Remaining Constant In Your Riding Is The Starting Point To Improvement
There's been quite a few times when I've been following a novice rider at a riding school where it's easy to see that no one lap is ever the same. By that, I mean that each corner seemed to have a different braking point, turn-in point, entry line, apex and exit with each succeeding lap. While we don't expect every rider to hit all their apexes within an inch every lap like Valentino Rossi, the amount of variation between each lap with many novice riders I've watched shows that they're not thinking about their riding. They're basically riding with their heart instead of their head.
Granted, attempting to ride on the racetrack-or on any piece of pavement quickly-for most novices is often more of an exercise in sheer terror than they're willing to admit. Much of their concentration is already used trying to keep up with the motorcycle, and adding even more complication by introducing an environment that has been cranked up to fast forward only results in mental overload. Becoming overwhelmed rapidly puts a person into panic mode, and at that point any thinking or controlled riding actions go out the window.
Racers often refer to what they call the "comfort zone", usually the upper limits of speed where they feel confident enough in their abilities to not feel on the edge of control. But there's a lot more advantages to be had from riding within your limits than just being comfortable and in control.
Establishing Your Baseline
One of the benefits of riding within your comfort zone is that you have more attention available to devote to other factors besides controlling the motorcycle. Instead of using up all your concentration on self-preservation or going into the corner deeper than the last time, you have some left over to use on sensing what you and the motorcycle are doing.
While discerning exactly how the suspension and chassis are behaving is a task best left until you have enough experience, recalling and analyzing what you are doing to control the motorcycle is comparatively much simpler-and it becomes even easier when your riding remains relaxed and unflustered. It's far too easy in this sport for people to feel pressured to go fast, and it's difficult to learn anything when you put yourself under pressure. This is why so many riding schools emphasize that students remember to breathe and not have their body wound up tight like a banjo string; again, being tensed up is a signal that you're riding beyond your comfort zone, and you'll have a difficult time remembering and distinguishing what you did on what portion of the racetrack or road.
One big advantage about riding within your comfort zone is that it's much easier to sense whether you're going faster or slower than before. Most everyone has a favorite pace that they like to ride at on their preferred road or racetrack, and it's usually easy for them to tell the difference if they are speeding up or slowing down from that pace. You've probably heard the term "baseline setup" tossed around by professional racing crew chiefs when discussing chassis and suspension tuning; this refers to a particular setting that the rider can always rely on to allow a comfortably quick pace in nearly all situations, and gives the crew chief a starting point from which to determine whether any changes they make are an improvement or detriment. Here is where riding within your comfort zone can allow you to set your own "baseline", because you can tell whether any variations to your riding technique will have the desired result.
Obviously, as you discover new techniques that generate more speed, your baseline comfort zone will have to rise accordingly in order to incorporate those new skills and go quicker. But being able to understand exactly what technique has enabled you to go faster (and often by how much) makes it much easier to add to your riding repertoire so that you can call upon it when needed. Identifying exactly what worked for you permits you to practice that particular method repeatedly in smaller steps, instead of simply gritting your teeth and deciding to charge into a corner deeper and harder.
Comfort Breeds Consistency And Vice Versa
You've probably heard stories or seen how consistent the lap times of top racers are during a practice or race. Unless they're testing some new major component, get blocked by drastically slower traffic or suffer some sort of mechanical issue, their lap times often never waver more than a few tenths of a second, and probably not more than a second from beginning to end. It's pretty obvious from this that those racers are doing nearly the exact same thing at the nearly the exact same spot on the racetrack at (and with) incredible speed every lap.
Being that consistent lap after lap comes with being comfortable with what you're doing and where on the racetrack. While the top racers are surely pushing their limits ever higher in the quest to be quicker than the competition, their comfort zones are never very far away (and obviously far higher than the rest of us) because the more you venture out of your comfort zone, the more likely you might step beyond the limit from which you cannot return (crash)-a result that isn't conducive to lengthy factory careers.
Part of establishing a baseline is being consistent in your riding, meaning making the same control actions and hitting the same marks every time. Again, here it's much easier to be consistent when you're staying within your comfort zone. When you're not rushing your riding, you'll find you can identify more reference points to determine where you are and what you need to do, making it easier to avoid mistakes and hit your marks every time. And once you begin adding speed, those additional reference points will be a huge help.
By being consistent in your riding, you reinforce control actions enough to eventually become more accurate and devote less concentration to them. This is commonly referred to as "muscle memory." Remember how tough it was to properly balance clutch and throttle to take off when you were first learning to ride? And yet now you can (hopefully) do it using very little thought, performing the act with almost subconscious ease. When you ride consistently and hit your marks every time, you build muscle memory that frees up extra concentration that you can utilize for other riding needs.
Consistency also results in another side benefit that helps you ride better and faster: confidence. Once various riding situations start becoming familiar enough that you already know what's going to happen before it occurs, less attention is focused on them and muscle memory takes over because you become more confident you'll be able to handle it. And as your confidence grows, so does your comfort zone-and hence, your speed.
What About Consistent Bad Habits?
Another common trait among many novice riders is that despite the efforts of riding school instructors to steer them in the right direction with regards to a riding technique, it doesn't take them long to fall right back into their previous bad habit. Although they can follow the instruction-it could be something as simple as a slight change in body position or corner line-and make the change for a lap, the next lap everything goes back to the same old thing. This is another clear signal that they're riding beyond their comfort zone; there's so much concentration being used that none is left to consciously make a change in their riding, so their mind reverts to instinctive habits.
Here is where riding consistently allows you to more easily concentrate on and practice the particular technique, because it's the one action that stands out from the rest of your riding during a lap or run down a favorite road. If your riding is rushed or haphazard, you'll be too busy with other matters to single out one action and practice it.
The Big Payoff
Riding consistently really pays big dividends when you gain enough experience and skill to learn about suspension and chassis setup, and how it affects your bike's handling. If you're doing the same actions and nearly the same speed every time, it's obviously a lot easier to tell how a change worked and whether it's an improvement or not. Being consistent won't necessarily make you a suspension dial-in wizard or chassis magician, but it will certainly help your cause when it comes time to make an attempt at tackling that complicated task.
While the ability to ride consistently and within one's comfort zone can only come from experience, it's important to understand your own riding well enough so that learning and improving is an easier task. Once you've discovered how easily everything falls into place when your riding is consistent, thinking about your riding becomes almost second nature. And the more you're able to analyze your riding when off the bike, the less you'll have to do when astride it.