OK, time to let the cat out of the bag, step out of the closet and come clean – I don’t know what I’m doing. Yes I’ve been riding motorcycles for over three decades, have lived from the back of a bike for months on end and reviewed the latest machinery alongside the world’s best journalists but the truth of the matter is, it’s all been a bit of a blag. Apart from a recent foray into flat tracking I’ve never actually been taught how to ride. My mate Danny once showed me how to let a clutch out without looping or stalling, but that was when I was 12. Since then I’ve just done what felt right and learned along the way with a degree of caution and plenty of experimentation.
And the main reason I’ve not allowed myself to play on sports bikes until recently is because being dead would have been a forgone conclusion. Thrill and adrenaline seeking has always overridden self preservation. I now feel nearly mature enough to try and tame 200hp monsters but with the caveat that I’ve not really got any interest in riding what is effectively a race bike on the public roads. But seeing as I spend 90% of my two-wheeled time on the Queen’s Highway it’d make sense to become better equipped to remain undead.
Friends have been raving about the California Superbike School for years but the very name put me off. Why would I need to know how to ride a superbike? But recently I spoke to someone whose opinion I respected, we’d worked together on Visordown (another blag) and he’d recently completed the Level 1 course and couldn’t wax lyrically enough about its everyday benefits – the time felt right to take their advice. So on what seemed like the first day of autumn proper I found myself at Silverstone’s Stowe circuit at 7:30am – in a classroom! Now I’ll be honest, the classroom bit is probably what put me off taking the course a long time ago. More fool me.
American racer turned riding coach Keith Code pioneered a new training method nearly 40 years ago which has since been proven in its ability to slash lap times and improve rider confidence the world over. Read more about Keith and the history of the school he set-up here. Today you can receive premier coaching at some of the UK’s best circuits like Donington, Silverstone, Cadwell, Brands and Oulton Park, and also as far afield as Norway, India, Turkey, South Africa and Latvia. In fact the group’s operation is growing all the time. And the basis of the courses? Yup, time spent actually learning, in a classroom.
And as with other schools protective gear and bikes can be borrowed. A rack of Alpinstars suits, loads of HJC lids and a fleet of the latest 2018 Ducati Supersports and V4 Panigales awaited us at the Stowe part of the circuit (Ducati’s HQ is the other side of the expansive facility). But that does slightly cement the presumption that this is a race school, aimed at those wanting to go faster. The name and brand is slightly misleading. In my group there were folk who’d brought their own machinery. A BMW R1200RT, an SV650 and an R1 M were just a few – you really can turn up on anything with two wheels. StayAlive&RideMuchFaster.com isn’t very catchy so perhaps Keith was onto something with the branding. Yes, you will be able to ride quicker as a result of completing the four levels of training but the thing to emphasise is able. That doesn’t mean you have to. There’s no datalogging or lap timing equipment so you’ll have no idea how much you’ve progressed apart from what the seat of your pants and your coach tells you. Further down the line video and photo footage is studied to enable the student to hone their body position on the bike, and bike position on the track.
After a warm and rousing introduction to the whole team, which ran to about 25 personnel, we had our first lesson in motorcycle dynamics. That’s not the actual name but I don’t want to give the whole game away. I’ve of course thought about how and why I do certain things on a bike and have a pretty good grasp on what makes a motorcycle work from a technical perspective, heck, I can even understand what Spalders talks about in his MotoGP book, but having it spelled out to me in basic English was incredibly useful. It was mid-morning, or felt like it, before we even saw a bike. During sign-on I’d heard the words ‘would a 959 Panigale be OK for you? My brain said no thanks, the Supersport would be much more suited to my riding ability and busted neck. ‘The V4, yes, thank you that’ll be just fine’ fell out of my mouth.
