Get in, school’s started

Let’s get retarded
Words: Gasha Aeri   
Photography: CSS (Preethi)
The corner is approaching fast, plan the turn, roll off the throttle, brake a little, lean to the side with the bike and bend forward, roll on gas gradually and pin throttle by the exit.

These commands did the rounds in my mind the night before we left for Chennai to attend the second year of the California Superbike School (CSS) in the country. A complete rookie to the world of track days and passion for cutting the lap timings by a fraction of a second, I think these commands were somewhere in my subconscious because of the MotoGP races I had watched on the television. If I had the passion, then the techniques to put that passion in place was what CSS had on offer. There’s a lot of understanding, a lot of learning and even more practice that went in to make the end result possible, but the simple ideas imparted by the trainers to make that possible is the least I can share here.

What follows is a list of 10 steps which made a good rider out of a rookie. If followed correctly, these drills will prove beneficial to almost everyone with a motorcycle and a zeal for learning. So, let’s give some throttle now.

Let’s get retarded
The title comes from the fact that not everyone understands the madness for motorcycle racing and the ones who do fail to crack the Da Vinci Code. But we had the best of both the worlds. The session began with the legendary Pharaoh of cornering, Keith Code, addressing the tribe and giving us the first shock of the season with the words, “We won’t teach you to ride fast”! I felt cheated! But the depth of those words was revealed later. “You’ll get faster yourself,” he said. And sure we did.

1. As Keith would say, “Twist of the wrist”
The first day was like tiptoeing towards the destination, which was later followed by giant leaps. The session began with the Pythagorean theorem of riding: smooth throttle control. I know it is not a big secret, but the results of a smooth and gradual throttle inputs are astonishing. I stand witness to the same. No special advice for straights, but throttle control comes into play in corners. While entering a corner, the throttle must be given off just a little for that apt entry speed. A moderately slower speed at exit means a considerably fast exit. In the middle of a turn, the rider must go back on gas just after he gets into the direction he wishes to go in. The reason for keeping throttle smooth is because a smooth throttle input keeps the bike smooth and stable and that’s what is expected of a good rider. And since we were barred from using any brakes at this stage of the training, smooth throttle just had to become a habit very quickly.

2. ‘Counter steer’ the ship, Captain!
Fancy words, but simple physics defines them well. This is how counter steer works: a little push on the inside handlebar leans the bike down and puts you in the direction you wish to go. Counter steer must then be followed by weight transfer to the respective side and a little lean in order to balance the bike and smoothen the curve. The bike tends to get upright as it is powered. Roll on gas as you hit the apex and there you have a fast exit. Counter steer when combined with throttle control made for a good kick-start to my cornering. Using counter steering, I could turn into the corners quickly and that too without compromising much on the entry speed.

3. Of every nook and corner
Throttle was a friend by now, but corners still looked scary. Our trainer for this drill, Steve, gave an answer to that too. Fix the turn points and attack the corner right on them. Felt easy, as the fear to enter into a corner at a reasonably high speed seemed to be fading away. By now, it got easy to weigh when to ease out on throttle and when you get on gas again with the set markers. Then came the golden words from Steve and life was much simpler than before – straighten the corners. Instead of swaying with the curves, just slice them through the middle and you have a perfect way of attacking the corner at hand. This drill also taught me how to make use of the entire width of the track. It is always a very comforting feeling to have some extra tarmac on the outside and that happens only if the rider makes use of the whole space available to him/her.

4. One step up and ‘two-step’ fast
He isn’t what he is for no reason. Keith, with every exercise of the training programme, pushes the rider a step above and that too in a way that the drill becomes a part of his habit even before s/he realises it. The ‘two-step’ theory is another such example. After throttle control and turning points, this drill called for you to fix the turn point in your mind and then shift the visual focus to apex. To master two-step, the rider must first give gradual input of throttle, counter steering and, most importantly, the points of visual focus. A little goof-up with the focus and the bike follows where you look, which isn’t the right path always. I also got a little easy with swift leans and weight shifts as my body was now working in harmony with my mind. The perfect leaning posture, however, was still to be achieved.

Thus, the drills undertaken on the first day gave a little flavour of what the ideal basics look like and our task for the upcoming days was to get better on those, using some add-on techniques. I could see myself getting smoother and thus quicker.

