Rich Oliver’s Mystery School Review
If you have the chance to speak with an experienced rider or top-level racer, more often than not, you’ll hear a recurring theme in their advice: “Go get a little dirt bike with enduro tires and get some flat track experience. Learn how to slide the bike.”
Although it may have some nuances, the sentiment remains the same—if you want to learn how to truly control a motorcycle, you need to do some flat track.
Just outside the sleepy mountain town of Auberry, Calif., is Rich Oliver’s Mystery School—a school specifically designed to teach the fundamentals of flat track. Curious, I went ahead and registered for the two-day Fun Camp, with hopes of getting things sideways.
When first entering the Mystery School compound, you’d be hard-pressed not to notice the plethora of trophies and title plaques on the shelf. During Rich Oliver’s 30-year road racing career, he amassed five AMA 250cc Grand Prix National Championships, a WERA 250cc National Championship, a Formula USA Championship, and a staggering amount of individual race wins. The most impressive part is that he claimed three of those titles with undefeated, perfect seasons in 1996, 1997, and 2003. Now that’s consistency.
Oliver credits learning flat track techniques as one the most important steps he made in his riding career. Interestingly, he’d already been racing professionally for some time before he donned the steel shoe for the first time and began sliding his way around a dirt track. It wasn’t until he came under the tutelage of Kenny Roberts and began training at the famed Roberts Ranch, that he’d got his first taste of flat track. “It helped me understand feedback from the bike,” Oliver reveals, “and that’s what we’re teaching here.”
However, that’s from a racer’s perspective. Can it help the mere mortal? The answer is yes. The bike control skills learned here are scalable. If you plan on jump-starting your road racing career, of course Rich and Co. will be able to help you do that, but the real beauty of the Mystery School is that it genuinely is for everyone. The curriculum has been specifically designed to help all riders who simply want to elevate their riding, regardless of their skill level or riding background. In short, it’s a school for you and me.
Unlike a street motorcycle, where grip is typically high, dirt bikes require constant intervention to stay in control. Throttle application, traction management, and brake control, are just some of the components of flat track riding that will eventually allow you to slide the bike around corners. It is a bit of a balancing act, always teetering on the edge of falling.
After attending Rich Oliver’s Mystery School, you will have a better understanding of the various inputs necessary, making you into a more developed, well-rounded rider. Flat track riding works for the entire MotoGP, WSBK, and MotoAmerica paddock, so just imagine what you could pick up.
The Mystery School is one of the most immaculately put together and well composed riding schools I’ve attended. Oliver and his team have transformed a large plot of land into a purpose-built flat track training center with multiple drill stations and several differently configurable tracks.
Seeing the size of the carefully thought-out compound in person is impressive. To the avid motorcyclist, it is probably on par with discovering enlightenment or meeting your Creator, although for me, the school is arguably more fulfilling.
The condition of the surface on the each of the lovingly cared for tracks and drill stations can be individually controlled with a comprehensive sprinkler system, allowing instructors to tailor the surface perfectly, as needed. Each drill station is optimized to work on a specific skill, allowing students to develop and practice before setting out on the actual dirt track itself.
Bringing your own gear will save you a buck or two. Should you need it, you can rent every piece of equipment to get through your Fun Camp. What you won’t need to bring is a bike. The Mystery School has a fleet of wonderfully maintained Yamaha TT-R125s and TT-R230s at your disposal, each with revamped suspension and Bridgestone Trail Wing tires.
The moderate power of the 125s and 230s will help you come to terms with sliding a bike, while keeping the speeds and risks low. You will fall and, yes, it will be entertaining for all of your friends.
You might wonder if the school timetable is rigid with lots of classroom time, but that’s not the case in the least bit. Rich and his instructors teach by example and have a very hands-on approach, so things move quickly. Saddle up on your happy little Yamaha, get a concise explanation and a brief demonstration, then it’s your turn!
The Fun Camp is a two-day school, and on day one, I immediately discovered how quickly things get underway. After a brief introduction from Rich, it was straight into the first task of the day—stretching. While many everyday motorcyclists dismiss stretching, there isn’t a single athlete that will do so. For flat track, staying flexible will not only improve your ability to control the bike—it will also help prevent injury when you fall. Make no mistake, you will fall, so it’s best to put the ego aside early on and do some stretching.
