A Problem of Vision | Code Break

By Keith Code, Photography by Gold & Goose

The best rides strike a fine balance between pleasurable expectation and open curiosity. Conversely, starting out with vague anxiety about performance or having a fixed idea for a result is a classic setup for things to go wrong. A positive attitude such as “I’m up for anything today!” or “I wonder if a later apex would sort out those turns?” could be the deciding factor for success in a learning environment, whether it’s a spirited ride in the twisties, a track day or a race.

It’s simple wisdom that anxiety and anticipation can keep a rider from being efficient, smart and safe, especially during street riding. On a biomechanical level, tension is bad. Think of the lag time to relax a tense hand or arm to perform the control function you desire. In a tight situation, this is significant. Those few tenths of a second can reduce your closing distance to the object you wish to avoid.

We hear advice on how to avoid tension and panic all the time. “Ride [so many seconds] ahead of yourself” and “look through the turn” are good examples. They both sound innocent, reasonable and logical, but miss the mark.

Riding “too close” is related to our deadliest enemy: target fixation. Our survival instincts aren’t concerned with what might happen 3 seconds ahead; they’re interested in the dangers they can perceive right now. Without proper training, survival instincts will default to just that.

Simply put, left untended, our visual system is designed to spot danger just far enough ahead that we’ve got time to either misjudge our situation or panic. I’ve long held that our instinctual survival reactions are what spoil any ride. In this case the survival reaction is target fixation, and I see it in both new riders and world-class racers. Among other things, target fixation snuffs out our ability to ride with an open and unalloyed curiosity.

On the other hand, pushing your visual field too far ahead often results in glancing back, closer to the bike. With the roughly 1/3 of a second that it takes to look up or back, we create another variety of visual problem: namely, having to reorient ourselves to the space around us. This creates breaks in the visual flow, and any break can snowball into nervous and choppy scanning—yet another way to lose visual control.

There are hundreds of scientific papers on these visual points, and I’m glossing over a world of information to point out the areas where riders fall short in their assessment of personal visual-skill development. Improving them is often overlooked as a specific riding skill, but passed on as good advice with little thought as to what it means. I can’t imagine riding along trying to figure out what 3 or 5 seconds ahead should look like.

Similarly, looking through a corner means I’m very likely to miss the apex or give myself too wide a margin. Both are sufficiently important on the road to warrant not being sloppy about them. Line errors are always based on one or the other: too close or too far. Pro racers are not deadly accurate about these points just so you can be entertained watching them; it is an essential element in doing their job.

It all boils down to visual control. That nice balance of expectation and curiosity only happens when you control where and when you look at what parts of the road you ride. Of course, it’s easier in turns you know, where familiar things remind you of where you are and what to do. Previous runs through them provide a comparison to the one you’re on. This is one of the major benefits of track riding—a predictable set of corners with which to retrain a very faulty human visual system.

If you can’t improve your visual skills at the track, it’s hopeless to think you can do it on the street.

By Keith Code
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