Riding Skills Series: Vision Quest

Seeing both the big picture and the little details

Courtesy of Yamaha Racing

When you're riding at speed on your bike, its crucial to be thinking well ahead of your current position on the pavement. This is why the mantra, “Keep your head up and your eyes looking far ahead where you want to go,” is reinforced so often in riding schools for both the track and the street. Things can happen very quickly, and if you aren't prepared far in advance for the control inputs and actions you'll need to perform at the exact time they're needed, it will already be too late.

How you use your vision is critical in keeping yourself ahead of the motorcycle (and any hazards that may materialize in your path), and a fundamental skill that is often overlooked in this area is using your peripheral vision. We covered the basics of peripheral vision way back in the October 2009 issue (“Peripheral Vision”), and in this edition of Riding Skills, well go a step further into explaining the benefits of using it and other vision skills to your advantage.

Peripheral vision is the ability to see objects and motion outside of the direct focal point of your sight line. This describes being able to see “the big picture”; you can notice and discern things all around the area you are looking at without actually looking at them. Utilizing and fine-tuning this ability pays huge dividends in staying ahead of the motorcycle and any situations you'll encounter. But in many scenarios its how you use it that makes all the difference.

Utilizing peripheral vision allows you to know your precise location on the track without actually looking while simultaneously avoiding hazards, as Marc Marquez demonstrates here, lifting his knee (and elbow) high enough to avoid hitting the rumble strips on the track's edge.Courtesy of Repsol Honda

For instance, the obvious benefits on the racetrack are that it allows you to always be focused far ahead on where you want to be while maintaining enough situational awareness around you to keep yourself on your intended line or react to unexpected hazards. Part of knowing where you are on the racetrack at all times means being able to see various reference points—even if you're riding in close quarters with other competitors who can block your view of your normal reference points.

The problem is that compared to other animals, a humans peripheral vision is comparatively poor. The farther from the line of sight you get, the more difficult it becomes to discern objects and movement. This means developing your peripheral vision to its fullest through exercises (many can be found on the Internet) is paramount to avoiding common racetrack mistakes, such as spending too much time looking at your markers as you approach them. You're covering a lot of ground at speed, and without making use of peripheral vision early enough so that you can keep track of your marker without looking at it, youll be rushed in looking for your next reference point, possibly leading to a cascade of mistakes.

Proper vision skills also allow you to know exactly where you are on the track or road when your vision is partially blocked. It's doubtful that Marquez is checking out a sticker on the back of Jorge Lorenzo's Yamaha at this point.Courtesy of Yamaha Racing

Another example is a turn apex. You need to be able to see the apex and watch it pass under your wheels without looking at it. If you watch MotoGP or World Superbike racers go through a turn with rumble strip curbing on the tracks edge in slow motion, you'll note they're able to lift their knee puck right before it comes in contact with the curbing, avoiding a potentially dangerous situation—all while keeping their gaze looking far up the racetrack.

On the street it becomes a bit more complicated because of the numerous hazards that can materialize in front of you. Add to that mirrors and an instrument panel that need to be checked on a regular basis yet are farther out of the line of sight (you're not in a racing tuck most of the time like you are at the racetrack), and its obvious that more than peripheral vision is necessary for your survival on public roads.

This is where scanning comes into play. Scanning is continuously moving your focal point to various areas near and far without remaining in one spot for longer than a second. Note that you must use your eyes to move your gaze—not your head; your eyes can swivel in a fraction of the time and with a fraction of the effort that is required to turn your head even the slightest amount, and moving your head can blur your vision momentarily as well as drastically change your peripheral field of view.

Proper vision skills are critical on crowded public roads, where you need to maintain situational awareness on nearby vehicles, road conditions, and your instruments and mirrors.Dean Groover

The combination of scanning and peripheral vision permits you to survey your surroundings more carefully. It also helps you to avoid target-fixating on a surprise hazard because you don't get in the habit of staring at any one spot too long, so its easier for you to look for an escape route while keeping track of the threat in your peripheral vision. As the saying goes, “you go where you look,” and target-fixation is probably the leading cause of auto/bike collisions in the country. We can virtually guarantee that if you stare at the threat, you will run into it.

Proper vision skills take some practice and experience, but once you've gotten into the habit of applying them, their ability to assist in improving your riding (and safety) is immeasurable. And the effort required once they're second nature is a fraction of any other riding technique.