In this post, I share details of the system of riding I’ve developed that I apply every time I get on the bike. It has allowed me to ride efficiently and safely these past fifteen years and I hope sharing it here will do the same for you.
In my opening post on this site I mention I teach the UK police pursuit method, along with my own system I’ve developed over my years of riding. I call it SOAP (Speed, Observation, Anticipation, Positioning). It’s a system of riding developed over many years that is easy to learn and can be applied easily to any riding situation.
How did this system come about? Like most systems designed to keep you safe or rules that exist to protect you – it was born from an adverse experience / situation back in 2001 when I had my one-and-only motorcycle accident that left me with a broken left knee, a broken left collarbone and two weeks in hospital…
Broken bones and a nasty accident is usually enough for most riders to call it a day – but I didn’t want to. I knew deep down the accident was of my own making. Being honest with myself, I’d been riding badly. I was still a fairly new rider, but in the time I’d had my license, I’d developed some nasty and dangerous habits… Riding too fast and far too aggressively, I’d started to develop an air of invincibility and an increasing annoyance level with cars. I was an accident waiting to happen. And it did. But the accident gave me exactly what I needed – a good hard slap in the face. It woke me up. It taught me I wasn’t invincible and that it’s only a matter of time before speed and aggression on a motorcycle will bite you hard. And when it does – it hurts. Not getting back on never crossed my mind – but choosing to ride again did come with a condition: that I would never put myself in a position where I was vulnerable to an accident again…
15 years and hundreds of thousands of motorcycle miles later – my promise is still intact. My accident in 2001 remains my sole and only motorcycle accident and the system of riding I taught myself that I am going to share with you here is what allowed me to enjoy motorcycle riding to it’s fullest – but that has kept me safe whenever I do it.
So let’s dive in!
After months of painful physiotherapy and getting the bike fixed, I was ready to get back on. Once I did, I immediately noticed the old rider had gone. Aggression, diving into gaps, taking chances and too much speed had given over to patience, calmness and common sense. Helped by the self-preservation mode the accident had automatically put my brain into, those were the words I now rode by. I wasn’t riding like an old woman, scared half to death if anything moved – I just adapted my riding and minimized my accident risk at all times. It took many years for this way of riding to crystallize and to develop it into a formal system you are about to read in this post, but I realized I was riding according to four key tenets:
And lo – the SOAP system was born. It can be visualized like this:
All four pillars are connected to each other, and most importantly to you, the rider, as the dot in the middle. When you ride – the dot in the middle (you) moves around inside the square as you lean more heavily on certain areas in certain situations, but each pillar connects to the other three because they are all related. Let’s dissect each one of the four areas of the system in turn:
You’ll read about this one elsewhere on the site, but your speed on a motorcycle and your chances of an accident are directly proportional. When I talk about speed, I am not talking about what the speedo says in isolation. It’s relative to two things:
- Speed of other vehicles around you
- Prevailing conditions (road, weather etc)
Doing 60mph through congested traffic that is all doing 10mph? Idiotic. You are not giving yourself time to react – or other drivers time to react to you when your speed is so much higher than everyone else. Is it raining? Icy? Road is poorly maintained? Potholes, loose gravel etc? Make sure your speed matches the conditions.
Your bike can accelerate and scrub off speed far more effectively than any car – use this to your advantage to lower (and raise) your speed appropriately. The faster you are going, the less time you are giving yourself to react, and more potential hazards develop. As your speed increases, you take more chances, your risk-taking rises, you start getting into 50/50 situations and your propensity for mistake-making goes up. Think about that for a second. Mistakes happen most often when riders are in a hurry. They rush through a corner, try to pass a car at an inappropriate time, or try to beat a red light. They blast through an unfamiliar stretch of road trying to keep up with a mate. Experienced riders know these sorts of things are usually not worth the risk. Ask yourself – why are you in a hurry? Is it really worth putting your life at risk for? Better to arrive 10 mins late to your destination than not arrive at all….
Instead of increasing your speed and therefore risk-taking and mistake-making, try laying back in traffic, open your following distances and wait for opportunities to open up so you can move through traffic safely. Having patience (and an innate sense of calm) while riding gives you time to make good decisions on the road and ensures you arrive at your destination in a relaxed state.
There is so much more emphasis on good, all-round observation on a motorcycle than there is in a car, for a few reasons. You just don’t have the same safety net around you on two wheels as you do on four and you have smaller mirrors and larger blind spots. There are also far more things that are no big deal to cars that can cause real harm to you on a motorcycle. Loose drain covers, pot holes, gravel etc can be huge hazards if you hit them on a motorcycle so learn to build your observation of these things into your riding. It’s vital to maintain a good, clear view ahead of you at all times, but also to the side and behind you. Always maintain good rearward observation, especially when pulling away or scrubbing off speed. Cars cannot stop as quickly as you can and always anticipate the dozy / distracted driver behind you that hasn’t noticed traffic up ahead all grinding to a halt… Be aware of vehicles and hazards either side of you and minimize your time next to them. Build headchecks into your riding. This looks directly into your blindspots for vehicles or other hazards. Called lifesavers in the UK (for good reasons!), a check behind should be the last thing performed before executing a change of lanes or direction.
