Oh Shoot! Shoot, Shoot, Shoot

When Ginger was a baby, my stint as Vice President of Marketing at Open Systems came to a close. We needed insurance while I was between jobs, so Maggie went back to work and we agreed I would stay home with Ginny (which was what we called her then). How she went from Ginny to Ginger is a story for another day.

The movie, Mr. Mom, starring Michael Keaton, had recently come out. His character, Jack, is fired from his job and his wife, Caroline (Teri Garr) goes back to work and they switch roles. I thought, “Hell, why not? How hard could taking care of a single child be?” Maggie wasn’t fully on board initially, but then she warmed to the idea as she saw how enthusiastic I was to give it a shot. Soon, she was heading off to work at Control Data Corporation, while I remained at home and took care of Ginny. What an amazing opportunity for a Dad and daughter to bond. She was coming up on birthday number 1; she was perfect without exception and life was great.

Before relating the events that occurred, let’s get two facts clear from the start. The first is how long this lasted: In my mind, and whenever telling of this story, it always seemed to me it was about a year. Looking at the timeline more carefully, I found that no more than 3 months is more likely the right number. Well, it sure seemed a lot longer to me! Second, I was a very involved Dad before this point. We did the pre-natal birthing classes together, I was with Maggie during labor and delivery, and the first to hold baby Larsen after she was born. Once we got Ginny home, I was an equal partner in feeding, bathing, and changing diapers. Well, most of it — I didn’t do laundry or meal preparation. That was about to change.

How to start the process with Maggie gone and Ginny and me at home, alone together? Well, my primary objective was to get organized. This house needed a makeover and I threw myself into the task. The initial focus was Ginny’s closet and her clothes. As a first child, she’d been the recipient of a massive amount of clothes gifts from family members and friends. Add in a big gap in children for our family and we ended up with piles of hand-me-down baby clothes on top of all the new stuff. I emptied every clothes drawer. Her garments were washed and neatly folded and returned to the bureau for safekeeping. Once this was complete, I was loath to see any of her fresh, clean outfits get dirty, so most of the time, Ginny wore a diaper and T-shirt. I found, if I turned the t-shirt inside out before her mother got home, I could get an additional day with a shirt before it needed to be laundered. Thankfully, we were on the disposable diapers kick already.

The next step for this homemaker in creating and customizing his workspace was to organize the kitchen. In one day I removed each single item from each cupboard and drawer, laying out the pieces across the kitchen table, dining room table, and other flat surfaces. Then, after cleaning everything, including the cabinet interiors, all the stuff was put away. The kitchen now conformed to my new, well-studied, and optimized layout. Each plate, fork, bowl, pot, and frying pan was precisely where it should be, although not where Maggie thought they should be, but it was my kitchen now. Part of the problem with this turned out to be an exquisite design. It was simply so good, once everything was put away, I didn’t want dishes and glassware to ever come out again. I began serving meals on paper plates and using plastic ware. “Mess up my kitchen?” Not on your life!

In my defense, my career mirrored this behavior precisely. In my 40’s I finally figured out where in the business world I operated best, and it was as a builder. I loved early-stage companies, deciding on the direction, refining value propositions, constructing a profitable model, and then creating the plan and executing it. I was very good at that and loved doing it. It wasn’t work for me. I once said, “If you want a bridge built, you should hire me. But once it’s built, if you need a toll collector, or someone to paint and maintain the bridge, get someone else.”  Once a business is up and running, the key people are in place, the bugs worked through, the unknowns are all known, I’m ready to move on.

After these key household goals were accomplished, which occurred in only a few days, I turned my attention to my daughter and made sure I was getting her out for regular walks and excursions around the neighborhood. We lived with a lot of other young families and so running into other homemakers was unavoidable. Eventually, I was invited to a “Coffee Klatch” get-together. Wow, what an eye-opener that was.

Having not been here before, I let the 8-10 mothers do most of the talking, which was mostly about their kids progress and done simultaneously. “Lyle is so advanced; his doctor says he’s never seen a boy at 10 months who can crawl as far and fast as he does.” “My precious little Kathie is much more advanced, she was trying to put a dress on one of her dolls, and she’s only 7 months old.” “Little Buster is so ahead of the other boys in his daycare, the teachers told me they’ve never seen a kid drinking from a sippy cup at that age.” I was amazed: every one of their kids was in the top cohort, the upper 10% or in some other way, in the most advanced group ever – longest, heaviest, most hair, earliest tooth, motor skills, etc. Eventually, they noticed I hadn’t chimed in and tried to get me to open up. I was initially reluctant, but realizing you couldn’t have a top end of the scale without a bottom end, I told them in light of what I’d been hearing, there was no doubt in my mind, Ginny was clearly retarded. I went on to say, “I think she’s in the bottom third of everything they measure kids on. That said, I do think she giggles well. She really is very good at giggling – oh, and laughing, too. Damn, she can laugh extremely well. I was thinking she might be further along in laughing than some other kids and while I think it may be her strongest capability at this point, I have to admit, it seems pretty much the same as other kids her age.”  Hard to believe, but I never got invited back to another Coffee Klatch event.

