It finally feels like spring has arrived – and I've spent most of the week laid-up with manflu (regular testing confirmed it's not the Rona). All I wanted was to be out enjoying the sunshine. Today I finally felt well enough to get back on the bike and nothing was going to stop me enjoying a ride.
Well, nothing apart from me. I have been riding all year, but I'm very aware that winter-riding mode can be very different to summer-riding mode. I'm even more conscious of the fact that the transition from one way of riding to the other in spring can either be smooth and serene or awkward and possibly perilous. So I'm quite cautious on that first great solo ride of spring and today was always going to be the same.
Winter riding is all about about paranoid caution, keeping things smooth and gentle. It's all grimy visors, king-size braking distances, and never leaning too far or opening the throttle too hard on a wet road. Despite that, one ultra-polished Cambridgeshire backroad was so grip-free it had the SX spinning up and the back stepping out on the way back from the London Motorcycle Show at the start of the year. Thank you Kawasaki for the excellent traction control!
Summer riding is the opposite of that timid winter survival mode. It's about joyfully opening the throttle, murdering insects and exploiting the available grip to gleefully chuck the bike into corners (without chucking it into hedges). The trick is getting safely into that more-positive riding mode, building up to it quickly without getting gung-ho and taking unnecessary risks – but without being so cautious that it's as if winter never ends.
So I have a five-point MoT for my riding. I'm always working on these (and other) aspects of my ride but this afternoon I made a particular effort to check these areas.
The five-point spring riding MoT
Every advanced rider knows the importance of this – the information stage underpins the whole system of riding that's boiled down to the acronym IPSGA (Information, Position, Speed, Gears, Acceleration). But in winter, vision often drops. Grey days may have limited visibility anyway, but when so much attention is focused on dodging watery potholes of indeterminate depth or wet metal access covers and slippery overbanding, the range of vision can shrink. So I spend the first part of the ride checking how far ahead I'm looking. Really craning not only to see the furthest visible piece of tarmac but also beyond that, to get clues about what's ahead from over hedgerows wherever possible.
I know it sounds like I'm just running through Roadcraft – and to an extent that's true. Getting good information lets you get good positions. The point of my riding MoT is to check that I'm actually taking them: moving wide to the left, when the surface allows, to set up right-hand bends; moving wide to the right, when it's safe, to set up left-hand bends.
But it's not just about getting into those wider positions. It's about getting into them early enough to get the benefit – and then holding them. No point moving wide to the left if you then drift a foot back to the right before the optimum point to turn-in for the corner.
It's not just my road position that I look at in my riding MoT – I also check my body position. After a winter mostly spent sitting squarely in the middle of the saddle, it's time to start moving about a bit on the bike. Maybe not hanging off like a gibbon, but certainly shifting a bit of weight to the inside for corners. I'm checking my arms are relaxed, my grip on the handlebars is light, that I'm really turning my head to look through corners. One ride won't necessarily do it, but I need to get back to the point where I'm another moving part of the machine, not a merely a shivering GoreTex-wrapped lump just perched on top of it.
I find that paying attention to how I process traffic really helps assess a lot about the state of my own riding. From the point of view of The System, it's a useful yardstick for the whole acronym – especially speed. For one thing, if everything else on the road is coming back at me as if it's stationary, chances are I've hit an inexcusable velocity.
For me the key part of the MoT is when I react to traffic. Ideally, as soon as I spot something ahead, I should be looking for a way past it. If there's a bend in the road, is there a view across to show if I can just ride straight by the other vehicles without slowing? Most importantly, am I getting into a good position behind whatever traffic is there at an early enough stage to asses the situation effectively and make a good pass?
This is where the whole interdependent back half of IPSGA comes into play. Rolling up behind something and slowing without adjusting gears just means when you do get the chance to overtake, it's likely to be a bit limp. I don't mind slightly stately, smooth overtakes on wet roads, but when it's dry I like to click down to keep the Kawasaki snarling at the point of instant acceleration, whatever the speed. That normally means one gear lower than I'd use in the same situation in winter.
Of course, getting gears and speed right and using acceleration judiciously is crucial for every aspect of the ride – especially cornering. But when doing my self-assessed riding MoT, I find there's enough going on with corners already. Using traffic to get me back in the habit of diving down more readily through the gears, keeping the revs up while matching speed and unlocking the acceleration of the bike, helps bring that instinct back to life.
I know bikes are built for the open road, but I do find towns are helpful for the riding MoT. For one thing, your senses have to be working overtime to not miss the changing signs, terrible surfaces, random pedestrians and traffic. For another, they're a great way to check fine control and low-speed riding. In winter I'll sullenly ride up to lights and stomp my feet down. In summer I like to roll steadily through, sometimes slowing to 1-2mph, without ever having to stop. It's all balance, fine throttle control and sometimes a bit of back brake. I find towns great for checking that, now I'm in thin gloves with great feel, I'm actually using that feel.
This is the critical bit. The attitude is what brings everything together. Obviously it changes from day to day, but I'm always checking I'm riding in the right frame of mind. It's not about making sure I'm not in a raging anger, but more to make sure that I'm not getting giddy. It's easy to get carried away on that first good-grip, sunny ride. I want to throw myself into it, without throwing myself at the landscape. So there's a little bit of me that keeps an eye on how I'm doing and making sure I'm not getting carried away. It's about seizing the moment, not letting the moment seize me.
To be honest, I often self-check my rides even though I also get my riding checked with other instructors (I requalified for my RoSPA Diploma last autumn and also qualified to deliver the BMF Blue Riband training). There's no substitute for riding with someone trained to help you sharpen your riding – but between those sessions, try my five-point riding MoT to asses yourself. You'll probably enjoy it... I know I did.
• If you'd like me to assess your riding and help work on it, please get in touch here.