Know Thyself: A Riding Skills Story

motorcycle following a car on a dusty road
Dust and altitude complicated my crossing of the Andes, although the road surface was decent.

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 airing up a tire.

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.”

Big bikes at the bottom of the Copper Canyon, Mexico

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.

Arriving at the ocean in Chile after crossing the Atacama Desert

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 BMW 1200GS in an Argentina desert. It was easier to spin the rear tire to make a groove to hold the bike upright than using a side stand
Crossing a river isn’t difficult if the bottom is only small rocks, it’s not too deep and the current is slow. Otherwise, it can get dicey. After crossing on my GS, I rode another rider’s bike across for her.
Taking the big GS out to find the best lookout spots can sometimes involve sketchy terrain. This picture is from a south Utah ride. Notice, I’ve put the knobby tires on my GS.
Roads down into and out of the Copper Canyon in Mexico were not difficult. But hours and hours of riding switchback after switchback cause fatigue.

Precision and a McLaren MP4-12C

This morning I drove the McLaren to the dealer for its annual service.  Not having driven the McLaren in awhile, I became aware of its precision in a way I’d missed before.  When attempting to justify how and why a car like this is worth double what cars with similar performance numbers, I realized that precision is a factor I’d heard mentioned regarding McLarens, but not something I’d personally noticed until now. Now I understand.

The PerfectionistsNot too long ago I read a wonderful book by historian and New York Times bestselling author Simon Winchester titled The Perfectionists: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World.”  Winchester looks at history beginning in the Industrial Age until recently through the lens of precision. He is a master story-teller and once started, I found the book impossible to put down. Since completing it, I’ve recommended it to several friends who’ve thanked me profusely for the suggestion after they read it as well.  Chapter 1 of the book is titled: “Tolerance 0.1” and Chapter 2 is titled “Tolerance 0.0001” and Chapter 3 is titled “Tolerance .000001” and on it goes. The book came up in conversation the other night and some ghost of that conversation must have been going through my head this morning. Okay, now back to the McLaren.

Driving the McLaren this morning north bound on Hwy 51 in Phoenix, I noticed how precise the steering was.  This car goes exactly where you point it, absolutely straight, with no appreciable deviation in either direction.  It does not move a single degree off center. My good friend David Barnett’s 1948 MG-TC is at the opposite of end of this spectrum.  He let me drive it once and with his coaching I learned to turn the wheel in the general direction of where I wanted the car to go and then to wait a bit, to see if it would head in that direction before making any further adjustments to the wheel.  That was an acceptable level of precision when this car was built.  Nearly all modern cars have vastly improved steering over the MG-TC.  But what I wish to make clear here is that the McLaren is noticeably better in this respect than my Acura NSX and I now suspect it is probably better than an entire host of higher-end, truly wonderful automobiles built by Ferrari, Aston Martin and Lamborghini, among others.  Why? The first thing that comes to my mind is that designers and engineers conceptualizing and building my McLaren MP4-12C had taken on the project after their roles in building McLaren’s F1 cars. Precision requirements for F1 cars are, I suspect, a tad stricter than cars targeted for public road use.  Next was McLaren’s price target, which at the time (2014) was around a quarter of a million dollars for a base model (with options the prices generally ran a bit over $300K).  As Winchester points out in his book, highly precise machines come at a price and until the new level of precision is amortized over a large number of pieces, it costs a lot of money. The 12C engineers had the budget and know-how to introduce a level of precision in this automobile that even someone like me can notice and appreciate.  That says a lot.

What I experienced this morning was this: with no idea of “precision” in my conscious mind, I began to notice how precisely the steering wheel worked.  Not just on the straight, but when corning too.  Then it was the accelerator and the brakes conveying the same precise and highly accurate response to every input.  I was not on any mind-altering drugs! My friend Clayton is an engineer and knows what I mean.  There’s nothing that doesn’t register somewhere in his mind.  Precision – or lack thereof – is everywhere.  Start looking for it.

Disproportionately High Value #4: Polaris Slingshot

Not everyone knows I own a Polaris Slingshot.  Fewer still have any idea how or why, but I’m about to tell you.  But before I start, I need to make a point.  No, it is not a motorcycle.  While it may be called a motorcycle from a legal standpoint, it does not handle like a motorcycle, nor does one straddle it like a motorcycle.

Polaris makes toys.  A lot of these toys appeal to boys from the age of 18 to 80.  I just saw a cute T-shirt broadcasting “Grandpas are just ‘Antique’” little boys.” Polaris has a history of knowing what guys want even before they do and gives its designers a lot of rope to create vehicles that tick the imagination of toy-loving outdoor enthusiasts.  Of course, many women love motorized outdoor toys, too, but out on the road or the trail, there seem to be more men and boys on these road-toys than women and girls.

