Just the other day, I was pondering a botched downshift, really looking at it, taking it apart, gracing it with much more importance than any single half-second of a mundane, around-town, two-wheeled, errand-run should be treated. This is the way my mind works, and I’ve long since given up wondering why the heck stuff like this happens (mostly because that’s another rabbit hole to tumble down) and have just learned to accept it, sit back, and enjoy the ride.

Evans Off Camber – Basic Training

Still, just take a moment to consider even just a short list of variables involved in a downshift, botched or otherwise: the bike’s rate of deceleration, the selected gear, the engine speed, the amount of engine braking delivered by the engine, the amount of throttle blip required, the rate of throttle blip necessary to match the rpm during the downshift, the timing of the clutch release, the rate of the clutch release, the need to possibly prepare for another downshift, the traction available to the rear tire, what the rider intends to do after completing the downshift, etc. And there it is in a not-so nutshell, the beauty of motorcycling, the thing that keeps me coming back ride-after-ride, day-after-day, year-after-year.

Evans Off Camber - Mastery and the Ride - martial arts

Maybe martial arts have the right idea. Well, not the funny pose, but the use of belts to denote levels of mastery, giving students of the practice goals to strive for.

Riding a motorcycle is not one of those tasks that’s easy to learn yet difficult to master. Rather, riding proficiently is a challenge to learn. Improving that knowledge and skill set requires dedication. And mastery? Well, mastery is a relative term. How does one define mastery of motorcycling? Clearly, Valentino Rossi and all of the riders whose job consists of riding MotoGP bikes are masters of the sport of motorcycle road racing. However, even within those heady ranks, there exists a caste system consisting of the aliens (Lorenzo, Marquez, Rossi, Pedrosa) and the mere mortals.

For us street riders, the idea of mastery is a little more blurred and comes down to desire and focus. If your idea of mastering the art of riding a motorcycle is simply arriving at work successfully or sharing weekend rides with a group of buddies, your satisfaction with your riding ability will peak at quite a different place from a rider who is preparing for an around-the-world adventure tour. Yet, we’re all working with the same basic tools of throttle, clutch, shifter, brakes, handlebar, and, of course, the human body.

Why is it that most car drivers reach a certain level of accomplishment and, for the most part, level off? My belief is that it’s because driving a car in a manner that seems proficient in the real world is relatively easy. Riding a motorcycle requires that you operate five controls with four appendages – while balancing the bike and maintaining a vigilant eye on the environment around you. Motorcycles are smaller and are much more vulnerable to…well…everything.

So, as we go about our daily riding life, each task involved with riding a motorcycle becomes just a little bit easier the more times we do it, thanks to muscle memory and a deeper understanding of the process. Keith Code did the motorcycle world a great deed when he developed the concept of a rider having just $10 of concentration available. In this metaphor, each action has a certain cost. For a new rider, releasing the clutch and pulling away from a stop on a hill may cost as much as $5. An experienced rider may spend pennies. That’s great! However, it can also lead, I believe, to complacence. Code used this tool to help riders progress through skills, but the key to it was that, once they’d reduced the cost of one, they moved on to the next.

Evans Off Camber - Mastering the Ride - clutch release

Remember when just pulling away from a stop required monumental concentration?

I’m pretty certain that most riders, just like most drivers, have an inflated view of their riding ability. If I’m really honest with myself, I can hear my ego whispering in my ear about my motojournalist wing-footed deity status – despite my open acknowledgment of being the slowest track rider on the MO staff. It’s easy to get sucked in, to become complacent. After all, I’ve successfully navigated over a quarter century of riding and lived to tell the tale.

But that’s not enough.

In order to master the art of riding a motorcycle in the arena that I choose to ride, I need to continue pushing myself. By push, I don’t necessarily mean riding faster – though that certainly has its place. What I’m getting to here is the need for a challenge, a need to expand my skill set, a need for continued learning. For me, I think going back to school, in a literal sense, by attending a riding school and having a critical eye focused on my riding to highlight my weaknesses would be a tremendous benefit. While I don’t have an abundance of natural riding talent, I am very coachable and have benefitted greatly from advice given by riding instructors, like Lance Holst, Nick Ienatsch, Jason Pridmore, and Freddie Spencer, in addition to the talented riders I’ve had the opportunity to share the masthead with at the publications where I’ve worked.

Evans Off Camber – Plays Well With Others

What works for me may not work for you. Maybe you want to take your adventure bike off-road or your cruiser on a tour. Perhaps you’ve never felt confident riding in the rain or even just carrying a passenger – both activities which betray any abrupt control inputs. Since we’ve entered the limited riding season of winter, take the time to sit down and think about your riding. See if you can come up with a list of three things (because that seems like a nice number) that you’d like to improve in the next year. Or maybe just choose three things that you’d like to do on your bike in the next year. Go buy a book or spend time researching these list items on the web.

Evans Off Camber - Mastering the Ride - cone weave

When riders think of honing their skills, an image like this often comes to mind, but learning can take many forms.

Then actually set out to achieve those goals. Check in during the year to see if you’re moving forward. Every time you step out of your riding routine, you provide yourself the opportunity to learn and advance your skills by encountering new situations and possibly making some mistakes.

