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  • Sarah Merrell

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: What Kind of Rider are You?

Following a day at the track last year, an interesting topic was discussed among riders during dinner. We were talking about the meat grinder, Thunderdome, aka the intermediate group at track days. While it's funny to joke about the intermediate group, as an intermediate group rider myself, I'll admit it can be harrowing at times. More than a few times I've had to navigate my way around someone who passed me only to wreck right in front of me. And passing other riders is sketchy because they’re moving faster than the novice group but the chosen lines are more erratic and worthy of head-scratching than the advanced group. In talking to knowledgeable corner workers, they also admit that in intermediate they see some bad stuff: People 10 feet off their apexes, hanging their entire butt off their seat like a monkey trying to get a cool photo while romping on the throttle for the straights only to lose valuable seconds in the corners. Now don't get me wrong, there are some very good riders in the intermediate group and the coaches and staff do a fantastic job policing it and black flagging bad passes and dangerous decisions. But there is no denying that the intermediate group, more so than any other group, has riders that possess a dangerous combination: fast riding and bad riding.

Fast Riders Who Aren't Good Riders

I used to think that if a rider was fast, that person was a good rider. But I quickly learned that isn't true and it can be mutually exclusive. Fast does not equal good. A rider can be fast but crash a lot and be fast yet lack foundational skills and technique. I first discovered this while riding The Dragon, a very technical mountain road. Sometimes I would pull over or wave a faster rider by and then while being behind the person discovered some scary riding. The person was fast, but was choppy on the throttle and brakes, wasn't looking ahead or chose lines dangerously close to or over the double yellow, or struggled with cornering and throttle control. Sometimes it wasn't so much a lack of skill but poor decision making like going too fast for cold tires or passing in blind corners. Either way, these are crash situations waiting to happen. And I've unfortunately seen many crashes happen from riders who are riding too fast for their skill level.

Group rides are another situation where "fast but bad" riding is prevalent since no one wants to be the slowest and tries to keep up. I've led quite a few group rides throughout the years and I always consider it a win when there isn't a crash. My mantra to everyone is "ride your own ride." As a group ride leader, I'm not going to leave anyone behind and always have a sweeper to stick with anyone who needs to slow down. But one time I had a scary experience that continues to stand out in my mind. I was leading an advanced ride and going at a very spirited pace up the Cherohala Skyway with nice, big sweeping curves winding up the mountain. On advanced rides, I want people to have fun and not feel like we're going slow, and at one of the stops a couple of the riders mentioned they wanted to go faster. So I increased the speed and saw they were sticking with me so I kept that pace up. Two of the riders decided it still wasn't fast enough for them so they took off ahead of me. And when they did, I realized what a danger they could have been to themselves and the other riders in the group. They were fast, but the riding was far from good and an accident waiting to happen. I stayed a far enough distance back with the rest of the group just in case they did wreck. This is a real challenge when it comes to group rides with riders I don't know. One rider choosing to ride outside of his or her limits can place the entire group in danger.

Bad Riders Who Are Slow

When I say "bad" I mean riders who lack experience, skill or good technique. During my first couple years of riding, I fell into this category (and compared to club level and MotoAmerica racers, I still fall in this category!). When learning, it takes time to develop solid riding skills. We make mistakes. Everyone has to start somewhere, and few people are going to hop on a bike as a new rider and automatically be a good rider. What prevents inexperienced riders from placing others in danger though is riding within their limits and skill set. You have to check your ego and be ok with being at the back of the pack and riding your own ride. I have a lot of respect for people who are still learning and are ok with being slow and going at their own pace. I consider a "bad" but slow rider a risk, but a much lower risk, for these reasons.

Good Riders Who Are Slow

There is also nothing wrong with being a good rider who chooses to remain at a slower pace. Some people don't like to go fast and that's ok. I actually think it's better to go slow and build your skills and technique, and as you do, the speed will eventually come. For example, riders who work on being very smooth with their throttle and braking inputs and who work on their body positioning, lines and looking where they want to go will eventually build speed through practicing these skills. But sometimes riders don't care to increase their speed and they're content to go at a leisurely pace. Riders in this category I also consider a low risk.

Good Riders Who Are Fast

Obviously this is the Holy Grail of motorcycle riding--to be a good, highly-skilled rider who is also fast. This is what I personally strive to become. At Yamaha Champions Riding School, I had the chance to ride two-up with Chris Peris. Chris is an AMA national winner and has competed at almost every level of motorcycle road racing including World Superbike, AMA Superbike, 125GP and has won AMA Daytona Sportbike races. I'd like to think I'm a good, fast rider, but after riding with Chris, I realized what "good" riding truly feels like--and although I'm working on it, I'm far from achieving it. Chris was riding a stock MT-09 and wasn't even going at what he considers fast and I was blown away. Everything about his riding was perfect and effortless. And it was fast! I hope that with enough work and instruction, that one day I can ride even somewhat close to that.

How Do You Move Out of the "Fast but Bad" Category?

Hard work. That's all there is to it. Again, very few people, if any, are naturally good, fast riders. It requires training, coaching and practice...and time. Also, it's important to understand WHY and HOW crashes happen. At Champ School, instructor Nick Ienatsch shared these four reasons: 1) lack of focus, 2) abruptness, 3) rushing the entry and 4) repeating a mistake. I find that #2 (abruptness) is the most prevalent in crashes I’ve seen--especially the crashes I see on the road, but all four are important factors. On a personal level, I've found this to be true. When I did the Motorcycle Safety Foundation course as a new rider, they had us ride an "S" curve. I grabbed at the brake in the curve and the bike lost grip and immediately toppled over. That happened because I was abrupt on the brake input and it was very cold outside and both created a loss of traction.

Moving out of the "fast but bad" category also means learning from mistakes. A while back I wrote a blog post on the mental aspect of riding. Good riders can make a mistake, think through why the mistake happened and then create a plan for correcting it. For example, a MotoGP racer can crash in qualifying and wind up still making podium for the race. But if mistakes aren't corrected and are repeated, they become muscle memory, in a sense, and it prevents improving as a rider.

The moral of this blog post is that just because you can ride fast, it doesn't mean you necessarily should. If you work on your skills, the speed will come as a direct result. Also, we all make mistakes. Just because you crash it doesn't mean you're a bad rider. Very good riders crash sometimes. But the important thing to remember is to learn from the crash and not repeat it and to also practice proper riding skills to make a crash situation less likely.

For rider education opportunities and training, check out this blog post:

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