Better Living Through Motorcycling

story by Gabe Ets-Hokin, Created Oct. 15, 2005
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The Lee Parks Trilogy

You know at once Lee Parks is no ordinary guy when you roll up to his fenced-in compound on the outskirts of Apple Valley, California. The haphazard-looking A-frame home is surrounded by features that many motorcyclists dream of having, like a three-car (or 12-motorcycle) garage, 24-foot storage container, trap-shooting range and mini-motocross course complete with hay bales, whoops and table-tops.Accompanied by his faithful dog, Ryokan,(say "Rowe-con") Lee comes to the door with a phone pressed to one ear. Self-employed since 2001, Lee has a finger in many moto-stews, including designing, manufacturing and distributing riding gear, consulting and PR work for various manufacturers, assorted motojournalism assignments, and growing a chain of franchised riding clinics across the USA. Does he sound like a typical self-employed person? He has to be; if anybody worked me that hard I'd quit in hours. Mini moto-cross in the front yard. What could be more American?

He's a quick, energetic man in his mid-30s, a little heavier then he was when roadracing an SV650 in national-level endurance competition. "I'm not really as motivated to exercise if I don't have to be in shape for racing." But he still rides as much as he can, whether on his much-modified Honda "Frankenhawk" or on one of his dirtbikes on the expanse of empty desert trails right outside his door.

"[A] rider who might never do a track day yet enjoys riding at a brisk clip on the street -- like a majority of our readers -- will find a distinct lack of organized training."Lee's life philosophy is apparent once we're inside the house. "I like things with clean, simple lines." he says, and points out the careful feng shui layout of the furniture in his office. Although he grew up in a Jewish household and neighborhood in Highland Park, Illinois, Lee has embraced aspects of Eastern philosophy, especially Zen Buddhism and Taoism, to give him direction and guidance in his life. This carries into everything he does.

He's done a lot and plans to do much more. Lee started riding motorcycles at 12 years old when his dad, a rider himself, thought it would be a great father-son bonding opportunity. Two years later he allowed Lee to start ice racing. Lee enjoyed ice racing, but fell in love with the grace and subtle challenges of roadracing when he was 19. He developed his skills on a Kawasaki GPZ305 with the Utah Sportbike Association while he attended college, studying marketing and communications.

It was in college that he made it a goal to work in the motorcycle industry, working in advertising or PR for one of the big OEMs. Journalism appealed to him, but his journalism professor in the one course he took gave him a C+ and told him he'd never make it as a journalist.[H]is journalism professor in the one course he took gave him a C+ and told him he'd never make it as a journalist.

In 1993 there were not that many motorcycle publications in the United States, and the chances of a young marketing and communications major fresh out of college getting a job with one were somewhere between slim and none. So when Lee heard of a position available at Motorcyclist, Lee naturally decided to apply. He wrote up a resume and cover letter detailing exactly why Art Friedman, editor at Motorcyclist should hire him. "I told him that if he would just give me 20 minutes of his time, I would explain why I would be a great choice." Lee's people call this chutzpah.

Incredibly, that interview happened, and the next day Lee received a call from Petersen Publication's human resources person, telling him they were flying him to LA to discuss his salary requirements. "I had a buddy who was an expert in HR, and he told me to always politely refuse the first salary offer and to get up and walk out of the office. Sure enough, she told me all they could pay me was the lowest salary they offer to starting associate editors. I told her that I appreciated the offer, but that it just didn't meet my needs. So I got up and slowly started walking out of the room. Just as I was reaching the door, she said, 'Wait, wait!' and offered me much more money; way more than I expected to get." Lee's chutzpah was once more rewarded. In his time at Motorcyclist, Lee learned his craft and made plenty of industry contacts.

Lee's Total Control Advanced Riding Clinics

No matter how long you've been riding or how many people you can pass on Sunday afternoons, if you're like most riders you could use some brush-up instruction and improvement of your riding skills. But although there is beginner and novice-level training in the form of the MSF's Basic RiderCourse (BRC) and Experienced RiderCourse, (ERC), and plenty of racing and racetrack-oriented training like American Supercamp and Keith Code's California Superbike school, a rider who might never do a track day yet enjoys riding at a brisk clip on the street -- like a majority of our readers -- will find a distinct lack of organized training.

