tarmac or dirt.

In most cases, this happens because you didn’t give enough time for the load to transfer onto the front tire contact patch. With little load on the front tire, the powerful front brakes can easily overwhelm the available traction.

Instead of a skidding front tire, it is possible to find yourself staring at your front wheel as you get flung forward. Or you may end up doing a stoppie. However, more times than not, the front tire skids before either of these occurrences happen. To prevent a skid, always squeeze and then squeeze harder if necessary.

Part 1 – New Bike

Part 3 – Power Delivery

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The Top 2 Survival Tips That Will Save Your Life

Both speed was and lack of visibility caused this crash.
Both speed was and Lack of Visibility caused this crash.

I know what you’re saying. “You’re telling me that there are only 2 things I need to do to survive riding on the street?” You betcha. So, here is the caveat to this sensational statement; there are more like 1 Gazillion things you need to know to be the safest rider you can be. But, I don’t have that much time and you’d be bored by the time I got to number 15,000. So, I’m going with my top 2.

And with no further ado, here they are. The envelope. please.

#1 Being “Speed Smart”

#2 Being Visible

Of all the things you can and should know about riding a motorcycle, these two strategies will allow you to avoid 80 to 90% of the most common situations that lead to motorcycle crashes. I hear you yelling at your laptop or smartphone saying “What about [INSERT YOUR FAVORITE STRATEGY HERE]”. I understand… really. There is way more to know to avoid becoming roadkill than just these two strategies. But, I contend that most close calls and crashes can be avoided if you follow my suggestions and focus first on these two strategies. Let me elaborate.

All photos © Ken Condon


Top Motorcycle Survival Tip #1: Be Speed Smart

Jeannine being Speed Smart
Jeannine being Speed Smart

Being “Speed Smart” doesn’t necessarily mean sticking to the posted speed limit. I’m no angel when it comes to ignoring ridiculous speed limit signs, especially when the payoff is worth the risk of a ticket ( a great section of twisty tarmac with little traffic). No, I’m talking about being smart about when and where you wick it up. You can avoid a majority of close calls if you just keep the throttle under control. Here’s how.

Ride at “Expected” Speeds

It’s important to ride close to the marked speed limit when riding through town centers, and whenever you are near other drivers, especially when riding through intersections. Riding at a speed that is greater than is expected will likely result in the driver pulling in front of you, thinking he or she has time to go. This is largely because a motorcycle has a narrow frontal area, which makes it more difficult for drivers to judge your approach speed and distance.

Ride Slow in a Slow Environment

One of the most common reasons motorcycle riders crash is because they ride faster than the environment will safely allow. Riding at the speed limit makes total sense when there is a lot of traffic, but what about when the road opens up? It may be tempting to go WFO, but no matter how much you wish the road were a racetrack, it is not! You can get away with excessive speed for a while, but some day it will bite you. I can almost guarantee it. Really fast sport riding belongs on a racetrack, dummy.

Even if you are a racetrack hero, you must understand that the unpredictable nature of the street does not allow you to exercise your full cornering prowess. With hazards such as road surface hazards, unexpected changes in radius and camber, or other vehicles crossing into your lane you can easily exceed the limits of the environment even though you may be nowhere near your personal limits.

Cornering Correctly: Slow in, Fast out

The vast majority of single-vehicle crashes are the result of riders failing to negotiate a curve and a common reason for this is a rider entering a corner at a speed that is too fast for the conditions or for the rider’s ability. The best strategy is to slow to a conservative speed and then gradually accelerate when you are sure it is safe to do so. Keep in mind that you can always get on the gas, but you can’t go back in time to enter the turn at a slower speed.

Respect Time and Space

Still not convinced just how significant speed is to keeping you safe? Then consider the timing and circumstances of a typical 30 mph crash. At that speed you are traveling at 44 feet per second (1 mph = 1.47 ft/sec). Getting a motorcycle stopped at 30 mph takes just over two seconds and requires about 35 feet of space. But, braking distances include more than just the time and space to physically stop your motorcycle. It also includes “thinking time” and “reaction time”. At 30 mph you can count on using about .7 seconds or 31 feet to realize that there is a problem. It then takes you another .3 seconds or 13 feet to react by rolling off the throttle and reaching for the brakes. That means you traveled 44 feet before even touching the brakes. Finally, it takes you about 2.2 seconds or 35 feet (with a typical deceleration rate achieved by the average rider) to bring the motorcycle to a halt. Add this “braking time” to the “thinking time” and “reaction time” and you’ll need a total of 3.2 seconds and 79 feet with which to stop.


Top Motorcycle Survival Tip #2: Be Visible

"SMIDSY"= "Sorry Mate, I Didn't See Ya"
“SMIDSY”= “Sorry Mate, I Didn’t See Ya”

The most common phrase uttered by drivers who are involved in a motorcycle crash is; “I didn’t see him”. It’s easy to blame the driver for being inattentive. After all, texting, NAV systems, and other distractions are vying for drivers’ attention…you know who you are. While this is a reality on today’s roads, too many riders fail to recognize their role in being visible, choosing to wear dark colors and riding in a way that hides them from other drivers.

Even being seen is not as reliable as we would like. Most motorcyclists have stories of drivers pulling out in front of them even though the driver was looking directly at them. What would cause a driver to proceed if the rider was in plain sight? It’s common for a driver’s brain to dismiss the appearance of a relatively insignificant (small) vehicle (motorcycle) on the roadway and pull out without ever “seeing” the motorbike.

Use Effective Lane Positioning

In traffic, it’s important to constantly evaluate your ability to see and for others to see you. Poor lane position is a factor that can prevent you from being seen and seeing hazards. This includes not having sufficient following distance. Ample following distance provides a wider angle of view to see past the vehicle and allow other drivers to see you.

Proper lane positioning also includes your location within the width of your lane. Motorcycle riders have the option of riding in the left, center or right portion of the lane. This gives you the ability to place your bike where you can see farther ahead and where other drivers can see you. Exactly what is the best lane position? In many situations, riding in the left/center of your lane makes the most sense. This position allows you to see past the vehicle ahead and gives you a good angle of view of the oncoming lane.  Certain situations require you to alter this position, such as an oncoming vehicle threatening to cross the centerline.

Lane position changes continually depending on the road surface, other drivers, and your angle of view.

Loud Pipes

Basic science says that sound is not a reliable source of information. Sure, loud pipes increase the likelihood that drivers will know you are in the vicinity, but don’t be fooled into thinking that sound will help a driver locate where you are in traffic. This is why installing loud pipes is not a great strategy for increasing safety.

A much more reliable strategy is to be more visible. A driver who sees you and is able to accurately judge your speed and distance is much less likely to pull out in front of you. The importance of using strategies for being seen cannot be overemphasized. Unfortunately, too many riders don’t seem to understand this.


There are lots of other tips that are important for surviving on a motorcycle like don’t ride drunk or stoned, be attentive, etc. But. if you can follow these two strategies I outlined, you are well on your way to making it home at the end of a great day of riding.

OK. Now it’s your turn.

I know you’ve been chompin’ at the bit to tell the world what you think is the most important tip for surviving. So, let’s hear your comments.
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