Special Forces and the Meaning of A.S.S.

Embedded Reporting from a Rider Training mission

The Special Forces Rider Training mission
The Special Forces Rider Training missionBilly Bartels

LATE NIGHT: the side of a deserted road, in an open plain. The only light, a glow of a distant city. Around me are the men of the elite 10th Special Forces Group. They’re focused on a distant point down the road, where there’s a glint of movement. A pool of light and a burst of sound as a motorcycle springs to life, and hurtles toward the glint. Seconds later, the same machine squeals to a stop. A single round of the nighttime braking test is concluded.

Counterinsurgency The U.S. Army's Special Forces had a problem; they were losing too many soldiers. Unlike in other parts of our armed forces, their men were not falling to roadside bombs or snipers, but rather to coffee-swilling commuters yakking on cell phones while engaging in a little FarmVille. The most lethal killing force ever assembled: The American Driver. But it was also the soldiers' lackluster motorcycle skill set letting them down. Since the beginning of the War on Terror (over a decade ago), the Special Forces have lost more men to motorcycle accidents than to hostile fire. It's a sobering statistic, and one the Pentagon does not accept lightly.

The U.S. Army's Special Forces face deadly situations everyday while in the warzone, but riding a motorcycle on American streets can also be very dangerous.
The U.S. Army's Special Forces face deadly situations everyday while in the warzone, but riding a motorcycle on American streets can also be very dangerous.Billy Bartels

The Green Berets are some of the most highly trained troops on Earth. When not deploying to some far-off hell-hole, they’re getting specialized training in both fighting and more subtle pursuits. A soldier I spoke with told me that one of the biggest differences between the Special Forces and the regular Army (which he was also part of) was getting around a warzone. In the Army, you ride around in an armored Humvee, buttoned up and basically waiting for an IED to toss your SUV in the air (it happened to my interviewee more than once). A Special Forces squad will ride in an open Humvee with guns bristling from every side, practically inviting attack...which almost never happens. Pointed out, versus pointed in; aggressive, not protective.

Which leads to my theory of why further motorcycle training is needed for these guys in particular. They’re armed to the teeth, and they stare down death on a daily basis. So riding a motorcycle with just the skills taught in even the MSF Advanced RiderCourse is a bit lacking.

The Mil-spec'd for Special Forces riders is a weeklong course that starts in the classroom and then takes to the streets.
The Mil-spec'd for Special Forces riders is a weeklong course that starts in the classroom and then takes to the streets.Billy Bartels

Unconventional Warfare Just as regular infantry training isn't enough to prepare someone for life as a Green Beret, regular motorcycle training is not enough to train a Green Beret to ride. To get to the next level, you need some ASS—or, an Advanced Street Skills class, taught by Puget Sound Safety. Administered in four levels over separate classes in its original (civilian) version, the version Mil-spec'd for Special Forces riders is a week-long course taught in the classroom, on a riding range (like most MSF classes), and out on the street. The military version doesn't incorporate all the content from the four levels of ASS, but adds in other essential points, like how to be an effective mentor for other riders. Everyone involved stressed to me that the class was not meant as a swipe against the MSF; that solid, basic curriculum has saved countless lives.

Getting these cowboys to respect you means you’ve got to bring some skills to the table. While these were not necessarily physically imposing guys—most being more lithe than bulky—each and every one exuded a deadly confidence, some with a hardened stare, others with an easy smile.

Getting some street time in is an important aspect to the training.
Getting some street time in is an important aspect to the training.Billy Bartels

Thankfully, Bret Tkacs and his Puget Sound Safety crew can walk the walk. As for me, I was the perfect guinea pig...er, I mean, ‘embedded reporter,’ for this group. I may not be able to shoot the hair off a toad at a thousand yards, but on a motorcycle, I’m pretty confident. I’ve ridden with world champions like Freddie Spencer and Kevin Schwantz, and trained with legendary coaches like Keith Code and Nick Ienatch, so it takes a bit to impress me. I’m not saying I’m close to being the best rider, but I fit right in with the Green Berets’ cocky bravado, and, in fact, I might have been even more resistant to the teaching.

Going in, I’m thinking Bret is just some regional track day teacher. But by the end of the teaching tour, he’d more than won my respect as a knowledgeable ride instructor, and I’m sure the troops thought so too. On the teaching stage, Bret is an unsung hero, much like the guys he’s teaching.