Student -- and MO subscriber -- Frank Snively practicing one of Lee's excercises. After noting what worked -- and didn't -- while racing and riding motorcycles, Lee decided to create an actual curriculum that could be easily taught and duplicated, much like martial arts or military marksmanship are taught. This formed the basis of his Total Control Advanced Rider Clinic (ARC), an eight-hour class that combines classroom and hands-on instruction on riding better, smoother and faster.

The ARC I took was held at the excellent MSF facility, T.E.A.M. Arizona in Gilbert, AZ. Since it was over 110 degrees during the day, the class was broken into two evenings from 5:00 PM to 9:00 PM, avoiding the mind-killing, scorching heat.

The first part of the Clinic is taught in an air-conditioned classroom. With the aid of a slick PowerPoint presentation and his easy-going manner, Lee discusses what it takes to go faster on a bike. The materiel is lively and informative, accompanied by a printed study guide for note-taking.

He starts with the hard facts from the physical world, like the forces and skills required for managing traction, but then moves into more esoteric concepts, like managing your fears. "What's the worst thing that can happen today?" he asks his students. When they tell him some of the things they are afraid of, like damaging their motorcycles, looking like jerks, or not being able to master the techniques taught, he then asks, "Well, can you handle that?" Lee's point is that most of us can handle even the worst imaginable situation, and we know that.Lee's point is that most of us can handle even the worst imaginable situation, and we know that.

At sunset, after a couple of hours of classroom time, Lee moves us out to the still-scorching range area. There we start on his most basic exercises: throttle, braking and shifting exercises designed to teach us smoother control inputs and how to settle the machine's suspension before cornering. Like all of the ARC's exercises, these are done in incremental steps until we feel we have mastered them.

After a short break to cool off, we tackle a basic cornering exercise. Although I've been riding for 18 years and racing for over 10, I'm amazed at how clunky and slow I feel doing the low-speed exercises. But Lee is patient and we keep running through the exercises until late in the evening, when we are too tired and sweaty to concentrate. Because a large group of students cancelled at the last minute, the few remaining students and I benefit from Lee's increased attention.

The second evening we are back in the classroom to learn about suspension. Although I knew how to adjust static sag and understood the fundamentals of suspension, I had never really understood enough to set up suspension totally unassisted. Two hours spent talking about suspension with Lee changed that for good.

Lee adjusting suspension while Ryokan supervises. Lee takes the time to tell you what suspension really does, and why it needs to be adjusted properly. He shows graphs and charts of suspension rebound and damping, and what the adjustments do. For instance, I now understand why compression damping is less important to get right than rebound damping. The suspension section concludes with the students taking a stab at setting the suspensions on their own bikes, time permitting. A useful set-up sheet is provided for the students, along with a trouble-shooting guide.

Page 2With suspensions dialed in, we have renewed confidence to attack Lee's coned-off corners he's set up. After digesting our lessons from the prior evening, we're ready to drag knees in the second-to-last exercises: cornering and transitioning between two close, but opposite-direction turns.

This exercise is hard for me initially: I'm not looking all the way through the turns, nor am I "snapping" the bike in the way Lee wants us to. But I force myself to follow Lee's 10-part cornering instructions, and find myself cornering more smoothly and with greater lean angle than ever. It's startling how fast I can steer the big Triumph that I took to the class now. Suddenly, my knee slider is making scraping noises at very slow, parking lot speeds. Another student follows suit, and he is prouder of the new scars on his kness pucks as I am.

 The exercises conclude with Lee's low-speed U-turn technique. This is a skill I need to master, as I spend much of my time riding for MO doing photo passes and need a safe, fast and easy technique for quickly turning the bike around. Lee's method -- shifting your weight to the opposite side of the bike from the turn -- is easy to learn and effective, and soon we are all in our corners of the trHere's a safe and fun way to get your knee down for the first time. aining area, making tight, feet-up steering-lock U-turns like pros.

It's one thing to master a technique in a controlled training environment, but that doesn't mean the training applies to real-world activities. Scoring 1350 on your SATs doesn't mean you will automatically get a high-paying job or write a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. So I was eager to see how my new knowledge worked on the street.

