The Rich Oliver Mystery School | Seeing Sideways

Getting educated at the Rich Oliver Mystery School

By Ari Henning, Photography by Richard VanderMeulen

The Mystery School has an incredibly effective curriculum. Part of it is Oliver’s personality and empathetic teaching style, but there’s also the fact that each new technique is presented to you couched in a crap-ton of fun. It’s easy to be eager when learning entails such entertainment, and few activities compare to ripping around a TT course on a TT-R125 with a bunch of feisty riders.

Anecdotes from Oliver’s time at Kenny Roberts’ ranch are sprinkled in throughout the day. Oliver admits that his school is based on what Roberts taught, but “without the injury and humiliation,” Oliver says with a smirk. “That was okay for building world champions, but doesn’t work so well for the general public looking to improve their riding skills.” Oliver’s program is far from severe, but it’s still an intense experience. The two-day timeframe ensures plenty of opportunity for questions so you never feel hurried, but the action is nearly non-stop.

On Saturday afternoon we ride the “cop course,” the TT course, and the oval, incorporating everything we’ve learned thus far. The oval is small enough that it feels crowded with 10 bikes on course. (Oliver’s step-daughter, Meghan, joined us.) Packing everyone together is part of the training, since riding in close proximity demands a whole host of visual and strategic skills that Oliver goes over in detail during breaks. We ride the loop counterclockwise and clockwise, the latter direction posing the unique challenge of initiating slides with both feet on the pegs.

Late on Saturday we finally strap on the hallowed, steel “hot shoe.” And it’s awesome. “With the shoe, it’s almost impossible to crash in left-hand turns,” alleges Oliver. “You’ve got a triangle of support.” Bold assertions, but it’s true; you can carry a lot of weight on that slippery shoe and use it to vary the load on the front and rear contact patches so you can slide both ends through a turn. It’s exhilarating, and a great way to discover how transferring weight fore or aft affects a slide.

Even with just 10 horsepower, throttle control is critical. Lighting the rear tire is easy, but spin it too much and you lose drive. The dirttracker’s “roll off to go faster” adage didn’t make sense until I tried it. Sure enough, rolling off just a hair after breaking the rear tire free helped it find traction and improve drive. It’s thrilling to discover and employ that kind of throttle control.

Breakfast is served in the kitchen on Sunday morning, and after more stretching and some vision-strengthening exercises, we dive into a race start drill in preparation for the afternoon’s activities. In the afternoon, we return to the “cop course” for more timed laps, which we compare to times taken Saturday. Everyone went faster, some much faster. I cut 14 seconds off my run, yielding the biggest improvement of the weekend. During my first run on Saturday I felt lost and overwhelmed, unsure of what to do or when to do it. On Sunday I attacked the course with confidence, with a clear understanding of what I needed the bike to do and just how to make it do it.

And Sunday afternoon, bursting with newfound skill, we raced. We ran enough races of varying lengths on enough different tracks and configurations that I can’t recall them all. Elbow-to-elbow through turns was the norm, and it wasn’t unusual to have one of the faster riders use you as a berm on their way through. The races are a cumulative exercise, bringing together all the riding skills and strategies that we’d practiced all weekend. The back-to-back races also mix fatigue into the equation, testing your physical and mental endurance. The day ended with a 25-lap main, after which we were all exhausted.

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