Never Stop Learning

Story by Glenn Roberts// Photos by Lee Parks
July 9 2019

There’s nothing like an advanced riding course to brush away the cobwebs and retrain your deteriorated muscle memory.

No matter what you’ve done in your life, you had to begin somewhere – and riding a motorcycle is no different. You may be a new rider or, if you’re like me, you’ve been riding for several decades. I received my motorcycle licence before motorcycle training was a thing, or at least before I ever heard of it in the small city I grew up in during my formative motorcycle-learning days. 

Times have changed. Now there are hundreds of training centres around the country and most riders these days have taken some kind of basic motorcycle rider training. But there is still a lot to learn – that’s why it’s called “basic.” 

To get the most out of your motorcycle riding experience, you may want to consider upgrading your skills. There is a saying that goes something like: “You don’t have 20 years’ experience; you have one year’s experience repeated 20 times.” Those 20 years could mean you’ve been riding on straight highways for that time – and that’s not gaining experience; that’s repetition and not pushing your skills to the next level. 

Bad Habits

A33I5757You should never stop learning, even if you have decades of riding under your belt. Everybody develops bad habits, and one way to rid yourself of those bad habits is to take an advanced training course periodically and be critiqued by a professional instructor and, therefore by design, upgrade your abilities. 

One of the hardest things to master on a motorcycle is proper technique. Smoothness is important in every single action you perform on a motorcycle; this is especially true for braking, accelerating and cornering. But technique goes deeper than that because each of those actions can change the steering geometry of your bike if not done correctly, thus upsetting your bike’s natural handling characteristics that were designed into it. An advanced course shines the light onto just how much there is to learn after basic training. 

I Needed Upgrading

Other than a marathon ride from Ontario to British Columbia and back last fall, I didn’t ride much in 2018 due to shoulder surgery that prohibited getting on a bike. After the downtime that winter brings, and then for almost a whole summer, I felt rusty – plain and simple. I felt nervous during my first rides before heading across the country and desperately felt I needed to upgrade my training or, at the very least, take a refresher course.

I’ve taken a variety of courses over the years, and I believe there is always something to be gleaned from proper instruction. Despite my rusty reflexes, I knew the muscle memory would return with proper training, so I decided on an advanced training course to clear the cobwebs from my head and build on my many years of experience. Total Control Advanced Riding Clinic is one such course: it takes you to the next level in your quest to be a more competent and safer street rider.

Sharp Rider

A33I5891I took the course from Sharp Rider Motorcycle Training in Toronto. Donna Skinner, her husband, Randy McKnight, and Paul Rogers own Sharp Rider, a licensed Total Control training centre. Skinner and Rogers also own gtamotorcycle.com, a well-known motorcycle forum based in Ontario but with membership across the country. Skinner, a little discouraged from seeing so many posts on the “Fallen Riders/In Memory of’ section of the gtamotorcycle forum, realized there was a need for such a course because there wasn’t any advanced street rider training that bridged the gap between basic rider training and racetrack training. That was the impetus to start Sharp Rider in November 2011 and pursue licensing to use the Total Control curriculum in spring 2012.

The Total Control Advanced Riding Clinic is the brainchild of Lee Parks. Parks is no stranger to the world of motorcycles: he is a national race champion, instructor, motorcycle writer and editor, photographer – and the list goes on. Suffice to say he knows a thing or two about motorcycles and how they react to rider inputs, and how to train riders to implement those inputs properly.

The course operates with an instructor/student ratio of six students to one instructor so that proper attention is paid to each student. The class I enrolled in was the first of the season and was full with 12 students. Students bring their own bikes, so there was a wide variety of motorcycles styles, ranging from touring to sport-touring, adventure-touring to sport bikes – all street bikes are welcome.

While Sharp Rider is the only licensed Total Control school in Canada, Skinner says, it is totally mobile and can teach its intermediate and advanced courses anywhere provided there’s a parking lot. However, two of the students in my class, Greg and Isabel Tees, rode all the way from Nova Scotia for Level 1 on the Friday and stayed for Level 2 training on Sunday. 

