YOUR BODY UNDER THE MICROSCOPE
How hard can it be? Motorcycle riding that is. Really, all you need to do is sit on the damned thing and twist the throttle or squeeze the brake, right? Up to a point that’s true.
If your riding primarily consists of scooting down to the local coffee shop on a sunny Sunday, then all you really need is sufficient strength and endurance to drag your butt out of bed and make it to the garage with sufficient reflexes and co-ordination to dodge tripping over the dog.
However, talk to people who are inexperienced, or who’ve returned from major injury, and you start to get a very different picture. One rider I know was off the bike for several years for a variety of reasons, including having to have a major back operation. When she finally returned, she was shocked by the amount of core strength required (and how much had been lost) along with the ability to deal with what can be a relatively active and even violent activity, compared with driving a car.
Take a novice pillion for a ride, particularly a quick one, and they’re appalled first by how vulnerable they feel and second by the relative violence of the exercise.
To me, those experiences say a couple of things:
…you do need at least some level of fitness or physical well-being to handle a motorcycle, plus a degree of familiarity. If there’s distance involved, you also need endurance.
Take a new rider on a long ride with a group and you’ll very quickly discover their limits are much lower than you might expect. The sheer novelty of the experience can be physically and mentally draining – I’ve had newbies literally stop by the side of the road and refuse to go any further. Not because they don’t want to, but because they’re drained.
So there is such a thing as riding fitness and it includes familiarity, along with some basic physical ability.
WITNESS THE FITNESS
Long-time trade identity, motorsport competitor and team manager Mick Hone made a significant comment in an interview for this piece: “I still say the best training for riding a motorbike is riding a motorbike.” We’ll circle back to him later, but the point is a good one.
If we rule out the wayward effects of alcohol or recreational drugs, the biggest dangers to your well-being are fatigue (mental and physical) and dehydration. Seriously. Both are fitness-related issues and both, at their extreme, can cause long-term damage and even death.
Take fatigue. The causes are numerous, including lack of sleep, extremes of temperature (which the body has to combat), and physical disruptions such as vibration, lots of bumps and intrusive noise (wear earplugs!) over a long period. This is where comfortable riding gear has a positive impact.
Unfamiliarity is a major stressor and will lead to both physical and mental exhaustion. Instructors in many industries can point to this experience: a learner will struggle with and throw everything they have at relatively simple tasks.
In aviation, it’s referred to as being ahead of or behind the aircraft. If you’re ‘ahead’ – well-practiced and on top of things – you have spare capacity to deal with surprises. If you’re struggling to keep up mentally, you’re under greater stress and won’t cope with anything unexpected.
THE LONG HAUL
Ultra long-distance riders, such as those who tackled round-Australia records years ago, have reported hallucinating at the extreme edges of tiredness. I recall one who vividly described a road train crash, including the dead and injured cattle strewn over the road, that never happened!
Fatigue in all its forms has a measurable effect on motor skills, including basic reflexes. It also has a measurable impact on decision-making. Both have been studied extensively and there’s a wealth of academic material on the topic. In short, when you’re tired you make worse decisions and take longer to act.
Hydration, or lack of it, is probably the most underestimated risk facing riders over a big day in the saddle. It doesn’t have to be a hot day for it to happen, but certainly 35oC-plus temperatures will accelerate the issue much quicker than most people realise.
It’s hard to think of anything better designed to dehydrate a human. You’re sitting over an engine pumping out heat and you’re wrapped in leather, fibreglass and/or some form of plastic. Does the term ‘oven bag’ mean anything to you?
So what’s the risk? One study I read put it succinctly: “At five-plus per cent of fluid loss, water is redirected to vital organs and blood supply. This decreases the body’s ability to cool by evaporation.”
In other words, you stop sweating freely, your blood pressure drops and you’re not far away from the body moving into shut-down mode to protect the brain. When I say shut-down, we’re talking organ failure.
Early signs include headache and lethargy. Secondary signs may include throwing up. It’s something you should treat very seriously.
We all know riding with a skinful doesn’t work, but I will add this. What’s a hangover? Fatigue and dehydration. All I’ll say is, if you’re having a big night, consider delaying departure the next day so you get max recovery time.
An easy indicator of dehydration is the colour of urine – anything darker than pale yellow says you need fluids.
Check this colour-fluid chart.
FIT VS FAST
Let’s move it up a level and talk to people who ride for a living. We spoke to Mick Hone, in the trade since Moses played fullback for Jerusalem, indulging in a lot of racing himself and running some very successful teams. We also had a chat with our own Cam Donald, TT legend, chief road tester and all-round nice guy.
