A few months ago, on a racetrack ...
It was the last track session of the last day. I was heading down the straight at something like 140mph, which is significantly slower than race speed but faster than my beloved Blue Bike can go, when my coach passed me and tapped his rear cowling to indicate I should follow him. This typically meant I had done something wrong, but not this time.
For nearly a decade, my refrain had remained the same. "No way, Ryan! There is nothing you can do, nothing you can say that will /EVER/ get me on a racetrack!". Each time, Ryan, who had raced for some years, would smile with a calm, patient, knowing demeanor as if to say, "It is your destiny. I have forseen it." I, to my credit, had an absolute resolve in my blind unwavering ignorance that would make even the staunchest Fox News believer green with envy. What would I learn on a racetrack, anyway? I'd probably get myself killed. Over the years I've talked to so many guys missing internal organs from being rear-ended on a track. My fear was that the kind of riders that I would share a racetrack with would be the kind of young reckless squids you see splitting lanes on the DC Beltway doing a buck twenty during rush hour. Even without that, I tried to imagine what it would be like to go really fast on a racetrack. I imagined a hectic twitchy "oh my god I nearly crashed there again" activity riding at the extremes of my ability. I figured the only reason racers were able to do it was that they just didn't have my sense of self-preservation; young kids taking crazy risks. Maybe they had faster reaction times. That's easy to believe. It seemed like something I wouldn't be any good at. Contrary to what some say, I'm not a fast rider. I'm really not. Ryan is much faster. "You'd be fast if you weren't so afraid." Phil used to say. Phil and his friend Geo are even faster than Ryan. I'm not. So I was immovable. Nothing Ryan could say would ever get me on a track.
Truth be told, I was afraid. So much about being on a track scared me, more than I think I've let on.
Then, one day, I made an error. I had read an article in Motorcyclists Magazine by a guy named Keith Code who is probably the most famous motorcycling race instructor in the world. His organization, the California Superbike School, has trained some of the top racers in the world. Keith had recently switched his school from using Kawasaki Ninja's to training on BMW's newly introduced S1000RR. With the introduction of the S1000RR, BMW had launched itself from being an old-mans go slow conservative brand to being the producer of one of the most sophisticated highly regarded sport bikes ever. This was the first real sport bike BMW had ever created and it was hit from the word go. A real BMW sport bike, something that at the time could walk away from every other production sport bike in the world while still being balanced and civilized? A BMW sport bike? That's just got to be tried, but not on a racetrack. Definitely not. What really started my downfall was Keith mentioned in his article that they had measured something like a 75% reduction in student accidents since switching to the S1000RR. This was due to its advanced traction control and engine management which essentially amounted to electronic training wheels. "Hmmm. That's really interesting." I thought and mentioned this on Facebook.
Error. I had not anticipated. Sonia, Ryan's wife, would see my post.
Then the email came.
"I saw your post. Ryan hasn't been on a track in ages. I want to send him to Keith Code's school for his birthday." she wrote.
"That sounds like an awesome idea! I think he'll have a blast." I replied.
"He's talked about getting you on a track forever. To make it really special, I want you to go with him." she responded evilly knowing I could not say no.
During the Nightmare, Sonia was incredibly kind to me. She has never asked me for anything. How could I say no?
"ok", I wrote with a weight on my shoulder much like those that walk their last mile must feel. At no point did I consider that I might learn something truly valuable that went beyond motorcycling.
I resigned myself to my fate. I could just imagine those guys whizzing by me like I was standing still. Or maybe I would make a fool of myself. Or let Ryan down. Or be too slow. I just had no feeling for what I was getting myself into.
I read their signup page. "Students must have some riding experience -- we do not train first time riders." That didn't sound very serious. They didn't say anything about track experience required. I certainly have more than "some" riding experience. Yet, I was still uneasy.
As it turns out they conduct their courses all over the place including in this strange place called New Jersey.
On September 6th, Ryan and I made our way up to the track. Ryan drove while I experimented with his EZ-pass. "If I put it on the dash ...", I mused. Nope. That didn't work. Another flash. "What if I hold it up here ...". Nope, that didn't work either. "How about if I do this ...". And so on. 'Sorry, Dude. I guess my experimenting is gonna cost some money." I confessed. "Don't worry about it. It's Sonia's." he replied with a smirk. Sorry Sonia. I hope the fines weren't too high.