But those mothers took their revenge. They began squealing on me to Maggie. They would snitch and inform on me about every little infraction as if it was catastrophically horrible. “He was out jogging, and he had Ginny on his shoulders, she was bouncing up and down, I swear to God he was about to drop her.” Or, “He was pulling her in the wagon and she wasn’t wearing a jacket, scarf, mittens or hat. She was so cold her lips were turning blue.” Fortunately for me, while Ginger was learning to speak, she wasn’t yet speaking in sentences or even making much sense when she did speak. Don’t get me wrong, she was delighted to try and say new words, but typically did not appear to know what they meant. As a result, she became the star, go-to witness in my defense and I called her to the stand whenever needed. When confronted by Maggie with the latest horrifying tail of something unfitting I’d done with our daughter, I’d look at Ginny and ask, “Did Daddy and Ginny have fun?” and I’d throw my hands up in the air and make a funny face. Ginny never failed to throw her hands in the air too, and giggle and laugh. This nearly always got me off the hook. We made a great team and none of the charges ever stuck.

The day I got into the most trouble began innocuously enough. I had turned a room into an office directly across from the nursery, with a desk and wall consisting of 3 large bookcases. It turned out the room was too small for the bookcases. I decided to move the bookcases out to the family room, which was much larger and would accommodate them easily. Studying the task, it seemed simple. Reach in, grab both sides of 8 – 12 books from a shelf, take them into the family room, and pile them on the floor. Once the bookcases were empty, have Maggie help me move them to the family room and then reload them. Easy.

But what to do with Ginny in the process of the book moving? No worries, I set her up in her bouncy chair so she could sit, play, and watch me as I made the move. After a few trips, the number of trips I was going to need to make began to dawn on me. So, with each new load, I began expanding the number of books I would take, squeezing my arms together more and more tightly. Soon I’d exhausted the lower shelves on the far left bookcase. Bringing in a 3-foot step stool from the garage, I could reach the top shelves. Putting my hands on either side of a pretty good length of books I slowly moved them off the top shelf. As soon as I turned around on the top step of the stool, the books collapsed in the middle and fell to the floor with a loud crash. Even before they landed, I loudly yelled “Oh Shit!” Ginger looked up at me, looked down at the mess scattered across the floor, and as clear as a bell, said, “Oh Shit, oh Shit, oh shit.”

God was I in trouble. Now what? I picked up the fallen books and put them in the other room. Standing in the doorway of the office, I looked at the shelf from where the accident had occurred. Sensing Ginny’s eyes on me, I got back up on the ladder, feigned grabbing another full armful, turned back to her, and said, “Oh Shoot! Shoot, Shoot, shoot!” enunciating perfectly, to make sure there was no mistake in understanding, and slowly turning my head from side to side in a look of dismay. Looking up at me with a twinkle in her eye from her bouncy chair, as clear as a bell she said, “Shit, shit, shit. Oh, Shit!”

Ginger and Uncle John Gravley, at about the time this story takes place.

I’m not sure how many days it was before I got nailed, but it wasn’t many. Maggie was putting something away in the kitchen and she bumped a cup from the counter onto the floor. Ginny, sitting in her high chair, looked at her and triumphantly said, “Oh Shit! Oh shit, oh shit.” I was out on the deck, but heard Maggie call, “Steve, you better get in here, right now.” Yeah, I was toast. No witness to my defense this time. I told her the whole story and she reluctantly forgave me, but not before reminding me how impressionable young brains can be.

I loved my 3 months or so playing Mr. Mom and believe Ginny and I did bond in some special ways. Caring for her was an important task and I always took it seriously. There was never a point I put her in any real danger, although I’m sure I did things most first-time mothers might not do. But mostly I remember the two of us laughing a lot and having fun.

Dad and Ginger, dropping her off at Kenyon College. One of these two could not stop crying.

The One Bike to Rule Them All

My good friend, Rich Marin, in a situation where one bit of bad news was followed by another, flipped it around and came out smelling like a rose and the owner of a like-new BMW 1200GSA at a smokin’ deal. Rich appears as enthralled with his new GS as I am with my Tesla (Falling in Love: With a Tesla). However, my route to owning and becoming a committed fan of the BMW 1200GS was more circuitous than his.

