California Superbike School Level 1 Training

I arrived at the New Jersey Motorsports Park in early evening and set up my tent in the designated area. Showers are part of the $10 deal, welcome after the 400-mile ride from home in 99-degree heat. I walked around the facility and admired the nearly two-dozen motorcycles lined up, all 2009 Ninja 600s. I looked carefully at one to make sure I wouldn't embarrass myself when it came time to fire one up. No fuel valve, no choke. No mirrors either. No speedometer. They all showed signs of crash damage, like patched plastic and ground-off rear brake pedals. Nothing that mattered. The tires were Dunlop Qualifiers, a DOT-legal street tire; they had melted rubber all the way to the edges.

Class was to start at 0700 so I was up at 0530. As I was standing around the tent getting stuff packed away I was greeted by Kristi, who checked my name off her list, told me I would be in the green group and riding motorcycle number 19, and directed me to the trailer for breakfast. I would eventually learn that the students are divided into three groups (green, white, yellow) and that at any time throughout the day we'd be in class, on the track, or on break, in equal proportions. There'd be water and food available all the time, and our choice of roast beef, ham and cheese, or turkey sandwiches for lunch. Salt and potassium tablets would be out and we were encouraged to take them and water at every break. The three groups would overlap so that the track was in use nearly all the time.

At the student-services trailer I found a good assortment of good food: bagels, fruit, coffee, juice, boiled eggs, cereal. I wandered around wide-eyed, soaking in the atmosphere of my first day at a racetrack. Keith Code himself was much in evidence. I counted at least 13 CSS uniforms. There was an enormous amount of expensive machinery around: motorcycles, tires, tire-changing equipment, food, two huge trailers, tractors for pulling them. I knew there'd also be corner workers, and of course the track personnel. I began to understand why I paid $450 for a single day, plus $200 for their motorcycle (in 2009).

I watched the people ride in on the bikes they were going to use and report to technical inspection: "tech". The inspectors taped headlights and turn signals. The mirrors were not on big stalks like on my Bandit so they weren't removed, just taped. A large number was stuck on the front and perhaps the sides as well. Tires checked, chains checked. I'd guess that less than 20% of the riders used their own bikes. Some had license plates on, so they weren't dedicated track bikes.

There were the usual preliminaries: waivers ("no matter what happens, we aren't responsible"), blank credit-card impressions in case we bust something that belongs to someone else, explanations, introductions. Eventually we were gathered into a room and the real stuff began. Keith Code introduced the personnel. Trevor gave us a description of the flags used (red, black, yellow, checkered). Passing rules were covered. Basically we can pass at any point of the track, but we must stay at least six feet from the person we're passing. Speed: Nobody cares. Ride at a speed that allows you to work on the assigned task. Faster riders will deal safely with slower riders (or else!).

We'd have an on-track coach who would first follow us to watch our technique, then pass us and take position in front of us. He'd turn and look at us, then motion to the back of his bike, indicating that we should stay close. We were to nod or otherwise indicate understanding. ("He wants to know that there's someone at home in that helmet.") He'd then lead us through several corners, demonstrating the task, which we were to imitate to the best of our ability. When the coach was satisfied that we could be left to practice further on our own he'd indicate that we should pass him, and he'd then look for another student. My coach was Adrian, and I shared him each track session with two other students.

The corner workers could report any untoward behavior to the track control person (Trevor, I think). Also, they know what task each level should be working on and will report any departures. This is to reinforce the first expectation of us: Be a student. This isn't an expensive track day. It's a school. Work on the tasks assigned.

Lesson 1: Throttle Control

Finally we sat down for the first classroom discussion. In about 15 minutes, Keith convinced us that the throttle was the most-used control on the motorcycle and that it should be used in this manner: Once it is opened during a turn, it should be continuously rolled on through the rest of the turn. (See A Twist of the Wrist volume 2 for details on this and all the other skills and information in the classroom sessions — or take the class yourself.) The biggest goal in throttle control is to keep the suspension in the middle of its travel, where it's best able to do its job of keeping the tires on the road.

Each lesson has a name, encapsulating the task; this one was, obviously, throttle control. When the on-track coach is working with us there will be a signal he will use to remind us as he approaches the place where the task is to be performed. For this task, the coach will raise his left hand high and give the obvious roll-on signal. (One of the other students in my group asked "They'll take a hand off the bars in the turn!!??" Keith smiled and said "Yes, they're trained professionals." This made me laugh, as the "trained professional" is a line I use all the time in my MSF classes; usually right after I tell students that they don't have to move back so far during one of my demonstrations, I hardly ever lose control.)

