Practicing in a Lee Parks Total Control clinic



One MSF Experienced Rider Course

Eight or nine years ago, BMW ran a black-and-white ad in motorcycle magazines that showed a rider pulling on a helmet in the half-light of dawn. The copy read:

Saturday morning.
I hate it when I oversleep.

It's particularly pertinent to the experienced rider class I'm teaching today, as it starts at 7AM sharp. I arrive at the Central Massachusetts Safety Council at 6:30 to get the paperwork going and set up the range, and start greeting arrivals as they straggle in over the next half an hour. I introduce myself to each person as he or she arrives, check the name off my roster, and hand out a waiver and a tire gauge. I tell the students to fill out the waiver, check the pressure in the tires, and bring back the gauge and waiver. When everyone has arrived I ask for a report on tire pressures. Generally, someone mentions rather sheepishly that he has 9psi in one of his tires. There's less good-natured laughter than you might expect, because most of the riders are thinking "Dang, that could have been me; I haven't checked my tires since March." We take the offender to the back of the garage and top off the tires.

I get things rolling by asking the group to imagine we've just received a call from the governor explaining that he's concerned about the number of motorcycle fatalities in the state, and appointing us to a committee to address the problem. What would we do?

There's discussion back and forth, and eventually someone says that before we can plan a cure, we have to know what causes the problems. So let's take a look at the police reports of motorcycle crashes, see if there is any common thread that could be addressed.

And that's what the MSF did in designing the ERC that we're about to take. What you'll find if you investigate crashes is that there are three riding skills that are often lacking in crash-involved riders. Not always of course, but often. One is braking. Riders who crash don't use their brakes well. They never touch the front brake (if you do you'll go right over the top, doncha know), or grab it hard and crash when the front tire skids.

Another skill that's lacking is the ability to swerve. When a cager pulls out in front of a rider, and then sees the rider and stops halfway into the street, the rider often brakes (poorly, see previous paragraph) instead of swerving around the problem; or, worse, he tries to swerve but goes the wrong way and hits the car in the middle. No, really, they swerve the wrong way!

The third skill conspicuously lacking among crashed riders is the ability to corner. About half of motorcycle fatalities are single-vehicle crashes (according to DOT report 809 360). Those mostly happen in curves, naturally, since if the road is straight and there's no other traffic around, there's not a lot of reason to crash. (There are deer and other things, but mostly, single-vehicle crashes are cornering failures.) They go into the curve too fast, or fail to see a hazard like sand in time to avoid it, or just fixate on the guard rail and drive straight into it.

So in the riding portion of the class, we concentrate on those skills: braking, swerving, and cornering. But there's one more thing. "I tell ya folks, braking is really important. On average, I have to do an emergency stop two or three times a week!" The group looks at me askance. "Three times a week!? I don't think I do an emergency stop three times a decade. You better slow down, Steve" one says. "Or back off," says another. "Or pay more attention to what you're doing." The point is made: The best riding skills in the world won't save you for long if you aren't alert and driving within your limits.

We begin the first exercise by just riding around the range, then after a lap or two start weaving between a line of small cones. Then we do the weave using just one hand. (Riding with one hand isn't an important skill but it allows us to separate the motions of turning the bike and of throttle control. This can help smooth out one's throttle inputs, and also brings out the true motions used for steering, namely, countersteering.) Finally, we go over some small obstacles, a couple of 2x4 boards on the side of the range.

After a brief discussion, we go on to a low-speed drill to work on balance and keeping one's vision ahead of the motorcycle, in the direction you intend to go. In the third exercise we begin the first of the emergency skills, that of braking quickly to a stop. We focus on excellent use of the front brake, light use of the rear, and being in first gear by the time the bike is stopped, so that we can get away if the car behind us can't stop as quickly as we can. This is a crucial skill and we work hard on it. By the time it's done most riders have a new appreciation for just how quickly a motorcycle can be hauled to a stop.

After a break and another low-speed drill, we move to cornering. We spend close to an hour on cornering, not only because it's the cause of about half of motorcycle fatalities, but because it's the most fun part of riding. And we wrap that up by asking how you handle an emergency stop in the middle of a curve? You often handle it by straightening before braking, so we spend a few minutes practicing that.

After another break we work on swerving, which is easy, though not everyone knows it when we start; but they certainly do when the exercise is over. And finally, we have another cornering exercise, this one called "multiple curves", which is enough fun to bring out the rowdy nature of some of the bikers. We do it in small groups, with the non-riding groups watching and commenting, and I often find that the onlookers remark on just how deceptively fast a rider can be who's trying to be smooth rather than fast. (And just how jerky and slow a rider can be who's trying to be fast at the expense of smooth.)

After a final break we set up the evaluation exercises: one low-speed exercise, plus swerving and braking and cornering. This is quick and fun, because everything has been done already and it's just a matter of doing it again once more. We're done shortly after 12 and the riders leave with better skills than they arrived with, plus a card good for 10% off the mandatory parts of their motorcycle insurance. Those who rode in with a permit and not a license still have a permit and not a license, but the license will arrive in the mail in a couple of weeks.

This is a good way to brush up after a winter's layoff, or get acquainted with a new motorcycle, or just to find out how much you may have missed 20 years ago when you taught yourself to ride. Ask around your riding friends to see who may have taken the class, and whether they think it's worthwhile. You won't be sorry.