Five Riding Skills You Can Practice Every Ride

At age 50, Gary Klein fell in love with motorcycle riding and wanted to “get good ASAP.” Here are the top 5 skills he practiced to get there.

Nick’s Note: Gary Klein is my longest-lasting friend. We met at the age of 10 and traveled through school, Boy Scouts and Alta together. Klein is a studied, focused, determined individual. Here is a new-rider’s (somewhat sarcastic and smart-assey) guide to becoming better, sooner. I’m hoping new riders are motivated to make the extra efforts Klein makes to ride more safely at the pace they choose.

motorcycle silouette against the blue sky
Parking lots, including this truck stop, became my practice areas. On my Versys and then my FZ1, I worked on techniques at slower speeds to fine-tune muscle memory, finding that the small things like foot position make a huge difference.Gary Klein

When I turned 50, a co-worker suggested I take a much-needed vacation. She told me to rent a motorcycle and ride around southern Utah for two weeks. I had ridden friends' dirt bikes when I was a kid, but now I was middle-aged with lower back, knee and neck issues. I was also a professional man with responsibilities, a reputation to uphold due to my unusually high morals. A street bike...WTF???

But I was intrigued by the idea. And I learned quickly that it wouldn't cost much more to buy a used motorcycle than to rent one for a couple of weeks. Soon after, I was riding my very own Kawasaki 650 Versys, much to the dismay of my family and friends.

Within the first week I had a couple of close calls, and decided to get serious about learning or get off the bike...for good. I really wanted to ride, so I stepped up the seriousness factor, described below, and logged over 13,000 miles in the next three months. At that point, I felt ready to step up to the Yamaha FZ1 Nick recommended.

East Canyon is close to where Nick and I grew up right next to the Wasatch mountain range. The turns are spectacular and I used this mountain road over and over to practice everything I had learned. Recently, I found out this is the same canyon Nick and his father rode together many times. Nick said practicing there equipped him for a professional racing career. This is not to suggest that when the canyon was closed for much of the year that Team Ienatsch rode around the gate, locked by the U.S. Forest Service, to enjoy miles of twisties all to themselves. Nor is this to suggest that the posted speed limit was ever exceeded...your honor.

twisty road through the mountains
East Canyon: 18.5 minutes from my garage.Gary Klein

It's now five years later, and I just returned from an 830-mile, two-day solo trip from Salt Lake City to Yellowstone and back. The Yamaha (affectionately called “the scooter”) has taken me around the western U.S. a tad over 42,000 miles. Hey...I'm now 55 and have ridden 55K miles. Sammy Hagar was wrong.

The scooter has introduced me to places not far from home that I never knew existed. I often put some money in my pocket and head out to the mountains and/or desert and take a road I have not been on. One time I ended up at Craters of the Moon National Monument & Preserve. At 6:03 AM, the rangers nor any visitors had yet arrived and I found myself ALL ALONE on the seven-mile, recently paved, one-way loop. I frenetically searched for a speed limit sign and was greatly relieved when I finally spied one at the end of my fourth lap while exiting the park...your honor.

close-up of asphalt road
Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve offers outstanding scenery, but sometimes the most beautiful sight is an empty road.Gary Klein

When Nick asked me to write a few thoughts on what I did to facilitate learning to ride, I thought of suggesting he just post links to his website, articles, videos and his book. That's how I learned: All Nick All the Time. (Don't get a big head, Ienatsch.) Oh, and I also attended some lunch-time lectures when Nick was in town teaching the Yamaha Champions Riding School. That helped a lot. Following Nick's direction shaved years off my learning curve and has saved my bacon more than once.

My learning curve is generally slow, so the fastest way for me to pick up something new is through relentless repetition. In another part of my life I'm a drummer, and I've learned that if I practice a complicated pattern enough times (somewhere between one and one million), I'll eventually get it. I may not see any progress for an ungodly amount of time, yet if I continue with full commitment, one day...yes, one day…it will make sense, and my neural pathways will be nicely carved. Thank you very much.

