So just because you can go fast, doesn't mean you have to go fast to use those skills. You'll get benefits from riding on the track whatever speed you ride on the street.
But what is "fast?"
"Fast" is the feeling you get when all the information you're getting from your senses -- your view of the road, the rush of the air, the engine tone, the feel at the bars, your sense of balance -- is too much for you to process. This is a bad thing -- you start overlooking things around you that are important, or the things you do see overwhelm your attention and you lose concentration. Either way, you open yourself up to serious mistakes and a bad crash.
The way to get over this "speed rush" is to practice. Riding at higher speeds around a track, where you're going around familiar corners and down familiar straights, lets you pick out the actual important cues from your senses. You start processing that information faster by learning -- mostly unconsciously -- what is and is not important. You end up filtering out all the "noise" in the input from your senses, leaving just what actually requires your attention.
When you've "trained" yourself this way -- I use quotation marks because it really is mostly an unconscious process -- you'll find that when you leave the constant repetition of the track, you'll automatically apply the same filtering to all your riding.
You probably won't notice this happening today unless you think about it. At the beginning of the day, you'll start out going relatively slowly and it will feel very fast. By the end of the day, you'll be going pretty fast, but it'll actually feel much slower because you'll have learned to handle it.
So we won't be practicing "fast." We'll be leaving the rush of "fast" behind us as we push onto a whole other level of riding.
The only effective way to reset that internal tiltmeter is to ride at higher lean angles. Riding on the track, taking the same corners again and again, will lead to you doing that without even realizing it. By the end of the day you'll be leaning further and -- importantly -- more consistently than you started. The next time you hit a decreasing radius corner on the street, or a truck over the centerline in a curve, you'll be equipped to handle the situation with ease.
Riding on the track, by its nature as a consistent environment, helps you practice how to catch those mistakes. Learning how to pick out your own correct lines, braking points, and so on, leads to an awareness of the wrong line, the wrong braking points, and other mistakes. The more you learn how to find your own way around a track, the more you pick up on cues that you've got it wrong, and the more intuitive it is to correct those mistakes before you get yourself in trouble.
But racing also involves dealing with the sanctioning body, licensing procedures, bike preparation, at-track modifications and repairs, entries, protests, medical requirements, and staying friendly to more officials than you'd meet in the Pentagon. It's not just dealing with all that, but being able to stay focussed and leave it all behind once you hit the track.
So while track sessions do give you the techniques and skills you need for racing, there's a whole other mental and theoretical field that you need to master to be a consistent winner. You can race and win the occasional race by just being fast; you can't win a championship that way.
So when you talk about riding on the track -- or even perhaps talk to
some of the other riders today -- you'll hear a vast variety of opinions
about what is the right way to take a corner. Generally the best thing
to do is to nod sagely, let it in one ear and out the other. It's a religious
and ego matter, and as the saying goes, if you're arguing with a fool he's
doing the same thing.
Riding on the track can be as simple as just getting out there and doing it. That's what a lot of riders do, and something you'll have to watch out for, because it increases the danger. Once you get outside the TrackDoD, you'll find there's a bunch of riders who have no idea how to behave in a track session. Most of them have a vague idea what the flags mean, but as for the more general unwritten rules of being on the track, they are clueless.
You can increase your safety -- and look after your bike -- by following some simple procedures. Taken down to basics, it can be expressed as "be patient." Don't dash out and tear around like the world will end before the track session. Take time to plan what you do and be in control throughout.
The simple pre-flight checks help you get out of relaxed mode, and into taking things seriously. You're about to ride your bike hard, and that's a serious matter that requires concentration. By the time you open it up coming out of the last turn, you and the bike will have to be 100% ready, and that process starts right now before you even start the motor.
Put on all your gear. Once you get lined up on the grid, you can take some of it off again if you want, but dressing up now means you know you'll have everything you need -- no running back for a set of gloves, or to change to your tinted visor.
Start the bike. You want the motor to be warming up by the time you hit the track, so if this is the first session of the day give it a little while to get some heat into it. Get to the grid in plenty of time, switch off and relax.
The whole bike needs to warm up before you get up to speed. Tires stick better when they're warm, brakes stop more effectively and consistently, the chain needs to warm up for efficiency, wheel bearings need to come up to temperature, the gearbox as well as the engine should be warm before hard riding. Also you yourself need to warm up. You need to get back into the habit of looking for your line, looking far ahead, getting the feel of the bike, modulating the brakes, and so on.
Fortunately all this is very simply achieved. All you need to do is take the first lap easy and work your way up to speed. Accelerate away from the pit lane gently. Take the first turn slowly, using the brakes gently. Accelerate out of the first corner firmly but not rapidly. As you corner progressively harder, as you brake more forcefully, as you roll on the throttle increasingly rapidly, it will heat up all the bike components that need it. As you warm up the bike progressively through that lap, you're also giving yourself time to come up to speed yourself -- early on you have lots of time to pick your line, and as the lap goes on you get into the rhythm of riding the track.
That's how to take the first lap. Start slowly and work up to speed. Don't flick the bike from side to side on the straight -- that does nothing but present an opportunity to throw the bike away. Just warm the bike and yourself up naturally by riding progressively harder through that first lap.
As soon as you pass the checker flag, slow things down. Raise your hand, pause, back off the throttle and change up to top gear. Sit up in a comfortable position. Start using a lower rpm range and less throttle. Brake earlier and less hard. Use less cornering forces and less lean angle. By the time you reach the last corner, you should be down to a slow street speed, hardly using the brakes at all, and rolling on gently using slow street rpms.
So when you come into the pits, you should feel like you're crawling along. Ride straight back to your paddock area, shut the bike down, park it and get your gear off. Drink more water before you feel thirsty.
Look at your tires. Some tracks are very hard on tires, some tires wear rapidly. Even if you started with brand new tread, always check at the end of each session to see how they're doing. See how the surface of the rubber looks -- a tire that's working hard at optimum temperature looks rippled, and balls up the rubber at the edges. If it's coming off the edge of the tread blocks in chunks, or is looking shiny and blue at the edge of a smooth scuffed area, it could be getting too hot. If you can see signs of riding over the edge of the tire, you might be using too much lean angle -- compensate for it by using less lean of the bike, either by going slower or by leaning your body more. You can tell a lot about how you were riding the last session by examining your tires.
So before you slow, raise your left hand high up in the air. Raise your hand, count one-thousand-one, and only then begin to slow down.
