The Total Control Advanced Riding Clinic is a motorcycle riding course, taught in locations around the country, that takes techniques developed by motorcycle racers and applies them to street riding for the purpose of increasing your control of the motorcycle, and thereby options, when Bad Things happen.Consider coming into a blind corner and there's a deer in the middle of the street. Do you go wide into oncoming traffic or do you have the confidence to push the inside bar and lean your bike over farther than you thought you can to go to the inside?
Total Controlfills the void for those that have taken the MSF courses but who are not interested in going to a full-on track school like the Keith Code California Superbike school. It is not a race school by any means. It's a school that narrowly focuses on making you a better street rider. It doesn't matter what kind of bike you ride whether sport bike or full dress Harley, the techniques and insights they share will help you improve.
"But I have no interest in leaning a bike till the pegs scrape or braking so hard my rear wheel lifts." you might say. This may be true but the road is uncertain. When Bad Things happen you want to have the most tools, the most skills, at your disposal, when you need them. It can save you from a nasty crash. Total Control gives you the tools.
The course targets riders who have at least a year of riding experience. You bring your own bike. There are classroom sessions followed by parking lot exercises. We took it at a community college. It's neither scary nor intimidating. The students tend to be older and from a wider range of backgrounds. They do a very good job of making every kind of rider feel welcomed and each student gets individual attention.
Level I delivers the biggest improvements. Level II feels more incremental which makes sense since the further you progress the harder additional gains become to realize.
The courses do have some room for improvement. Some sections feel disjointed leaving you with a feeling of "where and how does this fit in?". Some points are just not brought home but after thinking about it more often than not you realize "oh, that's what they were trying to say." I was also left with the feeling that both Level's I and II should each be two day courses. It's a long single day and by the end you are pretty much toast. A second day, or maybe half day, of just practice would be a welcome addition.
I have also only taken the sessions taught by Tracy Martin. I do not know if there is a substantive difference with other instructors. (If anyone has experience with other instructors please share your experiences.)
Minor issues aside, the courses are extremely valuable and I tell every rider I meet about them. Nothing I have done has improved my riding more dramatically than taking Total Control. For a taste of the material taught in the course there is a book available on Amazon (affiliate link):
Duncan and I took Level I back in 2010 prior to Duncan's first run down to Deal's Gap. This was just a few weeks before I left to go on the Big Trip to Deadhorse. I remember vividly looking forward to the Gap and wondering how much what I had learned would help me. Our improvement was dramatic. Mostly it humbled me. I had been riding for 35 years and thought that I knew what I was doing. Total Control set me on a path to learn more about riding in the last two and a half years than I have learned in the 35 previous. This humility has found it's way into other aspects of my life as I look to learn even when I'm teaching.
Total Control is a long one day course. It starts at 8 AM and runs until about 5PM. This, of course, implies having to confront a personal horror called Odark30:
I think they call this "Morning" as we met up at the IHop for an early breakfast at 06:30. Duncan showed up a few minutes late but we were all able to eat and get on the road by 07:15. I don't know why this is the case, but I once again had an entire week of epic lack of sleep. So, once again, I was zombie ashes and that would affect my abilities all day.
We made really good time up to Howard Community College. The instructions said to meet in Lot F. We saw a line of bikes and knew we were in the right place.
Tracy Martin, the instructor, gave us the standard release forms to fill out and sign. Once the necessary "we're not responsible for your untimely demise" clauses were signed, off into the classroom we went. Sessions are divided into classroom time where new techniques are introduced and parking lot time when those techniques are then demonstrated and practiced.
It was less so in Level I than Level II, but sometimes the point behind a particular section is not really made as clearly as it could have been. The first classroom session focused on the psychology of riding. It started with a round of introductions followed by a question and answer session of "why we ride". My feeling was the point behind this was merely to get the students to interact and tell anecdotes so they could get to know one another a bit. That is one of the side benefits of these courses. They do tend to attract a very interesting people. Duncan and I met Josh here two years ago and we still ride with him t this day.
I learned that two of the guys in the room were actually Total Control instructors from other areas. One was on a full-dress Harley.
The discussion moved on to psychological aspects of riding. As I've mused before, I suspect that there's some evolutionary psychology going on when it comes to being on a motorcycle. Maybe it evokes the horse or some other aspect of our primeval past much in the way looking at fish lowers blood pressure presumably because we're adapted to sit quietly to hunt fish for long periods of time. There are also countless stories similar to my own on the healing aspects of miles on a motorcycle.
