Zero to Adventure Rider in 96 Hours!

Outdoor x 4 Magazine, March 1st, 2018

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Zero to Adventure Rider in 96 Hours!

“Clutch! Clutch! Clutch,” yells my coach as I begin rolling backwards.

I’m 12 feet up a steep grade when I hear the order. I know I should release the clutch and stall the bike, but my fingers crush the lever tight against the handlebar. My green and black Kawasaki KL250 Super Sherpa starts its rapid retreat to the bottom backwards.

I finally dump the clutch, but it’s too late. The Sherpa bucks me off like a bee-stung bronco, leaving me somersaulting backward down the dirt slope. With an astonishing act of agility, I flip backward twice landing on my feet and yelling, “I’m good! I’m good! This is so much fun!”

I used that phrase a lot at DART, Bill Dragoo’s Adventure Rider Training. Bill’s two-day course is designed to teach motorcyclists skills that boost confidence in handling a motorcycle over almost any kind of terrain.

It took me two tries to master the “Hill Fail,” where I had just fallen. It was a technique of stalling halfway up a hill, turning and riding safely down again. But I did it.

My first day at DART was my fourth day on a motorcycle. I had been riding for less than a month, but I was already learning more about handling my bike in difficult situations than some people learn in a lifetime.

WHY NOW? As a 40-something female, I decided I wanted to learn to ride. Specifically, I wanted to learn adventure riding, the mastery of off road skills for the purpose of backroad travel, mostly because it just looks like fun. In what amounted to just a few hours spread over about a month, I not only learned how to ride a motorcycle but also to ride through ruts, sand, gravel and up some crazy steep hills. I picked up a few bruises along the way.

Bill hosts adventure rider training across the U.S. and in places like Colombia and Bolivia, South America. When he suggested I should learn to ride, I jumped at the idea. As a complete beginner, I didn’t know enough to be scared, which may have helped.

LEARNING TO CRAWL As a child, I was taught that motorcycles were death machines, and I heard the stories all of my life. Mom’s admonitions to “never get on a motorcycle” replayed in my brain as I sat for the first time on a silver Kawasaki Eliminator at Brown’s Driving School in Oklahoma City. I had taken the prerequisite Motorcycle Safety Foundation (MSF) online course, and now, I was ready to learn the actual operation of a motorcycle.

Instructors Kurt Rice and Johnie Fredman asked each of us to share our level of experience at the beginning of the class. Most of the students had at least a few months of practice behind them.

“This will be my first time on a motorcycle,” I said, watching every head swivel my way. “I don’t even know how to get on a motorcycle.”

“You’re my favorite kind of student,” said Rice. “No bad habits to erase.”

Over the course of two days, I learned to manage “the friction zone,” and how to “SEE,” or search, evaluate and execute a turn. I learned to brake properly, maneuver a figure-8 in close quarters and how to avoid or cross obstacles.

I was especially proud of myself for not completely losing it when a spider dropped down inside my helmet while I was maneuvering through cones. Yes, I learned composure under stress as well. After two days of training, I had to pass the skills test to earn my “M” endorsement.

I was still timid on the bike, and I touched my foot down once during the U-turn and had to use my “second chance” during the sudden swerve test. I felt clumsy and shaky and frustrated with myself during the test.

“So… how do you think you did,” Fredman asked, shaking his head sadly. I feel my gut clench. Two people had already failed, and I didn’t want to be the third.

“Uh… I thought I did okay,” I mumbled, my eyes doe-wide as I looked at him pleadingly. He shook his head again sadly.

“You scored a 90,” he finally announced, grinning openly now at my victory dance and whoops. By some miracle (and stellar instruction by the coaches at Brown’s Driving School) I not only passed, but passed with one of the highest scores in the class. I could legally ride a motorcycle on public streets.

ADVENTURE RIDING At Bill’s DART course, we began at dawn on the second day on the bank along the Canadian River, which was lush with golden sand, deep enough to swallow the wheels of a motorcycle.

“This river has some of the best sand in the world,” he said, and indeed, it was the perfect place for motorcyclists to how to control their bikes while riding through the sly and sinewy terrain.

The Dragoo Adventure Rider Training course was vastly different from the basic motorcycle course, focusing more on mastering tasks designed to negotiate rough terrain and conserve energy during tough, off-pavement rides. Bill began coaching in 2012 in Bolivia, expanded the training by request to Oklahoma and now teaches all over the U.S. from Washington to Vermont. He is considered by many to be one of the best adventure rider coaches in the world.