5. For thy reference
The tips from day one seemed somewhat fading the next morning and the solution for that came handy too. The next drill was about setting reference points near the curves, which may help the rider to get a hint of when before/after the curve must the throttle be played with. Also, the view must always be kept as wide as possible. You never know when a nasty one decides to brush shoulders with you. Techniques on taking quick turns, leaning the bike to just the right angle and picking it up with optimum throttle input were other important drills of the day. After getting familiar with the track and in tune with my bike, I found myself not looking away from my apex in search of the reference points for very long. Instead, an approaching corner and my entry speed gave me a fair idea of when to roll off the throttle, without using any reference points for the same. Doing this gave me a better focus round corners. If one must keep a reference point, it must always be in the same line as the apex in order to avoid any distraction.

6. ‘Three-step’ cha cha cha
An extension to the two-step drill, three-step takes care of the exit too. Keeping in mind the exit line takes care of hassle-free and speedy exit. Also, it lets the rider’s mind proceed from the whole task of taking a corner gradually – from looking at the corner, fixing the apex and then looking where you want to exit. Doing all this before approaching the corner gave me more time and space to execute the turn and thus more speed too! Sounds simple and it is even more simple in practice.

By the end of day two, the drills followed for both the days made me faster round the corners, crisp with the lean, and exact with riding lines. Yes, I was now hitting almost all the apexes and was definitely more confident!

7. Get ‘hook’ed
The last day of the school revolved round riding posture, getting the body in the right position and removing all the errors attached with it. This began with the ‘hook’ turns. Description of a hook turn –  duck down on the bike and push your head and shoulders out in the direction of the curve while keeping the bike stable. Even though I have written about hook turns a little late in our list of 10 steps, it doesn’t take away its importance. For a sharp line, faster speeds and comfortable posture, a rider must always take a turn in the hooked posture explained here. Moreover, the hooked posture gives better aerodynamics to the rider and the bike and thus better supports higher speeds.

8. Shake your booty
One thing we all knew as well as our names by now was that stability of the bike is the most important. Something which cannot be compromised for even that one extra km/h and the easiest way to keep the bike always stable is by pivot steering instead of moving the bike every time. In simpler words, the rider’s tool for a better lean on corners must be following this little advice: keep the thighs and knees clamped to the fuel tank on straights with hands comfortably resting on the handlebar and not suffocating them and the upper half of the body ducked down for better aerodynamics. On corners, the counter steering must come in a way that your waist acts as the pivot, inside knee hunting for the tarmac while the other one still clamping on firmly to the fuel tank. This most certainly keeps the bike stable round corners, makes cornering better, relaxes the arms and upper body and enables the rider to take the best possible line. I realised that every time I sat firm on the saddle, I couldn’t feel myself as a part of the bike and the same stiffness made me nervous and adversely affected the speed. As a result, stiffness and me parted ways for good. Just using my legs as an additional shock-absorber and my arms for steering, I found riding fast becoming a more natural behaviour.

9. An ‘attack angle’ with no defence
Another factor that determines your exit from a corner is the way you enter one. So, attacking the corner at an accurate angle becomes equally important as other steps. The attack angle must preferably be larger for a smooth exit. A tight attack angle generally needs multiple steering inputs in the middle of a curve, not to speak of the anxiety it brings to the rider’s mind. In case of consecutive turns, the exit line of one turn determines the entry of the next one. Therefore, the rider must calculate in his mind beforehand where his chosen line will take him towards the end of the curve and thus enter the next curve in the correct line.

10. One and only
This may not make for a strict practice drill, but it is by far the simplest and the most important thing to keep in mind while riding: be one with the bike. It not only offers better handling and stability, but takes care of that fraction of chance of the bike going against your wishes. However, while doing so, the rider must not forget to sit light on the bike. As one starts accelerating, the bike starts coming upright and then it is left for the rider to make use of the full width of the road, both on straights and curves. A rider, just like a good jockey, just has to steer it. Gripping the handlebar too tight is a strict no-no.

Three days at the Chennai race-track under the sound guidance of trainers from the California Superbike School gave me the determination and strength to test and challenge my limit and, much to my surprise, I discovered that the limit lay far beyond my imagination. Riding a TVS Apache RTR 160 and pushing the bike to the maximum power that I could became possible only because I knew what I was doing and had the technique to rectify mistakes handy. Laps got faster with every passing session and I knew exactly which correction made it possible. From a snail crawling two minutes 50 seconds during the first day’s sessions, the lap timing miraculously came crashing down to two minute 36 seconds towards the end of the school on that 3.7-km-long race-track. Some moments are just beyond any words and that one was the best of them all.

An additional bonus I earned after attending CSS is that apart from being better at the track, I have grown in leaps and bounds as a rider on city roads too. Now that the school is over and further improvement depends entirely upon my practice, I would make sure that I twist the wrist whenever I get a chance!

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