Explore Your Limits While You Can
by Pat Hahn
Quick–you’ve still got time. Fire up your computer and find www.ride.netfirms.com. Sign yourself up for the Advanced Rider Defensive Skills Training ($70) before it’s too late. There are five dates left this year: July 6 and 20, August 3 and 17, and September 28.
A local entrepreneur has converted the truck driving course out at the Dakota County Vo-Tech into a terrific place to learn the limitations of your mind, body, and bike. But do it soon a course like this one is an anomaly that should not exist in our litigious 21st-century society.
I had reached the point in my riding where I felt there was nothing more I could teach myself, physically. I’d taken the MSF class. I’d taught it for a number of years. I’d hooked up with the Minnesota Sportbike group and learned from them. I’d reached the limits of my comfort and my abilities on the street.
Since it’s suicide to start exploring your limits in the real world, it was either remain on the plateau or start racing. I hated the idea of the plateau (comfort = complacency = lazy = atrophy = death) but did not trust my skills to the racetrack. The certainty of crashing when you race is too much risk for me. I like my body the way it is. What I needed was a compromise.
(I didn’t realize that this particular compromise would involve bumping up against the limits of my stock VFR, grinding my peg feelers into little smoking stumps, scraping the header, centerstand, and gearshift lever against the asphalt until I set my suspension properly or sliding my BT010 rear and nearly losing it at 80 mph. I was laughing wildly inside my helmet and grinning like a kid who just found his first Playboy. There were even scantily-clad groupies there to keep the testosterone flowing between sessions.)
So as I was saying, I needed a compromise. Enter Steve Bauman. A dirt bike and road racer, Steve’s love of all that is two wheels and his desire to stay involved led to an informal defensive riding school just south of the Twin Cities. (Did I mention that it’s informal?) A self-described “gimp,” Steve is recovering from crash-related surgeries that prevent him from any sort of competition anytime soon. To stay with the game and enjoy it from the sidelines, he’s developed a curriculum to help riders explore their limits–for safety’s sake.
After hearing reports both good and bad about what was going on down at Dakota County, our esteemed MMM editor asked me to go check it out and report on what I saw. So here’s the good news: Steve Bauman is a really nice guy who somehow managed to get permission to use that great facility and he’s really trying to make better riders out of people. Here’s the bad news: due to the type of people, behavior, and consequences associated with something like this, I can’t see it lasting too long. This place shouldn’t exist. It is a glitch in the space-time continuum. It’s like some old carnival ride that was shut down forty years ago, then reappeared. It’s a gap in the safety-conscious fabric of Minnesota society. So get out there and try it while you still can. You get the laid-back unrestrictive atmosphere of the 1950s, and the high-tech asphalt and motorcycle technology of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.
I learned a great deal and enjoyed almost every minute. It was worth the time and the money. What was unnerving was Steve’s good-natured and easy-going (everyone’s referred to as “dude” here) personality doesn’t transfer well to coordinating 40 people riding motorcycles at 100%. I don’t mean that in a good or bad way, but only that it’s important: the quality of the experience (and the relative safety) seem to depend on Steve’s mood. I asked about the mayhem I heard about a few weeks ago and Steve confessed that his heart wasn’t in it that day and he just kind of let everybody do what they wanted. I’m glad it hasn’t come back to bite him. That sort of thing could hurt a guy in the long run.
While I wouldn’t call this a free-for-all, the structure is minimal. There are rules, but they’re only enforced if someone screws up really badly–I assume, when someone hurts themselves or someone else. It was scary at times. A racetrack is a controlled environment. An MSF course is a controlled environment. This isn’t really a racetrack, but it’s not a public road either and it’s not an MSF course. So let’s call it a marginally-controlled environment. Steve’s there with the curriculum and the keys to the gate, but you’re forced to put a great deal of trust into the other rider. At times, almost as much as you need to put into cage operators in the real world. Most everybody there was worthy of the trust. A couple weren’t. Fortunately, only two people genuinely put my life in danger that day. One of them was me. I’ll come back to that other guy in a minute.
The long and short is it is a racetrack-like environment, but without a thorough structure or consequences for breaking the rules. Steve tries to enforce them, but his true nature is to let people have fun and maybe learn something.
So what was it like? It’s all about cornering. Steve knows what works for him and he’s sharing his secrets. Here’s the deal: third gear, no brakes, all day. Eliminating shifting and braking left a lot of mental room for learning and concentrating on individual turning techniques. The corners ranged from 15 mph up to about 70 mph. We rode several twenty-minute sessions, each time concentrating on a particular skill: countersteering, turning your head, using body English, flicking the bike, relaxing, throttle control, traction management, etc., and tying them all together at the end. Most of all, Steve wanted smooth on the controls. We had a short braking session in the afternoon, but the true focus of this class is learning what your bike is capable of in the corners.
Steve marked the track with a big X at the turn-in points, the spot at which we were instructed to start the turn. Presumably, they were designed to maximize the amount of cornering a person needed to do with a limited amount of asphalt. Remember, it was all about practice and honing your technique. Sadly, there was at least one wanker who decided that he wanted to see how fast he could ride the loop instead of trying to learn something. Fortunately, it seemed like every time he pulled a bonehead maneuver (like making an illegal pass in # 12B, an off-camber, bumpy switchback S–a no-no that could/should have gotten him kicked out), he either went off the track or crashed completely. Karma has a wonderful way of catching up with people. To his credit, the guy seemed to back off a little bit after his crash, but after that I was made to give him a wide berth.
I sense there were three types of people there: A) racers looking for cheap track time, B) mediocre riders who think it’s a race and C) conscientious riders who want to learn something. The A group did their own thing and didn’t get mixed up with the other groups. Where it got dangerous was when rider B mixed it up with rider C. That’s what happened with me and Wanker Man. Hey, no harm, no foul, right? I made some mistakes out there too. I suppose I should have been kicked out, too.
What you get for $70 is a high-tech rollercoaster without the long wait in line. You get familiar with what happens when gravity meets centrifugal force at high speed. You get to learn what scraping parts sounds like. You get to work past the initial discomfort of ten-tenths riding and understand the ultimate limitations of your bike.
What did I learn? I learned where my limits are, and I learned that I’m nowhere near them on the street, even on a spirited ride in Alphabetland. That’s comforting. Practicing cornering at 100% is great fun and built up my confidence, and now I know that when I’m leaned over in a corner and see that terrifying patch of sand, that I have options. The course truly did make me a safer rider.
But like I said in the land where Absolutely Nothing Is Allowed (Soucheray’s term), someone, somewhere will find a way to put an end to it. And that’s too bad, because it’s a real benefit to those of us stuck between the plateau and the racetrack.