Learning lessons while serving as a motopilot for the 2015 Amgen Tour of California bicycle race.
Note from Nick Ienatsch: My friend Ken Hill recently participated in a very specialized type of motorcycle riding that supports the bicycle racing we see on TV. I asked him to share his story here.
A new riding experience on a bike I've never seen. And this was the weather 11 hours before the race.
I walked out of the hotel in South Lake Tahoe anxious to start my latest challenge, serving as a motopilot for the 2015 Women's Amgen Tour of California bicycle stage race. It was 35 degrees and despite a forecast calling for clearing skies, the brisk temps and wet/slushy pavement had me wondering, “What did I get myself into?” I can ride a motorcycle. I teach others to ride for a living, I've raced extensively, and I'm still a test rider....so why was I nervous? Well, let's take stock of where I was that chilly morning.
I arrived late the night before because the original plan to ride the bikes from the rental place in Sacramento to Tahoe went out the window because of a small issue: snow! It was snowing over the pass on Highway 50, so at the last minute I rented a trailer and towed the two rental bikes up, only to discover snow-chain controls over the summit of 50. No problem, I have 4-wheel drive. Did you know that even if you have a 4-wheel drive vehicle you will need chains if you're pulling a trailer? Ummm, I didn't. Say, doesn't the race start in 11 hours?
The two rental bikes had at one point been someone's pride and joy, but that obviously had been a long time ago. The 5-year-old Honda ST1300 and 7-year-old BMW GS1200 had both seen better days, but despite the careful neglect, both would work fine. I was assigned the GS, since Peter, the other motopilot and full-timer from the UK, pulled rank and grabbed the ST keys. No big deal; I can ride whatever. That said, I discovered during my pre ride “tech check” that I couldn't flat-foot the GS. Did I mention there was wet pavement and slush on the ground that morning?
Headed out on my new best friend, the rental BMW R1200GS.
My partner for the next three days was Scott Ogle, a serious veteran of the moto-video world. My contacts at TV Motos International, the company I was working for, assured me Scott was the guy, one of the best and one of the first people in the US to start filming bicycle racing from a motorcycle as far back as 1977. I was assured he'd “let me know what to do.”
Scott was no bullshit and it was obvious he knew exactly what to do and what was going to happen over the next three days. My training began with Scott asking me, “You can ride right? I hear you can.” My training continued with Scott stating, “I could spend 30 minutes confusing you with some BS talk about all this stuff that's going to happen. Here's how this works: Up means speed up. Down means slow down. Hold means hold your speed. Either you get this or you don't. Let's go.” Training complete.
Challenge is a good thing, right?
Let's back up to explain what I'd be doing. The Amgen Tour of California was hosting a special three-day Women's Stage Race open to international competition. It was being held in South Lake Tahoe and is a very big deal in the cycling world. Since the men's race was separate, a few additional motopilots were needed and my friend Gregg Bettonte (one of the co-owners of TV-Motos International, along with Phil Bryden, both fellow cyclists) knew of my motorcycle riding and contacted me.
I said yes immediately because I just had to do this gig. It was real world, and it was targeted directly at what I do. My only experience came from watching the big European stage races on TV, seeing the camera bikes ripping around with inches to spare right in the action and more importantly: complete lawlessness. Right up my alley. A challenge, indeed.
The start line was organized chaos with officials, team cars, highway patrol officers, and motopilots all trying to be in the same place at the same time.
Day 1: This consisted of a 75-mile race around Lake Tahoe; thankfully, I was on a motorized vehicle and not pedaling. The women's race had about 85 riders from all over the world and the race organizers left nothing on the table; it was amazingly organized and orchestrated. At our internal briefing before we left the hotel, I raised a few eyebrows when others heard I had never done this before. Fortunately, Greg had said some good words and Scott, even though he had never ridden with me, said he would get me through it.
Having done thousands of two-up rides, I can always tell how it's going to go by how the passenger gets on the bike. If the passenger gets on the bike and almost pulls you off the machine, or jumps on so hard that you almost fall over, that pretty much sums up how the ride will go.
Scott tapped me on the shoulder and asked, “Ready?” Ah, yes, a professional! (Little did he know I was on my tiptoes using every plank muscle I had available to hold us up!) Scott carefully got on and we pulled out of the wet parking lot for the short ride to the start finish area at the Heavenly ski resort.
Having not ridden a GS for quite a while-oh, wait, I've never ridden a GS-it took a mile or two to get used to the bike and its characteristics (very soft brake lever, huge clunk between first and second gear, clutch engages early, rear brake has a ton of pedal travel, front tire feels like it has too much air or is cupped). No sweat, I got this.
We rolled up to the start in the best fashion possible. “We're TV,” Scott said. “We go where we want.” Oh, I like this. After checking in with the officials and nailing down our credentials, the start was coming up quickly. Our plan was to film the roll out and jump in at the back of the pack and then mix it up, going through the pack, covering breakaways, and the sprint points.
The pack rolled by for the start, and Scott quickly jumped on (after he asked if I was ready), and we literally pulled out into the thick of the follow cars-Highway Patrol, officials, VIPs, and team cars, along with the throng of other motorcycles carrying spare wheels and photographers. We had a communications system mounted in our helmets but it wasn't great, so I really couldn't hear what Scott was telling me. Perfect!
As we blasted our way through the sea of cars, (“Just leave the horn on the whole time!”) we got to the back of the pack. My first instruction: “Let's get in there.” So, we did. Closely. My focus was equal to an AMA National, every movement, every sound, the slightest quiver, the slightest nuance, I was taking it all in and adjusting.
