Take a military approach to your overtakes
Planning motorcycle overtakes comes naturally to Gregg McLeod, a former Commando who uses his military training to apply a strategy to every single manoeuvre.
Jump to his military approach to planning overtakes or keep reading to understand the background to his approach.
I’ve been compelled to write this due to conversations and events that took place over the past few months. Tragically, the subject was given extra emphasis this weekend (Easter) when a riding colleague of mine lost his life in a road traffic accident. He was a hugely charismatic guy and very entertaining; he always wanted to have fun and never took life, or himself too seriously. He will be missed.
I toured Europe and the UK with this rider and he was very quick, but he didn’t always appreciate the risks, or how to mitigate them. A few of us tried to mention things to him that may make him smoother, safer and possibly faster, but he wasn’t interested. There is a point when you should step back and let people ride and learn their own way: this was the point.
Tragically it is too late for my friend but I’m writing this in the hope it will hit home with even just one rider: then I’ve made a difference.
Training: “The action of teaching a person or animal a particular skill or type of behaviour.”
The Army and motorcycle riding are very similar; I’m former military so let me explain.
It is obvious to say joining the Army is a potentially dangerous career, yet people do it every year, and no-one makes them. Riding a motorcycle is also a potentially dangerous pastime yet people ride every day, for fun and no-one makes these people ride. Both ‘hazards’ are entirely optional.
Let us focus on the military for a second. We do a dangerous job with a high risk of serious injury or death. How do we minimise this risk? Training. Lots of training.
For a single 6-month deployment to Afghanistan, the training can be 19 months. We train every possible situation, for every possible eventuality. Then we train some more and build on the initial training. We learn from mistakes (ours and others) so we don’t make them when it matters and lives are lost. We train as realistically as possible – real bullets, real mortars, real artillery, jets, helicopters. The more realistic the training, the more you learn.
When we get our next deployment, we do it all again. Country and climates vary. Situations change. Skills fade. Technology advances. We have to keep ahead of it.
Let us move back to biking. Most of us get our licence young and never touch training again. In the UK and the northern USA, we take winter off riding then get the bike out of storage and jump back on, expecting nothing has changed. Riding is a skill, more so than driving, and we get skill fade – there is a reason the Police re-test their riders every year.
We ride in busy cities, open country, mountains, and flowing canyons and we hope our basic training will keep us safe despite each environment being so different. They all demand respect and present their own hazards: to not realise this, or act upon it, is foolish at best, deadly at worst.
If you ride in a group then your riding friends, and their bikes, are all different. We all know someone faster than us and someone slower than us. We can all admit to trying to play ‘keep-up’ with the fast-friend and we’ve all pulled our slower friend into a little game of ‘catch me if you can.’
Despite this diversity, variation, and skill-fade, how often do we discuss training or do additional training? How often are we evaluated or tested? How often do we discuss our riding openly, constructively, and without ego, with our riding friends? I’m fortunate: I have skilled friends who offer advice in a constructive and open way. We discuss our riding and we learn from each other. If they make a mistake, they don’t cover it with excuses or blame others but they learn from it. Most accidents are preventable, and you can’t control anything else other than yourself so start there.
Have you heard of the ‘Four S’? Have you learned about ‘The fridge in the road?” Or what about “the limit-point?” “Slow is Smooth. Smooth is Fast.” These are all simple but vital tools that will stay with you for life.
In the UK there are countless courses available – RoSPA, IAM, ERS, Track Days, and within LMRC (London Motorcycle Riders Club) they have Corner Confidence Days and Skills Days – all free. If you’re in the London area you owe it to yourself to join this club: they also tour all over the UK and Europe.
Judgement call: What would you have done in this situation?
Another fantastic establishment is 1st Class Rider Training in South Wales. They are run by current and former Police Class 1 motorcyclists and they will improve your riding guaranteed.
