Back to Motorcycle Skills School

The motorcycle-riding-skills learning curve may be steeper than you think. By Andrew Cherney. Photography by James Brown, Billy Bartels, and Andy Cherney.

"Incompetents invariably make trouble for people other than themselves." - Larry McMurtry, Lonesome Dove

It was with McMurtry's chestnut firmly lodged in my brainpan that I journeyed to Reg Pridmore's CLASS in Denver, Colorado, on a Honda Valkyrie. A serious street rider understands that he's likely to be surrounded by dozens of car-piloting incompetents on any given day, all blissfully unaware of his presence. A few well-structured lessons go a long way toward stacking the odds in your favor in the high-stakes game of Street Survival (incompetent motorcyclists aren't a long-lived bunch).

Over the years I'd taken the whole gamut of Motorcycle Safety Foundation courses--the Basic RiderCourse, Experienced RiderCourse, Dirtbike School and even the new pilot program--and found all to be terrific vehicles for introducing and reinforcing core motorcycling concepts to beginning and intermediate riders. In the MSF programs, braking, shifting and cornering techniques are relayed methodically, on a closed course, and hungry students readily absorb the lessons. Regardless of my prior training, however, I found myself searching for even more knowledge.

Choosing Your Battles

You might think a racetrack is no place for a cruiser, but Reg Pridmore stresses that his courses are not intended for racers. "If you're a street rider who wants to learn to be a better rider, then you've come to the right place. I teach control. Speed is never the issue. Adjust your speed correctly and you'll be ready for anything." It's important to note that Pridmore's school is not for beginners, however; you should have at least one MSF course under your belt and be completely comfortable with your bike before stepping onto the track. I'd been riding for almost 15 years, but my aggregate hours and mileage logged were a fraction of Friedman's or Elvidge's, so I was a perfect candidate for summer school. And since I'd sat in on son Jason's aggressive STAR school last year (on a Triumph Bonneville, no less), the idea of a Valkyrie on a racetrack with Reg was tantalizing in a bizarre, masochistic way.

Keeping Track

The elder Pridmore's classes are broken into two separate groups--Advanced and Street. Since I had the big cruiser, I signed on for the Street riding group. Indeed, some of my companions that day included a Harley Road King and a BMW F650, and Pridmore says Honda Gold Wings are even more common. But he cautions that many new riders bring too much ego along with their new bikes.

"Inexperienced people are getting in over their heads with the big machines we have nowadays," Pridmore says. "They get carried away...so we try to humble them a bit in those cases."

The day begins with an early-morning tech check-in, where an assistant inspects each bike for potential problems and ensures all lights and breakables are taped. For the CLASS course, and most others, you need to have fresh tires on a nonleaking machine with good brakes and a minimum of 250cc displacement. After that, Pridmore's school becomes a very relaxed, low-key affair: three or four hours of track time balanced with an equal amount of classroom instruction, each split into 20-minute increments. As one group's on the racetrack, the other's doing chalk talk. With a student-to-instructor ratio of 5:1 on the track, you get a lot of attention whether you want it or not.

Before you even set foot on the track however, most schools will read you the Riot Act on proper etiquette. Pridmore is no different, but he adds a more philosophical wrinkle to the dressing-down: "Mentally prepare yourself for going out there. If you head out with the idea that this is just a motorcycle, that 'I've done this before,' then you're starting out with the most dangerous attitude there is." Attitude and ego clearly are a big part of the riding equation -- any imbalance in either can easily upset your bike.

The first time on the track, you get a quick walking tour of the turns and topography. After a classroom refresher, you're spat out on the asphalt again to take the same route on two wheels, following the instructors around the track while trying to emulate their smooth lines. This isn't as hard as you might think, though, especially if you get an instructor to help you out with a short private lesson. Have one follow you around the course and critique your form, and then follow him for a quick lap and observe his technique. A fast game of follow-the-leader pays big dividends and puts you on pace for better application of the theories discussed in class. All the schools encourage this kind of one-on-one instruction and are happy to oblige.