Most important is don't adjust your line just because you think someone faster is behind you. It's up to them to find a safe way around, but it's up to you to let them do that. That means don't change your line in the corner to let someone through, don't brake early to let someone by -- let them plan their pass around you. What if they are planning a drafting pass at the end of the straight, and are on your tail when you brake early? What if you cut your corner entry inside to give them room on the outside, and they're planning a late apex pass and are already there? The safest way to let someone by is to do nothing different -- ride how you would ride if you were the only bike on the track.
Whatever the situation, it's your responsibility to keep clear. Three feet is usually enough to give a margin between experienced riders, and that should be considered the minimum. If the rider you're passing is an unknown quantity, or a bit erratic -- or you tend to be a bit erratic -- allow more space. If in doubt, just stay clear. Remember, if you're getting caught up in traffic you can always pull into the pits and wait for clear track.
Even if you're much faster than another rider, you'll still have some time when you can see them up ahead of you. Over the course of the day -- and over the course of more track events -- you'll get to know how the other guys ride. Some corner slow and pass on the straights, some corner fast but go slowly on the straights, some are very similar to your own speed. Take into account the other rider's style. Plan whether you'll go around the outside in the corner, pass them on corner exit, or wait until you can blow by on the straight. By planning your pass you'll do it safely and cleanly, and be able to stay ahead of the bike you just passed.
Polite and friendly means leave space between you. If you're passing an inexperienced rider, wait until you can do it where and when it won't surprise them, and leave enough space not to scare them. Ride around other bikes how you'd like them to ride around you. Don't push in front of other bikes in the grid -- or, if you want to get on the track towards the end of the line, pull up well back and wave others by. If you go off the track and need to re-enter, make sure you have plenty of space. Don't get frustrated at other riders -- if someone frustrates you, make a pit stop, and re-enter the course when they're a long way away from you.
You all have a gut feeling for what friendly and polite means. All you
have to do is ride like it.
What smooth means is that as the bike transitions from one state to another -- accelerating to braking, or braking to turning, or turning to acceleration -- there's no sudden break from one to the other. Each blends with the other to make a progressive motion, with no jerks or sudden changes. That progression is what smooth is.
What many riders don't understand is that you can be smooth so quickly that it doesn't look it. When you move from braking to turning to acceleration rapidly enough, you can't see the smooth transition. All you can see is that bike is going on one direction now, and in another direction now. When you turn in to some corners today, you'll want to move the bike around that quickly, but you still need to be smooth when you do it.
That's one reason why we blend braking into turning, rather than finish braking and then turn. It lets the bike come smoothly out of braking, and smoothly into turning, while doing both at once so we don't waste time.
Sure, we do these things very rapidly, so that if you weren't thinking about it you might assume that you let go the brake and whack the throttle, but we must be smooth with all the controls -- in all directions -- if we want the bike to be smooth.
What they don't tell you is you can do a bunch of these at once. We'll lean as we slow, and roll as we lean, and we never -- ever -- stop looking.
The MSF also tells you to keep your eyes up, look ahead, look through the turn -- but they don't emphasize it enough for the track.
The faster you go, the further ahead you need to look. When you exit Oak Tree, you should be looking for your turn-in at Courage, over half a mile away. When you've identified your braking point for Courage, you're looking for the turn-in. When you have identified your turn-in, before you even get there! -- you're looking for the apex. And as soon as you're on the gas, well before the apex, you're looking at your track-out point.
That's hard to do. It's much easier and oh so tempting to look at the next thing you have to do. You want to look at the braking point until you start braking. You want to look at the apex until you hit it. But by then you're not looking where you want to go -- because you're already there!
To start with today, you'll quite possibly not be able to force yourself to look that far ahead. Things will be happening rapidly enough that you'll have your attention full with just what you're doing now. But one of your goals during the day should be to move that attention point further and further away from you.
It's easier to look where you want to go if you aren't always worrying what's around you. Here's another clue -- if you aren't going to ride on it (and you won't if you don't look there) you don't need to worry about it.
Let me give an example:
A big key to riding the Charlotte Motor Speedway road course fast is to get through the famous Turn One. It's a fairly straightforward turn, except for one thing -- for most of the corner, you're aimed directly at a concrete wall. If you get the corner right, you'll exit the corner maybe three to six inches from that wall. If you can do that, you'll carry much more speed into the infield and can maybe even make a pass going into Turn Three, somewhere "everybody" knows you can't pass. The reason so many people get Turn One wrong is they get intimidated by the wall -- what if they make a mistake, they'll hit it hard! It doesn't worry me -- because I know I'm not supposed to drive into that wall, I don't look there. I'm looking at the exit of the corner, or the turn-in for the next, and so I hardly even see that wall.
The drop-offs in Deals Gap are Charlotte Walls. Don't want to ride off the edge of a cliff? Don't look there. And there's no reason why you should be intimidated by a big drop-off on the outside of a corner unless you're going to ride off the edge. A lot of Sleazeballs (a technical term we'll define later) take their bad line just because they're intimidated by the drop-off, and so they increase the chances of becoming Junior Birdman just by their mental attitude.
So don't bother to look at the runoff areas today. Sure, enjoy the scenery, but you should be spending all your attention on where you want to go, not where you don't.
I also find that if you pick a marker near your braking point, for example, not only is it a visual anchor, but it locks you into braking there. Once you have associated "this rock" with "brake near it," it's very hard to unlock the two. Sometimes you'll find yourself turning in where you have some sort of Reference Point, even though it's not ideal, just because there's something you can fix on there.
So if you're a Code advocate, go ahead and use Reference Points. Just make sure they're only visual anchors, not behavioral ones.
It'll take a little while to build this picture, but the more you go around the track -- on your bike, in a car, on a bicycle, walking, it doesn't matter how -- the more you'll build a visual model of the way around it.
Your eventual goal is to be able to play a lap of the track in your head. Not only that, but to do it in real time -- it should take exactly as long to do the visual replay as it takes you to ride around.
Once you've reached that point, you can run practice laps in your head. When you come back to this track next time you'll hit the pavement already having run a hundred laps or so in your head. That'll give you a big advantage when you get to do it in reality. Bringing a different bike? Get familiar with the bike on the street, then visualize the track on the new bike -- the reality probably won't mesh perfectly with your visual one, but you'll have an idea of what to expect. It'll save a lot of acclimatization time and help you be fast straight out of the box.
