Never stop learning
True enthusiasts always want more seat time. Practice makes perfect, even if I HATE the “P” word. Perfection is an illusion, but the saying rings true enough. As Paul and Todd say often, almost NO ONE would admit that they are not a good driver but I think most of us wouldn’t have any issue saying that they could be a BETTER one. I mean, until they start tossing Formula 1 and MotoGP team offers for us, nobody can say they can’t do better right?
The advice to never stop learning is one that many people follow. To most, it usually means “keep doing what you’re doing and hone your craft”. This is great. But today let’s push that idea even further. Lets think beyond honing your craft and get more crafts to hone.
For example: If you have never left public roads, go sign up for a track day or autocross. If you’re a HPDE regular, try drag racing or maybe rally sometime. Seriously, try something new. You’ll probably have fun but you will DEFINITELY learn a lot.
For example, I have been riding motorcycles for a long time. 99% of that has been on the street. I live near Chicago, and did not ever really have that farm/country road access to experiment on. I briefly had a junky honda XR80 as a kid that ran a few times but largely I spend all my time on the pavement. The truth of it is, it’s absolutely fine. Nobody NEEDS to go off-road pretending they are Ewan McGregor. I may have never had a shiny new motorcycle but I have also never had anything junky that was not precious to me so it’s always been nerve wrecking for me to ride with unstable footing and be anxious about dropping my bike if I made a mistake.
However, as an avid traveler on two wheels, I OFTEN end up in a situation where I find myself on a gravel or dirt road. Maybe we are lost, maybe the GPS didn’t realize I wasn’t on a Dual-Sport motorcycle, I don’t know how it happens. What I DO know is that since the beginning it has made me insanely uncomfortable to be on anything but reliable, dependable grippy pavement. I never learned how to ride on loose surfaces on a smaller lighter off-road bike and learning now on a heavy streetbike is quite daunting.
It really bothered me that my ever-increasing skill on a motorcycle never allowed me to gain confidence when the concrete ended. I’d go from the best and most confident rider in my group to a scared noob instantly and it made me furious. Well, there was a bit of fury but mostly embarrassment, shame, and frustration if I am honest. I understood how this portion of my riding had barely progressed but each passing year it was more of a glaring weak point that made me feel bad about my skills in this hobby.
Over the years I also have been learning more and more in the way of garage work - upkeep, maintenance, fabrication, etc. Accruing a small fleet of vehicles over the years has motivated me to take on more and more DIY work than ever. However again while I don’t own anything super fancy, I never really had a “bucket” to wrench on with a carefree attitude. I’ve only had fairly nice vehicles that carry a bit more consequence when you start channeling your inner amateur mechanic.
My successes in the garage made me feel great - wiser, more capable and less fearful with every project. But there were still so many things that felt out of my scope and ability. Nervous to ruin nice stuff, I stopped myself very early before I got in over my head. Every time I waved the white flag it felt terrible, like I was failing my own growth by chickening out.
So we have identified two areas where I had grown increasingly annoyed with my lack of growth. Not long ago, I decided to do something about all of this in one swoop. After some minor research and preparation, I bought myself a dirt bike. I shopped for a cheap bike that needed a bit of fixing up - not a basket case in boxes, but a 900-dollar, 22yr old 2-Stroke Motocross bike that ran, but was a bit... Rough. After an initial shakedown at an off-road park, the list of things it needed was fairly large.
The fork was shot with disintegrated bump stops and seals without an ounce of fluid in it. The engine compression was low, It didn’t run particularly well, the tires were in dire need of replacement, and it had a few leaks. It also had a sticky throttle. ON top of that, there were little things like a filthy air filter, terrible grips, and some rough plastic body parts. There was plenty more ailments, but that’s enough to get the idea that I had my work cut out for me. I bought a factory service manual for the bike and went to work.
In the coming weeks, I tackled all of it. I rebuilt the fork legs and replaced the seals (a first for me). I rebuilt and re-jetted the carburetor with relative ease. I even learned how to change tires and tubes with simple hand tools. I changed sprockets, chains, and got used to stripping the bike down nearly to the frame and back in a matter of minutes. A couple months later, the bike wasn’t MINT, but it certainly looked and ran 10x better than it had day one. I hadn’t realized it but in my pursuit of squashing my fear of riding off-road, I had gotten myself a project bike too.
I had always done work myself when I could, but I did it in a REACTIONARY way - i.e. when something broke and I didn’t want to blow shop hourly labor costs I’d begrudgingly fix it. It was never something I looked forward to - it was just a necessity to not blow my money if I could do it myself. But this humble Yamaha YZ125 had been the first vehicle I genuinely looked forward to the next project to tackle. The absolute lack of any NEED for it to get running again with any time-frame was freeing, and I really got excited waking up on a Saturday to get dirty fixing or improving something else on it. Wrenching with a goal of learning and not just to fix it a.s.a.p. is truly terrific.
Once the YZ was ready to get itself dirty (and not just make my hands oily in the garage), the other half of the learning experience could commence. It was time for me to go play in the dirt.
For the two or three months between the initial shakedown on the bike and this next time I rode it, I had been absorbing TONS of information anywhere I could get it. Articles on technique, body positioning, throttle and clutch application all had been consumed numerous times. When I rode the bike again, it was a revelation! I still had a LOT to learn, but on this old junky MX bike, I have gained TONS of confidence on uneven imperfect ground. Having this tool for learning as something I had no issue dropping, crashing or abusing gave me the freedom to experiment and not worry about the machine while I learned.
I instantly did things I had never dreamed of attempting. Jumping on a MX track, backing the rear wheel in on a hairpin turn, standing up on the pegs and letting the bike move around (a lot) through ruts or mud puddles, and moving around the long seat to use my weight (which is more than what the bike weighs) are all things I've never done before now.
I don’t mean for this to be a brag article at all - I am a TOTAL NOVICE in dirt bike riding. I am NOT good. But every time I go out, I learn tons of things, get more confidence and have more fun than the time before. Same goes for wrenching in the garage. Having this cheap bike to experiment on has given me a TON of great experience and confidence to do more on my other machines which I am far more precious about.
It’s been just 6 months, but this venture has made me unbelievably more confident riding motorcycles in every capacity. Experiencing and learning stability in terrible terrain has shown me how to handle a big heavy streetbike in ANY situation. Also, tearing apart the dirt bike and realizing that most repairs aren’t as scary as you make them has indeed given me more confidence in the garage.
It’s easy to get in a comfort zone and never want to venture out again. Feeling new, ignorant or nervous are not pleasurable ways to spend your days. However it’s much better to face those fears. Growth through trial is a hugely satisfying way to put these fears behind you and a cheap project bike (or car) just may be the way to do it. I only wish I had done it years ago. I’m just glad this old dog is up for learning new tricks.
I write and I know things. I am also the resident motorcycle expert at Everyday Driver - check out the Cycle Report on our YouTube channel - www.thecyclereport.com - The views and opinions expressed here are my own and may not align with the founders of Everyday Driver.