Morning arrived and we were at the track at a truly sadistic hour. The horror known as 7AM.
We came upon a pair of trailers prominently displaying the BMW and Superbike School logos. There was a staging area covered by a canopy. Breakfast was served in the trailer. They had a few items I could eat, some eggs and some fruit, and there was coffee, drinkable coffee. I tried my best to take in the scene but I confess I was honestly quite nervous.
After breakfast we were shuffled into the first briefing where we were introduced to the staff and given an overview of the rules in addition to the first topic, which was "throttle control". It took mere minutes for me to realize that this experience was not going to be anything like what I had imagined or feared. These were very serious professionals. They were mature, disciplined and clearly knew their subject cold. These were adults. They were all much older than I had expected, most of them being closer to my age. Some even older. Also, these were technicians; motorcycle racing geeks. No one here had a death wish. As a matter of fact, it was quite the opposite. To say these people impressed me is an understatement.
And holy shit these guys could ride.
The school is run like a finely oiled machine with a sense of military discipline to it. There's always something happening. While those that know me realize I rarely notice much in the way of details, I did notice that there were more steel Rolex Submariners being worn by the instructors than I have ever seen in any one place. Some of these guys were former SEALS.
Each day was divided up into sessions. 20 minutes classroom sessions followed by so or so minutes on the track where students practiced a single topic. Students were assigned to coaches, 2 students to a coach. The coaches would ride on the track with us sometimes following, sometimes leading, often scolding, or so I thought. They were part instructor and part race cop. Ryan and I were paired up with coach Cobie, a great incredibly knowledgeable guy; and talk about grace in motion on a motorcycle.
There were corner workers with flags. There were people tending the fleet of bikes. There were managerial staff making announcements. There were people everywhere.
I must confess I found the sheer volume of new details that were thrown at me simply overwhelming. It was relentless. "Some riding experience" should probably have read "some track experience" and they should have included some kind of primer beyond the Keith Code Twist of the Wrist books. I'm probably a very rare profile of student for the school. I had never been on a track before. Hell, I haven't even watched a complete race from beginning to end. I didn't know /any/ of the terminology. I had never put on a one piece race suit, which I must admit is a royal pain to put on. I had never worn race boots or put on those armored gloves. Not that these are, by themselves, any big deal but in combination, when thrust into a completely unfamiliar environment, while announcements were coming out fast and furious over the loud speaker, leads to a lot of distraction. "What was that they just announced?", I would ask Ryan as I fiddled some more with my gear.
Then there's everything you have to remember. Was I supposed to study the track before I got there? "Turn 9? What do you mean Turn 9? How do you remember which turn is which? Black Flag? Checkered flag? Yellow Flag? Red Flag? What? When am I allowed to pass? How fast can I go? What's too slow? When I roll into the pit lane I have to raise my left hand to let riders know. If you get black flagged, which is bad, you're supposed to go into the pit lane as soon as you can. Black flag, bad. Pay attention and obey the coaches. Leave 10 feet between you and any other rider.", and so on. There were rules and they wanted you to follow them. They reserved the right to pull anyone off the track that didn't obey the rules. It seemed to me that it was really easy to run afoul of the rules and this added to my unease.
There's a whole backdrop to motorcycle racing culture that's fundamentally different from the sport touring or adventure touring world I'm familiar with. Simple concepts that are just part of the vocabulary or are assumed knowledge. I wish I had had a "street riders introduction to the culture of being on a track".
Ryan, on the other hand, was completely in his own element. And, it seemed to me, so were the other students. I felt like the odd man out. Would I make a fool of myself?
One piece suits are a pain to put on. I mean a real pain. Worse than the monkey dance you do putting on a rain suit. Experienced racers wear some type of slippery long johns under them to make it easier to get in and out of. I wish I had known.
We were assigned bikes. It was then a rush to get to the bike, get it fired up and go out to the starting position. Have I mentioned that I have not spent more than 15 minutes on a sport bike before? I had no sense of the throttle. Even in "rain-mode", this beast I was riding was incredibly powerful. The riding position was scrunched up, aggressive and at first uncomfortable as is to be expected on a bike like this. I fumbled to turn the key in my gloves and struggled to find the start button too distracted by trying to rush and follow the other riders. Pulling in the clutch I wondered how fast this thing was going to be. No sense of how much throttle it would need I gave it too little and creeped along tentatively. "Ummm. Where am I supposed to go?", I mused as I blindly followed the rider ahead of me. A staff member asks each rider before they are allowed on the track what the exercise of that session was. "Throttle Control", I responded mechanically.
