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.

Dakar Tune-up Ride and Lessons Learned

Desert sections of my Dakar trip were a playground. No need for a center stand, just hold the front brake and spin the rear tire until the bike would stay upright.

Late in 2010, my plans to travel to South America for the 2011 Dakar Rally across Argentina and Chile had been finalized.  While I felt mostly ready, I decided one more challenging tune-up test ride was in order to ensure my riding skills were suitably sharp. This is the story of my Dakar preparatory ride  — and crash — along with some important riding lessons learned.

Crown King, Arizona is situated about 50 miles north of Phoenix and 30 miles west of Highway 17.  High in the Bradshaw Mountains (elevation 5,571 feet), it is quite a climb from the valley floor.  Cars and road-oriented vehicles typically exit Hwy 17 at Bumble Bee and then take Hwy 59 through Cleator and on up to Crown King, a one hour drive on wide, well-maintained gravel roads.  However, there is a popular “back way” alternative favored by well-equipped, rock-crawling jeeps, Polaris RZRs, and other off-road vehicles.

A rarely maintained mining road constitutes major sections of “the back way to Crown King,” a favorite play ground for all sorts of off-road vehicles.

This “back way to Crown King,” although only about 35 miles, takes a good 2-3 hours, as you cross creeks, crawl up rock walls and clamber through some nasty and difficult old mining roads rarely in good repair.  It is not recommended for passenger cars, ever. Jeeps and pure off-road vehicles with skilled drivers love it.  For experienced off-road motorcycle riders it’s possible, but you must be prepared. It is best done on lighter dirt bikes with high clearance and never done alone.

Having recently returned from several days at Jim Hyde’s Rawhyde Adventure training camp in northern California, I was full of confidence. I’d spent 4 days riding one of Hyde’s BMW 1200GS bikes nearly exclusively off-road and often through some unique and diabolical challenges created by Hyde’s training staff. I had performed well, finding myself in the top group of riders in each event. I decided to take my Suzuki 650 V-Strom the backway to Crown King as a final tune-up for the Dakar trip.  While the “Wee-Strom” is not in the same class as the 1200GS, I’d done a good bit of work improving its suspension with the full “After Shocks” suspension upgrade, done for me when the bike was with me in northern California.  I’d also upgraded the brakes and installed steel-braided brake lines.  I felt it could handle it.

For my planned ascent, I’d imposed on two skilled riders from the Arizona Trail Riders Association.  We’d met at one of the ATR meetings and done a few easy rides together.  The ATR focuses on the sport of riding motorcycles in the dirt and is open to riders of all ages and skill levels.  In addition to riding off-road, they get involved in trail maintenance and other efforts supporting the environment.  On the day of my ride, I followed my two buddies on my V-Strom as they trailered their dedicated off-road motorcycles to the staging area north of Lake Pleasant. Soon we were off and headed to Crown King.  Everything went pretty well on the way up. The biggest difficulties were several sections filled with river rocks that significantly slowed us down.

Rather than stopping in Crown King for a burger, they led me out of town to the top of nearby Towers Mountain, a tall peak with an enclave of huge radio transmission towers.  Near one of the larger tower installations we came across 20 or more off-road motorcycles parked here and there – mostly set in place so they couldn’t roll down the mountain on their own. We dismounted, parked, and walked behind a building to find a large grill filled with burgers and brats. Riders were standing around who’d made the trip to the top and were now enjoying lunch. These were friends of my two guides and we were greeted like long-lost brothers. We had a delightful lunch with them, told motorcycle lies while some of the group napped in the shade before the long ride home. As we walked back around the building to where the bikes were parked I found several riders gathered around my V-Strom, scratching their heads.  “Who’s bike is this?” they wanted to know. And the more important question to them, “How the hell did it get up here?” I was pleased these riders recognized the skill set required for getting a bike with substantially more weight and fewer suspension chops than theirs up to this particular landmark.  Basking in the glances from my fellow riders, I momentarily forgot how much more difficult it was going to be getting this heavy bike down from something like this place. As any off-road rider will tell you, in a descent, the bike’s weight is always trying to pull you in a direction in which you typically really do not want to go.

