When it comes to motorcycle skills I’m almost 100 percent sure I’m more than adept. I like to think of myself as a learned soul in the culture of twisting throttles and the giggling that follows, mostly because I’ve done it so much.I’m not very awesome at wheelies and I haven’t won a race in a long time, but I thought I knew what it took to properly control a motorcycle so I could enjoy riding at the peak of my ability.Then I took a two-day Dirt Wise Off-Road Riding Academy course with off-road racing legend Shane Watts right before the KLIM Big Sky XC race in Montana. And I realized I didn’t know jack squat and I was doing all sorts of stuff wrong. After four hours battling the elements and conditions of the toughest hare scramble race I’ve ever seen, I was immensely grateful I had taken the class.Apparently, I have bad habits that won’t go away. For instance, even after no less than three other motocross instructors have suggested, taught and screamed at me to look ahead in corners, I still stare at ruts in front of my tire. Why is that? Why can’t I learn how to roost like I learned how to walk? Why do I seem destined to suck at wheelies?Bad habits will always hold you back. And they’re going to keep holding you back unless you learn how to kill them and practice, practice, practice.Don’t worry, it’s understandable-maybe you’ve never had a proper coach, maybe you’ve never practiced a specific motorcycle skill for more than a second or two and maybe you’ve never done a drill in your life. If this sounds like you, then you need help.My race day at Big Sky was much better because Wattsy’s lessons were still fresh in my head. And now every time I hit a trail I’m practicing the little things. It was a big difference maker.The class provided utmost confidence because I’m a much better rider even three months after roosting around Big Sky with the off-road academy crew. My two days enrolled in eight hours of on-the-bike training resulted in a higher level of skill, confidence and speed for my race-day antics in the rocks and logs immediately following the class, and they’ve stuck with me longer than I expected.
Shane Watts’ secret isn’t much of a secret.
“What we focus on at the Dirt Wise Off-Road Riding Academy is making everyone a safer, more confident and more comfortable rider through a higher skill level,” Watts said. “Once you accomplish that, the speed will come. If you try to get the speed too early with bad technique and a lower skill level, you just make yourself more dangerous and increase the chance of getting hurt.”His barrage of drills, tips, principles and explanations are all designed to teach you, in specific off-road situations, how to increase your skill level so you can eventually increase your ability to handle obstacles with ease, as well as your speed. It’s the walk-before-you-run approach, and in my opinion nearly the entire population of dirt riding maniacs out there can benefit by taking a long look in the mirror, slowing down and becoming a better skilled rider. The gains are great. Even if you don’t race, the techniques you can learn in a riding course like Dirt Wise can and will make you a happier weekend warrior.”We also focus on teaching riders to conserve more energy,” Watts continued. “Riding is better when you can ride longer.”Another beauty of the Dirt Wise program: It’s not trying to teach you to take risks because your bad habits are probably wearing you out.
I imagine Shane Watts and his warrior posse of Dirt Wise professionals developed his series of drills and practice techniques by embedding electrodes in Watts’ head and recording every neuron’s transmittal during his long racing and riding career. They make that much sense.