Oh, and I think I forgot to mention that WE WERE NOT ALLOWED TO USE THE BRAKES. "What??", I thought completely shocked. We were to remain in fourth gear and not use brakes at all in that first track session. My guess is to try to slow us down. Ummmm. I let the clutch out and tentatively rolled on the throttle out of the pit lane and up the hill to run two.
Remember how I said I had no experience with sport bikes? First, the thing is fast. Even in rain mode it feels faster than anything I've ever ridden. And then there's this thing called a slipper clutch that these bikes have. So there I am, the very first time on a track, coming up on my very first corner on a racetrack having no sense for the bike at all, how fast it is, how it responds and, mostly importantly, HOW IT DOESN'T SLOW DOWN LIKE MY BIKE DOES WHEN YOU LET OFF THE GAS! Needless to say, that first set of turns was a bit more than just inelegant. I didn't want to get sent home so I didn't touch the brakes. Not once. At one point my coach passed me, flagged me to stop with him and he dinged me for my riding. I was going into the first set of corners too fast. "Yea, I'm not familiar with these bikes. They don't slow down the way I'm used to." I thought but said nothing. He thought I was in danger of crashing. I already felt like I was in over my head. So much of my attention was being dominated by trying not to break any rules and do everything I was supposed to that there was little attention left for anything else. A lot of it was focused on worrying about the things I didn't know. My riding suffered and I fear that during those initial sessions that I came across as a significantly less capable than I actually am.
This compounded all my fears of doing something wrong, disappointing or looking like a fool.
I fear those first sessions gave my coach the wrong impression of my riding ability.
It had rained so the track was slightly wet. I was running around the track slowly attempting to practice what I had been taught but I spent most of my time during those first session trying to get familiar with the track and bike.
At one point, Ryan passed the coach and I too closely in a long left hand corner and got a serious talking to as a result. We were both afraid he was going to be pulled from the track. I became even more tentative as a result.
Those first sessions were rough. It seemed like I kept doing things wrong as if it was some existential confirmation of my being, of my being someone that did not belong here.
Time passed quickly. The second track session went a little better. We were allowed to use third and fourth gears but still no brakes. Progressively during the day I started being able to pay more attention to my surroundings.
The classroom sessions were extremely valuable. It didn't take long listening to Dylan Code speak to realize that I knew nothing about riding a motorcycle. He spoke in one session about tension. As many people know, I'm an easy going loose and nimble type. Yea, right. But they were making the point that if you were not relaxed on the bike it physically can't go as fast.
"Ummmm?", I thought as I pondered this being some new age mysticism applied to motorcycles.
He went on to share an anecodote as a lead-in.There's a thing that can happen on a motorcycle called a "tank slapper". The front wheel can become unstable and start oscillating back and forth violently. The period of the oscillation can increase to such a degree that the handlebars smack the tank left and right hence the name tank slapper. He described a racer who's name escapes me, get into a tank slapper. The racer held on for dear life only to be thrown from the bike. As soon as the rider was ejected, the bike stabilized and proceded to make it around the corner on it's own.
Then he went on to explain the mechanics of a motorcycle suspension and steering system. As it taverses bumps, the front suspension of the motorcycle is in constant motion. It's purpose is to keep the wheel in contact with the road surface regardless of what the surface is doing. As it does this, the wheel will tend to oscillate back and forth a bit over these bumps. It's normal. However, because of simple physics, if someone were to hold onto the handlebars too tightly, with too much tension, and prevent that normal oscillation from happening, the force that would normally cause the front wheel to oscillate gets transmitted through the tense rider to the seat and body of the motorcycle, and thereby the rear wheel. In a nutshell, grab the bar too tightly and the bike becomes less stable as it moves over the pavement. He went on to describe another racer who got into a tank slapper and apparently on the video they show him, at race speed, have such a presence of mind to literally let go of the handlebars which immediately caused the tank slapper to stop and he was able to continue on without crashing. Talk about controlling your fear. How fearless would that guy have to be to do that?
Yea, I know nothing.
He then went on to talk about loss of traction as it relates to tension.
I fear loss of traction. The idea of having both wheels on a motorcycle start to slide scares me like little else.