Rich and I are long-term riders, starting as kids, and after only a few pauses, have kept it as lifelong pursuits. My love and involvement with motorcycle’s evolved into an avocation. Rich wrote a book about his riding life, The Ride is All. While it is true we’re discriminating to the point of opinionated about various brands and models, in the end, our focus is mostly about how these machines enhance our journey and where they take us.

I’ve extolled the advantages of the BMW 1200GS and recommended it to others for years. My friend, Roger Hansen, was urged by me to buy a GS, which he did, and then proceeded to ride it all over the world. My first long ride on one was in the fall of 2005, when I picked up a brand new GS in Istanbul, Turkey before a 12-day circumnavigation of the country, led by the famous Turkey tour guide, Kazim Uzunoglu. BMW had just replaced their venerable R1150GS with a new model weighing 66 lbs. less and increasing its horsepower to 100 bhp. The BMW faithful were livid. “It has too much plastic and feels like a Japanese bike,” they said, the ultimate put down from this circle of enthusiasts. I agree the R1100 and R1150GS had stability and tractability like no other mounts. But after spending two weeks riding it, my reaction was quite the opposite: I thought to myself, “they need to get over themselves, this is a fantastic motorcycle.” A moto-journalist colleague of mine, Fred Rau, also liked the new GS. He began his print review by saying “While vastly improved, the big GS remains so ugly bugs won’t hit it.” I recall Fred and MCN getting a good bit of complaints about Fred’s motorcycle aesthetics. Fred, however, made a great point: The GS is all about performance and the purity of riding, more than appearance.

After returning from the Dakar Rally in South America (also aboard a 1200GS) in 2011 and its painful pre-trip dismount on my Crown King tune-up ride, I grudgingly knew it was time to get rid of a bunch of motorcycles. The dirt bikes had to go and soon they were. My garage was suddenly down to only 2 motorcycles: the Honda Goldwing and Suzuki V-Strom. A Honda Grom was on its way, but I did not know that yet. At first loath to give up any of my motorcycles, my rationale for losing the off-road bikes was sound. The Dakar trip brought center stage a point about off-road riding I had forgotten. It is imperative to keep one’s speed up. In the dirt, speed, and staying pointed in the general direction you wish to go, often saves your butt. You don’t need to go 100 mph, but staying above 40 mph (45-50 mph is better) when travel surfaces loosen is critical. And here is the deal, in the dirt, you are going to occasionally go down. Assuming you wear all the appropriate riding gear, you are unlikely to get seriously hurt. However, after 60 years old, as I learned, you don’t heal as fast as 20-year-olds, who still seem to be made partly of rubber.

Loving my new extra garage space I decided it was time to go all the way and merge the Goldwing and V-Strom into one machine. You now have the background for my multi-year, epic quest, to do just that, to find “The One Bike to Rule them all.” (My apologies to J. R. R. Tolkien’s “One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them, One Ring to bring them all, and in the darkness bind them.”)

You cannot imagine how difficult this change in attitude was for me. For my entire motorcycling career I had strenuously argued that MBD (Multiple Bike Disorder) was not a disease, but in fact, the only proper way to approach motorcycle ownership. The correct answer to the question “How many motorcycles should one rider have?” is always, “One more than you have now.” Motorcycling only made sense in this context. Stick with me for a moment and allow me to explain: First of all, everyone knows you need a different motorcycle to ride off-road than riding on pavement. Right? No arguments here. But for pavement, there are many variations of riding. I found it took 3 machines to cover my street riding. These were: First, a Honda Goldwing for long-distance cruising, second, the Suzuki V-Strom for shorter sportier rides but still capable of carrying luggage, and lastly, a Ducati 750 Monster for carving the canyons around my place in the bay area. Understand, this still leaves out several important categories, such as a pure weekend cruising, represented by Harley and Indian models, (although other manufacturers have models in this category, too). In my list, you may notice there is no pure sport bike on the list, a motorcycle you could respectably take to a track day. You get the idea: to adequately cover the needs of an all-around street-only rider, you’ll need at least 5 motorcycles. And this is before getting to off-road bikes, where the choices are even more plentiful.

If you wish to ride off-road and go any significant distance, you need an adventure-oriented machine to handle luggage, spare parts, maybe even camping gear. If you want to go over jumps and whoops, you need a motocross bike and tons of suspension travel. If you want to go desert riding, you need a lighter, single-thumper model. A Trials Bike is dissimilar to all other off-road motorcycles – its first 3 gears are designed for less than 10 mph. I defy you to ride a typical Trial’s route on anything other than a Trials bike. You get the idea. A well-rounded off-road rider needs at least 5 different motorcycles, and before adding in any extras if you want to bring friends.

Do you see how this adds up, boys and girls? This is the vehement stance I defended each and every time someone asked to explain why I had 9 (yes, NINE) motorcycles. Over the years I watched countless riding friends search unsuccessfully for the one magic motorcycle that would do it all. And now here I was, attempting to try it myself. God help me!

