As motorcyclists, we’re taught to love grip and to think of what we do on the bike in terms of available traction. But, as we’ve seen MotoGP, Supercross, and stunt riders prove, learning to not be afraid of sliding can help us ride safer and faster.
How can a rider learn to do that properly? Two words: “Mystery School.” Welcome to the classroom of ex-racer Rich Oliver, where the lessons revolve around getting sideways like a champion.
(Full Disclosure: Rich wanted me to attend his Mystery School so badly that when I asked to come he gave me his mystery address, let me come to his mystery house, and taught me the mysterious ways of riding flat track. His wife also made me tacos for lunch.)
Learning the art of getting sideways was the reason Oliver, who raced in Superbike, Supersport, Battle of the Twins, Formula USA, and World Grand Prix, actually began riding flat track himself.
In the early 1990s, famed racer and team owner Kenny Roberts hired him for his Marlboro GP team and put him on a minibike on a small oval track to judge his abilities. Oliver, who had never spent real time in the dirt, couldn’t stop crashing which meant Roberts kept him in the dirt until he could get it right.
Roberts’ methods, as unusual as they felt, helped Oliver move from a top-five rider to a guy who consistently won races, later going undefeated in the 1996 and 1997 seasons. He, and even current riders like Rossi and Marquez, attribute some of their success to learning to be comfortable in and controlling a slide. When Oliver decided to retire from racing, he started a school devoted to teaching Roberts’ ways.
All motorcycle racing traces its roots back to the first flat track races, which began in the early 1900s. The first races on US soil took place on the dirt tracks of Kansas as early as 1909, where the Aurora Machine and Tool Company supplied brands like Indian, Harley-Davidson, Thor, Henderson, and Merkel with the bits to make and race those first machines.
Even today, flat track racing is where the craziest of the crazies, those who love pure brute speed and the pursuit of simply willing speed into existence go to measure themselves. It isn’t as sexy as the high speeds of MotoGP or big jumps of Supercross, but all of the guys from those disciplines still go back to hone their skills on the oval.
So it was with Rossi’s Ranch and drift pros like Ernie Vigil in mind that I drove up to Auberry, California to spend a weekend with Rich and his crew. Here’s what I learned.
The two-day school takes place on Oliver’s ranch. My first morning began with stretching on his deck while Rich told us his story and about the program. We then headed to the garage, where they’d pre-pulled gear in our sizes and had bikes ready for us. Their fleet consists of Yamaha TTR230s and TTR125s, which are doled out basically based on size and weight.
We spent the bulk of the first day doing a mix of different drills. We rode in circles, figure eights, braking drills, and several specially designed cone courses. There were also race start drill towards the end of the day to help us prepare for the student race.
The end of day one took us to the main track, where we rode in different configurations to practice different types of turns. Sliding a little in drills and sliding on a track are two very different things, and I was pretty terrible at it even by the end of the day - but at least now it seemed possible.
Dirty, drenched in sweat, and optimistic, I drove back to my hotel in Fresno where I met up with two of the guys from the school that Rich had affectionately coined the nickname “the amigos” (below) after they began to compete at who could crash the most.
After spending the first part of the weekend learning the oldest tradition in American motorcycle racing, the only thing that seemed appropriate now was a trip to Texas Roadhouse for a steak the size of my head and to break my no-booze rule.
Day two held more of the same, though now more of the day was spent on the main course, which Rich was kind enough to soak down for us. As if sliding wasn’t already hard enough, he thought we should learn to do it with varied degrees of traction.
After another full day of drills and practice on the various tracks, it came time for the student race. By this point in the day, the whole class had bonded over sliding, sweating, and crashing together - but that doesn’t mean several rivalries hadn’t formed.
There was one student who bragged the entire weekend about having attended the class before and, as someone who had progressed well through the drills, I was nominated to make sure he didn’t win. Then there were the bozos, I mean amigos, who couldn’t decide if they wanted to beat each other or me more - which meant the most if not all of us were going to hit the deck.
I’m a competitive guy, but rarely put enough stock in winning that it makes me nervous about going up against someone else. On this day though, with my new friends both trying to beat me while simultaneously expecting me to pull off a win against Mr. Knowitall, the full weight of my task had me twisted in knots.
That weight was so great that, in true MacDonald fashion, I completely blew my take-off despite having won the race start competition earlier. I managed to jump to the front of the pack, only to completely choke and eat shit with three laps left to go. I was up and back on my bike quickly but by this point Jeremie (one of the amigos) had also gotten by me and I came in third - a truly upsetting performance.
Here’s what I took away from this school.
Being fast doesn’t mean you can teach fast: The things about teaching people to ride motorcycles is that it isn’t just about knowledge and speed. There are literally thousands of humans who have the knowledge and speed that “qualifies” them to teach almost any motorcycle riding techniques.
Like the riding techniques themselves, teaching requires its own set of skills and techniques which have to be practiced and whose mechanics must be tinkered with. As a former teacher, it’s always interesting to see if these “motorcycle experts” tackle teaching the way that they did riding, or if they assume their motorcycle accomplishments are adequate.
