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.