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Presence


Keith Code
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In an ideal riding world you would always know where you were going and you would be able to determine where everyone else in your immediate vicinity was going. In other words, both yours and others lines would be entirely predictable; and from a brief visual inspection, both you and the other motorists would know, with certainty, what those lines were. If you like this idea then the actual question in traffic is not "what type of situations should you look out for", but, "how do you approach and maintain that ideal scene on a moment to moment basis while dealing with traffic?"

 

Conventional wisdom has approached this from other angles. It tells us to always leave an ample amount of space to maneuver. It also tells us that having a pre-planned "out" for every situation is correct. It tells us to scan the space in front of us but it does not necessarily say exactly for what you are scanning; it dictates looking some number of seconds ahead; but all of these pearls, so heavily touted as correct traffic strategy, don't cover the subject, at least not completely.

 

Space Command

 

Let's look at another idea: establishing and maintaining a true and commanding presence in traffic. If the above ideal riding world is something to strive for then it deserves some close inspection.

 

Any rider's ability to effectively and aggressively impose himself into an environment where he suffers a formidable deficiency; namely, being kind of small, should be looked at and ways found to improve the situation. When we say aggressive we mean having a presence; an eighteen wheeler has presence at any speed. This is a key issue because if you do not have an acknowledged presence with any automobile driver you are challenging the whims of fate and you are, for all practical purposes, invisible. The driver would certainly not be able to determine your direction or your plan to use a particular space or line along an intended route. In many ways, command of your space is the real issue. If you cannot command (direct with authority) the space you are in and the space you intend to ride into, on a moment to moment basis, it has the habit of commanding you.

 

Commanding your space does not mean simply that you have an orange vest an ignited headlight or loud pipes. They may help to establish a presence but would not in the end be the entire answer.

 

Your Line

 

You need a minimum of two things to chart your forward progress in any situation. You must first know where you are and you must next know where you are going. Having these two factors in place has been the success formula for everything from air and sea navigation to ones own career and it has the same influence over your riding. Orderly and efficient progress is determined by, minimally, having a point "A" and a point "B". Racers know this, street riders need to know it even more so.

 

If you know where you are and to where you are going you can also know what you should be doing, in this case, with your bike. Without these two factors, you've lost command over your space and your actions; everyone has experienced the feeling of uncertainty with their controls. When you see a situation unfolding in front of you like a lane change, most often there is an opportunity to accelerate through it or brake or to turn out of it into a different lane position or some combination like brake and turn or accelerate and turn. All of these are simple maneuvers, but there is a choice each time they happen and that choice is always easier if there is a well defined point B. No point B promotes confusion.

 

Usually, you can easily predict the outcome of your actions in simple situations that have an obvious A & B. Splitting lanes is a good example. If the cars are staggered in the two lanes you are splitting, the potential moments for being sandwiched are very, very brief.

 

Diagram: staggered traffic with a motorcycle and its line shown splitting traffic and little lightning lines showing the potential points of being sandwiched , there is also a series of short, slightly zigzag lines that show a point A and B at each zig or zag. . "Your exposure to cars is far less in staggered traffic. Watching for lane changers into the open lane is your main concern. Having point B's gives you definite objectives that can add to your presence in traffic"

 

The main concern becomes centered on any lane changes an auto might make into the gap of the unoccupied lane. If traffic is side by side, your risk of becoming an auto's lunch is greater but the potential of lane changing is much less. These are two major factors of lane splitting and give you exact things to look for. Fortunately, because of their size, cars have fewer potential point B's in any given traffic situation. This makes your job of predicting their lines quite a bit easier.

 

Diagram: Side by side traffic with m'cycle splitting lanes, a line shows points B to be just in front of each car the bike is passing. "Your exposure to cars in side by side traffic looks worse but you can be fairly sure no one will make a quick lane change to grab an empty spot."

