Lee Parks' Total Control Advanced Riding Clinic Review

Jeff Cobb
by Jeff Cobb

Depending on your current level of riding proficiency, Lee Parks’ Total Control Advanced Riding Clinic stands to at least help you enjoy your motorcycle more, and very possibly could improve you as a human being and even save your life.

Sounds kind of dramatic, doesn’t it?

Admittedly it does, but then, if you’re in the habit of riding a machine that at any moment could end the day very badly, but if done correctly could add to your personal happiness, we would argue it’s not exaggeration to put it in such stark terms.

For those of you who don’t know, Lee Parks has been holding his one- and two-day street-oriented clinics on parking lots around the country since 1999.

Lee Parks explains to me something I did wrong in one of the many parking lot exercises we did. That happened a lot. I tried not to argue too much, and just played grasshopper and let sensei teach me the way to motorcycling enlightenment.

The former WERA national champion road racer and motorcycle journalist has since turned out over 7,000 students, also runs a successful motorcycle products design company, and franchises his unique clinics to 20 rider training companies in 26 domestic locations as well as England. The Total Control Advanced Riding Clinics are also part of the U.S. Marine Corps mentorship program worldwide.

Class sessions were held in the trailer. Then we’d all gear up, and apply the lessons learned on the tarmac.

Although undoubtedly there’s a profit motive involved, Parks is first a philosophically driven evangelist for proper motorcycle riding form, proficiency, and an advocate for constantly improving the art and science of motorcycle riding.

His energy and passion are continually evident, as he speaks of riding as being for him a religious experience, a “lazy man’s Zen,” and he quotes eastern philosophers when trying to get his message across.

His lessons are a synthesis of examples set by some of the best riders and instructors in the business, and his devotion makes him a perfectly congruent and plausible character to learn from, no matter what your level of skill.

In short, Parks’ 8-9 hour classes are played out summaries of the five sections and 21 chapters of his book, Total Control, High Performance Street Riding Techniques.

Thanks to Kawasaki for the loan of its powerful and sweet-handling ZX-10R. This bike fits me like a glove, and is one of my favorite literbikes.

Last month I had opportunity to take Parks’ Level 1 and Level 2 classes at a large grippy parking lot in Irvine, Calif. on a 2010 Kawasaki ZX-10R on loan from Kawasaki. I shared the class with about 18 other students, including half a dozen Canadian motorcycle instructors who’d all trekked down to become certified to teach Parks’ techniques back home in Edmonton, Alberta.

As members of the TNT training school, they will be the first Canadian franchisees of Parks’ unique methods, and another feather in his cap as his curriculum grows on an international scale.

Approaching Total Control

I’ve been riding for about 30 years. I raced a GSX-R750 for a few years in WERA–sanctioned events on the East Coast in the late ’80s, and have always been an aggressive sportbike junkie. I’m largely self-taught, but not undisciplined. There was a time when I made Keith Code’s A Twist of the Wrist my dog-eared guide as I regularly and systematically practiced braking, cornering and accelerating in parking lots, as well as the street and track.

So coming to Parks’ class, I figured I might learn something, but frankly, was kind of neutral on the whole topic, although determined to at least keep an open mind.

First thing I did was read Parks’ book. It is not a prerequisite, but it makes absorbing the combined classroom and parking lot lessons much easier.

In reading Total Control, a lot was familiar, but some of it was truly original, and other sections covered topics that filled in gaps for areas I was sketchy on. Overall it was clear and easy to understand. No overly-complex math or physics needed to be assimilated to get what Parks was trying to explain about the dynamics of handling a motorcycle. It was all a good reminder and presently, I’m re-reading it because this is one of those books where it pays to do so.

Learning techniques at zero mph is the first step. As you can see, it’s a group effort, and the interaction served as a sort of bonding session. No one I talked to had anything negative to say about Total Control, or lessons taught.

Although it’s a street-oriented course, Parks’ approach is to take lessons learned on the race track and apply them not only for sportbike riders, but also those who may ride a Gold Wing, BMW or Harley, or the like, who may never intend to get on a track.

Parks says that when he was editor for Motorcycle Consumer News from 1995-2000, the need to develop the course became evident after numerous letters came in asking for direction and further training.

“I was getting all these complaints from our readers saying, look,” Parks recounts, “I took the [MSF] basic course, I took the experienced course. I don’t want to go racing, but I want to get better. What else is there?”

They wanted to improve as street riders, he says, and wanted to feel more in control of their machines.

“So I just got tired of people complaining about that, and I said, ‘you know what, I’m just going to go ahead and do this,’” Parks says, adding his professional experience had been the ideal preparation to make it happen. “I was fairly lucky, I got to deal [with] and edit stories from Keith Code and David Hough. What I noticed was they all had interesting things to add to the lexicon, but none of them really completely cracked the code.”

So that is what Parks says he did (with presumably no pun intended). He synthesized what he had learned practicing and editing the best techniques, added his own thoughts on the topic, and created the Advanced Riding Clinic.