After very little work, I found 9 initial candidates to be my one and only, including:

  • KTM 1190 (now the 1290)
  • BMW 1200GS (now 1250)
  • Triumph Tiger
  • Ducati 1200 Multistrada (now 1260)
  • Honda Africa Twin
  • Suzuki V-Strom 1000
  • Honda ST1200
  • Yamaha FJR1300
  • Kawasaki Concours

Although wonderful machines that I loved to ride, the Yamaha FJR, Honda ST1200, and Kawasaki Concours (“Connie”) were quickly eliminated as too road-oriented and why the BMW RT never made the list. The ultimate bike for me had to be up for some off-road duties. Now the list was six and after participating in a press shoot-out between the 650 cc and 1000 cc V-Strom and owning the 650 “Wee-Strom” for several years, I knew all-to-well its suspension limitations. The V-Strom’s elimination cut the list to now only five.

One great benefit of writing for motorcycle magazines is being able to try out any particular motorcycles for a week or two. The PR departments for most top brands are happy to find something for you to test. So, for the next few years, I “tested” these top 5 motorcycles. I read reviews, shoot-outs and comparisons of these specific models. Of the five, I had vestigial prejudices towards two of them which needed addressing. On the plus side, the Triumph Tiger: I’d ridden it in New Zealand for two weeks and was blown away by its handling on the tarmac and it prowess off-road when venturing into spots like Skipper’s Canyon. It was always well-planted, predictable and did everything right. On the other hand, the BMW 1200GS had negative issues: I’d ridden them a good deal and was greatly put off by its ubiquity. “You can’t swing a dead cat and not hit a 1200GS,” I’d often said. It is BMW’s biggest seller and outsells all other brands and models. I credit much of its popularity to Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman riding and filming of their trips documented in TV specials, Long Way Round and Long Way Down, which I hated. So, I began by not giving the BMW much of a chance. Honda’s Africa Twin was also difficult, although not because I was predisposed for or against it. The problem was the Africa Twin was hard to get in the US. I’d seen it several times on foreign trips, and it looked positively brilliant, but I was right to suspect difficulty in getting one to test.

Ducati has always been very good to me. I’ve become friends with several people in their PR department. They graciously provided me a 1200 Multistrada Touring model for use on a two week trip over the top of Italy and down the Dalmatian coast in the fall of 2013. This exquisite trip was in the company of a bevy of BMW riders and a KTM 990 EFI (precursor to the 1190), ridden down from Turkey by my friend, Kaz Uzunoglu. Not only did I get long days on the Ducati, I was able to swap with Kaz to test the KTM and some of the BMW riders to verify my riding impressions. The Ducati went from a starting point in the middle of the pack to now being my first choice after this trip, especially given its performance in the wet – which was simply amazing. The computerized “sky hook” automated, on-the-fly adjustments to suspension and ABS are nothing short of incredible. At the beginning of 2015, my list in order looked like this, the top 3 in a near dead heat: 1) Ducati 1200 Multistrada, 2) KTM 1190 (now the 1290), 3) BMW 1200GS, 4) Triumph Tiger and 5) Honda Africa Twin.

I am aware of the ultimate futility in detailed comparisons like the one here. I’ve participated in evaluating and writing motorcycle shootouts. Most readers of motorcycle magazine have no idea how difficult it is finding and highlighting differences between models in a single category. It is almost impossible. Motorcycles today have all gotten so damn good and so very similar. Here is how these reviews trips generally go: The first day of the trip/review, rides are frequently swapped so all writers in the group get at least one ride on each bike. At dinner the first night, we’d desperately try to find any real differences. The general feeling, from every tester/writer was “For this purpose, all of these are the same. It won’t matter which one a reader picks to buy, they’re going to be perfectly happy on any of them. They’re all priced within $500 of each other, weigh within a few lbs., have the same warranty, seating position, handling, acceleration, braking, etc.” Of course the lead writer for the piece is panicking. Somehow, publishing an article about five disparate 650 cc: sport bikes and saying “They’re all pretty much the same, any one of them will do,” isn’t going to make readers or advertisers happy. So, the task over the next two days is to tease out each tiny, superficial, insignificant difference and exaggerate them enough to make a story. Trust me, auto journalists have the same problem.

Given my experience above, I worked hard to focus attention only on things that would really matter. In reviewing my notes as I worked to a decision, two things stuck out: The first was that the Ducati did not have cruise control. For long rides where cranking out miles is paramount, cruise control was something I’d begun to rely upon. The second was the fact the KTM was chain-driven (as was the Ducati). While aware of the superiority of chains for performance reasons, having adjusted and cared for motorcycle chains my entire motorcycle life, I was done with them. Now the BMW 1200GS moved into first place, eliminating the rest. While it made total sense analytically, I struggled with the idea of owning the same bike as every other Tom, Dick, and Harry owned – or in this case, add in every Bob, Jim, Jane, Kevin (he has 3), and Roger (has two), etc. “Steve Larsen is highly discriminating and does not ride what everyone else rides. Period.”

