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Improving your riding skills through a Paul B scholarship

Sunday, March 15, 2020   (1 Comments)
Posted by: Tom Wilmotte #118186

Photos by Suzanne O’Neal, Alamo BMW

We’ve all heard the old saying, "There’s no such thing as a free lunch." Right? The old "free lunch" adage is generally true, but not always. Such was the case in October when I signed up online for an "off road" riding improvement course sponsored by Alamo BMW (in Boerne, TX) last month and then, with just a few more keystrokes, applied for a Paul B. Scholarship offered to MOA members to improve their riding skills through the MOA Foundation. Within a week of paying the course tuition to Alamo BMW, I received an email from the MOA Foundation approving my scholarship. Thank you, MOA!!! My paid tuition was going to be reimbursed by the MOA Foundation AND the course tuition included lunch at a nice restaurant near the training site. Now, that is what I would call getting a free lunch!

When Alamo BMW hosted its Annual Open House on October 26th, they gave it an "Off Road" theme. In addition to providing their visitors and customers refreshments and a complimentary lunch on the grounds of the dealership, Alamo hired Shawn Thomas and Louise Powers, well-known adventure riding instructors, to conduct clinics throughout the day on topics of specific interest to adventure riders. Shawn and Louise’s clinics included how to safely pick up a fallen motorcycle, what to look for in adventure riding gear, advancements in BMW motorcycle technology, general discussions on off-road riding techniques, and also specific concerns & challenges for women riders. The indoor instruction on Saturday was just the warm up for what was to come the following day – off road instruction on a small ranch in Bulverde, TX.

Alamo’s first attempt to sponsor such off-road training was back in 2012, but it rained so hard on the scheduled training day that the off-site riding had to be canceled and some basic riding skills were taught instead on the go kart track at the dealership (in pouring rain). But this year, Mother Nature cooperated and 31 riders on various BMW GSs (and a few "other" bikes) showed up in Bulverde at 8:00 am on Sunday, ready and willing to get dirty and (unfortunately) get some practical experience on how to pick up a fallen bike.

A few days of rain earlier in the week made the training grounds quite muddy and soft. We knew the day was going to be challenging when two riders dumped their bikes just trying to negotiate the "off road" entrance to the ranch. But after everyone had made it safely on to the grounds and signed the liability waivers, we ventured slowly to the higher ground of the ranch and assembled for pre-ride instructions and minor modifications of the bikes, such as airing down tires to optimum pressure (which we learned depends upon the year and model of your bike), adjusting the handlebar tilt, and removing side cases and bulky tank bags.

The first teaching objective of the day was how to pick up a fallen bike. Shawn let Louise do the heavy lifting during this demonstration. She used the technique of putting her backside to the bike, grabbing a handlebar grip with one hand and the rear frame with the other hand and then lifting and walking backwards to upright the bike. She made it look easy. Then Shawn asked for a few male volunteers to show the rest of the class how to do it. Talk about added pressure!! How would you like to be a guy huffing and puffing to lift a new 550 pound R1250GS that had just previously been lifted up by a 5’ 4’ woman weighing about 130 pounds? Not me!! But a few others stepped forward and managed the task. Then Shawn demonstrated another lifting technique by cupping his hands under the end of the handlebar and walking/lifting the bike up while facing the bike. Both instructors also demonstrated the proper technique for helping someone else pick up their bike. This instruction would come in handy for several riders later that morning. The instructors asked us to beep our horns if we saw someone drop their bike so they would know if someone needed help. (We would hear a lot of horns beeping later in the morning while the grounds were still wet and slippery.)

After instruction on lifting a downed bike came a general discussion of riding technique, such as why adventure riders stand up on the foot pegs while riding; the importance of light pressure on the grips, letting the bike’s momentum create its track without trying to over control its path; proper weight distribution riding uphill, downhill, and in turns; and keeping your head up and eyes forward, focusing ahead on the track you want to ride. In fact, Shawn said we would probably get tired of hearing him yell, "Keep your eyes looking up and ahead!! Stop looking down!!!"

Finally, after about two hours of setting up the bikes, demonstrations on how to pick up bikes, and discussion of proper riding techniques, the grounds had dried off sufficiently to fire up the bikes and start riding. One of the first tasks on the agenda was to create our riding track.

