While making my 2012 holiday shopping list, I had an epiphany. All year I had been more nice than naughty, so it didn’t take long to ask myself the question, “Why not treat yourself to a gift?” With my psyche firmly implanted with this idea, the next question centered on what to get. Of course, the activity I most enjoy these days is riding. A no-brainer. Now, what sort of gift to “give” to a motorcycle enthusiast? I mentioned to a friend that I wanted to try out a one-piece suit. She obliged me, so I took that off the table. Then I thought, “Farkles for the Wee?” I had difficulty coming up with something that I truly wanted to run downstairs on Christmas morning and snatch from under my “Selfish” Tree to unwrap, so what else? Then it hit me! While conducting some Internet research on MSF courses a while back I stumbled upon the California Superbike School (CSS) and it piqued my curiosity. After reading some very good reviews and assessing how it could benefit my riding, I finally concluded that it would be a perfect gift. So, I logged on to their website and read more about the classes offered. I found out that the 2013 schedule included a class at Barber Motorsport in Birmingham, Alabama on May 31, 2013. Perfect! The cost? $490. Very doable, however, it didn’t end there for me. As I read more, I saw that for an additional $200, a person could ride one of the school’s BMW S1000RR. “How convenient,” I thought. I won’t need to trouble with setting up the ST or VStrom to meet track standards. Plus, I had never ridden a sport bike and what better method of introduction than riding one on a racetrack? It didn’t take much convincing (read justifying) to decide that a $690 gift to myself was an inexpensive price tag for being such a darling all year. Actually, it cost $790 since I also opted to rent their leathers. I had to look the part, right?
The morning of May 31, 2013, I awoke at 4:00 a.m. really excited about the day’s events. I hopped from bed, completed the “three S’s” and had a quick breakfast. Afterward, I eagerly got in the car now ready to go have some fun! I decided to drive after reading others’ reviews of the class and how fatiguing it can be. With that knowledge, I concluded that after riding warp speed for most of the day, I really didn’t want to get on my bike and ride 70mph for two hours back home. That would be a cruel way to end the day, plus I knew the likelihood of staying within the speed limit would be either difficult or non-existent, and “difficult” was on hiatus, so why test my luck? The ride to Birmingham along I-20 was uneventful. I spent most of the drive getting mentally prepared for what lie ahead. My mantra for the day would be, “Be a sponge.” No preconceived notions. Act as if everything being offered is totally foreign, even though a few weeks prior I read the book, “Twist of the Wrist II,” which the class mimics in its delivery.
I arrived at Barber in ample time. I was the first person there and the security personnel informed me that the gates would not open for another 45 minutes, so they had me park in the lot. A short time later others began to arrive. I quickly noticed that most of the attendees had their own bikes. They carried their bikes on the back of pickups or on/in trailers. Although I know that to make a bike track-worthy requires making it a lot less street “legal,” and hence the need to transport them by the aforementioned methods, still, the sight of a bike being hauled rather than ridden amuses me.
Once allowed inside the gates, CSS staff ushered riders to the registration area where we checked in, provided a credit card imprint for those who rode the school’s bike (in the event of damages), got assigned a group color (white, yellow, or green), picked out leather gear, and staff members inspected bikes belonging to those who brought their own. Speaking with fellow classmates, we remarked how “mature” most of the riders seemed. A lot of us obviously expected to see a bunch of 20-somethings in attendance. Not so. Many seemed to have intimate knowledge of the 40’s and 50’s. We concluded that it was either cost prohibitive for young adults just starting out in life to fork over the kind of money required for the privilege, or, due to youth, some probably figured they knew everything about motorcycles anyway. After registration we finally made it to the classroom where the obligatory introductions, housekeeping, and safety briefing were completed. Dylan Code, son of the founder of the California Superbike School, served as primary instructor. Dylan came across as the no-nonsense sort. Not rude or anything negative, just matter-of-fact in his demeanor. He began by saying (paraphrasing), “I’m going to give you some information. You decide whether you believe it or not once you’ve attempted to apply it out on the track.” From there he began discussing throttle control, the first of five topics he would cover on this day (in order): Throttle Control, Reference Point, Quick Turning, Relaxing, and Two-Step. The class works like this: Students spend approximately 20 minutes in the classroom and an equal amount of time on the track attempting a practical application of the material learned during the classroom session. I belonged to the “Green” (apropos) group. While we spent our time receiving classroom instruction, the other groups occupied the track and we rotated that way for the entire day. It worked pretty efficiently. The idlest time I recall experiencing lasted ten minutes, maybe less. After class we headed for the track. Now the moment we all had waited for.
