Riding skills: Why your brain makes you ride like you do
24 June 2011 15:41
I'm writing this on a beautiful English summer's day. The birds are twittering, the sun is hot, and for the past couple of hours I've been listening bike after bike burble up the street before hitting the edge of town and howling into the open countryside beyond. I've been welding up a trailer, but the urge to drop everything and get out on the Suzuki has been hard to resist. These are my local roads. I can kick these tourists' arses.
You probably know the feeling. In fact, if you're a bloke with a fast bike (or even just a Fred Gassit fan) it would be strange if you didn't.
If you are a woman, however, chances are you won't feel any such thing.
Sure, you might want to ride, but speed and precision and dominance of other road users matters far less. "Those weekend riders are sad," reckons my wife. "There's got to be something missing in their lives." Maybe there is. So what's going on? Why are only blokes so hooked up to speed and risk?
There's a lot more to it than simple testosterone. And that's because of a simple, incredible fact: human beings of one kind or another have been around for something like 300,000 generations but for 299,400 of them we were hunter gatherers, evolving on the plains of Africa and dispersing around the globe. Only in the last 0.02 per cent of our history did the first of us start to become 'modern', and begin to live in settlements and cities. This has mind-bending implications. We might think we're clever with our credit cards and computers. Some of us even understand Ducati fuelling maps. But in evolutionary terms, we're an eyeblink away from cavemen. If you could somehow transport a baby from 50,000 years ago to the present day, and raise him in today's world, he'd quite possibly be just as smart as you or me.
Look at it from the other end and it gets even weirder. Nearly everything in your makeup, your nervous system, biochemical responses, mental capabilities and the rest of it, were shaped and perfected for a very different world than the one you live in. Evolutionary psychologists call this idea 'the stone-age brain in a modern skull', and it explains a hell of a lot about human behaviour in general and the behaviour of motorcycle riders in particular.
In hunter-gatherer societies, men and women do very different jobs. Women stay near camp, looking after the kids and foraging in the local area. To be good at this they need to be experts at building social networks and multi-tasking. Men, on the other hand, travel long distances to bring back serious protein. In their case, the ability to ignore pain and danger, and show off their prowess to their mates, is an evolutionary advantage. Above all, they¹re fascinated by goals and trajectories of objects through space, because these are the things that help you kill mammoths.
They're also the things you need to want to ride a motorcycle fast. When you're lining up an entry point for your favourite series of bends, the desire to get a perfect run through them comes from ancient hard-wiring in your brain. It's the same difficult spatial challenge as shooting an arrow, or throwing a spear, or a sling, or a boomerang at a moving target.
And of course it comes out in other ways too rugby, cricket, tennis and the rest.
But that's only half the story. It's not just enough to be fascinated by things that move through the scenery in complex paths. As any idiot male knows, there is an equally strong desire to be better at it than anyone else. And you don't need a psychologist to figure out why: being an alpha male wins you the approval and admiration of your peers, and the choice of the best females. The evidence is everywhere: motorcycle racers, no matter how plug-featured, always have beautiful wives and girlfriends; and when Stoner duffs up Rossi at Laguna we hoot and scream like a troop of chimps that's just experienced a change of leader.
Our stone age heritage also explains why most women regard men's constant desire to compete and prove themselves as a bit silly. But not all women.
Look at the top female athletes and it's obvious that a few individuals, whether by genes or upbringing, are just as competitive as men. And according to studies of top athletic performance among both sexes, even the measurable differences in muscle speed and power aren¹t that great.
There are certainly plenty of sportswomen who are stronger than Dani Pedrosa, and probably several other top riders. So could we see a female world champion one day?
I guess it depends what else you need to be a world champ. Probably more than skill, support, experience and luck, racing's top performers are set apart from their peers by their unbelievable mental strength: a total refusal to give up, even if it risks serious injury or worse. Whether that's a quality which only men can have is open to question. I don't see why it has to be. But I do wonder if any woman on the planet is stupid enough to have a serious try.
Rupert Paul's new book, "Pass the Bike Test (and be a great rider too)" is out in late August, available from www.uit.co.uk