The Dunning-Kruger effect popped into my consciousness recently. A friend had responded in a decidedly authoritarian tone explaining why my assessment of a particular vehicle’s performance was wrong, backing up their assertion with a personal anecdote.
This is classic Dunning-Kruger — the less we know about a particular topic, the more we think we know — and why David Dunning and Justin Kruger won the Nobel Prize. They found this critical cognitive bias present in all humans. Since learning of their work and reading about its impact on business, medicine, driving, aviation, and literacy, my antenna has been tuned to see the phenomenon in myself and others. For instance, I no longer freely volunteer my assessment of the performance of professional athletes or teams in bars. Never having played sports in high school, much less college, I lack the lessons and perspective on what being very good at sports looks like, making me a prime candidate for the Dunning-Kruger effect of assuming I know more than I do. Best to shut up.
But there are areas in which I have expertise and can weigh in with confidence. These areas, one being motorcycle riding, are where I’m good enough to: A) recognize the true experts and what they’re doing; B) appreciate the real work, training, and practice required to reach that level, and C) quantify the gap between my skill and theirs. At one of the first motorcycle training schools I attended taught by a former pro racer, students were asked to state how many years of riding experience they’d had. Responses ranged from just a few years to some older riders replying “25-30 years of experience.” The instructor then said, “I expect most of you have actually had just one year of riding experience. It’s just been repeated over and over.” The instructor point was to genuinely improve one’s motorcycle riding capabilities; it takes work, constant practice, and learning new skills.
My commitment to getting good at riding motorcycles worked for me and the process provided some of the most memorable experiences of my life. As a writer for Motorcycle Consumer News, I laid claim to the “motorcycle training” beat. Editor Dave Searle sent riding school opportunities or new books on rider training in my direction. He also supported me seeking these opportunities on my, which I did. This permitted me to attend rider training schools at a low cost or for free. I attended track-oriented schools, such as Keith Code’s California SuperBike School and Reg Pridmore’s CLASS, which taught the most efficient and fastest way around a racetrack, although Pridmore focuses more on translating track lessons to the street. Off-road riding schools, oriented to riding motorcycles where there are no roads, had big impacts for my riding as well. Some courses, like Gary LaPlante’s MotoVentures in Temecula, CA focused on 250-350 lbs. motorcycles and trials bikes.
Schools taught by Bill Dragoo (Dragoo Adventure Rider Training – DART) and Jim Hyde (Rawhyde Adventures), focus on teaching the art of getting large and heavier bikes like the big BMW GS or KTM 1290 to operate off-road. These require completely different techniques from lighter bikes, even though they’re both off-road.
Then there are trials bikes: learning to ride them and compete on tight, untimed, complicated multi-terrain courses where balance and control must be mastered involves skills very different than those required for the track, off-road, or the street. I attended over a dozen schools and courses, each conveying how to get a particular two-wheeled vehicle to do something specific in certain circumstances across a unique terrain. I quickly learned attending the class was just the beginning. The next step was practicing the exercises over and over until they became ingrained. Getting maximum value from these classes required practice, more practice, and then more practice after that, something my friend Kevin Ward always does and a good reason why I’ve watched his riding skills get better every year.
Attending classes is like going to “Riding School College” with practice being the homework. The “graduate school” level in motorcycle riding comes when you ride and train with professional riders. By leveraging my press credentials, the Phoenix Police Department allowed me to attend their 3-week moto-officer riding school and treat me like any other officer who’d signed up to make this career change. The class requirements were brutal. Only 12 officers were selected from over 200 applicants for each 3-week class. Of these twelve, less than half finished, graduating to become moto-officers in training. I wrote about my experience in the class here. A year later, the Arizona Highway Patrol offered me a similar opportunity and I took their class, writing about that experience in an article for Rider Magazine, titled “Top Cop Skills: The Other Side Of the Radar Gun.” These classes were intense, super focused, highly detailed, and technical. But that wasn’t the end of it. Moto-officers go back for full-day refresher training and testing every six months. Their skills are re-evaluated and failing to pass can get them off the street until they qualify again. Competent braking is one of the most critical skills for motor officers. I’ll never forget my visits to where officers picked up their bikes every morning. It was a common site to see them ride out of the garage, cross the street to an abandoned parking lot, run the bike up to 50-60 mph or faster, and then brake hard, bringing the bike to a shuddering stop. This was often repeated 2-3 times, before heading off on patrol. They never stopped practicing and tuning their skills. It was their own lives they were protecting.