Two years went by. A friend finally took my V-Strom and I added a Honda Grom to the garage, so I was down to two — or, 1½ if you don’t consider the Grom a full-size motorcycle, which it is not.

Late in 2016, I wandered through GoAZ in Scottsdale, my favorite dealer. They are always well-stocked and represent all major brands including Aprilla, BMW, Ducati, Husqvarna, Honda, Indian, Kawasaki and Royal Enfield. Don Reiff is the sales manager and a friend of mine from his days at North Valley Honda. I mentioned the possibility of trading in my Goldwing and Grom if I could find the right deal on a BMW 1200GS. The 2017 models had begun to arrive and Don had two brand new 2017 1200GS’s. He quickly went through the various features on both of them. One had everything I wanted and as it turns out, Don really wanted to get his hands on my super low mileage Grom. Before I knew it, the deal was done and a few days later I delivered my Goldwing and Grom to GoAZ and they sent me home on a new BMW, festooned with about $4K in accessories – which any GS owner can tell you, is only a drop in the bucket.

During the first couple of years, there were no performance or handling surprises. It was sublime. I gave it good workouts on the pavement and love how it dances around curves like something half its weight. Shod with off-road only knobby tires and other accessories for tackling dirt, I took it to Moab, UT for a couple of off-road adventures and once down to the Copper Canyon in Mexico. Before spending much time on a big bike like the GS in rough terrain, be sure to acquire the specific skills for this. RawHyde Adventures or Bill Dragoo’s DART classes are two of the best.

It still bothers me it is so incredibly popular and there are so many of them. My remedy was to configure my GS differently than others. I’ve made it unique to me, a bit on appearance but more significantly, on how it rides. The handlebars and foot pegs are customized for me and make a huge difference. Lighting is very unlike the stock version and my tires and wheels are interchangeable for the sorts of riding I do. So, after a few years of getting used to the commonness of the 1200GS, it’s grown on me and has become “The One Bike to Rule Them All.”

Me on my GS, outfitted for the dirt, near Moab, UT

Yeah, try that backward and one-handed

California Superbike School logo

One of my “beats” when writing for Motorcycle Consumer News was training schools. I loved going to them, ate up learning new riding techniques, and enjoyed writing about them. Things I’d always considered impossible on a motorcycle, at least for me, turned out to be doable with expert instruction, patience, practice, and a building block approach to acquiring new skills. Willingness to listen to instructors and executing what they said, greatly improved the odds of success.

I was lucky and able to attend nearly all of the biggest and most highly-ranked motorcycle riding schools. Different schools focused on teaching off-road skills, racing and track proficiency, slick track riding/drifting, advanced adventure-riding/survival techniques, motocross, trials riding and even a wheelie school. On top of these, I’m also the only civilian to take and pass both mulit-week police moto-officer training programs conducted by the AZ Highway Patrol and the Phoenix Police Departments. You can read about those experiences here: a) Top Cop Skills, and b) Ultimate Riding Skills: What Motor Officers Learn That Could Save Your Life.

One of the longest-running and most respected track schools is Keith Code’s California Superbike School. I begged Motorcycle Consumer News (MCN) editor, Dave Searle, to get me a spot in one of the classes and promised him a great story. Keith Code has trained some of the most successful motorcycle racers ever, including Wayne Rainey, James Toseland, and Leon Camier. Riders training with Code or at his schools have won over 60 world and national racing championships. If you wish to go fast around a race track on a motorcycle, Keith Code is the gold standard for perfecting this particular set of skills. Code’s class and his books present the right way to take a corner on a motorcycle. One of the most valuable things I took from his class were the observational skills necessary to critique my personal riding with an eye to continual improvement. Code’s class provides a template for converting any future ride you take into a class on better riding, with you as your instructor. A few months after my pleas to Editor Searle, on a sunny day in early April, I was in Rosamond, California driving into the Willow Springs Racing complex for a two-day stint at Keith Code’s world-famous track school. And oh yeah, I was nervous!

I’ll not recount the entire class experience here, as you can read about it in this article “Two Days and 5 Thousand Corners: Learning to Ride When You Already Know How.” However, in this short newsletter, I will recount two vivid memories. In the beginning, we were divided into three groups based on riding and track experience. The first group were the macho confident types (nearly all young males), familiar and experienced with racing on a track. The second group consisted of riders with a solid set of basic skills but a desire to get a knee down and go faster around a track. The third consisted of those with much less time on a motorcycle and I sort of wondered what they were doing there. I ended up in the middle group. It was a surprise to nearly all attendees that at the end of the second day, the fastest riders and best times were held by riders in a cross-section of all three groups. Why was that?