On the racetrack you are not swerving. You are taking corners. Lean with the bike, don't lag behind it. On the street I see a lot of riders who lean their bikes over a lot in a turn, but are keeping their body quite upright. That uses up a lot of the bike's lean angle --they leave less reserve, and would touch down well before a good rider would.
When you start reaching your own personal tiltmeter, you'll find it very hard to lean your body more. The pavement gets closer as you lean, and it's intimidating to sense it nearer to you than you're accustomed. It's vital that you not start to lean the bike under you at that point, but keep your body leaning with the bike. That's an important basic technique I'll be watching for today.
Compare these two pictures, taken at TrackDoD 1...
First, a note about the corner: this is exiting Oak Tree at VIR. It's a very slow corner, and so at the point where these photos are taken the bike is accelerating onto the front straight. The bikes in both photos are travelling at roughly the same speed.
In this first picture, the rider is leaning the bike under him. He's looking through the corner well, and accelerating nicely through the corner, but by keeping his body more upright he's pushing the bike down into the ground. He's almost used up all the lean angle he has available -- he's cornering about as fast as he can, and has virtually no reserve of cornering clearance left.
photo by Mike Ragsdale
In this next picture, the two riders coming out of the corner are leaning more than the bike. Notice how much more ground clearance they have -- and compare the angle of the wheels to the ground in this picture and the previous one. Even though one of these bikes is a standard and the other a cruiser, when ridden this way they actually have more ground clearance than the sportbike shown above.
photo by Mike Ragsdale
This also shows how useless Joe Racer's guide to how fast a rider is by looking at the tires. The rider in the first picture has scrubbed his tires all the way to the edge, but he's going no faster than the riders in the second picture, who may still have unscuffed rubber at the outside of their tires.
There are in fact two problems with countersteering when you're right at the limit: it uses up front traction, and it moves the front of the bike towards the outside of the corner when you're already near the edge of the surface. So today, I want you to keep a traction reserve under braking, and don't go to the absolute edge of the track on corner entry.
Of course there are exceptions to being fully on the gas. Sometimes you'll need to ease off from full throttle to stay behind another rider if you can't pass before the next corner, or if you're riding in another bike's draft. But anytime on the straight you are not riding close behind another bike, you should be fully on the gas.
A downshift must be done properly to be smooth. This is a point where you really don't want to lock the rear, and so you must match the rpms properly.
In the MSF, they just teach you to roll the throttle on to match the rpms. That takes time and can be harder to judge. They don't teach the throttle blip method because it's harder to explain and teach to new riders. If you have no trouble doing it the MSF way, continue to do it, except remember that on the track this might be harder because you're always braking hard at the same time.
Try this first with the engine off -- squeeze the brake lever hard, and practice rolling the throttle with the ball of your hand. You should be able to maintain a constant pressure on the brake lever while you're doing this.
What I normally do on a very familiar bike is to keep the clutch in and blip the throttle for each downshift. That does increase the chance of ending up in the wrong gear if you miss a shift, so if you're going to get away with this you need to know the bike well enough to detect a missed shift without having to let out the clutch.
Unless you have that level of confidence, you'll be more secure releasing the clutch for each downshift. If you're not blipping the throttle, in fact, you really need to do this to make sure you're matching the revs properly.
Multiple shifts take time, so it's best to start downshifting as soon as you can, when you start braking. Most modern bikes slow down rapidly enough to change down all the gears as quickly as you can, but to start out allow more distance for braking and shifting until you are sure you won't over-rev the motor doing this.
Remember this too: even if their line was great for you, if you follow it the best you can do is to be as fast as they are. You'll never be faster than they are.
Some people like to talk about a guideline for where to brake -- "wait until the guy in front of you brakes, count to two, then brake" (or some variation on that). I don't think I need to point out that sounds much better in a bar than it does in reality.
The other danger in watching the bike ahead of you is target fixation. You can get your attention taken by this other bike to the extent that you lose your site picture, and blithely forget to brake (really, I've done it myself). So try not to let that other bike intrude on your site picture -- be aware of them, but don't focus on them.
Motorcycles are also self-correcting systems. If some sort of wobble or glitch happens, the bike will tend to sort itself out. It might be unpleasant while it does it, but it generally will recover.
Your bike can't do any of that unless you, the rider, let it. To do that you must keep a light touch on the bars -- hard enough to steer, but light enough to let the bike even itself out. So your arms should be loose at all times. Try not to put any weight on your arms, even when braking. You should be able to flap your elbows -- do the chicken dance -- at every point on the track.
I see a lot of riders with pigeon feet, splayed out on the bike. All that does is makes it hard to shift your weight around, and gives you a fright when your boot touches down. Keep your feet in.
Keep your weight balanced with the wind pressure, your back, your legs, your butt. Remember to distribute your weight evenly so you don't tire out one set of muscles. Leave your arms free and loose.
Go back to the two pictures of riders leaning in and out. Notice how the riders in the second picture are leading with their inside shoulder, and how much more comfortable and relaxed they look.
So I don't want anyone hanging off -- not at first, anyway. If you're dragging parts, you've reached the maximum speed you can do on that line -- and there are things you can do to reduce the need for clearance in a turn by changing your line, without hanging off. If you're consistently dragging, talk to me and we'll work on it -- which may include hanging off if you want.
The starting point is to be aware of your breathing and how it affects your riding technique. Are you breathing quickly, from fear or adrenaline? If so, the rest of your body is probably also tensing into a fight-or-flight reaction. This is the time to take a couple of healthy breaths and relax. Check yourself as you hit each straightaway, and try to have relaxed breathing as you enter the curves; it should help you to remain relaxed and responsive as you ride.
Notice how in this picture (taken at TrackDoD 1 at Oak Tree) the rider's eyes are level, looking through the turn. The rider is hanging off, leaning hard, but his attention is focussed exactly where it needs to be. Keeping your head level helps you do that.
Photo by Mike Ragsdale
Not only are the brakes more efficient at slowing the bike, but they're the only method you can really modulate to manage your traction. It's hard to modulate engine braking with the throttle.
That means no engine braking! If you're slowing down, you should be on the brakes. Don't get off the throttle unless you're braking.
That doesn't mean pull in the clutch while you're braking. The natural engine braking you get by being off the throttle will help you slow down for the corner without locking the rear wheel. What I do mean is that you don't use engine braking unless you're on the brakes as well.
