Despite the vastly improved grip allowed by today's sport tires, there will always be a time when you will be forced to deal with less-than-optimum traction on the street. Having the proper skills to control a motorcycle in these circumstances obviously requires experience in dealing with sliding-but attempting to practice this skill on the pavement can have disastrous and painful consequences if you make a mistake.
Rich Oliver's Mystery School, taught on a well-maintained fleet of Yamaha TT-R125L minibikes on the Oliver training compound in central California (near Fresno), is the perfect place to learn how to slide. Oliver is a five-time AMA 250 GP National Champion-the winningest racer in the history of the class. He attributes much of his success to training he received from arguably the greatest motorcycle racer of all time: King Kenny Roberts.
In the early '90s Roberts hired Oliver to ride for his newly formed Marlboro 250 GP race team. He had Oliver join him at the famed Roberts Ranch near Hickman, California, and put him on a minibike circling a small dirt oval to judge his talent. "Kenny laughed so hard because I crashed so hard and so often," Oliver recalls. "I had no prior dirt experience, so I kept crashing on the front tire."
Although he initially suspected he might have been hired for Roberts' personal entertainment, Oliver's legendary work ethic and willingness to learn obviously impressed the three-time Grand Prix World Champion. Roberts mentored many multiple world champions like Wayne Rainey and John Kocinski with the same methods. "Kenny rides a motorcycle like no one else in the world," Oliver says, "and what he taught me on those little dirt bikes changed me from being a top-five finisher to a consistent race winner who also won championships."
Oliver takes much of what he learned from King Kenny's famously verbally abusive screaming methods and teaches it in a much kinder, gentler way that any first-time dirt bike rider will find comfortable and inviting. Rich and his highly capable wife, Karin, the school's director, offer outstanding hospitality and unfailing encouragement that caters to students of all ability levels and ages.
You might be wondering what a 9.8- horsepower, 170-pound dirt bike is going to teach me about riding my CBR1000RR. Oliver has this to share: "Kenny was always frustrated when he had people that were unable to ride a small dirt bike properly that wanted to move straight up to the big bikes. How are they going to get the most of a big bike if they can't get the most out of a minibike first?"
After enjoying two highly educational and fun-packed days at Oliver's Two-Day Fun Camp, I can tell you that my fellow students and I came away with far better bike mastery in what would previously have been out-of-control situations like greasy, slick mud that leave you constantly sliding both ends while Oliver laughs devilishly. Roberts talked about the many mental connections that need to be programmed into riders to be able to control a sliding motorcycle. The best and safest way he found to do that was on minibikes on small dirt tracks.
As someone with limited dirt experience and decidedly marginal skills, I can assure you that Oliver's method flat works. Beginning with the basics of how to properly sit upon, start and shift (without the clutch, up or down) the minibikes, Oliver talks you through every step of the way: first verbally, then with a riding demonstration, and finally with valuable one-on-one coaching. The efficient Oliver training complex offers four different track configurations run in both directions for a total of eight variations. Top speed is 33 mph in third gear on the fastest straight.
As in many dirt bike schools, students are expected to crash. Thankfully there are no damage deposits; Oliver assures us that "dirt bikes are designed to handle falling down." Rich and Karin are very safety-conscious, frequently reminding students not to ride over their heads and issuing warnings when they feel it's warranted. Despite this, one unfortunate student in our class suffered a fractured collarbone, but it's a rare occurrence. The Olivers tell us that with more than 300 students attending the Mystery School annually, they average less than one incident a year requiring outside medical attention, typically fractures or bad sprains. You can expect minor bumps and bruises, however.
Riding drills start at the most basic level of braking and build over the course of two days to individual time trials and finally fun, informal, five-lap mock races that bring all the skills together. Oliver staggers the starts to minimize risk and give students of all levels a chance to win. Our two-day course culminated in a 25-lap race that was impressive for many reasons. Not only did my wife Margo beat all us guys to become the first female in the history of the school to win the main event, but we also all made it through the whole race without a single crash. Of course the miniraces were laugh-out-loud fun, but the improvement in everyone's riding abilities (especially the much-reduced fastest-to-slowest-rider variation) was truly astounding.
At the conclusion of the class, students were asked what they had learned to apply to their streetbike riding. The overwhelming answer was confidence. Not that anyone in their right mind will intentionally dirt-track a streetbike, but for those rare exceptions when traction goes away on one or both of your tires, how valuable is it to have the proper reflex-quick reactions at the controls to give you the best possible chance of saving it?
Answer: Priceless. For more info on the Rich Oliver Mystery School, log onto [www.richoliver.net](http://www.rich oliver.net)