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The Effort Loop

Keith Code

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Just Relax


From golf to boxing to sex, just relax has become a well worn, and almost meaningless, icon phrase. Any coach in any sport at any level ought to be issued a T-shirt with that phrase printed on the front. However, while tension may be the most obvious component of any neophyte's mode of operation, the instruction to just relax rarely solves it. Motorcycle riding is certainly no exception, riders at all skill levels exhibit curiously uncomfortable and unproductive body gestures that result in tightness and muscle soreness, especially when they're thrashing at the controls and trying to go "fast".


If just relax is truly the cure then tension of some sort must be the malady. Tension is: confused effort. Where does it (tension) come from? How does it affect the machine? How do we control a motorcycle? How can the machine control you?


Coordinated Efforts


There is some physical force required to ride motorcycles or play action games. During those moments of output, energy produced by contracting our muscles must flow through the body, and for a rider, to the motorcycle and its controls to accelerate, slow or steer it. Coordination in any sport equates to the very specific avenues along which the player's precisely measured energy must be pointed and travel to reach its intended target at its intended time and exact place. For examples, swinging a baseball bat or braking, both require force be applied to a lever, to arrive at their intended destination, at the exact intended time. This requires output, so just relax must actually be defined as economy-of-effort. It cannot mean no-effort.


Lever Advantage


Once a rider expends some energy to operate one of the bike's control levers he starts a chain reaction of events. Levers are devices used to allow a person to achieve a mechanical advantage over some resistance. To move a 200 lb. rock with a ten foot pole you need only expend about 20 lb. of effort, a mechanical advantage of 1:10. To move a 400 lb. motorcycle with a 150 lb. rider, it requires only a pound or so at the throttle (also a lever), which is then stepped-up by another series of levers, the engine and drivetrain.


That slight motion of the wrist probably ends up producing around a 1:4000 mechanical advantage under full acceleration. The hydraulic braking system is a mechanical lever as well, so are your handlebars and the frame's geometry which give you an advantage over the enormous gyroscopic forces created by your wheels spinning around. Even the forks and shock are levers of sorts which control the input and output of external forces like bumps and cornering forces of the bike.


Your body is nothing but a simple set of levers animated my muscle power, and is also part of the control package. But maybe it shouldn't be.


Power Struggle


When we look at what happens when a human interfaces with a motorcycle, we can see that physical tension while riding simply means there is a question about what lever to move and how much to move it. That's where we run into the problem and tension is a perfect description of a problem. The two sides of the problem are: (1) the intention to act, for example, to accelerate and, (2) opposing that is the fear of what might happen if too much pressure is applied to that particular lever. What can happen?


Instability, loss of traction, too much speed and a bad line requiring too much lean angle or an undesirable destination could all happen as a result of excess enthusiasm with the throttle lever. Why wouldn't you be tense with those potential results breathing down your neck at every corner? As an amplified lever, the throttle is probably a mile long!


The Brake Lever


The brakes are no less of a mechanical advantage in fact they're greater. Most bikes will stop quicker than they accelerate. An 1100 XX Honda goes 0-60 in 2.91 and 60-0 in 2.72. While it is a far simpler device, that 8 inch lever on the right bar, after being stepped-up by the master cylinder and the caliper, is more powerful than the entire engine and drive train. Over or under enthusiasm with either of these speed-adjustment controls is no doubt responsible for the lion's share of rider errors. We like to feel their power but often fear them at the same time.




Confidence is the ability to predict the outcome of your actions on the motorcycle, but the trouble is, that terrific mechanical advantage the machine provides for a rider puts him or her at far more than arm's length away from the action and that tends to promote over-control, which is an error in itself, and usually leads to others.


Since our sport has the potential of physical damage and pain connected to it, tension does creep into the riding equation. It's the result of trying to stop some unwanted thing from happening.


Good and Bad


Interestingly enough, that which we wish to happen has the direct result of increasing an unwanted result. For example, desiring to go faster, then running wide in a turn, is common and illustrates the point. Increased speed, increases the bike's tendency to run wider.


A quick review of some key motorcycle hardware, like: frame stiffness, geometry like rake and trail, suspension, tires, wheels, ergonomics--and software (riding techniques) advancements-- , e.g., hanging off, quick steering, good throttle control, even the use of reference points and other visual skills, etc., are mainly aimed at combating a motorcycle's tendency to run wider than the rider desires. But riding at enthusiastic levels pretty much demands some good corner speed, doesn't it? Again, tension and effort are the notorious bad results.