So the only thing you use the clutch for is to shift. Even then, it's a very brief and light tug and release, not a full-blown haul it to the bars and back. Depending on your bike, you'll probably only need the lightest touch on the lever to perform an upshift, and may not need it at all. You will need it for downshifting, but by blipping the throttle to match the revs, you again won't need it all the way in.
Note that when we talk about clutchless shifting, we are not talking about speed shifting, jamming into a higher gear, or anything ham-fisted like that. You ease off the throttle a touch, snick the shifter lightly into gear, and back on the gas. If you need anything more than the lightest "snick" on the shifter, you're not doing it right -- or the bike design won't let you do it easily -- and go back to using the clutch. There really isn't that much to gain by clutchless shifting, so it's not worth spending a lot of effort on learning it.
Yes, it looks and feels cool to drag pegs. Yes, Joe Racer uses it as a measure of how well he's cornering. But aside from coolness and street cred, scraping pegs doesn't really serve much purpose.
The reason pegs have feelers is to make sure they're the first thing to touch down. The reason most footpegs are on springs is so they don't lever the bike off the ground when they touch. That doesn't mean they're supposed to be used that way.
Treat scraping the peg as you would a warning light on the dash: it tells you that you leaned too far this time. Ideally you want to have the bike skim along with clear space of half an inch or so between the peg and the road. Any closer than that and you run the risk of a bump -- or imprecise throttle -- bouncing the bike off the road. The peg scraping says, "you got away with it this time." Next time, use less lean angle: take a later apex, so the bike's unwound more to vertical at that point in the road, or slow down so you don't scrape when you flick the bike into the corner.
If you find yourself consistently scraping pegs talk to me and we'll
address ways of finding more clearance.
Aerodynamic drag increases with the square of the speed. Double the speed, and you get four times the drag. What that means in practical terms is that around 120mph, bikes run into what feels like a brick wall of air, and increasing your speed only a little needs a phenomenal amount of power. It also means that any difference the rider can make to drag will be multiplied and give big benefits. Even faired bikes are designed around a rider. The bike itself needs the rider in the right place to smooth the airflow.
Reducing the frontal area has been understood for at least a century. Crouch down on the bike, bury your head behind the gauges, lie down over the tank -- riders have been doing that forever. It's still what you need to do on an unfaired bike. Just remember you still have to have your arms loose, you still have to be able to see, and you still have to be able to control the bike.
With a faired bike, the method is slightly different. You want to be not only tucked down behind the screen, but you want to present a smooth profile for the air to flow off the screen, over your back, and on to the tailsection. So you don't want to be totally out of the airflow, you want to become part of the shape of the bike.
In this photograph from a WERA race at NCMS some years back, the rider is well tucked in behind the fairing. Her elbows and knees are out of the airflow while still retaining control of the bike, and the air flows smoothly over the screen, and with the rider low on the tank the airflow is smoothed from the rider's back across the tail section of the bike.
Photo by Martyn Wheeler
Again, bear in mind that the priority is to control the bike. All the speed in the world will do no good if you run into the starter's stand. Remember also that some steep front-end geometry can start to wobble if you put too much weight on the front, so don't overdo it. But every little bit you can do to reduce the drag is squared in effect.
Be careful when you do this. You don't want an unexpected slam of air to pull you off the bike, and you still need to keep a light touch on the bars. But sitting up helps slow you down, and puts you in a better position to see the corner.
Having said that, there are some very fast corners where it will help to stay in a tuck. If you can take a sweeper flat out without coming near touching down, for example, you'll be faster if you can stay in a tuck through it -- and remember you can still lean in some while maintaining an aerodynamic tuck. But again, get the corner right first before you worry about drag.
When the speed of a bike running alone is mainly governed by drag -- as it is for all bikes -- you can go much faster running with someone else. In fact, especially in the lower-powered bike classes, you may not be able to run at the front in a race if you can't run with someone else. It's like NASCAR at Daytona -- you have to run with someone, preferably a large train of someones, or you get hung out to dry in the airstream.
But drafting has many dangers. Tucked in behind another bike, you get a restricted view of the track. You can lose your site picture and orientation. If the rider in front slows unexpectedly, wheels can touch which will launch you both into something that would be a shoe-in for "greatest .mpg crash videos." You tend to fixate on the bike ahead of you, and not notice when the braking point is coming up. If you're catching up the bike in front, your bike will start to accelerate rapidly when it gets into the slipstream, and you can be sucked right into a collision.
So for today, while you can use drafting to a limited extent, please
leave plenty of room and drop out of the draft well before the next corner.
Collisions between bikes on the track are very bad news.
Riding a bike properly is all about managing dynamics. We've talked
about aerodynamics, now we'll cover the physical behavior of the bike.
Today I want you to maintain a traction reserve -- leave a border around that circle so you can concentrate on technique rather than managing slides. So when I talk about the traction circle here, I'm really talking about one that's actually inside it, leaving a safety margin:
Trail Braking is an often misused term by those who don't understand it. Note that it has nothing to do with what brake you're using. It just means that you keep braking as you go into the corner, trailing off the brake as you go deeper into the corner.
This is managing weight transfer. It's using the weight transfer to
help out the tires and get the most out of the bike.
Touring tires may not have the traction to do all that. They may slide if you put too much force into them without having enough weight on that end. It's even possible that you could exceed the tire compound's ability to hold the track, and the tire itself would start to slide because the rubber just can't grip any harder. This is roughly what happens to any tire that overheats.
So your choice of tire may limit you in how hard you can brake, turn, and accelerate. Just be aware of that, and approach the limits from the safe side.
So be aware of not only how hard you're doing things to the tire, but how suddenly. Remember the tire is flexible, and when you steer it takes a moment for those forces to transmit down to the contact patch with the road.
Give the tire a chance to catch up.
Give the tire a chance to catch up.
Sport tires don't need much of a chance. In fact, with modern sport tires on dry pavement you won't break the front end free just by countersteering -- not if you trail-brake properly, anyway. But that does all change if it's raining, or you're running on cold race tires.
Remember what I said about giving the tire a chance? Exactly the same thing applies to the suspension. Like sport tires don't need much chance to catch up, it's the same with sport suspension. That's why sportbikes tolerate bad riding, and why lazy riders say "I need a sportbike."
Today, though, we're going to concentrate on getting it right. And quite possibly the single most important factor in being able to ride any bike fast -- as in, just get on any bike and ride it fast -- is managing weight transfer.
