Thursday, June 7, 2012

How Do You Get "Technically Proficient"?

Early on I wrote that goat trails are pretty fun if you have pretty good basic riding skills - that you're technically proficient.  How do you know if you are, and how do you improve?

Let's start with a definition of terms.  What do I mean by technically proficient?  This could go on and on, so let's focus on a few things first:
  • That you can consistently make the motorcycle go and stop when and where you want it to without coming off the bike.  Sounds simple, and I'll grant you that it's basic, but I see riders out there in the summer months who struggle with this.
  • That you can consistently make the motorcycle travel the path you intend.  This means that the wheels go pretty much (within a few inches or less either way) where you want them too.  There a couple of skills that are implied with this, so let's make them explicit.  You can consistently run a path less than half a foot wide, no matter what distractions you're facing, and you understand that when you're turning that the path your head follows will not be the same one your wheels follow.  For instance, if the road you're on has a lot of sand or gravel, or even snow on it, but there are car tire tracks exposing clean pavement, you'll want your wheels to on that clean pavement.  If you align your head with the tire tracks, as soon as the road turns your wheels will be off the tracks and you'll be out of traction. 
  • You can read the road well enough to make good decisions about corner entry speed.  Too slow is a better decision than too fast, so if you have to err, err on the side of slow.  This means looking at upcoming bends and using the cues the road and the surround terrain offer to imagine the radius of the turn, then choose an entry speed that will allow you to navigate a turn of that radius at a speed that keeps you on two wheels
That's a good start for defining basic technical proficiency, and even before we get to the above skills, it is necessary to have developed the muscle memory to be able to consistently operate the controls of your motorcycle - accelerate, shift, brake, steer - without having to dedicate much in the way of conscious thought to it.  

How do you get these skills if you don't have them now?  I'm a big fan of getting instruction.  Insightful observation by a trained instructor who can provide useful guidance and feedback is priceless (full disclosure; I am not and never have been a motorcycling instructor).  By the way, in almost all circumstances, "your friends" are not up to the task. 

Where do you find this priceless instruction?  Have you already completed the basic MSF course?  If not, do so.  When I started riding that sort of instruction didn't exist.  When I completed the basic MSF course with my daughter, I had already been riding for more than 30 years, and I still learned useful stuff.  

If you've already completed the basic MSF, have you considered their Experience Rider Course (ERC)?  It can build upon what you've already learned and practiced.  

Next up are some of the schools that can be found in many areas.  Some schools like the California Superbike School, American Supercamp, and Lee Parks' Total Control clinics travel around the country or even the world, and you can often find one relatively close by.   

Other schools are unique to a region.  Here in northern California we have couple of really great ones, and you might have local equivalents where you live.  The Alameda County Sheriff's Dept runs civilian versions of their police motorcycle training that are a bargain, and that get you time with some of the best trained, most effective motorcycle instructors to be found anywhere.  Another regional gem is Rich Oliver's Mystery School at which Rich shares the kind of training he got when he was racing GP's for Kenny Roberts.  Blasting little 125's around a tight dirt track will teach you more about dealing with sudden changes and adversity in your riding than you could ever imagine.  

The bottom line is that quality instruction and feedback combined with an open, learning mind is the fastest way to become a better rider.  Arranging for good instruction, then making yourself humble enough to benefit from it will take you far, far down the path of increased technical proficiency.  Whether you go to a world famous racing school, or a school aimed at improving your basic riding skills, you'll be a better rider as a result - if you choose to be.

Next time, books. 

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