Thursday, December 19, 2013

It's No Mystery Why I Love the Mystery School

Last weekend was my fourth ever Fun Camp at Rich Oliver’s Mystery School, and my first in a few years.  Why do I keep going back, and why am I already planning next year’s camp?  Two reasons, really.  First, it’s just amazingly good fun.  Second, it makes me a better rider. 
Let’s go with the second reason first.  Rich and his team put campers out on his nicely groomed dirt track complex on a fleet of TTRs with upgraded suspension to give us a good taste of how motorcycles handle at the limit of traction so that we can learn what it feels like and how to deal with it.  While there are some differences, the physics of a motorcycle at the edge of traction are pretty similar whether that motorcycle is a 175 HP liter bike, a 600 pound touring bike, or a 125cc minibike, except that a mistake on the minibike on dirt is much less likely to involve large medical and repair bills than would be the case to the tourer or sportbike. 

Rich takes all campers through a series of skill building drills to accustom us to the limits of traction, how it feels, and the tools to manage the motorcycle right on the edge.  Each drill builds upon those preceding it, and by the end of the weekend you’re doing things you scarcely imagined possible on Saturday morning. 

If I had already done it three times, what could be gained by going back a fourth?   In my case the answer to that question could have been any of a number of things.  When I compare what Rich can do one of these little TTRs to what I can do, the opportunities for continuing improvement look endless.  One really popped up over the course of the camp, and that was what Vince Lombardi might have called “running to daylight”.
One of the realities – benefits, really – of pushing your skills on dirt is that you’re quite likely to spend some time on ground.  Your fellow campers are likely to as well, meaning that there are lots of unanticipated obstacles to contend with – with the added pressure of competition.  Unanticipated obstacles are a reality of goat trail riding – maybe one of the most fun reasons to ride goat trails – and anything that makes me better at dealing with those obstacles is a plus. 

So, what did I learn?  A few things weren’t new, but the camp gave the opportunity to knock the rust off old skills and knowledge.  It also provided some new revelations.  Let’s go with the latter.  One thing that was new at Fun Camp this year was a threshold braking drill on dirt, and when I say “dirt” I don’t mean nice tacky stuff, I mean dried out, dusty, slippery stuff. 

The exact content of the drill isn’t what’s important, but the technique is.  Rich had us apply the rear brake slightly before the front to get the back of the bike to squat down prior to applying the front.  This helps manage the weight shift to the front wheel and the subsequent unloading of the rear.  Applying the rear brake once that wheel has already gotten light is an invitation to lock it up.  Sometimes that’s what you want, but for threshold braking, not so much.  I was surprised just how hard I could brake on the dirt.
Right after applying the rear brake it’s time to apply the front.  This is about smoothly applying braking pressure.  You apply them hard, but in a progressive fashion rather than just stabbing at them.  Doing the drill in this fashion shows just how hard you can stop a bike in reduced traction conditions if you’re straight up and down, and you’re smooth.  This is a huge skill for helping deal with obstacles.

Rich also spent a fair amount of time training us on where to put our eyes in various circumstances, which can all be summed up in the longstanding canard, “look where you want to go.”  If you focus on the bike that just crashed in front of you, that’s what you’re going to hit.  If you focus on the gap between that bike and the edge of the track, that’s the “daylight” you’ll run to. 

Other than one notable collision with another bike (ALL my fault) on Saturday morning, I managed to get through the whole weekend without hitting a downed or stopped bike by seeing those gaps and following my eyes through them.  Following your eyes and running to daylight is critically important when you find something unexpected in your path on a goat trail. 

My friends and I have already signed up for another Fun Camp next year.  A big, big thumbs-up!  Try it.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Practice vs. Variety, "Laps" vs. Vanishing Point, and Riding on the Wrong Side of the Road

Ah, long gaps between posts, many distractions, not enough riding (other than commuting), and the demands of a new job are all inter-connected, and make this blog too quiet.  Who knows when I'll post again, but I might as well post today. 

The first half of July, Sue and I went over to the UK to visit family, friends, and the blue Versys.  Riding wasn't the primary focus, but it definitely provided some spice.