During this particular training, I was the only female in the class, which is rare. Women often take his classes and sometimes outnumber the men. I was also the least experienced. But by the end of the course, I learned techniques most riders don’t have, thanks to Bill and his amazing assistant coaches.

Bill began each exercise by explaining how it would be run, the objective, and our performance guideline. He, or one of his coaches, demonstrated the maneuvers, which ranged from tight, slow turns to using body weight to counter-balance, controlling the bike on hills and even loose hill starts. All activities were done while standing on the bike, which Bill said provides greater control and vision when riding in rough terrain.

Bill’s coaches, Josh Jewell and Tobin Vigil, have been with him from the start while Zeke Sikich and Todd Hamm are scouts, coaches in training. Dave Knight of Kansas also worked with the students.

One technique was called "Bike in Tension" which helps a motorcycle balance at low speeds without "dabbing" or placing a foot down to save a fall. We lined up facing one another with one row acting as the “brake” while the other acted as the “clutch.” It’s kind of like the game London Bridge Is Falling Down. We would grab hands while stepping back, trusting each other to keep our balance. This drill showed us how effectively the brake and clutch work together at staggeringly low speeds.

On the bike, this was demonstrated by dragging the rear brake while keeping the bike in motion with slight clutch engagement. “When you feel like you might lose your balance, instead of dabbing, just ease out the clutch or release the brake. Either will right the bike almost like magic,” Bill said.

I was timid on the motorcycle at the beginning of the DART course, shaking with a flood of adrenaline at each exercise, but my confidence grew quickly. Using body position and manual dexterity like Bill taught, not only saved energy, but also helped a smaller rider like me to handle a large motorcycle.

Each technique, from using the friction zone uphill to popping the bike over logs, added significant range to where an adventure rider might choose to explore.

But the real fun came with the sand.

SIDEWAYS IN SAND

Riding in sand is tricky business. Getting unstuck is even trickier. Bill showed us two methods for getting out. One was to maneuver the bike manually, push it over and then drag the back wheel out of the rut.

The second was to lose the clutch and hit the throttle to “launch” out of the sand, lunging with our legs to move the bike forward. Once free, we would stand and use our body weight to control the machine as it squirmed along gaining momentum. If we felt like we might fall, we’d just hit the throttle and push down on the opposite footpeg to recover. It worked almost every time.

My Sherpa did amazingly well, but I dumped it a couple of times. We all did. But Bill’s techniques worked and soon I was zipping across the sand like a jackrabbit.

On one run, I “whiskey-throttled” the bike a little too much. I had just launched from being stuck and was standing like I should, squealing with pride and racing over the surface. Every time I felt the bike would fall, I would hit the throttle harder… and harder… and harder.

At roughly 25 miles per hour, I realized I needed to slow down. I eased off the throttle, got clumsy with my balance and suddenly the bike was careening sideways, tossing me hard into the sand.

My shoulder wasn’t happy, but not bad enough to quit. However, on one particularly challenging maneuver,I got into trouble again. Coaches Tobin and Zeke were right there to catch the motorcycle, but I still did what the coaches told me not to do, which was “fight my bike” and try to push it upright.

Something went “pop” in my sore shoulder, and my arm wouldn’t work. It simply wouldn’t work. I was frustrated and disappointed that I couldn’t finish the last few exercises. Bill said choosing not to continue with an injury was “using good judgment.” The “J Factor” is a trait he constantly stressed during the course.

While I wasn’t able to try my hand at jumping logs or navigating the side hill, I had one last goal. I started this adventure on a bike, and I was going to end it on a bike. For the final trail ride, I stood behind Coach Dave on his motorcycle as we weaved through forest trails, along debris-filled ruts and over hills. It was thrilling and I was satisfied.

“I knew you would be good at this, Heide,” Bill said at the end of the course, handing me my certificate.

“But I didn’t finish,” I pouted.

“Yes, you did,” he said. “You did great. You should be proud.”

Looking back, I think he’s right. During those two days, I developed skills that even some experienced riders haven’t learned. I went from never being on a motorcycle to climbing hills and racing through sand with confidence. And I found a tribe of people who did nothing but encourage and support me.

I am a motorcyclist. Better yet, I am on my way to becoming an adventure rider.

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