Not only do you need to be constantly aware of everything immediately around you, but also be aware of what’s happening far away in the distance. Build forward planning into your riding to eliminate surprises by looking as far ahead as you can. Sometimes this will mean actually turning your head and following a twisty road up and into the canyons with your eyes – but you should be constantly checking far ahead for anything out of the ordinary. Flashing lights, stopped traffic, roadworks are all good indicators of problems and reduced speed ahead. By giving yourself much more time to react, you’ll have a smoother, more confident ride.
All 4 pillars of the SOAP system are important, but if i had to rank them in order of importance, I’d put this one at the top of the list. All the other three pillars of the SOAP system roll up into this one. Most motorcycle accidents can be attributed to the same root cause – the rider failed to anticipate a situation ahead and react accordingly. That may sound like I’m putting a lot of responsibility on the rider’s shoulders and not the idiot in the car that’s done something stupid – and I actually am. The burden of responsibility to avoid an accident is solely on you dear rider. Why? You do not have the luxury of being transported around in a protective metal cage. You do not have airbags, side impact protection bars or a seatbelt. Most of the time I see riders here in Los Angeles without even the most basic rider protection at all (gloves, boots, jacket etc). Some moron in an SUV may have just pulled out in front of you and caused you to T-bone into the side of him and it may well be his fault – but you will be the tangled mess lying in the road – not him. It’s all very well blaming cagers – but if you are always the one that is 100% worse off, then at what point does it become your responsibility to avoid an accident instead of their responsibility for causing one?
The drunk running the red light? My fault for not seeing him coming. The guy who quickly nips into the carpool lane on the freeway? My fault for not noticing he’d been changing lanes for the last half mile. The old lady pulling out of a side street? My fault for not noticing her. Observing activity ahead and anticipating how it may change to cause a hazard is the single biggest skill you can develop as a rider. Ride like everyone around you hasn’t seen you and anticipate anything and everything that could happen. This will not only cause you to position yourself in the best position to avoid trouble, but will also dial out surprise. When we are surprised as riders, we have to react extremely quickly. This causes all sorts of problems, but reacting in a panic causes brake levers to be snatched, wheels to become locked, stability to be compromised and relying on other road users around reacting equally quickly. Really good anticipation, which rolls down into appropriate use of speed and optimal positioning will take those “oh shit!” moments and turn them into “ok – there’s that hazard I was expecting to see” ones. By anticipating dangers and hazards, you’ll reduce the element of surprise and be far more in control of your riding.
The final pillar of the SOAP system concerns the position of your motorcycle on the road, relative to other road users and potential hazards. The concept of positioning on a motorcycle is a far more advanced concept than positioning in a car. Your motorcycle is much thinner and far more nimble than other vehicles around you – use that to your advantage when it comes to positioning. Don’t be that rider that sits in the middle of the lane come hell or high water. You have the width of an entire lane – use it. It’s perfectly ok to move around in your lane from side to side to:
- keep yourself out of harm’s way,
- give you the best view ahead, and
- make you more visible to other road users.
Your bike can accelerate and decelerate quickly just by rolling on and off the throttle and flicking up and down through the gears. Use this to position yourself by increasing and decreasing your speed as well your lateral (left and right) positioning.
You may have seen some safety books talking about creating a safety “buffer” or “cushion” while riding and this is what positioning is all about. Your positioning should aim to always keep a buffer zone or safety cushion around you at all times. Note I said “around you” and not “in front” of you. Your optimal position on the road is one that takes in a 360 degree observance of everything around you, and constant anticipation of hazards. There’s no point giving yourself a nice gap to the car in front if that means the car behind is now on your rear wheel. Or you may have a good cushion front and rear but you’re sitting next to a car in the lane next to you. What if that car has to swerve suddenly when that dog darts out into the road? You should be constantly using the speed, width and nimbleness of your machine to position yourself where you have the maximum safety net at all times. Your inability to change position due to changing traffic situations or conditions ahead reduce (or even eliminate) this safety net.
A crucial component of correct positioning is time. Give yourself lots of it. It’s easier to move the bike to a safer position the more time you give yourself to do so. You should be scanning as far ahead as you can see for potential hazards and fully aware of what is also going on behind and to the side of you at all times. Move yourself to a position that gives you as much of a cushion as possible.
So that’s the SOAP system explained. In isolation they are really not that effective (no point positioning yourself perfectly if your speed is way too high and anticipation is non existent) but by using them all together, they form a powerful riding technique that will keep you safe, whatever the road and conditions.