When you lose traction in a car, when it begins to slide, you have to make an active input to turn the wheel in the direction of the slide. Interestingly, and this is something I had never thought about, on a motorcycle if you begin to slide the front wheel automatically turns in the direction of the slide. So in contrast to a car, on a motorcycle, you gain control in a slide by doing nothing. And that nothing is more than just not make any changes, it means not holding on to the handlebars to such a degree that you're barely touching them letting the motorcycle do it's thing.
You gain control and speed, by doing less.
I found myself wondering if these guys are aware how incredibly philosophical they are.The more I listened the more these sessions began to sound ilke martial arts classes I took many ages ago.
I think it was the fourth session of the day I was told to do two laps then come in and switch bikes to the camera bike. They have this bike with a camera mounted on the back. You're supposed to do a couple of laps and then they review the video with you afterwards.
So off I went to do my two laps. My focus was on my riding, the corner workers, the other riders, my fear of doing things wrong, my fear of making a mistake, my fear of what I was doing, that I completely forgot that I was supposed to come in. On the third lap around, as I was coming down the straight I saw the black flag.
"FUCK! I forgot!", I literally said in my helmet as I rolled off the throttle as the pit lane disappeared behind me.
I was barely able to form the through, "Dammit." when coach was beside me shaking his head. He rolled out in front of me and tapped his cowling indicating I should follow.
I was in trouble.
He guided me off the track and we spoke.
I was sure that was going to be my last ride of the day. I had forgotten to do something I had been told to do.
"Don't roll off the throttle suddenly when you get flagged! I almost rear ended you.", he explained.
"Dammit. Sorry. I saw I was black flagged and thought I was in trouble. I thought I was supposed to go into the pit lane immediately. I didn't know but I should have.", I apologized profusely.
"If you get flagged and can't make the pit lane just go around again and then come in when it's clear." he said.
I didn't know. It makes sense but I wasn't told, or if I was, I missed it.
The thing I feared the most I almost caused.
Now I was bonafidedly terrified. But I wasn't asked to sit out. Sent to the camera bike, I did a lap. My lack of confidence and tentativeness was evident in the video.
One of the most interesting things told to us during a classroom session was about cornering. Cornering is the most difficult challenging thing to do on a motorcycle. Anyone can go fast in a straight line and stop again. But cornering, leaning the bike over and negotiating a turn, is an art that occupies most of a motorcyclists career. Even top racers continue to practice cornering.
Cornering is the majority of riding a motorcycle. Watch top racers and you'll see cornering in the absolute extreme. You have to have nerves of steel to go around a corner that fast, no? They choose methods of traversing corners so that when they exit the corner they are set up optimally to enter the next one.
"We are not here to get inside your head." Dylan would say.
"If you're not where you want to be at the exit of a turn, don't think in terms of what you didn't do. It's not useful to say 'I didn't brake early enough', 'I didn't go in fast enough', because these things do not point to something concrete and active you can change. Focus on the concrete active things you did entering and during the turn that yielded the result you got. You adjusted the throttle. You applied the brake. You turned the handlebars. These are the only active inputs you can make to a motorcycle. The only difference between you and top racers in the world is 'what you do'. So step backwards one step at a time and adjust the active things you did until you get the result you want. We are not here to get inside your head."
And then it hit me.
It's amazing the power words can have and how quickly we can forget hard fought lessons we've learned elsewhere. I had been making the same mistake here on this track that I had seen so many guys make out on the Haul Road. They rode the road on their own terms. They didn't give it the time or attention it needed. Overwhelmingly their focus wasn't where it needed to be, on the here and now, because they were too concerned about external things, things outside of themselves, the business partner or wife, the deadlines, the job back home, all these thoughts that pulled them out of the moment and away from the road.
And they crashed by the dozens.
And here I was making absolutely the same mistake on a race track. I was not willing to fail. I was not present. I was not focused. I wasn't in that calm inner place where I could, if I needed to, simply walk away. Stop at any moment and turn around. It was that state that let me ride on a much more dangerous road under much worse conditions far far away from any help and call it easy. But here I was, in a much safer environment, being less confident and more likely to cause an accident because of all these thoughts and feelings of what I thought it meant to be on a track.
And all this did was pull me away from the simple mechanical task of negotiating corners.
"It's not about you. It's not about your history. Your problems at home. Your thoughts about who you are or what you have been through. It's not about how good or bad a rider you are. It's simply a question of, if you are not getting the results you decide you want, looking at the active things you do that yielded the result you got and adjusting the things you do until you get the result you want."