The day was broken down into five key parts, each begins with a topic for learning in the classroom before applying the knowledge on track. And to make sure it sinks in you won’t get past the pitlane instructors without a code word – the title of the previous topic. The first session was a no brakes (compulsory) familiarisation of the track and machine. And what a machine!! Sure, I was nowhere near getting the thing spooled-up or leant over but that motor is an absolute peach and the scrubbed Pirelli Corsas appeared to offer more grip than I’d ever need, in a lifetime of trying. During the 20 minute session my coach observed from various spots around the track to ensure I’d been paying attention. Then he’d follow for a lap before overtaking so as to point out the ideal lines and positions. I’d then follow-the-leader for a lap or so until he was confident I’d got the gist. No sooner had I dismounted there was a debrief to discuss what had gone well, what could be improved upon and discussion about things I had no idea I was doing and not doing properly. This sounds pretty intense and critical but at no point does it feel that way. It’s coaching, not teaching. The latter happens in the classroom and then it’s up to instructors to coax the changes out of each rider. It felt a bit like watching an episode of Discovery Channel’s How It’s Made, where all became abundantly clear in a genuinely interesting and intriguing way. I was hooked and tried my very best to absorb absolutely every nugget of information.
I’d like to go into the detail of this and the other classroom sessions and explain how I benefitted from each one but that really would spoil the experience for anyone who’s considered, or is now considering going back to school.
By the afternoon sessions confidence had grown massively but as the coaching intensified so did my discomfort. One of my biggest failings was not being a natural fit for a sports bike. I’m stiff as a board, have dodgy wrists and my neck doesn’t bend very well at all. My coach kept riding past doing a funky chicken dance indicating I needed to drop my elbows, scooch my bum back and push the bars into turns using a horizontal movement rather than the my predisposed elbows-up flat track style. I simply couldn’t manage and as the rain started spitting and the Pirellis began to squirm I considered calling it quits for the day. I was in agony and lost all meaningful concentration. The last thing I wanted was to have to call the nice man from Ducati to tell him I’d bent one of his lovely Panigales. That and I’d forgotten to re-fit the armour into my race suit so apart from the mandatory back protector I was riding commando. Not the day for a whoopsie. And yes, my suit wasn’t furnished with knee sliders, I left the leather covers on for a reason. If I ended-up that far over on the Stowe circuit I’d have been out of my depth. This and the aforementioned lack of armour certainly focussed the mind to stay away from A&E.
Luckily my coach pulled a few strings and I spent the last session on the all-new Ducati Supersport. The slightly higher bars and less aggressive position instantly felt better. After setting the steering at turn-in I could have done a bit of Tindering (is that what it’s called) with my inside hand, the bars gripped loose and neutral. The pace quickened and I played follow-the-leader once more. A complete revelation of how to use my legs and lower body to brace myself made me feel like a new man. I could have lapped the twisty Stowe circuit until sunset. Boots were scraping (need to point my toes in more), lean angles were increasing and I was smashing through the box, loving the Ducati’s quick-shifter – a new thing for me. Compared to the taught 959 the Supersport moved around a lot more through the turns and despite my visor being covered in water droplets I felt 100% in control. If the front had tucked I’d wager I’d have been able to catch it. Earlier in the day? No chance, what I had thought was the bike’s suspension becoming weighted was in fact my outside arm pushing against the pressure applied by the inside.
I won’t lie, I’d been a bit crestfallen that I couldn’t make the initial invitation to attend the next week’s school at the iconic Brands Hatch. Stowe by comparison is a slightly dull looking airfield based track but in hindsight it was perfect. No scary grass run-offs or distractions of thinking Shakey came through here to take the title in….. just me, the bike and the job in hand.
I could whittle on for another 2000 words about the various intricacies of each lesson but I’m really struggling to convey just how good this method of learning is. And not just for the track. Our classroom tutor was an accomplished ex-bike cop with decades of experience and a plethora of advanced riding certificates under his belt who occasionally referred back to road riding and how these new learnings could not only be useful out on the open road but could prevent an incident. I’ll definitely apply these new skills and awareness on my commute, and beyond.
If you’re a belligerent know-it-all perhaps do everyone else a favour and stay away, but for anyone else I can’t recommend the California Superbike School highly enough. As soon as the 2019 dates are released I’ll be booking Level 2, 3 and 4!
Images thanks to California Superbike School (apart from the smartphone ones of random bikes)