From there, it’s straight onto the bikes where Rich goes over body positioning prior to setting out. Flat track has a similar body position to that of motocross, so riders with off-road experience won’t be too put off. However, for motorcycle riders with road experience only, this is a whole new way.
The upright, elbows up, leg out body positioning is all about distributing the rider’s weight vertically through the chassis and tires, allowing the rubber to grip the soft surface. Road riders are accustomed leaning the bike over and loading the tire from the side. In the dirt, that will simply cause the bike to wash out. What we need is down-force.
First up is the seating position. Unlike road racers that typically move forward, back, and side-to-side in the seat, Rich instructed us that flat trackers need to sit in the cusp of the seat just behind the fuel tank—and park ourselves there
Sit too far back and you’ll lighten the front end, resulting in little feedback and an inevitable crash; sit too far forward and the result is the same. What we would be doing a lot of is side-to-side movement, which will allow the rider to lean the bike over, while distributing the vast majority of his weight directly into the chassis.
To do that, riders need to twist their body off to the outside of the bike, driving their outside leg forward into the fuel tank, while driving all their weight through the outside peg. This helps activate the body’s core, and allows the rider to extend their inside leg out away from the handlebar as the bike is leaned over. If done correctly, the inside leg will be pointing in the direction you want to go in.
The last part is arm positioning. To exert maximum control over the trusty TT-R, the rider needs to have his elbows pointed to the sky. Getting lazy and dropping your elbows doesn’t allow one to feel and react quickly when sliding the bike. When you’ve initiated a slide, you need to be in a position where you can manage the front end, and constantly counter steering as a means to keep the bike up.
With the basics in our minds, the assembled pupils headed off to the first station of the day—the circles, a row of tires that you’ll ride a circle around. This reinforces one of the most important concepts associated with flat track—steering with the rear.
Rich happily jumps on a bike, quickly demonstrating how to break traction with the rear wheel. He starts by leaning the bike over with proper flat track body positioning. Then, he uses the throttle to spin the rear wheel up and pitch the rear wheel out, all the while sliding his inside foot along using it as a balancing point when need be. Rich can then manage the throttle and elegantly slide around the tire in a perfect circle with the back end pitched out, kicking up dirt with style.
We took our first crack at it and, in a haphazard fashion, we did our best to imitate Rich’s demonstration. First, with left circles, and within a few rotations we all began stepping the rear out, becoming acquainted with the feeling of intentionally breaking traction. Too much throttle, and the rear end swings out too far; too little, and you just unimpressively putt around in a wide circle. It’s all about finding the sweet spot to help drive you forward while keeping the direction you want and controlling the slide.
After a few tries, we switched to the right side. The process remained the same but it allowed for a bit more confidence. Along with some more critiques, most of which were “Keep your elbows up”” and “Open your stance!” (meaning that we needed to twist our seating position and widen our stance). That’s where the stretching comes into play; the more flexibility you have, the more control you have on the bike.
Next, it’s time to connect the dots by using the four tire circles as a figure-eight course. This exercise emphasizes transitioning from each side of the bike. As you come out of one slide, we must be able to close the throttle, transition in the opposite direction, and initiate another slide to get us through. Again, what seemed impossible in the first attempt was well within our grasp after about 10 minutes.
Okay. So far, so good. However, these basic skills are just the building blocks to get to the point of using the actual track.
So then it was on to the U-turn drill, which is any Mystery School student’s first taste of intentionally sliding the bike with the rear brake. Rich explained that he looks at a corner as having three separate components—entry, middle and exit. Unlike road race schools, Rich teaches us how to negotiate the middle of the corner first, as that’s where we’ll be doing the vast majority of the slide. Sending students careening into corners without having the ability to slide a bike obviously wouldn’t be good.
