Off Road, On Course


Photo Credit: Red Sky Adventures

When I was a kid, I would go to police auctions to buy my bikes and bike parts. These were auctions of the stolen, then recovered but unclaimed bikes. You could enter a large area before the auction where all the bikes were ticketed with a number and on display to inspect them before the auction began. Then noting the number of the bike you were interested in, you’d wait until it came up for auction. My outbidding with my paper route money some father always elicited some snickers in the crowd.

I always looked for a certain type of bike. Basic. Didn’t matter the colour, because I’d paint it later, always black. Didn’t matter the condition, because I’d strip it down to the ball bearings, clean and re-grease everything before putting it back together. A little steel wool and elbow grease removed any rust from the rims. Didn’t matter the handlebars or the tires because I would change them, putting on wide handlebars and knobby tires. I was making my own motocross bike.

Then we would go to the little forested park near my house and race them. We built berms and jumps. We also dug up a few suburban front lawns with our terrorizing of the neighbourhood. I learnt how to wheelie and we had competitions with that too. I could wheelie the entire street if I got a good one going. When Evel Kneivel attempted to jump the Snake Canyon in 1974, I was eleven. It didn’t matter that the jump itself was a disappointment. All the hype leading up to the jump led us to start jumping our bikes—really jumping. We built ramps by turning a municipal steel garbage can on its side, wedging rocks behind it to stop it rolling, and laying scavenged wood on top. I bent a few back wheels doing those jumps, but never broke a bone. No one ever wore a helmet in those days, but the Gods smiled on us. The worst of it was some serious road rash.

Eventually I gave up the custom 3-speeds and bought a 12-speed Supercycle mountain bike from Canadian Tire. I must have put half a million miles on that bike, especially the summer I was a bike courier in London, Ontario. That bike still lives, repainted black, of course, with red pin-striping from Canadian Tire down the side.

So when I went to buy a motorcycle, I knew I wanted a dual sport. Yes, I want to tour, but I also want to play. And it had to be black.

On Friday, going in to the long weekend, I decided to get my ya-yas out and go for a ride, my first full day ride since getting the bike out of storage. I headed toward Ontario, taking my favourite route out, which puts me in Lancaster. There’s a short story I know by Hugh Hood called “Getting to Williamstown” in which the narrator describes in detail a drive to Williamstown, ON, just north-west of Lancaster. The story was written in the 70’s. Would the road he describes still exist? The one-lane bridge? The gas station with ice-cream? I was curious.

What does any of this have to do with off-roading? By going to Williamstown, I stumbled into my first off-road ride. While exploring those concession roads, I saw a dirt road leading off of the main road. I turned around and studied the sign at the entrance. No cars, but to my surprise, snowmobiles, ATVs, and motorbikes allowed! It didn’t look that hard.

It wasn’t . . . for the first 100 metres. No sooner had I started when I came to a section completely washed out, a huge puddle of muddy water spanning the width of the trail. I knew enough from watching YouTube that you don’t try to skirt the puddle by sneaking around the side; that only leads to the tire sliding out sideways and you and the bike going down. You have to go through the centre, hoping it’s not too deep and that there are no big rocks or logs down there. I stopped and pondered. Turn back or risk forward? The trail looked clear ahead except for this puddle. I did the imprudent thing and went for it.

It’s hard to estimate how deep it was. In the moment, I was concentrating so hard I didn’t take note. But it’s an unnerving feeling heading into the centre of a puddle the depth of which you do not know. (If I had had my adventure boots on, I might have waded in to find out first.) I knew that if I’m going for it, there are no halfways and I didn’t want to be tentative. So I gave it some throttle and saw water plough up around the fairing—probably easy stuff for an experienced rider but not so easy for a newbie. Safely across, I whooped into my helmet.

The trail beyond was a mixture of dirt, gravel, with sections of larger rocks that were tricky. I found it difficult to operate the throttle smoothly from a standing position and shifting was awkward. This would take some getting used to. After a brief foray into 2nd gear, I decided to keep it in first. This was, after all, my first time off road. At one point, I passed a father and son going the other way on ATVs.

There were other sections washed out—not one big puddle as before but several muddy puddles to navigate through. I thought of shooting rapids and skiing moguls, how you have to look up ahead and select your best line through. I could feel the bike sliding around beneath me but kept my cool, my weight over the bike, and my hand off the brake. I was nervous but tried not to grip the handlebars tightly, letting them and the bike move around. And I understood why you’re supposed to steer the bike by weighting the pedals rather than turning the handlebars, because even at that speed, when it’s that slippery, turning the bars can lead to the front wheel washing out. It was exhilarating!

I’m convinced that during those sections when the bike was sliding around under me, I was drawing on muscle memory from those early years on my bicycle. It’s the same principles, just a lot more weight involved. I’m hoping this might be something I take to easily, even at this “advanced” age.

