Joined: Sep 2002
Location: On the road somewhere...
Thursday, April 29, 2004
Honing in the Passion
My first experience with a motorized two-wheeled vehicle was at the age of twelve, exactly forty years ago. The fever has never subsided, only intensified. And one might assume that much time straddling rolling iron steeds has made me an authority. Actually, I always knew the racetrack and off-road pros could teach me a lot. What I did not realize until last weekend was just how much.
With my ticket already paid for, a lifetime dream of a world ride is about to begin June 20th, 2004 in Vladivostok, Siberia. Four continents later I’ll traverse the length of Africa. After a rough and mostly unpleasant ride two years ago at 17,000 feet on the Bolivian Altiplano, I had promised myself to seek professional help. Aware of the rough roads ahead in Asia and Africa, I had my eye out for something to tune me up. As luck would have it, I stumbled onto a rare opportunity to improve my skills with one of the world’s best. Better late than never.
I first met Jimmy Lewis at the BMW 30th anniversary in Squaw Valley last year. My partner Brad and I encountered a small crowd formed around a man we moments later discovered was the legend of American off-road motorcycle racing, Jimmy Lewis. We figured like everyone else, just to be able to shake his hand was an honor. As we made our way closer, he looked over and said, “Hey, you’re that Striking Viking guy—I read your website, great stories.”
He went on to lecture the crowd on the finer points of handling a bike with some very familiar admonishments. Stay relaxed--Let the legs and hips do the work. Don’t tense your arms. He had Brad and I grinning as he was mirroring my lectures on Judo, word for word. Later, after his brief appetite-wetting seminar we got to talking shop. He says, “You know I’ve always wanted to learn some of that martial art stuff, maybe we could work out a trade.” The only thing that could have thrilled me more would have been a call from Brittney Spears asking if it was okay to spend the night.
It took almost a year to get our schedules lined up for him to go for a ride in Judo and me to go for a ride in his class. I’ve spent most of my life on two wheels but I learned more in two days with Jimmy than in the last decade. As a competing martial artist, I understand movement when broken down into science and that’s what Jimmy does. Most of what he teaches is simple physics that anyone can understand and apply.
The real question was not about the well-known, extraordinary abilities of Jimmy Lewis but rather his ability to teach others. Can he get me on track toward some of what he can do? Forty years of riding also meant forty years of accumulating some bad habits. Jimmy knows this and adjusts his personal instruction to the level of whom he is addressing.
This particular class was small, only ten of us showed up at the Stateline town of Primm for two days of awesome education in the Nevada desert. Okay--I was apprehensive over my classmates. A couple women, a few guys on new bikes obviously untested and two other hotdogs like me. After a short lecture, the class got rolling out onto a dry lakebed for a day of drills and thrills. Just like in martial arts, motorcycle riding is all about honing in your basics. Jimmy turned us loose spread out over a half mile with exercises to practice while his wife Heather and sidekick, Ryan Hanna rode up to us with corrections.
I knew Jimmy also rode a GS1150 Adventure so I brought mine. A lighter 650 Dakar was available, but I wanted to train on the heavier bike to make it easier later. It was inspirational to watch Jimmy perform on a heavy bike—it took away any excuses. If he can do it, I have to do it. Jimmy doesn’t ride a bike—he stands on the pegs of a moving machine and gently nudges it with his knees to wherever he wants to go, regardless of terrain or incline. You have to see it to believe it.
As it turns out, there were all levels of riders amongst us with no regard to gender but our instructors kept us busy and constantly moving, dialing in each of us according to our abilities. I can honestly say, there was never a dull moment and by the end of day when it was announced that we should return to the trailer, everyone was tired enough to agree. After dinner, we headed off for a much-needed good nights sleep.
Jimmy announced that Sunday would be the time to put our basics together and hit the trail for a variety of riding conditions from the dry lakebed to dunes of drifting sand. That’s where I feel most uncomfortable on a six hundred pound motorcycle, spinning my tires through sand. ‘That’s easy” Jimmy informs us, “You almost have to try to get stuck.” Well I must have tried awful hard in Bolivia because I spent days buried to my axles.
For our first lesson in sand, he had us bury our wheels and then taught us how to ease out of it with gentle rocking and light throttle. Sound easy? After awhile it was, but not at first because he expected us to keep going without hesitation and then just stand up on the pegs. Makes sense--by doing so, I transferred two hundred twenty pounds from the motorcycle seat to the foot pegs and lowered the center of gravity eighteen inches. This is easy on dirt but soft sand takes getting used to realizing the ground is now further away than when sitting.
The moment I had been waiting for was twenty miles away--climbing the dunes. I had heard the same reports as everyone else when the 1150 Adventure first came out. It was too heavy for real off-roading, maybe light logging roads. Agreed, it’s not as agile as a 250cc Enduro but with training, you can go to the same places. Everyone knows Jimmy can but after his class, I can too.
There were a dozen miles of rocky, rolling and gullied dirt/sand roads until the grand finale sand dune climb. For you skiers, picture riding over and around trails of nasty moguls. Loose gravel, river rocks, deep sand, tight dirt and some washboard. We tackled it all. Most important, we tackled it all at our own pace coaxed along by our instructors.
A few of the lighter bikes flew up behind Jimmy as he rode a dune steeper than I felt comfortable with on the Adventure. Fuck it. If they can do it I can too. After tipping over halfway up and dragging the bike back down, I figured the next try would be the charm. This time I remembered to shift into second gear while standing up and made it to the top before I tipped over. Satisfied that I had summitted, and even though Jimmy had to help me right it, I was content to declare victory and quit while ahead.
The main event in June is so close, fear of injury was constantly with me over the weekend. A broken limb or something popping out of the socket could set me back six months forcing a delayed launch through a less than desirable time window. I could have got a little crazier but opted to err on the side of caution yet still felt challenged the entire weekend.
The real question after the class became, what could I do on my own? What Jimmy really teaches is what to practice later for drills. His classes are infinitely more effective if you practice what you learned over and over. His whole approach, method and philosophy is identical to mine in martial arts—classes are places to pick up homework assignments and receive corrections.
Living in Palm Springs, California, there is no shortage of sand, especially the tricky stuff to ride on, soft, drifting blow sand. What better way to spend a Sunday morning other than righting my motorcycle halfway up isolated sand dunes. But Jimmy’s techniques for spinning the bike around by twisting the handlebars works and soon I’m back racing up dune faces. It took a few tries but I got the hang of it and wobbled my way up at will pathways I would not have considered two weeks ago.
Jimmy calls his class a motorcycle safety class and that is what it is. He teaches how to handle a motorcycle better which means safer. The odds are against us out there as motorcycle riders but we can affect those odds with safety equipment, better handling bikes and by increasing our skills.
What’s the deal now? I am a more skilled rider, therefore a safer rider affecting the odds. Rutted rocky trails of gulleys and river rocks? No problem now on the big GS. Will it be easier when later switching to a much lighter bike? You bet and I will be doing just that next year rolling across Africa. Stay tuned, film at eleven.