How To Be a Better Rider? It's All About Proper Motorcycle Training
I bought my first motorcycle back in 2009—a brand new BMW R 1200 R. I was 43-years old with zero experience, and had no idea what I was doing. All I had was a disproportionate amount of enthusiasm; some much needed naïveté; and a beginner rider’s course/motorcycle license under my belt.
I was living in New York at the time, in an area surrounded by some great roads. When the dealership dropped off my R 1200 R, I put on my fresh-smelling gear, and went for a ride. I can’t remember a time in recent memory that I had a permanent smile on my face for five consecutive hours; I’m sure most bikers can relate.
From then to now, though, I’ve grown tremendously from a simple rider to a disciplined motorcyclist. This was achieved by working with pros that have helped make me a better rider, and ultimately to enjoy the sport more. Here’s my story, along with some insight on how to find the correct motorcycle-training program that works for you.
The Beginnings: Tomaso and the Giro
The beginning of my riding journey happened to coincide with an introduction to what would be my first “motorcycle” friend. Tomaso was visiting a mutual friend that summer, and we quickly discovered a shared love of riding.
Tomaso invited me to join him and his friend Roddy for the Motogiro D’Italia, a week-long ride through Northern Italy following a group of vintage racers on small-displacement bikes. Given my lack of seat time I was apprehensive, but I accepted the invite.
The trip was an eye opener on so many levels—from riding in a different country on roads I could not even imagine in my dreams, to making what would be lifelong friends in Tomaso and Roddy. Then there was the humbling realization that I was not prepared for the type of technical riding we did during that week. I came back exhausted, but determined to work on my riding skills.
That fall I rode my bike from New York down to the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina/Tennessee to ride the famous “Tail of the Dragon”, which features 318 curves in 11 miles (Route 129).
I thought if I kept challenging myself by riding the most technical roads possible, I would become a better rider. No such luck. I was able to muscle my way through that trip and the trip to Italy with no drama, but it wasn’t pretty looking back, and I was just plain lucky not to have crashed. Something was missing from my plan.
The “aha” moment
Then it hit me. How can I become an expert at something without seeking out experts to teach me? I was coached in all kinds of sports growing up, why should this be any different?
Thankfully, my life was going to change dramatically in the coming months and that change would open up a world I had no idea existed. I moved to the motorcycle Mecca that is California! No shortage of experts here—real ones and not so real ones. More on that later.
For those of you who have not visited or ridden here, California has it all; beautiful roads, a year-round riding season, a number of closed course tracks, and of course a full menu of rider training companies eager to teach you how to ride better/safer/faster/smoother.
California is not just the center of riding, it’s also a destination for trends, bikes, tourists, touring companies, bike culture, and skill levels. I was living in moto heaven!
The Rewards of Being a Student
In the past five years since relocating to Southern California, I have taken a number of rider courses including closed track schools, multiple days in a parking lot, a few days of motocross, adventure riding courses in the dirt, and Supermoto. They have all had an effect on my riding, the way I look at the sport, and even how I look at life in general.
My commitment to being a student has been noticed by a few of my mentors. I’ve been fortunate to have been asked to do a video testimonial for one of the top track schools in the country on how the track can be a great place for a street rider. I’ve also been featured in one of the world’s top selling “how to” books on riding in the body position/focus chapters. Finally, I have written a few articles for Ultimate Motorcycling as a “non-journalist” covering a few different topics including this one. I’ve spent more time and money on rider education than most, especially for street-oriented riders.
In fact, some of my more old school friends have even referred to me as a safety weenie! At the track I can hang in the A group on a street bike with street tires, but my true love is a day trip to the canyons or a week-long tour in Europe/Northern California.
I’m a capable, well schooled, but not spectacular rider at this point. I’ve put in the work, spent the time and money, and have the fundamentals committed to physical/behavioral memory for the most part.
That does not make me a perfect rider by a long shot, nor does it make me immune to making mistakes. So I’m always looking to improve; I see every ride as an opportunity to train. We never “arrive” in our riding, so it’s all about the journey.
And that does not mean I’m the fastest guy on every road either. It does mean I understand how the bike reacts to rider input. It also means I have a good feel for how the decisions I make both physically and emotionally will affect pace, safety, and the ever present fun factor.
Finally, and most importantly, it means I’ve listened to the pros and can ride at the same pace with less risk than someone who has not gone through the rigorous training I’ve invested in.
Was/Is it Worth It?
Affirmative! But for those of you who are on the fence about whether you should work on your skills and/or which schools to take, here are some observations:
- Find your voice. In my opinion there is no one right way to ride a motorcycle; as evidenced by the many riders who have passed me on the track with funky body position, using all kinds of crazy lean angles for the pace they are running, etc. What that says to me is it all matters; how you interact with the bars, the pegs, your upper and lower body, eyes, head, and survival instincts/bravery. So do some homework and experiment to see what is intuitive for you based on the bike you ride, the speed you carry, your physical dimensions and flexibility (or lack thereof), and of course which teachers and programs resonate with you on a personal level. Don’t get me wrong, there are some fundamental elements to riding that are indisputable, like lean angle = risk, look where you want to go, etc. But there’s also a ton of interpretation and context associated with how you apply the techniques you’ll learn at a quality school, including your fitness, bike type, pace, riding style/environment, and your goals.
- Clear the noise and static. Talk to a dozen riders, you’ll get a dozen opinions on what’s a safe pace, what is the correct technique for cornering, the right gear to wear, etc. The amount of information available from the pros and the weekend warriors is dizzying. Body steer? counter steer? Recommended body position? Trail brake? Rear brake?
