I was perfectly content for many years to ride motorcycles off-road only by accident, as the old joke goes, o ho ho ho… Then I had a child and we started going to the motocross park with a PW50, which logically ended with me getting a Husqvarna TE250 when they built the first street-legal one a few years ago. Cheap transpo, I told the wife. Wait… maybe I didn’t tell her at all? Maybe that’s why she left in a huff? That’s not important right now.
What’s important is I assumed that a guy who’d been riding street bikes as long as I had and was reasonably proficient on pavement would have no trouble riding around on dirt trails with a bunch of old guys with big guts and exposed pates. “Trail riding” sounds so innocuous. I pictured Boy Scout uniforms with kerchiefs. Marshmallows. Why do it unless your kids are too young to get GSX-Rs?
Then one day the phone rang and the infamous Brad Banister said let’s go trail riding. I said that sounds boring. He said he was bringing two Australian enduro-championship women (BB worked in Yamaha PR at the time). I said, “I am in.” OK, I’m actually not totally naïve, I know trail riding can get gnarly, and I knew Brad was the man to make it so—but I had no idea how gnarly.
Snowy Creek Trail up around Gorman, California, is supposed to be a 20- or 30-mile loop, but I didn’t make it more than 4 or 5 of them before I was a humbled creature indeed, toppling over on every loose pebble before I finally just leaned the Husqvarna against the side of the vertical trail wall and gave up. It didn’t help that it was 110 degrees that day on the sun-blasted hillside, and it might’ve been all over right there if not for one lone weird desert bush with enough “foliage” to crawl under while I caught my breath and sucked the foam from my Camel-Bak. Heat stroke was right around the corner.
Salvation appeared in the form of one of the Aussie women, who’d made it a few miles farther up the trail before also turning around. (If it was simple female compassion, I’ll take it!) There was just enough room under the bush for the two of us. A half-hour rest in the shade helped tremendously after those hundred or so Husqvarna squat-presses under the burning sun, but the Bush of Salvation was at the bottom of a steep hill of loose shale, and I truly didn’t know if I’d be able to make it back up. “Sometimes,” said the Australian girl whose name now escapes me, “you just have to get mad and kick the trail’s arse.”
And so we did, back out of that infernal magma pocket and back to our shady-tree truck bivouac lickety-split, where an icy Corona had never tasted quite so lovely. In fact, we had to drink several of them whilst we lounged in truck beds, because the other kids didn’t make it back for quite a few hours. They’d had to pull Brad’s other buddy’s bike up from a cliff with a rope fashioned from the intestine of an armadillo or something preposterous, and the second Australian amazon admitted she had cried at one point, a thing she said she’d never done before on a motorcycle. Brad laughed an hysterical cackle and roosted a big loop around the hillside in back of the parking area on his YZ450F—the one with no registration sticker, which had kept us from the nice, easy trails inside the Gorman OHV park where we were supposed to ride. He was ready to go another loop. How does that work?
The point is, while we were draining all the Coronas, my new best Australian lifesaver friend told me all I needed was to spend some time with her fellow Aussie “Wattsy”—Australian for Shane Watts. Born in a small didgeridoo in Victoria, Australia, in 1972, Wattsy is: Six-time Australian Enduro Champion, Australian 500cc Motocross Champion, 1997 World Enduro Champion, 1998 International Six Day Enduro Overall Champion and 2000 Grand National Cross Country Champion. In short, the man knows his way around a dirt bike, and he shares his knowledge at the Shane Watts Dirtwise Academy, which travels all around the U.S. and Canada.
I signed myself up for February in Victorville, California, and borrowed a Husqvarna TE250 Low. (Awesome. Why don’t more manufacturers offer an off-road bike that doesn’t require you to displace your hip joint every time you get on?)
To go fast you must first learn to go slow. To do this, we stand up and balance and drag the rear brake against the clutch and have slow races across a tiny section of a big, flat Mojave plain. Turn the bars into the direction you’re falling and don’t fall. Hold the clutch at its friction point, gently balanced against the rear brake… Now, remember how to do that when you’re picking your way through the rock garden at Erzberg and you’ll be fine. (I keep dabbing.)
Afraid of ruts? Do you slow down and paddle along with your feet? That won’t do. From a standing start with both wheels in a six-inch-deep, 50-foot-long rut, we practice drag race starts: Gas it through the rut with your feet on the pegs, and if you start to fall left, turn your bars in that direction: The magic of spinning knobbies in the rut will pull you upright again (I crashed a few times anyway, misidentifying at the time to which side I was toppling). And the faster you go the better it works.
Which is actually one of the key points of Wattsy’s off-road-riding catechism: The faster you go, the easier it is. Momentum allied with confident execution can carry you through many tight spots. The corollary to that, unfortunately, is that the faster you go, the greater the consequences for getting it wrong. Biting the dust (literally) at 50 mph is more than 5 times worse than biting it at 10 mph; pain rises as the square of incompetence. Frightened and stuck on a steep (to me) hill, I am made to realize I’ve only got the throttle maybe halfway open on my 250 four-stroke. Whack the thing open and we scamper right up. Lesson: Don’t be a big weenie. The old saw, “when in doubt, gas it,” isn’t really a joke off-road.
