Review: Proficient Motorcyling by David L. Hough


I’m out of bookmarks. Now when I start a book, I have to go scrounging from my bookcase for one that remains in a book half-finished. When I started reading Proficient Motorcycling by David L. Hough, the one I happened to grab was a promotional one for Douglas Burnet Smith’s collection of poems titled The Killed. I almost swapped it for another, but didn’t. As disturbing as it was to keep using this one, I was reminded each time I came back to the book why I’m reading it. I’d counter that thought with The Bee Gees song in my head: “Staying alive, staying alive . . . Ha ha ha ha . . . staying alive, staying alive.” It’s a bit macabre to think about it, but that’s exactly what David Hough wants us to do.

Hough was one of the first, if not the first, to break the ice on the subject of motorcycle fatalities. As he says in the introduction, there’s a taboo on talking about the risks: “You won’t hear much about motorcycle fatalities from your local motorcycle dealerships or in mainstream motorcycle magazines. Discussing fatalities has long been a motorcycling taboo. If a rider survives the crash, the experience might provide some bragging rights. But talking about the fatalities tends to take all the fun out of the sport for riders, and for those in the industry it has a chilling effect on sales.” So in the 1970’s, Hough started writing about the risks in an obscure little magazine called Road Rider and then Motorcycle Consumer News. Proficient Motorcycling is the culmination of those articles in one book that has become the top-selling motorcycle book of the decade.

Chapter 1 looks directly at those fatalities, using the Hurt Report, a study of over 9,000 fatalities in the Greater Los Angeles area by Dr. Hugh Hurt. Hough (the other Hough) acknowledges that a regional study will be slanted, but there has been no other major study of this kind, a fact that points to the taboo and a dearth of reliable data on the subject. Hough walks us through the data, looking at types of accidents and when they occur in a rider’s career. For example, we would expect there to be a lot of accidents in the first six months of riding, but one statistic I found interesting is that there’s a spike in the 25-36 month period. We don’t know why, but perhaps over-confidence is to blame. After 36 months, the fatalities drop off dramatically and stay low. So the lesson is to be careful for at least three years and especially during the third year.

Hough also looks at types of accidents (angle collisions, left-turners, driver error, animal strikes, etc.) and their percentages, as well as percentages of impact areas on a helmet. If you’re considering an open-face helmet, note that almost 1/5 of all impacts are on the chin-bar. We learn of other factors such as engine size, age, alcohol, and training. Not surprisingly, you are three times more likely to have an accident if taught by a friend or family member than by a professional at a school. The chapter concludes with a risk assessment questionnaire which gives you a good idea of “how far you’re hanging it out,” as Hough puts it.

Chapter 2 examines the physics of motorcycling—all the forces interacting as you weave through the twisties. There were terms here I’d never heard before, like rake and trail, and others like gyroscopic and inertial stability, centre of gravity, and centrifugal force that I was familiar with but not in as much detail as applied to motorcycling as Hough explains. Fortunately, Hough is by profession a graphic designer, so there are a lot of illustrations and photographs to help the reader through some of this abstract material. The chapter also covers cornering, braking, ergonomics, and includes exercises to practice your cornering and emergency braking. In fact, each chapter includes practical homework to help you apply in your everyday riding the concepts presented in theory. The idea is to be prepared with muscle memory when there is no time to think.

Other chapters cover cornering in more detail, urban traffic survival, booby traps like surface hazards and dealing with deer and dogs among other animals, and a chapter on special situations, like riding in the rain or at night, in extreme heat or cold, and in gusting wind. Of course some of this I’d read about in preparing for my theory test, but Hough goes into much more detail than the SAAQ booklet, and Proficient Motorcycling contains many tips and techniques for dealing with these hazards. Hough draws on his extensive experience to provide concrete examples, and provides case scenarios to show how all this applies in real-life situations.

The final chapter covers riding in groups, which has its own set of risks, although I was happy to read that my particular club is doing everything right. For example, we do a pre-ride talk, take regular breaks, ride in formation, use hand signals, and keep less experienced riders near the front. In this chapter, Hough also examines the added issues of riding two-up, and how to load your bike properly for a longer trip. The chapter ends with a section on the merits and addiction of the side-car, something not seen much in North America, and the book concludes with a final section on additional resources and a glossary.