Did I mention I had never ridden a sport bike before? That became quite evident once perched atop the S1000RR and given the go ahead to ride out to the track. First, I immediately knew I wasn’t on a cruiser, tourer, sport-tourer, or dual-sport, all the styles I have previous experience riding. Being in a bent over riding position was awkward, to say the least. Good thing I brought along some Advil; I surmised I would need it in short order. Then I started the bike and had to “learn” where the shifter and pegs were located. Odd location on a motorcycle, I thought. At that point, I did what I promised myself on the drive over that I would not do. I got nervous. “I’m going to die!” I announced to myself in my head. Despite my misgivings, I rolled on the throttle and headed for the starting area; luckily it wasn’t that far away and I don’t think anyone noticed the sweat building up all over my body. Thank goodness the leathers conveniently masked the perspiration! Another thing that added to the pucker factor for me was the instructor’s insistence on not using any brakes during the first few drills. That and the bike must remain in 4th gear. The goal was to get each student to enter the turns at the right speed. Here’s a bit of honesty on my part: Getting the speed right at Turn #4, a hairpin, was the bane of my existence for part of the day. I applied brakes there on more than a few occasions.
At the “start gate” each student was placed single-file in two rows. The Safety Coordinator (SC) then said something that made me feel a bit better. He announced that we would follow a van around the track, twice, to get familiar with the layout. Whew! That was music to my ears. I would at least have a bit of time to talk myself into trying to relax and, more importantly, have a conversation with the motorcycle to let it know that I came in PEACE and that I wanted to leave here today in ONE PIECE.
The pace van took us around the track at a relatively slow speed. I can’t say at what speed we traveled since they placed masking tape over the speedometer. Crafty, Mr. Code. In between fixating on getting a feel for the bike and the track design, I did occasionally clear my mind of any anxiety long enough to take notice of the beauty of the track at Barber. As someone mentioned later, it’s like riding on a golf course with a racetrack inserted.
Back at the starting area the SC came around to each of us individually and asked what riding technique we were getting ready to attempt. Dylan told us this would happen and stressed the importance of remembering the class titles. When asked the question, the rider adjacent to me did not supply the appropriate response, “Throttle Control,” and the SC told him to wait right there. The SC then proceeded to go to the remainder of the class and allowed them onto the track before going back to the forgetful student. That mistake cost him time on the track. I was usually the first or second person in line at the start gate, and I made sure I knew the names of the riding techniques. These two things, stationed near the front of the line and having the right answer, ensured that I would have more time on the track throughout the day.
I would like to say I found the S1000RR to be a great bike, but I do not have a frame of reference for comparison. The throttle response was phenomenal, it was lightweight and extremely maneuverable, stayed planted in the turns, and had plenty of speed even though set up for “Rain Mode” to keep riders honest. Yes, in the beginning most of the riders blew by me, even a female (no sexism intended) on a Kawasaki 600, but I was there to learn and it’s difficult to learn when traveling at light speed. Honestly, I didn’t care about fast. Confident, smooth and controlled was the order of the day. Fast will come. Suffice it to say the motorcycle didn’t fail to please. After the fourth or fifth time around the track my level of confidence in the bike, and my riding, grew exponentially. I did have some help getting there.
On the track each student has a Rider Coach (RC) who monitors how well he or she performs each task. My coach, Mike “Mikey” P., was, in a word, phenomenal. During one of our breaks Mikey and another instructor were out on the track, just the two of them, and I watched in amazement. He can ride! What’s more, Mikey has, in my opinion, the perfect combination for being an effective instructor: great demeanor and great methodology. After each track session he would begin the critique of my riding by asking me questions and would follow up with more questions. He would allow me to work out the correct answers, not spool feed them to me. Nothing new there; but the way he did it was pure artistry. I never felt like he was talking down to me, and he gave the impression that his life depended on my becoming a better rider. An exaggeration, yes, but I can’t think of a better way to describe it. As another example: due to spending a fair amount of time riding in metro Atlanta, I’ve developed the habit of constantly checking my “six” when my peripheral vision picks up movement. It prevents getting plowed over by an inattentive cager. Unfortunately, I took that habit to the track. I think I was trying to ensure that I did not interfere with the pace of the faster riders and wanted to get out of their way. Plus the motorcycles were sans mirrors. After the second time out Mikey came to me and said, “Stop looking behind you. You have just as much right as everyone else on the track.” It wasn’t so much what he said, but the way he said it that got my attention. I didn’t look back again. Out on the course Mikey would signal for me to follow him and do exactly as he did. I found it interesting and revealing how seeing him perform a maneuver made me confident that I could do it also. This is how it went throughout the day. Mikey lead. I follow. After he felt comfortable with my proficiency, he would signal for me to pass. Each time I would open the throttle and ride just a bit quicker and more confidently.