It turned out some in the first group had to spend time un-learning bad habits and poor technique before they could start learning to do things the correct way. Conversely, some of the faster riders emerging from the third group had few bad practices to unlearn, tended to pay closer attention to the instructors, and did precisely what they were told to do without thinking – and some of them got faster in short order.

All laps were timed and frequently videoed via a camera on the back of the bike. After a run (runs consisted of a warm-up lap and then 3 speed runs around the track) we went into the video room and watched our most recent attempt to put everything together with an instructor, clearly seeing what was done correctly and where we needed to improve. My lap times steadily decreased as I gained confidence. Following the instructor’s advice, I continued to push the bike, and myself, more and more. Damn, it was fun!

Toward the end of the second day, my times had begun to get fairly consistent. My instructor rode over to me and said, “Hey, Keith said you wanted to do a hot lap through the bowl at race speeds. You’re not sketchy at all, so if you want to do it, we could go now.”

Oh my God – I couldn’t believe this was happening. First, a bit of background: The Streets of Willow Springs is a 1.6-mile track, featuring 13 turns. Turn 8 is a big “bowl” or “sweeper-type” turn with a 20% camber. The track, by itself, is one of the fastest tracks in the world, and Turn 8 is one of the fastest turns on any track. Racers everywhere dream about getting a chance to ride the Streets of Willow Springs and try this turn, which can be taken pretty much as fast as you want to go. When signing up for the class months before, I’d asked if it might be possible to get a hot lap through the bowl, but I’d completely forgotten it until that moment. Hell, yes!

The instructor reminded me of what we’d done before. This would be just like all our other laps, just a lot faster. We’d first do a warm-up lap, then the hot lap as always, but this time we’d do only one additional lap and at full race speed. As always, the admonition echoed in my head to stick directly behind the tail of my instructor’s bike and I would be fine. We were riding the exact same bikes. If that bike was safe following a particular line at a specific speed, my bike would be safe, too. Plus, I thought how unlikely it would be for them to kill a moto-journalist at one of their classes? So, with no more prep than that, off we went. The warm-up lap was no problem, just me loosening up and working the butterflies out of my stomach. Then we crossed the timing line and went into the tight rabbit’s ear corner. Things immediately began to get different, and this is where you need to start paying attention, boys and girls.

Heading north, after turn 4, the track goes uphill in a gentle turn 5 before you head more steeply uphill to turn 6. Every other time I’d slowed at this spot, as I wasn’t able to see over the hill and what lay beyond. I like the idea of seeing where I am going and of course, this is the part of the track where one starts to set up for the bowl. But we didn’t slow this time – quite the opposite. Following my instructor who was not slowing, but accelerating, I came over the crest of the hill. While not actually getting air, the bike certainly got light, very light. Wow, that was scary! Before I could think too much about it, we were heading into the dramatic wide radius of the bowl, absolutely flat out. As I leaned the bike over and slid off the right side of the bike to drag my knee puck, I matched my instructor’s bike like an image in a mirror. I could feel the rear wheel bite and tear at the tarmac, but it held. My mind screamed at me, “You’re doing it! You’re riding the famous bowl full out. You’re going through here as fast as anyone ever has. This is exactly what true professional racers feel.” At this moment of maximum exhilaration and triumph, I saw my instructor turn her head around, look back at me, reach her hand out, and give me a thumbs up. And in that instant, it occurred to me, “Well, maybe this wasn’t the fastest ever through the bowl, because she is doing it one-handed and backwards. And she is a girl!” I’d been taking instruction from this young woman for the past two days, so I was familiar with her easy and fluid command of her bike and knowledge she exhibited when critiquing my riding in her efforts to make me better. My comment about her being a girl is aimed at any vestigial sexism you, dear reader, might have. Might I ask, did the first mention of my instructor as “her” in this story surprise you? Just a little bit? If it did, there’s the evidence – you’ve got some work to do on some of your latent sexist attitudes.

Like my other efforts to get beyond just being good, I always reach a point where the road ahead gets very clear. What is required of me to reach the next level snaps into focus, and I often, although not always, say to myself, “I’m okay. I’ll stop here. This is good enough.” My results for these few days of riding and competing at Willow Springs put me right in the middle of the pack of other students. I went on to do more track days with a group of ex-racer friends at various tracks around northern California but I never got much beyond the middle of the pack. In a race with 30 riders, I was happy to finish in the top ten and thrilled to get into the top five, which sometimes happened. Like a good high school or college basketball player watching the pros play, they see a different game than the one seen by casual fans who’ve never played at an advanced level. Professionals play a very different game and these classes revealed this secret in more detail.