Weight the foot pegs? Wheelies? It’s all there for you to read and discern, and all in a democratized, level playing field environment. Except for one problem: much of it is wrong and just plain dangerous. I won’t get into the debate on what works and what doesn’t, but what I will say, again, is it all matters but it’s more about context than it is about technique. So don’t just go and create your curriculum without context; find mentors you trust and tune out the rest.
- Invest the time and money. To me, rider training from the pros is not a maybe, it’s a must have. For example, I know people who are fast but dangerous. I also know people who are slow and just as dangerous. What do they have in common? Most of them have not invested in their riding. The fast ones? They just think they can ride at the razors edge and hope for the best. If they crash, that means they are “learning.” No thanks! The slow ones may not have the ambition to go faster which is fine, but that also gives them a false sense of comfort because they think they’re not going fast enough to really get hurt. Ugh! All the rider training in the world will not make motorcycling a “safe” sport, but wouldn’t you want to skew the odds in your favor as much as possible--especially as your life depends on it? There’s no doubt that learning from the pros will help your odds out there. Any of you who have achieved something in your past through coaching, be it athletics or business…ask yourself if you would have gotten to that level without being a student. I mean it’s only our lives at stake when it comes to this sport, so what’s the big deal right?!
Set goals. For me, it was simply about becoming a capable rider so I could enjoy the sport as much as possible, as safely as possible, with as little fear and doubt about my skills as possible. I wanted to control the bike and my ego through the techniques and lessons learned, both on and off the bike. Oh, and I want to ride without crashing, and with little to no drama. So set some goals and use those milestones to dictate the type of program(s) you select. Maybe you want to ride exclusively on track, or on/off road, or ADV, etc. Point is, there are programs that can teach you invaluable lessons regardless of the environment you want to ride, or more specialized curriculums that speak directly to how you’ll enjoy the sport. Your goals can be a great help matching your riding with the right schools. Have a plan!
So yeah, it was worth every penny and every minute spent riding and learning.
Don’t Believe Me? Listen to What the Experts Say
Here’s what my buddy Lee Parks of Total Control has to say:
“Motorcycling is an athletic sport. The athletes in virtually every professional sport all have one thing in common: They all have a coach. Tiger Woods has a coach. Valentino Rossi has a coach. Every Olympic athlete has a coach. No one worth their weight in salt is completely self-taught."
“When it comes to learning to ride, there are two factors that each need attention—education and training. What’s the difference? Education is the process of receiving or giving systematic instruction. Training is the action of teaching a person or animal a particular skill or type of behavior."
“Both are necessary to be a skilled, safe motorcyclist. Some classes are more education based while others are more training based. Our Total Control Clinics are about 50/50. Learning skills without judgement, or getting knowledge without skills, each leaves a rider vulnerable. To illustrate the difference, think back to high school. You received sex education, but not sex training. When choosing a school, ask enough questions from the company and graduates to figure out which mixture of education or training is best for your unique situation.”
When I asked Josh Siegel, co-owner of the Yamaha Champions Riding School to write something brief about rider training, here’s what he sent me:
“I started riding in the dirt and on trails as a child. However it wasn’t until my first advanced motorcycle school in 2003, the Fast Freddie Spencer school, that I realized the difference between natural ability and seat time compared to real skills and training in a controlled environment.
“Between 2003 and 2013, I took nearly every school in the market, including the California Superbike School 7 times, YCRS 3 times, Penguin Road Racing School, Rawhyde, and many more. I quickly learned that most riders on their sportsbike were amazed how quickly and smoothly I could ride a BMW 1200GS on the backroads, and I didn’t need to push my limits whatsoever.
“If someone told me in the 1990s that by 2015 I would be the Formula 40 National Champions Amateur racing at Daytona; rescued and became an owner of the Yamaha Champions Riding School; and earned an expert class motorcycle racing license, I would have said ‘no way.’ Proper training can make riding safer and faster, as well as more enjoyable.”
Finally, my friend Kate, who works at Beach Moto here in LA and is a licensed instructor for beginner training, had this to say about her experience learning from the pros:
“It's scary that new riders think that just because they passed a beginner course and got their motorcycle license that they now know how to ride a motorcycle. I got my motorcycle license over 10 years ago but it wasn't until I started taking my riding seriously and getting training about 4 years ago that I finally started to improve as a rider.
“Interestingly enough, some of the worst riders I've encountered in my classes are those who've been riding for years and are just there to tag along and support their friend/son/daughter/significant other. These riders are the prime example that "seat time" does not always result in skills. Absolutely every single rider on the road has room for improvement which is exactly why as riding instructors we are required by the state to take at least two self improvement riding classes per year.
“I've never been to a riding class or school that was a waste of time or where I didn't learn anything. Even top motorcycle racers like Marc Marquez and Valentino Rossi all work with coaches on improving their skills between race seasons. So what's your excuse?”
What that means is that after all the lessons learned and time spent with my moto mentors, it’s clear that executing the fundamentals and letting pace follow from that foundation is more fulfilling and safer than chasing pace without respecting the basics and what it takes to master them.
Am I faster now after all the courses I’ve taken? You betcha. Safer? Check. More in control? Uh huh. Adjustable? Sure. Humbled? Every time I ride. Inspired to keep improving? Definitely. Do I enjoy the sport more now that I know what I know and what I don’t? Immeasurably.
I’ll never race, and I may not even use all the tire or the bike’s full potential for lean angle, but I get around pretty quick, with less risk than most, less drama than most, and hopefully live to ride another day…and another, and another, and another...
I hope this helps some of you; please feel free to leave comments below and I’ll answer all of ‘em as best I can.