Our guest on Episode 38 of the Rider Magazine Insider Podcast is Eric Trow, a life-long motorcyclist, a renowned motorcycling proficiency expert, and a recipient of the AMA Outstanding Road Rider Award. Trow is a Contributing Editor at Rider Magazine, where he writes the popular “Riding Well” column as well as special features. Trow developed the modern Stayin’ Safe method of advanced rider training, and Stayin’ Safe Training Tours are available through MotoMark1. In this episode, we talk with Trow about his background in motorcycle skills training and how he got involved with Rider Magazine. We get the backstory on two of Trow’s popular features published in Rider, “Chasing Gene and Washie” (Feb. 2022 issue) and “Parker Discovers America” (Aug. 2021 issue). And we learn what motorcycles Trow has in his garage, from his grandfather’s 1953 Indian Chief (one of the last ones built) to his newly acquired Honda Trail 90.
Our guest on Episode 20 of the Rider Magazine Insider Podcast is Jon DelVecchio, founder of Street Skills and author of “Cornering Confidence: The Formula for 100% Control in Curves.” By applying Jon’s techniques, motorcyclists gain more confidence and enjoyment in the curves. He’s a real-world rider who started riding motorcycles after starting a family and got hooked on sport riding. His need for self-preservation fueled skill development, and he served as an MSF RiderCoach for a decade and studied more advanced riding techniques. Jon shares his experience with fellow riders in his in-person and online Street Skills riding improvement courses and in his book, which is available in paperback and on Kindle. Jon’s Trail Braking Camp solves the mystery of this “secret weapon” technique. For more information, visit CorneringConfidence.com.
A couple of friends – sportbike riders and track-day regulars – recently invited me on their Sunday morning canyon ride. I showed up on our Triumph Speed Triple 1200 RS test bike. It was early, the road was empty, and we tore away. I say “we,” but I lost sight of them after the first mile and soon resigned myself to not keeping up, doing no justice to the Triumph.
Decades of riding experience have given me the required confidence in physics and tires to throw a motorcycle into a turn, but that confidence faded once our speed picked up. If I was going to truly test bikes like the Speed Triple, I needed to hone my skills. My friends, it turned out, were both graduates of California Superbike School, and over a weekend in June I signed up for two days of training (Levels I and II) at Streets of Willow Springs, a 1.6-mile track in Rosamond, California, about an hour north of Los Angeles.
In the 1970s, Keith Code enjoyed some success club racing for the “Pops” Yoshimura team, but he also discovered he had an aptitude for analyzing and communicating the techniques required to carry speed through a corner. Under Code’s instruction, many a young racer shaved seconds off their lap times, demonstrating that speed wasn’t just a matter of innate talent but teachable skills. In 1980, he established a school to offer his unique step-by-step advanced rider training to anyone with a motorcycle license. Four decades later, California Superbike School has become synonymous with sportbike training, with schools in the U.S., the U.K., and Australia.
There is something childishly exciting about driving through the gates of a racetrack, especially true when it’s you destined to be on the track, which creates some apprehension. I haven’t so much as sat on a bike with clip-on bars since selling my Kawasaki Ninja ZX-6R years ago. I drew some comfort from the fact that at least half of the 54 people joining me for instruction looked just as nervous as I was. The rest ambled around like they owned the place, posting up in the breakfast buffet and chatting with the staff. I soon found out these were returning students, here for Levels III and IV, and, it seemed, part of the family now. It was encouraging to see half a dozen women in attendance, including Kristina Teskera, a German ex-pat who had been riding for only eight months.
Day-to-day management of CSS is now handled by Keith Code’s son, Dylan. But Keith was there, too, sauntering about and happy to share advice or an anecdote as the operation hummed along around him. Students were separated into manageable groups, alternating between the classroom lessons, on-track drills, debriefing sessions, and breaks.
After Dylan delivered our first lesson on throttle control, we filed out into the paddock. The Streets of Willow track, a black ribbon rising and falling with the hilly terrain, formed the backdrop to a line of black BMW S 1000 RR sportbikes gleaming in the morning sun. I suspect even the coolest among us had their hearts in their mouths as we headed to our designated machines.
Lined up in pit lane, I heard Trevor Pennington, the course controller, holler above the resounding throb of engines, “First drill?!” No one gets on track unless they can repeat the name of the drill. This helps us stay focused and allows Trevor to spot students who may be fatigued or dehydrated. I shouted, “Throttle control, fourth gear only, no brakes!” and Trevor yelled, “Go!”
The no-brakes drill focused our minds on gentle throttle inputs. The RRs were set to rain mode and throttle response was forgiving, but I couldn’t find a good position on the bike, had no idea where the heck I was going, I was entering turns too early and then correcting, all the while trying to stay off the levers.
