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Oct 30, 2006
Sport School for Skids - Forbes
 

MotoVentures students are requested to bring an exceptional sense of balance, flawless timing and ball-bearings of steel.

I'm leaning hard on my dirt bike when I spot a log in the middle of my path. I shift my weight, open up the throttle, and my front wheel jumps over the obstacle while I jerk awkwardly back on the seat like a rag doll.

"Don't pull back on the handlebars," Gary LaPlante yells in a manner that suggests the next time I do this I'm going to get my fingers rapped by a ruler. "Let the suspension take care of the lift." Gary, who looks like a younger version of Bill Murray right down to the permanently bemused expression on his face, is standing next to the log; he's the one who put it there.

School is in session. I'm two-wheeling around an isolated high desert valley ranch in Southern California, tearing up steep hills, leaning around cones and skidding to stops in front of the omnipresent Gary. Gary is the founder of and chief drill instructor for MotoVentures, a school devoted to turning soccer moms, cubicle dweebs, cul-de-sac kids and weekend Harley coasters into Evel Knievels. It's easy to tap into Gary's infectious passion for riding, born from a childhood obviously well spent dirt-biking around the Arizona desert with his family.

That morning I'd driven two hours through the mist from Los Angeles into the boulder-strewn valleys east of Temecula until I'd turned off the side of a side of a side road to come to Gary's 300 acres of bikers' paradise. Six of us students blink in the early morning sunlight as Gary briefs us on the day's routine. Although he often hosts company retreats on the ranch, he tells me that this group is typical: two dads out for a fun outing with their kids; a pair of street-biking buddies looking to improve their dirt-riding skills; a local motorhead who wants to become a competitive racer; and yours truly, struck by a sudden middle-age compulsion that corners are much more fun skidded through than turned. "There's many reasons for coming out here," Gary says, "but they all boil down to getting better control of your bike. No matter how much you think you already know, you can always know more."

And this is the man who knows more about dirt bikes than practically anyone else on this dirty planet. He holds four motorcycle world speed records, two observed trials championships (extreme dirt-biking through obstacles) and two decades' experience doing everything from designing to riding for Honda (nyse: HMC - news - people ) and Kawasaki. Gary is a legend in motor sports, but you don't need to know any of this stuff to want to pay attention: All you have to do is watch him ride a bike for a couple of minutes at the opening of the morning session.

While talking to our assembled group from the back of his Yamaha WR450, Gary playfully puts both feet up on the pegs and hovers in a stationary position for what seems to be an impossibly long time--his balance is so perfect he looks like an equestrian statue. Then he executes a few turns in slow motion that are so tight the back wheels don't spin so much as pivot the front wheels around in a perfect circle. If the laws of gravity ever get enforced, Gary is going to be facing hard jail time.

Gary and his instructor partner, Bonnie, swaddle us from helmet head to steel toe in enough protective gear to produce flashbacks of high-school hockey days. "We dress you to crash," Gary says. The kids go off with Bonnie and the rest of us head out with Gary.

Five minutes later, one of the adults skids around a turn and promptly wipes out.

"If you don't fall, you're not learning enough," Gary soothes, which is a far cry from the comments I got last time I dumped someone else's bike. If Gary doesn't seem to mind, it's because he's got 48 other dirt bikes to choose from, all of them from Yamaha, a partner in his business.

I'm used to reclining on the wide-ass sofa seats that come on most cruiser bikes, but for much of the day with Gary, I hardly sit down. Riding with him means standing up on the bike pegs almost all the time, even on straightaways.

"Our goal is to get you to steer with your legs," Gary tells us as we go through the first round of exercises, which involves turning at painfully slow speeds. Gary cajoles me to lean my rear and head so far over the bike that I'm not sure if I'm actually riding it or dancing with it. Within half an hour, even though I haven't ever accelerated above ten miles an hour, I'm sweating as if I'd just done a marathon. But I notice that I'm able to stabilize my bike even when riding at the marching pace of an ant.

Gary then introduces us to a stretch of sand on the road mockingly called "the sand wash of doom," which we learn to negotiate before moving on to practice revving on the equally nonlethal "dip of doom" and then quick turns on "the course of doom"--a line of orange cones. No one is going to be breaking their necks here, but the point is to not break them later on the real obstacles around the ranch.

After all this doom, it's lunchtime, and we collapse in sweaty piles in front of platters of sandwiches served up next to a trailer.

The kids show up from their morning session. "I've already done a jump," 12-year-old Jacob announces, once he untangles his hair from his helmet.

His dad practically chokes on his turkey and provolone. "You mean while we've been doing cone work all morning, you've been jumping?"

"It's often easier teaching kids to ride than adults. Most of my work involves undoing the bad habits experienced riders develop on street bikes," Gary says. "We get a lot of families here. Almost all kids' sports are separated from adults'. If mom or dad want to participate, they're usually limited to cheering from the sidelines. This is one of the only sports you can do on an equal footing with your kids."

After lunch, we run through a few more exercises before Gary figures it's safe to let us loose on the rutted hills surrounding the ranch. At this point I'm so comfortable on the difficult terrain that I find myself weaving back and forth between boulders with a skier's agility. I am feeling downright cocky when Gary assembles our group at the bottom of a sheer 150-foot hill called, surprise, surprise, "the hill of doom."

"If any of you want to follow me, just c'mon," Gary announces before revving straight up like a rocket. He performs uphill bunny hops from rut to rut, his Yamaha functioning more like a pogo stick than a bike. Down below, our collective jaws drop from beneath our helmets like giant Pez dispensers. Within five minutes, Gary has miraculously come back down in a manner that suggested more of a controlled fall than a ride, skidding back and forth one step ahead of gravity. His feet didn't touch the ground once while going up and coming down.

"This is why you can always come back and learn some more," Gary announces. "The more you know, the better it gets. It's all a question of drilling good habits into your heads."

Those habits stick. Heading back to L.A., I catch myself absentmindedly leaning so aggressively around a curve that my rear lifts from the seat. And I am driving a minivan.

One-day introductory course, all equipment included, $250. MotoVentures also conducts multiday tours throughout the Southwest. For more information, contact MotoVentures at (951) 767-0991 or www.motoventures.com.

   
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