Finish your comparative analysis of the Ilyad and the Odyssey... or ride your motorcycle? Memorize logarithmic tables... or ride your motorcycle? Conjugate Latin verbs...or ride your motorcycle? For many the very essence of youth was defined by the eternal conflict between education and recreation. Grow up to be a mule? No way, but down deep, most of us suspected that we might just grow up to be motorcyclists who wouldn't know everything about Latin verbs, Greek poetry and advanced mathematics.
Gearhead or bookworm (just to name two stereotypes)--whether raised on two wheels or having taken to the sport later in life--regardless of one's orientation--the idea of motorcycling and formal education probably seemed anathema to each other in those impressionable young years. Back in the mid to late '80s all that changed. Why? The Motorcycle Safety Foundation. Although the Japanese manufacturers who assumed the brunt of the foundation's funding ultimately overestimated the potential of the American market, their "big picture" approach dictated that for any industry to survive and flourish, it must first provide reliable, easy-to-use products and then an atmosphere in which people could easily purchase and enjoy them. If motorcycles were only for dirty-knuckled drop-outs or--worse--if nice, respectable folk were routinely killed and maimed by these products, it made little difference if the new machines were cleaner, more reliable and more economical than their predecessors.
While motorcycle sales may never rebound to the level they enjoyed when baby boomers were playing the White Album backwards, every other quantifiable measure of the market is up: buyer age and experience, income levels, bike prices, resale value. Today's motorcyclists are, more than ever, likely to be "enthusiasts," and today's enthusiasts are likely to have a greater percentage of their incomes and their souls invested in motorcycling.
This year, about 120,000 new and experienced riders will take MSF courses, a significant increase over even a few short years ago. While motorcycling doesn't have the inherent measuring sticks of say, golf or bowling, it feels very good when one pushes the right buttons. The professionals who buy today's top-of-the-line models may not have any more riding talent than the hairy-chested eighth graders who stole our lunch money (most of whom probably never got beyond motorcycle jackets), but they're less likely to need an anvil dropped on their heads to figure out that motorcycling is a skill which can be learned from listening to others.
I've yet to meet anyone who, after attending a racetrack school, hasn't claimed to have learned a lot. It really doesn't matter what the school is, who the instructors are or which racetrack, a day at the track is guaranteed to teach you plenty... about that particular track. You will learn in the way of toddlers and animals: circling repetitively, repeating what feels good and ceasing what doesn't. Gradually your lap times will come down, and maybe you'll be able to apply what you're learned to your street riding. But don't count on it.
Riders of every stripe can recite the virtues of the track: no hidden gravel, no cars turning left across your path...all traffic moving in the same direction. The prevailing logic is that the racetrack is what you would have if you could erase the usual hazards from your favorite stretch of road. No one ever seems to mention one enormous technical difference: width.
One lane of your favorite road is probably 10 to 14 feet wide--with severe consequences on either side. A racetrack turn, on the other hand, may be 40 feet wide. If you're wondering how that affects cornering, place a soup bowl face down on a piece of paper and trace a half circle. See how many combinations of quick freehand curves you can draw inside the semicircle. Then trace another half circle and try to draw just one freehand curve--staying within an inch of the line.
This is the difference between the street and the track, and it's also one reason why riders have attended competing track schools and reported, as my Ozark Mountain friend so colorfully explained it, "Evah-thang one of 'em said, the utha said jest th' opposite!" The racetrack is a big canvas on which the riders of different styles are free to express their creativity.
For the rider coming over from the street, that means lean angles which may have been previously unimaginable. When asked what he learned from a famous track school, one rider told me, "I learned to trust tires."
Yes--trust in tires. But ask questions, too. Pick the brains of your instructors and work on the techniques that are best suited to the type of riding you intend to do. New schools are opening all the time; not just track schools. Be careful when choosing track schools: Insurance adjusters frown on programs using the words "race" or "racing.' Check out some of the training tours and clinics that are opening across the country and the globe (try searching the Internet). We've sampled just three programs this time but hope to bring you additional coverage in the coming months....