When you're cornering, you're feeding the g-forces into both ends equally, and both ends of the bike compress from the cornering force.
When you roll on the throttle, you transfer weight to the back of the bike and away from the front. The front suspension extends as the weight comes off it, and the rear compresses as it starts to carry most of the weight of the bike.
So what's wrong with this?
Look at the front end -- it bounces up -- down -- up -- down -- up. At that back it's doing the same thing in reverse. All that bouncing up and down plays havoc with your traction and stability, as you're forever trying to keep the bike under control rather than going through the corner.
So when Mr. Hotshot-Squid says "I need more damping" or "I need better springs," what he usually means is "I bounce my bike." To make it worse, he's probably jabbing the brakes and whacking the throttle.
If you ride like this, no bike will handle to its potential. Sure, a sportbike will cope better because it has more damping, and that helps absorb the pogo-like motion the rider's putting into it, and that takes us back to "I need a sportbike." But even sportbikes handle better when ridden properly...
Looking at what the bike does now, you can see a smooth flow: the front comes down smoothly and rises smoothly, with no big movements to absorb. Not only is the bike under control, but the suspension is free to soak up real bumps in the road, and so the bike doesn't skitter or bounce across the road.
This way, you can make any bike handle. I've passed a CBR600F2 in the depths of Deals Gap on a stock Suzuki Intruder, and there just isn't any bigger handling difference than that.
Does a sportbike handle better? Sure it does. A sport suspension "absorbs" changes quicker, so you can transition from braking to cornering to acceleration more quickly. You can be smooth much more rapidly -- the bike doesn't need as long to catch up -- so you don't waste any time making transitions.
As you brake, the front "rushes" down -- it gets momentum, so after you let off the brakes it still keeps going for a bit. So ease off the brakes slowly to give it a chance to slow down at the end. This is where "I need more damping" is true, but doesn't have to be because the rider can allow for it.
As a point of interest, it's usually on the "rush" that bikes with soft suspension bottom the front end. A rider who regularly bottoms the front end probably hasn't taken this into account.
Again -- always give the bike a chance to catch up, and some bikes need
more chance than others.
There's another effect to trail-braking that helps you get a non-sportbike to turn almost as quickly as a sportbike (again, a sportbike will do it better, but you can make a non-sportbike be pretty good). That's the geometry effect of the forks compressing (swingarm front ends don't do this).
The basic principle at work is that the steeper the front end, the quicker the bike turns in. Sportbikes come that way, cruisers and standards don't. Conversely, the more raked, the more stable it is.
You hear Joe Racer moaning a lot about "My front end dives."
"WELL DUH, JOE!" Of course it dives. Weight transfers to the front end, and the front end goes down. It's physics, it's vehicle dynamics. All fork front ends dive. What Joe Racer doesn't understand is that front end dive can be an advantage, not a problem.
By trail-braking into the corner, the weight transfer on the front causes the forks to compress. When they compress, they shorten. This not only reduces the length of the bike some, so it can turn quicker, but as the front end goes down, it steepens the angle of the forks. So what was a lazy cruiser turns into a much more agile machine when it's under braking.
Now as you accelerate, you get more desirable effects. The front extends as you roll on the throttle, and it goes back to a lazy front end again, so you gain stability and it's less twitchy on exit.
(One thing to be aware of here is that if your bike already has a steep
geometry at the front, it can get steeper under braking, which can
cause it to get twitchy. Fortunately most steep front ends are on sportbikes,
which have suspensions calibrated not to dive as much, and you can also
be sure that the designers has this in mind too.)
Your ideal braking point depends on many factors. It depends not only on the bike, but the tires, the track conditions, your own braking technique, and even such transient conditions as the temperature and humidity.
In fact, your perfect braking point will probably not even be the same from one lap to the next -- as the session goes on, you'll need to be constantly re-evaluating your braking point for each corner.
So showing you "braking points" is totally useless. So is asking someone else where they brake. Only you can determine where to brake.
Once you have that initial guess, you use two basic principles to find your rough braking point.
If you are going too fast to turn in where you want, or you turn and run wide of the apex, you braked too late.
The basic principle is to shift up as you hit redline. If you have an engine that runs out of power before redline, shift just as the power starts to drop off.
The exception is if you'd have to shift up and then back down immediately. In that case it's often more efficient just to back off the throttle and hold it near redline rather than spend the time and effort shifting twice.
Bikes accelerate hardest in lower gears. Since you want to accelerate hard out of a corner, you want to use the lowest gear you can.
Ideally, therefore, the perfect gear has you shifting up exactly as you hit the track-out point. If you were racing, and the rules allowed, you'd want to customize your gearbox so you had the perfect gear for every corner.
In the real world, you rarely have the perfect gear available. That means you often have to choose between a gear that is too high and one that is too low. In that case, managing weight transfer takes priority, so you have to pick the higher gear so you don't have to shift in the corner.
If you're in a sequence of corners, that might mean you have to shift up before coming into a faster corner, so you don't have to shift before the exit. In this case, you'll probably be shifting before your ideal -- often substantially before the redline. That's called short-shifting, and it's a technique that's well worth mastering.
You can shift up in a corner without really hurting much, provided it's when you've already unwound your line most of the way. At that stage you're not loading the suspension much with cornering, so it doesn't really hurt to bounce it slightly. Ideally, though, you wouldn't be shifting until at least the track-out point, once you're heading in a straight line.
You need to remember that shifting in the corner upsets the suspension. It's vital to shift quickly, and if the bike is not upright, then straighten it slightly before shifting to reduce the cornering forces; once you've shifted, you can pull it back down some to finish the corner.
For the Fishhook, it might well be worth choosing a higher gear than is ideal for the tightest part of the corner in order to avoid a shift further up the hill. That's something you can experiment with over the course of the day.
Like everything else, the technique of finding the right one is to play it safe and work from that direction. Start with a higher gear than you think you need, and work downwards until you reach the right one.
Being familiar with your bike helps in that you probably will know when
you can't use a lower gear without running out of revs in a corner, so
it's rare that you'll find yourself in too low a gear. If you do, though,
remember that safety comes from not bouncing the bike in the corner, and
just roll on more gently until you're going straight enough to shift without
upsetting the bike.
The catch is that your speed on the straight depends on how you come out of the corner before it. The faster you exit that corner, and the sooner you get on the gas, the faster you'll start the straight -- so the faster you'll be all the way down it.