Rich Oliver is a very smart man. Between the flow of the class, the progression and style of the drills, and subtle cues I picked up from the things Rich said - it’s clear that this man has studied or at least given considerable thought to actually teaching these skills. He’s considered different learning styles, watched what’s worked and hasn’t and, like any really good teacher, has adapted.
He also understands what any good teacher, or writer for that matter, does in that he’s very personable. Whether this comes naturally or is something he dawns for his students, he’s incredibly approachable and makes you want more interaction, more encouragement, and more critique. The facilities are incredible, but methinks he could teach this stuff with a clapped out bike in a parking lot.
Learning to slide is much easier than I expected it to be: I’ve gotten about as lucky as it gets when it comes to my motorcycle life. I actually wasn’t the world’s best rider back in the first HFL days, and my skills as an educator and general professional human were far more helpful than my riding skills at the time. As such, the bulk of my real riding experience has come on press bikes where my mission, first and foremost, has been to not crash.
While my skills have excelled in that I’ve been able to ride a wide variety of bikes in a wide variety of settings over the past five years or so, being on a new bike every two weeks (and it being someone else’s) means that I’m sort of always warming up to a new bike and I haven’t pushed many of them into the world of big wheelies or big slides. Because telling a company you crashed their bike being an asshole suuuuuucks.
The reason I tell you all of this is that I went to Oliver’s school very nervous to learn to slide. Like, a big part of me didn’t think I would get it at all, and I was fairly certain I wouldn’t do it well. It may happen once or twice on accident, and I’d be able to understand it, but my experience sliding things came from having a car with a ton of power, no traction control, a clean 90 degree corner, and mashing a pedal into the floor. The idea of just grabbing a handful of throttle and “just doing it” was something that the Sean I wish I was does.
We did a mix of drills in the morning that involved first riding in circles, and then figure eights. In all honesty, they were easy and had me wondering how they were ever going to prepare me for the big TT course that taunted me from up near the house. I’ve done enough dirt and trail riding that I could ride a little oval or even a fairly wide figure eight just fine.
These were actually probably just to get us comfortable with the bikes and dirt surface, and Rich likely knew that they were on the easy side. Because I carried that “this is too easy and I have this no problem” attitude into the third drill, where we had to ride 25 yards or so, slow down, turn sharply around a cone, and ride back up the hill. The first time through, I slowed too early and took the turn tentatively. By the second, as my confidence increased, something interesting happened: I began to slide. What’s more, I began to use that slide to help me around the corner.
Let me be clear here. I was not doing a drill where I was trying to slide the bike. I was doing a drill where we had to do a fairly simple task - but that task loaded the bike perfectly to allow for gentle and repeatable slides. With each lap of the drill, the speeds picked up, the slides got bigger, and confidence skyrocketed. The following drill added more cones in a big S course, and most of us were sliding by lunch. Boy, was it hard to eat those tacos with that big ass grin on my face.
Sliding a motorcycle (on dirt) isn’t just about having courage: I went into the weekend thinking that sliding a motorcycle was all about “grip it and rip it!” While that is one way to slide a motorcycle, it doesn’t have to be that violent. Though yes, it’s really fun when it is.
Sliding a motorcycle also happens under braking. Yes, I know that’s obvious and yes, I know that’s an oversimplification, but it was something I didn’t really understand until I took the school. The first drills showed us how we could initiate a slide with the rear, and then use the throttle to finish and power out.
As my skills and confidence increased, I was maintaining throttle as I engaged the rear brake to make the transition between brake slides and gas slides more fluid and seamless. From there, it becomes a lot like riding a sportbike: it just comes to leaning more, giving it more gas, and trusting the tires.
There were about ten of us students there that day which, between Rich, MotoAmerica racer Dani Diaz, and Rich’s wife Karen popping in and you, we had a pretty good staff to student ratio for the weekend.
All of the bikes were kept in good condition, and were free from bent levers or poorly adjusted cables. Crashing at the school is not only allowed, but expected, but it never does much damage to the bikes and Rich is great about keeping them well maintained.
Given the size of the tracks or drills, no photo/video analysis is offered or needed. Rich and Dani are able to easily and safely move around the track or stand in various locations to see what you’re doing and the track allows you to get on and off the track without having to wait for a pit lane.
The school feels surprisingly polished despite being at Oliver’s house. The facility is incredibly well maintained and you get the idea he’s taught a ton of these classes, so he moves through the curriculum fluidly.
The real magic in the school is Rich himself. More important than the guy’s knowledge or skills is his personality and relate-ability. Every school will have guys who can ride circles around you, but being fast on a bike and being able to explain how to be faster on a bike are two very different things - and that’s before adding in whether the person can make you comfortable. Rich’s ability to create chemistry with every student is a huge asset.
While I had my initial doubts on some of the drills, I can say after completing it that not a single minute of my time there was not used for it’s maximum potential. Which, when you’re spending money to learn a new skill, is one of the most important criteria next to whether it’s effective or not.
At $750 for the two-day school (plus $80 for gear, which they wash between days), the Mystery School two day fun camp is absolutely worth the price of admission.
All motorcycle riding schools are fun, but learning a new skill on a bike with very low risk creates a different mentality that is both more rewarding and more enjoyable during the process.
Rich’s school is an absolute must-attend, whether you ride dirt, street, or track.
Photos: Karen Oliver, Sean MacDonald