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bike and blackboardReview: "Proficient Motorcycling" by David Hough

Published by Bow-Tie Press. Reviewed by ET.

'Proficient Motorcycling, the Ultimate Guide to Riding Well', Bowtie Press, Second Edition, (c) 2008.

David L. Hough was born in 1937, and was a rider all his adult life until advancing age caused him to cut back on riding when he turned 70. He wrote the regular 'Proficient Motorcycling' column for Motorcycle Consumer News for years, and he has other books to his credit, including the 'Street Strategies' collection and a sequel to 'Proficient Motorcycling', published in 2003. He's been an MSF (Motorcycle Safety Foundation) instructor and making safer riding sexy has been his greatest accomplishment.

book coverHough is the ultimate wise old biker, and he writes from a deep love of two (and three) wheeled riding. The rest of us do well to pay attention. The writing style is lucid and descriptive, and he has a knack of zeroing in on the important stuff. He is probably the widest-read of US bike writers, for good reason.

The book is an 11X8 inch paperback, with 285 pages and is slickly produced, with good production values and lots of illustrations. It is not a quick read. Like 'Roadcraft', you have to get on a bike and try things out every now and then, and there are frequent meaty bits that require thought.

He's not stuffy, either. While many bike safety experts decry track days and advanced, sport-inspired training, Hough has taken training from former Motorcycle Consumer News colleague Lee Parks, and frequently refers to it. We liked Lee's training too, and share Hough's view. We agree that riders can benefit from knowing advanced cornering technique and most of us have enough sense not to abuse this knowledge on the street. If a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, Hough's book is dynamite.

Risk and Reward

Like many works on this subject, the first chapter is about risk. Hough mines the very old Hurt data and more recent NHTSA (National Highway Transport Safety Admin.) numbers to present a cogent analysis of risk factors in riding, with numerous charts and graphs, and he includes a questionnaire for the reader to score his risk exposure. He then outlines a number of ways a rider can approach the risk factors and improve her individual odds. He reviews training, sight distance, traffic law compliance, common hazards, evasion skills and practice, situational awareness, protection and mitigation and conspicuity/visibility issues. These are all close to Bikesafer's heart, and nicely presented. We have studied Hurt and not noticed some of the points he mentions. For instance, Hurt was done in a city (Los Angeles) while most riding in the US is done in rural areas for leisure. It never rains in LA, though it does, a lot, in the rest of the country. Deer bike collisions are rare in LA (but very common in Pennsylvania, for example). And we never noticed the increase in crashes reported for riders with a few years of experience, which Hough acutely examines. This is as good an introduction and motivator for studying bike safety as we have seen.

Motorcycle Dynamics

The second chapter is an analysis of motorcycle dynamics. Steering geometry, contact patch, friction dynamics, cornering and countersteering, center of gravity and braking are explained simply with pictures. The chapter finishes with an extended discussion of braking and quick stops, and the need to practice emergency braking. Although we've been thinking about these subjects lately, we had a lot of food for thought here. We note and approve Hough's take on following and sight distances. He recommends minimum sight distances of 4 seconds at 30 to 50 MPH and 7 seconds over 70 MPH, and his braking distance graph on page 73 is similar to our analysis.

Cornering Skills.

The third chapter builds on the motorcycle dynamics chapter to deal with the critical skill of cornering. As this is one of the major skill deficiencies that features in a lot of single-bike and multi-vehicle accidents, the emphasis placed on cornering is appropriate. Hough starts out simply with the familiar 'Slow, Look, Lean and Roll' from your basic rider course, and proceeds to dissect every aspect of these moves. Again, there's acknowledgement of Lee Parks' tactics, especially in the areas of choosing a line with delayed flop points (apex) and the management of suspension travel and traction. There's an extended section on getting the right speed and rhythm for turns, and a homework section that made me get out my 919 and try things out. At this point, we're not surprised at the cogency of the material, the numerous illustrations and the rider-centeredness. These are all very practical pointers that helped me figure out non-optimal parts of my cornering technique, including the benefits of slowing down for turns using the brakes rather than engine braking. Hough rightly points out that brake use means that you already have your hands on the brakes with the nose down, and are more ready to respond to an issue. This can reduce reaction and braking time in an emergency. Combining this with good throttle control, delayed apex and suspension management means that you can stay upright longer and be more ready for anything unexpected in the turn. I believe that I'll be coming back to this chapter all summer.

Urban Survival and Situational Awareness

Hough on sidecar rigChapter four deals with urban traffic survival techniques. Urban traffic is a killer of bikers, even though most of us prefer to be out in the country. With the increases in use of bikes and scooters for basic transportation, and the fact that most of us have to navigate cities to get out on those country lanes, Hough lays out the basic defensive tactics and situational awareness techniques. He also covers urban freeways and superslabs, spotlighting various problem drivers, including the weaver and road-rage as seen in aggressive drivers. Disarmingly, Hough confesses to poor tactics in the past, with hints for improvement. Evasive actions - accelerating, braking and swerving - are also featured. The emphasis is on avoiding riding into problems by observation, situational awareness and early maneuvering. This chapter is an entry point for further strategy development. Hough has much more to say on this subject in the 'Street Strategies' book, which is on our future reading list. This chapter doesn't have the level of detail of the other chapters, I bet what happened was that there was so much material that an editorial decision was made to present this subject in outline and keep the real goodies for the new book. Probably a fair decision, there is so much information in the other chapters that the book is already something of a challenge.

Surface hazards are dealt with in depth in the fifth chapter, including on-road pollutants, gravel, sand and other debris, kerbs, edges, road markings and furniture, with techniques for conserving traction over them. He also deals with dirt and gravel riding, with a few dirt bike techniques, and there's a section on animal hazards, which we always thought are hard to counter. He points out that rural hazards like this are under-represented in the Hurt urban study and goes into detail on animal issues, including dogs. We've had our share of deer encounters and we think this is all good stuff.


Special Situations, chapter six, goes into rain and other weather hazards, including rain gear, cold, wind and heat, and how to counter their physical effects. He discusses night riding and vision issues, staying alert and lane splitting. Once again, we liked the approach and the detail.

Sharing the Thrill

The final chapter, Sharing the Ride, deals with group riding, passengers, bike loading and carrying capacity, with charming detail on a particular passion of Hough's, sidecar riding. Trikes are also covered, and also some specialized training on three-wheeler techniques. I have to admit, considering the ability of sidecar rigs to ride in snow and ice, and carry children and significant others more comfortably and safely, this section has me thinking of a dual-sport sidecar rig and an electric suit, for my next bike. hough portrait

There's a CDROM containing other material, mostly PDF's from several editions of Motorcycle Consumer News. It's mildly interesting, from a general interest point of view, but most of the material is off-subject from the rest of the book.


This book is written with insight and passion, by a guy who loves to ride, near the end of his riding career. Hough has since given up his beloved BMW K1 sidecar rig and has cut down on his cross-country exploits, which must be a hard thing for a lifelong rider whose life has been all about motorcycles. 'Proficient Motorcycling' is essential reading for any biker who wants to ride life to the full and make it to retirement age. Hough was inducted into the Motorcycling Hall of Fame in 2009, a fitting tribute for his accumulated body of work. We hope he's got another book or two in him.

Hough, like Lee Parks and Bikesafer.com, realizes that riding is fun and believes that increasing your skills makes it more fun, with reduced risk being a valuable outcome.

We're not saying it is all plain sailing. The book repays careful reading and actual study. Highly recommended for off-season reading and planning training priorities for the coming riding season.

We bought our copy online at a discount off the US$24.95 cover price, and received no inducement from the publisher or author.