Ten years ago I tracked the 2011 Dakar Rally in Argentina and Chile for The Overland Journal Magazine. In the article I said the Dakar Rally was to dirt bike riders what The Vatican is to Catholics, what Hollywood is to movie buffs and the Grand Ole Opry is to country music lovers. Bringing together the best riders in the world also attracts the top photographers, especially when the race covers some of the most beautiful and harshest landscapes on the planet.
Follow this link to see a collection of photographs pulled together by The Atlantic magazine, featuring photographs by Franck Fife and Hamad Mohammed. This extraordinary compilation of images gives you a brief glimpse into what 300 brave souls experienced in 2021 during the 43rd annual Dakar Rally, a 14-day, 4,751 mile off-road trek in Saudi Arabia. If you’ve never read my report from the 2011 Dakar Rally, please take a look at it here.
When visiting John Binder, one of the “old pharts” in Frank Del Monte’s orbit of British bike aficionados, I discovered a distinguished set of classic motorcycles and a spotless garage/workshop. Holding 45 motorcycles at one point, John’s recently cut his collection to just over a half dozen exceptionally special and historic bikes. These are carefully set up at various workstations making it convenient for his meticulous restoration work.
After a tour and hearing the histories and stories of each bike, we lounged in his shop, reminiscing about younger days riding and racing. Photos on the walls show John racing on Catalina Island in the mid-’50s and at Ascot Park Raceway in Los Angeles. These photos, mostly black & white, are impressive. John’s face is clearly visible; his left leg kicked out as he leads a cluster of racers in vintage helmets on numbered bikes, sliding around a corner. While John admits to not always ending at the top of the podium, he nearly always finished close to the winner.
In this photo of him at Ascot Park, in a half-mile TT (Tourist Trophy) Race, John finished in the #3 position, riding his 250 C-15 BSA (#238R). Winning the race and pictured just a few feet ahead of John in the photo, is Gene Romero, #121. Romero was sponsored by Triumph and later Yamaha factory racing teams. He won the 1970 AMA Grand National Championship and the 1975 Daytona 200. Romeo was inducted into the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 1998.
I recently come across some old photos showing my early humble racing attempts. Unlike John, few of my efforts were sanctioned by anyone. Of greatest surprise was seeing how those huge jumps on our makeshift motocross course had shrunk in the pictures to just piles of dirt maybe 5-6 feet high. Somehow in my mind, I transferred those early riding experiences to something looking like the modern stadium-style motocross course. While nothing could be further from the truth, the photo at the top of this piece shows me appearing to have launched myself near the peak of my house. More cringe-worthy than the height, is the total lack of protective equipment – helmet, boots, padded jacket, gloves. Invulnerable in those days, my suspicion is we all can recount moments that in retrospect we’re a bit surprised we survived.
At one point my motorcycle mechanic and former motocross racer directed me to a friend of his who had a farm where they’d constructed a make-shift practice motocross track. The quarter-mile track was complete with several large mounds of black dirt and a section of smaller whoops and several tight, steeply banked turns. It was a completely informal and fun place to practice motocross riding skills. After a few weekends I was beginning to get the hang of things. One Friday night I was talking to a young woman at a bar. Certain the site of me flying high over mounds of black dirt would impress her immensely and melt her heart, I invited her to where we practiced and drew her a map on a cocktail napkin. Practicing the next morning, I kept looking down the road leading to the farm, hoping to see her car appear, and eventually, it did. Timing my moves carefully, I rode the track slowly until the car with this young woman and her friend parked and they’d walked a bit closer to the track. Then I pulled out all the stops and let it rip. I hit each jump to ensure maximum altitude. I most certainly must have cleared 15 or 20 feet in the air. I slid around the corners with the back wheel spinning furiously, sending a stream of dirt flying. Pretending I’d noticed them for the first time, I rode the bike over to where they were standing, locking the rear brake as I slid to a stop close to them, letting the tall bike with its 36 inch seat height lean over so I could get a leg down with my 29 inch inseam. I dismounted, pushed the bike back straight and onto its side stand, and removed my helmet and smiled. She and her girlfriend rushed up to me, giggled, and she said, “Wow, that’s amazing. You looked just like those monkeys in the circus riding ponies over those jumps.” As you can imagine, this was not the effect I was going for, but I had to admit, on these very tall bikes with the suspension set to provide maximum cushion for landing softly, my short legs did not come close to reaching the ground.
