Monday, 18 August 2008

An Alternative Training Style

Lifted from the US-based Sport-Touring Forum:

As some of you have heard me say before, I’m a re-entry rider. I came back to riding just 20 months ago after a 15 year hiatus. Since then I’ve put about 22K miles on my 04 RT, much of that riding with this group and many thousands of those miles riding two-up. Last September at the UNRally I had a close call with my pillion (here) that I knew even then was largely due to bad headwork and poor skills (despite our getting out of that bad situation unscathed and unharmed).

So, I rededicated myself to better focus and during the winter spent a lot of time reading the likes of Hough, Code, and folks here on this site. However, this spring I discovered that while that reading and practicing had improved my knowledge and skills, I was still making too wide a variety of errors I knew were interconnected. Suspecting habits from previous years riding were hampering me (let’s face it riding has evolved) I realized it was time to unlearn those habits and start learning better ones through proper instruction and coaching.

So, I started looking for courses of instruction and was surprised to find the vast ocean of skills and knowledge between MSF courses and profession track courses eerily vacant. I knew I wasn’t ready for the latter and was certain I’d progressed beyond most of the curriculum in the former. Having read about The Rider’s Workshop and its founder/instructor/guide Jim Ford in several print and on-line resources as well as here on BMWST, I thought it a good course for my skill set and to unlearn bad habits.

However, it was much more than that. Scarcely 24 hours after arriving home, I was checking my calendar and planning my follow-on tour, oops I mean class. Why the correction? The Rider’s Workshop is an on-road class cleverly disguised as a sport touring adventure – my trip twisting through the Appalachian mountains of MD, PA, WV, & VA. Being from the region I’d ridden some of the same roads before myself and with others. However, on those other occasions I didn’t have a guide leading me from one great road to another, giving me valuable insights to riding techniques and attitudes along the way.

Jim’s stated goal is to give attendees the keys to learn the Art of Riding Smooth, to identify what he calls The Invisible Roads (the roads few use), to read and understand the intricacies of those roads while riding, and to have a great time while learning and practicing these skills. Had I not learned a thing during my class it would have been a great time none-the-less. But let me assure you, Jim not only delivered on all aspects of this promise for me, he exceeded them.

Jim’s extremely smooth riding style is clearly the result of his personal experience as a pilot (he does indeed fly the road), being mentored by some great riders (Paul Mihalka, please take a bow), attending Primore’s CLASS schools, and the wisdom that comes from over 300,000 miles of riding. Couple that experience and knowledge with Jim’s calm demeanor, great voice, generous spirit, and a zest for life and riding and what results is a highly effective course that is just plain fun.

The course is generally a two-day format of five students. My class was comprised of riders from many states: MD, NY, and even ID. The experience level was widely varied as were their rides: two RTs, one Duc Supermotard, a Honda VTX (I believe), and a Burgman 600! Each rider had filled out their questionnaires informing Jim what they wanted to gain from the course and skills they wished to improve. And it became very clear later on that Jim did indeed tailor the course to each individual.

Our trip started in Thurmont MD and wound around the country roads of Western MD for several hours, mostly in a steady downpour, before we angled up towards the Mtns of Western PA and then into West Virginia. Throughout the first day, riders took turns following closely behind Jim, watching and listening to him (an radio is provided to all by TRW) espouse a one-ness between machine, man, and road – a philosophy of riding that he calls the Zen of Riding. A Pridmore student, Jim not only emphasizes mastering smoothness in all facets of riding but he positively de-emphasizes the “need for speed” on the street as an end. His view is that real, attainable, mile-crunching speed is not best attained from grabbing handfuls of throttle throughout a trip, but through heightened presence of mind, clarity of thought, and smoothness of action; all culminating in finding and achieving your “pace”.

Jim’s instruction over the radio was plentiful but in no way irritating. Rather than a “Do this … Do that” imperative approach, instead he calmly described what he was doing, always the why, and most often followed up with the how. Interspersed in the instruction were reminders of the aesthetics of riding. On appropriate occasions Jim would call our attention to a particularly beautiful vista or give us a bit of history about the area.

All this said, Jim was no stranger to humor. When a rider would show signs of forgetfulness by, say relying entirely on their self-cancelling turn signals, we would hear, “Self-canceling turn signals are for pussies … Be in control of your motorcycle at all times”. That became a class favorite. One of my personal favorites was on those rare occasions when we would have a slower moving vehicle ahead of us on a back road, he would say (as though a mantra), “Why do we ride the Invisible Roads, Gentlemen? Because local traffic doesn’t stay on local roads very long.” Then, as though commanded by his words, the vehicles would nearly always turn off!

After the inclusive dinner and night at a more than satisfactory hotel, the second day of the course revealed a change in format. Riders took turns being in the lead with Jim flying wingman. Segments of the roads selected were matched to the skill levels of each student by Jim. The “pilot under instruction” (PUI) and Jim would then proceed at an appropriate pace while the rest were directed to fall behind back and each ride his own ride. During our stints as PUI, Jim assessed our current flaws and provided corrective instruction. It was honest, direct, but never blunt. During fuel and/or water breaks, Jim might pull a student aside to give them more in-depth assessment in private. I never saw anyone rebut or even take issue with any of his critiques. I believe that is due to the respect and trust Jim inspires.

In the end, I can say that I know I learned more in that course than during most of my previous reading and riding. Of course I believe it perfect for any reentry rider, but given his experience, expertise, and coaching style, I believe all but the most learned or experienced could benefit from his course.


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