Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Impossible? Check this out!

"It's impossible to do that on our kind of bikes!" he proclaimed from on high to his wife. His arms were folded across his chest. He'd drawn up to his full height. Taller than me. Of course, almost everybody is. There was no hint of a question in his words. The delivery was that of a pronouncement from Zeus thundered down from Mt. Olympus. I could almost smell the sizzle of hot electricity from the lightning bolts.

"That" was the infamous offset cone weave dreaded by most motorcyclists hoping to pass a skills test. "Our kind of bikes" was a pair of Yamaha YZF R1 sport bikes. Not only did his wife hear his proclamation, but it was made in front of Katie, Clinton, and I. And I was about to do a little miracle working to make the impossible possible. Right in front of his very eyes. Before the session was done not only me, but his wife would be doing the impossible. Actually, I never thought it was impossible. The wife, however, wasn't sure. By the time the next couple of hours passed she was going to seriously rock Mt. Olympus.

In the last post I wrote about reaching the third step in gaining proficiency. That wonderful moment when we realize that we have conquered. You know the feeling. Working on our cornering skills. One day we carve a corner with a perfect "Whoosh!" No more slice and dice. Now we're carving. A smooth and efficient quick stop. Discovering that the bike really does go where we look. Not only that, but we're using the head turns deliberately, amazed by the amount of directional control we now have.

In one way I'm sorry because the last post got more technical than I meant it to. In another, it was interesting that the part about squeezing our knees against the tank while braking got so much attention. So I'm glad that part was there. The thing that got overlooked in the post was just how stinkin' much fun it is to gain new skills. Then there's the incredibly good feeling and amazement that comes from being able to say,

"Did you see that? That was me. Yep, I OWN that now!!"

To me this story perfectly illustrates the fun and satisfaction of conquering. First, just a tiny bit of setting the stage.

I'll call the wife Jen for this story. Our paths have since diverged as often happens in life. At the time, though, I counted Jen as a friend and fellow instructor. I still count her as a friend. Jen's no longer teaching and I don't see her much these days. A career move and a development with her husband took away most of her time. Jen was fairly new to riding and an even newer instructor. A number of folks learn to ride a motorcycle in a class. They're then so enthused about the whole thing that they want to become instructors themselves so they can pass it along. Jen was such a one.

I'd had a hand in mentoring Jen both as a riding student and as a new instructor. I have such a soft spot for people who have the desire and the potential but simply lack confidence. I knew Jen could do this but she didn't. As a result, she was ready to quit after trying her hand at a few classes. Long story short, I invited her to come shadow me in a class. She'd stand beside me for a while then step in and coach. The beauty was that it wasn't "her" class so there was less pressure. She was simply working with me. After doing this for a couple of classes Jen realized that she really could do this. It was so cool to see her flame grow stronger and her smile wider. From there it was history, as they say.

Jen acted like I was some sort of miracle worker. I assured her that it wasn't me. She had the fire all on her own. I simply sheltered the flame a bit until it got stronger and burned brighter. In the process Jen's trust in me was further reinforced. Which is what makes the rest of the story so cool. She'd be doing some miracle working of her own with a little help from a friend.

One Saturday evening I was relaxing at home when the phone rang.

"Hi, it's Jen. I taught my first IRT today!"

"Good for you!", I replied.

For the record, the IRT ( Intermediate Rider Training ) is the second half of the Basic Course. It's a one day class designed for those who know the mechanics of riding but are unendorsed. The students get some valuable training and, if they pass our skills test, get the waiver from taking the riding test when they apply for their endorsement.

I was glad that Jen had reached out to teach at a slightly more advanced level. Not all went smoothly, however. Instructors are highly encouraged to ride their own bikes for the riding demonstrations. Credibility, and all. One of those demonstrations was the offset cone weave.

(They look so harmless and innocent in that little pile, don't they?)

"I blew the cone weave big time", Jen said. " I didn't drop the bike but it was REALLY ugly. Can you help me?"

Always willing to help a damsel in distress ( thank you Gramps for teaching me the chivalry displayed by knights and cowboys ) I immediately accepted. We made arrangements to meet the following weekend at the local college where our range is located. We'd practice while the range was coned off from that week's class but after the students and other instructors had all gone home.

Jen's husband also showed up. Mostly to tell us how it couldn't be done. Katie and Clinton were out and about and decided to stop by, as well.

