I enrolled in the Lee Parks Total Control riding clinic and attended the session in Olympia, Washington on Saturday, May 14th. Because it was an all-day class — 9 AM to 7 PM — I decided to make a weekend trip out of it.
I took Friday off of work and rode across the Portland metro area to Scappoose on Highway 30 before heading away from the Columbia River and into the hills of Northwest Oregon. The road is a nice bend of tight curves and broad sweepers but the surface is somewhat rough in spots and blind corners demand a lot of attention. Once in Mist I continued north on Highway 47 to Clatskanie. This section is very technical and you really have to be on the ball to survive it. The road surface is very rough, the corners are tight and rapid-fire, and there are log trucks patrolling the area ready to pounce on slacking motorcyclists.
The route from Pittsburg to Mist and then north to Clatskanie is heaven if you’re a big fan of clear cuts. For those unfamiliar with the term, it’s a way to harvest timber by mimicking the bombed out fields of eastern France during World War I. Everything gets cut down and removed, leaving the landscape scarred and defeated, right down to the road’s edge. It’s truly an ugly sight.
Once in Clatskanie (pronounced ‘clat-skuh-nigh‘) I turned west and followed Highway 30 to the hamlet of Westport where I veered north onto a narrow paved road to the terminal of the Westport Ferry. This river crossing is the only ferry remaining on the lower Columbia River. For $3 a motorcycle gets portage to Puget Island, which has a bridge across the north stem of the Columbia back onto mainland Washington.
Waiting at the ferry terminal was a short, gray-haired and bearded man in black leather, sitting on the guard rail next to his 2001 deep blue Harley-Davidson Heritage Softail. Walt and I chatted as we crossed the Columbia, the only passengers on the small ferry. The ride was very smooth thanks to a lack of wind, and within a few minutes we were docked on Puget Island and rolling back onto terra firma.
As per Walt’s suggestion, I stopped at the Riverview in Cathlamet for lunch. The club sandwich and side salad were adequate and soon I was back on the road, heading west on SR 4 to connect with Highway 101 north. This section of the coastal highway offers rare glimpses of Willapa Bay, home of famous oysters, before going inland at Raymond for another stretch north to Aberdeen. There were numerous state and county law enforcement officers cruising the area, nabbing speeding motorists. Fortunately they left me alone.
Once across the Chehalis River in Aberdeen I turned west onto Highway 12 to begin my way inland toward Olympia. I stopped just east of town and fueled up, both my bike and myself. It was a four-lane divided highway all the way to Olympia and the miles passed quickly. My destination was the Super 8 in Lacey, and although my GPS told me right where it was, it was visually difficult to spot and I missed the entrance. A quick loop onto the I-5 freeway brought me back around for another pass. The manager said I could park my bike in front of the lobby so they could keep an eye on it for me. It’s always a great experience when businesses are motorcycle-friendly.
After getting settled I walked a few blocks away to O’Blarneys for some bangers and mash and a beer to end the day.
Saturday began dry, contrary to the forecast of increasing chance of showers. I made it to the classroom location about 10 minutes early and already a half dozen bikes were parked outside. Several riders were grouped around Ian’s Kawasaki Versys, watching and assisting as he fixed a flat tire. By 9:10 everyone was present and class began.
The course is 40% classroom lecture and 60% range exercises. The lectures were informative but tended to be long-winded and sometimes tangential. Our instructors, Pete and Jeff, were very knowledgeable, engaging and definitely likable. After introductions were made, we talked about the theory of cornering as well as the mental attitudes needed to ride effectively. Eventually we headed out to the range, a large parking lot behind a nearby mall about 5 blocks away.
The range exercises were the most useful part of the clinic. Anyone that took the MSF Basic Riders Course would find the format and approach very similar. We had a large area to work in, roughly the size of two football fields side-by-side, with circles and routes painted on the asphalt. Pete and Jeff set up several circles and lines using small orange and green cones, then gave us instructions for our first exercise.
To start, we practiced straight-line throttle and brake control exercises, learning to smoothly adjust our speed using a combination of both. Then, after riding around the range to scrub (warm up) our tires, we began some simple turning exercises.
We didn’t break for lunch until 1:10 PM and only had 15 minutes to grab something and meet back at the classroom. We continued with another lecture while everyone wolfed down their food. This time the lecture was far more focused and less tangential. We talked about specific cornering techniques with an emphasis on body position. The group moved out onto the parking lot outside for a series of exercises.
One exercise taught us to visualize a corner’s turn-in point ahead of time, and then recognizing its position in our mind when we reach it. Then we moved onto a pair of exercises that involved leaning to the side into the arms of two other riders, followed by sitting on our bikes and leaning off with our bodies while other riders held our bike. After that, we suited up and headed back to the range.
The remaining series of range exercises taught us how to locate our turn-in point and how to use our head and direction of sight to ensure smooth cornering. Looking through the curve is probably the most influential part of navigating a corner smoothly. I scraped my pegs a couple of times during these exercises, despite riding the tallest bike in the group. It was easy to tell when my eyes or head moved out of that ‘look through’ position because my bike would twitch and swerve along with my line-of-sight. Even my throttle control varied with my eye and head position. Whenever I looked steadily through the curve my cornering technique was smooth and even.
And then the rain came. During a lecture on tires earlier in the day, instructor Jeff commented that modern street bike tires are capable of far more than most bikes and riders will demand of them. He also said that they provide up to 80% traction on wet road surfaces, still above what most riders will need. Those comments gave us the confidence to keep taking the curves in the range exercise even after the rain had the pavement soaking wet.
We rode in at least an hour of hard rain, and I personally found it exciting to take the same corners at the same speed but on very wet pavement. It boosted my confidence dramatically.
(A rider from British Columbia modeled his new leather Aerostich Transit suit after we returned to the classroom. He said he really liked it and that it was well worth the cost.)
After retiring back to the classroom at 6pm, the remainder of the session was about suspension. Since the suspension on my V-Strom has very little adjustment capabilities, I decided to bag the rest of the class and head back to my motel in the rain.
I parked under the front cover at the motel and verified I had permission to do so. Back in my room, I spread out my gear to dry out, showered, then headed to the Shari’s next door for dinner. The rain was falling heavily and never let up for the remainder of the trip.
On Sunday I gassed up and headed home via I-5 in the heavy rain without stopping. Unlike the 260 mile route I took getting to Olympia, the southbound freeway was the 140 mile direct route home. It’s amazing how much more exhausting riding in the rain is compared to riding on dry pavement. My gear held up well, including my Aerostich triple-digit glove covers, but the big winners were my Darien Jacket and my Sidi Canyon boots. They performed admirably as always.