Do you know the one thing that really gets to me? It’s something I can’t do anything about. It’s the fact that we will never be able to reach the riders who really need it – the ones who stopped reading after paragraph three. Those riders are the ones who think they can’t learn anything more. Training is overrated to them, and it is all about speed. Unfortunately, we will keep scraping these riders from the road into black bags. We will keep knocking on their door to see the face of their child staring back, asking when daddy is coming home. All because they were too macho/egotistical/stupid to think they could learn nothing more.
Speaking to a few people this past week, they’ve been witness to a few horrendous ‘ohshitakes’ (very similar to ‘overtakes’ but less thought out).
I thought I’d share some of what I’ve learned over the years. You can absorb it, discard it, discuss it or ignore it, but if it helps one person then I’ve done something positive.
This list is by no means complete and there is far more you can learn from proper training and advice but I hope the things I’ve not mentioned are more obvious.
My Rules for Overtaking
1. Before you take-off, pick your landing
Before you decide to overtake, decide where you’re going to pull back in. If your landing zone relies on other road-users making room, I’d suggest it’s suboptimal. You can extend your landing zone if the conditions allow – for example, a moving line of cars. You may decide for one or two cars but then the road is still clear; then move your landing and continue the process. Don’t start the manoeuvre aiming to overtake all 6 cars and hoping nothing comes.
2. Imagine you coming the opposite way. Same line. Same speed
This is straightforward. If you’re overtaking at 80mph+ on the opposite side of the road and you encounter another motorcycle doing 80mph+ then I guarantee one of you, or both of you is going to panic. Never go into the overtake (or any manoeuvre) hoping for the best. Always plan for the worst outcome and you won’t be surprised.
Whatever approach you take, be mindful that nearly 50% of road users in the UK now have some form of camera on you.
3. If it’s “probably on” then it’s “definitely off”
It surprises me how many riders overtake in precarious situations and reply, when asked why, “oh, I thought I had enough time!” If it’s not 100% guaranteed that you will make it before the car/gate/cyclist/hazard then abandon it and wait. There is ALWAYS another time to overtake. The advantage of the ‘corner marker’ system is you don’t have to see the rider in front and be on his tail.
4. Imagine taking someone with you, on a short tether
Whenever you can, try to find gaps large enough for 2 of your bikes. Imagine you have to take another biker with you on this overtake, could you both make it? If you’re only just squeezing into gaps between vehicles then you’re putting yourself at increased risk. Also, and more dangerous, if you’re only just avoiding oncoming traffic before getting back into your lane then your imaginary friend is fuc*ed…and the car driver will rightly be pissed, and your underwear will be filthy.
5. Don’t follow into an overtake
If you follow the bike in front into an overtake then you’re are riding their plan, not yours. If they have to abandon it then you’re in deep trouble. If they pull into a gap for one bike, you’re in trouble. If they go down on oil/gravel, you’re in trouble. If you regularly ride with people and you know them well, you can adapt this rule but if you don’t know them, or think they’re shit, then stay back.
6. Leave your ego at home
You may be surprised to know that you’re not a riding god! Neither am I. There is always someone more proficient (and less) on a motorcycle than you. It’s very frustrating if you’re, “Like Rossi in the straights. And Pavarotti in the corners.” If you see them in your mirrors then be aware and maintain your speed and let them do what they plan. Don’t let anyone force you to overtake.
Whatever you choose to do, may you have the wind at your back and clear roads ahead.
If you have questions, or comments, ask away to ‘editorial @ BikerandBike.co.uk (removing the spaces around the @)’ and I will do my best to respond.
Gregg McLeod is a former Army Commando (Green Beret) who has served all over the world, including Afghanistan. He ended his 15-year career working with United Kingdom Special Forces in London, England before moving to the United States of America in 2018.
Gregg learned to ride at 29, while in the Army and completed several courses and track days. He has ridden all over Europe, the UK and North America and lead groups of riders from 3 to 38 strong; he was also a former Ride Leader with London Motorcycle Riders Club.