Events happen. How we interpret those events is so powerfully colored by the emotional context we are in. I was guilty of that because I felt all these things that had nothing to do with being on a track. My coach would tell me something and I would not hear him clearly because too much of my attention was focused on all these internal thoughts about what I thought about my own being.
Step back. Stop. Think. He's my coach. I am the student. He's here to point out my mistakes and help me correct them and improve my riding. He didn't pull me off the track because of the black flag, he pulled me off because I dumped the throttle. That's what he's supposed to do. Once told I'm not going to make that mistake again. But he let me continue on. I was not asked to sit out. I was not being irresponsible. I was not disregarding the rules.
The effect was as interesting as it was powerful. With these simple words, and the insight it produced, my focus adjusted. It was no longer about me. It was no longer about what anyone thought or my nameless fear. It was simply about experimenting and adjusting positive actions I took to get the results that I wanted to achieve and for the most part, on a track, it's nice and simple. Leave the corner travelling as fast as possible and be set up for the next corner.
But my sense is that this view, this way of looking at results as the direct consequence of positive actions as opposed to the result of some existential state that follows us around like a black cloud, applies in many more areas of life than just on a motorcycle going around in circles on a racetrack.
There is something about the motorcycle that brings out the philosophical.
Out on the track, this new perspective freed me to simply, dispassionately, ride the track. And I began to step back from my own toxic beliefs about what it all meant and trust that my coach was there to tell me how I could improve.
Early on, because I was so tentative, I had projected a lack of confidence to him that I'm sure made him concerned that I might try to ride beyond my ability. I also began to understand that my job as a student was to convey to him a sense of confidence that I was trying to learn what I was supposed to and that I would, at no time, ride beyond my ability. Simply ride the track.
Things started improving almost instantaneously. I was on a racetrack on one of the most powerful sport bikes in the world and finally I was starting to feel at ease. It's just another road.
During a break between sessions, I overheard that a guy had been pulled off the track for being "wreckless". He was sitting out a session. What surprised me about this was that I don't remember him passing me. Then again, I don't remember many people passing me except the instructors and Ryan.
At one point, a guy on a black bike whizzed by. He wasn't an instructor so I figured he was in the class. If he, a level I guy, can do it then surely I can. So I decided to keep up with him. I followed his lines. He was moving at a really good clip. Things were started to get fun.
Later on I would learn, at dinner, that the guy who's name I have forgotten, was in the level IV course and had been racing for decades. Oops. He seemed surprised that I kept up with him.
He was 63 years. 63. Very Cool. I hope in 20 years that I am still riding motorcycles.
I didn't get dinged again.
The first day ended. Ryan and I stayed at a hotel in town. Had dinner with the level IV guy then went to have a drink at a weird little local bar. New Jersey is a strange place filled with strange people. Even strange bartenders.
The night ended early and we were up and at the track at the horror of '7AM' the next day.
Level II is primarily concerned with vision and memory.
The classroom sessions went from discussions of the physics of the motorcycle to discussions of the evolutionary disadvantage human beings have. We are not evolved to ride motorcycles and it largely has to do with how our visual system evolved. If we had the eyes of a hawk, we would probably be able to ride much faster.
I had always thought racing motorcycles was a twitchy reaction-time dominated activity reminiscient of those times that I've ridden close to the edge my ability.
"To go fast you must go slow", Ryan would always say, but I never really understood what that meant.
It takes something like .35 seconds for photons to bounce off a target, have it enter your eyeball, get converted to nerve impulses, get transmitted up to your brain and then interpreted into an understanding you can begin to use as a the basis for a decision.
.35 seconds. If you are doing 100mph on a motorcycle and you look straight down at the pavement, what you are seeing is 51 feet behind you because of this delay. You are looking into the past. It also feels like you are going much faster than you are. What you decide to look at and how you decide to look has an incredible effect on slowing the scene. This is one of the reasons that people slow down when crossing bridges and going into tunnels. Because of the guardrails or tunnel walls the feeling of speed increases without any change in actual velocity.