A quick word about Jen's husband. He's the typical Ricky Racer. Not a lot of skill. His need to show off and be admired by equally unskilled peers outweighs all else. Thus the liter sized full-on sport bikes. Jen had followed her husband's lead in bike choice. I guess if someone were to offer to buy me an R1 I wouldn't turn it down. In the years since a degenerative muscle disease has kept the guy from killing himself on the road. Sort of the blessing in the curse, if you will. That would be in the future. For this session he'd be in full voice that a rider couldn't possibly do the cone weave on the R1.

At that time we were using cone weaves of two different sizes. On one side of the range was the standard weave we're all familiar with. Cones set fifteen feet apart with each side being set a foot and a half off from center line. A rider moves fifteen feet ahead while moving three or so feet side to side. On the other side of the range was a larger offset weave. Cones were twenty feet apart and three feet off center. Which meant moving side to side six feet instead of three. Confused? Doesn't matter. There's no written test at the end. Or riding test, for that matter.

I'd ridden a Honda VFR to the range. It was the closest to a sport bike I had at the time, being in between CBR's. Seems there's always been a VFR hanging around our family somewhere. As I write this there's one parked in Clinton's garage. I rode a couple of laps, talking it through to Jen as I did so. For the record, Ricky Racer never volunteered to even try the weave.

Since this was about helping Jen succeed and students learn by doing, I parked the bike and concentrated on coaching her. Ricky said the bikes had too little handlebar movement and too much power for this kind of thing. He thought he was vindicated when Jen struggled for lap after lap. She was fighting the bike. As well as being a little scared. Nothing like thinking the front wheel is going to tuck under any time to raise the stress level. When she got stressed she'd look down at the cones and the front of the bike. Yes, the bike goes where you look.

( Put them out in that dreaded pattern and they turn in molten cones of terror and stress! )

It was time for a break to let the frustration and a bit of fear dissipate. I asked Jen to trust me when I told her that if she used the clutch correctly she could control the lean of the bike. Keep it in the friction zone. Hold the throttle steady. It's too abrupt for good control Squeeze the clutch just a little to start the bike leaning, then ease it out just a little to pick the bike back up. No matter how worried you are about what's happening at the front of the bike keep your eyes up and looking well ahead. If you look up the bike will follow. Trust me, follow my coaching, and the bike won't fall down. Start your inputs a bit sooner. As soon as you begin to round a cone on the small weave set up for the next one. On the large weave think two cones ahead. It will seem strange but will work.

"Trust me" I repeated. I tried to be as calm and soothing as possible with my voice.

Jen looked me in the eyes for a long time. I could see her mulling my words over in her mind. I tried to beam some of my confidence and strength across the gap between us. I could see Jen shudder slightly as if shrugging off a weighted cloak.

"All right", she sighed. " I'll trust you."

For several laps I jogged alongside the R1, coaching her with a running commentary. Did you get the pun? Coaching while literally running. Oh, never mind. Think about it for a while and come back later.

Within three or four laps Jen got it. She rode several more consecutive successful laps. However, she was still having trouble being totally smooth. There's a lot of torque in first gear. Especially with a thousand cc's and over a hundred ponies waiting to get loose.

I now told Jen to try the cone weave in second gear. Ricky had been pretty quiet up until now. I guess I would have, too. Seeing my wife, a new rider, doing what I had just declared impossible would have a tendency to deflate my balloons a little. Now, however, he thought he had me for sure.

"There's no way it will work in second gear! You can't even shift on the roads until you hit 60. How can you do it in a parking lot? The motor is going to lug like crazy."

I know it's evil but I was really looking forward to this next part.

By now Jen had tuned him out. Her trust in me had been hugely rewarded. Jen was actually doing the impossible. At least according to Ricky.

Jen popped the tranny up into second. After a few minutes I could see the amazement on her face. Not amazement that I was right. The source of wonder was how her inputs on the bike immediately smoothed out. No lugging, either. I'd coached Jen to hold just a little more throttle. She wanted a few more revs. Not a lot, just enough to make sure the bike had power when she let the clutch out. Using the friction zone correctly was a bit more critical but that she still had plenty of control over the bike's speed.

Not only was Jen totally amazed, but now she felt the need to share that amazement with somebody. Making a pass on the short side of the range near her husband Jen blurted out to him,

"It works even better in second, Rick!"

I'm sure I heard a bit of gloating in her voice by this time. Naughty girl!

Ego would bite Rick one more time. This time it would come from me. I'm sorry, but there are some things people just beg for and I'm all about customer service.

It was a warm summer afternoon. My riding jacket was my trusty old 'Stich. Which was admittedly warm at slow speeds, even with the large side vents open. Rick had purchased a new mesh riding jacket. He urged me to take his bike and try his jacket. It was almost like he was trying to show me pity with the grandiose act of lending me his jacket and bike. Hey, as Bolty says the proper answer when someone offers to let you ride their bike is to just say yes.