We were told to approach the corner pinned in first gear while taking a wide line, then close the throttle, and initiate the slide with the rear brake so that we slow the rear wheel without locking it. Then, we slide the bike to where we’re happy with the direction, patiently waiting until the optimal moment where we can get on the gas. The exercise is about becoming comfortable with using the rear brake to steer and how to develop a steady, patient, throttle hand.
Once that was completed, we added speed, as that would help us carry the slide through the corner. However, speed is a fickle mistress, as we’d soon find out.
Starting out in first gear, we’d click through to second, whack a downshift and simultaneously begin modulating the rear brake to slow the wheel and initiate the slide. All of this while trying to remember proper body positioning and becoming close friends with the brake. We were now working on corner entry, taking nice wide lines to help us achieve a perfect arc to the apex.
By this point, all of us had had several slow low-side crashes in the middle of the turn. However, Rich isn’t one to waste an opportunity—your fallen compatriots have now become obstacles that need to be negotiated! It’s a first taste in having to reassess your line mid-corner, taking wider or tighter lines depending on your needs. This translates perfectly for road riders and racers as everyone has to reassess lines, whether we’re out for a Sunday cruise or trying to dive up the inside of a competitor.
We switched things up and went the other direction—to the right. Sliding the bike to the right has its own unique challenges as you need to modulate the rear brake, and yet can’t use your foot as a counterbalance while it is on the brake pedal.
The core principles remain the same: ride in, close the throttle, downshift and begin modulating the brake, release the brake and begin using the gas to finish the corner while exiting. Many riders prefer sliding to the left, but I soon discovered that the feet-up slide to the right was my favorite.
That’s when things begin to click. Suddenly, I had a peek into a whole new style of riding that I hadn’t had any idea about before.
When I started on the slalom drill, it helped solidify those feelings. The slalom course is exactly what is seems, a series of cones set up for us to go through, allowing all the students to tie it all together and apply what we’ve learned. It’s also one of the few parts of the Oliver compound that isn’t irrigated, so it was a bit dusty, meaning we had far less grip than the U-turn and circle stations.
It wasn’t easy. I charged in, thinking I had the same level of grip—only to find I was sorely mistaken, and almost immediately lost the rear end. Less grip means less rear brake, and less throttle application on the exit. Apparently I wasn’t alone, as more than one of the other students also picked up a bike or two over the next few minutes.
One of the many things that the slalom course emphasizes is how to begin picking your lines and connecting them. Running wide on the exit of the first turn ruins the entrance of the next—to do it well requires planning and proper application of all the inputs.
The biggest take away is being able to slide in, and then turn on a dime, but that is easier said than done. Most of us would slide in, release the rear brake, and transition to the throttle as we attempted to exit the turn. We all had our vision up, looking far ahead like good little road riders do.
After we had floundered around for a bit, Rich helped out by adding a nuanced component—when initiating the final part of the turn, to help get the bike pointed in the right direction, we’d quickly glance down, then get on the gas and exit. Looking down at your apex is a cardinal sin in the road racing world, but here, it helps to lean the bike and allows the rear wheel to spin up, steering the bike in the proper direction.
We also did a braking drill in the dry portion of Rich Oliver’s Mystery School compound. This was to stress the importance of how much grip you could achieve with the front wheel when loaded properly, as well as reveal how much force was required to lock the front wheel. It gave us a reference points for braking limits, and on the dirt track, we would be using the front brake, especially when bombing down the hill into the off-camber right-hand turn.
After an amazing lunch provided by Karin Oliver and the ROMS team, the students finally set foot on the dirt track that had we’d all been ogling since we arrived. The track has a little bit of everything—tight hairpin corners, chicanes, long sweepers, elevation changes, and off-camber turns. It can be run in an almost limitless number of configurations.
We were ready to try it out, and put our newly learned skills to the test. Trust me, you will have a lot of fun during the morning sessions, but this is what the Mystery School is all about.
So we set out on the ‘A’ course layout known as Rattlesnake, which features both positive and negative cambered corners—something that is pretty difficult to negotiate while sliding a bike I might add. Inevitably, we all began racing one another, but that’s something that Rich encourages—battling it out and trying to keep pace helps a rider plan ahead, and utilize different lines while discovering new techniques.
