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Mastering your machine: Small changes often make the biggest impact

Photos by Kandi Spangler and Bill Wiegand and courtesy of the BMW Performance Center.

“Feel your butt!” That was the phrase etched into my brain 15 years ago when I had the opportunity to do a training flight with world-renowned aerobatic instructor Budd Davisson.

We began our training by flying a warm-up training maneuver called “boxing the wake,” where I would maneuver the airplane in a benign, box-like pattern before moving on to more advanced maneuvers. Our first exercise was designed to focus on coordinated flight around all three axes of the airplane. While it doesn’t sound exciting or particularly hard, it was the basis for subsequent maneuvers that would have us flying upside-down and practicing loops and rolls while pulling both positive and negative Gs.

In my opinion, it was also the hardest maneuver to perfect because it required small, yet constant changes in pitch, yaw and bank, all while keeping the airplane in “coordinated flight.” Instead of looking at the trusty turn-coordinator located on the instrument panel during the maneuver, Budd would insist that I look outside and make the maneuver using my internal turn-coordinator–in other words, my butt! Coordinated flight meant keeping my weight firmly in the center of my butt throughout the maneuvers. If for any reason I felt my weight shift even slightly to the side of my butt (think of how your weight shifts in the seat of a car if you take a curve too fast), then we were “uncoordinated” and he would bark, “Feel your butt!” It’s not necessarily that hard to stay coordinated in steady-state flight (like during easy, constant-rate turns), but boxing the wake with small, yet constant changes in pitch, yaw and bank made coordination–keeping my butt centered in the seat–infinitely more challenging.

If you’ve read my previous articles about training, you know I draw a lot of parallels between my riding and flying experience and I approach both activities with a mindset of mastering my machine. But being a master of any machine doesn’t come from experience alone; it comes from a conscious effort to consistently train and practice at a very high level. So, it’s no surprise I drew parallels when I recently took the Authority School at the BMW Performance Center in Greer, South Carolina.

Aaron Rankin going over the bike with class attendees.

Advanced classes like these are my favorites because you’re not learning macro-level inputs to make the bike do what you want, rather you’re learning about physics, the bike’s capabilities and how seemingly tiny changes in your technique can yield massively different, and impressive outcomes. Advanced classes can teach you the difference between running an exercise at 1,500 RPM vs. 2,000 RPM, or how moving your shoulders another inch to the outside of the turn can give you enough counterbalance to tighten your turn by six inches. These tiny changes and fine-tuning of your skills and using your internal instrumentation of sight, feel, and sound, are where the magic happens and where a highly skilled motorcycle instructor can help even the best riders.

This particular two-day class was taught by the Rider Academy’s Chief Motorcycle Instructor Aaron Rankin, a recently retired Sheriff’s Office Captain with 30 years of experience, including 12 as a Motor Officer. Originally developed for law enforcement officers, this course is designed to turn “riders” into “operators” through an intensive curriculum that includes tight turns, slow speed navigation, high speed maneuvers, sight lines, and safety using body, eyes, brain, and bike controls.

Part of what appealed to me about this class was how it was developed and is taught only by current or retired motorcycle police officers. In my mind, this is akin to me getting pilot training from a Blue Angels pilot, so I jumped at the chance to take this class. These motor officers go through grueling training exercises, often on a monthly basis, both at slow and high speeds and then they throw in some occasional gunfire (paintball or beanbags for training purposes) while riding through tight cone courses. If that isn’t pressure, I don’t know what is. As you can imagine, the instructors for the Authority School are extremely skilled riders and cool as cucumbers under pressure, so I couldn’t wait to learn from them.

From the time you arrive at the Performance Center, it’s apparent the Authority School instructors aren’t there to teach you to ride; they’re there to fine-tune your riding skills to help you transition from a good rider to a great rider. They accomplish this through a set of cone courses in a parking lot that will be your training ground for the following two days. But it’s not riding these courses over-and-over that make you a better rider. The real magic happens as the instructors spot tiny errors in real-time and offer tips and minor changes that make a BIG difference in your riding. It’s the immediate feedback from a skilled instructor with a watchful eye who can spot errors and make those small corrections that makes this course, and the others offered by the Performance Center, worth the price of admission.

While Aaron didn’t yell, “Feel your butt!” as I was riding, he did bark other instructions throughout the two days that will be forever etched in my brain. Instead of focusing on the cones and riding a pattern hoping I didn’t hit any of the cones, he had me intently focus on my own internal instrumentation (my senses) to perfect the exercises–hearing and managing my engine’s RPM, feeling the bike fluidly move independently under me, finessing my touch on the controls, and focusing my vision further ahead into the maneuver. My brain began the difficult process of re-wiring, and eventually I would do all the courses without fail…until they secretly began moving the cones tighter!