I couldn’t help thinking as I read this book that it should be mandatory reading for all bikers. Yeah, the SAAQ booklet and online sources are a fine start, but when it’s your life at stake, why wouldn’t you want to study a book like this? It can’t replace real-world experience, but it can prepare you better for that experience and the inevitable incidents that will occur. One reason I waited over thirty years to ride is because of the risk. But managing risk is a part of life, not just riding, and a book like this is invaluable in doing that. It’s no wonder there are so many accidents and fatalities when the status quo for years has been to hop on a bike ill-prepared for the risk that riding entails. Proficient Motorcycling will most certainly lower that risk significantly and should be on every rider’s summer reading list.

All About Oil


My wife has a saying she uses to remind me to drink more water. “Water is like oil for your body,” she says. She knows which analogies work for a guy. I’m going to turn that around and say that oil is like the source of life for your engine. Using the best possible oil and changing it regularly is probably the single-most important thing you can do to maintain the life of your vehicle. Most of you probably already know this. Some people don’t. I once overheard a conversation at my garage with a woman who didn’t know she had to put oil in her car or where to put it. She’d let the car run dry and the engine had seized. But not to pick on women, I know a guy who did the same. “Ah, dude. Here’s your problem. There’s no oil in this car.”

Given the importance of oil, it’s surprising there are so many misconceptions about it. I fell to one recently by putting the wrong grade in my bike, based on a recommendation from the previous owner. He said, “You have to put 20W-50 in a motorcycle because it revs high.” So I did. Then I had trouble starting my bike once we got into the cold mornings of late fall and early spring. I started to suspect my cold-starting problems were related to oil, and a user forum referred me to I don’t know who Bob is, but he knows a lot about oil. You will find at this site Motor Oil University containing ten classes complete with midterm and final exams. Clearly, oil is the source of Bob’s life.

The following is, I hope, a fair summary of what I’ve learnt mostly at that site, but also from user forums and conversations with club members as I researched the important decision of what to put in my bike. This should be useful for car owners as well as bikers.

Let’s start with some of those misconceptions:

  • Engine wear occurs when oil breaks down at high temperature
  • Oil grades like 10W-30 or 20W-50 refer to viscosity, or thickness
  • You should choose your oil grade based on the ambient temperature
  • Engines that run hot, like sports cars and hot-rods that have high revs, require thicker oil (this is the one I fell for)
  • You should change your oil when it turns black


Engine wear occurs when the engine gets too hot

Actually, 90% of engine wear occurs at start-up. And sadly, there is no oil on Earth that fully protects an engine at start-up; a good quality oil can only minimize the damage. This is why it’s important never to rev your engine when you first start it, especially in the wintertime. My ex-wife used to get out of bed 10 minutes before her train left the station, then, in -40 Celcius Montreal mid-winter, would race the three blocks to the station immediately upon starting our car instead of walking. Don’t do this. No wonder she’s my ex.

To minimize the damage, you want your oil to be as thin as possible upon starting. So why not just buy the thinnest oil, you ask? Because there are actually two temperatures we have to be concerned about. One is starting temperature, and the other is operational temperature.

The two numbers on the oil container roughly correspond to these two contexts. But that’s about as direct a connection as you should draw, and many people (including Bob) suggest you forget about the numbers and labels for a few reasons. The W in 10W-30, for example—a reference to winter—is a misnomer. It would be more accurate to think of the first number in relation to starting temperature. Moreover, the numbers do not really reflect viscosity because viscosity changes with temperature. For example, according to Bob, a straight 30 oil has a thickness of 250 cS (centiStokes) at 75 F, but 10, the ideal viscosity, at 212 F, the optimal operational temparature.

The second number refers to operational temperature, but all liquid-cooled engines (i.e. most bikes and all cars) have a constant operational temperature of 212 F. Ambient temperature while running is only a consideration if your bike is air-cooled, like many BMWs (but not mine) that have the distinctive look of the cylinder heads jutting out sideways into the onrushing air.

Confused? You’re not alone. Now let’s add another factor.

Mineral vs. Synthetic

There are few more controversial issues amongst bikers than which is better, mineral (i.e. regular) oil or synthetic. The debate in Hell between the fallen angels in Book II of Paradise Lost has nothing on the debates in user forums on this topic. If you want to have some fun, go to a popular forum (I won’t say which out of fear of being banned) and pretend to be a newbie, asking innocently which you should use. It’s like throwing a french fry to a flock of seagulls at a tourist rest stop.

Many people believe the biggest difference between mineral and synthetic oils is that mineral is natural and synthetic is made in a lab. That’s a pretty big difference, for sure, but the more significant one for your engine is that synthetic is “naturally” thinner at start-up, the crucial time when most wear occurs. That is, it does not thicken as much upon cooling as mineral oil. The viscosity of the two are identical at operational temperature but synthetic has the edge on start-up. One point for synthetic.

