Jim Ford's Rider's Workshop

Text: James T. Parks • Photography: James T. Parks, Kalim A. Bhatti

A blissful state of transcendental mastery occurs when your motorcycle ride suddenly becomes effortlessly smooth and graceful. You're living in a timeless moment, focused on the road and not conscious of shifting your weight in curves, changing gears, counter-steering, or any of the other myriad physical acts required to make a motorcycle obey your intensions. This heightened mental state of riding has been referred to by many a name, including, being in the zone, nirvana, the groove, a Zen state. And for those of us who've experienced this state, it can be frustrating when we're not able to tap into this heightened level of riding consciousness at will.

Riding a motorcycle well, though, really isn't much different from many other physical activities. When an athlete or a performer relentlessly practices proper form and technique, so much so that it becomes second nature, he can conjure that "zone" upon mental command. The two key components in this equation are "proper form and technique" and "practice." Most riders learn proper motorcycle riding form and technique from instructors, including those teaching Motorcycle Safety Foundation (MSF) classes and at track schools, as well as out on public roads.

I recently attended the two-day Rider's Workshop on curvy Appalachian Mountain backroads, under the tutelage of the workshop's founder, Jim Ford. To say that Jim is overly enthusiastic with motorcycle riding excellence may be a bit of an understatement. He has the three-letter word "Zen" emblazoned on the personalized license plate, affixed to his BMW R 1200 GS Adventure motorcycle. Additionally, he compares riding a challenging section of backroad tarmac to playing an exquisite piece of music with a fine instrument, whereby that fine instrument is the motorcycle.

Day One

After our early morning briefing at a coffee shop in Thurmont, MD, Larry, Andy, Brandon, and I follow Jim through the Catoctin Mountains, not far from the Camp David Presidential Retreat. Jim communicates continuously with electronic gear, providing us with personalized direction. One-by-one, we take the position directly behind Jim to get his feedback and recommendations for improving our riding. Even when not in the hot-seat position, we hear his non-stop audio instructions and practice the techniques on our own.

As is the case with many complex skills a person tries to perfect, the concepts are relatively simple to understand, but they require extensive practice to master. If you're an experienced motorcyclist, you're probably already familiar with many of Jim's tenants for riding safely and swiftly. Here are a few refresher tips:

Maintain Proper Riding Posture: Sit up straight and lean slightly forward. Keep the balls of your feet on the foot pegs and press your knees against the tank. Rest your hands gently on the handlebars and relax your upper body, especially the hands, wrists, and shoulders.

Position the Motorcycle: Position yourself to be seen by the operators of other vehicles, avoiding blind spots and using auxiliary lights to improve your visibility. Use the full lane to position your motorcycle for the clearest view of what's ahead: stay to the right of your lane on narrow roads, move to the middle of your lane when approaching blind crests, and keep to the left side of your lane as your home base or default position.

Size Up the View: Focus your primary attention on the road's vanishing point, but also see everything by continuously scanning the entire scene in front and behind (using your mirrors) to accurately assess risk factors.

Read the Road: Continuously monitor road conditions to evaluate traction and potential hazards, such as gravel or other obstacles. Look at leading indicators like telephone poles, for clues regarding where the road is headed next.

Read the Road's Perimeter: Use your peripheral vision to maintain constant awareness of the condition of road shoulders, the presence of driveways, intersections, parked vehicles, and wildlife.

Ride Smooth: Avoid any type of sudden or jerky movements that might upset the motorcycle's suspension. Smoothly shift gears as needed to keep the engine in its power band, which improves control, particularly in curves. Use engine braking by downshifting, as much as possible, to slow the motorcycle as it approaches curves.

Put it All Together: It's only through constant repetition and practice that individual skills become both automatic and integrated.

Day Two

On the second day of instruction, we each take turns leading the group on more challenging roads. Jim rides directly behind us, continuing to provide feedback and instruction. He constantly reminds us that our goal is to ride as smoothly as possible, not as fast as possible. I slow down on a particularly curvy mountain pass road and notice that my riding technique improves immediately.

By the end of the second lesson, all four of us are riding better than we were just two days earlier. Rapid motorcycle riding skill improvement is no doubt the result of real world, on-road instruction from a passionate instructor like Jim Ford. As my riding skills become further refined and integrated, I enter that Zen state, feeling that this experience could - and should - go on and on and on. By the end of the day, though, it's also clear that to progress further will require practice, practice, and more practice.

Although I'm a proficient 20-plus-year rider, I heartily embrace the notion of lifetime skill improvement, and you should too. This course isn't for beginners, but if you're an experienced rider, the Rider's Workshop may be a good next step in your skill progression. Workshops are offered over a variety of multi-day rider training courses. The workshop's course schedule and fees can be found on its website at www.ridersworkshop.com. To ensure adequate personal instruction, class sizes are limited to five students. You can contact Jim Ford via email at

jim@ridersworkshop.com or call toll-free at (866)767-6900.