By: Paul Carruthers
Teaching someone to ride an off-road motorcycle is simple enough. It’s just a matter of some hand gestures, some finger pointing, and a bit of yelling. “That’s the clutch, that’s the throttle… let that one out and give it some of that. There you go. Oops, you stalled. Okay, give it more of that and let that out slower. Off you go… Hey, slow down. The brake, the brake, use the brake… crap, not that one.”
At that point you run over, pick them up, make sure they are okay, dust them off, reposition the handlebars and levers that are now pointing the wrong way, explain that the front brake wasn’t the best one to use in that situation, get yelled at… and then hope like hell they want to try it again.
Or you send them to school to learn the proper way. They are taught the difference between the front and rear brake, the easy way to master the clutch… they don’t fall down. And you don’t get yelled at. A much better solution.
When you’ve ridden motorcycles virtually your entire life, it’s easy to just assume that everyone knows how to ride a motorcycle. It’s also easy to assume that since you know how to ride, you know how to teach. Wrong. Most of us don’t. But Mercedes Gonzales-Natvig does.
Gonzales-Natvig, a nine-time Women’s Motocross National Champion, is the lead instructor at the Honda Rider Education Center in Colton, California, so it was a slam dunk that when she heard that Cycle News had a foursome of dirt bike newbies dying to learn to ride, Gonzales jumped in. Our newbies were Cycle News copy editor Mary Kettles and her son and daughter – Josh and Sarah. We were also joined by Bike Week Radio Show’s Bobby Woo, a sports radio celebrity (and we use that term loosely) in San Diego, California, who co-hosts the weekly radio show with Broc Glover.
Mary claimed to have spun some laps in her Daisy Dukes in the desert as a teenager while the other three were right up front with the fact that they’d never thrown a leg over a motorcycle, much less ridden one on dirt. Sarah was ready to dominate her older brother; Bobby figured since he was a motorcycle radio show co-host, knowing how to ride a motorcycle could be useful; and Josh… Josh just didn’t want his not-so-humble sister to have too many bragging rights.
This should be fun… cue the video, boys.
Naturally, I spent most of the morning trying to put the fear of God into all of them. And I was aided in that endeavor when Glover showed up for moral support.
But then Gonzales-Natvig took over and nothing bad happened. No fences were damaged, no motorcycles crushed… there was nary a scratch on an elbow. Yes, there were a few tip-overs with Bobby’s soil sample the first (we’re fairly sure that even though he was only supposed to be in second gear, he somehow found fourth), followed by gentle crashes by both Sarah and Josh. But they all learned from their mistakes, got up smiling and got back on board.
Gonzales-Natvig is the perfect instructor: Knowledgeable, patient and soft-spoken. She’s also got street cred as a racer who dominated women’s motocross like no other. They listened to her from the get-go and they listened even more after she spun a few hot laps, proving that the mother of two (Cameron, 11 and Danielle, 9) still has it.
Since this is a Honda facility and Gonzales-Natvig works for Honda, she doesn’t just wing this stuff. It’s been well thought out and she follows a lesson plan that works and has worked since the inception of the school. Students start out slowly, getting used to using a clutch at walking speeds. Once they’ve mastered that, they start doing big laps in first gear at the immaculate Colton facility, standing on the straights, sitting in the turns, with Gonzales-Natvig having them do drills that teach them the importance of body positioning, etc. It’s all about getting them up to speed safely and building confidence along the way. Gonzales-Natvig has it wired.
“I love the job because it’s amazing to see the people who go through the dirt bike program to go from being intimidated by the bike, not really sure where to place their hands and feet, or where to look, and by the end of the day they are shredding it.”
Just when you think they might be getting bored, the curriculum changes and things accelerate. The Big Four gets to try second gear – upshifting, downshifting tighter corners – and Gonzales-Natvig even throws some obstacles in their path. It’s easy to see their confidence grow - newbies who just a few hours earlier were trying to figure out what side of a chest protector was the front and what was the back were now off-roaders gracefully hopping over wooden planks.
Once Gonzales-Natvig is confident that their skills and confidence levels are up to it, the five-hour lesson starts to wind down with the big payoff – a trail ride through the back forty of the Honda center. The foursome give chase to their instructor through the trail system that really is a shrunk down version of what they’ll find in the Southern California desert when they hit the trails for real. There’s uphills, downhills, bridge crossings, water crossings, banked turns, off-camber turns, sand… and they end with some runs through the whoops.
The day ends with big smiles from all and a graduation ceremony to boot.
Originally Published in the July 2012 issue of CycleNews.com