My Polaris Slingshot is somewhere between an Ariel Atom sports car and a Ducati GP motorcycle.  It’s got three wheels and a 173-HP front-mounted engine.  The single rear wheel connects to the transmission with a belt. The ultra-wide stance front wheels and ground clearance put you just inches above the pavement.  It is an absolute hoot to drive, exhibiting near super-car agility while looking like it came off the set of a Batman movie. It cost me about $25K new but delivers the driving exhilaration of vehicles costing much more. There are tradeoffs: while breathtakingly gorgeous from the front, not so from the back. Someone said from the back it looks like a ski chairlift with a tire attached, which I admit, is a pretty good description. With a 105-inch wheelbase and 70-inch track width in front, this thing is wide. The twenty-mile stretch of twisty roads on Hwy 89 up from Peeples Valley to Prescott, AZ, found me more than once dropping the front outside tire off the tarmac.  Weighing just less than 1,700 lbs., that’s only 10 lbs. for each horsepower to pull, making the Slingshot accelerate like a rocket. I’m often asked about the stability of 3-wheel versus 4-wheel vehicles and enjoy pointing out the inherent stability of 3-wheel platforms.  If you’ve spent any time at a restaurant attempting to get a 4-legged table stable using napkins and matchbooks, noticing in the process that 3-legged tables never require such ludicrous adjustments and are always wobble-free, you get it.

Some friends and readers of this blog are spirited drivers.  They like to drift. While it can be done in both motorcycles and cars, let me review how it works in cars.  I grew up in the Midwest where winter snow and icy roads required me to learn a driving technique called drifting. This “requirement” often became just plain fun for many.  Simply put, in a rear-wheel drive car, drifting is when you intentionally over-steer the car while spinning the rear tires.  You point the front wheels in one direction and stomp on the accelerator to cause the rear wheels to lose traction, resulting in the rear slip angle exceeding the front slip angle to such an extent the front wheels point in the opposite direction of the turn. In the same way poor traction due to icy or gravel roads make this easier, having just one wheel at the rear makes it easy to do in a Slingshot.  This technique is a great deal of fun for the hooligan tendencies of certain drivers. Not that I would know any of this them personally.

Slingshot with Christmas lightsIn December a few years back, I wired a 12V-to-110V inverter into the Slingshot, making it possible to power Xmas lights I’d strung all over the car.  Riding around town in this “one horse open sleigh” all festooned with lights, blaring Xmas carols over the speakers and dressed in Santa hats, was wonderful fun.   Just like Santa’s sleigh, you step over the frame to get into the car (there are no doors).  You sit on race-like waterproof seats, and settle yourself into a futuristic open-air space frame surrounded by polymer body panels.  The exceptionally close proximity to the pavement amplifies the sensation of speed.  Sliding over pavement with your backside less than a foot off the ground, you get a whole new perspective on velocity and the true meaning of ground clearance. In my NSX or the McLaren, it is shockingly easy to accelerate up a highway on-ramp and inadvertently find myself at triple digit speeds.  Not so with the Slingshot. Here, 45 mph feels like 90 mph and even at modest speeds I find myself grinning ear to ear while passengers raise their arms in the air as if on an amusement park thrill ride.

My Slingshot is “Red Pearl” and came with the optional larger 18-inch wheels in front and a larger rear wheel as well.  All wheels are forged aluminum. This SL model also included a sort of half-height windscreen, integrated backup camera, and a six-speaker Bluetooth-enabled audio system.

There are innate human reasons that convertibles, motorcycles and ATVs are so popular.  On a beautiful day there’s nothing better than the sun in your face and the wind in your hair as you experience firsthand an unforgettable urban or rural landscape.  But taking the Slingshot out on a dark winter’s night around Phoenix while glowing with Xmas lights is one of the most fun things I’ve ever done.

TV Top Pick #9: Motorcycle Touring Movies

There are motorcycling adventure movies floating around that deserve attention from my riding readers. “Long Way Up” recounts the latest adventures of actors Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman on AppleTV. Then there’s Ride Report: 10,000 Miles to Rio, an independently produced and directed film by two Las Vegas guys with minimal riding experience who set off to ride to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and making a film in the process. Lastly, Slow Ride Home is about 8 friends, members of the “Soldiers of Destiny” scooter club who make an epic cross-country ride from Florida to Seattle, WA on 125 cc motor scooters when hilarity breaks out.

All are worth watching if you ride motorcycles, think about riding motorcycles, or enjoy travel movies. The two lessor efforts (Slow Ride Home and Ride Report) are the most fun and easy for most of us to relate to. The third McGregor/Boorman effort comes on the heels of their other popular motorcycle televised riding trips, Long Way Round (2004) and Long Way Down.  Those first two movies had a bit of adventure here and there, but I found this third series ridiculously absurd – at least the first 3 episodes.  The way riders define “Adventure travel” varies widely and what actually constitutes “adventure” is a near-constant argument among travelers.  I find virtually no “adventure” in two guys riding bikes with an entourage consisting of a movie producer, a director, a couple of cameramen, at least two support trucks (and drivers) with massive amounts of tools and gear.  Add to those assets a no-limit credit card to assist with the extradition from any uncomfortable or difficult circumstance and you have something that feels to me like every bit of actual adventure has been squeezed out of the experience.  But we’ll come back to this.

