By Tim Storteboom, (PNWTenere member in North Vancouver BC)
Having recently returned to motorcycling I had become very aware that the statistics for people in my demographic (mid-forties, off of bikes for many years) are poor to say the least. As such, as I was researching which bike to get I was also searching for a riding refresher course to help me on my way. While there are quite a few choices out there for new riders there isn’t that much for returning or experienced riders. One outfit that clearly stood out to fit what I was looking for was the Roadcraft Motorcycle Academy.
A few weeks back I took part in the Control Skills Upgrade course at a location in Richmond, BC. I figured that for the most part that there would be a lot of time spent on emergency braking and accident avoidance. Little did I know the workout that I was in for.
The course is spread over one weeknight evening and then two weekend days. The Thursday night session was spent in a classroom where the instructors introduce themselves and explain what it is that they are trying to get us students to accomplish. The classroom was fair mix of the riding spectrum with adventure riders, baggers, cruisers and sport tourers all in attendance. A review of proper safety gear (ATGATT!) and explanations of the types of exercise that we would be partaking in and why they are important to learn as well as some videos from previous advanced classes. Some of what we were instructed on was where to look, the effect of speed on stopping distances and the physics of braking, how to try and manage time and distance. They also repeatedly reinforced the idea that this experience was intended to be fun and that they wouldn’t ask anyone to perform outside of their comfort zone. Traffic cones can’t hurt you. If the bike is going to go down, just step off, don’t risk injury trying to keep the bike upright. After all, what we were trying to do was to retrain out autopilot and there was little risk to doing that in the training environment we were in as opposed to on the street.
From the website: You’ll learn new techniques for precision control for tight turns in limited space, assertive counter-steering & emergency control techniques. Learn to lean your motorcycle into a turn at any speed with confidence.
Our classroom theory session demystifies slow speed control, explaining in detail how your motorcycle works and why, allowing you to better understand and respond to the feedback the motorcycle constantly provides. We’ll develop a system of Risk and Performance Management (R.P.M.) to combine this greater understanding of your motorcycle with an improved ability to manage the risks of motorcycling in traffic or on the road.)
The weekend sessions start early (don’t be late!). Saturday morning was a 7:45 start. The cones were all laid out in a large parking lot and divided into high speed and low speed training areas. We riders were split into two groups of six people each. My group started on the low speed side of things. First thing was a walk around the entire layout with the instructor who explained how we would be tackling each area. There were U-turns, chicanes, a figure eight, slalom and 90 degree turns. In the classroom session it had been explained to us that a motorcycle is a centrifugal force machine and that to keep that force in play you must keep power going to the rear wheel. How to keep drive going to the rear wheel involves finding the magic speed which is controlled by a combination of clutch, throttle and rear brake as well as body positioning and not using the front brake at all and where we should be looking as we run through the maneuvers. Now we had to put that theory to practice and it was more difficult than I thought.
After the instructor ran through the layout a couple of times on his Goldwing it was our turn. The first few times through the course I made it through without hitting too many cones but the instructor then pointed out to me that I was just idling along and at some point I would be in danger of dropping the bike if I didn’t have real power available at the rear wheel. I had been rarely touching the rear brake or feathering the throttle and clutch. Let’s face it, the Super Tenere can tractor along at idle speed all day long if you let it, but where’s the fun in that. He then went reinforced how to find the magic speed. After that I worked hard on getting my revs up, feathering the clutch and using the rear brake to control my forward momentum without losing drive to the wheel. This is also when I found out that the ergonomics of the bike were not setup well for me in trying to control the bike this way. Mostly the problem was with the rear brake pedal which was oriented too high for me to keep a heel on the foot peg and control the braking force in comfortable manner. I essentially was floating my foot in the air to keep a toe on the pedal which was exhausting and made for inconsistent handling. Learning body positioning was also interesting. We learned not to move our butt in the seat but rather to pivot the upper torso as the bike does the leaning under you.
After about an hour we were sent over to the high speed side of the parking lot. A small track had been setup. There were a few tight turns, a passing lane and a short straight or two. A walk around of the layout, then the instructor running the course a couple of times on his Kawasaki 1000 police bike and then we were onto the bikes. For the size of the track I didn’t really ever need to get out of first gear. Again, the S10 will tractor along happily at 30km/hr (~20mph) forever in first gear but again, but where’s the fun in that. After the first few times around the instructor urged me to change gears and really get into the turns. Body positioning again was interesting to learn as now for high speed maneuvering you essentially do the opposite of the slow speed maneuvering where you lean your upper body into the turn and keep the bike more upright. Prior to this I hadn’t really had my body doing anything besides letting the bike do all the work. With this new skill the bike became lighter and the turns better defined to the point where I scraped my boots a couple of times in a turn at only about 25km/hr (~15mph). This was fun!
After an hour it was back to the slow speed stuff, this time running the layout in the opposite direction. Again, the rear brake ergonomics were a challenge but it was easier to find that magic speed and I felt much more comfortable the second time around. While many cones were victims this now had more to do with where I was looking than I how I was controlling the bike. If you look at a cone, you’re going to hit it. Soon enough it was back to the high speed to also be run in reverse. Through all this time the instructors are regularly pulling people aside to provide feedback and instruction.
