Dirt Wise School is in session. Shane Watts provides an informative talk and demo before each exercise.
I’ve been riding motorcycles for over 30 years now. I consider myself a pretty decent rider, but the one thing I’ve learned in all those years is that there is always room for improvement. I’m always looking for ways to not only increase my speed, but also improve my technical ability and reduce the risk of crashing. When I got word that Shane Watts was coming to the Northwest to teach one of his Dirt Wise Academy off-road riding schools, I jumped at the chance to hone my skills from one of the best.
Shane’s list of achievements is extensive. He is a six-time Australian Enduro Champion, Australian 500cc Motocross Champion, World Enduro Champion, Six Day Enduro Overall Champion and a Grand National Cross Country Champion. Even more impressive is the number of schools he is offering this year. Fifty-three different schools spread all over the country, just in 2011. Shane personally teaches every school and limits the number of riders to make sure each rider gets his full attention.
The Dirt Wise Academy schools cater to riders of all abilities. Shane currently offers two levels of schools. The standard school is geared towards average riders and B- and C-level racers. His “hardcore” school builds on the principals of the standard school, and then challenges the riders with more technical exercises and focuses on improving line selection and increasing speed. The advanced school is geared toward pro, A- and B-level racers. I consider myself a fast B-level racer and opted for the hardcore school.
Our Honda CRF250R Project Bike served as the platform for expanding our riding skills at the Dirtwise Academy.
I was a little concerned that I might not be good enough to handle the advanced school, but quickly found that Shane’s teaching technique can accommodate a wide range of students at the same time. No matter how diverse the riding abilities, everyone can participate and benefit from the exercises. I think what makes Shane’s schools so effective is his ability to break the riding principles down into slow and controlled exercises. Once a rider has mastered the basic fundamentals of the exercise, he then pushes the student to hit it faster, or try a more technical line and continually build upon the techniques learned from that exercise.
All of Shane’s schools are taught in a two-day format with about 7-8 hours of instruction per day. This provides a ton of time in the saddle and really enables riders to build upon the skills they have learned in the previous exercise. By the end of the second day you are thoroughly exhausted and definitely feel like you got your money’s worth.
Our first day started off bright and early at about 7:30 a.m. where the class got a chance to meet Shane and take care of the preliminary paperwork. The first thing you notice about Shane is his accent. Although he has lived in the States for quite some time, his Australian accent is still heavy and just listening to him talk will bring a smile to your face. The next thing you notice is how personable he is and his strong passion for riding. You might think that a guy with his credentials would have that “I’m better than you” attitude, but he is far from conceited and really strives to make everyone feel comfortable and confident. A guy who has raced for so long and who rides so much might be a little burnt out, but Shane is far from it. He was easily the most excited guy in the group, and at the end of every exercise he would pipe up in his down under voice, “good times, mate, good times.”
Our Lebanon Oregon location provided miles of awesome single track. The facility also offered up a moto track and a small trials area.
We started out with a quick warm up through some single-track to get everyone’s blood pumping. The terrain at our Lebanon, Oregon location was epic and a fresh rain the night before made the soil conditions perfect. I would have had a blast just riding the single-track all day, but this trip was about learning, and Shane quickly gathered us all up for our first exercise.
With the fresh rain and a large grassy area at our disposal, Shane decided it would be best to start with some drifting exercises. The idea is to learn proper body position, brake and throttle control on those high-speed, flat corners where the rear end steps out and drifts around the corner. Shane teaches this technique through a series of exercises on slick ground, but at lower and more controlled speeds. The first was a large oval that focused on proper braking into the corner and good throttle control exiting the corner. By applying the proper amount of rear brake coming into the corner, we were taught to step out the rear while maintaining some wheel rotation, then transitioning into the corner exit and maintaining the slide with throttle.
The second drifting exercise slowed things down even more and focused solely on throttle control. Riding in a tight circle with about a 12-foot diameter we were challenged to keep a consistent slide around the entire circle and make as many laps around the circle as possible. This was all about throttle control and body position and while it was one of the slowest exercises we would encounter, it also proved to be one of the hardest.
Shane uses poles to teach his grinding method. This skill is all about body position and throttle control. We would find out later how valuable this skill is when out on the trail.