In one particularly poignant moment one of the students, a military motorcycle instructor named Pat, told us about the constant pain he is in. I forget the name of the condition, but his right leg is in constant pain that not even pain medications help. He didn't say it, but I suspect it's because of a war time injury. Interestingly, he reports the pain is reduced when he rides. They have even connected sensors to him to see if the effect could be measured and he reported that it could be. Interesting. I am certainly no stranger to turning to the motorcycle when I'm in pain, but the pain the motorcycle helps me with has never been physical.
The session moved on to the philosophy of riding. Tracy quoted passages from Zen and the Art of Archery, a favorite book of mine from my teenage years, and one from I believe Sun Tzu. The Archery passage was of a Zen master demonstrating hitting a bulls-eye and then splitting the shaft of the first arrow with a second. The master says not that it is not something he did, it is something that happens. The Sun Tzu passage had a similar message. He then tried to tie it back to riding with the comment "It rides". The point was lost and, given that I imagine few motorcyclists have ever read any of these works, were probably thinking "WTF"?
He shared an anecdote of following a line of MSF instructors down the Blue Ridge Parkway and meeting up with them. "You guys are MSF instructors, aren't you?" he asked them. "How did you know?" they had asked. "I could tell by how you ride." Tracy responded. Tracy went on to talk about the mechanical process oriented style the MSF teaches. He then went on to talk about the Total Control approach just being a vessel used to get you to becoming a better rider and that at some point you have to let the vessel go.
Disjointed, but it got me to thinking. The point he was trying to make was that motorcycling, as Yun and I have often discussed, it's analogous to a martial art. It is primarily a mental exercise that involves muscle memory. You must practice the basics over and over again in a directed fashion. You must practice them until they become second nature. You must practice them to grow new connections in your brain until the activity no longer requires active thought. To get there, you must be humble. You must start at step one. You have to get out of your own head to let go the stresses of your life that distract you from the task at hand. You must put in the effort, the focus and you have to give yourself the time to grow.
At breakfast, Josh had said, "I was talking to Rob and realized no matter how hard I try I'll never be as good a rider as Yermo. I've simply not grown up with it they way he has." I used to think the same way, but these days, inspired by some incredible people I've met along the way, I disagree. We humans, even at my advanced age, still have the ability to "become". There are ways to "become" something new, even a better rider than you can imagine.
I have often asked myself what does it mean to "be" something. Am I a "motorcyclist"? I mean really. What does it mean to "be". Am I merely someone who rides. Someone who codes. Someone who writes? I have never felt like I "am" anything at all.
However, now, from a certain limited perspective, I believe maybe there is such a thing as "being". I suspect to "be" a motorcyclist one has to have ridden long enough with enough directed practice that there's no longer any real thought. We use the analogy of the brain being a muscle. I suspect you "being" is just a matter of building up a physical section of your brain. Maybe some day we'll be able to scan your brain to see if you are a motorcyclist.
Rumor has it that the so called "math" center of Einsteins brain was 30% larger than normal, or some such. We always thought the message from that little anecdote was that he was born that way and that's why he was such a genius. Or was it that he took a slight gift he had and practiced until he became?
There's a very interesting blog on the subject of excellence and directed practice. It's called the Study Hacks Blog Decoding the Pattens of Success and takes a look at the differences between exceptional people and everyone else and asks the question, "Is it what they 'are' that makes them great or is it, maybe, what they 'do'?". Very very interesting reading.
So I believe the point they were trying to make during the first section was that in order to become a motorcyclist, first you must get out of your own head and let go ego. There are no accolades, no one to impress. If you try to impress, focus attention on the onlookers, focus on trying to do "well", focus on anything that takes away your attention from what you are doing you will not do as well. You are here to learn. To make mistakes. To improve so that you can solely focus on "becoming" at what ever pace you can without any expectations. You then have to practice the steps, the process that is the Total Control to build the mental muscle, to address your fears, your doubts. And then, after enough practice, you have to let it all go, because as is the case with any mental framework you reach a point where holding on to it just holds you back. Combine what you learn here with other things you learn so that you can "become" the motorcyclist you want to be.