Like a lot of riders, I went through a track-day phase when living in California. When trying to channel MotoGP racers like Kenny Roberts, seeing photos of myself on the track, I look more like Kenny Rogers, the country-western singer. I wrote a story about one of the track schools I attended and chronicled that experience here.
Looking back on how we rode, I sometimes wonder if those hills and jumps were bigger or smaller than they were in our minds.
I first observed this time impacted disorientation when revisiting a favorite family picnic spot from my youth. Now in our twenties, my brother Leif and I joined our family at a park near Taylors Falls, MN. The park sits along the St. Croix River, outside of the Twin Cities of Minneapolis/St. Paul. We’d come here when we were kids, perhaps when in junior high school. The picnic area provides easy access to the river for swimming, and lots of hiking trails leading to the high cliffs rising above the river. I reminded my brother as youngsters, we’d hiked these trails and launched ourselves into the river. “Maybe we can find the spot from where we jumped,” I said as we headed out. After less than 15 minutes climbing the trail through the trees, we were a good way up the cliff. As we approached a clearing we cautiously approached the edge. I got on my knees to crawl a bit closer, Leif was brave enough to slowly walk to the edge, and we both peered down at the churning water below. Then we retreated about 10-15 feet back to confer. “This couldn’t be where we jumped, could it?” We both concluded this was far too high above the river, it couldn’t have been the spot. One could get seriously hurt hitting the water from this height. One more peak over the ledge and we both agreed, we couldn’t have jumped from here.
As we were about to turn around, we heard the voices of young kids, coming up the trail. They were running, approaching rapidly, yelling, and carrying on as kids do. Not knowing how many there were or how fast they were going, we stepped back out of the way, to let them pass. The first skinny kid of about 8 years old glanced to the right and noticed us but did not miss a step, as he ran toward the edge and launched himself into the river, arms flailing and yelling. In just another second or two, another flash passed, making the same jump, followed by 3 more. Whoosh… whoosh… whoosh they went. Leif and I slowly approached the ledge again, looking down at the five young kids in the water, laughing, splashing as they swam toward the shore. After a moment of silence, I mumbled, “Well, maybe we did jump from here. We must have been nuts.”
After reading of a harrowing motorcycle adventure tour outside of the US in which several bikes crashed and riders were hurt, I circulated the article to several friends who lead motorcycle tours for a living. The task of assessing someone’s self-reported riding skills before signing them up for a tour is a tough problem for all of them. The discussion ignited several ideas I’ve had on the topic over the years and for the motorcycle riders subscribed to this newsletter, finally something for you.
There is a key concept at work here: it is the tendency of riders to overstate their riding proficiency. At one training class I attended, the instructor asked attendees to include the number of years we’d been riding in our introductions. Many were new, reporting their riding experience in months. But some chests puffed with pride as they reeled off 25 or even 30 years, as the newer riders glanced at them in awe. The instructor then got everyone’s attention by saying, “Most of you who claim 25 or 30 years of riding experience actually have had just one year of riding experience… which you’ve repeated over and over. Or worse, 25 years of bad habits which will take time and effort to unlearn.” The instructor proved prescient, as that was precisely what we discovered when the lessons began. Many of the long-term riders were slower to “get it,” and required more repetitions before moving to the next stage of training.
It turns out all humans have this. It was discovered in 1999 and it’s called the Dunning-Kruger Effect. It’s a cognitive bias in which people with low ability overestimate that ability. This illusion of superiority comes from being unable to recognize our own deficiency. It’s on a scale, so it turns out the worse you are or less you know about something, the higher you tend to rate your understanding or abilities. (See chart in the blog post version of this story.) Garrison Keillor captured the feeling well in the closing words of his monologue on A Prairie Home Companion when he said, “Well, that’s the news from Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.”
The reverse is true as well. Once people develop skills or expertise in a particular field, they tend to discover how much they don’t know and gain a better understanding of what they’re unable to do or where the gaps are in their proficiencies. So, as they pull away from the pack with greater knowledge and ability, they begin rating themselves lower and more critically. That’s the Dunning-Kruger effect.
Every one of my tour operator friends have methods for dealing with riders who believe they are better than they actually are. They’ve all had guests get in over their heads and it is a recipe for problems that can negatively impact an entire tour, ending up as one operator called it, “in a cluster ride.” Techniques and practices to avoid this varied. For some, a couple of days of highly supervised training in advance is a requirement for going on the trip. Jim Hyde of Rawhyde Adventure takes this approach for riders wanting to follow the Dakar event as well as many of his other tours. Tour operator and trainer Bill Dragoo also conducts check-out rides. An advance “tune-up” ride allows the prospective attendees to brush up on important skills they’ll need to complete the tour while providing the tour operator a chance to evaluate each rider and eliminate them from the tour if their skills aren’t up to the challenges of the ride.