Rick's bike and I went out to Hwy 34 and back. Probably six miles or so. I'd never ridden his bike before. Evil lurks deep in my brain. When I got back to the range I veered off and rode the R1 through the cone weave twice. Even though the key had been in the bike when I started, I parked in front of Rick, handed back the key in a symbolic gesture, and said,

"Wow! Thanks for letting me ride such a great bike. It's balanced so well that it was effortless to lean it side to side in the cone weave."

My happy smile was met with a glare. What could he say? In front of his very eyes several buckets of cold water had been poured on the fire of his lightning bolt declarations.

Jen and Rick mounted up and fired off their matching bikes. Jen gave me a happy wave. Nothing from Rick except for a few harsh throttle blips. Just to show us he was still a stud despite it all, I guess. Pretty much a useless gesture by now, though.

One can only imagine their conversation at home. Jen was pretty darn proud of herself. As well she should be. You might even say she was a miracle worker. After all, she'd just pulled off what her much more "experienced" husband had declared was impossible!!

Gaining a new skill doesn't get much better than that, does it?

MIles and smiles,


Friday, April 22, 2011

I got it!!!

This is the exclamation that often accompanies reaching Step 3 of gaining competence.

Step 3 is when a person realizes that they're making progress on mastering a new skill. Being stuck squarely in Step 2 a rider may be thinking that they'll never get it right. Attempt after attempt is made. During one try a certain element works but another doesn't. Next time the second element works but the first doesn't. Dang it, dang it, dang it!

Then comes the attempt when it all comes together at the same time. Good job. Do it again. And again. I love these moments with a class, be they beginners or more experienced. I never lose the joy of seeing the light come on. Nor in exulting with a rider over their conquest. Step 2 is so satisfying on two counts. Firstly, there's the initial thrill of victory at the conquest. Secondly, the peace of mind in simply knowing we can do something is priceless. We know because we've done it. More than once.

A rider can certainly learn and conquer on their own. As I've written before, however, in my opinion there's a big advantage in learning under the watchful eyes of professional trainers.

This is true for whatever level of experience we have. Here's a group at the end of a Basic class. They're feeling pretty pleased with themselves.

As well they should. These folks have worked hard to master the building blocks. On those blocks they've built some skills that will serve them well on the streets. On top of it all, they conquered a bitterly cold weekend. There's always more to learn, though, isn't there?

This is a group of more experienced riders. They're spending a warm afternoon brushing up on rusty skills plus learning some new ones. The skills being worked on are more advanced but that same joy of conquest and satisfaction is just as strong as the beginners. The satisfaction scale is actually probably a lot higher at this stage. Nothing like having a full tool box and knowing how to use them, is there?

Even professional riders seek out training from qualified instructors. Their investment of time proves that these riders find value in formal training and feedback.

An instructor can share with a rider some valuable feedback. One really valuable thing we might not think of is just plain positive comments. Knowing what we're doing right frees us to concentrate on other things. It's the typical, "I got that down, now I can work on this other thing".

Instructors can see things that the rider often isn't aware of. A great example is during maximum braking. There's more to the process than just a short stop without falling down. We practice under controlled conditions. The braking chutes are clean, if not always dry! There is no conflicting traffic. Students do feel a certain amount of stress and tension. It's nothing compared to what they'll feel on the streets when their maximum braking is done in response to a critical incident. In those kind of situations their technique absolutely must be right. During practice, however, the students can sometimes get away with less than perfect technique. Which is where the instructors come in. We help to make the technique perfect.

For basic riders we're looking for certain things like one smooth and progressive squeeze of the brake lever. That's pretty much what the beginner riders are capable of absorbing. As the experience level of the class goes up, we're looking at things more closely.

We watch how the front cowling progresses downwards toward the front fender, for example. Granted, some bikes don't have a cowling. Like certain Bonnevilles without tachometers in Key West, for example. Nonetheless, we know what to look for, even then. We can then offer very precise feedback for improvement.

While a rider may only be aware of how firmly or smoothly they're squeezing, instructors can break it down further. We see the initial squeeze. We see variations in the whole progression of the lever application. We see the end of the squeeze. Did you know that a rider can skid the front tire at the end of the stop as well as at the beginning? We can see exactly where in the process mistakes are made and help with some very fine tuning.

Same goes with the rear brake application. I've had riders ask me why they keep sliding the rear tire with too much pressure? On the surface the answer may seem obvious. One would be tempted to simply tell the rider not to press too much with their foot. There's more to it than that, though. There are dynamics involved that most people aren't really aware of.