It took a few laps to get acquainted with the track and the BMW. My assigned track coach arced in front of me, tapped his taillight – follow my line – and I started hitting some apexes. After a lap, he pulled off the racing line and waved me on. My turn to lead. A smile found its way to my face as I carried more speed through the Bowl Turn, a 20-degree banked carousel, which was quickly wiped off when I entered the final turn of the session too hot and trail braked well wide of the apex.
Immediately after each track session, students met their coaches for debriefing, where circuit maps taped to each table provide context for feedback and guidance. My coach, Mike Pesicka, validated some of my good throttle control before digging into the errors. An issue he immediately spotted was my tendency to level the horizon as I lean into a turn. Tilting my head up closes my shoulders and limits my ability to lean.
He then turned his attention to Doug Ramey, who’d trailered his Harley-Davidson Road Glide Special from Carson City, Nevada, to use at CSS. Students can bring their own motorcycles as long as they are safe for track use. Watching Doug fearlessly muscle his 800-pound beast around the tight, technical track was a spectacle, and a little depressing when he blasted past me in the first three sessions.
By the last session of Level I, the combination of physical and mental exertion, desert heat, and adrenaline highs and lows had us all fairly exhausted, and I had to ask the guy lined up next to me in the pit lane to remind me what the drill was before Trevor came striding up. The five lessons had focused on rider inputs and improving our turning technique. Turn-in points had been taped to each corner, vastly improving our odds of hitting an apex.
Nonetheless, as my average speed increased, my braking points changed, leading to maddening mid-turn corrections. Mike reported an improvement in head position, but mostly on left turns. He led me over to the Body Position Bike, a static simulator composed of the rider touchpoints – bars, tank, seat, and pegs – affixed to a frame that tilts 45 degrees to each side to mimic on-track motion.
The next day, I was back for Level II training, and Dylan’s first lesson focused on vision. I took it easy during the first track session, and after getting Mike’s input, I headed for the Lean Bike. Each level includes one supplementary practical lesson, and I met CSS coach Johnny Haynes out on the skidpad. He stood next to a sportbike modified with spring-loaded outriggers, each tipped with a caster wheel, making it crash-proof.
Johnny immediately corrected my position on the seat, which he attributed to slippery leathers. A quick call on the radio brought the sticky butt spray, and after receiving a liberal coating, we resumed the lesson. Johnny had me using my outside knee to grip the tank, helping keep my weight off the bars, while pointing my inside knee toward the corner.
Now that I was moving around on the bike and digging my knees into the tank, track sessions had become increasingly demanding and by the last, my legs were like jelly. I took the final lesson on trail braking as an invitation to add speed, and when Mike arced in front of me for the last time, he seemed noticeably quicker. I fell in line behind him, the rush of tarmac closer than I’ve ever dared.
As we rolled out of the bowl, Mike’s penultimate debrief fresh in my mind, I wound on the throttle the moment I touched the apex, releasing the BMW’s ballistic power and forcing me to the outer curb. I sat up at the kink just as the tach hit 10,000 rpm, adrenaline coursing through me, and saw Mike glance in his mirror and nod. I was right on his tail, and nothing could have pleased him more.
On a racetrack, to be fast around a corner is everything. But more importantly, for most of us, the skills CSS teaches make for better, safer road riding. As I would discover only a week later, applying effective vision, measured control inputs, and braking techniques can make the difference between walking away from disaster or not. Advances in technology have far outpaced human evolution. Motorcycles are faster and, thanks to ABS, traction control, and IMU sensors, are safer than ever, whereas motorcyclists are the same Homo sapiens they were 100,000 years ago. CSS is a potent upgrade to the most critical safety feature, the rider.
I’ve attended many driving and enduro schools, and the program content, quality of equipment, and the professionalism of the staff at California Superbike School are a model for how training should be done. I look forward to going back for Level III. I’ll stride in, grab a Danish, and shoot the breeze with Mike and Johnny.
California Superbike School holds training from February through November at tracks throughout the U.S. Single-day schools cost $725 per day using a CSS bike or $525 per day if you ride your own. The fee includes classroom training, track sessions, coaching, food, and drinks, and CSS has a well-stocked supply of suits, boots, gloves, and helmets for students to borrow. If you want more track time and more personalized coaching, you can sign up for a 2-Day Camp. For more info, visit superbikeschool.com.
The Motorcycle Safety Foundation is calling on riders everywhere to keep learning and stay safe with the help of online information, most of it available for free.