What do you do on a straight? You stay wide open throttle, changing up when you need to do so. You accelerate all the way down it. (We consider the braking at the end to be part of the next corner, not the straight.)
So in effect, a straight in terms of a racetrack is anywhere you can stay at wide open throttle, without turning significantly. In other words, anywhere that acceleration is the only significant part of the traction circle that you're using.
Strictly speaking, since they don't start or end a straight, they're also the least important. While that is true, the line you take through a Type III is very important indeed, as we'll see later.
Identifying the corners is not quite as straightforward as it sounds. Remember our definition of what a straight really is, and you'll see that not everywhere the track makes a bend is actually a corner.
For example, at VIR, the kink in the dip between Courage and the Spiral is not a corner -- you just take it in almost a straight line at full throttle. Likewise the kink between the Fishhook and South Bend tends to become part of the former rather than a corner in its own right.
The next step is to classify the corners into one of the three types.
Since Type I corners are the most important, we pick those first. This is easy -- they're the ones at the beginning of every straight.
Next most important are the Type II corners. There's one at the end of every straight, unless it's already been picked out as a Type I. Type I over-rides Type II.
Finally, if we have any corners left over (some tracks don't), they must be Type III.
So, using the VIR South Course as an example:
This gives us a starting point to pick the best line around the track.
Those three points are the turn-in point, the apex, and the track-out point.
This line has a neutral apex and a constant radius.
Also, classically, all the braking is done before the turn, and then all the acceleration is done after the turn. As we've already seen, we can do better by trail-braking and accelerating out of the corner.
Early texts that treated racing as a science, such as Piero Taruffi's classic book, spend a lot of attention and detail in describing -- in words and with mathematical analysis -- how to take this line around as much of the racetrack as possible. We will in fact not take any corner in the classic manner.
Remember the traction circle? To accelerate hard, you can't be turning hard. So we do most of the turning right away in the corner so we can concentrate on accelerating out. We turn in late, trail braking into the first part of the turn, and switching to acceleration well before we get to the apex.
This is a Late Apex line, as the apex is further around the corner than the classic line. We also brake later than the classic line, since we turn much later. And since we unwind our corner as we come out of it, we can accelerate much sooner than the classic line, and so come out of the corner much faster.
Most single-vehicle motorcycle accidents are the result of an early apex. The mistake that leads to this is so far back -- way back when the rider started the turn-in -- that the rider doesn't associate it with the wreck. They blame it on the bike -- it wouldn't handle, or it didn't have enough brakes, or it stood up under braking. They blame it on the road situation, and say there was nothing they could do.
A frightening number of riders, including most of those who ride sportbikes, take corners like this. Many of them bought a sportbike just so they could take this line better and have more reserve at the panic spot.
We have a word for the early apexers. They are Early Apex Sleazeballs, and what they do is called sleazeballing the corners. As you'll see, it's a term I'm fond of, and one I'll all too happily apply to you if you take a corner like this.
The next most important corner on the track is the Type II, a corner that ends a straight. The object is to stay on the gas as long as possible and carry as much speed into the corner as you can.
This means we turn in gently and relatively early, braking right before the turn-in, and brake almost all the way through to the apex. The apex is slightly early.
From the apex, we then act as a normal corner exit, unwinding the radius, straightening the bike up, and rolling on the gas. The exit speed of a Type II corner line is lower than that of a Type I, but since we aren't entering a straight, that doesn't matter.
A Type II line starts unwinding the corner at the apex, accelerating and straightening up as the bike approaches the track-out point. Since you're accelerating and unwinding the corner, all the avoidance and mistake correction capabilities are still there.
That does not mean, however, that the line through a Type III is not important -- far from it. Any sequence of Type III corners must end with a Type I before the next straight, and so it's vital to take a line through the Type III that sets you up correctly for the all-important Type I. You might in fact put together a whole sequence of Type III's, all of which have the sole purpose of setting you up for the single Type I at the end.
A Type III (or sequence of Type III's) will always start with a Type II, which connects it to the previous straight. Again, the line through the Type III should be chosen to allow the goals of the Type II corner to be achieved as well.
Working out the line through a Type III corner can't be considered in isolation. It depends completely on the corners around it. So to find the line through the Type III, we do the following sequence:
Remember that the line through the Type I is much more important than anything else. So we start by filling in the line through the Type I, extending it back through the Type III to give us the best approach. Then we fill in the ideal line through the Type II. The chances are that those two lines won't join up:
At this point we go back to the rule that a Type I takes priority over everything else. That includes the Type II corner that starts this sequence. So we modify the line of the Type II to link it up to our best line for that Type I. We still want to go deep into that turn, but it's much more important that we come out of it on the left to set up for the Type I.
But don't fix this line in your head yet... the actual Spiral at VIR has an added complication of dropping about thirty feet down, and we have to take that into account too.
Again, when we determine the line, the Type I takes priority. At Oak Tree, it's particularly important because it leads onto the very long front straight -- it's the most important corner on the track. So we first mark out the line we want to take through the Type I, and then draw a Type II line that ends where we want to start the Type I turn-in.
Calling a turn a double apex is also Joe Racer's way of rationalizing an excessively early apex. He's an incurable Sleazeball, and turns in so early that he can't take a corner this long in one line. So he hooks together two very bad lines by turning in twice and hugging the inside. Sometimes he'll even call it a triple apex, if his line is bad enough he has to turn in yet again. You'll probably hear someone describe VIR's first turn, Courage, this way.
In reality, Courage leads onto a straight and is a classic 180-degree Type I:
So anytime someone tells you such-and-such a corner is a double apex, take it with a large grain of salt. Nod sagely and accept their words, and promptly ignore them and work out your own line. Anyone who calls a corner a double apex just because it's long probably has too much ego and too closed a mind for it to be worth arguing the point.
I'm sure you'll hear a lot of this today. "It feels much better to take the first part of Oak Tree wide, then turn in for the second part." The line looks like this:
Well, the statement is correct. It does feel better. That doesn't make it the right line. It feels smoother. That doesn't make it the right line either.
What this line does is ignore the fact that there are two corners here. It makes it easier, sure, because you don't have to work as hard if you only bother with half the corners. It makes no difference to the exit speed from Oak Tree, but wastes a lot of time in the first part by not taking it properly.