Summary of my successes, or lack thereof, with the drills:
I learned this skill is of utmost importance if you want to experience riding a stable bike. While on the track practicing the technique, I soon realized how many errors I previously made. I had the tendency of simultaneously steering the bike and rolling on the throttle. This “confused” the motorcycle because I asked it to do two things at once. The key here is to finish reaching the maximum lean angle for a particular turn, and THEN it’s time to roll on.
Knowing when to turn in determines where you will end up. An easy enough concept. At CSS, they duct tape a large “X” on the track to indicate where the student should begin making the turn. Turn #7 initially gave me fits. I would exit the turn too far inside to properly set up for the next turn. Mikey called me out on that a few times. He saw everything!
On a scale of 1 to 10, ten being fast, a world-class racer’s quick turn rate obviously hovers at the “10” mark (0.5 seconds). An average (me) rider’s rate generally languishes at a three or four on the scale (2.0 seconds). I knew going in that I, like a lot of riders, have some fear of turning the bike quickly due to the perception that doing so would cause the bike to slide out. In class we learned that turning the bike quickly is rarely the culprit in a slide. Generally, they say, a slide occurs when the rider doesn’t have good throttle control or uses the brakes improperly while leaned over. Out on the track Mikey again summoned for me follow him. This was either going to be an “Aha!” moment, or I would request another leather suit after soiling the one I wore. As I watched how quickly he turned without sliding, I soon found myself doing the same thing. At the beginning of the day Mikey had to slow down quite a bit to match my speed. After increasing my comfort level with quick turns, his speed increased and I no longer had my “doors blown off” as often, or by as many students. At one point I kept pace with many of the quickest riders. Only in the turns, of course.
They also coached us on how to turn the bike. Silly, you say? I thought I did it fairly well until placed under the watchful gaze of an instructor. He pointed out I have a tendency of not leaning my body enough, effectively “pushing” the bike underneath me, which causes a much steeper lean angle than necessary when riding on anything other than a dirt track. I did make vast improvements the next time out on the track as result of the coach’s advice. No, I didn’t drag a knee. I might catch the attention of a LEO (law enforcement officer) if I started doing that. However, I will remain mindful of my body position from now on. As far as I could tell from overhearing other’s comments, I think almost everyone took away some precious tidbit of advice to help them improve in this area.
Oh, and what about Turn #4? By day’s end I “flicked” the bike well enough regardless of my speed without applying brakes, even though they allowed us to use brakes during the later drills. Yes!
This drill really had my legs working, which allowed my upper body to remain more relaxed. It’s hard to explain, but you know it when you feel it. Or don’t feel it.
Finding your reference point in advance, using peripheral vision to continue to see it while looking where you want to be, and starting the turn at the reference point, sounds like a tall order. It just takes practice. Though pretty familiar with this before, I’m more aware of its significance while riding. Failure to correctly focus on where I wanted to be in advance led to most of my problems in Turn #7. By the end of the day, Mikey was high-fiving me for nailing that turn.
That’s my summation of Level 1 at the California Superbike School. I hope I haven’t given away too much information. Each time I “finished” writing this, I remembered something else I “needed” to add. I recommend going to experience it for yourself; each person will take away something different. For me, improving my quick turn was worth the price of admission. To put it succinctly, I found that Level 1 more than exceeded my expectations. From coordination of the school, to the caliber of the cadre, the CSS is top notch. Keith Code’s school has been in operation for over 30 years. That sort of longevity doesn’t occur by happenstance.
Four levels are offered. Will I go back for Levels 2 through 4? Definitely Level 2; then I’ll decide. I have to see how my 401k holds up in the future.
One caveat: At some point during the day at CSS, I began feeling an overwhelming desire to go out and purchase a sport bike for track days. I have three bikes in the garage now. I need another bike like…