Proficient Motorcycling

The Ultimate Guide to Riding Well—That’s exactly what this book is. Proficient Motorcycling, by David L. Hough, is good in so many ways. My copy arrived from Amazon yesterday and I’ve read about 100 of its nearly 300 pages. Everyone who rides should own this book and refer to it often.

This is a large format book and its physical appearance is top-notch. Every page is glossy, and all photos are color. The photos don’t simply decorate the book; they’re perfect complements to the text surrounding them.

Some pics help with understanding the text—like the top photo on page 31, showing the crest of a hill on a beautiful country road, and the caption, “If you were motoring along at 55 or 60 mph, would you brake for this situation?”; or, the pair of shots on page 36, of a curvy road, one from the inside of the rider’s lane and the other from the outside, demonstrating which lane position provides the rider with the better view and greater safety.

Other photos reinforce the message of the text—like the picture of the orange road sign on page 168, which says, PAVEMENT ENDS. A few are there for light entertainment (see page 189).

Many of the pictures are quite simply eye-popping. This is the second edition of the book. My one suggestion for a third edition would to be to include a legend in the back that tells readers where they can find some of the supremely scenic rides captured in the pics. (Several, I can tell, are of places on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state, including the Hood Canal Bridge.) The photographers deserve special notice for their crisp and often perfectly composed photos.

A chief virtue of this book is the use of diagrams, the likes of which I’ve seen in no other book. Read the brief sections on rake and trail, steering head rise and fall, mass shift, and contact patch location, then study the diagrams that go with them. Suddenly, things you’ve experienced without thinking about them will make sense.

Hough’s book would be worthy of a five-star rating for any one of several features. The best, I think, is his treatment of the ways motorcycles behave in real-world conditions. Hough makes a convincing case that the more you understand bike behavior, the better and safer you’ll ride. That’s a good thing you can never get too much of.

(I remember asking about bike behavior during the classroom portion of my Motorcycle Safety Course. The instructor, who struck me as condescending and arrogant—and bored—said that none of that mattered and that it would only make things more confusing. To be sure, the interaction of gravity, gyration, forward energy, motorcycle mass, fork rake, and tire profile can be confusing. But it does make a difference to riding ability, comfort, and pleasure if you know something about why a motorcycle handles the way it does. The same goes for flying an airplane, sailing a boat, sea kayaking, and downhill skiing.)

Hough’s manual comes replete with practical and beneficial exercises. Some you can do sitting on your mount with the motor turned off.

The most important part of your motorcycle is the part that’s mounted between your ears. Hough does not tire of making this point. But he goes further and explains what you need to learn and keep in mind while riding. He actually explains the concept of habit and the need to practice certain specific techniques during all riding so that they become habit. Much on-the-fly practice will be just what you need in a “panic situation.”

Chapter 1, “Risk!” confronts the dangers of motorcycling, a mode of conveyance that is so exhilarating in part because of the risks. Hough gets into stats regarding different factors that contribute to fatal accidents on a motorcycle. There’s a quiz at the end that helps to quantify your own individual risk quotient.

Chapter 2, “Motorcycle Dynamics” gets into body English and countersteering. Here is some of the best stuff in the book. Hough explains why leaning turns the bike, why turning your head toward your destination in a turn and keeping your eyes up give you greater control, and why laying a bike down in a tight, slow turn can be avoided by keeping the engine pulling through the turn. He also explains how the size and anatomy of different bikes affect cornering. You could be surprised how useful it is to know that the steering head of your motorcycle rises and falls in cornering.

Chapter 3, “Cornering Tactics” is all about . . . cornering: how to prepare for the unknown around a corner, how to brake into a corner, and so on. The chapter concludes with exercises for overcoming specific and recurring difficulties for the individual rider.

Chapter 4, “Urban Traffic Survival” develops a method for anticipating trouble and staying out of panic mode. A collision may some day be inevitable. What do you do? How do you practice up for something like that? You can manage a collision with better results if you know what to do. The section on “Superslab Tactics,” dealing with freeway and motorway riding, is filled with good sense you may not hear anywhere else. (In chapter 6, Hough explains why lane-splitting, “not illegal” on California freeways, is often the ideal freeway-riding technique if done properly.)

Chapter 5, “Booby Traps” is devoted to road surfaces, obstacles, and end-of-runway situations. Suppose you need to swerve off the road and over a curb running parallel to your trajectory. What do you do? How do you practice for something like that? What about deer, livestock, and dogs with whom you’re liable to make an acquaintance?

Chapter 6, “Special Situations” covers preparation for riding in different weather conditions (rain, heat, cold) and at night. “White-lining” or “lane-splitting” is treated here.

Chapter 7, “Sharing the Ride” gets heavily into the peculiar group psychology of motorcyclists. Here you’ll also find the usual treatment of group formation. Hough includes good coverage of special situations, like splitting the group at a red light, a single rider accident, and communication among riders while on the road. Here, too, is where Hough deals with the joys and challenges of adding a second rider to your mount. There are discussions of trip preparation (i.e., proper packing), and the possibilities of going with sidecars and trikes.

There’s an extensive index, making this a book you can turn to as a reference now and then. I suggest reading the two-page glossary at the back of the book before reading the chapters. That way you’ll know what Hough means when he speaks of “hanging it out” or “rolling on the throttle,” “target fixation” or “trailing brake.”

David Hough is a pleasure to read. He’s a skilled rider and writer. This book is the product of decades of riding and publishing articles on riding proficiency. He writes with good humor and exceptional clarity.

Who should buy this book? Every motorcyclist should read this book. I don’t exaggerate. I’d almost go as far as to say, “Real motorcycling friends don’t let friends become motorcyclists without studying Proficient Motorcycling.” Moms, if your kids grow up to become bikers, get them this book. Wives, if your husband hasn’t grown up yet, and wants a motorcycle, get this book for him, and make some kind of deal. Husbands, if your wife wants to ride, make sure she has her own copy. And if you don’t want to be tempted by the blandishments of motorcycling, keep your hands off this book!

The cost of the book is cheap insurance for the rider who knows that skills can always be improved, and that improved skills increase the odds of surviving out there on the road.

Notes:

  1. My copy, ordered from Amazon for $16.47, came with a bonus CD featuring three recent issues of Motorcycle Consumer News. For the Amazon page, click here.
  2. David Hough is also the author of More Proficient Motorcycling and Street Strategies: A Survival Guide for Motorcyclists.

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About Doug Geivett
University Professor; PhD in philosophy; author; conference speaker. Hobbies include motorcycling, travel, kayaking, sailing.

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