As you run around a racetrack there are things to look at. You come up on a corner and you must decide where and when to let off the gas, apply the brake, turn into the corner. How you decide to do these things depends on the reference points you have decided to use. There are features on a racetrack, skid marks, repair patches, discolorations that you can use as reference points to help you remember what you did the last time around that corner and what you would like to change. For instance, at the end of turn 9a which is a long right hander where it turns into damn near a 90degree right they taped an X onto the pavement. That was the hardest corner for me to get right so I would experiment with that marker. Turn in before or after it. Maybe try to the left or right and I would try to remember how it felt, what position I was in. It took me forever to come up with a way of negotiating that corner that felt right.
But what happens on a track is that without some forced discipline you look at what you are afraid of. This happens on the road and even in a car. I would focus on that damned X in the road because that was my most difficult corner and the closer I got to it the faster I would seem to be going. I would slow down too much. The scene reduced down to nothing but that X and I would be squirrely around the corner.
Target fixation. We look at what we are afraid of instead of looking where we would like to be going.
They talked to us about peripheral vision and training yourself to take in the whole scene without moving your eyes. Remember the .35seconds delay? When your eyes twitch from target to target on a track there's a moment you can't really see as your eyes are moving. Go at 200mph and you've travelled over 100 feet during that time.
The top riders focus a huge amount of effort training their vision, deciding what do look at, so they can get their mind to slow down. And beyond that they slow down their activity. They plan ahead for motions. On the straight there's nothing to do but wait until you reach your reference point to start slowing down. Then there's nothing to do until you reach the reference point to start your turn. Once leaned over, again, nothing to do. It's not twitchy in the least. It's slow. Action. Rest. Action. Rest. Do less. Move slowly. Decide what to look at and how.
"Do you believe that my being stronger or faster has anything to do with my muscles in this place?" to quote Lawrence Fishburne, one of my favorite actors, in my favorite movie, The Matrix.
At race speeds, because of visual system delays, even those with the fastest reactions times are no competition for those who have learned to slow the scene down. The less we fixate on what we fear the slower the scene moves the greater our ability to negotiate past it and achieve the results we want.
We focus on what we are afraid of. Again, I wonder if these guys know how philosphical they are? It's so easy to see this same effect in other aspects of life. The more attention, time and energy we spend focused on what we are afraid of, the things we do not want, the less there is to negotiate a path to avoid it.The more energy we waste in times when we should be resting, the less we have when we need it.
I continue to ask the question "what is it that I am able to do on a motorcycle that I am not able to do in other aspects of my life" and continue to be surprised.
The class sessions continued. They began to talk about how motorcycle racing is a 90% mental game. I've heard this said of so many sports but have never had anyone go into detail about it.
Another thing that separates top racers from everyone else is memory. Dylan shared an anecdote about how many details top racers can remember after having ridden around a new track just once. Every relevant skid mark, crack, discoloration, details about the camber of the pavement, etc. etc. And not only can they remember these places they can also remember exactly how long the interval is between those places. Once someone has a set of reference points they can then use them as decision points. Coming into turn 9b I scan over the X standing the bike up looking where I want to go but missing the X two feet to the right, or some such. I can only remember turn 9b in any detail now. Top racers can do that for every part of a track. Sick.
Racing motorcycles is nothing that I believed it was.
During a break a group of riders were talking. "I'm gonna have to make this up to my wife." one said while two others nodded in agreement.
"HIs wife sent him here." I said pointing to Ryan.
There was a moment of awe struck silence which yielded to envy.
In the next track session, I took the camera bike out again and this time a coach reviewed it with me. Despite knowing that I'm not supposed to put weight on the handlebars I was still clearly gripping too tightly and my body position was all wrong.
It was a disheartening realization.
So off to the lean bike they sent me.They have this bike outfit with elaborate training wheels so that while going slowly you can be coached on body position while negotiating corners.
Unfortunately, because it was wet, I wasn't able to ride it. So a group of coaches stood around while I sat on the thing in lean position. They critiqued and moved me around until the position they had me in was half leaned off the bike, ball of my right foot on the peg, calf muscles extended forcing my knee into the ledge of the gas tank on the grip pad. All of my weight being supported by the right leg, knee and my torso so that I could let go of the handle bars completely. Left knee hung out slightly.
It hurt bad.
Clearly these were muscles I had not used before.
It made me look like a frog.
But I got the message loud and clear.
For years I've been having problems with a muscle around my right shoulder blade locking up on me when I ride. When I came back from my trip my arms were built, but not my stomach or legs.