When we got to my sister-in-law's home one my first tasks was to roll the Versys out of the garage, check it over, the start it up.  There's a lot to be said for Japanese bikes, and starting at the first touch of the button after sitting for a year (on the trickle charger) is one of them.  Wash off the bike, air up the tires, lube the chain, check the fasteners, and we were ready to rock and roll! 

Our first destination was a overnighter to the Isle of Man.  Neither of us had ever been there, and even though there was no racing happening the date we could slot in to go, I just wanted to see the place I'd seen so many times on DVD's and YouTube.  It didn't disappoint!  It was beautiful, dripping in moto history, and perhaps the friendliest place I've ever been.  It seems that everyone you meet loves motorcycles and motorcycle racing, and they are so pleased you've come to their home to share that love.  Having a license plate from a distant shore helps too. 

GaryJ's widow, Jill, gave me a little vial of Gary's ashes to leave on the island, a place he never got to visit, but like so many us, loved everything about the racing there.  When we arrived on a Wednesday evening we had the good fortune to arrive just before the annual memorial ride for the great Joey Dunlop. If you're reading this and don't know who Joey was, do yourself and favor and Google the man's name.  Not only was he the greatest and most successful racer in the history of the IOM-TT, he was a humanitarian committed to helping less the less fortunate.  The ride was a fundraiser for one of Joey's charities, a house right on the course at Braddan Bridge set up to accommodate disabled race fans. 

We joined up with about 400 other riders to do a lap of the course, passing through towns where the locals lined the roads to wave and cheer our parade lap.  The evening news came out to video the event, and you can even find videos of the ride posted on the web.  Unbelievable!  We managed to honor Joey and give GaryJ a lap to remember. 

The following morning we toured other parts of the island, were greeted by hospitable locals, and even met a podium finisher from the 1955 TT who told us where to find the best motorcycle museum on the island.  In the afternoon, after enjoying a lunch at the legendary Creg-ny-Baa pub, we set off to do one more lap and to find a place to leave Gary's ashes. 

We pretty much toured the lower portions of the island, but once we began climbing up from Ramsey on to the mountain we could pick up the pace to "sporting" (no speed limits on the mountain).  As we rode the lap the question of where to leave Gary answered itself when we stopped to pay our respects at the Joey Dunlop memorial above The Verandah.  It has a great view of the course, a beautiful statue of Joey, and is covered with wildflowers. It was a perfect spot to spread some of Gary's ashes, and I hope he enjoys being there. 

What does all of this have to do with riding goat trails?  None of the roads we covered could really be called goat trails, but there were a couple of interesting revelations from the roads we did ride.  First, the roads are NOT smooth.  Not terrible, but bumps and ridges are an important factor, and riders can't just blithely assume that the road is perfect. 

Second, despite this being home of one of the world's most famous races, these are public roads maintained out of the public treasury, and any money spent on the roads is money that can't be spent elsewhere.  With that recognition in mind, the local road authority was chip sealing significant portions of the course when we were there.  Right.   Chip seal.  One of the largest causes of whining on BARF.  Sure, it will all be swept before the Manx GP
/ Classic TT begin in August, it's still chip seal.  The next time somebody on BARF goes off about how the local government is acting with intent to kill motorcyclists, I'm likely to go off.  Think of Guy Martin, McGuinness, and Michael Dunlop whining about such silliness.  Chip seal is a road condition, and it's one we all need to be prepared to deal with.  /whining

My next big day out was with my friend, Dominic Gill.  Dominic and I met during the 2006 Centopassi when he was part of Team UK, led by our great friend, Colin Barlow.  I've written at length before about Colin.  It's clear that Colin had a huge impact on many of the people who rode with him, and Dominic shares the same regard of Colin as I have.  Dominic laid out a great day of riding in the Yorkshire Dales on a perfect, sunny day.  We zig-zagged north and south, east and west, visiting some of the famous motorcycle destination towns, such as Hawes, but never really lingering anywhere for long. We were too busy riding. 

When we stopped for lunch, we caught up, talked about other friends who were unable to join us, recounted stories of Colin's feats, and drank a toast to the man.  Dominic told me about trips to the continent with our crazy Dutch friend, Peter, and his well crafted tours of Spain. 