I probably shouldn’t have been doing that alone. When I spoke to my dad later in the day, he said the same. Even at that speed, anything can happen. If the bike lands on you, you could break a leg and then you’d be hooped. So I messaged my off-road partner and suggested we go back together. I also looked up on Google Maps the trail and discovered I only rode a small section of it; it continues in the other direction all the way into Quebec and ends near Saint Polycarpe. In June, I’m going to the DirtDaze Adventure Rally in Lake Luzerne, NY, where I’ll get some beginner’s instruction and go on some guided rides down there. I also plan to do the full day adult course at SMART Riding Adventures.

It’s going to be a fun summer.

Review of Total Control: High Performance Street Riding Techniques, by Lee Parks


Can you improve your riding from reading a book? No, but if you practice and apply some of the information presented in Parks’ book, you will. This book is less about road safety than riding technique, so if you’re looking to avoid a collision, see my review of David Hough’s Proficient Motorcycling, which deals with this subject. In fact, Hough cites Parks’ book, and the two have collaborated in the past. Where Hough leaves off, Parks picks up and takes you a step further.

Looking at the cover image, you’d think this book is for sport bike riders. It is, and it isn’t. Most of the techniques presented are definitely meant for the track but can be applied to any type of riding to improve safety and proficiency. It’s not all about safety. If you want to stay safe, stay at home. Sometimes you just want to get around a corner faster, or ride with more advanced riders. There are photos here showing guys dragging a knee on a Gold Wing or a V-Strom, getting air on a GS. It doesn’t matter what your ride is or what type of riding you do, Total Control will have something for you.

The book is nicely organized into sections on Chassis Dynamics, Mental Dynamics, Body Dynamics, Machine Setup, and Rider Setup, with chapters within those sections. I’d say the heart of the book is the section on Body Dynamics, which contains chapters on vision, line selection, throttle control, shifting, braking, body positioning, low-speed turns, and riding two up. Now before you say, “Yeah, we learnt all that in my training course,” let me say we are talking here about advanced techniques, so very subtle and technical aspects of those skills.

We all know about target fixation, but do you know it’s related to us being predators? We know about straightening a curve, but what about premature initiation? (No, this is not a sexual gaff.) How to handle a double apex curve? In the chapter on shifting, I learnt how to preload the shifter, and in my next ride I was shifting quicker and smoother. Another technique I found interesting is trail braking, a technique in which at a point in the corner you are braking and accelerating at the same time! The idea is essentially that since braking makes the bike nose-dive and accelerating lifts the front end, you can use these opposing forces to cancel each other out and stabilize the bike through the corner: “The technique has us simultaneously rolling off the throttle while applying the brakes going into a corner. Once in the corner we start to slowly roll on the throttle as we slowly trail off the brakes,” hence the term “trail braking.” Now before you scoff and dismiss, Parks says that “virtually every MotoGP and World Superbike racer—as well as every motor cop—now uses this technique: so try it before judging it.” And Parks would know. He was 2nd overall in the 1994 AMA Superbike Championship (125GP class) and won the 2001 WERA National Endurance Series Championship. He’s an accomplished rider and knows of what he speaks.

Another interesting bit of information I found in this book is the suggestion to try cornering with one hand. You’d think he was being foolhardy, but in fact he claims that often our two arms are fighting each other through a corner, and allowing one hand (presumably the throttle hand) to take full control actually improves steering. But be careful! Parks says the first time most people try this they oversteer. The book is filled with other such tidbits of useful information. I won’t give all the goods away.

Chapters at the back deal with riding gear and fitness. I’m excited to try a 6-10 minute high-intensity training program designed specifically for bikers by strength trainer Timothy Parravano. It involves only 4 exercises and the only equipment needed is a chin-up bar. In just 6 minutes, you get core strengthening and an anaerobic cardio workout.

The book is extremely technical but is well illustrated with diagrams and graphs. Still, I found some material more theoretical than my needs. For example, there’s an entire chapter on how suspension works from an engineering standpoint. Do I need to know this? I’m really only interested in setting up my suspension for the best ride possible, which comes in a separate chapter. And the chapter on aerodynamics? I’m not going to be tucking behind a tiny windscreen on any of my rides. This is where the book’s leaning toward sport bike racing shows. If you’re like me, you can skim those sections.

The book is now in its second edition and has become a classic. Anyone interested in improving their skills should pick it up. I liked the pep talk by Parks in the epilogue as he waxes philosophic, drawing on his interest in Buddhism. (Illustrative Buddhist aphorisms and parables are smattered throughout the book.) “In a special sense, the reason you are reading this is because your riding is a little bit “sick.” When you are sick, the doctor prescribes medicine. The problem is we get addicted to the medicine. But medicine is not food for a motorcyclist. Brilliant riding is food. The purpose of medicine is so that you don’t need the medicine. The purpose of a teacher is so that you don’t need a teacher. The purpose of method is so you ultimately don’t need a method. In Japan, if you have spent too much time with a particular master you are said to “stink” of Zen. You can think of Total Control as the medicine you need to overcome your sickness.”

Most people may not have the humility to think of their riding as “sick,” but if you’re like me—always interested in improving whatever you do—this book is for you.