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

TotalControl

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.

The Wish List

santa_moto

My wife and I have a difference of opinion on gift-giving. In her family, it’s common to send out gift suggestions around birthdays and Christmastime. They come over the phone or via email from distant family, or they are dropped—maybe not an entire list but a single suggestion—into a conversation on a completely unrelated topic, seemingly innocuously, as if accidentally, usually with one’s back turned. I get it: you’re trying to help the other person out, who legitimately might have no idea of what you want. If this is a distant family member, that makes sense. But if it’s your spouse, well, you have to wonder how well your soulmate knows you.

I, on the other hand, love the element of surprise, and am willing to gamble my gift receiving in the hope of being pleasantly surprised. I also like giving gifts. I like the challenge of trying to think of that very thing someone has always wanted although he or she doesn’t realize it until the epiphany of opening my gift. My sister says I have gifting issues, but I say I’m just a kid at heart. The best part of Christmas is not the turkey dinner, the family visits, the work parties, the chocolates, sweets, egg nog, the smell of pine in the living room, the decorative lighting . . . no! It’s opening gifts, damnit! It’s getting to be both a kid again and Santa at the same time, if only for a morning.

It is therefore completely against my gifting policy to write this blog, which is a composite wish list of my most desired motorcycle gear. These are the things I would buy tomorrow if I happened upon about $4,000 and had my debts and mortgage paid and about three times what I actually have in my RRSP and child poverty worldwide was a thing of the past. It’s not meant so much as a wish list to my spouse or anyone else but a dream list to myself. Fortunately, I don’t need any of this stuff to fulfill my plans for next season, but they sure would make my journeys more enjoyable.

First up is a new seat. The BMW’s Rotax engine is the best thumper going, but their saddle sure does suck! I noticed it immediately upon going for my first ride. Well, what I noticed immediately is that the seat is sloped forward so it feels like the boyz are constantly crushed against the airbox. What took about another five or six hours on the seat to notice is that it’s not just the boyz that have complaint. After that first tour, when I put 800 kms. on the final day, I had a new tactile understanding of the term “saddle sores.” So if there’s one item I am somehow going to purchase at the beginning of next season, even if I have to sell body parts to get it, it’s the Touratech Comfort Seat, Extra High.

ttsaddle

Yeah, BMW has a comfort seat, but why reward them for putting a cheap seat on an otherwise excellent bike? I’m really happy with my Touratech panniers and I have a lot of confidence in this German company, which seems cut from the same cloth as BMW itself. I’m going to go with the extra high because I can easily afford another 2 inches on the height (my mom’s nickname for me is Longshanks), and it will change the ergonomics and make me less cramped. I would go with the FreshTouch version, which is covered in some technical material that somehow doesn’t retain heat as much as regular vinyl.

I plan to start some off-roading and I saw at the Simon Pavey school that motocross boots are mandatory for their courses, so a pair is on my list—not that I’m going to Pavey’s school in Wales, but I understand why he thinks they are necessary. The body parts most likely to be injured in a fall are your feet and lower legs, and when you are off-roading, especially learning to off-road, I imagine you fall a lot. The bike can fall on your leg or you can clip something like a trunk or rock when you plant a foot to corner. Now I don’t need a premium boot, not even an intermediate boot; an entry-level should do just fine and from the research I’ve done, Alpinestars is the brand. So on my wish list is a pair of Tech 1 AT’s.

tech1

If I were going higher end, I would probably get a pair of Sidi’s, but these are the only boots under $200 with a hinge/blade system for increased flexibility. I also like that they have a sewn sole, so you can have it replaced by your local cobbler when it wears out. The buckles are plastic but you can swap them out for the metal buckles found on the more expensive Tech 7’s if desired.

My next purchase will be an off-road helmet. I love my Arai Signet-Q touring helmet. It’s light, comfortable, really well ventilated, has the Pinlock anti-fog system, and SNELL certification, but . . . it was $800! I simply can’t afford another Aria helmet, even though the XD-4 is an amazing helmet. I went looking for something less expensive that wouldn’t be a huge sacrifice in quality and found a company named LS2 which makes quality lids at a fraction of the price of the big boys. The one I’ve got my eye on is the 436 Pioneer. It’s got a polycarbonate shell so it’s light, has a tonne of venting, an optically correct, fog-, UV- and scratch-resistant visor, a drop-down sun visor (great for touring), and is ECE rated. Best of all, it’s built for long-oval head shapes, which is what I have and right in line with the Signet-Q. I was so stoked about finding this helmet I almost bought one last summer but held back, hoping (praying?) they would release one in 2017 in a blue and white graphic to match my jacket. In writing this blog, I went to their site and lo and behold:

ls2_436

I’m a happy man.