 

In any situation, if the dangers are exactly known, you have some degree of command over it. That does not mean you can change what the cars will do but it means you can and do most always know what to do and that in itself is the essence of command.

 

Your Address

 

Presence is determined by a location in space. You have an address, you have a telephone number, you have a name, you have a size and a shape. These things, among others, determine your presence in the world around you. When it comes to riding, some riders have more presence than do others and you can see it. Call it telegraphing, call it anything you like, it is force-of-presence and is observable and it goes past the point of just occupying ones skin.

 

There is an outward bound force of some sort and it establishes the person who has it as something to be reckoned with, on a moment to moment basis. It is perhaps an attitude that results from being in good communication with your environment and that would make sense because those of us who are in good communication with their environment have more of a presence than those who do not.

 

I'm not trying to establish a black art here. Everyone knows this thing called presence exists but we don't necessarily need to understand it completely in order to use it to our advantage. Most riders don't fully understand their bike's technological improvements but still can use them.

 

Plot Your Presence

 

Establishing a commanding presence in traffic must then start off with that one important factor, you must be there. As before, the minimum in any situation would be a point A, your location, and point B, the location you intend to occupy in the next few moments. That establishes your line or path of travel.

 

What happens if you do not have a line or a destination? That's a simple answer, the situation becomes confusing with too many possibilities, too many options, too many choices. Having a planned line clears the way to knowing what can and cannot happen. When you know where you are going in traffic, you can easily calculate who or what can or will intersect your path of travel. Without a line, everyone is a potential threat and uncertainty results, both for yourself and for other motorists who are trying to calculate your path. But even that has a positive side to it because you can establish a presence by erratic, unpredictable lines. It boils down to the fact that gaining a presence in traffic has two basic approaches:

 

- Establish a predictable line or path of travel.

- Establish an unpredictable line or path of travel.

 

Center Of The Universe

 

In a very real sense you are and must assume that you are the center of the universe to create a presence, that has practical value on a motorcycle. If you intend to emanate (telegraph) a presence in traffic then you better start practicing. To start with, there are two ways to view it: you can assume that no one sees you or you can assume an actors viewpoint of totally communicating your intentions to the audience, which is traffic in this case.

 

Personally, I start out with the idea that everyone can see me and then identify the ones I'm not reaching with my riding "performance". The obvious truth is, more people do see you than don't. And in order to telegraph a presence you would actually have to start out with that idea of being seen or you would not be telegraphing anything. You can't telegraph "they don't see me". You can telegraph "I am here" and in a moment I will be over there. So, we are back to using points A and B as the basics and having them appear sufficiently obvious so that another could read your intentions clearly. That would take care of you, what about the other guy?

 

Here again, you can predict what the other driver is going to do more often than not. This is one of the aspects of riding that is a pure and simple miracle of the mind and its efficiency to pose and resolve problems. Looking at a car/driver and determining what he has or might have in mind gives you another piece of stable information. The information is that if he varies from that path of travel you've plotted for him and his vehicle he then becomes subject to scrutiny. You postulate (assume) his point B and if it changes from what you thought, you have a reason to become concerned. You have a point B and he has a point B, any changes that you notice require inspection. You could operate from the idea that you don't know where he is going but that would not solve anything; that only makes busy work for you and creates unfounded and attention draining concerns.

 

Appearing Act

 

Everyone already does this recognition-of-an-intended or assumed destination to some extent, otherwise, parlor trick magicians wouldn't be around. You predict a destination from your observation of the direction something appears to be traveling. While a magician may fool you with a quarter or a handkerchief, it is not so easy to do slight of hand with a three thousand pound, fifteen foot car. There is no question you can be fooled in some cases, but not often.

 

We've really got two subjects here: gaining a presence and observing to predict. They tie together pretty closely and as long as you continue to put out that position B for yourself and the other traffic you can begin to predict your future position and those of your fellow motorist's.