What Hone Says:
Hone says: “It’s not a coincidence that the fitter you are, the better you go. It doesn’t matter whether it’s football or any form of motorsport. Fitness plays an important part.
“It’s consistency. Guys start off fast and slow down. You can’t do all the things such as move and twist around. It’s not a matter of being the fittest athlete in the world. It’s a matter of being fit enough to do what you want to do for the amount of time you need to do it,” he says.
“Motocrossers probably need to be fitter than road racers, but you want to be able to ride without arm pump or dehydrating. The bottom line is a fit good rider will beat an unfit good rider every time. The more motocross or track days you do, the better you get.
“It was the early to mid-’70s when I realised that the fitter you are the more consistent your lap times – they don’t just drop off.
“Being the ultimate fit doesn’t make you the ultimate fast. No matter how fit I was, Croz [Graeme Crosby] would probably get me. But in racing guys of similar ability, if you’re fit you’ll be more competitive.
“We used to go dirt riding every weekend because we liked dirt riding, but it made us better on the track. I still say the best training for riding a motorbike is riding a motorbike. Particularly motocross because it stresses everything to the max, so when you get back on a road bike it feels a lot easier.”
What Cam Says:
Cam is in full agreement with the idea of lots of riding as part of the training regime. He also likes to mix it up a bit.
“I know some riders go in for circuit classes at the gym,” he explains. “I prefer outdoor stuff that’s interesting. Cycling was a real big thing for a long time. Some racers, including former ASBK frontrunner Shannon Johnson, are A-grade cyclists.
“In a bike race you need to be fit and strong and you need to be flexible. Pumping weights is probably the worst thing you can do. You need cardio and to keep lean,” Cam says.
“Your overall level of fitness helps you get through the race weekend. It’s not just the racing itself.
“The stress of preparing, travel, qualifying, and when you’re a racer you need to be at your best for the final race. At somewhere like the TT, that’s at the end of a fortnight! Even a short circuit, it’s at the end of three days.
It’s not just physical stress – a good level of fitness helps you deal with mental stress.
“I like to set myself challenges that can also be mentally tough. Big climbs [while cycling] mixed up with really technical stuff, so your brain has to work while you’re under physical stress.
“I’ve worked with a couple of coaches, one in particular who worked with V8 Supercar drivers.
“You need an activity that challenges you – cycle, swim and then go ride a motocross session when you’re already physically knackered – something that requires precision and judgement. Riding dirt track is coming back again as a training tool – as it was in the two-stroke GP bike era.
“Motocross is probably the best, but you do run a risk of injury. It’s a fine line not to burn out or get injured. Riders have always trained, now the preparation with diet and hydration is a bigger focus.”
And for road riders? “Overall fitness can help, like getting a good night’s rest before you get on the bike for a big ride. You want to be in the best condition possible when you get on.”
Amen to that.
10 TIPS TO BEATING FATIGUE
Pick a more interesting route than the highway. Back roads and winding routes require more mental and physical input.
Don’t just plan your route, plan your stops as well. Be aware that some riders within your group may not have the same stamina as the others, so allocate stops to cater for the most vulnerable rider.
Before the ride, make sure you get adequate sleep the night before. And set a realistic departure time in the morning. Not too early.
Drink plenty of water – hydration packs are ideal for frequent sips. It will prevent you becoming dehydrated from exposure to the wind. Dehydration can lead to dizziness, confusion and slower body motor skills.
Avoid sugar drinks, caffeine and alcohol, which will ultimately lead to sleepiness. Drink alcohol in moderate amounts at overnight stops as it will disturb the quality of your sleep, leaving you tired the next day.
Eat smaller, more frequent meals and avoid fatty or carbohydrate-heavy foods. Big meals and foods high in carbohydrate, fat and sugar slow your body down while it concentrates on digesting the food.
Take short stops at least every two hours. Arrive at your destination between 3-5pm when fatigue kicks in.
When you stop, try to get some light exercise, even just walking up and down the street. You’ve been sitting for some time, so there is no point in sitting in a cafe.
Try something upbeat to encourage a sing-a-long. Wind noise can also fatigue a rider, so wear earplugs and a full-face helmet. A windscreen will also reduce fatiguing wind noise. Consider a communication system so you can talk with other riders and pillions to keep you mentally alert.
Ride in a small group. Riding solo is a recipe for losing concentration, but riding in a big group can also make you switch off. Ride in small groups and take turns leading the pack.
Don’t sit behind vehicles. If it’s safe, pass them. The act of passing stimulates your senses. Staying behind them tends to make you focus on the back of the vehicle, which is hypnotic and can send you to sleep. But don’t think high speeds will keep you awake. It is better to mix up your speeds a little to keep you alert.
Story by Guy ‘Guido’ Allen