Instructor Terry Watts’ job was to be the ideal form model. First he’d demonstrate a technique like trail braking or hanging off, etc., incorrectly, then he’d do it textbook for us all to emulate.

The Class

Early on a Saturday morning, I found my way to the massive tract of asphalt Parks and company had rented and insured for the weekend.

I was particularly fortunate in that this course was taught by Parks himself, and some of his best instructors, including Terry Watts, a former Marine who also trains his fellow Marines as well as Army soldiers as his full-time job, and Tracy Martin, who has written a few motor books himself, helped Parks develop his curriculum, and also trains Marines in a pilot project Parks has with the U.S. military.

These guys and Parks’ other instructors rounded out a 6:1 student-to-instructor ratio, and have just the right attitude of assertiveness but respect – and they obviously know how to ride motorcycles well.

Crank that big thing over. No matter what you ride, Parks can make you sharper, if you’ll listen and apply what he and his instructors teach.

The course started with our group of students – more than a third of them instructors themselves – sitting inside Parks’ trailer where he warmed us to the idea of taking on the eastern concept of a “beginner’s mind.”

His lessons are as much hard science mingled with practical philosophy and the somewhat esoteric, including references to the working of the subconscious mind, principles of faith (in the machine), what really happens in the dynamics of motorcycle handling, psychological reasons why we choose to ride, how we see, and much more.

Level 1 is essentially half of his book summarized. Although sometimes Parks will allow a greater space of time between them, in this case, Level 2 was offered the very next day, and consisted of the other half.

Parks says the respective classes’ curricula are tried and set, but he and his instructors have ability to size up a particular group and concentrate as needed on skills that might require extra time.

For example, he says, if the class happens to consist of Gold Wing and BMW riders, they may need more work in one area than others. In contrast, if the class is all sportbike riders, they may want work in other areas.

What’s unique is Parks is not constrained by the tame limitations of the Motorcycle Safety Foundation. For instance, he teaches proper hanging off, and in his book he cites Noriyuki Haga’s extreme body positioning as picture-perfect style.

This said, if you troll past a cop hanging off like this, you may risk being pulled over, but Parks says while he teaches this and other techniques considered taboo by the MSF, you’ll not need to use them to their fullest unless you’re on a race circuit.

Canadian instructor Chris Bulger plays the role of student as he demonstrates proper form circumnavigating the 40-foot cone layout. As a longtime street rider, it defied my instincts to take my eyes off the road and look straight through the circle like this and not at least keep one eye on the direction of travel.

I really like his practical approach for this reason and more. It’s realistic. What it does is it gives the student the ability to expand the performance envelope and give more discretionary abilities to master the bike than might ever be needed – but if desired, the skills will be there.

That adds up to safety, and “total control,” which is defined as being able to put the bike where you want to, when you want to, and how you want to.

And to be perfectly frank, a lot of riders do want to ride to reasonably high limits on the street, and will do it regardless. Parks’ class is of practical value because it at least gives them the ability to do so with a greater margin of safety.

Lee Parks, Terry Watts (center) and Tracy Martin (right) show how to set sag, rebound and compression damping on what Parks said was the most blinged out motorcycle to have come through his classes. This R1 had been kitted with Ohlins suspension, motor work, and carbon fiber everything, including wheels, brakes, fairing.

He and his instructors also teach hard braking, trail braking, speed shifting, matching engine and wheel speed while downshifting, factors about tire traction, how to thoroughly set up suspension, and, basically most things racers know but techniques you’ll never learn from the politically correct and excessively legal liability fearful MSF.

Parks’ course basically consists of classroom sessions alternated with parking lot sessions to immediately practice what’s just been learned in theory.

This pic catches me at a moment of far less than ideal form. I’m looking straight ahead, my inside arm is stiff, my body’s centerline is too close to the centerline of the bike. Performing under the watchful eye of instructors made me self-conscious.

Students are also given info from Race Tech suspension services, and at the end of the day get an exclusive discount card from Race Tech which can help offset some of the courses’ $295-$350 cost (depending on location) if they take advantage of it.

If you’re a sportbike rider, Parks’ clinic could also be a perfect transition toward a free-for-all track day or prior to beginning racing. It is essentially racing lessons for street riders, and it comes from people who can back up their talk with action.

I will admit I had a hard time with at least one of the lessons. It was a bit frustrating and humbling trying to cut a 40-foot circle around small orange traffic cones looking way far ahead of the front wheel (basically all the way to the other side of the circle).

I also realized I need to work on my form, as well as flexibility, and it goes to show high-performance riding is a very physically demanding sport.

Even recalcitrant students like me can improve. Here is something closer to good form. Now, going forward I’ll be working on improving this style, developing “muscle memory” so it becomes second nature regardless of who’s watching. Except the cops, that is …

Interviewing others, I learned I was not alone.

My experience was mirrored by Darryl Thompson, who says he’s been riding for 47 years and has taught thousands of riders in Western Canada for 31 years. I asked if Parks’ course was a new learning experience and, like everyone else I talked to, he responded resoundingly in the affirmative.