I imagine the same is true of becoming anything. A motorcyclist. A martial artist. A writer. A musician.
Then, abruptly, we jumped straight into topic of speed shifting. Speed shifting is where you accelerate without using the clutch. I actually did not know that you can shift a motorcycle transmission into a higher gear without the clutch smoother than with it because of the design of motorcycle transmissions. Out onto the pavement we went to practice this.
It's interesting. I guess because I was so tired and was filled with thoughts of my week I didn't do well in the exercises at all. I kept missing shifts and making mistakes. That would go on for the rest of the day. I did, however, manage to do the speed shift correctly a few times and I can report that you can in fact up-shift a motorcycle smoother without using the clutch than an automatic transmission. Very interesting. Who knew?
We went on to discuss rev matching on downshifts. This uses the clutch but allows to be much smoother on decelleration. Both speed upshifting and matched rev downshifting enable you to be smoother. Smooth is good as it prevents you from disturbing the suspension.
There were two instructors so often students would be divided into two groups.
For each technique, the instructor would first describe the technique.
Then an instructor would demonstrate the technique done incorrectly and then correctly. We would practice the technique repeatedly each time having an instructor observe us and offer critiques. One of the big challenges in learning to ride a motorcycle is translating what one has been told into what it feels like. To be smooth rev matching on decelleration, what does it feel like when you've done it correctly? How do I know I'm doing it correctly? If I'm not doing it correctly, what do I need to change? That's where having an instructor or coach there to point things out is extremely valuable. Coming up with the words to convey muscle actions is a real challenge.
Personally, I found the sections on trail braking through decreasing radius turns and doing quick stops the most valuable. I'm a bit nervous about grabbing more front brake in a corner but it turns out that, to a degree, you can tighten up your line in a corner by applying the brake. This is used to avoid obstacles that surprise you. It's also a technique that requires a lot of practice.
Quick braking was interesting. I typically only use the front brake mostly because I've been trying to ween myself from the terrible habit of stomping on the rear brake when I get scared. Stomping on the rear brake in a corner when you're scared is a great way of crashing. However, for maximum braking, the rear brake does allow you to stop 10% or more quicker than using the front brake alone. It also stabilizes the bike. And, as a result of that exercise, I now know I can stop the bike much quicker than I thought I could.
"Ok, Yermo, now as you come to a stop squeeze the brake harder to lift the rear wheel." Tracy instructed. "Gulp" I thought. "Yermo's do not lift the rear wheel." I regret that there's no video of it but I actually did manage to stop the R1100S quickly enough to lift the rear wheel off the ground a few inches despite having completely loaded bags on the bike. Damn. I never thought that would be something I could do.
We took a break for lunch and aside from a new fear I've developed for stop signs, the rest of the day went smoothly.
There was a classroom session that talked about "chassis setup" which I found significantly less useful than the suspension setup section in Level I. It wasn't really so much about chassis setup rather more about accessories you can put on a bike to customize it for ergonimics. Again, I didn't see the point but I was also stupid passing out tired by this point so maybe I missed something.
At the end of the day, they set up an auto-cross style course in the parking lot where we were to combine everything we had learned in Level I and II. This was a blastand surprisingly difficult.
We ran the course one at a time getting critiques from the instructors. Frankly, a second half day of just running that course with an instructor or coach would be something I'd pay for.
The class came to an end. Tracy said that anyone who wanted to stay later could run the course. Everyone except the Miles By Motorcycle guys left. We ran the thing so many times we started to feel self conscious about keeping the instructors. But it was so much fun.
I even tried my hand at putting together a little video.
So in conclusion, I found Level I to be the more influential course in that it had the greater effect on my riding. Level II felt like an incremental gain which is as one would expect given that the further you go along the harder incremental gains become.
My points on presentation are not meant as a criticism, more as pointing out where things could be improved.The same thing can be said for my riding.Even as is it is an incredibly valuable course and will go a very long way to making you a much safer rider. After taking the MSF course and having about a year of riding under your belt, I strongly suggest you take a look at Total Control.
As a final note, Total Control is putting together a Track Day class. They are currently looking at offering it at VIR or Summit Point. I asked Tracy if we get a number of riders to say "Yes, I'm interested" could we influence the decision. I hear VIR is a great track but Summit is so much closer for most of us ... something to consider.
If you know anyone who's been riding for a while, maybe you can forward them this article.