Moto gymkhana puts riders to the test at slow speeds as they navigate a course of extremely tight turns other obstacles.
In North America we associate gymkhana as the sort of thing that Ken Block does with a monster Ford Fiesta rally car on purpose built courses. Turns out there’s more to gymkhana than shredding tires and sliding sideways, especially if it’s being done on a motorcycle. Known as moto gymkhana, the sport calls on a set of riding skills that most of us street riders have very little ability in: tight maneuvering in extremely close quarters.
Despite how good you think you are on a motorcycle, you can be sure that you’ve never handled a bike in quite the same way moto gymkhana requires you to. I saw and experienced this first hand at Rock the Red, a moto gymkhana event sponsored by Honda Canada in Toronto a few months ago.
As event day dawned I was fairly confident in my ability to maneuver a bike at low speed – I can after all get through nearly any parking lot without duck walking my machine. That confidence however was quickly shattered the moment I attempted my first figure-8 in the practice ring. Being able to do figure-8’s, small diameter 360 turns, and various slaloms slowly is one thing, doing it all back to back in a timed competitive setting is a whole other challenge.
The competition course was set up in a parking lot – as most moto gymkhana events are – with the use of cones dictating course layout. Setting a good time meant being able to accelerate strong, brake hard, turn smoothly and lean steeply. It all sounds straight forward, but consider that the course confines are such that riders cannot counter steer and suddenly the challenge that is moto gymkhana becomes exceedingly evident.
Lots of riders went down during the “Rock the Red” moto gymkhana event in Toronto. Luckily bikes were outfitted with race cages, helping them stay functional after many drops.
For this event, all competitors rode Honda-supplied CBR250s that were even equipped with ABS. The bikes were race prepped – removal of indicator lamps and mirrors – and featured a few small modifications. My favorite being the addition of a race-spec exhaust which allowed these 249cc machines a surprisingly mighty roar. The bikes also had a long first gear enabling speeds upwards of 30 mph before redline and a strong serving of torque available right off the line. There was even a full race cage meaning the bikes stayed functional even after repeated drops.
As if all this wasn’t exciting enough, Mother Nature decided to liven things up a bit by raining down a storm as the event kicked off. Moto gymkhana doesn’t stop for rain, not when the lead organizer is veteran moto gymkhana rider and master of Zen Yoshitaka Nakatani – better known as Yoshi. Yoshi has the distinct honor of being recognized by JAGE (loosely translated as Japan Moto Gymkhana Association) as the director of the newly formed Canadian moto gymkhana governing body.
Why is JAGE so important? Moto gymkhana is a sport that originated in Japan more than 30 years ago. Today, it is even a required component of all Japanese motorcycle licensing. JAGE is the governing body responsible for standardization of moto gymkhana competition criteria and organizing official events in Japan. Despite the sport’s recent popularity in Europe and Australia JAGE rules and regulations are considered the standard to which all official moto gymkhana events adhere to.
In the official moto gymkhana competition circuit there are multiple classes and categories based on rider skill and motorcycle engine displacement. Skilled moto gymkhana riders make the sport seem easy by maneuvering their machines in extremely tight confines with spectacular fluidity. In comparison my performance at Rock the Red in Toronto was downright comical and from my perspective what skilled riders manage seems near impossible.
Rain showers hit the course early at Rock the Red, but moto gymkhana doesn’t stop because conditions get difficult!
Even riding lightweight CBR250s proved to be a challenge for many riders at Rock the Red as bikes were laid down a fair number of times. Considering that official moto gymkhana events feature machines over 1000cc, I find myself wondering how much skill it takes to flick these heavy machines around through a typical course.
As my moto gymkhana experience wrapped up that day, I had become aware of an interesting fact: practiced dirt bike riders were clearly better first timers in a moto gymkhana environment. During a chat with Yoshi, he explained to me that a number of core skills learned in dirt biking translate very well to moto gymkhana. Veteran off-road trail riders understand how to control their machines at low speeds on tight trails and have a strong grasp of how center of gravity affects bike balance. No wonder I was terrible as a moto gymkhana rider, having spent all my riding life on asphalt I had virtually no experience on the loose stuff. It should come as no surprise then that all three podium finishes at this event were riders with plenty of off-road skill.
Many riders believe that moto gymkhana is best left for naked/street bikes and sports bikes; this couldn’t be further from the truth. Law enforcement organizations across North America have been using variations of moto gymkhana course layouts for training their motorcycle officers for years. Yup, that means those officers you see on big, heavy cruisers can likely put most street riders to move-to-another-state-and-change-your-name sort of shame if challenged on maneuverability.
There are in fact a number of organizations and local collectives spread across the country that practice motorcycle riding skill on moto gymkhana-inspired course layouts. There are no restrictions on the kind of bikes riders can use or how much skill you need to have before participating.
Regardless of whether you want to compete officially or do it for a bit of fun, moto gymkhana is a terrific way for riders of all skill levels to become better riders. Considering it costs little more than an empty parking lot and a few cones to get started, moto gymkhana could very well be the best way for a majority of us riders to push the envelope on our skill level without breaking the bank. The possibility that I may one day have the skill to pull off something akin to what the Switch Riders do isn’t such a bad thought either.