Riding back to MO from Lee's house, I felt more confident and in control of the bike. A motorcycle seems to turn quicker and stop more smoothly using his techniques, and the riding experience seems just a bit more fun with the new knowledge. However, riding with my buddies on my local twisty roads, I didn't feel like I was really going much faster. But when I rode for the first time at the notorious Streets of Willow racetrack, which is just the kind of tight, bumpy pavement Lee aims at in his materiel, I felt much better equipped to ride on unfamiliar pavement than I ever had before.

Was it worth it? At $295, Lee's course costs more than a trackday but includes lunch (with the one-day course) and has a very high student-to-teacher ratio of 6 to 1. The course is well designed and fun, but because of time constraints, it really can't cover all the techniques mentioned in the book, nor does it allow the students enough time to really practice and perfect the techniques that are taught. It isn't a substitute for a racetrack school, nor is it intended to be one. However, it does address the gap in motorcycle training successfully. Lee doesn't require leathers or a fancy, race-prepped sportbike. He doesn't promise to turn you into an expert roadracer. Instead, he promises -- and delivers -- to teach the rider how to be smoother, more confident and more in control of her motorcycle in all types of riding.

After working at industry magazine Motorcycle Product News for a two-year stint, Lee next took an opportunity to work at Motorcycle Consumer News, a smaller, subscription-based publication. After less than a year there, he was promoted to group editor, not just for Motorcycle Consumer News, but also for some of the publisher's other magazines. In the next five years, this ambitious young man made his mark on Motorcycle Consumer News, putting his roadracer slant on what had been a more cruising and touring-oriented publication.

During this time, Lee developed methods for evaluating gear and motorcycles in a more organized and consistent manner, with the "Cycle-Stats" forms for motorcycles and the "MCN best buy" for products. He also spent plenty of time watching other riders and racers on the track and on the s"I'm helping people express themselves through motorcycling." -- Lee Parks treet, developing theories about how to best operate a motorcycle. Lee left MCN in 2000 for an opportunity with another online magazine, which quickly went under.

Since that time, Lee has been self-employed, doing PR work for various companies (he's written BMW's motorcycle brochures), designing gear like his DeerSports gloves, writing a book on advanced riding techniques, and putting together a nation-wide network of Total Control Advanced Riding Clinics. Do all of these projects have a theme?

"I'm helping people express themselves through motorcycling." According to Lee, human beings need to express themselves, and they express themselves best when they are performing that activity with competence and verve. To Lee, the activity isn't as important as the quality of experience. "I'm good at riding motorcycles, so that's what I do." We get joy out of life when we do things well.

Why is this true? According to Lee, we are creatures composed of vibrations, as is everything i"I'm good at riding motorcycles, so that's what I do." - Lee Parks n the Universe: "Vibration is the core, the basis of everything, from Quantum Physics to anything else. We're composed of vibrations, so we have to find a way to express -- become a vehicle for -- those vibrations." When we are doing something we love, and are doing it right, we get in touch with these vibes, putting us in touch with the essence of the Universe, in effect reaching what many might call God. "I get a very similar experience while singing" says Lee.

That's why Lee is constantly striving to improve motorcycling for people. If he were inclined towards Catholicism, he might be a priest, using sacrament and prayer to help people feel that vibe, but motorcycling is what he does well, so he uses that to connect spiritually. "Motorcycling is a religious experience for me: it's my form of religious expression." says Lee. When folks are connected to the "core of everything", they are fulfilled and happy, and Lee can feel good about his role in the world.

So how does he help people become better riders and have better riding experiences? The first is through his riding gear and accessories. He wasn't able to find a glove that he liked, one constructed out of strong, comfortable deer hide and made with the features he liked to have. So he designed his own glove and started marketing it on the internet and at motorcycle events. He's also designing a full riding suit.

Lee has given a lot of thought to rider education, seeing, like many other riders, some serious holes and shortcomings in rider education in the United States. This education is aimed too much at teaching beginners the barest essentials to avoid crashing, or at those advanced riders who want to be Rickey Racer. The middle ground -- where most riders are -- is mostly unaddressed. Lee has given a lot of thought to rider education, seeing, like many other riders, some serious holes and shortcomings in rider education in the United States.

