Top TV Pic #15: Himalaya Calling and Pedro Mota’s YouTube videos

Himalaya Calling trailer

Following my recommendation of a series of YouTube videos made by Pedro Mota, two of my friends responded with how much they liked an Amazon Prime documentary, Himalaya Calling – Overland to the highest passes in the world. They were right! I’ve watched three of the four episodes, and they are great.  Plus, these have far broader appeal than Mota’s videos. Maggie loved the incredible scenery from a part of the world that is rarely photographed because it is so remote and empty.

This 4-epsisode film stars two German guys, Eric Peters and Alain Beger. They are not super jocks, handsome movie stars, or killer riders.  They’re mostly normal, although trained and experienced enough to take six months and spent it on an incredible adventure to a part of the world few visit.  Their real skill is the way they managed to capture this adventure with only hi-res cameras mounted on their helmets, bikes, and a drone.  No supplemental film crew, chase vehicles, or backups, and rarely cell phone coverage.  They got spectacular footage and edited it into a smoothly compelling movie series.  You don’t have to be a motorcycle rider to appreciate this amazingly ambitious accomplishment.

The original was made in German but the Amazon Prime version has an English language soundtrack.  I’m guessing the guy’s actual voices would have been better, but as I don’t speak German, this is an acceptable compromise.  Oh, and there is some salty language at times, but it’s not overdone. Check it out and let me know what you think.

For more hardcore riders, I also have to recommend Pedro Mota, who’s ridden his Transalp just about everywhere. His videos are on YouTube and are all genuine, unpolished, rough, and transparent.  They show what it’s like to explore roads and trails you’ve only heard about but never ridden.  This totally meets the definition of “adventure,” unlike the hyper-staged media extravaganzas like “The Long Way Down,” and its sequels.  Mota chronicles what actually happens, and does it all alone, without a camera crew or backups.

The first video is enlightening. I think I felt grit from his ride in my own teeth!  Skip down for notes and links to the second.

His second video, below, is a continuation of the one above.  It shows one of the most wonderful things that happen when adventure riding.  You meet incredible people.  You learn so much about what humanity is all about.  You get to really touch the world.

These aren’t professionally produced, the editing is spotty, the camera angles are sometimes horrible, and forget about the soundtrack.  And sometimes, things happen in languages you won’t understand and he forgets to translate.  To me, however, that is the magic of these things.  They’re raw and real and so reminded me of some of my rides in uncanny ways.  If today’s camera technology had been around back then, I could have made some cool movies, I think.

Photographs: Dakar 2021

riding up a sand storm
Photo credit: The Atlantic

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.

Were they that high?

jumping motorcycle

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.

Full size pic below

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.

Full size pic below

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.” 

Ascot Park Race with Gene Romero (#121) leading. John Binder (#238R) is just behind him and to the left, on his BSA 250 C-15
John Binder, bike #51, racing on Catalina Island in 1958. As always, John ran near the front of the pack, nearly always in contention to win.

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.