The Upper Half of the Motorcycle Review
The Upper Half of the Motorcycle
On the Unity of Rider and Machine
By: Bernt Speigel
Translated by Meredith Hassall
Whitehorse Press 2010
List Price: $29.95
The Upper Half of the Motorcycle is without doubt the strangest motorcycle book I have ever read.
I’m not saying that’s bad — in fact, there may be boundless information in the book that is extremely valuable.
It’s just that I can’t seem to figure out how to extract it.
The book was not written by a racer or a magazine writer or by someone involved in the motorcycle industry.
The author is a behavioral psychologist who, according to his biography, specializes in “man machine interface work”.
Spiegel was the Director of the Institute of Industrial and Social Psychology at the University of Göttingen, Germany in the 1960’s, doing research commissioned by Porsche and other auto companies.
He’s also a motorcyclist, and has combined his profession with his passion to write this book.
Originally published only in German and, according to the publisher, very popular in Europe (in its third edition and 9th printing), Die obere Hälfte des Motorrads: Uber die Einheit von Faher und Maschine was recently translated to English by Meredith Hassall.
It took several years to do so, starting in 2006 and Whitehorse Press, who commissioned the translation, has now released the book in English.
I’m so puzzled by this book that I’m not sure how to describe it. In fact, I guess I can’t describe it — I’m sorry!
The only thing I have taken away from it is that it’s a high-level, deep discussion about the psychology of riding.
It describes the way the human mind reacts to certain stimuli and how information is then relayed back through to the physiology to do certain things pertaining to riding a motorcycle.
In the preface, the author explains that:
“This book is not about motorcycles per se.Rather, it is about motorcycle riding and the motorcycle rider as a thinking, acting, reacting human being with the unique ability to create, use, and adapt tools, instruments, equipment and machines in an integrative way as extensions, or components, of himself.”
Somehow, I get the feeling right off that this book will not be read by the T-shirt, shorts and flip-flops set on their too-loud twins.
The book is divided into 5 parts, including “It’s a Miracle That Motorcycling Works at All”; “Mind and Gut”; “The Question of Karl V”; “What’s Left for the Head to Do?” and Objectives: Give Them a Try”.
Sub-sections like “The man-machine system: a complicated matrix-patrix relationship” and “When things get crowded in your head: limited channel capacity — in sensory perception and in actions” give you an idea of what’s to come.
Not enough? How about “The phenomenon of ‘mysterious message’ transmission” or “Plateus and leaps forward“?
Sidebars such as “Orchestras, flocks and fish” opposite photos of a man lowering a bucket from a scaffold and a person playing a cello are a couple of small and obviously out of context examples of the content.
It all ties back to motorcycling — I think — but I just couldn’t stick with it enough to tell you how.
There are a lot of words in this book (literally), and I’m not sure if the translation is up to snuff or the layout could have been improved.
Certainly there are many illustrations but also a lot of black and white text that is rather ponderous to peruse. But it is a heavy, heavy read.
I just think it’s all way too cerebral; not something to bring to the beach. Or maybe it is?
Perhaps, in the winter, on one of those famed dark and stormy nights, a careful reader will take the time and energy to absorb it all and distill the essence.
It will be like meaning. That the book is so popular in Germany is a perfect illustration of culture differences.
Sorry I can’t say more.
If I knew what this book is about, I’d tell you — believe me I would!
I’m interested to hear from others who have been able to get through it and can give us a better idea.
Obviously, this is not a learn to ride book like “Proficient Motorcycling”, with quick tips that can instantly improve your riding. It’s a very, very deep take on the psychology of riding that, quite frankly, will be beyond the patience of most motorcycle riders.
I can’t not recommend it — in fact, you may want to read it yourself. If you do, please write to let us know how you liked it.
Review Date: July 2010
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From “C.B.” (March 2012): “This is a great book that deals with the mental side of motorcycling — all the things that no one told you, and you need to know.
As mentioned, it is a fairly heavy read. It’s not a book that you can expect to read through cover to cover and understand, I found that I needed to re-read certain portions numerous times until I understood it completely.
This could just be down to the fact it is a translation from a German language original, or maybe Mr. Speigel has written it as he thought best.
I have been recommending this book to a lot of people, but always with that caution — which seems well justified as I have read other reviews on Amazon.
And I even found that there is even a medical doctor who has failed to comprehend the great points to be found in this book and completely dismissed it as helpful…
To anyone who is skeptical that Upper Half could actually contain any valuable information that you haven’t heard before, just stop to think — how many times have you heard a motorcycle racer say that racing is 10% physical and 90% mental?
There’s a reason for that.
For anyone who takes the time to really think about motorcycling – indeed performance motorcycling – it’s obvious that there is a very large mental component involved.
What I find very surprising is that there are not many books or instruction that deals with the mental side.
Upper Half is a valuable resource that practically fulfills that entire void and answers questions that you hadn’t even thought about.
If you have ever struggled with being “afraid” to use greater lean angle, or being unsure about the limits of traction — this is the book that can answer your questions.