Finally, each task has a limitation as to gear and brake use. This first one was "fourth gear, no brakes". Then we broke to get ready. Those using school leathers — which appeared to be most of us level-1 students — went to get fitted. I was wearing my Aerostich suit so I didn't need to get gear, but I did take the opportunity to ask the gear chief how to put on my shiny new knee sliders. (I know they stick on with velcro, but which one goes on which side, and where exactly to put them, was not obvious to me.)

"All green group riders gear up, go to your motorcycles, and ride to start/finish." It begins! I was already suited up so I found bike number 19, mounted, started. I thought about hanging back a little to make sure I didn't do anything too foolish, but then thought that I might as well do something originally foolish rather than copy some other fool, so I took off to where I thought start/finish to be. Hence I was almost first in line (maybe everyone was waiting for someone else to take the lead), behind only a couple of people on their own motorcycles. We formed in two lines and Trevor told each of us that there'd be two laps led by one of the coaches, and then we'd return to the same place we were now. Off we went at a sedate pace, getting my first idea of the layout. After two laps we pulled back in and reformed our two lines.

Now Trevor went down the line speaking to each rider individually. He looked at the motorcycle number and at his list. He looked at the sticker each of us put on the helmet with our name and verified a match. He addressed each person by name: "Steve, what's the task?" Throttle control, I told him. "What's the signal?" I raised my left hand and rolled on an imaginary throttle. "What's the format?" Fourth gear, no brakes, I said. "Go ahead, take it easy the first couple laps, enjoy yourself."

I took off and clicked rapidly up to fourth. That tiny 600cc Ninja has plenty of zip in fourth gear, and if you roll off and sit up it loses speed rapidly; I didn't miss other gears or brakes. This task was easy for me, considering my 11 years of encouraging MSF students to do the same thing. I concentrated on getting the speed up through the turns, and dawdled through the straights. Quite a few riders blew by me at a very rapid pace. I caught up to a few slower riders and followed them through the turns at a pace that was slower than I wanted to go, so I screwed up my courage and passed.

As I went by some corner workers on the first lap I saw them making frantic motions and looking in my direction. They put both hands at forehead level and jerked them down hard to chin level. Ah, my visor is up. Thanks, guys. That was the only attention I received from corner workers during the class, which is a good thing. If the corner workers are paying attention to you, something bad is happening.

After a short while a rider wearing CSS leathers pulled in front of me and turned around to motion to me to get in behind. I guess this must be Adrian. (I bet he never had an easier student to find on the track, with my bright white helmet and high-visibility Aerostich suit, in contrast to the dark leathers and helmet of most of the other students.) I gave a hearty nod and followed him through half a dozen turns, rolling on the throttle when he gave the signal. He rode at about the same pace I had been riding, but he did a better job of selecting when to get on the gas.

I also took note of his approach to the turns. (You can see a diagram of the Thunderbolt track here, courtesy of the Tony's Track Days site.) The only one that gave me big problems was turn 8, a long decreasing-radius turn. I was very happy with turn 7, but then there's this long "when's this gonna end" wait before laying it over hard for 8, and I was having a hard time deciding when to do that. Throughout the day, that's the only turn where I threatened to run wide off the track.

But once I finally made it through 8 there's the flop to the left and getting steadily on the gas through this long confidence-inspiring turn 9 leading to the final straights where the fast guys had the throttle pinned all the way. Glorious!

Soon the checkered flag came out and we pulled into pit lane and parked the bikes for the next group. I met Adrian at the designated place and he asked "How long have you been riding?" Now you never know what this means. Could be good. But it could mean "Just how ingrained are this guy's bad habits, anyway?" I don't know which it was, but Adrian was very complimentary about my throttle control. He asked about places where I was struggling so I told him about turn 8. He just smiled and said that the next task would address that.

The teaching approach used is pure learner-centered, as I have come to call it following my MSF training. "Socratic method" was once the favored term. They rarely tell you things; instead they ask questions, to lead you to the answer. This was universal, from the classroom discussions, to the questions at the start-finish line from course control, to the debriefs from the on-track coaches.