“Oh my gosh, oh my gosh yes.” he says. “I expected it to be challenging; it was. And it was definitely worth the time and money. I came down from Canada to take the course, and I would recommend it to anybody regardless of how long they’ve been riding.”

This same sentiment was echoed by Merrill Knowles, also one of the TNT instructors. Her husband is a former auto racer and race director at a track in Canada, and her 8- and 12-year-old boys are both involved in racing cars and motorcycling.

Although she comes from a background of motorsports, and has ridden eight years, I asked if she learned anything new this weekend.

“Absolutely, she replied, “I learned how to trust the motorcycle, trust myself. I got my knee to the ground (laughs), so apparently that’s the hype of the course to give that cornering control.”

Knowles says she was gratified to have faced her fear head on, and although she’d told her friends she’d never slide her backside off the seat, she did just that, was now a better rider for it, and may next be looking into doing a track day.

Students would line up, and then receive feedback immediately after the exercise.

Fact is, I suspect a lot of people could benefit from a Total Control Advanced Riding Clinic. Many people just start riding and never get proper training. They may do okay and think everything’s fine, but then, they may never know what they are missing.

Maybe that’s why with the increased number of riders on the road in the U.S., the safety record has been abysmal for the past decade, even when factored for increased registrations.

Terry Watts gives feedback to TNT school owner, Chris Bulger, following a hard-braking exercise.

There are several reasons for the mediocre safety record, including unprecedented distracted driving, and larger vehicles on the road to potentially crash into. But as Parks also points out – and as most experienced riders already know – today’s machines have gotten better and faster, but human beings are still the same.

Talking with him about his past racing, he recounted the time when he bought a ‘60s 250cc Suzuki X6 Hustler for vintage events, and in researching his new (old) ride, managed to find the original Cycle World review of the bike.

Parks quoted the article saying, “the Suzuki X6 Hustler does the quarter mile in a scorching 14.9 seconds. Clearly this is not a bike for beginners.’” Now think about that, Parks says, “It’s hard (now) to find a bike that’s even that slow. And yet this was considered way too fast for beginners back in the ‘60s. Now has the human condition changed since the ‘60s? What’s changed is our expectations of ourselves to get on new motorcycles and operate them safely.”

Or put in aviation terms, aspiring pilots might start on a single-engine Cessna. “Try to buy an F-16 and people would think you are insane,” Parks says, yet a 1000cc sportbike is the equivalent on two wheels. “These are really race machines with lights.”

The ZX-10R performed flawlessly. Parks says literbikes are more challenging than smaller bikes for low-speed, tight maneuvers.

But if that’s what you ride, don’t worry. Parks won’t lecture you about it. He will simply teach you to handle it better. The same goes whether you ride a tourer, motard, cruiser, or what have you.

And his motivation?

“I really feel like I make the world a better place one motorcyclist at a time,” Parks says, “I think that if you can help someone have a more enjoyable experience on the motorcycle, they’re going to be happier. And if they’ve had good experience on the bike, they’re going to go home and they’re gong to be better people; they’re going to be better husbands and wives, and kids and employers and employees and friends and relatives and so forth.”

Parks has the phrase “Freethinker” stitched on the back of his baseball-style cap. From what I could discern after several long and candid conversations, this is not idle boasting.

Every kind of bike is welcome. In fact, this class was first developed for street riders.

But no matter how good his class may be, a lot depends on the students’ willingness to pay attention, and then apply what is taught.

As Parks says, the classes are only a primer. I would say they’re akin to mental orthodontics for a day: they forced me into ideal form. From here, I’ll still be applying his lessons and working on my form if I really expect to benefit from them long term and actually improve as a rider.

“The thing is, have we given you the tools to be able to recognize what you are doing wrong and what you need to work on?” Parks asks, “No one is going to become a master in a day, or two days, or even a year or even 10 years. You know this is something that takes a long period of time.”

But then some riders he knows became more proficient in one year, he says, and are already instructing others, compared to other riders who’ve had 40 years to work on it and whose skills are only mediocre.

As many of you experienced riders know, Parks acknowledges eye-hand coordination, spatial awareness, dexterity, and mind-body control are all innate talents that are starting points, thus everyone’s progress will be different. What he does is take students from where they are – in need of some work – and offers a “clinic” for their riding that may be “a little bit sick.”

Tracy Martin’s lesson about suspension setup was easily worth the price of admission. Do you know how to dial in your suspension so your bike is optimally set up? After this class you will.

If you think you may be interested in the Total Control Advanced Riding Clinic, read Parks’ book first. If you are willing to adopt a “beginners’ mind” and be a student all over again, you probably won’t be disappointed.

Everyone among the more than a half-dozen students I interviewed, and myself included will agree: there’s “no such thing as too much training,” and being a lifelong learner only makes you safer, increases your chances to have more fun, and ideally, total control.

Related Reading
Better Living Through Motorcycling
2003 Lee Parks Design DeerSports Gloves
Mongrels to Mecca
American Supercamp Riding School Review
Master the Street
DVD Review: “Twiddling Knobs”

Jeff Cobb
Jeff Cobb

More by Jeff Cobb

Join the conversation