Another difference is that, for example, a synthetic 10W-30 oil is based on a 30 grade oil and a mineral 10W-30 oil is based on a 10 grade oil. The mineral oil has additives in it that prevent it from thinning excessively as it heats up, and it’s these additives, not the oil itself, that break down over time. So with age, a mineral oil will lose its viscosity. This is why you have to change a mineral oil sooner, about twice as often, as synthetic oil. Second point scored to synthetic.

These additives age even outside of use in extreme temperature. Don’t store your mineral oil in the shed during winter because it will lose some of its viscosity. In fact, contrary to what you might think based on what I’ve said above, Bob says that mineral oil ends up too thick, not too thin, with age. I don’t know why, and now I’m as thoroughly confused as you must be, but thankfully Bob offers this summary, twice, because it bears repeating:

“The synthetic 10W-30 grade oil is based on a heavier 30 grade oil while the mineral based 10W-30 oil is based on a thinner 10 grade oil. They are both similar at operating temperatures yet the 30 grade based synthetic is actually less thick at startup and much less honey–like at low temperatures. This is the opposite of what common sense dictates.”

It would seem that synthetic, in the red corner, is the winner, but wait: my BMW owner’s manual says “Alert: Do not use synthetic oil.”

Ah, there’s the rub

I’ve never seen any rationale for this, not at least from BMW, but there’s some anecdotal evidence on user forums that synthetic oil can produce clutch slippage. Remember your dad yelling at you “Don’t ride the clutch!” when you were learning how to drive manual? That’s because cars have a dry clutch. But all bikes today have a wet clutch, meaning it’s lubricated by oil, the same oil that’s lubricating your engine, so you can ride it all you like, and should, because there are lots of times when you’re between gears.

But because synthetic oil lubricates so well, it can lead to the clutch slipping. Because I’m a Gemini and familiar with the squabbling twins, I like compromise, so ended up putting semi-synthetic in my bike. I only ever experience clutch slippage when I’m really givin’ ‘er, like accelerating on a highway on-ramp, and notice the tac jump but don’t feel the corresponding pull of acceleration. The upshot is that gearing is much smoother, the engine quieter, and (so I presume) the engine less worn. This summer I’m going to adjust my clutch and hopefully that slippage will disappear.

High-Rev engines need thick oil

When I was 18 I worked as a self-serve gas attendant at Sunoco. We had cans of oil stacked on the shelves inside the kiosk and the tattoo boys would pick up 20W-50 for their muscle cars. Now at 53 (next week), I can laugh at them for wrecking their prized possessions. Bob says you don’t need that oil unless you are going to the track, not the bar or corner store (or gas station, for that matter). He says that for all he knows about oil, even in a hot engine, it’s better to go thin than thick. Why?

As I’ve said, normal operating temperature is 212 F. At that temperature, most engines want the viscosity at 10 cS. The thick multi-grades have a viscosity of 20 cS at that temperature. Not perfect. But as Bob points out, when we increase the temperature from 212 F to 302 F, the 10W-30 thins from 10 cS to 3, but the thicker oil thins from 20 cS to 4, only 1 cS different. So the difference in viscosity in a hot engine is negligible while the difference at start-up is huge. If you need any more proof that a thicker oil isn’t worth the cost at start-up, Bob says that F1 cars run a straight 5 or 10 grade oil.

Change your oil when it’s black

No, change your oil when you’ve driven the recommended distance for the oil or when the recommended time has elapsed. (Remember, oil ages even when it sits, so even Grandma has to change it regularly.) There are a number of factors that can turn an oil dark, but that doesn’t mean it’s lubricating less. Don’t believe me? See this page on motor oil myths by Valvoline. You’d think an oil company would want you to change it prematurely, but they say otherwise.

The final answer

What did I put in my bike? I put a semi-synthetic Ester-based 10W-40. This vid by Ari at MC Garage says not all synthetic oils are created equal and to look for one that’s Ester-based. I read that back in the 70’s, Mobil took Castrol to court for advertising its Syntec oil as synthetic. It’s all about the base that’s used. In the end, the court decided that Castrol changed its oil enough to call it synthetic, but if you’re looking to put a top-quality synthetic oil in your car or bike, look for one that has a base of PAO (Poly-alpha-olefin) or “esters” (chemical compounds consisting of acarbonyl adjacent to an ether linkage. Are you listening, my Chemistry colleagues?).

