Every day’s a school day, except in a car.

“Male driver factor”. It’s probably not a phrase you know. Me neither, until a friend who’s a professional pollster used it.

In his trade, apparently, it describes groups of people whose answers to a given question will all, statistically, fall on one side of the available spectrum of choices.

In other words, if you ask male car drivers how good they are behind the wheel they all place themselves between ‘average’ and ‘Senna’ – almost nobody ever says ‘Honestly? I’m a bloody liability, me’.

I suppose it’s not really their fault. A century of car makers’ marketing departments and Hollywood studios telling them their driving ability is a metaphor for their sexual ability takes its toll.

“I see officer; more rear brake you reckon?”

This conversation came back to me recently as I flicked through a glossy motorcycle magazine. Specifically, when I got to a regular feature on how to be a better rider, written by an ex-police motorcyclist. This particular article was about safer overtakes, but the mag covers something different each month.

 

And in fact most bike mags do something similar, if not every issue then at least from time to time.

Now let’s be clear about something – as we all know, bikes are about speed and performance. Whether you ride a clapped out CB250 or a new S1000-RR Sport, bikes are quick compared to cars and even on the slowest machine the sensation of riding will always be more exhilarating than that of driving, just by definition of the physical nature of what’s required of you to make progress.

So despite the odd claim about fuel economy or the ability to beat the traffic, the vast majority of us ride bikes because we enjoy the speed, performance and exhilaration.

And yet the readers of motorcycle magazines are not outraged when an article suggests they could, in fact, ride better. To motorcyclists, who are as “performance-capability” sensitive as car drivers in most ways, it’s just accepted that you can always improve; you can always learn.

Imagine for a moment if (the excellent) Tom “Wookie” Ford, who edits the Top Gear car magazine, introduced a section called “Be A Better Driver”.

I can feel the instant, internal outrage of Top Gear readers from here at the mere suggestion that they’re not already perfect. These are people who want to own a driver’s car because they’re drivers – proper drivers. They know what apexes are and everything.

Hmmm

I’m serious. I think most readers of car magazines would flick the page at best, and many more would grumble that such articles were better aimed at “all the idiots on the road”, rather than at them. Popular it would not be, which is why it doesn’t happen.
Try it. Next time you’re in a news agent’s, flick through all the car mags you can see. I did this morning. Not one had anything in it about improving your skills (unless you count articles on track days – back to those apexes again…).

So why is this? Why the difference? Are male bikers just intrinsically “better” road users? More mature? Do we all have bigger dicks than our car driving brethren and thus have less to compensate for?

Probably not (except the dicks thing, obviously).

The truth is more mundane. Coming off a bike is likely to hurt more than crashing a car, in general. Bikes, thanks to the laws of physics, are also more vulnerable to road conditions and other outside factors than cars and, because of the performance factor, are often travelling faster. Combined, all this tends to breed a healthy respect for the skills needed to stay rubber-side-down.

Bikes are also more vulnerable to other drivers’ mistakes although – and riders hate to admit this – the statistics show that the majority of serious bike accidents are caused by loss of control of the bike (mitigated by the fact that this can be caused by external forces like pot-holes or spilled diesel).

Finally, riding a bike fast is vastly harder than driving a car fast. It’s a more physical, challenging and scary prospect. If you want to go faster around a corner in a car you slightly depress your right foot and turn a wheel. On a bike you need to shift off your seat, lean out in to space and down as the machine balance changes dramatically underneath you, steer and lean down towards the rushing tarmac. You commit your body, not just the machine.

All that means most riders actually play down their ability when talking to their peers, rather than talk themselves up. We all do it. “Nah, I’m not that quick really. I’ll do me best to stay with you but don’t hang about if you want to fuck off.” I’ve said it, I bet you have too, even when you secretly thought you’d be the faster rider.

I thought this morning about the people I ride with most often. Some are professional bike journos and are proper, proper quick, others are everyday riders and a few are newly qualified. All of them have done some form of extra training beyond what the law requires, except one who passed his test in August. It might be on or off road, core skills, police training, whatever; they’ve all done it (as have I).

I know two car drivers who’ve done that. One’s also a biker and the other is my mother-in-law who is officially an “advanced motorist” and until last week in France had never, as far as we knew, overtaken anything. We’re still reeling from the shock.

And that’s the thing isn’t it car drivers? If you’re honest you regard advanced driver training as something old people do to be safer on the road. It never occurs to you that it might make you both safer and faster, does it? Honestly now…does it?

I reckon we should challenge Wookie to run a test feature in Top Gear and then report honestly on the magazine’s next postbag. Who’s with me?

2 comments

  • Revs magazine, 1999 to 2002 (or whenever I edited it) had a motto: ‘Don’t just cruise it, use it!’. It was – surprise surprise – a four-wheel version of PB. It only featured cars with a value of £10,000 – so, basically, grey import supercars and hot hatches. We started running track days, technical features, tuning stories, and – yes – better driving features (we mucked about a lot too). Never had a complaint about them.

    I’ve met a lot of riders who claim to be slow but are, in fact, fast, and a lot of riders who claim to be fast but are, in fact slow. And riders who say they are slow and are. Funnily enough, it’s rare to meet someone who says they’re fast, and they are.

    But I’ve never met a rider who’s said they know it all.

    I tell you what though – disagree when you say riding a bike fast is more difficult than driving a car fast. Bobbins is it.

    I was at one of the aforementioned track days at Three Sisters in Wigan, with Revs. It was cheap to hire and perfect for the 205s and GTEs we invited along. I took a Mazda MX5, hired from Budget. I knew the track from PB bike tests there, so I spent all day wazzing round in the MX5 thinking I was on it, sliding it about, lapping everyone.

    A racing driver we used to use as a hired stunt cock – Dave Clark, amazing talent, top bloke – watched me for a while. I came in after the session, telling him how I felt like I was pretty quick. He smiled and said, ‘Get in.’

    I don’t think he touched the brakes once. He approached every corner flat and simply threw the car at it sideways, using the sliding tyres to scrub speed. I knew he was a gifted driver, I knew he knew how to handle oversteer (I’d seen him do that thing of drifting the car through traffic on a roundabout), but I had no idea you could go that fast on a track. I was going fast using bike lines – brake a bit in a straight line, get the speed right, peel in, apex, exit etc. He was going fast using car lines – don’t brake, chuck it at the apex and steer it on the throttle. There was no way I could do what he was doing any easier than he could get his knee down (although now I think about it, I think he could do that too).

    Driving a car is like playing the bass. Any fool can do it well enough to get by, but excellence is not easy.

  • Yeah, I should probably have expanded that point a bit Si. Didn’t mean to suggest driving fast is easy; it’s clearly not and, as you say, to do it really fast takes huge talent. I was just trying to say that the process in a car is, by definition, once removed from that on a bike because on a bike your body is an integral part of the process. You racing mate clearly has bags of talent, but he’s not required to do a Marquez 60 degrees + job to get round that bend.

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