Effort Begets Effort


It's the effort to avoid something from happening, by interjecting your body into the system, that is the culprit. What develops are the problems of trying to operate the control levers of the machine to create the actions of smooth, confident and in-control riding by this new component, the body, that is simultaneously trying to stop an accompanying unwanted action. With these enormous levers at his command, and fear to contend with, it is no wonder a rider can be overwhelmed as a result of a simple control error and once a chain of errors has begun to get out of hand, overuse quickly becomes part of this equation. I'm sure you have experienced this.


A riders inability to differentiate between the force produced by the machine and the amount of force required to control it is the basic misunderstanding--especially in an emergency--it's a characteristic present in any new rider's approach to a motorcycle: either too much control or too little of it. We've all done it.


Recycled and Amplified Energy


When tense, the body becomes a sort of storage unit and an active amplifier for any input it receives. Headshake, wobble, even front and rear suspension movement can and do transfer to the body and then back again to the bike--if the rider reacts to them with a counter effort. We know with a dead certainty that tensing on the bars immediately affects the bike and creates understeer, the tendency to run wide. Essentially, you instantaneously become an active and unwanted part of the machine's dynamics, prolonging or even creating poor handling.


Whether the unwanted situation originates at the bike, as in a little headshake; or in the body, from fear, the results are similar. And to add to the confusion, the bike now tends to amplify that input once more. Here we have levers acting on levers acting on levers, it can turn into a real mess and suspensions aren't designed to and can't handle it. The rider has interjected himself into the suspension system and created a "loop".


Perfect Suspension


The Human body is pretty much an infinitely adjustable suspension unit. It has perfect, passive-damping; for example, when you jump and land on your feet there is no rebound. It also has perfect active-damping; like when you stand on the pegs to go over a bump, dip or depression in the road or off-road. The body is incredibly more efficient than any suspension system that has ever or will ever be designed for a motorcycle, provided you have the key to its programming.


Do you understand that when a rider stands on the pegs and uses the correct amount of effort (in active suspension mode) to handle a bump he has defeated that bump: the energy it has produced won't recycle back into the bike's suspension. He's out of the loop. Everything calms down very fast; in fact, it never even begins to unsettle the bike. All of this must of course happen within the range the bike's suspension and its settings: fork and shock travel, damping, rigidity, head angle and so on.


Rider's Program


A vital part of cornering is to maintain the machine within its suspension's range of effectiveness. Once the settings are adjusted to their optimum capabilities for the conditions, it's all up to the pilot to maintain them there for as long and as often as possible. To keep these two systems separated (the bike and rider) requires the least possible amount of rider involvement.


Obviously, to use the superior capabilities of our own suspension system requires an unusual, reverse-posturing for a person engaged in a high activity sport--it requires nothing. If you fully grasp the fact of your body's perfect damping then you must also see that it works best when disengaged or relaxed. Just throw a piece of steak down on your kitchen counter--that's the perfect damping characteristic of these bodies. Just relax is how you engage the body's best suspension qualities, it really does work.


The Relaxed Onion


There are layers to this idea of being relaxed and removed, out of the suspension loop; but continuing to maintain good control over the bike sometimes makes it seem necessary. Then too, if you get into a tight situation and become afraid, that doubles the difficulty.


You may not be able to handle the fear but you can take a close look at your own situation on the bike; for example, how you relate to the controls. Boots can be too thick making it awkward to change gears; levers can be too high or too low, putting a bend in your wrist; gloves too loose to downshift and brake smoothly, leathers too tight, arms too long or too short, seat too tall and so on. Look at how much effort you are using to work the controls, how often you use it and how long you apply it. If you are in the effort loop, get out of it.


ⓒ Keith Code, 1998

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  • 2 years later...

The Relaxed Onion.


That's excellent.


I'm seein' a cool, hip cafe with that name over the door. House specials to include...sorry.


Seriously, though, another awesome analogy that transfers to SO many other activities in life. Thanks again.


Onion boy.

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  • 1 month later...

RELAX IS THE KEY word. was riding mountain roads at high speds,trying to follow the no brakes format and was suprised at how much less it needs to be used, and the other word i kept sayin tomyself was 'relax' thro the corners, i have a pic of tony elias when whe was leading the race from valentino thro a right hand corner looking ahead and the right arm below parallel to the ground,roling on the trottle thro the corner and was suprised at how quick i was just being aware and observsant of my body. have the pic memorised in my head.relaxing makes such a gr8 difference.the magic word i should say.

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