“Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Mastery, as Taught by Reg Pridmore”

By David Colker
Times Staff Writer

MONTEREY, Calif.–Written across a blackboard, in all capital letters, was one word: CONTROL.  In front of the board, in a trailer that serves as a classroom on the edge of one of the best-known venues for motorcycle racing in the world, stood a legendary master of high-speed control, Reg Pridmore.

“Anyone can go fast,” he said to 65 riders seated in folding chairs, each of whom had paid $325 for a day of instruction from Pridmore. “But not everyone can go fast with control. That’s what this day is about.”

And so began a session of Pridmore’s Class Motorcycle Schools, which he conducts at tracks across the U.S. and in Europe from March through November. He has been teaching riding skills since 1976, the same year that as a racer he won the first of three consecutive American Motorcyclist Assn. Superbike championship titles. Lessons learned on the track, he explained, make us better and safer riders on the streets.

Pridmore, who was born in England, instructs in a manner that is forthright but supportive. And although he does not speak in cosmic terms, there is a bit of Zen about him.

“What do you want to get out of this class?” he asks the students, all of whom are dressed in full riding gear, as is required by the school.

“To learn how to go really fast,” piped up one of the handful of female students.

“I’ll tell you exactly how to do that,” Pridmore said with a smile. “Go really slow.”

Then it was time to hit the track.

Laguna Seca, in a beautiful setting just east of Monterey, is slightly more than 2 1/4 miles in length. It is not, like some tracks, an oval; this raceway features 11 turns, one of which spins you around almost 180 degrees, and another, nicknamed “The Corkscrew,” that calls for a quick left and right as riders and bikes plunge down a hill.

Before getting on the track, all riders were required to remove or tape over their motorcycles’ mirrors. “What’s behind you is finished,” Pridmore explained. “I want you to concentrate on what is in front of you.”

This also forced each rider to take responsibility for those in front–if you were going to pass someone, you had to do it with the knowledge that he or she would not know you were coming from behind.

Pridmore gave a part-riding, part-walking tour of the track to suggest approaches for each turn. Every turn, he said, no matter how gentle or radical, is a problem to be solved using the basic tools of downshifting, braking, leaning and throttle control. Everything is to be done with awareness, nothing by rote.

“This is school, guys,” he said. (Pridmore explained at the start of the class that he uses “guys” to address both sexes.)

“Turn on your brains.”

With an explanation of a few general procedures, mostly concerning safe passing, he let us loose to experience the track on our own. A wide range of experience was immediately in evidence–some riders took curves with such a pronounced lean that they skidded their inside knees (protected with padding) along the track. The rest of us were more tentative to say the least, and occasionally a rider went into a curve too fast and wobbled.

Track time, monitored by Pridmore’s helpers, alternated with classroom sessions throughout the morning. In class, Pridmore often repeated his four keys to good riding: concentration, awareness, confidence, smoothness. He talked about the importance of downshifting and engaging the bike’s suspension for better control.

After two or three of the class sessions, I was getting a little antsy for more specific lessons. I wanted step-by-step instruction.

But that’s not how Pridmore works.

“There are a million and one different combinations that can be used to do anything,” he said later. “You have to understand the basic concepts, then slow down and relax enough to sift through everything and put the pieces of the puzzle together.”

I felt like I was in an episode of “Kung Fu.” But darned if he wasn’t right. Just before lunch break, I noticed that something about my riding was different. Very different.

I was leaning over so far in curves that the foot pegs of my BMW K75s were scraping the track. My riding got noticeably smoother, more controlled. Instead of each curve being an obstacle to somehow get through, each now presented a puzzle to be solved. The difference in mental approach might seem subtle, but it made riding more engaging, more fun. I was not the only one to feel that way.

“Everything’s different,” said my riding buddy Jaake Jacobson, who came down from San Francisco to take the class. We were both smiling nonstop.

“Maybe,” a nearby rider chimed in, “we are starting to get the hang of this.”

After lunch, Pridmore gave his most specific instructions of the day. Sitting on a motorcycle outside the classroom, he showed how he uses body position, instead of strong-arm tactics, to make the bike turn in a more refined manner. The rest of the afternoon was taken up with more track time and with drills to improve braking and other skills.

And we got a chance to ride with the master. For a minimum $20 donation to the Pediatric Brain Tumor Foundation, a charity supported by numerous motorcycle clubs and events, Pridmore offered two laps of the track in the passenger seat of his Honda VFR800.  To make sure we passengers felt how he leaned the bike, he had us reach around him and place our hands on the gas tank. Then he took off like a rocket. I should have realized what I was in for when one rider said, as he got off the VFR: “If you find my fingernails on the gas tank, let me know. I think I left them there.”

Riding with Pridmore was like being on the most thrilling roller coaster you could imagine–multiplied by a thousand. He took curves inches from the ground, and I had to press mightily into the gas tank to deal with the G-forces on straightaways. But his riding was so incredibly smooth that I never even felt him down- or up-shift, even though he was doing so constantly.

It seemed like perfection. But not to Pridmore. “I like to think,” he said, “that every time I go around a track, I learn something new.”

* Information on Class Motorcycle Schools is available on the Internet at https://www.classrides.com or by calling (805) 933-9936.

Two-Wheel Ride surveys the motorcycle scene in Southern California. David Colker can be reached at david.colker@latimes.com.

Copyright, Los Angeles Times. Reprinted with permission.