MotoGP race at Circuit of the Americas in Austin, TX

Years later, I attended and reported on the MotoGP racing series. These are the fastest, most powerful racing motorcycles on the planet, piloted by athletes of tremendous skill, mental and physical endurance. Watching those races track side and in the press tent, I realized I was seeing something very different from what the fans around me were watching. Perhaps one of the greatest gifts from the Keith Code experience and my time piloting track bikes was this perspective I’d not had before. Watching these riders, I began to be aware of what I was seeing, this incoming stream of data starting to make sense as it came together inside my skull. I found myself flashing back to my Willow Springs bowl experience and appreciating just how amazingly accomplished these professional riders are, which leads to my final memory of the Willow Springs event.

Late in the afternoon of the second day, as most of the riders were taking a break, I began to hear murmuring near the track starting line. Several guys I’d just been speaking to walked over to see what the commotion was and I followed. Then we heard it, “Keith’s going to ride. Code’s taking one of the bikes around the track.” We’d all heard rumors occasionally, although not always, Keith would get on a bike and ride it around the track. Of course, seeing this legend ride the track on which we’d just spent two days would be an exciting event. We all imagined the thrill of seeing him burning up the straights and diving into the corners at unbelievable angles. As we got closer, sure enough, it was the man himself zipping into a leather riding suit. Keith rode back into the paddock area for a bit, pushing the bike from side to side at a slow speed. He then aimed the bike toward the starting line and was off. We watched as he rode off and entered the first tight turns. He didn’t seem to be going very fast. One of the guys standing next to me said, “This must be his warm-up lap,” but everyone kept watching. Sure enough, Code showed very little stress as he circled the track. Many of us were disappointed when after crossing the finish line, Code didn’t continue into a hot lap, but instead pulled back around and dismounted the bike. Ah dang, we wanted to see him go really, really fast. As we grumbled, one of the students pointed to the timing clock high on a pole near the starting line. It was Code’s time. He’d just circled the track more than 4 seconds faster than the best time over the past two days. We’d all looked up at that timing clock a hundred times over the weekend and knew to a hundredth of a second, the current best time and when it was occasionally and rarely improved upon, and when it was, it was typically only by a few hundredths of a second. No one had shaved a full second from the clock since the early laps on the first day. So this was a second lesson: genuine professionals make what they do look easy. It’s only when trying to replicate it that one can appreciate the level of training, skill, and experience they bring. Code looked positively leisurely circling the track, when in fact, he was exceeding everyone’s best time by a wide margin.

One of my local riding heroes here in Phoenix is Dustin Apgar. Dustin’s riding business is near me and I stop in on occasion. Dustin’s bike control is as good as any track rider I’ve ever seen and he’s fast as hell. And I know the amount of training, preparation and endless practice he puts in to ride at this level. I want you to see what I’m talking about. Here is a video of Dustin dragging not just his knee – but his head around a racetrack turn. Now that’s a class I’m never taking.

Epilogue: One of the most consistent findings across all of these classes, irrespective of the type of riding skill being taught, is a building block approach. Code used it and it was the backbone of all the training the cops did. Off-road training from Dragoo, Hyde or LaPlante takes this approach as well and I always found it to be remarkably effective. It starts with a first step which is learned, repeated, and practiced until it becomes second nature. Only then is a second, more advanced move that builds on the first, introduced. It too is practiced and learned to perfection. Then these two moves are combined until they can be done repeatedly and easily. After that, a third move is introduced and the process repeated. Students running into difficulties are channeled back into working on earlier building blocks until they gained enough confidence to proceed.

Yeah, but do you have a finger from a dead pirate?

Our home in Pasadena had become the “go to” spot for Thanksgiving (and occasionally Christmas) for Maggie’s sister and the Stickney family. We loved having Diana, Joe and their children around, and Ginger was in heaven with all her Arizona cousins on her turf.

I’m not sure where the idea came from, but it didn’t percolate in my brain too long, before I knew I had to attempt to pull it off. I was already pretty high up on the “crazy but fun uncle” scale when it came to my nephews, Robert and Isaac and to a lesser degree, Andrew as he was still pretty young with Maria just thinking I was weird. They’d seen all my magic tricks and played with the remote control truck I’d purchased. We’d gone hiking with the wagon and played every trick you could think of on the dog, a sweet female Rottweiler named Heidi, who just adored children. In 1990, Robert was 10, Maria was 8, Ginger 6 and Isaac was 4. Perfect ages for what I had in mind.

