A Matter of Focus

by

Jeff Hughes

 

The county road out of Oak Flat runs north through the Sweedlin Valley, following the crinkled wrinkles of the landscape. It’s a pretty little road, narrow, with the modest traffic common to rural communities. Just the odd car or pickup now and again, on its way to town.

On this weekday John is running it alone, his R1100RT an agreeable companion to what is turning out to be a beautiful day. The road is heavily shaded along much of its length and the sun flashing through the trees makes it harder to see into many of the corners. But John is in cruise mode on this late morning and his relaxed pace means that the road demands little from him. The miles roll by in a mellow cadence.

Part of that is choice. John spends plenty of his motorcycling time running an aggressive pace – including some of his earlier routes this morning. But he recognizes that the narrow contours of this particular road best lend themselves to a more measured pace. A place to recharge the batteries while he moves towards the mountain pass he has in mind.

Part of it is simply the character of the place. The Sweedlin Valley is nothing if not picturesque. It’s hard to ride through it for any distance and not appreciate the gentle beauty which lifts from the landscape. And as the minutes tick slowly by that beauty engenders an aura of well being. A beatific sense of joy in simply being on a pretty road, with a beautiful day in hand, enjoying it all on a terrific motorcycle. All is well.

It’s a surprise, then, when the soft right-hander before him suddenly hardens – the apex a deception and his line towards it a mistake. The big BMW swings wide, begins drifting across the imaginary center line. Startled out of his reverie, his heart hammering in a sudden explosion of adrenalin, John pushes hard on the bars, quickly adding lean angle. The bike dips, hewing to the urgent new control input, but there’s not enough time to catch up with the disappearing tarmac. In an instant John is entirely across the road, bouncing across the narrow ditch and onto the grass field on the far side. The bike shudders in the suddenly-tenuous traction, but remains upright as John wrestles it to a stop.

Shaking his head in reproach, John silently chides himself for not recognizing the decreasing radius corner, even as he whistles a sigh of relief that nothing more had come of it. He pauses for a few seconds, thinking through what just happened. He takes a couple of deep breaths to slow his heart, then pulls in the clutch and rocks the bike to get down into first gear. Peering carefully in both directions, he eases back out onto the road, glad to have tarmac under him again.

“Ok, let’s pay attention now”, he murmurs to himself.

 

What happened to John that day – being caught unawares at an idle moment – has happened to all of us at one time or another. It is an inevitable part of the riding experience. It brings to mind how our mental state affects our ability to respond to unforeseen events. To deal with the unexpected. And it points to the irony that a soft, easy pace has an aspect about it which, counter-intuitively, actually introduces risk.

John, long the chieftain of our little sport-touring group, is one of the most talented riders I know. Over the years I have followed along behind him on thousands of miles of crooked pavement and admired his consistently clean lines, his outstanding judgment of pace, and his ability to get down the road with a swift, Spartan, efficiency. He is one of those rare riders who are deceptive in their quickness. It’s no exaggeration to say that he probably could have ridden that road that day at twice the speed he was.

Alas, John was in “cruise” mode, simply enjoying the day. He was running at a speed far less than the crisp sporting pace he usually runs. And that is what got him in trouble.

When we’re railing, running a spirited pace, it demands exceptional vigilance and attention to detail. We’re wired, noticing everything. We’re active on the controls, almost anticipating what the road might throw at us and responding instantly. We’re present in the moment, fully and completely engaged, 100% of our attention devoted to what’s happening in front of us. We are at the height of our powers. It’s what I call “working” the road.

Conversely, when we back down into “cruise” mode any number of irrelevancies begin to intrude into our thoughts. We daydream. We fantasize. We wonder and worry. Frankly, our mind is consumed with a countless parade of things about everything except riding through that next corner. A corner which we take for granted. We take it for granted because it’s easy and because it requires little of our attention – our mellow pace has convinced us of that.

Until the surprise. The inevitable, unexpected wrinkle somewhere down the road. It’s there, waiting, guaranteed. And when we come upon it there is the sudden mad dash within ourselves to marshal our talents, to find the solution, to craft a response. To put together something that works. Usually we do, and it does. Sometimes we don’t, and it all goes awry.

Things happen quickly on a curvy road. There are flashes of insight. Judgments are made in an instant. And the time in which decisions are made and then executed is measured in milliseconds.

When we are riding at pace, with our minds fully focused on the task at hand, all that works well. When we relax, however – something that a modest pace often prompts – we can easily find ourselves unprepared to deal with any surprises that might arise. And sooner or later there’s always a surprise.

None of which is to suggest that we ought to ride WFO all the time. But being mindful of that natural tendency to relax when things become too easy, we can at least remind ourselves of the need to try and remain focused; that we need to actively work to minimize those mental distractions which frequently come calling; and that we may in fact be at greater risk during a very mellow ride than one which has a bit of an edge to it.

It does suggest an interesting thought: that the sweet spot for minimizing risk is not slow and easy; nor is it hard and fast. It’s riding at a pace which is just fast enough to require constant attention. One where the road imposes upon us a sufficient stream of inputs and enough decision points that there is little time for our minds to wander.

The somewhat self-righteous response to that is that we should always be paying full and complete attention. Well, duh, of course – no one would dispute that. But the reality is that we often don’t. Take our car-driving brethren, for instance. Think of all the distractions which exist in that world: everything from listening to the radio to fumbling to find the next CD to talking on a cell phone to carrying on a conversation with other passengers in the car – not to mention the chronic day dreaming about everything under the sun. Frankly, driving is largely an unconscious activity for most people. They direct a relatively small portion of their conscious attention to the specifics of the road, the traffic, and the control inputs of their vehicle.

Motorcycling is a far more demanding activity, of course. And the consequences of an error are far more serious. But an experienced rider has similarly long since stopped devoting significant attention to the basics of piloting his bike. Much of what he does is subconscious.

The two things that will focus his attention are dangerous traffic – long-term riders generally have a very nuanced instinct for traffic situations which might quickly deteriorate; or a road run at sufficient pace, one that has sufficiently compressed the evaluation and decision-making process, that it allows no time for idle thought.

A sporting pace, in other words.

Here’s the challenge: none of us can remain on, fully-focused, 100% engaged, all the time. It’s simply too exhausting. Our minds and our psyches require a break now and again.

So by all means enjoy those mellow, smell-the-flowers interludes, both for the rest they provide and the pleasure they evoke in their own right. But just be aware that they introduce their own brand of risk.

It’s all a matter of focus.

 

© 2008 Jeff Hughes