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Motorcycle Training Review: Lee Park's Total Control at Dragon Safe.
Review by ET, July 16th, 2009 – Johnson City, Tenn.
I booked this course online and paid $325.00 and talked to Wayne Miller, proprietor of the Dragon Safe biker training school in Maryville, TN by phone a couple of times. He offered to comp the course, but I declined, preferring to be able to make an impartial review. Nice guy, we talked about bike training in general and his current assignment, working on a new bike training course for the Marines, in Camp Pendleton, California.
The previous day I rode the ST1300 the fairly easy slab ride from Memphis, one of the prettier interstate rides through the Smokies, so at 8 AM bright and early I was in a bike sort of a mood and ready for some fun. We assembled at the high school, a motley crew of eleven bikers in the required all-over protective gear. There was one woman, Melanie and 6 blokes on Beemers of various models, a guy on a Suzuki Bandit, Bill on his Harley Ultra Classic and a KTM Super Duke piloted by Curtis. The BMW MOA (Motorcycle Owners Assoc.) was meeting on town that week, there were thousands of Beemers in town.
We parked, shot the breeze a while and assembled in a classroom, well-equipped with projector, whiteboard and a cooler of water. Lee Parks introduced himself, dealt with the customary waiver paperwork and handed out slim class folders. A quick round of self-introductions and down to business.
Lee is a youthful 42-year-old with a small chin beard. He’s been riding since age 12, competing since age 14 and won the 2001 G.M.D. Computrack National Endurance Series Championship in the Lightweight class. He spent five years as full-time editor of Motorcycle Consumer News where he probably rode every bike made during that period. The mag is noted for its thorough product reviews. The Total Control training organization started out as a sideline, but now, with his franchise network and work for the military, it seems to keep him busy full time, with little spare time for his sideline bike products business.
Wayne Miller, of Dragon Safe, is a long-time bike safety instructor and former Marine. Lee and Wayne have been working on the new Marine bike safety training, which the Marines decided they needed after realizing they are losing more members to bike crashes than enemy action. They just got back from Camp Pendleton in California, where they have been training the trainers for the new Marine bike course.
The main business of the day is turning the bike. When it gets down to basics, bike skills are all to do with speeding up, slowing down and turning, and today it’s turning. Although Lee is a former race rider, this is not track days and the course is about a technique that can be used at normal speeds on normal roads by regular riders.
I don’t want to get too specific about the actual exercises, because you don’t want to be doing this at home without expert instruction, so I plan to gloss over a few details. The first increment of the course is throttle and brake control, with an emphasis on very smooth transitions, the objective being to manage and optimize traction. After a quick introduction, an attitude adjustment, and some visuals, including some tire and traction lore, we went outside to practice. We each did several runs, doing the technique we had been shown for the slick throttle-to-brake action without dipping or raising the suspension. Smoothness is a major big deal in this course. As it was explained, taking a corner without abrupt applications of brake or throttle allows both to be used (gently) during the turn, while keeping the suspension in mid-position, able to deal with either a bump or pothole. Traction gets to be optimal. I repeat, there is no way you can figure this out safely by yourself.
The next classroom session dealt with body position in the turn. When the rider leans into the turn, the center of gravity of the bike/rider combination shifts and the bike can make the turn more upright. We then heard about line choice through a turn, and the benefits of delaying the turn point and turning sharper. The motivation is to be able to turn quicker – or at the same speed in a lot less space, leaving room for maneuver in case something unexpected came up. This turned out to be the main benefit of the course. We went out and practiced turning around a 40-foot pair of circles, with head turn well into the expected path and wide-angle vision to scan for potential issues.
The next exercise was done on the ground, with four participants and Wayne holding up each bike as the rider assumed the butt-over the saddle position, with his center of gravity hanging well over the center of the turn, and we tipped each bike so everyone could feel how stable that was.
We split in two groups and did circles, one bike at a time on the range. We pre-positioned ourselves outboard just prior to the turn point, held the bike in the opposite direction to the turn, ‘flopped’ at the turn point, had very dramatic turn transitions with the bike entering the circle, where we did a couple of orbits. Seemed like an unnatural position, with shoulders, face and hips aimed into the turn, but in practice worked well. The pics show that the bikes are much more upright than a normal straight stance.
At this point, we took a break for lunch (pizza was provided) and Lee gave a lecture on bike suspension theory and setup, explaining sag and the pre-load and damping settings. We went outside and checked both settings on several of our bikes. I adjusted the damping setting a couple of clicks on my ST during this process, and it must have worked, because I popped an unplanned wheelie on the way home (bonus thrill, first wheelie ever, might try it again).
After the suspension session, we had another session of coaching and performing orbits.
Then we had a final, summing up and pulling together instruction session, and our final ride was doing figure-8 with a flip-over from one side turn to the other. I have to say, several of the guys (especially Curtis) were doing it like pros by this time, as the pics show. Bill acquitted himself well on his Harley, making the orbits without any sign of floorboard scraping. Lee is not a big fan of peg scraping, he says we should be able to make our turns with no hard parts of the bike scraping, and this was true both on the hog and on my radically lowered ST1300.