In my opinion this is the right way to do things, because it requires a lot of the students. (Some students dislike it intensely, in my opinion because they're not accustomed to thinking.) If you're being told stuff then you can coast and let the information wash over you. That isn't possible when you have to figure out what the instructor is getting at. The questions weren't just "what are you supposed to do?" either; the first question from Adrian (after the pleasantries) wasn't "what do you do with the throttle?", but "What's the job of throttle control?" (My answer: Keep the suspension in the middle.)

During our next break I went to my Bandit to make notes. Any time I was near the bike I got comments that were surprising from this group. It always started with "How many miles you got on that thing?" (It turned over 133K on the ride down on Monday.) Then the questions about how much engine work, etc. So although these guys were serious bikers, and were fast or wanted to be, they still didn't ride much by Iron Butt standards.

Lesson 2: Turn Points

The second classroom discussion, ably led by Dylan Code, Keith's son, centered on where to make your (counter-)steering input. This was my introduction to consistency, a theme for the rest of the course. It doesn't matter so much where you do it as that you do it in the same place each time. If you can make the same thing happen each time you can then vary something — the turn point, the speed, the apex — and see whether it improves your results. But if you're not consistent then you don't know what action is producing what result.

To start us on the path of consistency in turn points, the staff taped a big "X" on the track at the appropriate point for each turn. That's where we should start the steering input. The signal the on-track coaches would use is a quick downward motion of the finger, pointing to the indicated place in the track. Format for the second track session was third and fourth gears, no brakes. (It didn't occur to me at the time but the fact that they added a lower gear and not a higher one should have told me that I could downshift during the approach and then accelerate harder in the turns. Didn't matter though. I wasn't using everything that fourth gear had to give and I never used third.)

This task helped me enormously, particularly in the problematic turn 8. Now the problem was what to do between the end of 7 and the turn point for 8? Still, the "turn point" concept has limited applicability to street riding. When I'm on the Ohio back roads on my way to San Antonio I can't decide when to turn based on my prior knowledge of the turn. The decision has to be made based on my view through the corner.

I think it was here that I heard Adrian tell another of his students to stop hanging off in turns. I myself had hung off once in the first riding session but instantly decided that it diverted my attention from the assigned task. Not needed, anyway; hanging off is primarily useful (in my understanding) to reduce lean angle so that parts aren't dragging, and I wasn't close to that point. I never again strayed from directly over the bike and my knee pucks remain virginal.

Lesson 3: Steer Quickly

Lesson three (led by Keith again) was on how quickly to make your steering inputs. The conclusion: As quickly as possible. The usual outside-inside-outside path has the advantage of opening up the turn as much as possible (in addition to the advantage in street riding of being able to see further through the turn from the outside). If you steer slowly then you have to start steering early, reducing the advantage of starting to the outside, and increasing the chance of running wide on the exit.

It was interesting to note that not everyone in my level-1 group was aware of countersteering. Several had the very common, very obvious, very false idea that one pushes down on the bar to make the bike lean. Code had to repeatedly say that one pushes forward on the bar to make the turn in the direction of the push. In my experience, this is so counterintuitive that most people simply do not believe it, and convince themselves that we're saying to turn the bar to the right to go to the right. Not one in five of my ERC students, and a far smaller proportion of beginner students, understands that when I sit on the bike and turn the bar to the right (I push forward on the left grip, turning the wheel to the right), the motorcycle will go to the left. (You can read my discussion of countersteering here.)

This would be our first task where we were allowed to use brakes. Third or fourth gear, very light brake. Code mentioned that we should avoid the rear brake. He laughed at the MSF's claim that the rear wheel has 30% of a motorcycle's braking power.

I can't say that I got a lot out of this lesson. I didn't materially quicken my steering inputs. I discussed this with Adrian and decided to pull the speed back a little in the next session so that I could focus more calmly on steering more quickly — in addition to whatever lesson 4 had me doing, of course. I would soon find that a steering drill with Kristi and lesson 4 itself would set me up for a dramatic improvement in my steering ability.