Braking is of course key also. First, let’s practice locking the front on purpose to imprint that certain feel, says Wattsy—the feel of your sphincter slamming shut. (His Australian accent occasionally reminds you of the Monty Python sergeant laying out his little plan for marching up and down the square, which actually fits, since what we are doing are drills of a military kind.)
Now let’s add a braking drill to the end of our gas-it-through-the-rut drag race start drill: See how quickly you can slow down when you come to the orange cones (about fourth gear). Just as I had moved my weight rearward (while standing on the pegs of course) and was about to grab a big handful of front brake, the rider to my left went down in a sudden ball of rock and dust, graphically reminding me that this is not pavement. Let’s grab two fingers of deceleration gently and increase pressure gradually. Done that way, you can stop remarkably quickly on dirt. An amazing thing about the desert floor is that while it offers none of the grip of pavement, it does provide every bit of the impact when you fall upon it.
Which leads to our stoppies and wheelies drills. Truly, I didn’t think you could really do stoppies on a loose surface, but you can. I still can’t really do wheelies though… of which there are three basic kinds, or is that four?: Sitting, standing, and 180-degree turn-arounds. (I pray to God I will never need that last one at the bottom of a steep downhill ending at Niagara Falls, or I am a goner.) It’s all simply a matter of using your timing and the bike’s springs to gently but abruptly mash the knobs into the surface. Wattsy makes it all look effortless. None of it is.
As to the wheelies and all the rest of it, I learned what I should’ve already known: Shane Watts has no magic pill. What he has is a blueprint for exercises which, performed repetitively over many hours, might lead you to someday be able to keep up with him (10,000 hours might do it, according to the best-seller Outliers.)
Donut-spinning drill: Ride in a tight circle applying throttle ’til the rear is just stepping out—now, keep doing that in a tight, countersteering circle, hold it there. That leads to the two-cone drill…
Flat turn? This I already learned from Danny Walker’s school: Move up to the front of the seat and sit on top of the bike (the opposite of hanging off) as you gas it around the cone. But instead of sliding your butt up there from a seated position, when off-roading we are always standing. So you sort of pounce onto the front of the seat while braking (remember above) and turning. Correctly executed, the transition from braking to accelerating is seamless and smooth. Roost down to the opposite cone, repeat. (There is no place to rinse in the Victorville desert.) Tired yet? Yes.
Rutted turns? These are important because there are always ruts. The key is to keep the front wheel down low in the rut; that way you can gas it all the way around, carrying slot-car speed, which will allow you to crash even faster in the next corner. My front tire keeps popping out of the rut. No good. More practice….
Grinding? At most of his schools, Shane finds telephone poles or logs: front wheel on one side, rear wheel on the other. Now ride. This is an important skill for pulling yourself out of a rut or side-hilling, i.e., crabbing sideways up a steepish hill of loose rocks and dirt. Just because your rear knobby is not lined up with your front one doesn’t mean you have to topple over. In the desert, where there is no wood (the weekend warriors have burnt every scrap, and they even stole our orange cones while we broke for lunch on day two), we find dirt shoulders at the side of the dirt road to scuttle along. Given another 1000 hours, I could learn to do it.
To improve, we must leave our comfort zone a little at a time. (Thank God for my Husqvarna’s low seat and electric start.) And like any sporting endeavor, what you really need to succeed is confidence. Enduro riding is a crazy sport filled with unknown obstacles that can appear instantly; the only thing the expert rider knows that the rest of us don’t is that he will deal confidently with whatever comes up. Shane Watts has buckets of confidence, and one of the things you’re paying for is the hope that a little of his might pour out of his bucket onto you over the course of these two days.
Nearly all the other mostly middle-aged students had way more off-road experience than I did, but not many of them were much better at most of these basic drills than I was—which tells me there is plenty of room for improvement for almost everybody.
A few of the best riders wanted to know if Shane offers an advanced course. The answer: not anymore. The advanced course, says Shane, taught the very same techniques in “more challenging” terrain, where the cost of getting it wrong was higher: Too many injuries, too many broken motorcycles and too much time lost waiting for “the meat wagon” showed Wattsy that teaching this stuff mostly on the flats is the way to go.
As an off-road novice, I couldn’t agree more. I learned a ton, but being able to make my limbs do what my brain suggests every time a BFR, a 10-foot crater or a steep, 180-degree switchback appears in my path will take some practice or quite possibly a reincarnation. Luckily, I’m still young in geologic time. Now then. Let’s get out there and kick the trail’s arse while we can still lift our legs.
For school schedules, pricing ($380 for most two-day schools) and lots of great instructional videos, etc., go to www.Shanewatts.com.