by Michelle Moe
Practice, training and discipline are attributes that keep pro racers in top form. Why would the recreational and touring rider not want the same? When I hit the road, I not only want to make it from point A to point B, I want to do it safely and have as much fun and control as I can on the way. On July 31, I attended the Zalusky Advanced Riding School (ZARS). The school is owned and operated by Jessica Zalusky, who raced professionally from 2002-2008 for AMA Pro Racing. The goal of the school is to improve riding skills, helping beginning and seasoned riders improve proficiency and confidence on the street and on the racetrack. ZARS offers six levels of instruction.
Safety is a top priority and clear guidelines are given on how to stay safe while at the class. Riders must be legal, insured and sober. Riders must wear protective gear in accordance with their riding level and speed. We taped off all lights and taped off, turned down, or removed mirrors. Once on the track I noticed how distracting it would be to see headlights and brake lights. Your focus needs to be on where you are going and not to worry about other riders.
Classes take place at the Driving Range at the Dakota County Technical College in Rosemount. The course is one mile long with many curves, from long sweepers to the less than 90° turn dubbed the “Bus Stop,” my personal nemesis. On class days, all six levels are represented, but only students riding at similar speeds are on the course at any given time. Passing is limited to the straightaway and only between the orange cones. I got passed almost every time on the straightaway and I never once passed another rider. I am okay with that. I would have been rather intimidated were I to have seen riders piling up behind me in the curves, worried that I was holding them back. It is very important for each rider to know that they are just fine where they are at in terms of speed. There are opportunities for faster riders to pass, or to exit the course and re-enter in an open spot.
The Level 1 group instructor to student ratio was approximately 1:2. Fellow student Ron and I were paired with Level 1 Coach Ian Ellis. Coincidently, we were all riding BMW’s. The other two coaches for this level were Jon Champ and Brent Joss. Other Level 1 students rode a variety of bike types, including a Hayabusa and a BMW LT tourer.
I sat down with Ian to ask about his experience and how ZARS made it all work. I was surprised and impressed to learn that ZARS is almost completely run by volunteers, including the coaches. Ian himself is the lead coach for Level 1. A previous MSF coach, he tried ZARS a few times and liked it so much that he wanted to volunteer. Ian only coaches the first level because he enjoys seeing those light bulb moments when new students understand a new concept.
Each coach brings different skill sets and experiences. It is not just your assigned coach who will be helping you. Each coach in your level will explain each concept, and no two explanations are exactly the same. This hits all different types of learners, really instilling the essence of any given concept for students.
ZARS employs gate staff who determine when it is safe to enter the course and corner workers who observe the course for any dangers or accidents, waving flags of different colors to alert riders when there is a problem on the course and when your time on the course is finished. The course itself is cleaned early in the morning before the day begins so that each rider can focus on technique, not whether there may be debris on the road surface.
It is important for setting the tone that we clarify some vocabulary. We rode on a driving course, not a racetrack. This is a riding school, not a racing school. The skills learned, especially in the upper levels, will be useful for anyone wishing to race, and the courses curves help fine-tune skills used in racing, but the school and the course are not about racing. They are about providing a safe environment to gain skills of precision while learning to handle your motorcycle flawlessly.
The Big Day
Two weeks prior to the class, I sold my BMW R850R. This dilemma was resolved when my dear friend Tammy loaned me her BMW G650GS. Life had gotten busy and I had not ridden for over a year. Taking a riding class to improve my skills was just what I needed. As I arrived that morning, I saw a parking lot full of trailers, big muscle-y bikes and pop-up sun shades. Looked like some serious riders. I checked in while my husband, acting as my own personal pit crew, covered all of my lights with blue painter’s tape and removed the mirrors. Our Level 1 classroom time was held under a pop-up shade, perfect as the weather heated up. We did introductions and got the schedule. ZARS works in 20-minute increments: 20-minutes on the track, 20-minutes instruction and 20-minutes rest. After we got acquainted, we attended a mandatory meeting headed by Jessica. We were enthusiastically welcomed. Level 1 riders then took a tour of the course in the back of a pick-up truck.