Important Skills to Learn

A33I5911Total Control’s training mandate follows the principle of crawl before you walk and walk before you run. That starts in the classroom and then, after each segment, moves to the range where you put the classroom theory to work. 

The stepping stones to becoming a better rider that are learned in the one-day Total Control Level 1 course are through a series of modules that include:

  1. Traction management and what factors lead to increased or decreased traction. Parks mentions that dirt-riding experience is valuable here, as it lets you practise having little or no traction, but without the more severe potential consequences of learning about it on the street.
  2. Concentration, so you can assume the right frame of mind and what you can do to avoid fear.
  3. Throttle control and the importance of a smooth right hand.
  4. Trail braking and what it does. Many riders have heard of this, but few know how to implement it and even fewer understand how important trail braking is to their bike’s suspension.
  5.  Body positioning, through a series of 10 interconnecting steps to proper cornering.
  6. Vision. I know this sounds like a no-brainer, but there are certain things you must look for to stay safe and become a better rider, whether you find yourself in sweeping high-speed corners or in hairpin turns.
  7. Choosing the proper line for specific types of corners.
  8. Suspension setup. This is bit of a black art, and the instructors go though how to set up your bike’s suspension. Not all bikes have adjustable suspension, but there are options available that are explained to you.

The Course

Out on the range, the instructors show you the most common ways that riders do something wrong, then repeat the exercise to show you the correct way. They then go through each step with you before you try it – and you’ll be critiqued and given suggestions of how to improve. All of this is done on your own bike, so you are already familiar with it.

Students are promised that taking the course will improve their riding, will provide better understanding of the bike and how their actions on the bike will affect its handling, and explain how to recognize problems on the road and how to deal with them.

For my course, the first of 2019, Parks himself was to be the instructor but, due to bad weather, flight cancellations and redirected flights, he wasn’t able to arrive on-site until midmorning. No problem. Skinner, with seven years of training under her belt, is an accomplished Total Control instructor, handily took the reins until Parks arrived. Parks is an animated and entertaining speaker and is as dynamic as the Total Control course is – always moving forward to the next step in our education of properly controlling our motorcycles.

The instructors enable students to learn the skills outlined in the course curriculum easily by relating the segments to real-life scenarios. Keep in mind this isn’t a high-speed track course. This is a street-based course that takes place in a parking lot at slower speeds because riding slow is harder than riding fast. Riding proficiently at slow speeds opens the door to more competent and entertaining high-speed fun.

Cornering Technique

Taking corners is done by every single person who rides a motorcycle, but, let’s face it, taking a perfect corner consistently is not the easiest thing to do. However, when you get it right, it’s one of the most rewarding things you can do on a motorcycle. The 10-step cornering exercises get you “hanging off” the bike in racer fashion and had me wondering when I would apply all of the techniques that were taught, especially when much of Canada has relatively straight roads. Then I realized that while I may not always be involved in tight corners, the cornering techniques absolutely taught me the science behind how a bike turns and how I can apply that science to any corner. The bottom line: proper cornering skills afford you the maximum available traction, and the most fun.

Suspension tuning is somewhat of a black art for most riders. The day at the centre closes with a lesson on how to determine if your suspension is properly set up and how to adjust your suspension so it’s optimized for road travel. The instructors also discuss available options if your shocks or forks are non-adjustable. For those who can’t make it to a class, there is another way to learn the Total Control curriculum minus the instructor critiquing. Parks wrote a book titled Total Control and co-authored a book called Race Tech’s Motorcycle Suspension Bible. This advanced riding course is based on Total Control, although Park’s knowledge of suspension systems also plays an important part in his training courses.

No matter what you are doing, I believe there is always more to learn. So why not learn how to make your favourite mode of transport safer and more fun?

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