The rest of the afternoon was dedicated to the dirt track and hammering the skills that we’d just begun developing on layouts like ‘Big Oval’ and ‘Fat Flying J’. Unlike the drill stations, we now had corners that required much longer slides, and there were even long sweepers where we had to initiate the slide, and then transition to the gas, maintaining perfect throttle control to continue the drift. It’s a technique that requires lots and lots of practice, but it is without a doubt one of the most satisfying experiences that I have ever had on two wheels.
The dirt track is a constantly evolving landscape. We ran each layout in both directions, so I developed a feel for doing things both ways. As we charged around the track, some areas were a bit drier, some a bit wetter, and so ruts were created. There were new challenges to deal with each lap.
Time on the dirt track is invaluable. Rich, Karin, or another instructor constantly lap with the students, demonstrating lines and other techniques, while other instructors also may critique students from time to time. It gives the whole school context. If an instructor initiates backing it in at a certain point and shows where the limit is, that means the student can shoot for the same goal.
In the short breaks between sessions, it’s good to get your questions out. Don’t be shy, as everyone is there to learn. The team also assured us that things would get easier the next day when we finally had the famed steel shoe bestowed upon us.
It’s a lot to take in, and that was just the first day. By the late afternoon, the group was well used up and so we packed it in. The Mystery School crew was even kind enough to wash all of our gear so we wouldn’t be mud covered and smelly when we returned the next morning.
The following day we were treated to another awesome meal from Karin and the ROMS crew while we had a Q&A session with Rich. The previous day he’d asked that we all come back with a question after reviewing the photos of us that they’d uploaded. Like good students, we did.
Rick, a fellow student, had some questions about body positioning. Rich’s answer was a concise explanation regarding our own perception that stuck with me: When we are in the act of riding, we most likely think we’re at the bleeding edge of grip and speed, but when we see a photo, it usually isn’t nearly as impressive.
As a moto-journalist, I know how our expectations often do not meet reality. So, Rich wanted us to exaggerate our movements. If we exaggerate to the extremes, we’ll probably be much closer to the optimal body positioning. Since we’re so new to these techniques, an exaggerated posture would feel strange to us at first, but ultimately it would be closer to the goal.
We moved on to stretching—not just our body muscles but also our eyes. I’ll explain a couple of them, although there are some more you will go over. Rich explained that this was a practice that helped him and other athletes over their careers.
Most of it is simple; look as far as you can in each direction and stretch your eye muscles. Then we worked on focusing drills, attempting to utilize more of our peripheral vision. Pick a point, focus on it and try to see more of your periphery.
By default, your mind will often cast away that information as useless and make it unclear. However, if you train your mind to use more peripheral vision, you can eventually pick up more information. It’s a tactic that will make you more aware of your surroundings, and that will always help out on the road, as well as the track.
It was then time to take on one of the most difficult things during the two-day fun camp—the mud—and one short oval track was soaked down to a pig-pen like consistency.
In such low traction environments, most of your inputs become far more exaggerated, so riding successfully, let alone staying up, is no easy task. For example, if I was a bit too greedy on the throttle, the rear wheel would spin up too much because there isn’t much grip and it takes much longer for the tire to hook up again—if ever. Smooth inputs and properly executed body position pay off here. Or, you can get lazy and crash into a hay bale like I did.
Finally, we donned our steel shoes and headed off to the slalom course once again. This time, we had an advantage when making left turns. The steel shoe doesn’t grip like a boot typically does, and it allows the rider to do a bit of balancing when sliding along.
In many ways, it’s comparable to that of a kneeslider in road racing. Nobody drives through their knee, unless you’re really trying to save it, so it’s mostly there as a feeler gauge.
The steel shoe works under the same principle. It takes some getting used to, but I found that when I pitched the rear end out to glide your foot along in the dirt, it’s a truly unique experience.
Back on track, we spent the afternoon running short races with fellow students, as well as instructors. In fact, we had too many to keep track of. There was opportunity after opportunity to hit the same corners, over and over, employing everything that I had learned.
