Skill vs. Risk
A common misunderstanding among n00bs about speed has to do with skill and risk. On the street, the fastest rider isn’t necessarily the one with the best skills. More likely, it’s the one willing to take the most chances. If two riders reasonably close in ability are on the same road, the one who reaches the top of the hill first will be the one who put himself in greater danger. In fact, a better rider—one with a shelf full of trophies to prove it—may fall behind because he’d rather take his chances with a gravel trap tomorrow than a guardrail today.
If you’re unaware that risk trumps skill on the street, your competitive nature might cause you to take chances that, under different circumstances, you’d never even consider. Following your buddy over a nice bit of twisty pavement, he starts to pull away. You’re not about to let that happen, so you pick it up a bit to keep him in sight. Maybe you feel completely confident at the elevated speed, and if so, that’s fine. You’re digging deeper into your reservoir of skill to maintain his pace. But maybe you don’t feel so comfortable, and you begin to make mistakes that could turn out badly. Now you’re keeping up not with skill but by increasing risk. At that point, if you want to get home safely, back off and let him go—even if it cuts the ego a bit. Never get into a risk-taking contest on a motorcycle. A rider who would play Russian roulette with two loaded chambers will beat a rider whose limit is one—though he has a much shorter life expectancy.
Choosing your risks
The risks we face on the street come in different forms. There’s the risk that the next turn will be strewn with gravel just beyond your line of sight. There’s the risk that the oncoming minivan driver isn’t looking far enough ahead to figure out that your motorcycle—at 120mph—is going to interfere with his left turn. There’s the risk that you won’t judge your speed for the upcoming turn well and enter it too hot. These three examples comprise two very different categories of risk. The first two are unknown to you. You’ve never seen the turn before, and the driver is just a random figure behind the wheel of a random vehicle. But the last is something you have experience with. You’ve practiced judging turn-in speeds and making accurate steering inputs, so you have some idea how likely you are to make a mistake (and we all make them). It’s the kind of risk you can estimate with a bit of confidence. Prefer risks that depend on your own skill. Avoid risks that depend on random events.
We take risks for the promise of a reward in the form of fun, but the risk/reward relationship can vary widely. Riding fast in traffic or into a blind turn carries high risk, but the payoff in fun may be no greater than riding at the same speed in a safer spot. Imagine that you’re approaching a two-turn combination you’ve taken many times before, a blind right-hander followed by an open left-hander. The blind turn carries higher risk: there could be gravel on your line today, or an oncoming cage that blew the previous turn could be on your side of the road. Yet the knee-dragging fun is the same as for the open turn. So comparatively, the blind turn is a rip-off—too costly in risk—while the open turn is a bargain—same fun for less risk. Demand the most reward you can get for the risks you take, and if the price is too steep, take your business elsewhere. You won't have to ride very far to find a better deal.
Riding safely fast on the street is a highly brain-intensive activity; the size of your peaches has nothing to do with it. It requires constant assessment of sightlines, surface, distractions, and other environmental elements. But even more importantly, it requires continuous evaluation of your own performance. We all have good days and bad, good turns and bad. As the Sport Rider essay "Degrees of Control" noted, the best feedback we get is from ourselves.