Updated: Nov 18, 2019
I climbed off of my race bike at round 7 of the American Federation of Motorcyclists' five lap Formula 40 Middleweight race completely winded. Had it gone the full scheduled six laps, I might not have been able to get off the machine.
"I've got to do some off season training", I told my friend and pit crew An.
She looked at me with a face that affirmed my assessment was accurate, so I immediately started to plan diets to ignore and workouts to be too busy for. In short, just another broken off season promise in its infancy.
I decided that the reason I have failed at this whole off season training thing in the past was due to not incorporating motorcycles. I mean if eating kale or running on a treadmill were fun activities - like riding motorcycles - I would be a shape other than round. So I went to Rich Oliver's Mystery School.
For the three of you that don't know the name Rich Oliver, he raced 250 GP bikes (and others) and has five national championships to prove it. If that is not good enough, he went undefeated in three out of five of those championships including his final season in 2003. The name "Mystery School" is kind of a jab at the secrecy of his competitors about things like gear ratios and suspension set up. "Once I started getting fast on the GP bikes everybody stopped helping me out", Rich explained to me. "Once I retired I wanted to take the mystery out of going fast". He has been doing just that since 2003. His goal from the beginning was to improve not only the riding techniques of those seeking to go fast, but also to develop skills needed at any speed. He talked about vision techniques, getting in the right mindset to ride, and much to my amazement, exercise and nutrition. I might just be in shape next year yet!
The Mystery School is 13.9 layers of awesome located in Prather, California just outside of Fresno. It is the second location, the original site was not far down the road in the front yard of the Oliver's home.
Rich offers a variety of riding schools (more on that here) including the 2-day fun camp that I attended.
I rolled in with my friend and fellow AFMer Eric the first day at 9 am and went straight into a tour of the facility. While we didn't walk the entire almost 14 acres, Rich did give us some insight as to where our journey to getting slideways was going to go down. The riding area was divided into a "mostly flat" smaller section designed for drills, leaving the bulk of the acreage for a variety of track layouts. "We are still finding new ways to set the track up", explained Rich, "but we have some favorite configurations."
After some stretching we geared up and got familiar with the bikes. Most of us were on Yamaha TT-R125s with one Yamaha TT-R230 out there to keep it interesting. I was on a 125 with a magic button to start it, something that I was really happy about as the camp progressed.
We started the riding portion of the first day by doing very basic circles behind an instructor. The purpose of this was to get used to the drastically different body positioning needed to not fall down in the dirt. For those with little dirt background, you spend much of your time on the "wrong" side of the seat, kinda pushing the bike underneath you. Riding a dirt bike like a road bike results in a quick trip to the ground most of the time, something that I remembered from literally the first turn I ever took on a dirt bike years ago. One by one, we rode behind our instructor Garrett in counter-clockwise circles as Rich stood in the middle, coaching us into better form. While we were out making ourselves dizzy, Rich's wife Karin was observing every rider from an alternate angle. Karin would radio her take-aways to Layne, our other instructor for the day who was in with the riders not spinning circles.
When we finished the drill and got back in line, Layne relayed what Karin saw and added her own observations as needed. I was the third bike out of eight to go - just enough time to panic about how much I had forgotten about flat track and be nervous about screwing up.
It turns out that the three sets of eyes all observed the same thing. I needed to open my hips up more. I strangely remembered to keep my outside elbow up and even more foreign to me, none of the instructors told me to pick my head up.
I won't go into all of the details of my shortcomings through the rest of the exercises, and I am going to leave the details out about most of the drills as well. This is a only a review of The Mystery School, not a lesson on what not to do or part of the curriculum after all. I will say that every single drill that we did prior to hitting the track was set up to provide the rider with a greater chance of success. For example, in one drill we approached a corner off the gas, no brakes, at whatever speed the motor idled at. Once we got to a chalk line, we dipped the front wheel and went on the gas to get through the corner first to the left, then to the right. Both of these approaches were slightly downhill giving everyone a +1 in the confidence column.
Confidence is the key word when it comes to learning a new skill, and the faster you get the more confidence you need. Being able to practice this essential skill at the slowest speeds possible really made a difference once we picked up the pace.
After we spent sufficient time rolling around in circles and figure-eights we were lead over to the track area for some faster paced shenanigans.
As Rich eluded to, the track area has many possible configurations but there are three that get more use than any other. "Texas" is somewhat ironically named as it was the shortest of the three. It was the track with the least amount of elevation change and it only had left or right turns depending on which way Rich had us point the motorcycles. "Fat Flying J" got its name because it kinda looks like a Rubenesque letter J. The "flying" part was due to a section that could be jumped, assuming you could make the corner after it. The track had some elevation changes and one right (or left if run backwards) turn to deal with upping the difficulty factor. For more of a challenge, "Rattlesnake" was a little bit longer, had substantial elevation changes, an opposite direction corner, and threw in some off-camber elements for good measure. I loved this track when it was run to the right, I struggled with it run to the left.