I talked asked most of the participants a couple of questions towards the end of the day: Did you have fun? did you learn something? Although folks were pretty tired after an 11-hour day, the overwhelming response was positive.
My opinion matched the others. I am a training junkie, I try to get some sort of training every year, and the current emphasis of bikesafer.com on training is not helping my addiction. Total Control is different. It actually is fun. Rather than scampering around doing little tricks in a parking lot, it is a day focused on an important aspect of bike riding skills – getting around corners more efficiently and more safely. The whole day (with the possible exception of the suspension component) was focused on that one vital skill. The day built up in layers so that, by the end of the day, we were all surprising ourselves and turning much more scientifically.
I have to admit, I didn’t do as well as some of the other guys. I was wearing the wrong gear (the Stich coveralls were a bit constricting in the waist and hips) and my touring seat back got in the way a bit. Or maybe the 53-year-old hips were not as flexible as the young guys. (there I go, bad workman blaming tools). But I found myself practicing the technique on those long sweepers on I-40 in middle Tennessee on the way home, and making plans to get out on the other bike and in better gear and practice.
The course: first conclusion, it was fun. I have been through four bike-related training courses and they were performed with a sense of duty, not wonder. The sense of fun was infectious, I think everyone had fun, even Lee and Wayne, although they have probably done it hundreds of times. Second conclusion: I learned something. The concentration on that one thing, getting the motorcycle around a turn efficiently, meant that we acquired a significant new skill that we can use on the road. Third conclusion: I think I will get a safety bonus out of the course. I will use the techniques, my cornering will be smoother, I will deploy my traction and my suspension travel smarter, I will delay my turn point and be able to see further into the turn, and I will have a nice chunk of road left when I get to the other side of the turn. Any of those things might save my royal Irish ass someday.
Photos from top: Lee Parks, Bandit Rider during the course (photo by ET), Curtis on his KTM Super Duke showing us how it's done during the course, Bill on his HD Ultra Classic during the course, and ET with room for improvement during the course. Photos courtesy of Lee Parks except where noted.
Lagniappe, three days later. Taking advantage of a cool summer morning, I hauled on some leathers and got the 919 out. Went out to Shelby Forest, a local park with some fair twisties. The unladen 919 is about half the weight of the ST1300 loaded for touring, and has a much less complicated seat, with no backrest. The difference was amazing. I realized that the Total Control turning techique is a major new skill. it will take a lot of practice to get it slick. Nonetheless, I did know what to do, and I did know what I was doing wrong when that happened. I soon found myself hanging out in the corners, the bike almost vertical, and, as advertised, I was making the turns faster than I ever did, and with tons of roadway to spare. My main mistakes were foot placement, and my throttle-brake transitions need a lot of work, but now I know that I'll eventually get it, and I'll never ride the same again. Amazingly, hanging out there in the turns actually feels more stable than riding upright, centrifugal force is a powerful thing. I also plan to do those hip stretch exercises my trainer showed me back in the day. Yes, you can teach an old dog new tricks :)
Lagniappe 2, nine days after the course. Strange but very good things have been happening to my riding. Took a couple more rides on the 919, and been doing those groin stretches my kettlebell instructor taught me. Today did a poker run over in Arkansas, which included a stretch on Arkansas 14, 163 and 42, which is part of the northern leg of Crowley's Ridge Parkway. Nice twisties, except it is notorious for a lot of driveways which wash gravel into the roadway. Scary when you run into a gravel wash leaned over for a turn. But not any more. My policy for riding on roads like this is to trade the additional turning capacity for a little more speed and a lot more space, a fairly conservative approach. So I haven't been slowing much for the twisties, just taking them a little over the speed limit. At speeds of 65 or so, the Parks turn method has the bike almost vertical on 60 degree curves. I've just been running straight over those gravel washes, with no hint of instabilty. I'm not too worried about encountering gravel in a turn like that anymore, although I would probably do something about gravel in a 90 degree turn.
The whole deal of hanging way over the side, like a sailor on a tacking yacht, feels sort of ungainly at first, but today I had a sort of transition point. By the time I got home, it felt unnatural not to be hung out over the turn. Doing it the way I have been for 37 years felt unnatural, hard work and unstable, like I was flogging the bike into something it didn't want to do. Being leaned over into the turn felt stable, natural and the bike felt like it was just doing its thing getting around the turn.
I'm not there yet, I still have a tendency to misplace my feet, and I am calibrating the amount of body twist different degrees of turn need. But something tells me that July 16th was the first day of the rest of my riding life. I'll report back in a week or two with a progress report, and I'll try it on the ST again to see how that goes.
I say again, boys and girls, don't try this at home. I think it needs expert instruction to be done safely.