Interlude: Steering Drills

Kristi had a bike set up off to the side for steering drills which each of us level-1 students was supposed to do. I dashed out after the third classroom discussion to see her. She told me to drive down the road at about 25mph, second gear, and make weaves to each side. At the end of the course, a hundred yards away, turn around and do the same coming back. After my first run she adjusted my position on the bike, telling me to move my butt back to lower my upper torso, because when I pushed on the bar, much of my movement was down and not forward. Pushing down on the bar has no effect on the steering of the bike, so that's all wasted energy. She told me to quit moving independently of the motorcycle; my head should tip back and forth, to keep an upright view to the front, but most of us would push our bodies to the high side, in effect counterbalancing. Stay motionless on the bike, unless you decide to counterbalance or hang off.

Kristi also pointed out that after making the steering push I didn't have to maintain pressure on the bar to maintain the turn. I kinda sorta got this, but it set the stage for a huge gain in understanding and efficiency in lesson 4. Thanks a bunch, Kristi!

During the course of the day I watched half a dozen other riders go through Kristi's station, and it was funny to watch them make the u-turn at the end of the roadway we were using. Not one was able to do it elegantly. Most stopped and backed up to complete the turn. I don't know about their cornering skills — they were level-1 students like me, after all — but their low-speed skills could use a tuneup.

Lesson 4: Relax

Dylan Code led our fourth classroom session. When we start looking for a new motorcycle, we begin by specifying what we want — size, style, that sort of thing. Dylan began by writing "How to get along (with her)" on the board, and asked us to imagine a motorcycle shopping for a rider. What would the motorcycle want from a rider? The parenthetical comment on the board was a mistake, as it opened the door for lots of ribald commentary, which I leave to you to imagine for yourself. But he quickly got the discussion back under control. (As a teacher myself, I gave him points for trying something, and for immediately recognizing that it wasn't working, and recovering quickly.)

Dylan explained that one of the most important aspects of motorcycle handling is the steering "shimmy" which happens when a leaned-over motorcycle hits a bump or goes over a rise. Most of us get scared of this and tighten up our grip on the bars, trying to fight the motion. But that motion is an essential part of regaining stability. When the motorcycle hits a bump, first the tire flexes. If that isn't enough to damp the motion, next the suspension moves. If that isn't enough, the next thing that can move is the wheel and fork itself. If the rider attempts to prevent those from flexing, we transfer the motion to the entire motorcycle. This is much slower and prolongs the recovery process. The lesson: Relax, especially on the bars. Make a steering motion when you want to make a direction change, and don't do anything to the bars otherwise.

Keith elaborated on that point in the lesson-5 discussion. He said that we shouldn't be holding onto the bars at all. We should be using them to make steering changes and not touching them at all the rest of the time. Unfortunately, the fact that we hold them all the time leads us to believe that they're there for us to hold onto. He illustrated this by telling us of a video of some racer on a bike that was seriously out of shape, the rider desperately hanging on and trying to get the bike under control. He was eventually spat off in dramatic fashion, but as soon as he left the scene, the bike settled down and continued down the track until it ran off the pavement. The lesson: We screw it up when just letting the bike have its way would get back under control immediately.

Dylan also repeated the point first made by Kristi that was to make such a difference in my riding. Once you press the bar to initiate a direction change, you can relax, even move your hands off the bars entirely, and the bike will continue to turn at the same rate. It will not straighten up by itself. More on this later.

So the task is to relax. The signal the coaches will use is to flap both elbows loosely, after the steering push has been made and the bike is leaned over in the turns. The restrictions — well, I stopped paying attention to them as I found that fourth gear and very light brakes were all I needed to get through the turns quickly and devote maximum attention to the task.

The ride was outstanding. When I get into a turn a little faster than my comfort zone, I once had a strong tendency to tighten both arms, and the damn bike wouldn't turn! I had largely figured that out a few years ago and had started to consciously relax my outside arm, thus freeing me to push harder on the inside to tighten up the turn. On this ride I noticed something new (to me): I'd be yelling inside my helmet "Look!! Press!!" and pushing hard on the inside bar, and the bike is maintaining its line and will get through the turn.

Now what's wrong with that picture? It's this: I had already discovered that once a motorcycle is turning, no additional steering input is required to maintain the turn rate. But I was pushing harder, and the bike was maintaining the turn rate. If I'm pushing, and the motorcycle isn't responding by turning more, then one of two things is happening. Either I'm pushing just as hard with the outside hand as with the inside, which I don't think is true because I consciously relax the outside hand; or I'm pushing downward rather than forward, which has no effect on the turn rate and merely wears out the rider.