Doc Wong Clinics
If you're looking for the most bang for your buck, the best riding school meets monthly in a Redwood City, California, chiropractor's office. What the heck--it's free.
On the Sunday I joined in there were 80 serious motorcycle riders in attendance. Just about average, says Dr. Harry Wong, although reservations are required when guest lecturers such as Keith Code or Donny Greene hold court. Examples of monthly topics have been "Judging Entrance Speeds" and "Using the Handlebar for Smooth Riding." This month's topic was "Lines of Travel."
The Bay Area has arguably the best combination of weather and roads in the nation, and there was enough squeaky new leather in the room to put several generations of Dainese youngsters through college. Thirty-somethings comprised the largest demographic segment, but there were enough pimples and gray hair to make everyone feel welcome.
Some anecdotes on early Skyline Boulevard misadventures (seems the Doc is a reformed squid), an informational lecture, question-and-answer period, and then Wong assumed the difficult task of breaking the group down into tens for the day's ride.
"Let's get some volunteers for the number one (fastest) group," he pleaded. Three hands went up. "C'mon, it's not a super-fast sport ride, and anyway, we'll wait up the road if anyone drops behind."
My friend, Ted, nodded to me, and soon Wong had his minion of "fast" riders. we all met in the street: Ted on his VFR, me on a Yamaha YZF600, another VFR, two Suzuki GSX-R750s, a Honda CBR600F3, three Ducatis...and a Yamaha XT225 dual sport!
"Nice machine," I nodded to the XT rider. "Yeah, I own an F3, too," said the XT guy, "...but this is the bike for the ride!" Apparently someone had leaked the fact that Doc had chosen a "technical" route for this month's ride, and after two or three miles on the first lumpy little piste, no one was laughing at his choice.
Doc himself led our group on his red BMW R1100RS, his pace emphasizing deliberation over acceleration. Like a multicolored serpent, wriggling hypnotically against the slopes of the coastal mountains, the A team, at least, had grasped the day's lesson.
After about 90 minutes of riding, all eight groups rendezvoused for the run down Pacific Coast Highway for lunch. Snapping photos in the parking lot, I dallied and missed the bus, necessitating a switch to the number two group. The afternoon route was less tight, and guess what? The number two group was way faster than Doc's number ones! After 20 minutes of watching a Honda ST1100 rider grind his undercarriage in pursuit of the Two's Ducati 916-mounted leader, I was happy to reconvene with my original mates.
The last part of our ride was Route 84, La Honda Road, up to Skyline Boulevard in Woodside--a section well-known to any Northern Californian who knows the difference between a floorboard and a clip-on. At this point my trail bike acquaintance quietly slipped his 225 into a gas station; valor and 20 horsepower wouldn't be enough to run this uphill section with the big boys.
In the roadside park, riders compared stories and equipment, waiting for the final groups to arrive and Doc's debriefing. The news wasn't all good. One bike banged a bus, and two others left the road, although there appeared to be no serious injuries. The sheer math--80 riders times perhaps a thousand strange curves--weighs heavily against an error-free outing. As with any group ride, I'd recommend staying within your comfort zone, not following too closely and avoiding any shaky-looking riders.
If you're in the Bay area--which has several bike rental options--a "Docride" has to be the best way to learn cool roads, some of which are amazingly devoid of weekend traffic. The informations flow is friendly, digestible and accurate, though Doc doesn't claim to have professional training credentials. If you're already an adept corner carver, a few hours on gorgeous roads watching responsible sport riders interplay with drivers who actually share the road, will motivate you to return home and campaign for better two- and four-wheeled etiquette on your local circuit.
Check out Wong's Web site, http://www.docwong.com, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org to receive updates on street and off-road clinics.
Doc Wong's Street Riding Clinic-Introduction and clinic dates
Riding Clinic details
Articles in City Bike, Street Bike Magazine, and others on the riding clinics
Keith Code at Doc Wong Riding Clinic
Comments by riders at the last Doc Wong Riding Clinic
Contacting Dr. Wong, registration, and the Doc-Ride mail-list
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