By the end of the day, and after a few braking drills, you're intimate with every twist and turn of the track and feel like a living extension of your bike. It's hard not to ham it up when the instructors mount tiny cameras on their bikes to follow what you believe to be your blazingly fast, world-class pirouettes around hairpin curves. Later playback of the tape for dissection in front of your classmates generates good-natured chuckles all around -- regarding your performance, a fellow student comments that he's seen preschoolers take turns faster on tricycles. The exercise is rewarding all the same.

Chalk Talk

In the classroom, Pridmore's easy to listen to. The three-time AMA Superbike champ is "not really interested in telling people what to do with a bunch of technical BS." He says he'd rather offer students a variety of techniques and have them experiment. "I ask people to figure out what works for them. If it works, use it; if it doesn't, then park it. You should always have options."

What's not an option with Pridmore, however, is smoothness. You gotta have it. He explains, "Many riders are guilty of having very violent throttle action and that's going to hurt you on the track or on the street. You've got to smooth it out and practice what I call throttle management." Pridmore is adamant about the brake/throttle combination being part of the control factor. He advises us to position our fingers on the brake and throttle so it's a smooth transition from one to the other, dialing in inputs stingily. "Learning to roll the throttle on and off makes the bike more controllable with one little motion. It's the same thing with gears and brakes--the bike knows a smooth input from a rough one and reacts accordingly."

Over The Line

Another street riding tip we retain from Pridmore regards cornering techniques. "Not hanging out across the double yellow line will keep you alive--you can't trust what's gonna come from the other side of that line at any time, so use common sense. Slow down, look through the corner, and don't go wide," says Pridmore.

The biggest correctable problem Pridmore observes in first-time students is their perception of speed. "I want them to understand their motorcycle no matter where they are. Learn about it and it will be your best friend." Pridmore says that includes not taking anything for granted on the street, especially your bike's maintenance--out-of-sight, out-of-mind thinking is dangerous. Those powerful words stayed with me the whole 1200 miles back to Los Angeles.

Faster Education

An accelerated education isn't for everybody, but my experience stressed the importance of checking into a classroom every so often to keep your skills fresh -- you'll learn something every time, no matter what your level. Clearly, track schools aren't only for go-fast racers, and many cruiser riders could use the schooling -- even though they aren't exposed to as many intense situations as racers. But not all schools accept cruiser-style motorcycles for sessions; my gig at the STAR school taught me a great deal about basic techniques, but the curriculum was more race-oriented. You have to do a bit of research to figure out which option is best for your bike and style.

A riding school is a good way to improve your skills without the dangers and frantic pace of the street since it's a perfectly controlled closed loop. Classes are usually limited to 10 or 20 students per session, especially those that include racetrack venues. Plan to arrive early in the morning (think 7:00am) and split the time between the classroom and racetrack. An hour lunch is mandatory. Most classes end late in the afternoon.

Most schools are set up similarly to Pridmore's (which was one of the very first), but some focus more on technique, theory or mechanics, so ask first. Use your head -- if you've got a custom bike that's been lowered or equipped with forward controls, chances are you won't get much from the class. Neutral peg positioning and a stock bike help.

All that remains now is for you to swallow your ego and sign up for a course, be it on a racetrack or in a parking lot. And don't be intimidated by going back to school -- riders with limited experience might stand to benefit most, but even those of us with a scroll of riding accomplishments could come home with that one key lesson that might save our lives next week or next year.

As McMurtry wrote, incompetents do make trouble for plenty of people other than themselves. But we can certainly learn to be ready for it.

Top 10 Riding School Tips

1. Pick the right group. "Fast" or "advanced" generally means wannabe racers or Iron Butt graduates. "Street Riders," "Intermediates" or "Group B" will probably net you the most usable street skills and will be easier to negotiate.

2. Change your oil and filter. Your engine will be run hard this session.

3. Check your suspension. If you're not sure, return it to stock settings and start with a clean slate. You'll get help at the class.

4. Inspect your chain (if you have one), brakes and tires. Keep psi at recommended factory settings. Replace brake fluid before the class.

5. Bring proper riding apparel. Most schools require leather or textile garments with armor. No holes in your gear, and the helmet must be DOT. Some schools can supply leathers.

6. Pack a decent tool kit. A few wrenches, screwdrivers and pliers are golden, as are duct and electrical tape. Extra gas couldn't hurt, either.