Think about what happens in the first part. While the lazy rider is just cruising around the first part, we've carried more speed into the corner, and are actually back on the gas again before braking for the second part. We have to turn in sharper for the second part, but motorcycles are maneuverable and quite capable of a quick flick into the corner.
Now if you were taking the corner in a minivan, you might want to take the Lazy Line just to scrub off less speed on the turn-in for the second part, but none of you are going to be riding a minivan today. Remember riding around a track isn't supposed to be a gentle cruise in the countryside, you're here to work, and you need to be working all the way around the track.
There are no double apex turns on the VIR South Course.
With these corners, you can take it as a single Type I. You can turn in once, take a late apex, and exit it onto the next straight just like a textbook Type I.
You could also divide it into two corners, a Type II coming off the front straight and a Type I exiting onto the infield straight.
As a general rule of thumb, if you can take it as a single corner, try that way first. It's not easy, because you have to turn very late and turn your head way around to look for the apex. In some ways it's more difficult that way, because hitting the apex so far around the corner is mentally hard to do -- it's easy to be a Sleazeball -- but it is the better initial line.
Are there exceptions? Sure there are. No matter what type of bike you have, if the corner is tight enough, you will have to slow down to a crawl in the middle of the corner. In that case, you'd just as well slow enough to take it as a Type II/I Combo, since you have to brake a lot and accelerate from a minimal speed.
Look at the line above, and you'll see that there's a lot happening very quickly. You get on the brakes, turn in, get back on the gas, back on the brakes, flick the bike over very rapidly, and get back hard on the gas again. Mess up any one of those, and if you're not accustomed to how rapidly things are happening, you can be in trouble very quickly indeed. Also, in the case of Courage at VIR, you no longer have the option of the "escape road" if you miss your braking.
Like everything else on the track, slow down when you're working on this. Get the line and technique right, and as you get comfortable with it you can attack the transitions harder.
You have to be careful, however, not to over-ride your sight lines. If you can't clearly see the point where you'd transition between the Type II and the Type I, you can't safely take it that way. It works best in switchbacks, where you can see not only the whole corner but the straight following it too.
Another measure is that you should be riding the whole track. There should not be one point on the track where you're not working hard at it. If you find yourself cruising a section of the track, then you're not applying enough attention to it and need to think harder about that area.
Complete lap times mean nothing unless grid position is at stake. I'm not going to address the special needs of a qualifying session, except to say that they don't apply for any other type of session
So we don't need no steenkin' lap times. They mean nothing today. With the techniques I've outlined, you will know whether you got it right or not, for you and your bike on this day. Don't waste attention on worrying about lap times. Take each corner right, exit fast, and the lap time will come.
Whenever the road is dropping away from the bike, you have the opposite effect -- less traction. That means you can't brake as hard, turn as hard, accelerate as hard, or mix those as readily.
So you want to take advantage of uphill and banked sections to do most of your turning there, and try to keep fairly straight in downhill or off-camber sections.
The first turn of the Spiral is right at the crest of a hill -- you'll be going over a crest in the turn, and it's off-camber as soon as you get over the crest. It then drops thirty feet into the Type III at the bottom, and from there rises uphill again, with the Type I slightly banked.
So first we have to take into account the Type II being on the crest of a hill. Since the traction will drop dramatically as the bike goes over the crest, and we'll have less ground clearance in the off-camber turn, we have to slow more than we would for a flat corner of this type. We also can't trail-brake as much into the corner because of the crest of the hill. Fortunately, the entry to the turn is quite steeply uphill, and we can use the extra traction there to brake later and harder before we turn in. Then we have a moment to get back on the gas, which will help plant the rear in the downhill off-camber section, then back on the brakes and trail-brake into the right-hander at the bottom of the hill.
Now let's look at the exit from the complex, the Type I. Since it's slightly uphill and banked, we can take advantage of the extra traction to brake more rapidly, turn in more rapidly, and get on the gas hard while we're still turning. We can go deeper, turn harder, and be full on the gas well before we reach the apex.
Now back to the right-hand Type III in the center of the complex... This corner is initially off-camber and downhill, so we have to trail-brake smoothly and gently, and turn in smoothly. We end up taking this turn as a sweeping curve, under power, exiting to the right side of the track into the braking zone for the final left-hander.
The worst thing you can do, street or track, is apex too early. You'll end up running out of road, ideas, and options very rapidly at the exit. Since we want no-one crashing today, I want you all to learn to recognize when your apex is early. The sooner you recognize it, the sooner you can fix it.
So the single most important thing you can do to be safe on a racetrack -- or the street, for that matter -- is to be able to recognize an early apex and convert it to a safe line.
This photo from TrackDoD 1 shows me at Courage, correcting an early apex by holding the bike down into the corner. The clue that I'm being a Sleazeball is the angle of the front wheel -- it's turned to the outside of the corner, countersteering hard to keep lean angle on the bike. By this point in the turn, the bike should be unwinding the curve and coming back to vertical, and shouldn't be scrubbing off acceleration by so much steering input.
Photo by Mike Ragsdale
So if you find yourself braking too early, don't come off the brakes completely. Ease off the brakes earlier than you would, but keep some braking so that you keep the front end under control.
The simplest answer of course is "nothing." Lean your upper body in more, roll on the gas, and ride the bike through the corner. That's not easy to do, of course -- the natural reaction is to get off the gas, and that's just asking to crash. You don't want to upset the suspension. Keep in mind that when you're in the corner, you want the bike to be smooth. Even when you're dragging the pegs -- or hard parts for that matter -- you must avoid doing anything sudden.
If you have a shaft-drive bike, rolling on the gas very hard can lift the rear end of the bike up and pull the peg clear of the ground. (To a certain extent this works on chain-drive bikes, but it is a lesser effect and depends on swingarm geometry.)
You can straighten the bike up some too, but avoid doing sudden corrections
-- don't upset the bike. It doesn't take much to lift the peg off the ground,
and a sudden jerk on the bars is likely to cause more problems than you
have already. All you need is a small correction.
Today, make sure you leave plenty of space between you. Like drafting in general, this puts bikes close together and therefore at increased risk.
If you can, it's generally better to hang back in the corner, and execute a pass on corner exit as described above. That will give you good exit speed, and good speed on the next straight, whereas passing in the corner wrecks your line and slows you down all the way along the straight.