Since the ranch was mostly uncultivated fields, Shawn used us to create the training track. We all got into a single file and rode behind him as we "carved" a long elongated oval, with one lane of the elongated oval running parallel to the entrance lane into the ranch. Three laps around the oval with 33 motorcycles tamping down the brush and grass was enough to get our track started. Most of the remaining training would be accomplished on this makeshift track. A mostly flat open area on the high ground adjacent to the track was used as an assembly area to park the bikes and gather around the instructors to discuss techniques and to demonstrate the next exercise.

Exercises included slow riding using constant throttle while varying the clutch to control speed, slow riding using only throttle to control speed (both in first gear and then in second gear), slow riding with "eyes focused forward and head up" while instructors created distractions (such as jumping out in front of us and grabbing the back of our bikes as a tree branch might do in rough terrain), riding with weight distribution forward during acceleration and weight distribution back during deceleration, locking up the rear brakes (with ABS off) to control bike without rear traction, and "hill stops" (and starts) without putting a foot down, and slow speed maneuvering through cones. During the hill stops demonstration, Shawn stopped and balanced his bike for a full 3 seconds before accelerating forward, a feat he said was "pretty good, even for him." Each exercise was practiced during 3 laps around the track, with both instructors watching and critiquing.

The last exercise of the day was the most challenging, although Shawn didn’t introduce it that way. He set out a series of small cones about two feet apart, extending out in front of us in a straight lane for about 30 yards and told us that all we had to do was ride through this "gauntlet" of cones three times without knocking any of them over. Easy, peasy, right??? Not exactly! The first pass through was indeed easy, but while we were out on the track and coming back around for the second pass, he quickly rearranged the cones. On our second pass the cones were still two feet apart, BUT no longer formed a straight lane. They formed a zig zag course that involved sharp turns left, then back to the right, then back to left, etc., and required us to use the slow speed maneuvering skills previously taught and practiced, such as throttle and clutch control, proper weight shift during turns, and keeping our head up with eyes and attention focused forward. Some riders handled it quite well; some others mangled Shawn’s cones. .

After the last riding exercise, we were treated to a final demonstration of Shawn’s skills using three weight shift techniques during turning – neutral, "hip swish," and "toe turn." Neutral involved just slight leaning during turns, "hip swish" involved shifting hips noticeably toward the opposite direction of the turn to balance the center of gravity of the bike and rider, and the "toe turn" (for extremely tight turning) involved shifting almost all weight from the center axis of the bike to the foot peg opposite the direction of the turn. During this last demonstration, Shawn swung his right leg over the back of the bike and completed the right turn with all of his weight on the left foot peg and his body entirely on the left side of the bike when he came to a full stop and deployed the side stand all in one smooth motion.

Finally, the sun was low in the sky and it had been a long, tiring day of riding, listening, observing, and building confidence in new skills learned. No one was injured and no bikes were significantly damaged. We had a few minutes to relax, ask more questions, and just chat with Shawn and Louise about their riding experiences and background. Shawn is a BMW Brand Ambassador, a former Raw Hyde Adventures instructor, and a Certified BMW Riding Instructor (having completed the demanding BMW off road instructor course in France to earn that distinction). He’s from California. Louise is a full-time costume designer and part-time professional riding instructor from Denver CO. Both Shawn and Louise are well-known in the adventure riding community. Both were charismatic, entertaining, and very effective in helping us improve our skills and confidence in off road riding.

There are a lot of opportunities to improve riding skills through similar dealer-sponsored riding improvement courses, the BMW U.S. Rider Academy, and other commercial schools. The MOA Foundation’s Paul B. scholarship program is one of many MOA membership benefits you can use to defray the expense of a training course that will help make you a safer and more confident rider. So, sign up for a course and apply for an MOA Foundation Paul B. Scholarship. In my case, it really was a free lunch!


Michael Cornett says...
Posted Monday, March 16, 2020
Great article. Very descriptive. I think I'd know exactly what would be involved in the course and I am convinced it would be an advantage to me to take the course. And the scholarship opportunity makes it even better.

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