Getting Mentally Prepared

If you've been driving a car all winter or just haven't rode in a while, you may need to readjust your mindset when you get back on a bike. You have to mentally change gears from being one of the crowd to being a small, hard-to-see vehicle that other motorists overlook, ignore or may even feel some animosity toward. You have to be ready to use the advantages that a bike has and react appropriately. You can actually start this transition before you get back on the bike by thinking about how driving situations would be different for a motorcycle.

The biggest change is the fact that you are harder to see than a car. At the beginning of the riding season, non-motorcycling drivers have probably forgotten to put motorcycles on their hazards list. They forget to look for you, and if they are operating at a low level of concentration, you simply may not register as they scan (or don't scan) before turning left. You can begin to deal with this by riding with your high beam on and wearing conspicuous apparel, but that isn't the whole game.

The most important thing to bear in mind is that you can easily disappear in a driver's blind spot and that most drivers won't bother to check it before turning or changing lanes. When you are riding on a mluti-lane road, you can disappear into a driver's blind spot for quite a while if you're travelling at about the same speed. When overtaking, remember to accelerate through that invisibility zone and to slow down and back out of it when a car slowly overtakes you.

Also watch for signs that indicate a driver is going to change lanes. The immediate clues are things like the driver's head turning, getting a different grip on the steering wheel, the front wheels beginning to turn or even the turn signal coming on. However, you can usually predict a turn or lane change before those actions occur. If traffic in the car's lane slows ahead, the driver may want to switch lanes suddenly to keep moving. You can often see the slowing before he can, giving you time to get out of the way. If a driver suddenly accelerates, it may indicate his intention to change lanes, turn, or make an exit. A can that slows while approaching an intersection may be preparing to turn. If the driver is busy looking both ways, unsure of which direction to turn, he certainly isn't looking for you. Stay behind or cautiously accelerate past with substantial clearance as you go by.

Your lane position can help you be seen by oncoming drivers who plan to pass. If you are the last vehicle in line on a two-lane road, place yourself to the left side of the lane, where an oncoming potential passer can see you. Otherwise, he may suddenly swerve head-on into you after he passes the vehicle in front of you.

Intersections pose the greatest danger to motorcyclists. This is where the old "I didn't see him" lament is most likely to be sung which won't do you any good if you're not alive to hear it. Traffic can attack from any direction, but left-turners are clearly the greatest hazard. You can help yourself by using a larger vehicle to run interference for you. This is most effective if the vehicle is to your immediate left as you drive through the intersection. On the other hand, another vehicle can also block the left-turner's (or a right turner's) view of you. If that car is the last vehicle he sees coming and he turns as soon as it passes, you may be right in harm's way if you are trailing a length or two behind.

If you spent the winter in a car, you will suddenly have a much better view of the road ahead when you hop back on your bike. Use it to scan well up the road and prepare for upcoming speed changes, choke points, and other events and obstacles that will affect you and the drivers around you. Avoid getting stuck behind of next to a large vehicle that you can't see over.

Anticipation is key to surviving in traffic. Because other drivers see you less and you see m ore, you have to anticipate actions - often even before those who commit them do - and prepare for them. You have to take care of yourself, because other drivers either can't or won't. You have to see the possibilities, anticipate what might happen, plan a course of action, prepare to execute it and then execute it when necessary.

Don't expect other drivers to see you or be as aware of what's going on as you are. If you know that the driver next to you is likely to swerve 100 yards ahead, you can prepare for it. If you are aware of what's happening around you, there should be few surprises, which means that you won't get mad because someone cuts you off. It will happen, and rather than losing your temper which is a good way to cause an accident, you are better off analyzing what you could have done to avoid the other guy's mistake.

To avoid unpleasant surprises, you need to keep your eyes ahead and scan well up the road or as far around the corner as you can see.

The payoff for being small is that you can slip into tiny spaces that cars can't. This is something you should be aware of constantly in traffic. Even when you stop, you should line up on the gap between lanes of cars ahead of you and stay ready to move (bike in gear, clutch in, hand on the throttle) until the next few cars behind you have come to full stops. This prevents you from becoming a bumper sandwich.

You should also be spotting escape routes when someone begins to creep out of a driveway, threatens to turn left in front of you or otherwise signals that they plan to occupy the space you intended to pass through.

If you split lanes, you are probably aware of how much space exists between lines of cars, but this isn't the only escape route. You can run up the curb side, use the shoulder of an interstate or even a driveway or take to the sidewalk. However these options are usable only if you look for them, position yourself to use them and mentally picture doing it. Scoping out your various escape routes is an important part of the mental transition from car to motorcycle.

In a car, you drive over the road noticing little more than the large objects on its surface. You can't do that on a bike, at least not for very long. After your winter downtime, get back into the habit of looking for oil (and other slipper stuff), sand (there will probably be plenty), bumps, gravel, paint and manhole covers.

You can also anticipate places that are likely to be slippery. The middle lanes at covered tollgates are always slippery, so you should stay close to the booth and not put your foot down on the other side. Cars waiting at traffic lights also dump various slimy toxins in the middle of lanes, which is why you should stay to the left or right of the lane as you approach them. Cars often spray excess fuel on the outside of freeway on and off ramp turns, which is why it's smart to hug the inside line. Dirt roads usually offer up some dirt for the surface of your lane. Rain dislodges dirt and mud from banks along the side of the road. Places with heavy truck traffic have bumpier pavement. On cold days, ice forms on road surfaces that remain in the shade all day and on bridges.

Pavement watching is one of the reasons that you don't want to follow too closely. Leaving a gap behind the car ahead gives you an opportunity to see and avoid holes or obstacles, which the driver ahead probably never noticed because they didn't affect him.

Making the shift from car back to bike requires a few days and a lot of attention by combining an attitude of vulnerability and responsibility with heightened awareness, a well-maintained motorcycle, survival-conscious routines and your newly honed skills, you should be ready for the most challenging part of the riding season and all the fun of summer.