Stationary cornering training helps the rider get a feel for what is to come.
Stationary cornering training helps the rider get a feel for what is to come.Billy Bartels

The week’s training follows a semi-predictable pattern of classroom teaching, a break for lunch, then an afternoon of riding. Early in the week, the practical portion of the class is given on a flat riding range, set up somewhat similarly to an MSF layout. The teaching crew is very familiar with the scenery, as most of them are certified MSF instructors.

On the range, the instructors work on braking, cornering, and swerving, but with more edge than your usual class. Braking is measured by g-forces exerted on the bike, the goal being to get all riders at least 20-percent beyond what’s considered an “advanced” level by MSF standards. Cornering drills focus on advanced techniques like body positioning, backed up with photos to dissect a rider’s pose and provide feedback for improvement. While many would consider body positioning to be less crucial on a cruiser, it’s actually more important (when riding at an elevated pace), as you have less cornering clearance and often a relatively un-tuned suspension.

The riders also get to choreograph a dance as part of their training. Kidding! They are practicing riding positions.
The riders also get to choreograph a dance as part of their training. Kidding! They are practicing riding positions.Billy Bartels

Direct Action
To be blunt, the first couple of days weren't pretty. Braking distances were fairly long and cornering was sloppy, with dragging parts and bobbling lines. But with a good feedback loop and individualized coaching from three instructors, all participants improved significantly. Out in the real world, group-riding techniques were explained, with ASS showing not only how to safely ride in a group, but how to lead and control one as well. Coaching on specific techniques continued on controlled stretches of road, and we did repeated runs up a particularly kinky set of curves, then down a gravel mountain road, all with critiques from instructors at the stops.

Bret speculates that the group’s relatively intermediate-level skill set is due to long periods off the bike, while they are deployed elsewhere. The soldiers are required to train and re-train with MSF core materials, but in the end, they aren’t really riding enough to get advanced skills the old fashioned way—with long miles on the street.

The riders had to also put in a lot of miles in in order to get the most out of their training.
The riders had to also put in a lot of miles in in order to get the most out of their training.Billy Bartels

By the third day, all the riders, but especially ones with a lot of miles coming in, started to have serious “Aha!” moments. One experienced rider said to me, “It’s like I was riding with my eyes closed before.” Later in the week, the script is flipped and the students become each other’s teachers. Apparently it’s standard US military doctrine to teach some unit members a set of skills, and then expect them to pass it on to their squad mates. Under the supervision of the instructors, soldiers from different units critique each other’s riding techniques, and get comfortable passing on their skills. It’s empowering, and hopefully, extremely efficient.

"as we stood around in a gas station—the guys from the 10th presented each of the instructors with their unit pin. It’s not something they do for just anybody."
"As we stood around in a gas station—the guys from the 10th presented each of the instructors with their unit pin. It’s not something they do for just anybody."Billy Bartels

Which brings me back to that deserted field outside of Colorado Springs. As a final lesson, after a guided night ride to see if these guys could stay together, we stood by the side of the road peering into the darkness. The lesson was multifaceted. Part of it was to show how little you can see without headlights on a truly dark night. Another was to show how invisible you are as a rider without reflective clothing. The last was a braking test in suboptimal conditions, bringing it back to the most basic of skills—only in a bad environment.

It rounded out what is a complete look at motorcycling from a military man’s perspective. But, it’s also just a beginning. These guys will quickly go from student to teacher, as they bring their training back to their individual units. Their official capacity will be as a mentor, looking to get everybody in their unit riding at a safer level, including what the military refers to as “ghostriders;” guys who never disclose that they ride and dodge the training requirements. Not only is this a bad idea safety-wise, but it apparently can end in a court martial or other, lesser disciplinary actions.

At the conclusion of the course—as we stood around in a gas station—the guys from the 10th presented each of the instructors with their unit pin. It’s not something they do for just anybody.

With the thorough training, the Special Forces are ready to cruise.
With the thorough training, the Special Forces are ready to cruise.Billy Bartels

Contact
Puget Sound Safety
www.advancedstreetskills.com
(253) 770-8888
While I didn't participate in the intensive week-long course, I can only highly recommend Bret's civilian course if you live anywhere on the West Coast.