At the dinner table on Thanksgiving Day, I began sowing the seeds. “Did you know?” I asked, “One of my great uncles was a pirate?” I elaborated on my pirate uncle’s exploits, telling them about buried treasure and walking the plank. The adults’ eyes rolled back in their heads, but they played along and didn’t call me out, although they no doubt suspected I was up to something. The kids had lots of questions about pirate life and I was happy to spontaneously oblige, making up answers to their questions. When dessert was served, I slowly and gently set the hook. “You know, my uncle gave my dad a memento of his days on the high seas. It’s a finger from a dead pirate. My dad gave it to me. I don’t know where it is now, maybe in the garage, but it’s a real sight to behold, a genuine, actual finger from a dead pirate.” Then I said no more.

Robert, Maria and Isaac, Ginger on the right, around the time of this event

Soon Robert asked, “Uncle Steve, do you think you could find the dead finger from the pirate and show it to us?” All the others chimed in, “Yes, yes, could you find it, please, PLEASE, Uncle Steve?” I said no, I didn’t think so. It had been many years since I’d last seen it, so I was pretty sure it was lost. And I let it go.

When our mid-day Thanksgiving dinner finished, the children went back to playing, but I could hear them talking about the dead pirate finger. Fifteen minutes wouldn’t go by before one of them would bring it up again and soon they were all after me, “Uncle Steve, can you at least go and look for the finger?”

At this point in the story, I need to bring you into a bit of the preparation. The day before, I’d emptied out an old sliding box of matches and filled it with discolored cotton balls I’d dirtied up using brown shoe polish. Then I’d cut a finger-sized hole in the bottom of the box, so that when I put my finger in the bottom of the box and held it with that hand, I could slowly slide the lid of the match box back using my other hand, revealing my finger, laying on top of the dirty cotton balls. Well, of course, my finger wouldn’t do as it was, so just before agreeing to go and look for the pirate finger, I went in the bathroom and poured iodine onto the middle finger of my right hand. Iodine rather convincingly turns a healthy finger yellow, brown and dead-looking.

Carefully keeping my now gross-looking finger out of sight, I went rummaging in the garage for this lost box containing the finger. The kids were all crowded around me, as I opened drawer after drawer but finding nothing. I kept up a steady dialog of “Well, I’ve not seen that thing in years, I’m almost certain it’s lost.” They kept saying, “Keep looking, Uncle Steve, it has to be here somewhere!”

Finally, I opened the bottom drawer of my ancient tool bench where I’d hidden the old matchbox. “Ah, there it is,” I said, pointing to it. They all recoiled in horror. I suspect they believed we wouldn’t actually find it. I pointed at it and said, “Who wants to pick it up?” They all began to scream, yell and jump around in place, saying “No, no, you pick it up, Uncle Steve. Show us, you show us the finger!” So, I reached down into the drawer, carefully using my body to cover inserting my groady-looking finger covered in dried iodine into the box. When I turned around, the box was in my right hand and I was gripping the sides with my left. “Well, I hope it’s still in here,” I said as I began extending the box towards them. The young ones hung back, but Robert and Ginger leaned forward toward the box, but not too close.

As I slid the cover off the box, there was the horrible looking finger. Truth be told, it looked gross. They all recoiled and held back at first, but then slowly edged closer for a better view. I showed it around, let them all get a good look. They gasped and screeched with simultaneous delight and revulsion. Finally I said to Robert, “Do you want to touch it?” At first he screamed “No, no, no….” but then when his little brother Isaac said, “I’ll touch it,” Robert decided he would do it first. Ginger and Maria were horrified. They wanted nothing to do with this dead pirate’s finger, but they couldn’t stop staring at it. I held the box out to Robert as the others gathered close around and behind him. He slowly moved forward, looked at it, and then very carefully began to reach out with his arm and hand, one quivering finger tentatively extended to make contact with the dead pirate finger. When Robert’s finger was just an inch from the finger in the box and every kid’s eyes were glued to what was happening, I quickly raised my finger up toward Robert’s raised finger – the dead finger had come alive!

You can’t believe what happened next. Robert perfectly mimicked the way the cartoon coyote would jump up, turn around in mid-air and then frantically begin spinning his feet, while not going anywhere. Finally Robert’s legs got traction and he shot out of the garage, screaming at the top of his lungs, his brother, sister and cousin racing behind him. I’ve never seen such a group of panicked children run so fast. They shot out our long driveway toward the street and didn’t stop until they were nearly out of sight of the house. The rest of the adults came out of the house to see what the commotion was all about and found me collapsed in laughter on the front steps with the kids half-way down the driveway, white as sheets.

Creating experiences which instill memory treasures in the minds of my nieces, nephews, kids and grand-kids will always be one of my favorite things. I hope my nephews remember this little trick and use it appropriately when their own sons, daughters, nieces and nephews are old enough for it. It sure was fun for me.

Ginger and Heidi in the driveway where this all happened.