 

The interesting part of riding like this is that instead of having to constantly second guess yourself to find an "out" for any riding situation, the "outs" become obvious, mainly because you aren't harassing yourself with too many what-ifs. In traffic, you could what-if yourself into a headache whereas observing the other vehicles' lines and their variations is far simpler and to the point, both for evasive and smooth sailing maneuvers. You might call this a fine distinction but it is also a survival one. When you observe what is happening with lines you are postulating a result from what can be seen rather than from what might be.

 

The doom and gloom sayers will argue that you can't always do this but I think you can.

 

Assume The Position

 

If that is what to do then how do you do it? I think we can talk around the subject and maybe come to a few of the important points on how. First off, riders who have a presence appear to be stable on the bike without being rigidly fixed on it. There is a kind of fluidity to their riding where the body language points out their intention but does not over-exaggerate it. There is also an economy of motion, much like an accomplished horse back rider. We can take some cues from horseback riders on this wherein the rider has enough control over the beast but is not keeping it tense with too tight a rein or extraneous motion that would keep the horse in a state of readiness to act and probably eventually confuse it or make it tired.

 

Each action is precise and definite and again with an economy of motion. Even though motorcycles don't second guess their riders, these are signs that a car driver may well see. But you only want them to see enough to tell the story of where you intend to go. A very definite but economical steering change tells that story as well as making your presence known by the fact of your superior mobility.

 

Offensive Riding

 

I'm always afraid of using the words "defensive riding" because it has a wait- around-and-see connotation to it and that isn't what a good rider does. A good rider acts and most definitely does not try and become invisible by rolling along in the flow of traffic to such an extent that he disappears and you would disappear if you just held your position in traffic; you'd disappear to the eye of the motorists because of that too-small-to-worry- about thing that happens with unconscious car drivers.

 

In the end, you can't blame a car driver for not seeing you, you might sue him and win but that doesn't solve anything. It might be better to look at it from the car driver's viewpoint. If you create too much of a distraction for him, he may just give up looking at you because he is spending too much attention on you. His sense of survival tells him that he had better pay attention to what he is doing and not what you are. You can confuse car drivers: they can't think with your additional mobility. Because of their reduced mobility, they live in a two dimensional world and you live in a three D maneuvering environment. Your progress is hard to plot for a car driver because he does not have experience that tells him what you can do.

 

Too Close

 

Today, you don't have much choice when it comes to the distance between yourself and the other drivers. You will be crowded by them on a regular basis. Here is another area where the reverse of conventional wisdom makes a good case for itself. You don't have many options in real freeway and traffic situations to exercise an active command over those other motorists; in other words, you can't bully them in any other way than to slow down and create a space cushion between yourself and the one in front of you. That doesn't work anyhow because someone will move into that space cushion you try to create, for sure.

 

So, the whole game of real traffic riding is becoming more and more up close and personal, it's in your face most of the time. Why try and buck it with an outmoded strategy; the space cushion is a story you can tell your kids about; you heard it existed from your grandfather. If it isn't there then a new strategy needs to be devised and that is to get in there and ride with them using your superior maneuverability as the weapon of choice.

 

Riding up close actually solves some problems rather than creating them. In a tight situation you can see that the space between you and the others out there is closing on you. Riding two feet off the side of a car makes a six inch move on his part a worthwhile thing to investigate and it is obvious. This is just another variety of the point A and point B idea. You've plotted yourself a path and it is now being invaded on the other axis, the lateral or side to side one; he's moving over on you in his, or, into your lane. Riding up close and personal reduces the space on one hand but on the other you have gained a little in perceivablility; because reducing your space by twenty-five percent, in the above example, is noticeable.

 

None of this is to say that in lighter traffic you don't use your mobility and power to create some space for yourself but even then putting out your points B has some value, if for nothing else, to make the ride more interesting.

