What's the most common aspect of riding that new riders have trouble with?
You'd think it would be some aspect of control, like clutch or maintaining stability at low speed. All of that comes from spending hours on the bike manipulating the controls, and some of the more abstract things like counter-steering will be learned naturally, even if the rider doesn't understand why it is the way it is.
Nope. The #1 problem I see fault new riders is their head. Yes, them overthinking or getting themselves nervous, but more so their physical head. And which direction it's pointing.
A natural reaction for us as humans is we tend to look at whatever is the biggest concern for us, the biggest and most common example is "target fixation." For example, I had an older lady on day 2 put a bike in a fence. By day 2 we stop teaching you how to operate the motorcycle on a remedial level and start teaching you how to use it on the street. By day two you should know how to turn, how to stop, how to use the clutch, all we do is teach you more life saving skills and more maneuvering skills. We weren't even on the exercises yet, we start day 2 off with the riders just doing a few laps around the perimeter of the range to warm the bikes and the tires up (something they did near the end of day 1, by the way, riding the perimeter in 2nd about 15-20 mph). I start them up, send them out, and I see my last two riders in line get startled and I turn around and see her in the dirt with the bike in the fence.
She was fine, took both me and my other coach to get the bike untangled and it was a BRAND NEW Honda Rebel, 0 miles on it. I was the first ever to ride it, she was the second. Not a single scratch on it, by the way.
I ask her "What happened?" She answered "The bike wouldn't turn." The bike wouldn't turn. Even AFTER getting pulled out of the fence it was still in alignment and the bars moved freely from full lock left to full lock right. I wasn't trying to be condescending, was trying to get her to self assess, but I asked her "Why wouldn't the bike turn, what was it that you did wrong?" At this she got really frustrated and started to go off on me, the second coach had to calm her down. We put her back on but at this point she was becoming a hazard by not staying in the path of travel and such so we consulted her out of the class. Her parting words were that she didn't appreciate being spoken to like a child, that we weren't giving her enough attention or instruction, and it was our fault she couldn't ride. By the way, we try to give everyone the help they need and if 9/10 students get it or pretty much get it and 1/10 is struggling really hard who do you think we spend the most time with? But at the end of the day we have a schedule and if you can't keep up with the pace of the class you aren't going to pass. But I'm digressing.
You will have a natural tendency to go where your nose is pointed, and it affects EVERYTHING, not just which direction you're going. Low speed balance, staying within a boundary, what SPEED you are moving at during a given moment, ALL effected by where and what you're looking at.
Someone is 100% concerned with not hitting a line, and that's where they are looking, guess what they run over? Same with a cone.
Someone is starting to lean way over during the u-turn, they look down at the ground, guess what happens? I tell people the u-turn is 90% head-turn. It's not, but it might as well be. They can understand clutch control and counter-weighting and dragging the brake and everything, but as soon as they look down all of that goes away. Once I get them turning their heads past 90° either way they start OWNING it.
On our evaluation one of the scored criteria is coming to a stop with your front tire in a 2x3 foot blue box. Everyone looks down at it, and everyone forgets how to use the front brake and snatches it hard.
Even judging corner entry speed. How can you expect to be at a good speed to ride through a turn if you can't see the apex?
Just this last weekend I had another rider get really frustrated with me when I kept telling him he wasn't going fast enough through the turns. We have a little curvy "track" setup that looks like a bean, with a straight on one side, a sweeping u-turn, a set of reverse turns, another sweeping u-turn, then the straight again. We split the class up into smaller groups because the bean is too small for more than 4 riders at a time, so if you aren't riding we encourage you to watch and self/peer-assess.
He was going quick enough in the straight, braked well for approach, then he kept off the throttle, coasted through the turn, now he's jerky on the throttle because the bike is too loaded for 2nd gear, he doesn't pick up his speed enough to balance properly and his knees are everywhere trying to compensate. And I keep telling him "Once you're off the brakes, get back on that throttle, you need to carry momentum in these turns otherwise you'll never be smooth. Speed = stability, right? I don't need you going 20 in the turn, but I need you on the gas!" A few times around and he doesn't improve, we switch groups and he sits and watches and doesn't seem to pick up on anything, and his second time through I stop him and say the same thing. "You need more speed!" This time he replies "I'm going slow because of my own judgement. I see the cracks in the asphalt and the weeds growing out and I slow down so I can avoid it." And it clicks to me. I'm seeing a head turn, but he isn't turning his head enough to see the apex, and he's fixated on a VERY minor detail. As a result, he can't give me what I need, he can't give himself what he needs. I tell him "Trust me when I say this, the weeds and the cracks won't make you crash, and this is probably 10% of what you'll find on the actual road. It IS important to see the cracks and weeds, but just identify that they're there and move on. You need to be looking THROUGH the curve! If you aren't looking for that exit point how are you supposed to know how fast to go?" He says "How can I avoid the weeds if I'm going too fast?" That is a previous skill we learned, adjusting grip pressure to change the lean.
He got really frustrated with me, but we were scheduled a break anyway so I just sent him into the staging area with everyone else. While we were taking a break he went to the other coach, Steve, and asked him about what I told him. I could hear them getting loud because the student just simply didn't understand, was getting frustrated and started to argue, and now Steve is having to talk over him... Steve ended up actually walking him out to the curve and showed him what the crack was (incredibly minor, and only on like the outside 10% of the curve). Actually stood there and demonstrated how far ahead he should be looking, and then to the whole class explained how being off the throttle was the same as braking in a curve (a huge no-no), it'll cause you to go wide and over-input, and that the motorcycle will not want to respond to you if you aren't holding that throttle steady or rolling on gently.
The next exercise is more of the same with a little lane-change and merge mixed in. Third time is the charm, he started looking farther, and he started keeping his speeds up. Wasn't quite to the level we wanted, but an improvement none the less.
We teach "Look where you need to go" from the moment the students throw a leg over in exercise one to the last exercise of day 2 before the evaluation. Sitting in the staging area feeling out the friction zone, "Don't look at the clutch! That's not where we're going, we're going straight ahead!"
Head turn head turn head turn, eyes up eyes up eyes up, look where you want to go look where you want to go look where you want to go.
Coming from someone who first threw a leg over a motorcycle only about a year and a half ago, I'd bet that low speed maneuvering is atop that list. Haha...even lots of experienced riders seem to have trouble in that department.
And this biggest issue here is not that experienced riders can't balance, or can't use the friction zone of the clutch, it's that they aren't looking far enough ahead.
I think my biggest trouble is finding the appropriate place to focus my vision. Finding that balance between being able to monitor what's far out ahead of me, with the ability to identify smaller, more inconspicuous hazards directly in front of me (gravel, potholes, sewer lids, or other potential slick spots) is hard, especially on a spirited ride. Even moreso on roads that I don't ride often enough to have memorized. Thoughts?
This just comes with time. Keeping your eyes moving and your head on a swivel. Stuff that's far ahead (12 seconds) isn't really a big concern. Look ahead, identify what you need to (traffic, signals, signs), and focus back nearer. 4 seconds ahead is your judgement area and where you'll spend most of your time looking. Trying to read traffic for potential hazards, looking for escape paths, all that good stuff. I'd say you spend at least 60% of your time here searching. And close (2 seconds ahead) is your reaction time. Stuff here is usually where the "target fixation" hazard is, but anything concerning here is going to require action so it's important to identify, decide what to do, and do it.