“The MSF has a wide variety of digital content that can help motorcyclists while many training sites and RiderCoaches are unavailable during this pandemic,” said Robert Gladden, MSF vice president of training operations. “Many riders are still on the road, getting where they need to go, and we want them, and all motorists, to be as safe as possible.”
Riders can visit the MSF’s online library to find educational materials from downloadable booklets to videos and quick tips, plus fun “tests” like the Rider Perception Challenge.
On the MSF’s YouTube channel, also free, motorcyclists can take a dozen virtual street rides with Dr. Ray Ochs, MSF vice president of training systems, as he talks about real-world traffic while two-wheeling around Southern California.
Beginning and veteran riders can purchase the MSF Basic eCourse, an interactive, three-hour, online introduction to motorcycling. It was designed as a key component of the hands-on MSF Basic RiderCourse, but taking the eCourse alone can help someone decide if motorcycling is right for them. It can also be beneficial for those who intend to take a hands-on course not using MSF curriculum. And the eCourse is strongly recommended for riders who have been away from motorcycling for some time.
For currently active and experienced riders, the MSF Street Strategies eCourse is an option. It focuses on all of the street strategies sections that are found in the Basic eCourse.
“Our phone lines are up, our email is up, and we are keeping our spirits up,” Gladden said. “We are sharing best practices, participating in video conferences, sometimes just being there for our friends in the safety community, lending a sympathetic ear. We are determined that we will ride it out, together.”
The Motorcycle Safety Foundation promotes safety through rider training and education, operator licensing tests, and public information programs. The MSF works with the federal government, state agencies, the military, and others to offer training for all skill levels so riders can enjoy a lifetime of safe, responsible motorcycling. Standards established by the MSF have been recognized worldwide since 1973.
The MSF is a not-for-profit organization endorsed by American Honda Motor Co., Inc.; BMW Motorrad USA; BRP, Inc.; Harley-Davidson Motor Company, Inc.; Indian Motorcycle; Kawasaki Motors Corp., U.S.A.; KTM North America, Inc.; Suzuki Motor of America, Inc.; Triumph Motorcycles America; and Yamaha Motor Corporation, U.S.A. For safety information or to enroll in an MSF Basic RiderCourse near you, or to learn more about the many other MSF course offerings, visit MSF-USA.org or call (800) 446-9227.
California Superbike School marks its 40th anniversary in 2020, with a U.S. schedule that includes 86 days of training at 10 different tracks, including Laguna Seca, Barber Motorsports Park, The Ridge, Virginia International Raceway and New Jersey Motorsports Park, and an updated fleet of 2020 BMW S 1000 RRs (there are also bring-your-own-bike options). Full rental gear is also available.
The California Superbike School has trained 153,000 students, most of whom are regular street riders. Racers also occasionally attend, with graduates claiming 65 National and World racing championships. Keith’s teachings have been the basis for motorcycle riding programs all over the country and along with his son, Dylan Code, have brought more technology and advanced metrics into the program to better educate students of all skill levels and learning styles.
A tiny figure on a Honda CRF250 slowly ascends a rocky slope in the rough country of southeastern Utah. Partway up she veers off course and stops a few feet from the top. A lifelong street motorcyclist, this is her first foray off pavement. Her breathing is rapid, eyes wide.
A man in a faded Tilley hat steps forward and offers a few words of encouragement. “You nearly cleaned that hill!” says Bill Dragoo. “Just stick with the plan and keep your eyes on the top. You’re here to slay some dragons and this one has met his match.” She takes a deep breath, stands up again and leans into the hill, this time victorious. A cheer goes up from her fellow students.
For many a motorcyclist, the “Pavement Ends” sign triggers a U-turn, along with a twinge of regret. The trail ahead may be alluring and the bike fully capable of handling rough terrain, but the rider lacks the confidence to explore the unknown. This group is gathered to learn how to keep going when the asphalt disappears. MotoDiscovery has brought Bill Dragoo to Utah to train guests on one of its small-group adventure tours, beginning with two days of instruction at 3 Step Hideaway, a motorcycle-oriented resort in remote Lisbon Valley.
For Dragoo, the fun begins when the pavement ends. Through his school, Dragoo Adventure Rider Training (DART), his mission is “to provide quality off-road training at a fair price.” A member of the United States BMW GS Trophy team in 2010, Dragoo began teaching off-road riding skills in 2013 while visiting Bolivia. There, fellow riders sought his coaching for handling their big dual-sport bikes more skillfully on the country’s treacherous unpaved roads.
Soon after, he was conducting classes in his home state of Oklahoma, then accepting invitations to travel across the U.S. and back to South America to train riders as part of organized motorcycle tours. Now he is one of a handful of Americans certified as an off-road instructor by BMW Motorrad at its world training camp in Hechlingen, Germany.