Things like the human response to brace themselves for an impending impact. Isn't that really the thing that's on our mind during maximum braking? Sure, we're hoping to avoid the impact by stopping short of the hazard, but what if we fail? See, that's the thing our mind is thinking about deep down. We hope we stop but our deep primal urge is to brace for the possible crash.

In a car we brace with all four limbs. Or all we have, anyway. Two on the steering wheel and two on the floor. Both feet press hard. The left foot on the floorboard or clutch and the right foot on the brake pedal. In a car we want hard pressure on the brake pedal. Not so much on a bike. Okay, not much at all, really. Yet our brains tell us from deep down to press hard. Both from the motor skills we've picked up from driving and from the instinct to brace for a worst case outcome.

In answer to the rider's question, then, my answer would be to tell the rider to brace their knees up tight against the tank of the bike. With knees out, the large muscles of the upper leg are pressing down on the brake pedal. By pressing the knees hard against the tank, it both helps keep the rider down in the seat of the bike and forces the smaller muscles of the lower leg and foot into service. Since these muscles are less powerful but capable of receiving greater feedback from what they feel, much more control of the rear brake application is possible.

Again, I'm not saying that a rider shouldn't practice on their own. Just the opposite, in fact. Perfect practice is what makes perfect. There isn't enough time in a class to get to that point. On the other hand, there is a big difference between training and practice. I'll go into that in some other post.

Having trained under a professional, our practice is more productive because we're practicing the correct things. We move from "I THINK I got it" to "I KNOW I got it!"

That's where the real fun and satisfaction of Step 3 comes from.

I was going to tell you a story or two about a couple of individuals who are great examples of what this post is about. Going to have to save them for the next post, though. You'll really enjoy them, so please come back!

Miles and smiles,


Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Ultimate honor!

Wow, I feel like I've finally arrived. One of my photos is on the front cover of Andy Goldfine's 2011Aerostich Rider Wearhouse catalog. The photo is but one of many, but it's still the ultimate honor for a rider like me. The Aerostich riding gear is the rider's equivalent of Snapple. You've heard the slogan: The Best Stuff on Earth. As least in my opinion. The riding gear, that is. I withhold comment on Snapple.

I've long sworn by my Roadcrafter. It's perfect for motorcycle riding. I also discovered another use for the Roadcrafter along with a full face helmet and gloves. When a baby's diaper badly needs changing you will appreciate the extra protection.

So, if you have any interest I have included the link to view the front cover online.

This photo was one I staged and then sent in to Andy. Look about halfway down the page and to the left third. When you roll the cursor over the photo it references a diaper change.

My buddy Patrick is also on the front cover. He's on the right side and lower down. Look for a Hi-Viz suit, an orange helmet, and the red BMW. Two TEAM OREGON instructors on the front cover is pretty cool.

If you have nothing else of importance to do, like rearrange your sock drawer, you can see my photo here.

Miles and smiles,


Monday, April 11, 2011

"That skill could use some work!" aka That Sucked!

So it is when we are at Level 2 on the gaining competency ladder. It's that moment when we discover we're not all that good at a particular skill or skills. My desire would be that this discovery is made either during formal training or when practicing on our own. I sincerely hope that it's not after having done the wrong thing during a critical incident on the street. Sadly, though, this is how way too many riders discover that they're a few vital tools short of a well stocked toolbox.

After having missed my corner, washed the bike ( and a personal garment ), and ridden a little more, the urgency of getting some formal training subsided. It's so easy for us to justify things to ourselves, isn't it? I reasoned that it wasn't a fundamental lack of cornering and braking skills that had led to my mishap. Rather, I had simply made a single mistake and I'd be sure not to repeat that same mistake. What is it about guys and ego? Especially when it comes to something like riding a motorcycle. There's this pervasive thinking that guys are just naturally born with the inherent skill to do certain things. When this proves to be more wishful thinking than reality, ego prevents the admission of said truth. I'm sure that this keeps a lot of guys from taking advanced formal training. Ego and the fear of looking foolish in front of equally inept guys.

So a lot of chest pounding takes place accompanied by a figurative waving of clubs. There's a lot of noise but no improvement in riding happens. I reluctantly admit that I was a member of that clan for many years. Two more bikes came and went. I was three bikes removed from my previous unintentional off road excursion. I tip-toed through the streets and bragged by the campfire. Life would have gone on like that except for a visit from a particular man.

I was the Road Captain for a motorcycle club. The core of the group was comprised of L.E.O.'s. There was Larry, a lieutenant in the sheriff's office ( my supervisor, in fact ), Bob V. and Clyde who were also patrol guys, Bob W. who was a state patrol guy, and Jeff from a local city PD.