Next up would be some auxilary lighting. That first tour to New Hampshire taught me that it’s not always possible to get to where you are going before sundown. Also that there are animals crossing the road at night. That road-kill incident sent me looking for secondary lighting and the Denali D4’s are on my wish list.

denali_d4s

These babies will send a beam almost 700 metres down the road in front of you. Better still, the combo beam and wide-angle lights also illuminate the surrounding roadside like it’s daytime. Because they are LED’s, they pull only 3 amps per pair. Wiring is easy, and you can wire them either into your high-beam switch or, as I might, a separate switch; I have an empty switch next to my four-ways that I could use or save for some fog lights. There is bike-specific mounting hardware so these will tuck in nicely at the top of my forks.

denali-mount

Okay, now we get into the practical stuff. Sleeping. If I’m going to camp while en route across the continent, I’m going to put the money I’m saving on motel costs toward the best inflatable mattress money can buy. My ultralight Thermarest is okay for 5 nights of canoe-camping, but for anything longer, especially when daytime concentration is essential to staying alive, I want a better mattress. I remember seeing one at La Cordée a few summers ago when I was buying a new mattress. It had a built-in pump, inflated I believe to about 4″ thick, was puncture resistant, and packed up smaller than a sleeping bag. Why, oh why, didn’t I buy it then? On my list is something like it. Suggestions, anyone?

Even more practical are tools for fixing a flat. So far I’ve been flirting with disaster. Anyone touring in remote areas has to carry sufficient tools to patch a puncture. Unfortunately, my bike uses tubed tires. The tubeless kind are so easy to fix with those plugs, but on a tubed tire you have to be able to remove the wheel, remove the tire, patch the hole, replace the tire, and re-inflate. The patching is the least of my worries. I’ve been patching bicycle tires practically since I was pre-verbal; it’s the other stuff that concerns me. I want to be able to break that bead and get the tire off and on without damaging the rim. On Adventure Rider Radio, I heard about BeadBrakR by BestRest Products. beadbrakrIt’s a series of tire irons that fit together to create a tool to leverage the tire off the rim. So you have your bead breaker and tire irons in one convenient pack. BestRest also produce the CyclePump to re-inflate the tire. Yes, you can use CO2 cartridges, but you only get one shot with them. The CyclePump is small enough to pack easily and runs on your 12V port, so if your patch isn’t perfect, or if for some reason you can’t patch the hole, you can use the pump repeatedly to get you to the nearest service centre or, if you’re really in the sticks, to phone service.

Speaking of safety, another little tool that I think would bring my wife peace of mind is the Spot Gen3. gen3_productIt’s a small, clip-on device that works with satellite technology to do a number of things. It can track your movement, so your wife will always know exactly where you are. Hmm . . . Okay, so don’t take it to your high school reunion then. Press another button and you can check-in with family to let them know you’re okay when out of cellphone range; it will send an email with GPS coordinates or a link to your location on GoogleMaps. This will be handy even on group rides to The States to avoid texting charges. Press another button to alert them you need help in non-life-theatening situations, and still another to hail the helicopter ambulance.  So if you’re planning a solo trip up to Deadhorse, AK, on the coast of the Beaufort Sea, as I am, this should be in your stocking.

Finally, we come to the most important items and the ones that, at about a thousand dollars apiece, will probably be on my list next Christmas too. I love my Joe Rocket leather jacket. I bought it as a starter jacket off eBay for a song and it’s been my one and only jacket so far. I zip the quilted liner in and out as needed, sometimes several times a day as temperature fluctuates, and throw a cheap rain jacket and pants over everything if the skies open up. But what I’d love, eventually, hopefully in this lifetime, is a Klim adventure jacket and matching pants.

Badlands.jpgKlim are the undisputed leaders in riding apparel and for good reason. They spend a lot of money on research and development, and all their products are premium quality. For example, the armour in their jackets is D30, which feels like soft, pliable rubber but molecularly stiffens upon impact; you can wrap this stuff like silly putty around your finger and then take a hammer and whack away to your heart’s content. And they’ve developed something called SuperFabric which is five times more abrasion resistant than leather with only half the weight. Gore-Tex means no need for an exterior waterproof jacket or zip-in liner. Warm in cold, wicking with vents in heat, this bad-boy is a one-jacket, climate control centre for four-season riding, and when the only thing separating you from the elements or the asphalt is your clothing, your jacket is the most important investment next to the bike itself. A Klim jacket will take me from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego in comfort and safety. I haven’t decided yet whether I want the Induction or, for a few hundred dollars more, the Badlands, but one thing I am sure of is that whichever model I eventually get, it will be in the hi-viz colour. When Marilyn and I drove the Cabot Trail a few summers ago, we definitely found the hi-viz jackets caught our eye at a distance. I don’t even think hi-viz comes at a coolness cost these days; rather, as I’ve claimed in a previous post, I think hi-viz is the new cool.