After a few more cornering exercises, including off-cambered, rutted turns and tight stop-and-go turns, we then moved onto our next skill – grinding. “Grinding” seems to be one of Shane’s favorite words, and also one of his favorite exercises. This technique is used to traverse slick side-hills and also when riding through deep ruts The idea is to keep the front tire high and let the rear “grind” along the side of the hill or rut. This exercise is all about balance, body position and throttle control. One of the best ways Shane has discovered to teach this skill is with telephone poles, or long, smooth logs. The idea is simple. Ride diagonally up to the end of the log and get one wheel on each side. You then “grind” your way down the entire length of the log with your front tire on one side and the rear on the other.
This task looks easy as Shane gives his demo, but most riders soon found out that it takes a little practice to get the hang of this one. Like most of Shane’s exercises, once a rider has mastered the basic technique, he then pushes you to take it to a real-world situation. In the case of grinding, once a rider is able to successfully grind the entire log, Shane would then have them try a larger log and then hit it faster and faster. By the end most riders had really improved their ability to grind and we were ready to apply this technique out on the trails.
Having successfully conquered “drifting” and “grinding” and with a solid night’s sleep, we were now ready to take on the exercises of Day 2. We did a quick refresh on some of the skills learned previously and then moved onto new challenges including hills, logs and steep cliffs. I love hill climbs so this was a blast for me.
We started out with some basic hill exercises like stopping and restarting on an incline. Then we moved into steeper climbs and also worked on steep downhill ruts. Hill climbs are all about having a good drive so these exercises focused on body position, throttle control and line selection. Some of our climbs were scattered with trees, so we also got a chance to try out the “Watsy Wiggle.” The Watsy Wiggle is Shane’s technique for getting between two trees that are narrower than the handlebars. A quick left then right turn at the precise moment enables the rider to wiggle his bars between the trees and continue up the hill with out losing any momentum.
Downed riders were the norm at Shane’s school. They say you learn from your mistakes and this class was no exception.
Coming back down the hill is always a challenge, especially if the hill is rutted out. One of the techniques Shane focuses on is standing up, and rather than sitting down and dabbing a foot when you get off balance, steer your front tire into the side of the rut which re-centers the bike and enables you to maintain the standing position. By staying on your feet, you not only save energy, but you are also able to carry more speed down the hill and absorb any bumps, holes and tree roots that may come up.
No off-road school would be complete without some log crossings. While most riders have the ability to get over a log, there is always a time when you get hung up and stuck. Shane provided his slingshot technique for these frustrating occasions. Most riders will try to lean forward and give a lot of gas to get over the log which usually results in a lot of tire spin, wasted energy and not much forward movement. Shane’s technique involves placing both feet on the log, rolling the bike backward until the front tire is on the top of the log, then sitting back and dropping the clutch to “slingshot” the bike over the obstructing log.
One of the things I like most about Shane’s school was that once we had completed all of the slow-speed, technical exercises, we then got a chance to hit some trail and put the techniques to use at a faster pace. Shane stopped us at some of the more difficult sections and
After completing all of the exercises we hit the single track to put our new knowledge to the test. The “grinding” skills we had acquired became invaluable when tackling this sidehill.
demonstrated how our newfound techniques could be applied in that situation. The best example of this was a steep side-hill that inevitably forced your bike to slide down and off the trail into the ravine below. By standing up on the bike and pointing your front wheel as high as possible it was possible to grind across the steep slope and continue on the trail.
By the end of two days I came away exhausted and a much better rider. The skills that Shane taught are now embedded in my head and are a natural part of my riding style. Just the other day I was out riding some single-track when the guy in front of me got hung up in a rut and blocked my only line. No worries, I just popped my front tire out of the rut and grinded my way past him, roosting him in the process. Money well spent.
Shane’s Academy of Off Road Riding Schools are held year round at just about every part of the country. The standard school is only $360 for two days of instruction, and the hardcore school is only $450. For any rider looking to improve their riding ability I highly recommend popping onto Shane’s website, www.shanewatts.com, and finding a class near you. Good times, mate.
Thanks to KenaniB.com for helping with the photos.