Is it me or the bike?

Steve Rose


Going for a ride after watching MotoGP is a dangerous idea. Forty-five minutes watching Marquez and chums defying gravity does funny things to a middle-aged man’s sense of reality. So I usually pick somewhere slow and tricky to ride to keep things calm. Halfway down one of those bumpy, blind-cornered Fenland back roads after Aragon qualifying, at 58mph on a Honda CBR500R, three things struck me.

Firstly, how exciting 58mph feels with twice as much horsepower as the road requires. Secondly, that no one does budget suspension quite like Honda. And finally, as the road narrows to less than single track, that getting lost within 15 miles of your house is surprisingly easy when thinking about points one and two.

I pull-up and give internal organs a few minutes to reset their static sag. And then get distracted by a pigeon. It’s a thought I’ve had before, but not for a while. ‘How come birds are so flipping clever?’  Watching this one land on a telephone wire, I’m starting to wonder whether Mr Marquez is that talented after all. Slowing from a full flight to a standstill and gripping a thin piece of, flapping cable, despite not being able to see forwards, focus on any kind of target (because your eyes point sideways) and having the natural poise of a chocolate pudding. How do they learn that? How come you never see teenage pigeons falling off or spinning round and round like a Catherine wheel as they (literally) get to grips with it? I’ve got a degree in biochemistry and couldn’t do anything that clever.

The human brain (and presumably the pigeon one too) learns by making biochemical connections. As a baby we can’t walk, run, dance or ride a motorcycle. We try, we wobble, we fall, but inside our brain, connections are made that co-ordinate muscle movement, balance and motion. The more we try, the more connections are made and the better it gets until the action is performed unconsciously. It’s how fighter pilots and motorcycle racers work at high speed without breaking sweat. The science backs it up and reminded me of conversations I’ve had with racers who describe how they focus on the most teeny-tiny details like modulating brake lever pressure and footrest weighting while sitting on top of a bucking, howling piece of violent engineering without even thinking about it.

I was thinking about it on the way back down the twisty back road and realised that, in some tiny way I was experiencing the same thing. With a bit of practice, some refinements to my own muscle memory and a demonstration of how old dogs can learn new tricks, me and the CBR were going a few MPH faster and barely thinking as I slackened my grip on the bars, weighted the footpegs and looked further into the distance.

The following day I was sat on the sofa watching the Moto GP preview show with interviews from the riders about set-up, tyre choices and excuses for being halfway down the grid on a works machine. It made me wonder whether those pigeons on the wire have the same subtle variations in performance and similar conversations. ‘Just three more pecks of compression damping on my claws’ or whether some bike riders are just more tuned-in with their riding than others. Back to the fighter pilots, I don’t remember Tom Cruise in Top Gun asking for the softer compound tail-fin or Biggles getting grumpy because Algy’s plane had sprouted wings in the off-season.

In any given period there are a handful of racers who can seemingly jump on any bike and make it work. Schwantz, Marquez, Doohan and Stoner all spring to mind. These riders use their unconscious talents to ride around a machine’s problems. The second tier guys have almost as much ability but  need the bike to be just-so. Lorenzo is in the latter camp – Rossi too (these days, arguably he was the former ten years ago). Maybe we should replace MotoGP qualifying (and perhaps module one of the bike test too) with a trampoline and a telephone wire. Marquez wouldn’t land upright on the first attempt, but he’d grab the wire, spin round and round and somehow stay aboard. After 30 minutes he’d be landing on his feet every time while Jorge was still complaining about the colour of the trampoline.

‘Excuse me Rosie, is there a point to all this?’ Yes, of course. The reason our racing heroes do this stuff so well is because they’ve been attempting the impossible since before they could say ‘For me, ees good, I find the rhythm.’ Most of them have spent more time on a motorcycle than they have on their feet and all those muscle memory adjustments are as natural to them as picking our nose discreetly in a marketing meeting is to us.

If we took every opportunity to do more of it (the riding, not nasal fracking) we’d all be much better at it. And the dark months are the perfect time to start. Many riders put their bikes away, spend winter getting S.A.D. in the car and emerge in March slower, less safe and a more sluggish version of the brilliant rider they’d become last summer. So why not buy some proper winter kit, maybe a second bike that’s more suitable for slower riding in all weathers and rediscover how getting home early is even better in winter than it is in summer.

Eighteen months ago I moved house and swapped a 104 mile daily commute by motorcycle for an eight mile bicycle ride. My cycling has got much sharper, but my motorcycling is sloppier. So I’ve bought a house 150 miles away to sharpen my reflexes and test the capacity of my middle-aged early-morning bladder.

Next time you see me I’ll be the one on the wire, perfectly balanced, focussed and ready for my next trick. Or I’ll have been eaten by next door’s cat.