To make a quality motorcycling experience "accessible to the everyday man" Lee put together and wrote his book, Total Control-High Performance Street Riding Techniques. This book, published in 2003, has been a modest success, with sales of over 25,000 copies and editions in several languages around the world.

Total Control-High Performance Street Riding Techniques
(Illustrated. 159 pps. Motorbooks International. $24.95)

Lee's book is broken down into short, concise sections that are easy to reference and written in plain English. In Part One, Lee explains Chassis Dynamics: traction, steering and suspension. This is the physics of motorcycling, and Lee explains these ideas so simply and clearly I found myself slapping my forehead in realization so often I had to put on a helmet to avoid bruising. He uses math and physics sparingly, preferring to use concise, witty prose to explain how things work. His section on suspension is comprehensive, concise and understandable without being condescending. After this section, the reader will be better able to comprehend the technical concepts later in the book.

Lee walks you through each technique, rather than just saying something like, "ride smoother". Next, Lee tackles the most important part of going fast: Mental Dynamics. Here, he talks about fear, concentration, and having the right attitude; aspects which must be addressed before a rider seriously attempts to learn how to go fast.

With the rider's mental aspects squared away, we add to that by discussing at great length body positioning and control in Section Three: Body Dynamics. Lee makes it clear in his book that once the rider understands how a motorcycle is steered, and how to best steer the motorcycle, control and speed will come easily if the techniques in the book are practiced.

Page 3To that end, most of the concepts in this section have an accompanying exercise, complete with a diagram so the reader can go out on an appropriate course and practice. The exercises are well thought out and easy to implement; Lee has trained hundreds of students using them in his Total Control Advanced Riding Clinics.

Any sport requires mastering a series of skills. It's not enough for a basketball player to just dunk baskets from half-court: he must also be able to dribble, block, catch, and be in good physical condition. So just learning how to brake hard isn't enough to ride fast: the rider must also be proficient at throttle control, body positioning, line selection and shifting.

What Lee's section on body dynamics does is break down every rider skill needed to ride safely, quickly and smoothly on the street or track and teach it separately, so the reader may comprehend, practice and hopefully master each skill individually before they put it all together in the real world. "Most motorcycle authors never even mention fear; Lee talks about how to overcome and use it."

Now that the reader has a glimpse of all these skills, Parks moves on to the least important part of fast riding: the motorcycle. We all know that what you ride isn't as important as how you ride, a fact hammered home when the street squid on his R1 shows up for his first track day, only to be passed on the outside by an old lady on a Concours.

Nevertheless, our riding can be improved by good suspension setup and ergonomic adjustments, which Lee covers in Part Four along with aerodynamics and chassis tuning.

Finally, "tuning" the rider himself is covered with a section on rider fitness, riding gear and doing track days. The rider fitness section was especially welcome, as I have started and then stopped going to the gym when I became bored with a workout routine that didn't seem relevant to motorcycling. Lee suggests a workout regimen designed to help you ride faster, smoother and longer. All without a prescription.

This worksheet makes suspension setup understandable. Lee's section on riding gear is as good as the rest of the book. Parks recommends a balance between comfort, convenience and protection, as he recognizes that the most protective riding gear does a person no good at all if it's too uncomfortable or inconvenient to wear. "Making an educated decision on riding gear requires an understanding of quality, materials, and construction." says the ex-products testing guru.

Parks winds up his book by not just recommending a track day as the next step in rider education, but also by answering many of the common questions new riders have about attending one. Trackday structure, etiquette, and bike preparation are covered. And as a bonus, Lee has some useful appendixes about bike prep, a list of track day and school organizers, how to set up your garage and contact information for his favorite aftermarket suppliers.

Obviously, Lee can't teach you to ride like him in 159 pages. But like any self-help book, Total Control gives the reader a good starting point and lets her know that motorcycling is a sport, with conventions, wisdom and technique available for the novice, intermediate or expert rider. "There's a nice, comprehensive section on riding gear."