One morning a guy from a motorcycle training organization came to our breakfast meeting. He stated that there was this new program being offered to experienced riders. ( the newly launched MSF Experienced Rider Course ) This guy also stated that he thought we would all greatly benefit from taking the course. Yes, the guy made it out alive. On the way out, however, he had to run the gauntlet of several pairs of firmly crossed arms in front of chests below very stern and intimidating looks. The last words he heard from us on the way out were:

"We're macho cops. We don't need no stinkin' training!"

That's where it would have remained if not for Larry. A friend of his had taken the course earlier. Little by little the friend was getting to Larry with things he'd learned. Larry probably needed training more than any of us. Seriously. One example was a recent ride we'd taken. We'd stopped at a little store out in the middle of nowhere. The parking lot was gravel. The drop-off from the paved road to the parking lot was about 5 inches. Larry dropped his bike ( a standard bike with a Windjammer type add-on full fairing ) making the transition from road to gravel. In the process he shorted out his battery.

To show you all some mercy I'll make the long story short. Ultimately Larry and I decided to take the class. Although I do have to share another story ( but very short ) about our arrival at the training site.

The parking lot was cordoned off by means of flags strung between various poles and trees. Very similar to what you can see in the background of the photo below.

Larry picked a stretch of flags strung between two poles about 10 feet apart. Since the poles were close together the flags were fairly taut with no sag. Larry starts under the flags. He ducks his head. His short windshield cleared the flags. So did his helmeted head. Not so fortunate was the sissy bar sticking up on the back of Larry's bike. The flags were surprisingly strong. So much so that the flags against the sissy bar arrested the bike's forward motion. Larry fell over in the process of arriving at a course for experienced riders. Hmmm, maybe it was a good thing we were here!

I learned a lot about head turns and how the bike goes where you look. Look where you want the bike to go. Don't look where you don't want the bike to go. I was grooving on my newly developed low speed control skills. My face was wearing a big grin. This was fun. Until the instructor announced it was time to work on maximum braking. My south end puckered so much it pulled the corners of my mouth into a deep frown.

OMG!!! You want me to do what? The instructor repeated what had been said in the classroom earlier in the day. We were expected to use a LOT of front brake.

I was really getting pissed for a while. The instructor kept urging me to use more front brake on my stops. I kept thinking that this fool was getting his jollies by getting me to do something that everyone KNEW was dangerous. Hadn't they heard of how touchy and unpredictable the front brake was?

As I was waiting in line I was watching other students making much shorter stops than mine. Ego reared its head, but in a good way this time. I was determined that these guys weren't going to show me up. Larry and I had made no secret of who we were. The instructor had used that to describe how to apply the front brake. He'd said to squeeze just like we would a trigger if we were shooting for accuracy.

Guess what? I opened my mind and gave it a shot. Pun intended, by the way. I talked to myself all the way up to the braking chute. Eyes up. Wait for the cone. Squeeeeze and downshift. I made a fantastic stop. I couldn't believe I was still rubber side down but there we were. I had conquered my own worst enemy, which was me.

That day of training has probably saved my riding bacon several times over. Not only from the actual training day, but from the hunger for more. It was also this day that first put the notion into my head to become an instructor though years would pass before that came to fruition.

When we talk about motorcycle training we often think of beginners.

I want to offer something else to think about. It's often the riders who have two or three years of riding under their helmets that are in the most danger. This is just enough time for them to have been exposed to a fair number of real world conditions. We think we've seen it all; that we have it all dialed in, as somebody put it in a comment on a previous post. Complacency can keep us from digging any deeper into training. We may sincerely think we have enough skills to get by so we don't need more. After all, we've done all right so far, haven't we? In some cases we don't know what else is possible. In other words, we don't know what the next level might be. There's another reason we might not train like we should. I'll come back to this one in a bit.

There is always a next level. We never get to a point where we've seen everything. There's always something else out there. A rider should never cease to become a student. I've recycled some photos from an advanced class I really enjoyed teaching last year. These are great examples of seeking a higher level.

These photos are of fellow riding instructors seeking to improve their craft. In the first photo they are in search of the perfect demo ride techniques to better serve our students / customers. In the second is an example of an instructor seeking to master skills on his own bike.

These next photos lead us up to my parting thoughts for this post.

This is a parking lot exit at the south end of a community college in Eugene. As you can see, the slope is quite steep. I watched a guy on a motorcycle trying to deal with stopping on the hill, coping with other traffic, and getting underway. As he was getting underway he dropped his bike. I was watching him as I was approaching the same place myself. This was a very familiar place to me. Pretty much my whole first year of teaching motorcycle classes was spent at this location. I'd mastered stopping on this this hill long ago.