"Revelation" is the only word to describe how I felt. Now I didn't solve the problem on the spot, naturally. On that ride and the next one I still got into turns a little faster than I was comfortable with, and I still found myself pressing way too hard to correct, meaning that I wasn't correcting efficiently. But now I recognize the symptom and know its cause, and I can work on it.

Another useful point, not emphasized in class but covered in volume 2 of A Twist of the Wrist, is keeping the weight off the bars during braking. In fact, the major force that keeps the rider on the motorcycle at all times should be the knees.

I mentioned that I told Adrian that I intended to slow down a bit for this lesson so that I could also work on steering more quickly without the distraction of more speed than I'm accustomed to. I did that, in addition to staying loose on the bars, and in the debrief Adrian said with a smile "I thought you said you were going to slow down." I knew immediately what he was getting at. I did slow down, at least in my mind, at least at the beginning. But in practicing alone on the final exercise in the ERC ("multiple curves", the peanut-shaped circuit) I have often seen that giving up the attempt for speed in favor of smoothness results in more speed.

It was about here that there was a brief pause in the action, at least on the part of the students. The activity of the CSS people increased, as they refueled the motorcycles and checked the chains and tires.

Lesson 5: Two-step

For our final task, Keith asked us to be conscious of where we're looking. First we look for our turn point. So when we get there, how much do we turn? To know that, we have to know where we're going. So do we look "through the turn", as everyone advises? Keith says no, we look instead for our apex.

But if you're looking at the apex rather than the turn point, how do you know when to turn? There are three possibilites: One is peripheral vision. You can see things you aren't looking at directly. Another is timing. You know where the turn point is and how fast you're going, so you can know when you'll be there without looking there. And finally, you can use some other visual cue: Turn when you can see something in the corner. Keith said that various riders use different methods, or a combination of them; many couldn't tell you which method they use.

I didn't have any trouble with this exercise either; I was already looking for the turn point and then directing my attention through the turn. But instead of looking "through the turn" I now had a particular place to look for: the apex. This dramatically increased my consistency; previously I had been all over the inside of the turn, with no repeatability. Again, consistency doesn't guarantee quality. But it does give you a basis for improving your quality, since now you can make a change and see what changes as a result.


Keith got us in the classroom one more time to wrap things up. He mentioned that level 2 is about visual skills, beginning with our fifth exercise today. He told us about a perk of riding with CSS, namely that he has arranged with Dunlop for sets of tires shipped to students for $225 per pair — a screamin deal. He spoke respectfully of other schools. When he let us go it was a few minutes before 6, a solid 11-hour day.

Several days later I still haven't decided whether I'll return for level 2. If money and time were no object, I'd return in a heartbeat. But since money is very much an object, and my interest is street riding and not track riding, it's a harder sell. I certainly got my money's worth out of the day. I'd like to do at least one track day next year, for considerably less money; and if in another year or two I find myself back at CSS it wouldn't be in the least surprising.

And one last thing: Upon rereading this, all the things I was thinking about, all the tasks to work on, I never mentioned the most important thing: Damn, that was fun!

So did it do any good?

Two weeks and about 1000 miles later, is there any difference in my riding? There is. First, I'm making a determined effort to steer by pushing forward rather than forward and down, as I had been doing. I've changed my stance on the Bandit to assist this: I lean forward just a little more, to make my forearms parallel with the ground. This makes an astonishing difference in the handling of the Bandit. I had thought of that bike as "ponderous", but it isn't at all; now that I'm not wasting half or more of my steering effort by pushing down, it's very responsive.

I also steer more decisively, as in task 3 at the school. (This is greatly aided by the more-effective steering described above.) This gives me better lines through the turns, as promised by Keith Code.

I put far less input into the handlebars at all times. I don't hang on during hard acceleration or press forward during hard braking; most of the work of staying on the motorcycle is done by body position, and the muscle work needed is provided by the thighs. This frees the front wheel, suspension, and steering parts to work freely without having to move me around as they do their jobs. I have completely reversed my former attempt to "be one with the motorcycle". I want to be as independent as possible, so that I affect the motorcycle as little as possible.

This newfound confidence in the bike — plus, I presume, the confidence in traction acquired on the track — has led to greater lean angles and thus to faster turns. While practicing one of the ERC exercises on our range ("multiple curves", the peanut-shaped path of the last exercise in the ERC, for those who know it) I'm dragging pegs right and left. Guess I need to start work on hanging off during turns next!