My long-time friend, John Fitzwater of GoTourNZ responded to my email, explaining his process this way: “I have a test route that I take clients who have booked on our “adventure” tours that involves riding on tracks and trails equivalent to Bret’s Difficult Terrain level (Bret Tkacs’ approach will be explained below). I explain it is a test, and they need to pass the Moderate bits to complete the full adventure tour itinerary (or they’ll have to bypass certain sections).”
Bill Dragoo, Internationally Certified BMW Motorrad Off Road Instructor and founder of Dragoo Adventure Rider Training (D.A.R.T.), recommended I look into the new online ADV Skill Rating System developed by Bret Tkacs, operator of PSSOR. It’s called the Adventure Skill Rating System. What Tkacs does is ask riders to put themselves into one of three categories: Rookie, Transitional or Proficient. His unambiguous criteria for each category makes it easy for a person to identify where they fit best based on frequency of falls or near misses, amount of energy used in a ride, number of breaks or rest stops needed, expectations for bike damage and the ease which you can multitask when needed. What is especially brilliant and useful about Tkacs’ approach is the next step, when he has you carry this rating over and apply it to five different levels of Terrain (Class 1: Novice Terrain, Class 2: Basic Terrain, Class 3: Moderate Terrain, Class 4: Difficult Terrain and Class 5: Severe Terrain). Helpful videos show examples of all 5 classes of terrain. Someone who rates him/herself as “Proficient” on Novice or Basic terrain may quickly see they drop to Rookie when the terrain gets to the Difficult or Severe Class.
This approach provides an easily transportable framework for multiple riders to compare skills on an even playing field. Having potential riders rate themselves, with an understanding someone will be testing them, results in a helpful and accurate self-reported skills assessment. When Bill and I were talking about it, he felt it would also be useful to help him, as an instructor, guide a student to select the proper class or could be used by riders gathering for a weekend group ride and checking the various riders’ skillsets before deciding which routes to take. I could see that it may also be useful for riders dedicated to upping their skills by helping them set appropriate and specific objectives. For instance, “My goal for 2021 is to move from transitional to proficient on Class 4 Terrain.”
Part of what makes this tool so powerful and why it works so well is its limited scope. It’s not about riding cruiser bikes on the tarmac. It’s not even about riding 250 cc off-road dirt-oriented bikes. It is geared exclusively to adventure riding skills on largish (heavy) bikes with luggage on a variety of well-defined terrains escalating in difficulty. This is appropriate and necessary to maximize the accuracy of a rating to a particular rider. However, it made me wish Tkacs’ rubric could be implemented for ranking prospective riders if the terrain was going to be all tarmac and the bikes were sport-touring types, or for sport bike track day classes, heavyweight cruisers or super heavy luxury touring bikes.
Another aspect that impressed me in Tkacs’ method is how he includes fatigue and length of time on the bike with the terrain calculation. In my “Chasing Dakar” assignment for The Overland Journal several years ago, I learned 175 miles of tricky dirt roads, deep sand, and heavy dust at high altitudes made the next stage which consisted of 300 miles of high-speed tarmac riding more treacherous because the fatigue factor now began playing such a more significant role.
While my first thought was that 3 categories weren’t enough, the more I read and thought about it, the more value I saw in Tkacs having just 3 groups. Although there are only 3 categories, there is enough flexibility within the groups to further define skill levels. For instance, one could say, “I’m transitional to proficient early in the day when fresh, but deteriorate to rookie late in the afternoon, especially after a big lunch and no nap. Oh, and at over 10,000 feet altitude, I’m all-rookie all-the-time.”
Riders who know me and have read my magazine articles over the years are aware of what a big believer I am in training. I used my associations with RIDER, Motorcycle Consumer News, RoadRunner, and other magazines to report on a whole host of wonderful training schools, including several courses created for and limited to full-time, professional riders. There are links to some of the best of those articles here. For the largest portion of my riding life, I began every year with a new riding skill or training goal to accomplish during the next year. I tried to make them big deals taking considerable effort to accomplish. I don’t remember missing any of them, although sometimes they took a bit longer than a year to reach.
As my nephew, Andrew Stickney recently reminded me: “Amateurs practice until they can get it right. Professionals practice until they can’t get it wrong.”
