Wednesday, May 19, 2004

Desert Lessons

Girl Wonder and I paid a visit to our California neighbor and riding guru, Gary LaPlante this past weekend. Gary lives about 2 1/2 miles (the way the crow flies) from our property in Aguanga. That's qualifies him as a neighbor, even though we had to fly from Seattle to see him. Gary has 300 acres of varied high-desert terrain located off of Reed Valley Road; house-sized boulders, great hill climbs, a one-mile MX track, lot's of sandy desert trails, and beautiful views. This is all part of his "Motoventures" operation that he started back in 1998, and he is one of the best teachers and tour guides for any skill level. It's always great to be mentored by a veteran racing and trials champion.

A few days before we arrived, those aforementioned views were threatened by the flames licking their way over a nearby ridge and consuming everything in their path. To the south, Route 79 had been shut down by another fire. There aren't many trees to burn - only brush and barns and houses - but these fires really cook. And in their aftermath, they leave a mat-black and totally barren landscape which is curiously silent. Fortunately, both of our properties were spared and the weather was perfect for riding.

The reason that I believe in continued training, whether it be for street bikes, dirt bikes or firearms, is that we tend to forget the basics unless we are engaged in the activity every day. We do the same thing with our posture, sitting nice and straight, and then over time, slouching - unless someone gives us an occasional tug on the ear and says, "sit up straight!" Hopefully there comes a day when there is no need for correction - when the right form becomes the natural state of being. Slouching and other gradually acquired bad habits start because unlike the gym, there aren't any mirrors on the wall or at the sides of the road. Yeah, there are narcissists among us – like my friend’s dad, who was so mesmerized by his own reflection while driving past a storefront window that he smashed into a parked car – but we are often not privy to the objective view.

GW and I ride almost every weekend in Washington, where traction is not really a problem. In the desert, however, traction is measured in negative numbers. This is the place to experience losing control, and it doesn't take much effort to have the front and rear sliding. In fact, I had forgotten about this and immediately felt as though I was riding on ice. And my apathetic counterbalancing was coming up short. Gary and his assistant both pointed this out to me. Me? Less than perfect? No way! It was true, and the terrain conditions wouldn't let me deny it or make excuses. Expert criticism and the terrain's irrefutable feedback were the missing mirrors.

GW had some hard-learned lessons. She typically rides behind me, so my critical eye is often not upon her. But out there in the desert there is no way to hide your weaknesses. She too would have every bad habit emphasized by the demanding conditions and having to ride an unfamiliar bike. Her Kawasaki KLX300 that she rides at home is a forgiving machine. It will lug all day and let you get away with poor clutch and throttle control. It will allow you to sloppily eat your way up hills, and slog down embankments with nary a concern. In short, the KLX is a tractor.

The Honda CFR230, which she was riding on Saturday, has less power and needs to be flogged. The clutch also needs to be finessed in order to keep the bike running while creeping along. And there is far less engine braking. Do it wrong and you will pay for the mistake with an inconvenient uphill stall, or worse.
One of the exercises best done on a dirt bike, as opposed to a street bike, is threshold braking -- you know, riding at the very edge of a lock up for maximum braking efficiency. If you lock the wheel and fail to perceive it -- and not immediately modulate the lever pressure -- you will sustain a predictable, and sometimes painful lowside. This is not the thing you necessarily want to experiment with on your plastic-ensconced race replica. Dirt bikes, however, will take much more abuse and the plastic almost never breaks.

So we went through some drills racing down a straightaway and then clamping on the binders to the point that the front disc begins to howl, keeping the front wheel just shy of a lock-up. It's amazing that you can stop so well on semi-loose granular surfaces, and as GW found out, it's equally amazing how fast a locked front wheel will hurl you towards the earth -- especially if you fail to perceive it happening. And THUD she went, with two hundred and something pounds of bike slamming on her ankle. This is where you ask yourself if you've paid enough for your boots. Luckily, she had, and while she sustained a nasty sprain, nothing broke. Gary leaves it up to the rider to determine how tough they want to be. He doesn't coddle women riders, or anyone else for that matter, because dirt biking requires a fair amount of toughness and aggression. That's not to say he lacks patience or care. And after five minutes of agonizing pain while lying prone, GW was back on the bike and where she continued to ride another 3 or 4 hours.

GW had a tough day, but she realized what skills she needs to improve: clutch, throttle and brake control. She also forgets to counterbalance, which like me, is a slowly developed bad habit born out of Washington's superior traction. She did have some moments of achievement. She succeeded in climbing a very challenging hill after two attempts that resulted in get-offs. Climbing up a hill in a straight line is fairly easy. Throw in a few boulders that you have to traverse, obstacles that must be sliced between with surgical precision or risk tearing off your pegs -- and some loose traction -- and all bets are off. Because I had to stop part way up and wait for GW to clear the carnage of body and bike, I had to finish the climb without any built up momentum. I made it, but it wasn't pretty.

We finished the day playing around on GasGas trials bikes. Trials bikes are the tai chi approach to motorcycling, and if you can ride one well, you can ride anything else. It's all about superior balance, strength and machine control. The object is to creep up and over obstacles such as elephant-sized boulders and other technical obstacles without putting a foot down.
What I took away from the day was that variety in your diet is important. Being faced with new challenges is the quickest way to realize that there is still much to learn. And having an expert give you constructive criticism will stop the "slouching."

To not break from tradition, we headed over to The Blue Coyote Café in Palm Springs for our favorite margaritas. At 100 degrees, Palm Springs was a good 25 degrees "warmer" than where we had been riding -- and those killer margaritas have never tasted so good.