For practice, we rode all three tracks for four minutes in each direction. Through the eyes of a road racing and track day fanatic, you might think that four minutes isn't even enough time to get your tires warm. Tell that to your hip flexors after four minutes of untrained, leg-dangling, sliding in close quarters with seven of your new best friends. Four minutes felt more like four months.
After we broke for lunch, which was included and delicious by the way, I strapped on a steel shoe for the first time. I have ridden (poorly) and even raced (slowly) flat track before, but never with this magical piece of gear. After one session with the steel shoe I noticed a couple of things. First, when I got my body positioning correct a steel shoe felt like cheating. Instead of worrying about a rubber sole getting snagged, the reinforced steel slid over the dirt with ease. The problem was my second take-away... I rarely got my body position correct. Despite my never riding motocross before, I had motocross habits to break. I seemed to want to stick my leg out more straight than to the side. This did not go unnoticed by the instructor crew (or my hip flexors) and the general consensus was that I need to practice more.
Oh no, not more motorcycle riding! Anything but that! Sarcasm aside, they were not wrong. Sadly riding was done for the day I would have to wait until the morning to see if I could get it right.
Before we stretched or put on our gear for the second day, we sat in a circle outside the garage. Each rider had a chance to talk about their strengths and weaknesses from the day before. As an alternative to a lecture, Rich welcomed input from everyone in the circle. This level of participation fueled some of the shyer personalities to chime in. Soon I found myself learning almost as much as I did in a four minute practice session on the track. Listening to the problem areas of faster riders got me thinking proactively and in some cases were related to issues of my own. It was such a good talk that I almost wanted to keep it going until lunch.
Rich flexed zero ego at any point in the two day event. He welcomed input from his staff and his customers both days that I was there. His method of instruction helped me to approach things with an open mind - something that is imperative when learning new skills.
Every conversation with Rich, Karin, or the instructor crew was designed to inspire confidence. The ROMS staff brought up my shortcomings in as positive of a manner as possible before going into how to make improvements to those many, many, shortcomings. They found the sweet spot between barking orders and being pushovers. Sure, Karin did give me copious amounts of shit for the full Ricky-racer tuck I did one lap but I totally deserved it! (She had told me that my elbow dropped the lap before.)
Oh, yeah, did I mention that we rode motorcycles day two as well?
The second day brought us new instructors and some new drills. With instructors Chad and Kaitlyn punched in, we fired up the motos. After a brief warm up we did some practice race starts, mud drills, and eventually got to the meat and potatoes of the day.
The races. I mean, we were on motorcycles after all, so even if it was not scheduled there would have been racing!
We eased into the racing. First some five lappers, then 15, and finally a monster 25 lap marathon. Hi, remember me? I was the guy complaining about needing to get into shape and you want me to do how many laps?
Remember how I pointed out that Rich had things set up for his students to succeed? By no coincidence, (and to my never-ending joy) the races followed the same format. The five lap races were all shorter than our four minute practice sessions. After the first couple races I felt invigorated instead of exhausted. The 15 lappers were the perfect (and practiced) length of, you guessed it, right around four minutes. Finishing a set of those was just like practice. All of the 5 and 15 lap races were gridded randomly, giving everyone a shot to see what it is like to not only be on the front row but also forced everyone to be in the middle or back of the pack as well. This set up the main event perfectly, as with 25 laps there was bound to be some rider interaction.
The track for the main event was brand new to all of us... and longer. It had parts of Texas, Fat Flying J, and Rattlesnake, PLUS a brand new section tossed in for fun. Oh, we also did a LeMans start to spice it up a bit! I said that the camp was designed to inspire confidence, I never said they made it easy! I am not sure exactly what place I finished, but I do know that I held Rich Oliver off on the last lap... finishing three laps down from him. My final time was 16:47ish if my youtube math is correct.
With the on track festivities over we switched gears to bench racing. As we swapped our steel shoes for ones less likely to damage hard wood floors, we talked about the battles of the day and our improvements over the weekend. Everyone that rode in our group left with a smile on their face, and a little something else.
If you are the type of person that needs to be yelled at, talked down to, or otherwise abused to get something through that thick skull of yours, ROMS is not the place for you. It isn't a participation ribbon, everyone is a winner just for showing up environment either. Rich Oliver's Mystery School provides top shelf instruction designed to inspire the confidence needed to learn.