Jimmy Lewis Off-Road Riding School
I was flying.
The protesting movement of my early street Honda’s primitive suspension was at ease. I had been coerced into a jump on my first time off road, around a blind corner, by my “buddies” who waited at the bottom of the hump roaring in laughter. After a moment of weightlessness, gravity won... the suspension bottomed out and the bike and I flailed around like a fish out of water, but I kept it upright. So ended my first lesson in how to ride off road.
Although that lesson was decades ago, long before the internet and YouTube videos, the instructional method for most folks learning to ride off road remains much the same. You go out with a parent or some buddies and they pass along all they know, even if it is wrong.
Over the past few years, the concept of taking lessons from a professional has grown in popularity. I had heard about motorcycle legend Jimmy Lewis for years; his winning performances in Baja and Dakar elevate him to the best of the best. Seeing him loft a monster 1190 KTM over a 24-inch diameter log at a Horizons Unlimited event cemented my interest in attending his school. I always felt that I was, at best, an intermediate-level rider. I also believe it is never too late to teach an old dog new tricks.
So, I made plans to attend the Jimmy Lewis Off-Road Riding School. Located in Pahrump, Nevada, an hour or so from Las Vegas, Jimmy’s locale provides endless riding opportunities, with terrain ranging from flat dry lake bed to undulating desert single track, an abandoned gravel pit and, of course, all the sand you can eat.
The morning greeting session of our two-day weekend class began with Jimmy introducing himself, his wife Heather, and the other coaches, along with an overview of what was to come. He stressed the importance of balance and had each student spend some time on a balance board, like those from a gym. Another lesson involved standing alongside your bike and, with only one finger, keeping the bike upright and balanced while walking around the bike. The importance of balance was built into the drills that would follow.
“Learn to go fast by going slow”
Our focus then switched to body position. What I then heard was contrary to what I had been taught when it came to sand and loose terrain. I had learned to stand far back over the seat in the soft stuff and keep on the gas. Jimmy shattered that image with this statement: “Look at any Baja competitor at speed. You’ll see that they are standing up far forward over the tank.” The point is that you’ll do better by maintaining a reasonable speed and letting the bike thrash around underneath you than by putting your weight on the back and using tons of throttle. A while later, we practiced this positioning in the sand and he is right! Jimmy’s informal and engaging banter with the class had us relaxed and interacting in no time. He queried, “What is the correct foot position?” One student answered, “On the balls of your foot,” another “Over the arch.” Jimmy’s answer: “Wherever you’re comfortable.” Easy enough!
We began the first day on an immense, smooth, dry lake bed with some simple drills: Starting and stopping, decreasing radius turns, skid turns, turning using only one hand, panic stops, and very slow speed maneuvering. All the time, Jimmy, Heather, and the other coaches were watching and would ride up to guide us.
To prepare for my “formal education” in off-road riding, I had bought a couple of books on the subject. I quickly learned when the drills started that although there was nothing unique or unpredictable in the curriculum, the difference was the constant coaching. One simply cannot learn how to do a sport by reading a book. It takes a competent coach and practice.
For example, Jimmy came up alongside me and with greatly exaggerated motions positioned himself sitting over the rear fender. I got the message that I was still sitting too far back on the bike. I moved up and he nodded his approval. Being good-naturedly mocked by a champion is a great teaching technique! Later, while practicing another drill, Heather, a top-tier rider herself, stopped me and demonstrated how I was not moving my body enough in the low-speed maneuvers. She directed me to ride around her for a while and, with shouts, hand signals, and gestures guided me to perfection. What had seemed to me like dangling off my bike was not even close to what I learned I could do.
In another example, the first day was about half over when I realized that the key to learning, and the success of Jimmy’s school, was to have a high staff-to-student ratio and provide nearly constant feedback. While doing a panic stop drill, one of the younger instructors observed me grabbing the clutch too soon and told me I would lose my engine control doing that. This is exactly the kind of feedback, from a trained eye, that makes all the difference. You just cannot get feedback from a book or video (although I still recommend the books and videos to get started).
After a day of drills, we met up in the evening for a group meal and exchanged stories. I learned that Jimmy had been teaching since 2000 and he and Heather had been riding buddies since she was a pre-teen.
The second day of riding was a chance to put together all the drills we had practiced the day before. We went into some deep sand at the nearby dunes and practiced our techniques of riding, using proper position, and getting un-stuck, by rocking the bike to get started and then just expecting some rear wheel slippage. We then split into two groups for either a more moderate or a more severe ride loop. Each group rode desert trails and we met up at the gravel pit for hill climbs, downhill stopping, and slope traverse exercises. I was chastised for taking on the steepest hill in an ungainly ascent before my technique was refined on the shallower slopes. That led to more practice and ultimately a smoother ascent on the big hill. Again, coaching made the difference.
We all marveled at how Jimmy and Heather rode their 1190s like they were mini-bikes. “It is all about balance,” they would respond.
As the day of riding drew to a close, we all were exhausted but still anxious for it to continue. Some of the riders in the group were repeat students. I understood why. Although the general layout of the class is the same for whatever level of rider you are, the seemingly one-on-one time with the coaches allows for riders of various levels to ride together and each gain what they need. I suspect that I will soon be one of the return riders to Jimmy’s school, a sentiment repeated by many of my fellow students.
Jimmy’s website hosts a bunch more information and lists his schedule of classes; at the time of this writing, his modest fee of $350 is worth every penny. If you have a group of six or more folks, Jimmy will schedule a class for you, at no additional charge. I left that evening knowing that my riding had improved far more than I’d hoped, and that made the school a total success for me.
Following my weekend with the Lewis’ I completed the epic West Coast event, LA to Barstow to Vegas, a grueling two-day trudge through every type of terrain the California-Nevada desert has to assault your senses. We sloughed through immeasurably deep sand that seemed to last for miles on end; we climbed technical, loose, rock-strewn pathways; and we raced along some sweetly maintained gravel roads at breakneck speeds.
The historically dry desert served up ever-present clouds of fine dust. In a personal best, I completed this event without my trusty DR-Z 400 ever leaving vertical. In my mind, as I soldiered along the course, I could see Jimmy’s mocking, exaggerated, wrong seating position and hear Heather’s patient coaching about my standing posture as I moved around the bike, figuratively dancing with it to suit the terrain. I kept correcting myself as I moved and, midway through the second day of the event, I realized I’d reached a bit of a Zen relationship with the machine and the terrain. Now, my only issue with Jimmy’s school is why I waited so long to go there. JimmyLewisOffRoad.com