Most of these items are to set me up for the adventure riding I’m longing to try. Now I’ve got the bike and the licence, but if feels like those things are just a start. I remember during my first theory class in my licensing course, the instructor warned us that “this sport will latch onto your wallet worse than your ex-wife.” Having experienced the financial cost of one divorce, I almost fled the building. Now I see what he was talking about. But he continued by suggesting to pace ourselves, to “not go crazy” but slowly build up our gear. And to avoid a second divorce, that is what I’m going to do. In the meantime, a wish list is a fun way to dream and plan, research, and select, without the messy consequences of actually buying. Like window shopping.

No doubt your wish list is different from mine. What do you hope Santa leaves under the tree? Merry Christmas, and happy and safe travels in 2017.

The 11-Month Itch

'How sweet, he's smiling.  He must be dreaming about me.' (Man is dreaming about a motorbike).

It’s been 11 days, 12 hours, and 13 minutes since I last rode my bike. It sits in the shed, and once in a while I take it out and poke about with it, then put it back. Yesterday I got as far as putting my biking pants on and fetching my helmet before prudence caught up to me at the front door. It was a beautiful day, perfect weather, and there was nothing wrong with my bike. Why, you ask? Because here in Quebec, for the first 11 months after obtaining a learner’s licence, you have to ride accompanied by someone with a full licence, and the few people I know who ride have been busy. I’m in biker purgatory, limbo-land, the 11-month itch.

Obtaining your motorcycle licence here in Quebec is a complicated and expensive process. There are three separate exams—theory, closed circuit, and road—and you must take a course with a certified training school. There are theory classes, closed circuit practice, road practice with an instructor, accompanied riding—the whole process takes at least 12 months before you catch sight of the holy grail. It looks something like this:

motorycleprogram2015-2

I’ve got no problem with the theory test or taking a course. Such courses have been around for some time but are usually optional. Apparently they give you the equivalent of two years of experience, and as a teacher, I’m all for learning from more experienced people. I found the course extremely helpful in developing both the skills and road awareness necessary to stay safe, and I believe it foolhardy for anyone to ride a motorcycle without taking such a course.

Motorcycles are powerful, dangerous machines. Search YouTube for “newbie motorcycle fail” and you’ll see videos of people climbing on sport bikes before they barely know how to change gears and heading off on the road. You just know that’s not going to end well. Having an instructor take you through that learning curve will save you a lot of road rash. But the 11 months of accompanied riding does not make sense and here’s why.

I understand the rationale. According to statistics, a rider is almost twice as likely to have an accident in the first six months of riding as someone with over four years of experience. And many fatal accidents result from someone coming into a corner too hot and swinging wide into oncoming traffic. An experienced rider knows how fast to take a corner and has a better awareness of road hazards. He or she rides in front and can alert the newbie to potential dangers, as best as one can from the seat of another bike.

But there are several problems with this aspect of Quebec’s motorcycle licensing law. For one, it assumes that your escort is responsible, which is not always the case. A newbie could be peer-pressured into keeping up with a group of canyon carvers, which could actually cause a crash, and often does. What if, like me, you don’t have any (or many) friends that ride? Then the bike sits in the garage and you don’t get in much practice while muscle memory deteriorates. Then when you do get on the bike you are even more at risk until you regain familiarity with the controls. And what about after the 11 month period? According to the same statistics, a rider with 2-3 years of experience is even more likely to crash than someone who’s been riding for less than 6 months. Who’s going to save the “newbie” then?

The law groups all motorcyclists into one camp, but I’m not an 18-year-old with little or no experience with defensive driving. I’ve been driving a car for 35 years without even a fender-bender. Sure, I did some joy-riding in my youth; who hasn’t driven country highways at 100 mph with ski goggles on? But that was a long time ago, before that thing called “the internet” existed and smoking was fashionable. I think that clean driving record of 35 years should count for something. Surely it shows I can anticipate potential accidents and avoid the risks of sharing the road with unaware and aggressive idiots.

My dad was self-taught. When he went to buy the bike, the owner basically showed him how to change gears and brake. He said he drove home practically the entire way in 2nd gear. Then in the evenings, when traffic on his road dropped off, he’d drive up and down practicing. For his test, he had to drive around the block. When he returned, the evaluator stepped off the curb in front of him to test his emergency braking. And that was that. The next day he and my mom set off for Cornwall.

He only came off once, when a boy ran out from between parked cars in front of him. While I wouldn’t recommend this method of learning as the norm, it shows I think that, after you master the technical aspect of riding—an aspect I don’t mean to belittle—the rest is a matter of maturity and attitude. The same could be said for learning to drive a car; the only difference is that on a bike, the consequences are higher.