To improve, to take steps towards mastery, we need to set goals. When we meet those goals, we need to acknowledge ourselves and move on to a new one. Currently, my running coach is after me because, in the months after completing a marathon – a goal I’d had since I was 18 – I haven’t signed up to run another race. To him it doesn’t matter that what used to be an almost unfathomable distance is now an “only,” as in “I only ran eight miles today.” Still, he’s right. Without a goal, my running has languished. I’m reasonably fit, but my waistline and training times say there is still room for improvement.

The same could be said of my riding. How about you? What stands between you and mastering the ride?

  • Sayyed Bashir

    I attended the Jimmy Lewis Off-Road Riding School in Pahrump, NV in November to learn how to ride my adventure bike off-road. I used one of their smaller rental bikes since my KTM 1190 R is too big and heavy to learn on, and the skills are supposedly transferable. I am still reluctant to go on technical terrain for fear of seriously injuring myself and damaging the bike.

    • Evans Brasfield

      I took a BMW adventure riding class on a F800GS two years ago, and I was surprised at how well the skills translated to the bigger adventure touring bikes on our big ride this year. Still, it didn’t prevent me from crashing in the mud – which taught me an important lesson about trying to turn in the mud. I’d say try with some simple fire roads and move up. Take it in steps.

      Also, ride with someone who is more experienced than you and ask lots of questions. One of the riders on our tour is massively experienced in the dirt and really helped me out a lot. All it took was asking some questions.

  • DickRuble

    Years ago the MSF was distributing a little black book to those attending their courses. It had all the exercises taught in the class and how to set up the course for them. Does anyone have a PDF of that book?

    • E S poo

      This article really struck a chord with me. After driving for over 30 years I have started to learn to ride. In Singapore where I live, there is a staged and bureaucratic prices to getting a bike licence. 15 practical lessons, and 7 theory lesions before they get you to test stage. After each practical lesion if you haven’t mastered the particular skill ,(e.g. hill starts, e- stop,) you repeat. Once you have passed the test you can ride a 200cc bike for a year before you repeat the process of lessons with a 400cc bike. Then repeat one year later with 600cc before you have the full range of bikes to choose from. Told you it was bureaucratic!

      • DickRuble

        I think some EU countries have something similar, though a bit less stringent (permit class A.. etc..) I am certain a Singaporean 1000cc rider is very proficient.

  • JMDonald

    Starting out riding in the dirt does a lot for ones riding capital. I also have found that bicycle riding has been a real benefit. I love riding well paved country roads with twists turns and elevation changes. They seem to hit all the necessary challenges to my skill set. My older bike is prone to a slight wheel hop if I go into a turn and shift aggressively. It is rare and infrequent. Some days are smoother than others. Seeing your list of riding coaches I admit to a certain degree of jealousy. I have read many of their writings but have never even had any personal guidance from any of them. A good ride is like a good round of golf. You know how well you you have done because you are riding or playing against yourself. Some days are better than others. Another day in yacht racing.

  • Old MOron

    I’ve done Keith Code’s level 1, Reg Pridmore’s CLASS, Lee Parks’ ARC, and Rich Oliver’s Mystery School. I would recommend any of those programs to anyone who is interested in training. The Mystery School resonates with me the most, and I go back every year. Been doing that since 2006!

    • Old MOron

      Woops, forgot to answer Evans’ question: What stands between you and mastering the ride?

      I think I agree that having goals for motivation is key. I think I ride well enough to do it reasonably safely and to genuinely enjoy it. If I wanted motivation to improve, I’d need to be racing or something.

  • Dick Fisk

    You might find “Awareness Through Movement” by Moshe Feldenkrais – he expanded your notion of a car driver no longer improving beyond basic skills to all physical movement, and devised exercises to become aware of limitations so they could be mitigated.

  • John B.

    Until I read this article I never contemplated putting the words “I,” “mastery,” and “motorcycle” in the same sentence. I have been riding 3.5 years (about 27,000 miles) and still get a whiff of euphoria when I arrive safely at my destination. I focus on sharpening the fundamental skills I need to ride safely, keep my bike well maintained, and regularly review the hazards motorcyclists encounter. I occasionally correspond with a motorcycle safety guru about dangerous situations I encounter while riding (no matter what scenario I describe, he says it’s my fault). As with most endeavors, I strive to improve, but give little thought to mastery. For riders with your experience, however, mastery may be attainable.

  • Dawn IrishBOB

    Thank you for that!! I actually laughed out loud when you were talking about the inflated views of our driving/riding (I myself believe I have the skill set of a race car driver when I’m behind the wheel of my car, but have never been on a track to prove it!). But to hear another rider say that they’re the slowest track rider and wish to improve on your skill set – that is something to be proud of. To hear some guys talk you’d think they’d be able to ride to the moon and back, and think because I can’t makes me a beginner (or worse – a chick that rides her own *gasp*). Not that I care since I know they’re full of a lot of hot air. I’ve been riding for a couple of decades, working in a motorcycle dealership for 8 years, so I know a few things but certainly don’t know them all. It’s just really refreshing to hear a TRUE “Biker” say ‘Hey- I’d like to improve on my riding skills and I’m ok with that.”

  • Alexander Pityuk

    Some time ago I took a major step in improving my driving skills. I started to ride a motorcycle. So, is it about time to start flying a helicopter? 🙂