My favorite part of the course came during the afternoon session of the second day when we moved from the parking lot onto their track. There, they set up a series of high-speed cone courses that would maximize the R 1250 GS’s advanced technology as we executed weaving and emergency (threshold) braking exercises. At no time in my 40 years of riding has anyone told me to “grab” the front brake until this class. My brain bucked at the idea, and my first couple attempts yielded an ingrained aversion to abruptly and forcefully squeezing the front brake.

“Break that front brake lever off!” Aaron yelled, as I circled back around for another try.

On my third attempt, I adjusted my handhold on the right handlebar and spoke out-loud to myself before starting my takeoff roll, “full brake, full brake, full brake.” I cringed as I approached the stop cones and fought my instincts. As soon as my front wheel crossed through the coned gate, I stomped on the rear brake and then immediately squeezed the front brake lever with all my might. The tech on the R 1250 GS responded immediately as I felt my weight lurch forward (which they taught us to prepare for) and the ABS chattered away until I came to an abrupt stop in a distance I never thought possible.

As an MSF RiderCoach, I truly thought I was skilled at emergency or “threshold” braking. But once I was armed with a basic understanding of the technology installed on that specific model bike, equipped with the proper technique for threshold braking on that motorcycle, and then given immediate training feedback from a skilled professional, I learned I could substantially reduce my braking distance even more, perhaps by as much as 25%! This is where the difference between being the student versus being the instructor really hit home for me. As instructors, we’re conditioned to teach in a way that will benefit the general population of riders who are newer to the sport.

This means teaching techniques that will work for older motorcycles with dated, or no technology at all and for students new to riding. In other words, macro-level skills. This advanced class, however, was designed to maximize both rider and motorcycle capabilities and translate that into peak performance maneuvers. In this exercise, it meant the shortest stopping distance possible, and it was impressive once properly executed. My brain re-wiring continued.

Another lesson from that afternoon, dealt with the relationship between threshold braking and swerving. In hindsight this lesson made total sense, but the application had never been taught to me in this way. Both the lesson and experience yielded yet another “Aha!” moment when I re-learned the relationship between swerving and emergency braking was an “either-or” relationship.

In the MSF Basic RiderCourse, we teach students to swerve, then brake. We don’t really teach them why, but we teach them how. So, Aaron painted us a picture using a real-world scenario. What if I were to crest a hill on a highway going 60 mph and suddenly saw three lanes of traffic stopped less than 50 feet ahead? Would I swerve first then brake, or brake, then swerve? Or would my brain just say do everything all at once. Rote memory can be helpful at times, and at other times it can be detrimental. This is where teaching the why and how can be more beneficial.

In this exercise, Aaron had us approach a set of cones at 50-60 mph, beyond which we would apply full emergency braking to get slowed as quickly as possible. Before coming to a stop however, there was a second set of cones simulating the rear-end of a tractor-trailer straight ahead and it was impossible to get stopped before reaching this second set of cones. This required us to release the brakes before quickly swerving, and then going back to forcefully squeezing both brakes until coming to complete stop. Releasing the brakes isn’t necessarily required prior to swerving in an emergency braking situation on the R 1250 GS due to lean-sensitive ABS Pro, but there are other factors at play that clearly support the Performance Center’s curriculum of separating the two actions. For fear of getting hate mail and wise-cracking comments in next month’s issue, I won’t go into detail on the physics and other forces at play, but the act of emergency braking and swerving at the same time simply means you won’t get 100% of the bike’s capabilities. For any given scenario, you must decide whether you want 100% of the bike’s braking capability, or if you want 100% of the bike’s swerving capability. This is partially due to the tech installed on modern-day bikes, and partially due to good old-fashioned physics. But the end result could mean the difference between slamming into the back of the imaginary semi-truck/cones or clearing it. My takeaway from this exercise, however, was that if we practice “either-or” type maneuvers in the same order every time (like the MSF curriculum), we end up relying more on rote memory versus utilizing the bike’s tech and my skills in the order that is most beneficial for the situation. More brain rewiring ensued, and I made a mental note to incorporate different braking and swerving scenarios when I train at home.

My two-day class concluded with a short debriefing, presentation of our completion certificates, and group pictures before I left the Performance Center with a huge smile on my face and my body feeling sore and completely exhausted. Back home in Denver two weeks later, I showed up at my regular group training session to continue practicing my refined skills. My fellow high-performing, motorcycle-practicing rider geek friends could immediately see my improvement and commented on my riding that day.

“You’re on fire today, girl!” the group’s leader commented.

I’ve attended these weekend practice sessions a hundred times, but the comment made me think of a saying I’ve often heard: “Practice doesn’t make perfect; Perfect practice makes perfect.”

To go from being a “rider” to a skilled “pilot” of your motorcycle, you need a watchful instructor to provide real-time feedback when you’re in search of perfecting your practice. A skilled and experienced rider will never truly reach perfection, but it’s important to realize the biggest improvements often come from the smallest changes in your inputs, and this is the path towards mastering your machine.