As for the technical aspect, what makes most sense to me is the stepped system used in the EU, where licensing is restricted by age, experience, and engine size. Roughly speaking, 16-18 year-olds can ride mopeds and 125cc bikes; 18-20 year-olds 250-400cc bikes (technically speaking, it’s restricted by horse power and power-to-weight ratio); then after 2 years of experience, one can get a full-power bike. As I understand it, if you start riding over 20, you still have to ride the smaller bike for two years before you can graduate up to a full-power bike.

This makes sense since the real technical difficulty of riding is a factor of power and weight. You shouldn’t be allowed to have all that power at your fingertips until you’ve mastered how to control it. It’s not just a matter of speed but controlling the throttle on turns so you don’t slide out the back end, and weight of course affects stopping distance. I couldn’t believe my ears when one of my fellow students at the course said he was going to buy a 1,700 cc bike upon graduating. He’d just finished swinging his leg over the school’s Honda CB125. “Dude,” I thought, “all 1700cc’s?” That’s a bigger engine than my son’s Toyota Echo!

I’m glad to read that the SAAQ recommended back in 2013 that the 11-month probation period be scrapped. It’s not working. It’s not enforceable and not effective. There has been considerable interest in the news lately about motorcycle fatalities. Let’s hope the Couillard government acts quickly to bring Quebec’s motorcycle licensing up to date with most other jurisdictions. Such changes would not only save others like me this excruciating waiting period but, more importantly, also save lives.

Safe vs. Cool. Where do you fall on the spectrum?

FoolCool

The first night of my rider training course, the instructor asked the class: “What colour helmet are you going to buy?” Three-quarters of the class said black. Then he said that’s the worst colour possible because it’s the same colour as asphalt. The most common thing a driver says to a motorcyclist lying on the road after being wiped out is “Sorry, man. I didn’t see you!” When the trick to staying alive is being visible, it would seem a no-brainer, so to speak, to get a colourful helmet.

What colour is the instructor’s helmet? Black, he admitted. What colour is mine? Black.

Yeah, it’s the Cool Factor that draws us to making stupid decisions, like smoking when we were teenagers, or donning no helmet at all when we hop on a bicycle. Something weird happens in the frontal lobe, the part of the brain that controls judgment, when we are presented with a safe vs. cool decision. It’s like the neuropathways short-circuit to cool, by-passing all the good reasons for choosing safe.

Let’s admit something. Motorcycles are cool. They’re fun, sure, but they are also pretty cool and part of the attraction of riding is that extra attention we get on the road. Drivers stare, pedestrians turn, dudes nod, kids wave. Suddenly we’re special, and all we had to do was buy and ride this dangerous machine. Now why would we want to pull the red carpet out from underneath our boots by sporting a hi-viz helmet?

But it’s not just about the helmet. On one of my first rides in road practice I saw cruise through my peripheral vision at 120 clicks what appeared to be two naked obese people on a Harley. I did a double-take and it turns out they were wearing swimwear, she rockin’ a string bikini. My imagination flashed to what all that flesh would look like if they ever went down. Don’t they know that the implement for removing gravel from under flesh is a wire brush? Not cool.

Or there are the guys on sport bikes with their T-shirts blowing half up their backs, riders with no gloves (even a tip-over at parking lot speed will take flesh down to the bone), passengers in flip-flops, bare arms, legs, etc. etc. Like being in the Canadian bush in June, any exposed skin is potential disaster. Why do we take such risks in the interests of being cool?

Why did I choose a black helmet? Honestly, because it was 30% off and all the store had in stock, and 30% of $800 is not nothing. I used the store credit to buy kevlar jeans which completed my gear (I already had jacket, gloves and boots) from fingertips to toes, so I know if I do go down I’m at least protected to some degree from road rash. Then I went looking online for hi-viz stickers I could add to the helmet. Not all reflective stickers are the same, I discovered, and the ones I bought comply with NFPA requirements; if they’re good enough to reflect in a dark and smokey building, they’re good enough to illuminate me in a dark tunnel. And being fluorescent yellow-green, they are pretty eye-catching even in daylight. No one is going to have the excuse they didn’t see me.

“You won’t find any stickers on my helmet,” one of the younger riders in my club said. Maybe you have to be over 40, already resigned to the loss of a good portion your coolness, before safety starts to make sense. Maybe it’s because you start to value the years you have left all the more that you want all of them and are willing to trade a little coolness to shift the odds that you will. Maybe it’s how you define “cool” that shifts.

When I see riders in shorts and T-shirts, I can’t help thinking “Amateur Hour”; serious riders wear ATGATT (All the Gear All the Time). Besides, my Joe Rocket leather jacket with its CE approved shoulder pads makes me look like the football player I never was, and the knuckle armour of my Five gloves turns me into James Caan in Rollerball. Now that’s cool!