Finding a quick place to park Elvira, ( which is easy on a bike ) I went to help him pick up his bike. He decided to go around the long way rather than tackle this slope again. That was his usual practice. Rather than conquer the situation, he avoided it. This day he had been pressed for time and had taken this route with the hope that he wouldn't actually have to stop.

So here's the moral of the story, as it were.

In my version of gaining skills, Level 2 is a place of discovery. The goal is to discover what we're not particularly good at. Once we find that out we know what we need to conquer to have a complete skill set. We can find this out through our own efforts to practice riding skills. We can also do it through formalized training. I would much prefer that riders make these discoveries by participating in training classes conducted by professionals. Here's why.

Firstly, professionals have the big picture. Training classes are usually designed to cover all aspects of riding. A person on their own may not be aware of what they really need. Professional training provides the 30 thousand foot view. A rider may be at 8 thousand feet and climbing. That's absolutely commendable but the view isn't quite as comprehensive as the higher one will be.

Secondly, there's another factor. We don't always push ourselves in the areas that we should. I've never hit a ball on a golf course ( except mini-golf ) in my life and don't intend to. I do watch people, however. There are a couple of golf courses I ride by regularly. You know what I see the most?

Golfers on driving ranges. Trying to hit the ball as hard and far as possible. I'd venture to say that the majority of golfers concentrate on their long game to the exclusion of their short game. It seems to me that it's in the short game where matches are won or lost, not so much in the long game. Yet people continue to practice what's easy and "showy" rather than the things that come harder.

The same applies to riding a motorcycle in my admittedly not so humble opinion. If something is really hard for a rider or scares them, for that matter, conquering that skill always takes a back burner. I owe that original instructor a lot for goading me into effectively using my front brake. I wouldn't have gone out and conquered that on my own. Possibly to my eternal detriment.

Training teaches us what we need to practice. The question is this:

What will we do once we discover it?

Stay tuned for Level 3.

Miles and smiles,


Friday, April 08, 2011

High Desert Hijinks

This is one of those posts where you'll get a break. There are a lot of photos and less words.

I'm working on the Step 2 competency post. In the meantime, I wanted to share some snapshots from a recent trip to Bend. There are motorcycles, sunshine, and snow.

The reason for the trip was to do some "train the trainer" work. Call it a workshop, if you will. During the course of teaching a class several instructors take turns stepping in. The idea is to have discussions among ourselves with the aim of lifting their teaching skills to the next level. There is one instructor who remains with the students for the entire class. This gives them some continuity.

Friday afternoon saw Katie and I headed over the Cascade mountain range. I briefly considered riding but the Oregon State Police said chains were required to get over the pass. This late in the year. So we drove. I know, what an excuse, but there you have it. Sure enough, there were a couple of patrol guys ensuring compliance. I hate chaining up but the packed snow and ice, along with a trooper's gaze forced me into it. Chaining up is a lot like throwing up when we're sick. We fight it and fight it. When we finally do give in, though, it feels so much better.

Our hotel was along the Deschutes River. Across the highway from where Bobskoot, Sonja, and Mr. and Mrs. Troubadour stayed during our first annual motobloggers convention. The temperatures during our event last summer were near a hundred degrees ( f ). This time it was barely above freezing. However, the sun was out and I spent some time playing with the camera.

Saturday morning found us in a parking lot. It's amazing, as an instructor, how a parking lot can so easily become your world for the weekend. I suppose the students feel the same way, too. A bare piece of pavement becomes a two-wheeled kingdom of sorts by adding some banners and bikes. Below are some of our crew. Actually, the man on the right was observing as part of his process of becoming an instructor himself. The poor guy probably got more information than he ever wanted to know!

The photo below is of Bill. He was the instructor that started with the students and was involved with every exercise.

Students practice their smooth stopping techniques under the watchful and encouraging eyes of Sean.

Getting directions for the next exercise. This is called "staging". It's really just a fancy word for two lines off the side of the range and out of the way.

Practicing the motor skills and actions involved in upshifting. Hey, life's no fun in first gear!

Waiting in line to practice the upshift, then downshift while stopping at the other end of the range.

Working on an introduction to cornering skills. You can see the air is slightly gray. What looks like fog is actually a fine sleet. At one point it blew in pretty heavily. The wind blew the sleet in from the west. Fortunately, we were looking east at the range so our backs were to it. I wish I had gotten the camera out to take a picture of us then. We all looked like snow monsters from the back. Totally covered in ice.

At the end of a cold day it was great to sit by the gas fireplace in the hotel lobby. A warm fire went well with some whiskey from the lounge!

