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.

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.