As the roads narrowed, we encountered steep uphills, steep downhills, the pack stringing out, the pack bunching up, officials honking to get by, other motorcycles with photographers, police, VIPs, all wanting the same spot as us, at the same time. At this point it was still early, only 45 minutes into a 3-hour race and I was still pretty tentative, still figuring things out.
And then I made my first mistake.
Day 3: By this point, having Scott stand up and look for “the shot” is easy, even on the tight circuit race course.
We were on the left side of the road, at the back of the pack, with riders within a foot of us on the right. When I say left side of the road, I mean the left edge. There was maybe six inches of pavement to my left. This also happened to be the exact moment Scott decided to stand up for the first time, and precisely when the pack of riders drifted even more to the left. This was not going well.
The bike veered hard to the left because when Scott stood, he weighted the left peg first. And I couldn't counteract to the right because there was a pack of 80 women riders there! I had one safe place to go-off the road and into the dirt.
At first I thought no big deal; I'd just hop back on the road as soon as the lip is small enough. But then I saw the puddle. Looming 50 feet ahead was a huge puddle from the previous snow. We were going in, and we had no choice. I shouted, “puddle, puddle, puddle” and attempted to slow down as much as I could before impact, remembering Scott was still standing. The impact and splash were minimal, although I'm sure the gesture from the German rider who took on a bit of water means the same thing in her native tongue as it does in English. Ugh. Freddie Spencer had a great way of handling matters like this. Freddie would ask, “Do you know what you did wrong? Could you not do that again, please?” Loud and clear, Freddie.
The rest of Day 1 was more of the same except for a few memorable experiences. When Scott told me to get ahead for a roll-by shot, we needed to jump ahead of the circus by five minutes to find a suitable place to shoot. Is there anything better than having your own personal closed road with CHP officers waving you by as you blow through the speed limit like it's nothing? Pure. Heaven.
The finishing climb for Day 1 was brutal, with the last two kilometers almost all climbing, including a merciless 20-percent pitch that was sure to decide the race. Here's where the other memorable experience happened. Every tool in my toolbox was about to get used. Imagine having someone on the back of your motorcycle crawling all around to get the best shot he can, someone screaming in your ear, “Up, Down, Hold!” while trying to balance and maintain a speed of 5 or 6 mph on a bike not designed to do so (hint-barely slip the clutch with steady throttle while modulating the rear brake). All the while, the fans are screaming and you are beeping the horn, dodging other motorcycles and the cyclists. Challenges.
At the end of Day 1, I read my scorecard. I didn't get yelled at by Scott, and the officials didn't single me out for anything. Whew, that was a steep learning curve, and the three-hour race felt like it took 15 minutes. My two biggest personal takeaways were how long I had to be focused and how subtle my motor controls needed to be. I'd like to think my throttle, brake, and steering inputs are decent, but they weren't quite where I wanted them.
Day 2: This day featured a 50-mile race consisting of two laps around a circuit of the South Lake Tahoe area. The weather had blown out and we were treated to some chilly but epic skies. The race featured a little bit of everything: Big, wide-open roads, steep climbs, long descents, and tight residential areas. By the end of Day 1, I was starting to get the hang of it and my plan for Day 2 was to be more proactive and even more subtle with the controls. We started out filming at the front, where I learned how to read the field even better. Just like everything else in human nature, the path of least resistance is where the pack will go. At the front, it's easier to be proactive and get where we needed to be at the right time.
This day also had a few extremes. Remember the crazy finish climb from Day 1? We went down it this time, as speeds as high as 55 mph. The finish climb was also a bit steeper than Day 1's, so my slow-race skills again came into play as speeds dropped to 5 or 6 mph at times. It was also interesting to negotiate the tight residential areas because the cyclists were quite fast in the corners and keeping the proper distance was not nearly as easy as I expected.
Day 2 ended well and I received a “Good job” from Scott, which I was told was ever so hard to earn. Day 2 takeaways were much the same as those from Day 1, and I began feeling that I was close to figuring it out.
On the racetrack or while being motopilot, the techniques Nick and I teach at the Yamaha Champions Riding School allowed me to be the adjustable rider I needed to be to carry me through this challenge.
Day 3: Stage 3 was held in downtown Sacramento, so I loaded “my” GS in the rented trailer and made the trip over the pass while Peter, the other motopilot from our group and new to the US, took the ST to enjoy the epic ride and weather.
Any type of motorcycle riding has one thing in common-lots of bench racing!
This last day was considered easy: a 35-mile circuit race run on a 2.5-mile loop around the State Capitol. Since the men were starting their race before the women and also finishing in the same place, it was a true circus with tons of people and all the support staff for both races there. Pre-race consisted of telling stories with the other motopilots while looking for free food and coffee. Hmm, just like a Sunday morning ride!
Our job today was to stay in the back and pick off “famous people” from side shots and catch any crashes or mechanical issues. From our perspective, the race was pretty boring: The tight circuit made it tough to get where we needed to be, and the only real action for us was watching overall race winner Trixi Worrack from Germany change a shoe mid-race.
I took on this challenge because I want to be a better rider and to experience riding from a totally different perspective. I got that in spades. Did I leartn anything new? Not really. What being a motopilot absolutely confirmed is this: The techniques I teach work regardless of bike or environment. As the pace comes up or grip level goes down, proper technique matters even more. Focus, motor controls, eyes, being able to take away lean angle, these were all there. While filming with Scott Ogle, I used the same techniques I do on the track, only with a different degree of application.
Ken's pedaling history includes competing as a youth in national championship racing. The Sacramento native still competes on bicycles, and that passion is shared by his wife Kristen, son Sam, and daughter Kennedy.
Special thanks to TV Motos International, Arai Helmets, and Alpinestars for supporting this effort.
More next Tuesday!