What's so special about Lee's book, when there are already many excellent books on this topics? Unlike most fast riders and racers, Lee can translate the instinctive understanding of how to make a motorcycle go around corners quickly into human language, communicable to the novice or expert rider. He does this by breaking down all the facets of speed into digestible, comprehensible steps.

But it's clear that the book is there just to whet your appetite for more training. To that end, Lee is training instructors all over the country -- and the world -- in his Total Control Advanced Riding Clinic (ARC) techniques so he can franchise his school and not have to spend much of his life traveling. His ARC schools promise training and techniques to supplement and expand on what the MSF teaches in their RiderCourses. With sales of his book expected to hit 100,000, Lee hopes to create a huge market for his ARCs.

Lee approaches motorcycling with practical modesty. Instead of a vast stable of the latest, fastest streetbikes you would expect a champion roadracer and motorjournalist to have, Lee's garage has only a well-worn, much modified late-'80s Honda Hawk. He also still has his SV650 racebike he won the WERA national endurance championship on. He uses a Nolan flip-up helmet to facilitate teaching, and his trusty Aerostich from his MCN days. For dirtbikes, he has a YZ250 and a YZ426 with supermoto wheels he uses for racing at the nearby Grange Super TT circuit, as well as a few strays that friends leave in his garage.

"Can you imagine doing this in LA?" - Lee ParksLee's demeanor switches back and forth from that of a spiritual guru uninterested in worldly possessions to that of a mercenary businessman looking for the next get-rich-quick scheme. On the truck ride from Apple Valley to Phoenix for one of his ARCs, we go from discussing his spiritual journey studying Taoism or Werner Erhard to his research into sensory deprivation tanks. But you never get the impression he's unfocused, insincere or looking to rip anybody off; he's just displaying American optimism and enterprise, a sincere belief that the next thing he tries or discovers will be the best thing ever.

Lee takes particular pleasure in firing his police-model Remington shotgun in his backyard. "Can you imagine doing this in LA?" he asks, as I'm figuring out how to load the DayGlo-orange clay disc into his launcher. He hollers "pull", and I yank the lanyard, launching the "pigeon" into an arc along his property line. Lee draws a bead, fires, and the disc flies into pieces. "I can shoot off a dozen boxes if I wanted to. Living in most places, there'd be a SWAT team here in minutes. I just don't understand why anybody would want to live in the city."Lee tells Gabe how it's done.

I point out that learning how to shoot is much like learning how to ride a motorcycle fast, with drills and reinforcement of muscle memory becoming second-nature until the shooter can just focus on a few things, and have a pure experience. Lee nods and tells me about Zen and the Art of Archery, a pre-WWII book by Eugen Herrigel recounting the author's quest to understand Zen Buddhism better by studying Archery under a Japanese teacher. When everything is right, when all the techniques are mastered, the student simply steps aside and lets the process take place: as Herrigel describes; "it shoots." It's the same firing a rifle; when the shooter masters all the techniques, like breath control, trigger pull, and a good supported firing position, he needs to do nothing but focus on these techniques and almost as if by magic, a hole appears in a piece of paper (or a person) 500 meters away.

Lee Parks Designs DeerSports Gauntlets Long Term Review

I've always been partial to deer hide gloves. The soft feel and great wear characteristics almost always deliver a comfortable, long-lasting experience. I wind up throwing my old deerskin gloves out not because they are worn, but because they are just too old and smelly to keep wearing, where my leather gloves get holes in the fingers and tear at the seams after just one or two seasons of heavy wear.

Unfortunately, deerskin gloves are usually made for cruiser and touring riders, without the extra protection and secure fit I like in a racing glove. I also like a light colored glove, so my hands are more visible when I signal -- and gesture -- in traffic.

One thing these gloves lack is armor, but Lee says there's a reason for this: "Popular carbon fiber knuckle guards turn into dangerously sharp shards of fiber-reinforced epoxy resin which can aggravate a wound", according to Lee's website. More injuries are caused by seam failures than by lack of armor or padding, which is also why Lee doesn't use Kevlar thread (which in a crash slices through leather like a knife through butter, according to Lee), and why the gloves have only four seams in their entire construction, all located in low-impact areas.Lee: "Balance the needs of those who don't wear gloves with those who demand racer-level protection."
After a month of wear the gloves had stretched to a perfect fit, the seams no longer irritated my fingers, and I commenced to enjoy many thousands of miles of happy glove-dom. They're comfortable enough to wear almost year-round in California, as the thick deerskin insulates against cold and heat, breathes well, and even keeps your hands dry in anything short of an extended ride in a drizzle.