The other goof I made was forgetting to check the oil level at operational temperature. This is contrary to a car, which you check after it has been turned off for at least 30 seconds. When I took the bike out of storage this spring, I checked the level at start-up and, not surprisingly now, it was low, so I added a good litre. Doh! BMW’s have a sump pump system and it’s essential to check oil after at least twenty minutes of riding, with the bike level, pointed North, at a full moon . . .

Fortunately I caught that one before I caused serious damage to the engine. (Overfilling can cause seals to melt, among other problems.) Now I have the oil in it that I want, and at the correct level, which apparently is on the Min. line. I hear from both The Chain Gang and my BMW guy that these bikes don’t burn oil, and it’s better to err on the side of low than high. I think I’m set now for the season, including the fall. That’s good because an oil change on my bike is a full day affair. I’m envious of Pirsig who writes of changing the oil practically while Chris takes a whiz, while on my bike I have to remove half the fairing, the crash guard, engine guard, etc.. But what I pay in labour and cost for synthetic I gain in peace of mind, knowing I’ve got the best stuff known or made by man in the crankcase.

Safe vs. Cool. Where do you fall on the spectrum?


The first night of my rider training course, the instructor asked the class: “What colour helmet are you going to buy?” Three-quarters of the class said black. Then he said that’s the worst colour possible because it’s the same colour as asphalt. The most common thing a driver says to a motorcyclist lying on the road after being wiped out is “Sorry, man. I didn’t see you!” When the trick to staying alive is being visible, it would seem a no-brainer, so to speak, to get a colourful helmet.

What colour is the instructor’s helmet? Black, he admitted. What colour is mine? Black.

Yeah, it’s the Cool Factor that draws us to making stupid decisions, like smoking when we were teenagers, or donning no helmet at all when we hop on a bicycle. Something weird happens in the frontal lobe, the part of the brain that controls judgment, when we are presented with a safe vs. cool decision. It’s like the neuropathways short-circuit to cool, by-passing all the good reasons for choosing safe.

Let’s admit something. Motorcycles are cool. They’re fun, sure, but they are also pretty cool and part of the attraction of riding is that extra attention we get on the road. Drivers stare, pedestrians turn, dudes nod, kids wave. Suddenly we’re special, and all we had to do was buy and ride this dangerous machine. Now why would we want to pull the red carpet out from underneath our boots by sporting a hi-viz helmet?

But it’s not just about the helmet. On one of my first rides in road practice I saw cruise through my peripheral vision at 120 clicks what appeared to be two naked obese people on a Harley. I did a double-take and it turns out they were wearing swimwear, she rockin’ a string bikini. My imagination flashed to what all that flesh would look like if they ever went down. Don’t they know that the implement for removing gravel from under flesh is a wire brush? Not cool.

Or there are the guys on sport bikes with their T-shirts blowing half up their backs, riders with no gloves (even a tip-over at parking lot speed will take flesh down to the bone), passengers in flip-flops, bare arms, legs, etc. etc. Like being in the Canadian bush in June, any exposed skin is potential disaster. Why do we take such risks in the interests of being cool?

Why did I choose a black helmet? Honestly, because it was 30% off and all the store had in stock, and 30% of $800 is not nothing. I used the store credit to buy kevlar jeans which completed my gear (I already had jacket, gloves and boots) from fingertips to toes, so I know if I do go down I’m at least protected to some degree from road rash. Then I went looking online for hi-viz stickers I could add to the helmet. Not all reflective stickers are the same, I discovered, and the ones I bought comply with NFPA requirements; if they’re good enough to reflect in a dark and smokey building, they’re good enough to illuminate me in a dark tunnel. And being fluorescent yellow-green, they are pretty eye-catching even in daylight. No one is going to have the excuse they didn’t see me.

“You won’t find any stickers on my helmet,” one of the younger riders in my club said. Maybe you have to be over 40, already resigned to the loss of a good portion your coolness, before safety starts to make sense. Maybe it’s because you start to value the years you have left all the more that you want all of them and are willing to trade a little coolness to shift the odds that you will. Maybe it’s how you define “cool” that shifts.

When I see riders in shorts and T-shirts, I can’t help thinking “Amateur Hour”; serious riders wear ATGATT (All the Gear All the Time). Besides, my Joe Rocket leather jacket with its CE approved shoulder pads makes me look like the football player I never was, and the knuckle armour of my Five gloves turns me into James Caan in Rollerball. Now that’s cool!