Relearning Forgotten Skills

Story by David Booth//
October 13 2020

I am 63 years of age. Being something of a gym rat, I still box four days a week. Sufficiently caffeinated, I can still run up a ski hill – albeit the bunny run and at something of a slower pace than when, as Billy Joel once lamented, I wore a younger man’s clothes.

I don’t say that to boast or bring attention to fistic exploits – although I will use this opportunity to note I did beat the ever-loving s%&t out of my last opponent two years ago – but rather to establish bona fides that human frailties are not something I accept as a matter of course. To quote the great Roger Daltry – in a much better song – I get my back into my living.

The need for such authenticity stems from a recent day spent traipsing through the badlands of Ontario’s near north with Clinton Smout, Mojo contributor and owner of S.M.A.R.T. Adventure programs. An all-encompassing off-road college – calling something that purports to teach everything from trials to riding ATVs merely a school seems a trifle skinflintish – S.M.A.R.T. is a combination playground and educational facility. Mom always said learning was fun, right?

Ostensibly, I was there to support my young friend Matt, a fellow motorscribe new to the world of two-wheeling. He bought, as only his second bike, a new Triumph Scrambler. Not one of the lesser XC versions, but the fully Öhlins’d, I-hope-I-can-get-my-tippy-toes-on-the-ground XEs. Having bought the bike, he then, in a most un-millennial moment – at 33, he’s but a pup – thought it might be a good idea to have the skill to go along with the image. I was just there as moral support and to, well, maybe roost him a couple of times should S.M.A.R.T.’s selected trails be sufficiently muddy.

Then I had a thought. An almost mature thought, in fact. And while I can’t be sure if said maturity was the result of the wisdom that is supposed to come with age or the frailty that’s resulted from far to many high sides, for the first time in sober memory, I actually looked forward to learning something.

Actually, relearning something. Although there was some motocross racing in my youth and I spent a few years testing dirt bikes at that other Canadian motorcycle magazine –decorum precludes me from actually naming the competition, but its nickname back when I worked there was Psycho Canada – I haven’t been dirt-donking for quite some time. In fact, I’m fairly certain it’s been five, maybe10 years since I’ve whooped de-do’d.

And the more I thought about it, the more I realized riding dirt bikes is not a skill you want to lose. Truth be told, every street rider who came up through the ranks of dirt bikes is a better – and safer – rider. MotoGP riders still use motocross as their training grounds, flat-tracking taught King Kenny how to back a YZR into a corner and Jordan Szoke, our very own, ever-eternal CSBK superbike champion, is quite an accomplished trials rider when he’s not setting new lap records. Busting berms and tapping tabletops teaches skills that one simply can’t – or, at least, shouldn’t dare – learn on the street.

I saved – my one and only – front-end slide on a 600-lb. Laverda RGS because I was used to doing it, albeit on a much lighter Suzuki TM250. I can now at least pretend to go adventuring on my V-Strom 1000 because I dual-sported for hundreds of miles – my buds and I used to leave gas cans hidden in the woods for our adventures – all over the North Shore of Quebec. And the first time I locked up the rear brake in a panic stop on the street, I didn’t “lay ’er down” because, well, who hasn’t locked up the rear wheel of a dirt bike. The point is that the skills learned roosting on trails translate directly into making you a better – and safer – street rider.

They also erode. Indeed, the whole point of my plaint-to-aging intro is that, again, I no longer take what motorcycling skills I possess for granted. When we’re young, we assume that any skill we once had we will always have. As time passes, you realize you have to earn those skills, and a little refresher course is just the thing to remind you what you do – and don’t – remember.

So tiptoeing through the woods behind Smout on a little Honda CRF250 reminded me of the need to weight the inside foot peg in low-speed U-turns. Third-gear powerslides aboard the truly remarkable Yamaha WR250 reminded me that the balance between front and rear grip is not something we can always take for granted. And riding a big BMW GS in the deep woods was proof positive that a relaxed grip is essential to motorcycle control.

Of course, now that I’ve refreshed those particular skills, I suppose it’s only fitting that I continue this odyssey in (re)learning. Riders Choice has a track day next month, and it has been almost two years since I donned my leathers. Just so I can be a better – and safer – rider, of course.

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