He also told me about another rider who often accompanies them on these tours, and who always keeps them waiting anytime they're on unfamiliar roads.  The funny thing is, apparently this fellow is pretty quick on familiar roads.  Yep, if he knows a road, he can go fast.  If he doesn't, he's bog slow.  Why is this worth writing about?  Why, yes, you're right!  It is another of Kurt's pet peeve rants!

Rant?  Rant about what?  Simple, the rant about "practicing" a road by doing "laps".  That is, developing the belief that one can out-ride one's sightlines due to "knowing" a public road.  This flawed belief often comes up that if a rider only knows the road, the rider can go more quickly.  That means rather than leave margin for the unknown, the rider assumes that all important information about the road ahead is already known.  This is a belief system that sows the seeds for an early exit from motorcycling. 

Okay, if I believe this, shouldn't I be criticizing Dominic and Peter and the others for leaving their slow friend behind?  That kind of depends.  If Dominic and Peter and the others ride to the vanishing point on unfamiliar roads, and leave themselves adequate margin to effectively respond to the unexpected, there is no problem.  Okay, if they're doing that, why is the other guy still so much slower?  My guess - and that's all it can be without riding with the buddy in question - is that the slower rider is riding within the sightlines that result from looking too close to the front of his bike.  If he doesn't lift his eyes and stretch his sightline toward the vanishing point, then he can't possibly see what Dominic and Peter are seeing as far in advance as they see it. 

That's the goat road lesson here; push your point of focus relentlessly up the road.  Let your eyes flow over the road and you'll flow over it with equal smoothness.  Practice it.

Another goat road lesson from this trip is that when roads are busy, and there's strict enforcement, goat roads can offer a respite.  Britain is a crowded island, and even though the north is less crowded than the south, on a beautiful summer day lots of traffic clogs the roads.  Not where Dominic took me.  The roads were often more crowded with open range sheep than with other motorists.  Less traffic, less police, no speed cameras.  Sounds nice, doesn't it?

My last big ride was with Stuart, a friend of Colin's who joined us in the Alps in 2010.  Stuart possesses Colin's famous battlestar BMW, but the day we rode he chose to bring his Kaw-Strom, a bike we didn't see in the US.  It's a DL1000 badged up as a Kawasaki.  Stuart was a student of Colin in an advanced riding course, then Stuart advanced to be an instructor too.  He joined Colin on many of their late summer blasts through France to attend the Bol d'Or.  Yeah, you could say Stuart's a disciple too. 

When planning the trip, Stuart asked where I wanted to go, and the answer came quickly - take me to the Lake District, particularly to ride Wrynose and Hardknott passes.  The ever-hospitable Stuart was only too quick to agree, and he set us off on a big day in some of England's most spectacular scenery.  A brisk ride across the top of England from Yorkshire to Lancashire and up into Cumbria started our day.  Stuart thoughtfully pointed out the speed cameras en route, wove us through the traffic along Windermere and through Ambleside on our way to coffee an scones at Coniston Water, a spectacular lake in one of the many glacial valleys that give the Lake District its name.

He was letting me re-gather my strength before hurling us up a road known as "The Struggle" on our approach to the 1 in 3 grades (yes) of Wrynose and Hardknott.  These roads have been in use since the Romans built them 2000 years ago.  They're about as wide as a Roman cart track, and not quite as smoothly paved.  I think I can say that Hardknott is the most challenging paved rode I've ever ridden.  I LOVED IT!  Stunning views, not much traffic, and a never ending mental and physical challenge to ride our bikes smoothly and safely through ruts, ditches, potholes, oncoming traffic, loose sheep, gravel, sand - all the fun! 

The day went on like that.  Great roads.  A leisurely stream side pub lunch.  A toast to Colin.  A blistering ride on A-roads to get to the other side of England in time for dinner.  Definitely on my list of all-time-great riding days. 