Here in Utah, Dragoo’s job is to help riders prepare for MotoDiscovery’s 850-mile tour through some of the state’s best scenery, much of which can be reached only by leaving the pavement. Seven clients have traveled from across the U.S., some bringing their own dual-sport bikes, including a BMW R 1200 GS, and others renting Suzuki DRZ400s and a Honda CRF250. Skills vary widely, from newbie to desert racer, but there is something here to challenge them all.
Dragoo’s training is tailored to prepare riders for adversity. He starts with the basics and moves through a series of skill-building exercises designed to present the types of challenges students will face during a real adventure ride, whether on a local forest road, one of the Backcountry Discovery Routes or an around-the-world journey.
At 3 Step, the first morning is spent on fundamentals. Starting with static exercises, Dragoo teaches proper body position, the value of maintaining balance and the benefits of peg-weight steering. Before riding drills, participants are taught to “lead” their bikes, practicing clutch and brake interaction while walking beside the machine over small hills. Enduro steering follows, in which counterweight turns, head and eye position and the nuances of fine clutch and brake interaction are emphasized.
It is slow-speed work, keeping the bike in tension at times by dragging a brake against the clutch while executing tight circles on loose terrain, skills useful on rough mountain roads and tight switchbacks. An afternoon trail ride helps the group loosen up and apply what they’ve learned.
The second day adds braking on loose surfaces and provides comprehensive practice with a variable terrain exercise, then it’s off to the trails again for more advanced skills: hill fail reversals, loose hill starts and even towing. It is an intense two days, and responses vary. Many students are tired and eager to return to 3 Step for a rest, but a few spend some extra time riding a sand wash, just for fun.
Departure day brings a late September frost and, after a hearty breakfast, the riders layer up against the cold. Barak Naggan and Alex Moore shepherd the group for MotoDiscovery, Naggan leading on his Yamaha WR450 and Moore in a support vehicle. I’m also in a chase truck, photographing the event.
Traveling west, we skirt the edge of Canyonlands National Park’s Needles District, then ascend into the La Sal Mountains, negotiating dirt roads with tight switchbacks and precipitous views, where new skills come in handy. Returning to the desert, the distant towers of Monument Valley are visible on the southern horizon. We arrive at Hall’s Crossing on Lake Powell for the 4 p.m. ferry. After an intense day of riding, the chance to relax is welcome. Soon a structure becomes visible on the opposite shore–our lodging for the night, the Defiance House Lodge. When the ferry docks we roll off and travel smooth, curvy pavement to the hotel.
Awakening the next day to light showers, we head out for Notom-Bullfrog Road. We enter the graded dirt road off State Route 276 and are greeted by some of Utah’s most dramatic scenery as our route hugs the east side of the Waterpocket Fold, a jagged, 100-mile buckle in the earth’s surface. The Burr Trail cuts across the fold, and we ascend–and then descend–its notorious switchbacks. One of our least experienced riders shines here, delicately balancing his machine over loose terrain and picking his way along with the dexterity of a dancer.
Back in the valley, we really begin to experience the effects of the rain: two riders go down in the slippery mud. No harm done, except to their now-grimy riding outfits, and soon we are off again, practicing a stream crossing in the Fremont River, riding a dry wash near Caineville, and taking a side trip to Capitol Reef National Park’s Cathedral Valley before ending the full day of riding in Hanksville. The town is little more than a crossroads, but it’s the only place around, and the basic but clean Whispering Sands Motel serves its purpose.
There is more rain overnight and Naggan recommends the paved route to our third destination, Moab. A late morning arrival leaves ample time for individual side trips after checking in to the plush Best Western Canyonlands. Two riders join Dragoo and Naggan for a ride over Hurrah Pass. Their ride is cut short by a flat tire on Dragoo’s BMW R 1200 GS, but the inconvenience quickly becomes a teaching moment as he demonstrates a field tire repair before turning the group back to Moab.
Leaving Moab on our last day, we wind through the slickrock playground of Sand Flats Recreation Area. We stop at Porcupine Rim Overlook, where low clouds obscure our view of Castle Valley. Peering down from the edge, we try to glimpse hints of the formations below and are rewarded with a rare “pilot’s halo” forming a sliver of rainbow. Snow in the La Sals discourages further ascent on dirt roads so we return to 3 Step via pavement, where we load bikes on trailers and say our good-byes.
For many of these riders–learning new skills and having the opportunity to apply them immediately–it has been a week of transformation. Now for them, pavement is the means to an end and the “Pavement Ends” sign the beginning of adventure.