My good friend and riding buddy, Rich Marin, writes a daily blog post/newsletter called The Old Lone Ranger. Rich is highly disciplined and writes 1,000 words, every day. Rich and another friend, Philip Richter, inspired me to start my newsletter. Philip’s site and blog is the Turtle Garage. On Saturday, January 9, 2021, Rich’s post was titled “Getting Big Enough.” It again made me recognize and appreciate different ways people look at the world. While ostensibly about his size and the sizes of people in general, toward the end of the piece Rich crossed into a discussion about the changes 2020 and COVID have brought to our world, the disorientation and unpredictability of things and reactions to that. You can read his full post here.
The part of his post inspiring this response is:
“And yet, who among us does not know people who surprise us with their ability to handle the whirlwind in ways that startle us. I know people who get frazzled in steady states, but who blossom and thrive in chaos. That seems counter-intuitive and almost inexplicably unnerving, but it’s true. I attribute it to a phenomenon I observed long ago in someone close to me. I concluded that I am a linear thinker for whom logic adds clarity. This other person did better handling chaos than order. They were random thinkers, people who could sense patterns rather than reason through sequential logic. I am certain I hit on a very real attribute characterization with this observation.”
While fairly certain Rich is not talking about me, I thought, “Well, I resemble that remark.” One of the many things Rich and I have in common is being self-aware. But my trait of tolerance for ambiguity and desire to keep pushing ahead in times of uncertainty was something I only became aware of later in life. Even after becoming aware of it, years passed before the implications of how it might affect my career dawned on me. Eventually, I figured it out after leaving the stable cocoon of employers like AT&T, CDC, and IBM and into the world of early-stage tech startups. I was finally professionally fulfilled in this environment where the arrival of new technology or a competitive announcement could require an overnight reassessment of every assumption about our business.
In his post, Rich observed that some people “get frazzled in steady states.” Frazzled wasn’t how I would characterize my feelings. My dissatisfaction when working for large, “steady-state” companies was frustration with the agonizing slowness of getting anything done, the number of people required to buy-in before moving forward, and my colleagues overwhelming satisfaction with the status quo and rabid fear of upsetting the apple cart. So, maybe it was frazzled, but it felt more like frustration, numbness, and exhaustion to me. It was probably why I only lasted about 5 years each in these big companies. The daily grind of working with people who did not appear to care or understand the key drivers of the business and what we needed to transpire to move forward drove me crazy. Working side by side with people who got their professional fulfillment from an ability to leave the office at precisely 5 pm every day with an absolutely clear desk, is what eventually did me in. And just so we are clear, not everyone in large organizations behaves or thinks this way, and certainly not Rich Marin.
It was just six months after leaving IBM that my recognition of the “Aha moment” Rich describes occurred. We were living in Croton-on-Hudson, NY. I was acting as the half-time VP of Marketing for a start-up in global trade in Connecticut and had a consulting contract with a venture firm in New York City and spent one day a week there. Many evenings I’d attend events on what to do about this new, weird, chaotic, nebulous, and probably powerful new thing called the Internet. It was at that point I realized professionally, for the first time in my life, I was completely happy, satisfied and thrilled with my job. I couldn’t wait to get up every morning. It was non-linear, unstructured, totally lacking in certainty, and yet, in my mid-40s, I was finally doing what I was good at.
To be fair to myself, earlier life circumstances had forced me into a professional life of only working for large companies. The risk to my family of not having health insurance was too high. My health history and what insurance companies viewed as adverse “pre-existing conditions” made me uninsurable, except when bundled into a huge group policy only available through large employers. I remember riding the train back from the city one afternoon, staring out the window at the cakes of ice floating in the Hudson River and thinking how if every one of my current income sources were to instantly dry up, I would be able to find something else quickly, and it would probably be better than what I was doing now.
I spent the rest of my working life with early-stage start-up companies. While far from dependable in the long-term sense, my work was always satisfying and gratifying. I hated to lose and felt real angst and fear when we’d run out of options and had to close up shop. But even then, I knew I was doing the right thing. Rich is correct about the new pressures coming from a world seeming to be constantly evolving, complexities of the web and where to go for reliable information, and a polarized political landscape that keeps getting worse even when we think it is already as bad as it can get. Rich concluded that the biggest challenge may be to find something that isn’t changing. He may be right, but I’m not sure it matters to me. While I may not thrive on ambiguity, I’ve learned to get comfortable with it. Perhaps he’s right – it’s my nature.