In a short time, all of it was clicking for the students. We were slapping through the gearbox and backing it in. Of course, there were plenty of lowsides and a ton of laughter.
The curriculum works, and all the students were getting the hang of things by the middle of the second day. Some excelled more than others, yet everyone was able to have massive amounts of fun.
Some of us (me) were getting a bit too brave on the downhill straight, and took a nice spill in the off camber corner. Even so, the feeling of being hard on the front brake, while also sliding the rear for what seemed like an eternity, was totally worth it. Luckily, I redeemed myself afterwards and that became one of my favorite sections.
It was then that Rich mentioned a great tip that he used to employ while racing. Focusing on a single task is difficult, especially for the duration of a race, and breaking concentration will often result in a crash. Rich employed a different tactic.
Instead of attempting to focus for the entire duration of a race, he’d focus for a single lap. Each time he would cross the start/finish line, he’d intentionally break his focus and resettle, starting with a clean slate. This is a part of the all-important mental game that comes with riding, and these tactics that will help whether you’re on the racetrack or road.
With that in mind, we set out on the final 25-lap main event. It’s an opportunity to take home bragging rights and, actually, a pretty sweet trophy too. We ran to our bikes in a Le Mans-style start (some of us hobbled, myself included) and set out. Rick took off and quickly took the lead. Attempting to follow, I used every tactic I’d been taught.
I focused on my body position, maintaining throttle control, and modulating the rear brake in order to catch him. By the halfway point, I’d hunted him down. I then bided my time and watched his movements, assessing when he’d make his mistake so I could square the corner up and take the lead.
My ultimate glory came to nothing when Rich pulled a textbook block pass in a hairpin corner that destroyed my momentum and I ended up stalling my bike. Although I clawed my way back again to within a few bike lengths, it was too late. Rick took the checkered flag, along with the sweet trophy.
My Rossi vs. Lorenzo moment was stripped away from me, it was Sepang 2015, the 2016 US election cycle, or the feeling you get when you pour a bowl of cereal realize you’re out of milk. Aside from my complete lack of motorcycling ability, for a few minutes I knew what it was like to be a member of the MotoGP paddock, and that takes some of the sting of defeat away.
That 25-lap Rich Oliver’s Mystery School Main Event is the perfect way to end a weekend of absolute, unfiltered fun on two wheels, and it gave everyone an opportunity to put everything we had learned to the test. Earlier in the weekend, Rich said, “We let the drills do the work.” Without developing the basic flat-track skillset, our track time on Sunday wouldn’t have been nearly as fruitful.
This school is for everyone. Regardless of your riding style or skill level, this is about discovering a new way to control a motorcycle, and it allows you to truly develop your sensitivity to the feedback from the bike.
If you’re a rider who just had a spill on the street and wants to regain some confidence—or perhaps a street rider, track day enthusiast, or an aspiring racer—the skills you will learn and master will allow you to understand grip. Read as much as you can and educate yourself as much as you can, but in the end, there’s simply no replacement to getting out there and taking Rich Oliver’s Mystery School.
The school gives you context to controlling a motorcycle, what the limits are, and how the applications of brake, throttle or steering will have an impact. For me, I noticed it the next day while riding; I had a much better perception of grip when I was starting to lose it on a road with some slight gravel patches. I was able to exit corners with more confidence and my bike control felt increased.
Whether you’re an ADV rider who wants to slide a bike around in the dirt, or someone backing it in on a superbike, the principles taught by Rich remain the same. The Mystery School foundation will teach you to slide in safety, at dramatically lower speeds and in a completely controlled environment. The feeling of coming close to tucking the front or losing the rear is identical, regardless of the bike or surface.
I’m itching to get back. Rich Oliver runs one of the most wholesome and entertaining programs that I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing, and he does it in a safe and relaxed atmosphere. If you want to become a better rider, or simply have a fun weekend, sign up for the Two Day Fun Camp. It will set you back $749—with no damage deposit—which is far less than many riding schools.
Rich Oliver’s Mystery School also offers one-day MSF dirt bike school, four-day pro camps geared towards the aspiring road racer, private training days, and other services.
Photography by: ROMS