After graduating from these classes and having the chance to go on some post-class rides with officers, I ended up finding another way to refine my hard-earned skills. I joined the AZ Precision Motorcycle Drill Team. The group practiced complex maneuvers at slow speeds for parades and exhibitions and competed against other professional precision riding groups. Several members were retired moto-cops. The high level of practice helped cement correct behaviors. The group practiced 4 hours every week and twice a week or more before competitions or performances. These sessions were intensely focused. No one fooled around when doing tight figure eights side by side on 700+ lbs. motorcycles.
Another technique I adopted was to annually set a motorcycle riding goal. The objective is to acquire a new skill or cross another performance level every year. As I get older the goals are more modest, but looking back, one year it was getting good at wheelies, another year navigating a set of exercises inside a nine-foot square with confidence, balancing my bike for a full minute while standing still on the pegs, or doing a rolling stoppy of more than 10 feet. It was always something and I gave myself a reward based on how early in the year I achieved my goal.
Even with all of this, the gap between those who ride professionally and me was significant. It wasn’t depressing, it was gratifying to see, understand, and appreciate what went into this next level of riding. When applying the Dunning-Kruger effect to motorcycling, I’m good enough to know how much better the pros are and the size of the delta between us. Compared to most street riders, my skills are top notch. When I’ve asked those with whom I was about to ride to assess their riding skills on a 1-10 scale, the answers were typically in the 6 – 9 range. But when I observed their riding skills, my assessment was most wouldn’t warrant higher than a 2 or a 3, and that was being generous.
Watching professional riders compete, I observe something different from what average fans sees. I know what riding professionals do to be as good as they are. I wasn’t willing or able to put in that amount of work. You could say I gave up and quit and I wouldn’t argue with that statement. I reached the point of understanding what it would take to get into this elite group of professional riders. From there I assessed whether or not I even had a chance, and then weighed the tradeoffs – was I willing to do what it would take to get that good? In any endeavor the characteristics and requirements to get “that good” and what constitutes the “real work” as Adam Gopnik wrote about in his New York Times bestselling book of the same name, can be observed and studied. In many cases, they’re even documented. The great tennis coach, Vic Braden once said: “Amateurs practice until they can do it right. Professionals practice until they can’t do it wrong.” While this sounds like a cliché, it isn’t. During motor-officer training I watched an instructor attempt to demonstrate the wrong way to execute a maneuver to illustrate a point – and he couldn’t do it. The “right way” was so ingrained, he couldn’t do it wrong. Getting to the top echelon requires a willingness to make everything else in your life secondary to this goal. It comes before everything else. Not many have the wherewithal or ability to dedicate themselves to a singular pursuit.
My riding life began in my pre-teens on a powered bicycle built by my brother. I graduated to a neighbor’s scooter, and then in high school, a friend’s Honda Trail 90. As I got older I raced motocross bikes, owned a host of street and off-road bikes and rode everywhere. But it wasn’t until my mid-30s that I began to get serious about motorcycle training. Everything before that was “a couple of years’ experience” repeated over and over.
Having developed my motorcycle skills affects the way I ride today. With little to prove, I ride at a fraction of what my motorcycle and my skills are capable of. I’m always aware there is someone else who is better, more practiced, and faster than me, and I’m fine with that. I’ll avoid the Dunning-Kruger effect by knowing what I don’t know.