The technique is to take the Lazy Line, mostly following the outside of the turn, to get in front of the other rider before you approach the track-out point. That means you won't take as good a line as normal, and won't get as much drive out of the corner, and that's why you have to have a big speed difference to make it work. If you don't, it's trivial for you to get passed back by a simple corner exit pass.
You have to remember that until you have passed the other bike, they have right of way. They can take their line to the outside at the track-out, and might not even be aware that you are there. So to do this pass, you must be sure you complete it while still in the corner. Part of the usefulness of this pass with car racing is that you can put your car in a position where they can't track out all the way, and so lose exit speed -- all that achieves on a bike is being run off the track.
Unless I've signaled "follow me," of course... in that case I'll probably
be slower than necessary just to make sure you get the right line or whatever.
Passing then would be counter-productive. But that's the exception, not
There's nothing magical about riding fast in the rain. Moisture doesn't change vehicle dynamics. All the principles you use in the dry also apply in the wet. Modern tires -- the latest generation in particular -- provide excellent traction in the wet. There are factors you need to take into account to go fast, though...
You come out of your tuck and start squeezing the brakes. As you brake, weight transfers to the front. As weight transfers, the front has more traction. Continue to squeeze the brakes on harder -- as weight transfer builds, you'll be able to brake harder. The more you brake, the harder you can brake! You'll find that provided you squeeze the brakes, and let the weight transfer forward, you'll be able to brake almost as hard in the wet as in the dry.
So now you're approaching the corner under hard braking. There was never a better time to take advantage of trail-braking! With the extra traction you get from the weight transfer, you can turn in quite rapidly under braking. Still, it is a wet track, so give the front tire a chance to build the cornering force -- don't snap into a countersteer, keep your inputs smooth and progressive.
Now we've turned into the corner. We're still braking. As the cornering force builds, that's giving your extra force on the tires -- trail off the brakes as they're no longer needed, and start to roll on smoothly before the apex.
Once again, the tires need longer to build forces. Don't roll on as hard as you would in the dry, because the sudden torque can break the rear loose. But do roll on, because like braking, the more you roll on and transfer weight to the rear, the more the tire can handle the acceleration.
So the very same techniques you use in the dry are exactly what you need to do in the wet. You'd be surprised how fast you can actually go in the rain, provided you remember how dynamics work, and ride properly.
As you ride around, be aware of the track and how the water gathers. Most corners on a track are banked to the inside, so the water will run from the outside in. That means that in the case of a wide banked track, the water will be significantly deeper on the inside than the outside -- on an oval in a Southern cloudburst, you could easily be talking about ¼ inch difference. That's a lot of traction difference. Likewise on the street, the road tends to be crowned, so the center of the pavement will have less water than the edges. Ride where the water's shallow.
Coming out of -- or into -- a corner, you may find that years of racing have left a small depression where heavy cars have worn and compressed the asphalt. That will be deeper than the surface either side of it. Ride where the water's shallow.
It's not only depth of water to consider, but the traction of the surface. For many years, Summit Point had long concrete strips through many corners where cars had worn the surface. That concrete was treacherous in the wet. So pick your line to avoid the concrete. Also, a well-used track in a dry spell will build up rubber on the line. That rubber will be slippery until it washes off -- pick your line to avoid those streaks.
Under these conditions, you'll find the most traction following the radius of the corner -- a Lazy Line. You have a choice of following the outside of the corner, or the inside -- both take about the same time to get around the corner, but on the outside you'll be going faster and therefore have better exit speed from the corner.
So that's what a Rimshot is: a Lazy Line deliberately taken around the outside of a corner in the wet to find more traction.
Approach the corner on a line offset from the normal tire track. Brake in a straight line, trail off and into cornering as you cross the dry line, and roll on slowly through the corner as you follow the outside. You should have the bike mostly straightened up as you re-cross the rubber on the dry line, and accelerate on a line offset from the normal tire track on the exit.
So in flood conditions, the course is a series of Rimshots and Drag Strips.
There are two keys to seeing in the rain -- clearing the rain from your visor, and preventing fog on the inside.
Clearing the rain from your visor is easy: Rain-X. Apply it using the directions on the bottle, and it'll work as advertised. The faster you go, the clearer will be your visor.
Eliminating fog is harder. A Fog City Fog Shield, applied correctly, will do a fine job. (I find it works best to polish the inside of the visor with a very fine plastic polish before applying.) Some people don't like them, and in that case there are a number of alternatives. Various commercial anti-fog treatments are available of widely varying effectiveness. There's also the scuba diver's standard of rubbing saliva over the faceshield and rinsing with water -- it works just about as well as the commercial products, and is free; and you'll always have saliva at the track. Some people have had success with Rain-X on the inside of the visor, which does reduce fogging, and also beads it up and helps it roll off. In all those cases, a breath guard inside the helmet will help.
If it's really bad, there's always the car racers' standby: Attach a lump of duct tape to the bottom of the visor, so that you can jam it down and still have a ¼ inch or so of gap between it and the helmet. If it's flood conditions, rain will get in, but at least it won't fog up the visor.
Riding fast in the rain gives you a unique opportunity to examine the dynamics of riding the bike. The tires' response time is slower, you have to take more time over your actions, and the overall effect is of riding in slow motion. You have more time to think about what you're doing, observe how the bike reacts, feel what's happening. You can learn more by riding on a wet track about bike-handling skills than you can in the dry.
If that doesn't thrill you, find something else to enjoy. I used to love watching the way the front tire on my Intruder threw up a line of spray, especially when it was illuminated by the headlamp at night. I love the sound of rain on the helmet. I love the way I can so easily see through my Rain-X'd visor when the cars around me are peering through ineffective high-speed wipers. I love watching the spray thrown up from the bike ahead of me. All these are things that adjust my attitude to riding in the rain, give me something to enjoy so I can relax and concentrate on riding.
But heck, I also love watching snowflakes in the airflow around the
front of the bike, so maybe I'm just crazy...
To start with, you may even get slower as you unlearn bad habits and slow down to get things right. A squid charging at the corners might well be faster than a rider learning the right techniques -- at first. After a while, the rider practicing proper skills will be faster than the squid -- and by then the squid may well be off in the weeds staring at a wrecked bike.
Remember also that part of the process is letting go of "feeling fast." The object is to go fast without it feeling fast, being in control of everything that's going on.
So come out of today with your measure of success being your own personal improvement. It doesn't matter who's faster or who's slower, just that you yourself have worked on your technique and improved.