This was the sight out of our patio door early Sunday morning. The hope was that the sun would melt the snow quickly. There were two problems with that. Firstly, the temperature stubbornly stayed below freezing. Secondly, clouds crashed the party. They arrived bearing the gift of more snow.

Weirdly enough, not all of the parking lot was the same temperature. Snow stuck to some spots and not others. Of course, we needed the whole lot to be free of snow. So we decided to delay a half hour and see what would happen.

After around 45 minutes the temperature came up a few degrees. Just enough to tip the scales in our favor. With the help of a couple of push brooms ( to create enough friction to melt the snow ) we got the lot cleared and the bikes underway.

I guess it IS possible to look intimidating on a GZ250!

We call the last exercise "Traffic interaction". Here the students deal with two way traffic, intersections, turning from a stop, and other situations they will encounter in the real world. For most of them, that can be as soon as the next day. It can look like chaos but the two instructors keep calm and watchful eyes on the scene. Accidents are extremely rare.

In the photo below you can see Sean calmly walking back towards staging at the end of the exercise. See, he's not shaking or quivering in the least!

It was finally time to wrap up the riding portion of the class. With the help of a nearby Subway sandwich shop we got to the classroom building and wrapped things up there. Blessed warmth!

Despite the cold and another snowy trip over the pass I thoroughly enjoyed the weekend. Another group of riders was started on their two wheeled journey of discovery. I got to see both the joy that the students had as well as the dedication on the part of the instructors I worked with. I still feel lucky to be a part of it all.

Miles and smiles,


Sunday, April 03, 2011

Levels of Competence: A Closer Look.

A couple of posts ago I shared what I feel are the four levels of gaining competence. I used the backdrop of a basic riding class. I did this because it's often easier to more clearly see the steps with rank beginners.

The thing is, it's easy to miss the deeper implications because we say "Those are beginners but I've been riding for a long time. I've already reached a high competence level."

That statement would be totally true. For some skills. For others, maybe not so much. Experience levels vary. One of the great things about this motorcycle related blogosphere is that so many of us from different walks of life ( and differing experience levels ) can find a common ground here. That's led to some great friendships. Last summer in Bend, when our first official blogger meeting was held, is a great memory. Sprawled all over the hotel room were nine riders. Some were relatively new to riding while others had been riding for longer than they care to admit. They were proud of their years spent riding but didn't want to give away their age! No matter the experience level, though, there is always room for improvement.

There is always room for improvement. Did I say that, already? Must be important. I'm a better rider than I was five years ago and I thought I was a pretty good rider then. Friday I sent an e-mail to an old mentor. For whatever reason he saw potential in me even as a new instructor. This mentor offered me a chance to take a leadership role in our motorcycle training organization. I was thinking about him and sent an e-mail of appreciation. Notice his response:

"That is just awesome to read - thanks for taking the time to send it. Your growth in the organization has been a joy to watch and to be a part of, and yes - you have lived up to faith and potential I saw in you (and then some). Here's my coaching for you now:

* Keep finding ways to take your game to the next level ('cuz there is ALWAYS a next level...)

* Look for Instructors who are ready to grow towards a leadership position and mentor them (in other words - pay it forward)"

In light of the above sentiments I feel it's worthwhile to go back and look deeper into the four levels of competence. Both for ourselves and for being able to pay it forward. Accurately. This time let's look specifically at how those of us who are past the beginner stage can benefit. For the sake of space, I'll split the four steps into separate posts.

Starting with number one ( a nice place to start, don't you think? ) here's the step:

I don't know what I don't know.

I could also add that some of what I think I "KNOW" is actually wrong!

Using myself as an example, let me tell you a story. I think it clearly illustrates my point. Even at the risk of looking a bit foolish. Hard as it is to believe, I haven't always been a highly skilled and technical rider. If I'm even there now. Like I say, I'm much more skilled than I was but there is always a next level.

In the story are something I didn't know I didn't know and something I thought I knew but was wrong.

More than three decades ago. A corner in the countryside a lot like this one. Posted at 20 mph. No mailbox or posts. Just a muddy field with which I would soon become more closely acquainted. "I didn't know what I didn't know" point #1. Proper cornering technique. Getting all the transitions done before the corner.

I'd done ok for a long while because I'd never really gotten in over my head. I had just graduated from my beloved Suzuki 185cc dual sport that I'd had since I was 14. The bike was a pretty blue and white and had a seat large enough for a passenger. The dual sport and I spent a lot of time off road until I got my driver's license. After that we spent a lot more time trying to impress the girls in high school and making the other guys jealous. Life was good but eventually I outgrew the Suzuki.

