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Never give up, just lob it in

MATTMind over matter. It’s all in your head. Just believe. All these trite sayings, as applied to riding a bike, can actually – if performed properly – be the difference between life and death.

A bit dramatic for sure, but it’s true, I tell ya! Take it from a professional bike rider who has taken the piss, bent the rules, outright tickled Satan’s sack with a scuffed Alpinestars toe slider – and learned the hard way but also, miraculously, survived the past 35 years of riding bikes on the road. Irresponsibly it has to be said, with an attitude that was careless at best, downright suicidal at worst.

I’m often asked for riding tips, and it’s a subject I want to cover (and definitely will start to do so in the coming weeks on the show) but ultimately, when someone asks for my best riding tip, it boils down to “Never give up.” (But, also, “know when to give up” which complicates matters, but more of that later).01

I know, and have even seen with my own eyes, that many accidents happen that really shouldn’t have happened. The reason was not the bike in any way, it was the rider. And not the rider’s ability, exactly, but his or her belief and sang froid in the moment.

‘Sang froid’ just means, because I live mainly in France at the moment and I want to sound way more clever than I actually am, ‘cold blooded’. It describes the propensity to think in a relatively cool and calm manner in the face of great stress, and this is what you need if you ever find yourself in difficulty on a bike.

It cannot be taught, only experience (numerous racing crashes and an unfortunate amount of bins on the road too, in my case) will help, as will visualisation. 02Visualisation is an underrated way to train your reactions. Thinking about potential nightmare scenarios – whether it be in bed at night before you drift off to sleep, behind the wheel on your daily commute or even sipping a coffee during a break at work – can, I believe, help prepare you for such a dreaded situation if it should ever actually materialise.

The accident that arises most frequently is running wide in a corner, either off the road entirely or across the road and into oncoming traffic. It goes without saying that the punishment for this type of mistake can be extremely severe.03I am convinced that most of these incidents would never have happened, if only the rider had not ‘given up.’ I’m talking specifically of the scenario – usually encountered by the relative novice – whereby they get into a corner at what they think is too fast a speed. 

They panic, do what is entirely natural and look at the outside of the corner where it seems they will crash and then that’s exactly what happens. They climb into the brakes, the bike stands up and they are now doomed to exit stage left at the point on the edge of the road where their eyes are still transfixed. 

If they understood how capable are even a basic bike’s tyres and its chassis’ ability to lean and take a corner then they could force their eyes – in spite of the natural, panicked glance at the outside of the turn – back to a point through the corner on the natural line and exit, and in the vast majority of cases they would make it through the corner.04You can practise this through visualisation, being prepared mentally to deal with what you think is a lost situation like entering a corner too quickly, and it may just give you the confidence and decisiveness to ‘never give up’ and at least attempt the turn.

Ideally you would let go of the brakes entirely, or trail them delicately deep into the corner, but this type of skill takes years to develop and to execute properly needs the benefit of some racing experience. But, even if you do end up using too much brake and you ‘lose the front’ then this low-side type of crash has a significantly increased chance of less severe consequences than does heading off the road still upright, and invariably at greater speed.

At this point it’s worth mentioning that on some rare occasions it is better to know when to give up, although admittedly I may just be confusing the issue for some of you!07This is the type of decision that if you race long enough then you’ll probably have to face at least once. It happened to me at turn two at the previous incarnation of Kyalami’s layout, a good 4th gear 180km/h sweeper. The front end started to fold on me and in responding to the impending crash, probably rather too clumsily, I found myself in the gravel trap upright at a silly speed barely holding on to the bike as the tyre wall loomed.

In what must have been a literal split second I weighed up the relative merits of coming to a very sudden stop against the wall while still on the bike or jumping off and cartwheeling through the gravel.

I jumped off. I walked away from the crash. The bike returned to the pits on the back of a truck and nearly bankrupted me when I had to fix the ridiculously heavy damage.

That was a case of knowing when to give up. It happens less frequently on the road, but situations can still arise where you need to make a similar call. Being mentally prepared can give your decision making that extra bit of speed that could save you even if it is at the expense of your bike, which can always be repaired or replaced.

The finest example of never giving up I have ever witnessed was in Northern Ireland at an old World War II airfield that had been converted into a circuit around which I and the journalist behind this website were racing a Yamaha R6 in the British Endurance Championship.08Because it was Northern Ireland it was pissing down, a proper epic kind of deluge that had soaked you through to the skin within the first lap, waterproofs on or not. And because it was Northern Ireland and I had set up the team we were hungover from a pre-race night on the Guiness. 

The spray generated by the other bikes made visibility almost zero and we were wondering when they were going to red flag the race. They didn’t. Our third rider came in and out went Bill, muttering to himself and anyone who would listen about the madness of riding in such conditions and how he was probably going to be dead within minutes.

Leaning on the pit wall I watched his first few laps, although he had a couple of decades of drag racing on the international stage under his belt I think, if memory serves, this was his first circuit racing experience. He was, despite the weather, obviously enjoying it because his times were getting quicker and he was overtaking people.

But then he got a bit carried away, and lost concentration for the briefest of moments. Slipstreaming two bikes down the start-finish straight the spray was worse than ever and he found himself in the process of barrelling past them just as the second gear left-hander at the end of the straight appeared.

As he later admitted he frightened himself half to death at the sudden realisation that he was on the outside of them as he entered the corner hard on the brakes but still carrying what he thought was too much speed for the turn.

But rather than giving up and heading off into the tall grass he decided to “lob it in, let go of the brakes and hope for the best.” We gasped in amazement on the pit wall, almost convinced that the whole overtaking around the outside move was planned – badly – because we didn’t expect him to emerge from the cloud of spray on the corner exit, but he did.

Even if it was a near fatal mistake it still ranks as one of the best overtakes I’ve seen, and it all came down to the experience needed to believe in the bike and the tyres and having the presence of mind to not give in to the temptation to panic and run off the track, but to at least try and make the corner even though at the time even he was convinced he was effectively in the act of crashing.

Preachy waffling over. There’s some potentially life-saving info in there somewhere, but essentially it all boils down to “never give up.” So don’t; you might as well crash trying to make the corner, don’t you think?

Mat Durrans

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