Simply put, concentration is the key skill in taking in and processing information faster than your motorcycle is covering ground. It's also the determining factor in how quickly you can ride safely. It doesn't matter how strong your muscles are or how quick your reflexes react but how focused the gray matter between your ears stays on the job at hand.
The difficult part of concentration is that it must be seamless for the entire time that the bike is in motion; even a momentary lapse can be costly and painful. To keep your concentration up, anticipate what's coming ahead whether it's the next corner on a track, the stretch of road ahead or a shifting pattern of traffic on your visual horizon. In traffic, the safest way to think is playing the what-if game with each oncoming car while still remaining aware of all the potential threats in your peripheral vision, as well. You should think "What if this car in the oncoming left-turn lane doesn't see me and turns left in front of me? What are my escape routes ahead, and do I have any cars to my rear or in my blind spots that are blocking these escapes?" It's not paranoid to think this way, it's the only way to stay safe and on your guard.
A common cause of brain fade is thinking about a mistake you just made or something that caught you off guard. It's common for a small mistake to distract a rider and lead to a much bigger mistake. Don't let this catch you out. Remember, as long as your bike is moving forward, your mind needs to think ahead as well.
Operating a motorcycle is a full-time activity that doesn't forgive wandering attention. At just 68 mph you're covering 100 feet per second. Even a slight spell of mind-wandering puts you hundreds of feet closer to potential situations that you should have been anticipating rather than reacting to and falling further behind what the motorcycle is doing. If we add speed to the equation, that requires continuous levels of heightened concentration. You might remember the example of Racer Z (Riding Skills Series, April '06) trying to match the pace of Kevin Schwantz at Road Atlanta when he fell behind in his cognitive process. This increased exponentially with each successive corner until it mercifully ended with Racer Z skipping through the gravel to a heart-racing-but safe-stop. We often aren't so lucky.
There's a high level of concentration that some describe as being in the zone. When it's achieved, there's an almost magical sensation where things are perceived in slow motion. A motion picture camera records in slow motion by filming at a faster-than-normal rate (say, 36 frames per second) and then plays back through a projector at the standard 24 frames per second. The result of more information played back in standard time is slow motion. That's what we strive for by using our vision to take in the big picture, scanning two to six seconds ahead (up to 10-12 seconds ahead on the street in traffic) and constantly anticipating what's coming next rather than waiting and reacting. In this state of awareness, things are perceived in slow motion where you are looking and thinking far enough ahead that you're waiting for the bike and scenery to catch up. It's one of those heightened-sense-of-awareness states that is often difficult to achieve on demand-especially if you're dealing with distractions, whether it's with bike setup or life issues-but it's something to strive for.
Most of our life is spent thinking in terms of hours, days, weeks, months or years. But, occasionally, we think in smaller units-perhaps minutes. Riding to our potential, however, forces us to think in terms of seconds and even fractions of a second. When our brain is concentrating effectively, it operates in units measured in milliseconds. There are 1000 milliseconds in every second, so make use of every one of them.
The Mind-Body ConnectionThere's a connection between mental fatigue and physical fatigue that can't be separated. In order to maintain our all-important mental concentration, we must keep from overtaxing ourselves physically, as well. The biggest physical exertion on the bike is most often not the effort put into control inputs but, rather, simple tension in our muscles. Tension is one of those insidious things that creeps up unnoticed until we get off the bike and suddenly notice our stiff back, shoulders or neck while shaking the feeling back into our numbed hands and forearms.
Riding relaxed is more difficult to do than it sounds, but it can be improved by optimizing your bike's control positions. Start with the brake and clutch lever positions in terms of reach from the handgrip and also rotation up and down, though many manufacturers limit this to prevent the levers from contacting the fairing edges at full steering lock (it's wise to check this before setting the bike in motion). Follow this by adjusting the shifter and rear brake-pedal positions. There's no right and wrong here, it's mostly personal preference. I prefer to have the levers set close to the bars where I have more leverage and greater control and feel. But just as many other riders can't seem to get the levers far enough from their bars. This is a constant source of griping when Sport Rider testers rotate through the bikes in a comparison test, "That damn Mikolas, always screwing with my brake lever." Ideally, all the controls should fall instinctively to hand without distraction.
We don't want to plop our bodies on the seat and ride off as passively as a sack of potatoes, but we do want to remain actively relaxed. Do this by consciously maintaining a light grip on the bars. An excellent instructor I once worked with, Mark Gallardo, once described the grip as that of holding a bird in your hand: tight enough not to let it get away but relaxed enough not to crush it. Keep your back slightly arched to help absorb bumps and your knees gripping the tank slightly and weight the footpegs lightly with the balls of your feet on the pegs. Controlling the bike with a combination of small inputs using the upper and lower body together uses far less exertion than muscling the bars alone (which also encourages riders to use a white-knuckle grip and induce arm-pump).
Another physical drain that's often overlooked is the simple act of breathing. Under tension or stress, our involuntary reflexes-the things we normally do without conscious thought, like breathing, blinking and relaxing-tend to shut down or at least occur much less frequently. Obviously, we're not completely forgetting to breathe, but we're also not breathing frequently enough to keep our muscles and mind optimally fueled with oxygen. In one of my other passions, target shooting, I learned that we compromise our muscle control and visual acuity in as little as 10 seconds of holding our breath. If the sights aren't aligned and the trigger doesn't break in less than 10 seconds, stop, take a breath and start over. If you don't, chances are that you'll botch the shot by forcing it to happen through slight muscle tremors or blurring sights.
Handling a motorcycle properly takes a similar level of precision, and if you're not breathing more than once every 10 seconds, you're compromising your control. Focusing on breathing helps in your mental concentration, as well. All forms of meditation that I'm aware of have breathing as a central aspect of the exercise. Consciously remind yourself to take full breaths (in through your nose and out through your mouth) on your next ride and see if you notice an improvement.
Staying mentally relaxed and focused enhances your ability to remain physically relaxed and vice versa. You won't achieve one without the other, and like the critical visual skills we talked about last issue, concentration is a key aspect of staying mentally ahead of the bike and what's happening on the road in front of you. Master it, and the world is your oyster. Without it, your head might as well be buried in the sand.