What's the point beyond telling the story?  Here's the point.  I came home riding better than I was riding when I left.  This almost always happens to me in the Alps too.  The key to this improvement can be associated with two key characteristics of these rides:
  • Riding unfamiliar roads.  Don't ride the same stuff over and over because you've fooled yourself into thinking you "know" them.  Deal with the variety and uncertainty and use them to improve your skills - all your skills.  Your road reading skills.  Your physical skills of providing inputs to the bike and dealing with its responses.  Your ability to remain calm, focused and centered.  You will only develop the ability to do this anywhere by doing it everywhere.  Stop doing laps.
  • Ride behind skilled riders.  If you don't know any, go looking for them.  They're out there.  They are not always the flashiest, or the loudest.  They're the ones you see who are smooth, who are quick without apparent effort, who don't bobble or make obvious mistakes.  That describes Dominic and Stuart, and it was a great luxury to be able to follow them, keying off their lines and their actions, learning more about what's possible, even if I didn't choose to always follow their approach exactly.  Thanks, guys.  
There was one more factor that can't be easily re-created here, but which was certainly a helpful tool for developing riding resilience; riding on the wrong side of the road.  What?  Yep, seriously.  Having to set aside the familiar and learn new places to look, new places to be, new responses to other traffic and road conditions, and having to do it with while following a quick rider is a great exercise in developing flexibility in your riding.  I had not expected this at all, and it explains why the Brits who frequently cross over to the continent to ride, thus having the mirror experience of this, are often such impressively capable riders.

Okay, if that wall of text was too much for you, here's a summary: variety, variety and more variety, all while following someone better than you.   Try it.

Saturday, March 23, 2013


Long time with no posts.  Long time with not much riding.  I've got a new job that is pretty intense and time demanding.  My beloved Versys has been a little difficult, and is, in fact, in the shop right now for a weird electrical gremlin.  However, the weather could not be better, and the Hypermotard has new tires, so today was a day to ride, and ride I did.  

Have I mentioned how much I love new tires?  Something about the Hyper, these multi-compound tires, and maybe the way I ride, makes tires get REAL ugly before they wear out.  I mean scary ugly.  The most recent set of tires on the Hyper, Dunlop Roadsmarts, wore in the same pattern I've seen on Bridgestones (14's, 16's, 20's, 21's, 23's, they all do it) in which the sides wear off before the centers, leaving a tire with a profile that looks something like a stop sign.  Lots of tread in the middle, wear bars showing on the sides, and a frightening transition as you fall off the center, and plummet to the side.  Not confidence inspiring.  You have to flick over hard and get on the gas like you mean it to catch it.  New tires are so much nicer.  Pirellis Scorpion Trails, which I've run on the Versys, but not on the Hyper before now.  They were nice today. 

A couple of great goat trails were on order today.  Fairfax-Bolinas - running that direction - was delightful.  Not much in the way of cars, plenty of bicycles, and only a handful of motos.  The coast side was chip sealed late last year, and you'd think the winter rains - that we hadn't had much of - would have washed away more of the gravel than is the case, but it was still a good time. 

Then I headed north to try out a highly recommended goat that starts near Guerneville and goes over near Healdsburg called Sweetwater Springs Road.  This was really a good time.  No cars, two bicycles, one other motorcycle that I passed.  The road was technical and fun.  Lots to keep you busy.  Dirty, narrow, rough, short sightlines.  Life is good!

One of the treats of living in Northern California, is that the great roads attract some neat vehicles.  Today was no exception.  How about what appeared to an Allard J2x?  That's pretty unusual anywhere.  Okay, how about a brace of Alfa GTA's?  A gaggle of Morgans? And just for spice, a Ferrari 365 GTC, and at the other end of the spectrum, an MGA coupe?  To top it all off, coming home from work on Thursday on the San Pablo Dam road, I see a red Vincent coming the other way! 

Last but not least, I staggered into a nice little diner today at the edge of Sebastopol called D's - Diner.  Great hamburger and malt, and neat ambiance.  Not cheap, but definitely very good.  Check it out.

Have a great riding season.

PS: The Aerostich folks have been in town for the past week.  Went and got measured for Roadcrafter.  Nice folks.  Got to meet the founder, Andy Goldfine, the new CEO, Mark, and the fitter extraordinaire, Stephanie, not to leave out, Oora (sp?).  The technical term is "Minnesota Nice".  Oh, and Andy introduced me too well-known moto-journalist, Marc Cook.  It was a great visit.