7. Bring water and lunch. And don't skimp on the water. Heat exhaustion is a real concern. 8. You absolutely, definitely, without a doubt must be licensed!

9. Make sure you know the location of the track. If it's a long trek, consider booking a hotel room near the school.

10. Get your bike ready for tech inspection. This is usually simply a matter of taping up anything breakable.

American Super Camp: Nationwide
(970) 674-9434
www.americansupercamp.com

Lifetime dirttrack competitor Danny Walker teaches this class mostly in the dirt, on Honda XR100s and XR200s. He teaches you to refine the basics of machine control and traction management and shows you much about the mechanics of riding. It's $550 for the basic two-day camp; choose from two- or four-day camps.

California Superbike School: Nationwide
(323) 224-2734
www.superbikeschool.com

Racing guru Keith Code offers four levels of riding finery, with each student required to pass one level to advance to the next. Though it reads "Superbike" school, Code claims to accept all sorts of motorcycle, from Buells to dragsters to cruisers. We're not so sure, however--call first. Single-day sessions will set you back $395; call for more information.

CLASS Motorcycle School: Nationwide
(805) 933-9936
www.classrides.com

A good choice for most street riders, CLASS stresses safety over speed in its curriculum. Head instructor Reg Pridmore comes from a racing background, but CLASS is open to all types of bikes. The schools don't teach beginners. Familiarize yourself with your bike's controls before you enroll. A one-day standard session will run you from $325 to $375.

DP Safety School
(805) 772-8301
www.dpsafetyschool.com

Based primarily on the West Coast, DP offers plenty of experienced instructors so you get personalized attention. It's a friendly, easy track environment organized by Dennis Pegelow. You'll need to bring your own bike and have completed an MSF course. One-day sessions run $250 and up.

Freddie Spencer High Performance Riding School: Las Vegas
(702) 643-1099
www.spencermotorcycles.com

Three-time World GP champ Freddie Spencer teaches a "system of learning" to both racers and casual street riders. The school claims to accommodate beginners and seasoned veterans, but since Honda F4 sportbikes are supplied (you can't bring your own bike), it's a safe bet that the curriculum is sporty. The school has a permanent residence at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, and it's pricey; plunk down a cool $1995 for the basic two-day class.

MSF: Nationwide
(800) 446-9227
www.msf-usa.org

Choose from the Basic RiderCourse, the Experienced RiderCourse and the soon-to-be-released Next Course. Any of these will strengthen your motorcycle skills in a safe, controlled parking lot environment, no matter your age, machine or skill level. Courses exist for dirt-oriented riders too; prices range from $80 to $200. Not all courses are available in all states however; check with your local MSF organization for those in your area.

STAR Motorcycle School: Nationwide
(805) 658-6333
www.starmotorcycle.com

Go Local

The Motorcycle Training Center in Southern California is now offering sessions at California's Willow Springs, on the smaller Streets Of Willow track. The track days are for street/sport riders, but the MTC emphasizes that it is not a racing track day. You must bring your own bike. Just $99 buys a day of riding, including lunch, a T-shirt and a beverage. The time is broken up into alternating sessions; 20 minutes on the track and 20 minutes off. There is usually an experienced group and an inexperienced group, and a limit of 50 riders total. This situation is unique in that the MTC does not make a profit on the track day; hence the low price. Check with your local riding organization or track to see if such a program exists in your area -- it's a great way to gain experience, confidence and skill.

For more information on safe-riding equipment, strategies, techniques and skills, see the Street Survival section of MotorcycleCruiser.com.

Get your lesson plan from the author at Andy.Cherney@primedia.com.

For more information on safe-riding equipment, strategies, techniques and skills, see the Street Survival section of MotorcycleCruiser.com.

Pay attention and don't mess around. Cutting fast times is OK, but cutting classes is not.
Reg Pridmore, thrice AMA Superbike Champ, reviews the basics before you hit the track.
Even riders of full-dressers can benefit from one of the street-oriented racetrack schools.
Student benefit from watching the instructors demonstrate.
Classroom sessions introduce the concepts and principles that you will apply on the track and let you ask questions of experts.
Following an instructor enables you to pick up cornering lines more quickly. Having the instructor follow you is a great opportunity to have your habits observed and correct any bad ones.