Because stress while riding not only affects enjoyment and stamina but also how your motorcycle performs.
Think back on the last time you had a fleeting moment of anxiety while you were riding. I’m not talking about outright panic that happens when a car darts in front of you. I’m referring to that uneasy feeling you get when you’re not 100 percent sure that things will turn out okay. This can happen when faced with potentially life-threatening situations, like a scary blind turn or a dangerous intersection with drivers just waiting to pounce. Even relatively benign situations trigger anxiety, such as making a tight U-turn—an act greatly exacerbated by attentive bystanders.
Since few of us are masters of every aspect of motorcycling, we invariably experience bouts of low-level anxiety. Here is an example: You’re riding along when you notice a sign warning of a steep downhill hairpin switchback. You hate switchbacks. As you approach the turn you involuntarily tighten your grip on the handlebars and glue your eyes to the pavement immediately in front of you. Your bike is reluctant to lean into the corner, but you somehow manage to get around the bend. You decide to avoid this road in the future.
Others take a more dangerous path by denying their anxiety and carrying on as if nothing is amiss. For example: You are trying your best to keep up with some fast friends on a curvy road. You feel stressed with the pace, but instead of slowing down you soldier on. Your anxiety goes atomic after you dive into a fast right-hander that tightens more than you expected. Your eyes widen and your breathing stops as your arms become rigid. Next thing you know you’re in the oncoming lane.
Stress not only affects enjoyment and stamina but also how your motorcycle performs. It can present as simple muscle tension and narrowed focus, which can make your bike seem reluctant to turn in easily or hold a line in corners. You will have difficulty finding and following cornering lines. Your tension is preventing the bike from doing what it can do. Anxiety and tension can also cause traction-management problems, especially when the surface is wet or otherwise compromised. Being stiff makes it nearly impossible to use “soft” brake, throttle, and handlebar inputs that are key to maintaining control in low-grip situations.
Keeping anxiety and tension in check is important even under ideal conditions. Expert racers and track riders who corner at the very edge of traction are constantly monitoring handlebar tension, acutely aware of the dangers of stress.
The best riders frequently check themselves for signs of stress and then act to regain relaxed composure so they can enjoy a safer and more gratifying ride. With anxiety out of the picture, they can also identify where the stress is coming from, whether that’s a lack of confidence in their ability or trepidation about a particularly risky environment, such as a rain-slick corner or a route riddled with dangerous intersections. Whatever the source, these riders use their awareness of stress to recognize their comfort limit and then back off so that anxiety does not affect control, safety, or fun.
Anxiety and stress are very powerful tools for keeping us out of trouble if we are sensitive enough to recognize its presence and astute enough to heed its warnings. Stress can help define your personal limits and alert you to areas where you might need improvement. Pay attention to what environments, maneuvers, and situations flood your nervous system with anxiety and then acquire the knowledge and skill to become more proficient at handling those situations. Do this before you have to face a challenge that is more stressful than you can handle. In the meantime, take it slow.