Gary Klein sitting on his motorcycle
Gary Klein is a LCSW (Licensed Clinical Social Worker) with a wicked and irreverent sense of humor, here sporting a shirt with advice he often hears in his profession. Over the last five years he has used motorcycle riding as a getaway and for rejuvenation of the spirit. His FZ1 and the backroads of the American west are what this professional calls “the best therapy”.Klein Archives

The single most important thing that's stuck in my memory bank on account of Nick Ienatsch is this: "Practice every ride." (Dear reader, repeat this softly and constantly. Yes, even during love-making.) I found every semi-empty parking lot within a five-mile radius of my home and practiced for hours what I had studied from Nick's book, "Sport Riding Techniques". My favorite lot was actually a truck pull-out near Park City. I worked on sliding smoothly from side-to-side by doing figure eights until I became dizzy or felt like barfing. It took weeks to get over my fear of leaning over farther in tight, concentric circles, but I eventually scraped a peg on each side. When I excitedly told my mother of this accomplishment she looked off in the distance and muttered, "Our family has unusually high morals and my middle-aged son is scraping pegs in an empty parking lot...WTF?"

In addition to the parking lot workouts, My Big Five practice checklist for beginner riders focuses on the most important things that I started with five years ago, and continue to practice each and every ride, with or without a passenger.

1. Eyes:

  • I scan what is behind me (using mirrors), to the sides and in front of me, constantly looking for potential hazards.
  • Your eyes can continue scanning back and forth, even when your head turns and sets up body position for anticipating the bike's next direction.
  • Target fixation can be deadly, so I practice avoiding it in turns or on straights by visually selecting something on the road (debris, dark/light patches, etc.) and immediately looking farther down the road. The brain retains a short-term map of what was just seen and the rider then guides the bike around the imagined hazard. With enough practice, you don't even have to think about it, and your reactions kick in to steer you away from trouble.

2. Trail Braking:

This technique is the bomb. I took to trail braking right away, as I found that a gentle application of the front brake would immediately control speed and direction. I had been using snow-ski edges (brakes) for the exact same reasons while hauling down steep mountain slopes since I was a kid. Aside from “Eyes” I practice trail braking more than anything else. Just like my skiing, more brake control equals significantly greater exhilaration and reduces the frequency of panic-prayers. I saw a real-world application of this when riding behind Nick through the Colorado mountains. His brake light came on just before he started leaning into a right-handed turn. From out of nowhere, a deer bounded directly into our lane. Because Nick was already on the front brake, he was able to quickly, yet smoothly stop, even at lean angle.

motorcycle windshield with road in background
An unknown downhill corner is when all the practice comes together to make riding a joy.Gary Klein

3. Emergency braking:

Nick has emphasized repeatedly: “If you ride at 100 miles an hour, you need to practice braking at 100 miles an hour.” I practiced braking the scooter from that speed a couple of times and didn't feel comfortable at all. But I've found that 80 mph is about the high end of my comfort zone, so that's the speed at which I usually practice, either solo or with a passenger. Caution: Braking with a passenger on board is quite different than riding alone, and may require some extra practice, especially if your passenger is your precious-cargo girlfriend. In these instances, I started at much lower speeds and worked up from there. (Note: Merrilee, my girlfriend, forced me to write that last part. She's not the boss of...Nothing, sweetie. Just humming to myself. Love you!)

4. Body position:

I like watching professional riders set up their next turn. First, their rear ends shift off the seat in the new direction they will be going. Next, their heads lean toward that same direction to utilize body weight for steering. Having a turn already set up like this has helped me avoid big trouble while enhancing the experience of cornering. It not only reduces target fixation significantly, but also sets the tone for the entire turn. While practicing the essentials at slow speeds in parking lots didn’t seem like such a big deal, I’m glad I did because they become exponentially more important at street speeds.

5. Rolling on and off the throttle:

First, I triple check that no vehicles are behind me. Next, I put the bike in first gear and get to a pretty good clip so the torque is instant and pronounced. Then, I work on speeding up and slowing down smoothly. At higher revs, the feedback does little to sugarcoat my errors and pathetic excuses. In emergency situations, the best outcomes are usually a result of the body immediately reacting to correct techniques that have been practiced ad nauseam. I need more work on this.

That's it: My Big Five techniques I practice every ride. Oh, there's another fabulous concept I picked up from my friend, Walt Bayless, who, among other things is a jiu-jitsu master. Walt said he frequently exchanges his black belt for a white one and starts training all over again with the basics. “When I start feeling complacent and confident,” he said, “that's when I'm most vulnerable to injury and I swap out belts and go back to the essentials.”

Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki said, "In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, in the expert's mind there are few." So, every time I swing a leg over the bike, I remember that as long as I am a beginner, I can justify another ride to practice my essentials while enjoying the stunning beauty in our corner of the universe. We riders truly are lucky bastoids.

More Next Tuesday!