It took a while, but I managed to get back to Crown King.  From there I elected to take the front way home, which meant wide gravel roads on which normal automobiles have no issues. With my two riding buddies having no objections (they were tired, too) they pulled in behind me and we headed off down the nicely groomed gravely route 59. Now the V-Strom felt great, its extra weight no longer an issue.  As I began to relax from the tense trip down Towers Mountain, I began to let my speed creep up.  Approaching the switchbacks, I pushed the rear wheel out a bit, giving it a bit of throttle and letting the rear end gracefully slide through the turn. Looking in my mirrors, I no longer saw my companions, so I pushed it a little bit harder.  It was a great feeling, moving through each turn – until suddenly, it wasn’t.  Coming in perhaps a bit too fast, I spotted a large rock right in the path I’d assumed I would travel.  Going to the inside (where there was a cliff wall) was not an option and drifting around the outside of the rock would put me not only in the opposite lane of traffic, but have me pointing directly off the road and over a cliff. Before I could make a decision on which of the two very lousy and bad options to take, the bike made the decision for me.  The gravel in the corner had gotten increasingly deeper in the months since the road had last been graded, and my front wheel dug into some very deep and loose gravel, and, with the bike as it was angled, immediately went down, slamming me to the road with it.  I hit on my left side first, with my leg and knee taking the brunt of it, but was then quickly pitched forward onto my head.  Finally, something unlikely to break! I laid there for what seemed like several minutes but was probably less than one when the two riders following me came upon the scene and rushed over to help.  By that time I was beginning to get up but was glad to have help.  My leg, knee, head, and wrist/hand hurt.  I’d been wearing all the proper gear – helmet, gloves, chest and arm protectors. However, I’d cheated on gear to protect my legs and it turns out I was going to pay for that shortcut.

A couple of cars pulled over to offer help and after several minutes of weighing the options, I got back on the bike – which was mostly undamaged – and road it down the mountain and home.  When we got to Highway 74 where my buddies needed to turn off to head back to the launching pad where they’d left their truck and trailer, I was feeling better and promised them I’d have no trouble making it the rest of the way home.  Maggie had been alerted by phone of my crash and immediately upon arriving home she took me to the ER for X-rays and to be checked out.

There were several lessons learned from this crash. The first was how much longer it took for me to heal than it had taken in my youth.  After crashes in my younger days, (yes, I did crash), I was sore for a few days and back in the saddle as if nothing had happened in less than a week. But not this time.  Two weeks after the crash I boarded the plane to Buenos Aires, Argentina with a large bursitis bulge still on my knee, roughly the size of an orange.

The next lesson was a growing appreciation of how riding when fatigued negatively impacts judgment and reaction time.  I’ve ridden long distances on tarmac, the longest in memory was a single day ride from Napa Valley to Sun Valley, Idaho.  On that 972 mile route, I left Napa at 4:30 a.m. and arrived in Sun Valley 16 hours later, after dark.  I was so tired I can’t remember arriving at the small motel, checking in and collapsing on the bed.  That same sort of fatigue arrives much faster when you throw in off-road sections.  Riding over 300 miles of pure off-road terrain has always been my limit, even when younger, and a 150-200 mile off-road day is a better planning range number.  It is not lost on me that the natural relaxation and letting down of my guard after reaching a significant goal (getting to Crown King on a V-Strom) had left a depleted energy tank when it came to getting back home safely.

After crossing the amazing Atacama Desert in Chile, the driest place on the planet, the South Pacific Ocean appears to go on forever.

The third lesson was the importance of having a safety net.  In this case, it was a couple of guys riding behind me, and they were there when I needed them. They got my bike back upright, helped assess the situation, evaluated my fitness for continuing and then followed me for a few miles, watching to make sure I stayed upright and in my lane.

On the two-week South America Dakar ride, which you can read about here, these lessons were never far from my mind, thus serving the desired purpose of a tune-up ride – being physically and mentally prepared.  Of the 14 riders that began the Dakar trip, only half returned on the same bike as we left, and I was one of those. Some abandoned the trip early on, finding it too grueling; others crashed and ended up riding in the truck or finding other ways back to our starting point. I didn’t crash, didn’t wreck my bike and was never hurt. Being prepared had a good deal to do with that outcome.