The gauntlets are perfect for an Aerostich or riding jacket, but they do block airflow up your sleeves in hot weather. However, Lee also makes a short version of the gloves without gauntlets. The tan color has darkened and discolored with age, but Lee told me I could -- and should -- hand-wash the gloves occasionally to keep sweat and road grime from damaging the leather. I washed them in my kitchen sink recently, and they seemed to perk up quite a bit.

Additionally, the Velcro has worn out on the retention straps. Lee seemed puzzled that I had worn out the Velcro , so this might be unusual."The problem with Velcro  is that it wears out faster than the gloves do."

I would also appreciate padding on the sides and back of the gloves. Lee says most hand injuries result from abrasion, not impact, but I have fractured a bone in my hand with unarmored gloves. Lee is developing an armored glove that will feel as comfortable and unobtrusive as the DeerSports. These may prove to be the ultimate riding glove!

Lee's gloves are available through retailers or at his online store. They are a good value and an even better glove that I will enjoy for many years.

Lee believes he knows which techniques his students need to know to ride a motorcycle quickly and with confidence. And he can tell, at a glance, if a rider is practicing the techniques properly or not. Even when GP champion Valentino Rossi wasn't riding a distinctive bike, in distinctive leathers, Lee knew it was him anyway. "I could pick Valentino Rossi out from everybody else... he rides exactly the way I say he should ride; exactly how I talk about in the book." He also relates an anecdote about seeing himself on TV racing at Virginia International Raceway in borrowed leathers after his distinctive yellow and black leathers were stolen.

"I saw myself racing on Team Chicago, a cable TV show about motorcycle racing. At first I didn't recognize my new leathers and I thought, 'there's a guy with real good form. On closer examination, I recognized the bike and realized, 'hey, that's me.'" Lee holds that the best racers are more relaxed; they don't look like they are trying so hard. "The better you are, the less hard you're trying... you can always tell when someone is forcing something." Even though your high school coach always wanted you to try harder, the habitual winners always look focused but relaxed, like they are not trying very hard.

Watch Rossi effortlessly chase his competition until the last few laps of a GP race, only to pass them with ease at the last minute to see this illustrated.

That's easy for God-like racers like Rossi, but what about the rest of us, who often lose our passion and enthusiasm? How do you keep up an interest in motorcycling or other activities year after year? Lee talks about motocross champ Mike Rafferty: "Mike was asked the same thing and he told the reporter that you have to just 'keep the hunger.' When you're not riding, read about riding, think about riding, watch it on the TV. You have to maintain your passion for it."

Lee shows me how he keeps the hunger by suiting up for a session on his moto-cross course in front of his house. He rides a CR125; I hop on an XR100. He has me go round and round a pair of old tires, practicing sliding the rear knobbie in the dust and pushing the bike down and away from me to turn it while he plays with the tabletop jumps. "They're just the right size to clear with an XR100" he tells me as he heads off to jump them with the much faster 125. For the next hour, we go round and around the little track, with Lee always encouraging me to go faster, jump higher, carry one more gear before turning.

Then he rides to his back gate, swings it open and I follow him across the open desert behind his house, heading for the interstate in the distance. He leaps over berms and ruts with ease, hardly slowing down, as I struggle to just keep him in sight on the little XR. We climb up a steep embankment and cross some tracks."[G]o faster, jump higher, carry one more gear before turning."

We stop there, in between the I15 and some railroad tracks, watching the sun dip towards the horizon over the dusty desert. Lee surveys the landscape and tells me how he'd like to buy up the land and put in a road-racing course, mentioning the millions of potential customers in a 100-mile radius. As he talks, I get the sense of a man not just imagining a fun way to make money in the motorcycle industry, but a person who wants to make his part of the world perfect, a motorcycle utopia to help others find peace and fulfillment through motorsport.

What's your dream?

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