After returning and some instruction on counter-steering, we suited up and took to the course for practice. Ron and I followed Ian for a few easy laps, Ian then signaled for us to pass him. That first 20-minute ride was fun as we slowly gained confidence with each lap, becoming more familiar with each curve. In no time, the corner worker was signaling for our time to end.
We parked and reconvened to review the ride and get further instruction. This is where the course’s merits really shine. Ian gave Ron and I individual feedback based on what he saw – head turning, body position, areas of tension and cornering technique. We were able to ask questions about any aspect of our ride. Then, all of the Level 1 instructors made observations on what they saw from all riders. They then went on to further explain counter-steering, each from their own perspective. That is three knowledgeable and experienced people helping a diverse group of riders understand a technique, really catering to different learning styles. After this discussion time, we had a 20-minute rest and it was back on the bikes.
Did I mention earlier that it was hot? Clear skies, blazing sun and scorching temperatures are what we endured. Concern for our safety was again top priority. Water and Gatorade were provided and we were encouraged to drink lots. The rule of thumb we were to follow was if you are not peeing each round you are not drinking enough.
The morning went by nicely. Some of the rides felt energizing and successful, others were frustrating. That darn Bus Stop curve! I felt quite successful on the sweeping curves, but that less than 90° curve was a bugger for me. I was coming at it too slow, turning at the wrong time so that I had to overcorrect at the last minute. I did okay when following directly behind Ian. On my own, I would choke. When another instructor offered help, I was glad to accept. He asked me if I was a kinesthetic learner, I answered yes and he led me to my bike. While one instructor held my bike, I got on and my body was put in the correct cornering position.
I received more verbal instruction and hit the track. Armed with my knowledge about body position, lean and speed; and a coach signaling my point of entry, I did it! I mastered the Bus Stop! These coaches are very dedicated to following through until you get it. They are excited, motivated and really enjoy what they are doing, which translates into very happy students.
It was a grueling day in terms of concentration and heat. The afternoon is a little less formal, however the instructors are 100% available. Some riders left after lunch, having had enough. The Hayabusa rider left. It is exhausting to maneuver such a big bike.
At the end of the day I felt as if I had really accomplished something. I was tired, but invigorated; a day well spent. We were all invited to meet at a local restaurant afterwards for some food and social time. I had planned on attending. Alas, the concentration and heat had exhausted me. Not to the point that I felt concern for getting home, but I knew that as soon as I sat down to relax that the ride home may have become daunting.
One question I asked was how does attending these classes translate into street riding? It builds your overall confidence on your motorcycle. A whole day spent in such intense focus, where that focus is on your machine and how it moves and how you move on it, without having to worry about traffic and road conditions, really improves your overall skills. When you leave and take it on the road, those skills translate into a more automatic handling of your bike. I cannot image anything but benefit to knowing your bike better and how to maneuver it and your body with precision. One rider named Jason had taken the course and his friends couldn’t figure out why he would bother, since he was already such an experienced rider. After the first level, even his friends noticed the improvement.
Level 1 sessions are held on Friday evenings from 5-9 for $50 and weekend days from 9-5 for $95. On the weekend days, you are provided lunch and get a free t-shirt when you become a member with any first session. In terms of value, the fee you pay is a true bargain for the instruction alone. That, and the feeling of community will have you coming back again and again.
On rides taken since, I feel my body automatically going into position to take a curve just right. I long for that clean track, but I now focus my attention on observing conditions and my body and the bike correct with a precision that is notably more automatic and fluid. Thank you so much to Jessica, Ian, Jon, Brent and all the coaches and staff of the Zalusky Advanced Riding School. I had a blast and hope to come back for more.
ZARS can be found at:
See her Facebook page!