Sharp Focus | Code Break

By Keith Code, Photography by Andrea Wilson

Watching thousands of California Superbike School students do a simple skid-pad exercise over the years brought up enough questions that I was finally compelled to find an answer: Fully 49 out of 50 riders asked to ride in a 50-foot circle look straight ahead, not into the path they are turning. They report concern about hitting something, but the nearest “something” was at least 300 feet away!

Why would you look straight ahead when your current arc couldn’t possibly arrive there? Initially, I put it down to Survival Reactions. But would riders still be holding that useless and dangerous straight-ahead gaze if there were a corner in front of them? That brought up something else: When you are turning right, all the things in the background move to the left, and vice versa. If you were looking straight ahead, could that be disorienting? How many riders look straight ahead as though they are wearing a neck brace? A lot. Are they afraid that moving their head is going to distort their view? It’s possible.

It’s educational to watch footage from on-board cameras pointed at MotoGP riders’ faceshields. They lead with their whole head, not their eyes. I began to investigate that as well. Why and when do we turn our heads? The scientific research into human vision comprises volumes, nearly whole libraries, of data. I should find something!

Researching it, I discovered that the average human will move his eyes to about 20 degrees off-center horizontally before automatically turning his head in that direction. We have a comfort zone of about 40 degrees side-to-side with eye-only movement. That is a little less than 25 percent of our field of view. So perhaps the professional racer has learned to lead with his head to neutralize hitting that no-go zone response.

Within our field of view, which is about 170 degrees, we only have about 2 degrees of ultra-sharp focus area (known as “foveal vision”). That’s about a pinky nail’s width at arm’s length. We have another 10 degrees that is good but not as sharp. Visual acuity and detail fall off rapidly from there into our peripheral field, which is the remaining 158 degrees. While peripheral vision provides poor detail, it is very good at sensing movement.

That brings up another question: Is head rotation programmed to keep both eyes on the object to be in sharp focus? It could be. That makes some sense because a person's nose is going to cut off his binocular vision at about 40 degrees of sideways eye movement. For one or another or all of these reasons, we have a margin of comfort and a response—head rotation—when we approach that zone.

Is it possible that our fascination with the potential dangers lurking on the outside of corners is compelling enough to keep the less-experienced rider from looking in? Or, when he did try to look in, did it spook him because he was out of his normal head-rotation response zone? It’s possible.

Conventional wisdom such as look where you want to go, look into the corner and look through the corner, spring from riders’ mouths like money from the U.S. Treasury. It’s good advice. But when it doesn’t happen according to plan, we now know some of the potential body limits and survival mechanisms that can stand in our way. Another enemy isolated and identified!

Meanwhile, it’s fine to use what Pro racers do as a guide. But we don’t "look in" because the Pros do; we look in because we can easily focus both eyes on objects. We look in to stay in a range of eye movement that is within that 20-degree comfort zone. Riders must train themselves to ignore the outside-of-turn distractions in favor of plotting a line that will successfully get them through the corner. That is where the greatest portion of our attention should always be.

By Keith Code
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