Rather than just telling you what to do, or what not to do, Upper Half actually explains the reasons behind why we are afraid to use extreme lean angles, and why we can have such trouble coming to terms with the traction provided by modern sports tyres.
This is a great approach.
Personally I found it to be much more powerful and effective once I know the reason why, rather than just doing something without knowing the reason for it.
I spent some time thinking about the points in this book, and once I “got my head right” it was amazing that it had an instant effect on my riding, and every aspect of my riding — road, track, and everything in between.
For anyone who is thinking that they are interested in learning more about the mental side of motorcycling, but aren’t sure you can make it through some heavy reading, I would recommend starting with Total Control by Lee Parks (review).
It touches on some points in a much easier to read manner. For people who want more, the Upper Half is comprehensive and sure to inform.”
From “R.S.” (November 2010), MC/MFCT Behavioral Health Expert and Motorcyclist: “After 18 years in the saddle and several very different types of bikes, I’ve learned that three very important things are staying upright, staying in the saddle, and doing what I can to do to keep it that way.
Sports, tourers, cruisers, and even gas-sipping city scooters all have two things in common:
A pair of wheels and a rider who wants to stay upright and enjoy the ride. Over the years, I’ve collected riding jackets, pants, helmets gloves, and books.
“Books” you say? Yep! Two books with post-it note bookmarks and lots of reading time in my “library” (most guys know which room I mean) are “Proficient Motorcycling (review)” and “Maximum Control (review)“.
These two books give the reader the nuts, bolts, and enough “how-to” information to develop riding skills, confidence, and let you keep grin’n upright.
Want to know how to U-turn that big, heavy bike at a snail’s pace? It’s there. Best way to enter and exit turns? There, too.
But, for those who want more, there’s the “why”. Why we do what we do can sometimes be that “missing nugget” to tie it all together; the epiphany, or “eureka!” that actually helps us to be better doing a maneuver.
Understanding why we do what we do can help to complete our mental tool kit.
The Upper Half of the Motorcycle was first published in 1998 in Germany, home of the autobahn with triple-digit speeds and twisty roads. Now available in English, it explores skills we’ve thought were based in muscle memory and practice than anything else.
You’ll learn that the “trick” of a skill-set really isn’t a trick at all. What’s more, you’ll learn to apply a set of skills learned in one area to other areas.
A good example of that can be found in one section entitled “Mind and Gut”, which spans 32 pages and breaks down why you do what you do and how to do it with better (and easier) results..
For example; think about moving through a turn, which is best done with counter-steering.
Turn, counter-steer, and get that ‘lean’ just right.
Well, part of getting the counter-steering and leaning to work well together includes each-little-move of the handlebars; which requires an adjustment or compensation related to each-little-movement.
Not something you often think about until it’s brought to your attention.
That’s what this book helps you to do; to think about things you might not have thought about to boost your riding skills. Read this book. You’ll be glad you did.”
From “M.A.” (August 2010): “I am totally intrigued. Many years ago I picked up “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” thinking it had something to do with “motorcycle maintenance.
While not at all what I expected, it opened up a whole new world related to philosophy for me. With that one book I moved from only reading motorcycle magazines to reading the works of Plato, Aristotle, etc.
Associating motorcycle riding with the deeper aspects of our physiological/psychological/philosophical nature has been a passion of mine for many years. I am ordering a copy of this book!”
From “W.E.” (August 2010): “This is a peculiar motorcycle book for North Americans because it talks about the systems and subsystem of the rider and how the rider works, not just the motorcycle.
The author talks about the brain and functions of the brain. He talks about how behaviour has to become almost subconscious in order to flow smoothly and, in turn, contributes to smooth riding.
It treats the rider as an integral subsystem of the motorcycle.
The way the rider functions and how he integrates and uses tools is discussed.
These “round about” discussions do fit together when the rider becomes part of the motorcycle or, more accurately, the motorcycle becomes part of the rider.
Granted it’s quite a different approach to motorcycling and maybe one that is long overdue.
Finally, the author is described as riding with “ethereal smoothness.” I think reading this book would be helpful to find out what may have contributed to the author’s ‘ethereal smoothness.'”
From “P.O.” (August 2010): “Upon reading your review, I immediately ordered a copy, as I’ve been looking for a book exploring such subject matter for years.
Back in 1965, when I was 20, I bought my first motorcycle, a 200cc, 4-speed with clip-ons and the full dolphin fairing offered by the importer in Schenectady, New York.
As I had only spent a few minutes on my college roommate’s BSA Star 350cc single, the Bultaco was a revelation, where one immediately felt “one with the machine”.
And it seemed I could go through all the maneuvers almost as if without conscious thought. How delightful!–yet how odd, I thought at the time, and ever since.
This book sounds like it deals with these sorts of motorcycle philosophy/proprioception matters, and I look forward to reading it.
I feel that motorcycling is, indeed, a profoundly “odd” (and delightful) feeling just in itself, and am glad to see some literature on the subject.
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