I've been using the wrong muscles all these years. I'd been gripping the bars too tightly all this time. There's an interesting difference between knowing something conceptually and then knowing what it's supposed to feel like.
Out onto the track I went with this new insight. It had been raining so the track was wet.
It took me a lap or two of experimentation to finally nail it. My muscles just weren't trained yet. But when I nailed it, when I got my body off the bike , my leg locked into the tank and my hands so light on the handlebars that I was barely touching them magic happened. The feeling is incedible. There's this stability I had not previously known. I was running around the track. I finally nailed turned 9a and 9b. I managed to not fixate on the target but instead look to the next reference point. I flipped the bike over into turn 10 which is a long left hander. Two bikes were on the inside track in front of me. There was more than 10 feet to the right. "Hell with this", I thought as I leaned off slightly more and rolled on the gas a bit more passing the two riders on the outside. Open throttle as I came into the last turn onto the straight. I relaxed. Turn 1 came up quick. Off gas, reference point acquired. Look to the apex seeing the turn point in my peripheral vision.
Off I went. A number of turns were quite wet. Some had tar snakes, which are exceptionally slippery repairs in the pavement. Arounds these corners I went in the wet.
The bike lost traction and skipped over so slightly to the right. Both wheels. I did nothing. Not only that, it didn't phase me in the least. At no point did I feel like I was out of control.
Onward I continued. Another wet corner. Another slight lateral slide. Maybe it was 4 inches but it felt like a mile. Again I did nothing.
My coach passed me and pulled me aside.
"Did I do something wrong?" I asked expecting to be told to slow down.
"Can you feel around turn 7 how the bike skips a little bit?" he asked.
"Yea, I'm keeping loose on the handlebars and it's working out well for me." I replied. "Do you want me to slow down?"
To my surprise he said, "No, I just wanted to make sure you knew how close you were. In these conditions I would not want to go more than 5% faster myself."
"Yea, I'm not going to go any faster." I replied.
Ok. So back onto the track I went.
By the next session, it had dried up a bit. My coach passed me and instead of slowing me down we bumped the speed up 5%. I kept up and at no time did I feel like I was going all that fast nor did I feel scared in the least. I was having a blast.
We pulled into the pit lane for the debrief. We had one more track session left.
"You've really picked up your pace quite a bit." he said somewhat surprised.
"I'm finally feeling pretty comfortable. Can we do that again?" I asked like an excited little kid, "but a bit faster?"
It was the last track session of the last day. I was heading down the straight at something like 140mph when my coach passed me again and tapped his rear cowling to indicate I should follow him. This time it didn't mean I had done something wrong. He slowed down for a second and then took off. And I followed. I followed his line, trying to apply everything I had been taught. I did more corners correctly than not. Sometimes I would miss a line or a turn but I kept up. He would look back from time to time and it was as if I could see the surprise on his face. Each time he would would pick up the pace incrementally. The way this guy could ride was grace in motion.
We came upon turn 9a, that long right hander. There was a bike to the extreme outside. As we passed him on the inside, I watched my coach lean his body off his bike for the first time, ever so slightly. And suddenly he started pulling away in earnest.
And I followed. That bitch of a right hander in turn 9b came up and i nailed it and staying right behind him. Flipping the bikes over left we took the outside track through turn 10 passing another couple bikes. We were moving.
And I was having the time of my life.
The session ended as quickly as it began. We pulled back to the staging area. He pulled his helmet off with a big grin.
"Now that was fun." he said which I took as an incredible compliment.
Yes. It was. And I can't wait to go do it again.
The class was over. It was time to hand in our suits and head for home.
It would take me some months to understand how much this class changed me as a rider. Nothing I have done in years has been as eye opening and dramatic as those two days spent at Keith Code's California Superbike School.
I've been tormenting people with race school life analogies ever since.
If I were to do it over, I would have gotten a book on basic track ettiquette, if such a thing exists or I would have gone to talk to some more racers. I would have also gotten a printout of the track with turn numbers labelled. I would have also test ridden an S1000RR so I could familiarize myself with the bike and maybe asked for more details about how the class activities flowed.
Without a doubt I will take levels III and IV and will be better prepared and out of my own head leaving my toxic fears behind.
If you are a sport oriented motorcyclist of any kind, after taking Total Control, I would highly recommend to anyone to take this sportbike school. It simply rocks.
It will change your riding, and maybe more, for the better.
Thank you, Sonia. Thank you, Ryan.
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