Now I was on a Honda CB750. You may laugh now, but back then this was a bike powerful enough to get you into trouble in a hurry. Moving to it from the Suzuki was like moving from a Shetland Pony to the Appaloosa stallion named Terry that Gramp used to ride when we did rodeo events.

Instead of a leisurely trot we were now at a full gallop towards this corner. I'd let the reins lie a bit too loosely and we were covering ground at a scary pace. Rolling on a throttle connected to an engine four times bigger than I was used to was pretty heady. Until I got a bit carried away. The corner kept looming larger and larger in my vision.

It was time to pull back on the reins, yell Whoa!! really loudly, and scrub off some speed. Seriously quickly, too, I might add. Enter villian number 2. What I thought I knew was actually wrong. I found that out later but at this moment I had full faith in the truth of it. After all, it had been drummed into my head by many riders more experienced than me. I'm sure you've heard this solemnly pronounced yourself:

"Stay away from the front brake because it will throw you over the handlebars."

I had actually experienced this on a bicycle. You think a macho young man raised by a cop/cowboy wasn't going to be doing deeds of daring and bravado on anything he could make move quickly? First a bicycle and then a dirt bike?

Weirdly enough, my having grown up on dirt bikes reinforced this so called wisdom but in an opposite manner. I'd lost count of the number of times I'd washed the front wheel out from applying too much front brake in the dirt. Another technique for steering a dirt bike was a lot of rear brake. You'd slide the rear wheel from side to side like a rudder. When you were pointing in the right direction you'd let off the pedal. Great in the dirt. No so much on the street.

Something had to be done for this corner. Time to pull the trigger. I fired the ammunition I had available. A brass shell made of ignorance with a bullet cast from falsehood. How did it turn out?

A little front brake along with a lot of rear brake. The rear drum shoes clenched as did my entire digestive tract. I remember some noise. Funny how a sliding rear tire never makes much noise in the dirt but seems to be quite loud on the street. There was this huge jarring sensation then silence as the motor died. We were still upright. We were also definitely not moving. Ironically, I'd almost gone over the handlebars. Not for having applied the front brake. No, we had simply stopped quite suddenly. Bike and rider nearly parted company. The Honda forgot to tell me it was going to stop so abruptly. Perhaps, in all fairness, it really didn't know that itself.

As you may have guessed by now, my braking technique was not overly successful in scrubbing off enough speed to make the corner. Ok, it wasn't at all successful. Heavy rear braking caused the bike to fishtail. In an interesting contrast, my dirt bike experience that caused me to screw up the braking helped me keep the bike upright. I instinctively looked up and kept the bike headed straight. Straight off the road and into the field. Actually, with the rear tire sliding, I didn't have much choice as the bike will continue to travel in whichever direction the front wheel was pointing. It would be more accurate to say that I kept the bike from falling over as we launched over the ditch and into the muddy field.

By the way, did I mention that the bike was now buried up to its axles in the mud? That would probably explain the sudden stop and the fact that we were still upright. Oh yeah, the force of hitting the ditch made my hand let go of the clutch which was probably a good thing. Although the rooster tail of slinging mud could have been quite spectacular. I'm also pretty sure that the other reason we didn't fall over was the fact that the low slung muffler system was acting as outriggers on each side.

Did you ever try to pull a 500 pound motorcycle out of mud to its axles? I tried for a while. There didn't seem to be any real damage to the bike. The spoked front wheel was tougher than it looked. My hope was to pull the bike out of the mud then go wash it off before I got home. The second part of the plan was dependent on the first part. Which wasn't happening.

A Good Samaritan in a small gray sedan stopped to help. Between the two of us we got the bike back onto the roadway. I'm still deeply ashamed of what I said. I've always been raised to own up to my mistakes and have practiced this religiously in my life. Except for this one time. I somehow couldn't seem to tell this stranger that I, a macho rider, had simply screwed up. I blamed it on a farm dog that ran out into the road and had then proceeded to disappear. It must have been a sheep dog because I sure felt sheepish telling the story. Based on the fact that I wasn't able to look him in the eye, I'm not sure the kind stranger believed me. However, he was polite enough not to challenge me. Perhaps he didn't know anything about motorcycles himself except for how to pull them out of the mud.

The good news was that there was no permanent damage to either the bike or me. Except to my ego. However, it could just have easily been just the opposite and I wouldn't be here writing this story. Which you may have preferred.

It was time to get some actual professional help. I'm talking about motorcycle training. What kind of professional help were you thinking of? Shame on you.

Which will lead us to Step 2.

Miles and smiles,