We break for lunch and then into the classroom before going home. Feedback is provided from the participants and instructors and then reinforcement of why we were practicing these things. Something simple, like if you look down at a cone you are going to hit it can relate to being in the twisties and instead of looking through your turn you instead look at the 5 ton truck that’s making the same corner in the opposite direction. There have been far too many reports of motorcyclists running into vehicles in this type of situation and now we had a clue as to why.
Arriving back on Sunday, the parking lot was already setup and ready to go but with slightly different configurations. The slow speed section was much the same but there were now two figure eights, a round slalom, three tight U-turns and the chicane was setup tighter. I had spent a good part of Saturday night changing the setup on the bike. I had lowered the brake pedal and readjusted the rear brake sensor that activates the brake light. I also raised my seat which had been in the lower position for the time since I’ve owned the bike. I’m a tall guy but my legs are short. This greatly improved my comfort with the rear brake and immediately felt it would translate into better slow speed maneuvering control. In fact, I was hitting more cones and blowing through maneuvers, which became very frustrating. Perhaps from over confidence or due to the changes I’d made to the bike. I finally stopped for the last 15 minutes of the session just to relax and reset my mind.
The high speed side of the course was setup completely differently. What we were learning on this day was emergency stopping and direction change. As you would expect, this consisted of getting up to speed in a straight line and then stopping. Seems simple enough doesn’t it? Ah, but to so quick to judge my friends. There is a proper pattern to follow of when and how to apply the brakes, clutch throttle and downshifting. What’s the first thing to do? Check the mirrors! Now, in the real world this is something I normally do. What’s odd is that when you are in an exercise your mind is telling you that you are in an exercise so you don’t look! At least I wasn’t. Now having to consciously remind myself to do that messed up the rest of the pattern. What’s the last thing to do? Look around! Where are you going to go if there’s still someone coming up behind you that are not paying as much attention as you? Need to practice the pattern: Mirror, Focus, Brake (rear slightly before front), Downshift (and keep downshifting), Stop, 360 Scan.
Spending an hour on the high speed section allowed my brain to reset for going back to the slow speed side. Apparently the reset worked. Back in the slow speed area I nailed it. All of a sudden I wasn’t hitting cones any more. The figure eights were easy. The circle slalom was a piece of cake. Something had clicked and of the entire weekend, this was the unit that I scored highest on. I was smiling ear to ear.
Back to the high speed we now spent time on counter steering out of trouble and combined this with the emergency braking. Essentially the instructor would stand down at the end of the course where three lanes of cones were setup. As we motored directly at him, he would randomly motion for us to move in one direction or another as we were closing in on him at about 30km/hr. Again, check your mirrors! After working on counter steering for a while he added in the emergency breaking and tightened up the cones that marked the point where any counter steering would take place. Now we would approach the instructor and he would throw up a variety of things. Raise both hands to stop or motion for a counter steer or motion for a counter steer and then also an emergency stop. Or he might not make any motion at all in which case your white knuckling it a bit as the range drops, but then he would step out of the way. The instructor was trying to be every bit as unpredictable as real world riding can be.
For the last bits of the Sunday riding sessions it was more of the same except for the emergency braking and accident avoidance. Instead we were left to our own devices to practice whichever maneuvers we wanted. However, the added twist is that now the instructors would come over on their motorcycles (today two Kawasaki 1000 Police bikes) and request you to follow them around the course. Again, completely unpredictable what they would do but very entertaining. Especially on the slow speed stuff I was making tighter turns then I ever thought possible and even though I managed to lose the magic speed once and drop the bike, at the end of the session my instructor had as big a grin as I did.
There was one last classroom session before heading home. We completed a self evaluation which the instructors then marked up as well. There was space for comments from the students and the instructors. A few more videos of bad riding habits that we could then evaluate with our new found knowledge. We received our certificates and the marked up evaluation sheets. Slow speed was my highest score and the instructor agreed with my evaluation of it. On the higher speed sections I gave myself a middling score for the most part but my instructors had a better impression of how I did than I thought. I am my own toughest critic. There were closing comments, an invitation to come back and one last piece of advice; Practice, Practice, Practice. Fifteen or twenty minutes a week on your way to a ride or your way to work. Find an open parking lot and practice. I’ve managed two of the past three weekends and am trying to make it a part of my regular routine. The first course they run every year is refresher course for previous graduates. They always know who has practiced and who hasn’t. I want to be one of the ones that has.
All in all I found the course incredibly valuable. I can now manage my bike better than ever and now have skills it never occurred to me that I would need and broken bad habits I didn’t know I had. It was definitely a challenge and I was exhausted by the end of it. I highly recommend and challenge all my riding sisters and brothers to take a course like this. As their website states: No matter if you’ve been riding one year or thirty, our Control Skills Upgrade will challenge you appropriately based upon the skill level you bring to class. There are two other courses that Roadcraft offer and in the coming few years I plan on participating in them both. Bryan, Steve and Graham really know their stuff and help build confidence and provide valuable feedback. Each of them has their own compelling stories of how they came together and formed Roadcraft…but you’ll have to get those stories from them yourselves. (There’s a video of Steve on the Roadcraft home page of him competing at a Goldwing competition. Steve was the slow speed maneuvering instructor for the weekend I attended the course.)
Information on the Roadcraft Motorcycle Academy can be found via these links.
North Vancouver, BC
May 4, 2015
All photos by P. McKenna