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12th August 2016

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A Great Ride

What are the essential elements of a truly memorable ride? Never mind the motorcycle or the road, Roger Bibbings explains how human factors influence the enjoyment of motorcycling...

What are the ingredients for an enjoyable ride? A fine machine? Great roads? Fine weather? All of these undoubtedly. Yet what is all too often overlooked is the importance to the overall experience of the state of health and mind of the rider.

In pre-drink-drive days, my late father, a life-time motorcyclist since the early 1930s, used to observe that a motorcycle always went better after you had consumed a bottle of brown ale. All those worrying rattles and squeaks disappeared and everything seemed to work so much more smoothly.

Human Factors of Great Motorcycle Rides "And everything seemed to work so much more smoothly..." Photo: Graham Ham

Noises, or noise in general, does actually make a big difference to the quality of a ride. As someone who used to write booklets about noise-induced hearing loss, I must confess that it is only recently that I have become more disciplined about using foam ear plugs, especially for longer journeys. They really do make a difference – and not just in reducing harmful ‘noise dose’. Roughness and chatter which have one worrying about mechanical issues become much less audible. Everything seems smoother and easier - until you get to the next petrol station that is and the hapless cashier mouths something to you, the sense of which you can no longer catch.

But noise is not the only issue. One’s general state of health is also critical. I once tried riding 30 miles home from my office in Birmingham when I had flu; a real nightmare which I will never repeat. Yet even smaller health deficits have their impact. Starting out when you have not had a good night’s sleep is always a recipe for a poor if not a dangerous) ride. By way of contrast, what a joy it is when touring, to set out after a good night’s sleep and a hearty breakfast.

Poor sleep hygiene (remember, rest is no substitute for adequate good quality, deep sleep) can be an enemy too. At 67 I no longer sleep the night through and also I now find it inevitable that I dip in the early afternoon. This is a natural effect of ageing. The answer is to perfect ‘caff napping’. With the onset of sleepiness, take a strong cup of coffee followed by no more than a ten minute doze. Although this should not be repeated several times on a journey, it can re-establish wakefulness very effectively - which is not only important for safety but also subjectively in the way it can improve the quality of the ride.

There are other considerations too. Body temperature obviously and avoidance of chilled hands and feet. I find that the trick here is to set off in one’s gear just at the point of over-heating and within 20 miles or so thermal equilibrium is achieved. And really good gear that is truly waterproof - and can prevent the debilitating effects of a depressingly damp crotch - is as important as it is hard to find.

Human Factors of Great Motorcycle Rides Staying dry is vital...
Great Nortons on ...

What riders often fail to recognise is the full extent of the difference which wind makes. It’s not just that it sucks away body heat the faster you go (remember Newton’s laws of cooling) but even in summer, the constant battering which it administers to the rider adds significantly to fatigue. We tend to forget that motorcycles are not very aerodynamic (not at all in fact) and that wind resistance and forces on the rider increase as the square of the velocity. Above 55 / 60mph you are always in more than a bit of a battle with the air through which you are trying to make progress; which is why for touring, sticking to slower roads makes such good sense.

It’s better to invest an extra hour of time in your journey and take a slower route which you can really enjoy, than sacrifice comfort to save a few minutes overall. And of course you see, smell, absorb so much more from the environment through which you are travelling. And never forget, the real mark of a serious rider is how far you go, not how fast.

On a recent one-day journey of 550 miles from the Channel coast to Berlin, the barn-door fairing and screen on my 28 year old BMW R80RT was really effective and protected me so well that I arrived feeling fit enough to embark on an evening out on the town with our 21 year old daughter.

Human Factors of Great Motorcycle Rides A comfy seat is essential...

There are other critical factors too, not least good vision (which is not always provided by even the most expensive visors fitted to today’s helmets) and a comfortable seat, the performance of which has more to do with its shape than the softness of its padding. Indeed, very soft seats are a true recipe for numb bum. Other ergonomic issues obviously include things like riding position and vibration levels, important considerations that seem to elude the designers of many modern motorcycles, especially those used only for short bursts of recreational fun.

All the foregoing are important considerations in my view - but of even greater importance possibly is one’s general mental state which can of course be affected by things like cold, fatigue and so on. Being in a relaxed frame of mind, free from time and other pressures, can make such a big difference to one’s subjective experience of motorcycling. Many of us, of course, especially in an age when the powered two-wheeler has become a purely fun machine rather than a utility vehicle, take to the road to relax and unwind. Speed and exhilaration are part of the recipe here obviously but equally, not having to be in a great hurry makes such a difference to our ability to draw pleasure from these things.

So what’s the moral of all this? In a nutshell, if you want to really enjoy your motorcycling, pay as much attention to your own health, comfort and wellbeing as you do to maintaining your machine or planning your next ride. Those human factors can make all the difference between an average ride and a really great one.

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