Ride Report: 10,000 Miles to Rio:  In this Amazon Prime hour and a quarter movie, two guys in their twenties, Matt Kendall and Tierman Turner capture a genuine motorcycling adventure.  It appeals to me the most of the three as it is so reminiscent of early road trips I took with my first motorcycle. When I got my first bike, I was totally overwhelmed with the freedom of hopping on my bike, throwing a few gallons of gas in the tank, and heading off into the horizon.  I couldn’t stop myself.  I repeatedly made up places to go and my trips were absurd, foolhardy and mostly crazy.  On top of it all, I was totally unprepared, learning through a variety of errors, how to plan a bit better for my next trip.  When I think back to my utterly naïve younger self, taking off on my bike without proper tools or gear, possibly without even checking fluids or tire pressure, I cringe. Kendall and Turner put more thought and planning into their trips than my early escapades, but they were ignorant of much and left many steps totally unanticipated, figuring “we’ll work that out when we get there.” And this is precisely why I identified with them so completely and loved this movie. It’s a super low budget film, but they manage to capture the authentic joy and utter relief when things go right along with the frustrating disappointment and despair when bikes break or they get totally lost and realize they’ll have to back track an entire day’s riding.  It is the total opposite of the big money approach of the Long Way Up saga where one tires of the continually artificial risks and feigned obstacles McGregor and Boorman encounter.  The final plug I’ll make for 10,000 Miles to Rio is the degree to which the locals extend themselves to help these two often hapless riders in distress. When we’re being bombarded daily with the supposedly vile and villainous dangers awaiting us around every unknown foreign corner, it is so refreshing to see a true reflection of what I’ve always found – most human beings just want to help out a stranger in need.

Slow Ride Home is just good, silly fun.  The idea for this movie had to have come from a night with too much alcohol and someone saying, “Ya know what we oughta’ do?”  The bikes making this trip top out at, maybe, 55-65 mph (down hill, wind at the back), although trying to average more than 45 mph over any sustained amount of time will result in parts failing frequently. Scooters are built for 20-30 minute convenience trips at relatively low speeds, in cities, with lots of stops and at most, a few trips a day.  Deciding to ride them 3,700 miles, 11 days straight cross-country, creates its own spirit of adventure.  Unsatisfied with allowing their adventure to be just staying on course and making the trip in once piece, this group of geniuses filled the route with a set of obscure and ridiculous obstacles that, if a particular rider fails to manage the obstacle he pulled from the hat for that day, faces a frat-boy list of personal humiliations from which they must chose as punishment, much to the merriment of their fellow riders.  The one I liked best was having the hair on one’s head shaved into what was affectionately known as the “cul-de-sac” cut. Watch the movie to see how good this particular style can make someone look.  Deliberately or not, they manage to poke a finger in the eye of every serious documentary filmmaker on the planet, but do it in such a way, that they’ll all be on the floor laughing.  I know I was.

My opinion on the McGregor / Boorman series I’ve left to last, because frankly, who cares what I think?  But if you’ve made it this far, you’re going to get a dose of why I find these movies tiresome, unrealistic, not really about motorcycle riding and frankly ridiculous. First, I have nothing against Ewan McGregor.  He’s a fine and highly productive actor.  I do have an issue with the idea of him being a serious motorcyclist and his general lack of commitment to acquiring the skills necessary for some of the trips he portends to complete.  It is like he’s playing another movie role.  In the 1997 movie, “Nightwatch,” he played a night watchman and law student. It was fine. He was an actor.  Nice job. However, no one was trying to seriously pretend he was a law student or night watchman. However, these motorcycle adventures are positioned as documentaries and yet he’s just playing the part of a motorcyclist, and that is what so irritates me.  Charley Boorman is a different story.  I get no bad vibes from him.  His book, although ghost written by someone else, was a superb read on his taking on the Dakar Rally. It was authentic and very good.  Boorman’s a good rider – not fancy, but he has solid skills. I admire what he’ll try to do on a bike. Now, this may be because we’ve both experienced the Dakar Rally, which is far from a walk in the park.  I chronicled that 2011 experience for The Overland Journal and you can read about it here.  Eventually I will finish the “Long Way Up” series.  I have no doubt the scenery will be spectacular and some of it will be familiar from the riding I’ve done in that part of South America. The camera work will be stunning with new drone technology, but it will take all the constraint I can muster to keep my snarky comments on the other stuff to myself.

While everyone knows Easy Rider (1969), there are other overlooked great motorcycle movies to consider if you’ve not seen them.

I’m leaving out: Easy Rider, The Wild One, The Great Escape, Being Evel, Riding Solo To The Top Of The World (2006), Mad Max: Fury Road and several others.

Chasing Dakar cover
My story in the Overland Journal Magazine about chasing the Dakar Rally through South America