Sitting aboard my loaned KTM500 on a side of a motocross track, I watched my partner with envy as he cleared one jump after another. We both spent the same amount of time on the same motocross track with the same bikes, coached by the same rider; neither of us had done any motocross practice before; we got the exact same instructions, yet after just one hour, Lennart was soaring over the jumps, whereas I barely managed to get the bike five inches off the ground.
The instruction was simple: hold the throttle as you come over the crest of a jump. That’s it. Just hold the throttle. And yet, however much I tried, I’d still drop it – just a little – and the bike would lose momentum and sort of hop and dive down immediately, instead of arching through the air as intended.
I’ve been in the same scenario with varying circumstances over and over again in rally races, enduro rides, and training sessions. Some people would just get it immediately and start power-sliding around corners or wheelieing in third gear while I puttered along cautiously, even when the bikes, the terrain, and the task at hand was the same.
Granted, there are always differences in natural talent, acquired skill, experience, overall saddle time, and the like; but I’ve noticed there is one common factor that often makes a massive difference between improving faster or slower, and that is the age when a person started riding.
In the motocross practice case, my partner had started riding at the age of sixteen, beginning on mopeds and soon moving on to dirt bikes, street bikes, and finally, adventure bikes. In most other cases, whenever a rider picks up a new technique quickly or simply has more courage to just grip it and rip it, it’s the same: in all likelihood, they’ve started riding as kids or teenagers.
Me, I’m a late bloomer: I learned to ride a motorcycle at the age of twenty-eight, stuck to a 150cc bike for the first two years, and it’s only been about five years when I’m riding a medium-sized dual sport off-road. I’ve made my peace with the fact that I’ll most likely remain an underwhelmingly mediocre rider despite the training, the amateur rally racing, and the enduro sessions I occasionally get myself into; I do train, ride different terrain, race, and hope to improve more and more as I go along. However, as was the case on the motocross track, often, I just don’t have the proverbial balls to just hold the throttle. It takes me longer to get the same result; I need more training, more instructions, and more attempts before I can clear a jump or finish a rally stage as well as the next rider.
I’ve noticed the same tendency in other sports. As a kid, I learned to ride horses at the age of twelve at a mounted police yard – a fairly brutal place for horses and riders alike by all accounts. As a nerd with thick glasses and dorky pigtails my mom insisted upon until well into my teenage years, I had double to prove – whenever other kids poked fun at yours truly, Captain Four Eyes, I’d ask the trainer to put me on the green horses that haven’t been broken in yet just to stick it to everyone. And I did – all that bucking, bolting, and rearing taught me uncanny stickability, which came in handy when I later worked in hunting and cross-country yards training young horses. However, had I started learning to ride as an adult, I most definitely wouldn’t volunteer to ride the greenest, fieriest horse out there, and it would probably take me much longer to master showjumping than if I’d started as a kid.
Any sport is easier when you start young; you don’t know what fear is yet, you’re not thinking of any what ifs, and you lose yourself in the thrill and the adrenaline with abandon, taking bigger risks with each step. As a result, you get better faster. When you learn as an adult, you’re already somewhat crippled by experience – you know exactly how much it hurts to break a bone, your fears are bigger than your appetite for adrenaline, and you’re nowhere near as malleable and flexible as before. That, in turn, makes you improve slower as you take smaller, more measured risks, shy away from manoeuvres at high speeds, and prefer to build slower rather than go all out.
The one thing that helped me improve the most as a late rider was accepting my limitations, but trying anyway. I know I need more time and more practice to get up to speed – so I take more time and practice more. I know I perform better when things are explained to me, step by step, rather than just hitting that throttle and giving it a go; it’s a nerdy way of improving your riding, but as long as there is improvement, I’m OK with it. A Dakar podium is not in my future, but perhaps an Africa Eco Race finish is; I may not conquer Romaniacs any time soon, but I can get my loaded DR across some pretty gnarly terrain. If it’s to be baby steps, I’ll take baby steps – and plod along anyway.
Are you too school for cool, too? Late bloomers, share your advice on learning to ride motorcycles as adults – what has helped you the most?