For example: When you’re side-hilling up a single-track trail and your rear tire slips off the path you don’t have a lot of time to react before the bike is below you and your muscles are straining to keep it on a level plane. On this drill Watts taught the entire Big Sky class how to stay calm, react smartly and power out of the situation. This simple lesson has kept me moving forward numerous times since the class. It’s a drill called Grinding, and it’s amazingly fun to practice.To properly “grind” the motorcycle you need to find a log or other smoothish-longish object, lying on the ground. You approach it at an angle, steer your front wheel over one side of the log and let your rear tire slide to the other side. Then you get on the gas and your bike slides along the length of the log-one tire on each side. It sort of chugs and scoots along as you discover how important weight balance and awareness are. After a couple clean passes, your brain learns how to balance so effectively that you can literally do it with your eyes closed. The next time you slide off a trail, there will be little or no worry as you naturally react and power forward to a safe spot.Most of Watts’ drills have the same sort of impression. In the low-speed drills you learn to appreciate bike control through brake, throttle and clutch manipulation-tools that can help you ride at the top of your game no matter the speed. Wheelies and stoppies are daunting for most, and some of us downright suck at them (that’s me). But with a slow, methodical approach, you can and will be getting tires sky high in no time. All of this is done at a controlled pace with the instructor right there encouraging you.Now there’s drifting. And drifting is easily the best drill anyone has ever taught anyone…ever.Drifting is flat-tracking on the gas in a tight circle. It’s not trials-level balancing or wheelie-popping precision, but it’s a great joy ride to teach you the limits of your throttle, the importance of tire-to-ground angles and body-weight balance control. If you’ve ever skidded a shopping cart around a corner at the grocery store and said, “braaaaaaaaap!” then you already know how much fun drifting and the Dirt Wise drifting drill is. Feet-up, tire-skidding, tight-circling drifting is a blast. And if you want to control your bike at speed, drifting is a crucial skill to learn.There’s also the slingshot effect (a tool I use all the time to get unstuck from a log high-side), 90, 180 and 360-degree foot-plant wheelies and a scary-looking but fun balance beam exercise.For a lot of you, you’re sold on a riding school by now. Others may be thinking two full days of bike riding instruction is too boring to ride through. But the best part about Watts’ program is the constant entertainment. First, you can’t help but smile when he says, “good on-ya,” “no worries” and “heaps.” His Aussie accent takes the boring out of instruction and kept me laughing-mostly to myself.Watts really likes to have fun. He is a light-hearted guy who loves riding. And he’ll push you to your potential with a smile on his face.You get a ton of knowledge for your time with the Dirt Wise crew.
All this talk about how great of an experience the Dirt Wise program was doesn’t add up to much without some measurable results. Well, since I’m not working at Dirt Rider full time anymore my riding time has been chopped to real-job status. I ride the desk more than the dirt bike now, and signing up for the KLIM Big Sky XC Race in Montana isn’t exactly like signing up for a trail ride.The Big Sky XC is pretty intense. Talus slopes of granite chunks, numerous log crossings (numerous as in there are multiple logs to cross at once as well as multiple single log crossings), technical single-track and a nasty helping of thunderstorm didn’t help my cause. Three hours on the slopes of America’s ski resort gem would surely prove to be a hoot, as well as a testing ground for my lesson-retention ability.
By the end of the race my three hours had turned into four thanks to a poorly timed last lap (I crossed the finish line 14 seconds before the checkered flag dropped and was the last racer to complete four laps). And my body was beat, battered yet surprisingly satisfied. The beauty of the race for me wasn’t in a result. It was more in knowing that at any time during the race, I had an upper hand on the guys struggling and trying to force their way through.I was much calmer than the angry guy I passed on a single-track, off-camber trail whose bike had fallen downhill. He was SCREAMING at his ride instead of shifting his weight and getting on the gas controllably. A couple of days earlier, I might have done the same thing.When I dumped my 250 XC in the ultra-slippery endurocross section (every time I tried it) I didn’t panic and try to carry my bike over a log. I took my time, did a 90-degree wheelie, rocked back and used a slingshot maneuver to shoot over the log.When I got flashed and mooned by a fivesome of enthusiastic Montana race fans at the top of the mountain on my last lap, I didn’t freak out and lay down the 250. I drifted! I also laughed uncontrollably-Montanans are very pale, even in August.And that’s when it hit me. I was incredibly happy for dragging my desk-riding ass through a four hour extreme hare scramble. I was happy because I was riding better, and I wasn’t nearly as tired as I should have been.When this happens on your rides, you know someone taught you something solid.For more information and to have Dirt Wise engineer a saber-toothed tiger to go nuts on your bad habits, check out www.shanewatts.com for instructional videos and www.shanewatts.com/schools for a complete schedule of schools.