 

Influence

 

There is another factor that a pro rider takes into account. Under normal conditions you mainly only have to predict the drivers in front and to both sides of you to remain in command of your space. However, in multilane and uncontrolled roadways (sidestreet access and parked cars) there is the influence that another driver may have on one of those you are closely monitoring, those to the front and both sides of you. This complicates the traffic game to a degree but simplifies it as well.

 

Diagram of side influences that could change the traffic picture. Shows someone coming out of a sidestreet and moving the driver in lane two over into lane one where there is a motorcyclist. "You have one more dimension to consider in traffic. Who can move one of my three stable protectors into my lane?"

 

Those three drivers you have targeted as your main potential adversaries are also your protection from outside influences. So in a way you have to take responsibility for them in a protective sort of fashion. You assume the viewpoint that whatever happens to them could happen to you and it solves this problem. You are responsible for the actions of everyone around you that can directly influence your successful transitions from your points A and B on that moment to moment basis.

 

This broadens the sphere of your responsibility as a rider but still is included in the original definition of the ideal scene for traffic handling: of knowing where you and all the other drivers are going; of knowing what are their lines, what are their points B.

 

Recruit Help

 

Another way of looking at it is to recruit the drivers who are your immediate "protection" in traffic. You surely have noticed that some drivers take on a protective attitude towards motorcyclists. They move over and make room for you and so on. Other drivers pointedly ignore you but they may be your best friends in the end because that is one of the sure indicators that they know you are there. Even the ones who antagonistically move over on you just a bit are your friends for the same reason. You have absolutely established a presence with this type of driver and that is really your main job in traffic no matter how it occurs. In their own strange way they have recognized you have a point B.

 

You could try and boil this whole subject down to one grand generality and say confidence is what you need and that would not be wrong but presence is closer to the actual operating language of traffic and it is the one understood by everyone. I'm still questioning whether or not you can just pull this off by assuming you have a presence and going for it. In the end it really is the decision to be there, to have a line--and to announce that fact. Is presence real? Can you do it?

 

ⓒKeith Code 1996-1997

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  • 2 years later...

hello. This was such a different perspective than the MSF. MSF/BRC gave me great introduction /foundation of skills i need for commuting, but also scared me from even trying to ride to work. i wondered when i'd ever be able to handle it out there in metro traffic (MSF attitude seems that everyones out to kill you or you have to assume nobody will see you) Your post made me realize my barrier is confidence and the past two days i "faked it" out of the neighborhood and onto the streets, and played the actors role of center of universe / having complete confidence.

Assuming this attitude I had no problems and had fun-it was awesome- i never felt invisible- i'd have to say that i intend on continuing to "fake it" and shortly i am sure i wont be faking confidence at all -it will be real.

 

 

the point of my reply is that your article has made a HUGE impact on me, and i cant thank you enough!

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  • 2 years later...
  • 7 months later...

I like to "show intent". If I am riding a particular way, I maintain that way, without changing or being to unpredictable.

 

I also try and ride like the cars expect bikes to.

 

They expect bikes to be faster than them and slightly more agressive in riding style. So I ride about 10km/h faster, and overtake aggressively. IfI wishy washed behind tehm, slowing down and speeding up, the get anxious and may do stupid things to try and get you to do what they expect you to do, like slowing down, or pulling over a bit where there is no space to etc.

 

I ride with intent (from A to B like you say) and try and telegraph this intent by looking where I want to go to change lanes.

 

I also kep physics in mind. I ride a VTR 1000 firestorm, so I KNOW I can accelerate faster than pretty much any car, but I know that most cars can brake harder than me.

I accelerate into gaps, knowing that at a particular moment things are like X, and it is not physically possible for them to change to Y if I have done things correctly. Then I can just focus on unexpected events.

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Very cool article. This actually makes me want to ride on the street a bit more, whereas lately I've just been riding at the track. The actions suggested put the rider in a more causative position instead of the traditional "leave yourself enough time to wait and see" theory. Cool!

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