April 22, 2009

Dry Lake

They led us out onto the track in single file for two orientation laps. From the pit lane into a sharp left hander that opened out onto wide, wide track between turns two and three. A slow procession, all anticipation and tension, snaking our way around two lazy right handers and then climbing up the hill as we rounded turn five. This was my first time on any track, and just being there was enough to send the adrenaline flooding through my body.

But this wasn't just any track, it was Laguna Seca. Not only is it one of the most technically challenging tracks on the planet, with dips and crests, sweeping hill climbs, and blind summits, it was the track that had been my introduction to motorbike racing. Nine months earlier, I'd watched my first Moto GP race "in the flesh" and stood in awe as the riders threw their screaming machines around its tortuous bends. And now here I was, riding through the corner I'd seen Jorge Lorenzo flipped mercilessly from his bike on the first lap. Here I was falling into the corkscrew where Rossi had rolled the dice as he wandered off track, cutting his way past Casey Stoner. And now, here I was crawling the last turn of the track, where Casey Stoner had run into the gravel, and the duel of the season had ended.

It was all a little too much for me to take in at once.

After the orientation laps were over, the led us back into the pit lane. Our on-track coaches for the day introduced themselves to us at this point (mine, Jon, was a Brit in his fifties), and reminded us of the first drill of the day. We had five sessions on the track through the day, and each time we'd have a drill (something we were supposed to be practicing) and a control format (conditions or restrictions under which we were supposed to perform that practice). First time out, throttle control through the corners was the drill, and using only fourth gear and no brakes was the control format. I found the drill part of it fairly easy to follow - the concept of accelerating through the turn once you've got to your chosen lean angle made sense and was something I'd been trying to do on roads in any case. What was slightly new to me, and something I've noticed since, is that I do have the tendency to adjust my lean angle during the turn - particularly increasing it towards the end of the turn and winding up the throttle. Apparently this is the most common reason for crashing on track as a newbie, so it's something I tried hard not to repeat. And I've sinced noticed that MotoGP riders are at their maximum lean angle at the center of the turn (the apex), and that as they come out of the turn they straighten up. So that's one to work on.

The concept of using no brakes was something I never really got comfortable with, however. Twice coming over the crest on the approach to turn six I realised I'd completely misjudged where the turn was and how fast I was approaching it, and my bike writhed momentarily undernearth me as I grabbed a handful of front brake and stomped on the back brake before pulling the bike round the left hander. Even when I was allowed the use of brakes later in the day, turn six still proved to be problematic for me. I think it was the way that there's such a steep climb out of turn five that it seduces you into winding the throttle fully open. Just as you're beginning to enjoy the surge of power, you come over the crest of the hill and see that turn six is a little closer than you remember it being, and it's slightly downhill, so your sense of the speed of the bike and what will happen when you come off the throttle and onto the brake changes dramatically. And before you know it, you're on the corner. I found myself panicking internally, thinking, "you're not going to make it", and then turning in and looking where I wanted to go, and miraculously the bike just followed.

The second drill of the day was focusing on the turn in point. They'd placed yellow crosses on the track at the turn in points and the idea was to hit that and then begin your turn, and this time we were allowed the use of third and fourth gear, but still no brakes. This one was also fairly easy I thought although I found the turn in point on turn five to be a little early. I really should have done what they suggested and tried turning in before it and after it, but it took me a while to realise that this one was weird for me, and by then the session was almost over.

Each session was preceeded by some time in the classroom, and followed by a short consultation with our on track coach. I found the classroom sessions good, although sometimes a little long, and the short consultation afterwards did seem to be a little formulaic. "How did you find that?", "What could you improve next time?" "Ok, let's work on that then". I think without a one on one and possibly video footage of me riding, it would be hard to get the most out of this. On the other hand, video would most likely have been more of a distraction than a truly valuable teaching aid. I would ideally have liked to have the guy been saying, "this was good, you need to work on this, I noticed you're doing this, okay try this". Anyway, still overall more than worthwhile having done it in this format rather than just going out on the track on my own and repeating my old mistakes. And not even realising they were mistakes.

I think the biggest wake up for me was that I thought I actually had pretty good technique. Six months ago or so I'd come across a riding group just south of San Francisco led by Doc Wong, a chiropractor by trade and motorcycle enthusiast by choice. He's been running informal clinics on different aspects of motorbiking such as cornering, ergonomics, suspension, and dealing with different road conditions for over 15 years. Some of the principals he covers come from the same school of thought as the California Superbike School, so I thought I pretty much knew what was involved with riding a motorbike, and it was just a case of having a playground to practice on, and applying it.

In fact, it felt like most of the day I spent re-learning how to ride, and I don't think I was alone there.

And then going out again this weekend on the twisties on the Ducati confirmed "MOTORCYCLING - YOU'RE DOING IT ALL WRONG". I felt like I don't initiate turns by countersteering, I don't accurately gauge the lean angle I need for turns, and I end up adjusting through the turn sometimes. But I now feel like I have some of the tools I need to identify what I'm doing wrong, and to try and work on it. I definitely need to keep getting corrective feedback sometimes, but hopefully I'm on the right track (no pun intended).

So here's what I need to focus on:
- Pick a good line
- Focus on the turn in point
- As you approach the turn in point, pick your mid corner point
- As you hit the turn in point, turn in quickly to the desired lean angle with the countersteer. And push the bars horizontally, not downwards.
- Once you've reached the lean angle, relax your hands on the bars
- Roll the throttle through the turn, hitting your mid corner point and then out from there
- Enjoy the turn!

And what about Laguna Seca itself? I don't really have a frame of reference, not having ridden on any other track, but here's my rough run down. Turn one is really scary. You come under the walkway and slightly uphill which encourages you to pin the throttle. You then crest a hill and the road bends to the left and turn two looks scarily close already. I don't feel like I ever really nailed turn two, or the other slow corners (the corkscrew and turn eleven). I felt like I usually hit the brakes in the approach them sooner than I needed to and that there was a period when I was coasting up to each corner. Turn three and four are a lot of fun. As you come out of turn two you flow from the right hand side of the track to the left in preparation for the sweeping right hander of turn three. Turn four is another sweeping right hander, and I felt comfortable gunning that short straight and then peeling into it. Coming out of turn four there's a slight dog-leg right, but mostly I found it to be one of the fastest parts of the track. I seemed to be able to judge the entry to turn five fairly easily, so sweeping round that and up the hill also felt pretty nice. This is where things got tricky for me. I'd pin it up the hill, and before I knew it, the crest was on me, the suspension was unloaded, and I couldn't brake as fast as I'd like into turn six. I think in the end it's just a case of being comfortable turning at higher speeds, and once you're through that, you can then gun it up the hill for a bit again. But once again, coming up to the corkscrew I was always thinking, "shit, it's the corkscrew!", so was backing off a little bit sooner than I probably needed to. Once or twice I felt like I got it flowing nicely through there, but mostly it just felt dog slow, and I wasn't sure at what point I could really open the throttle again. Coming down from the corkscrew and around the left hander never really felt good. Just never quite sure where to be on the bike or how fast to hit it. But once I was around that corner it was nice after that - you're out wide to the right, and it was a case of flowing back to the left, and lining up turn ten which swept to the right. Turn eleven I think I was more worried about that I needed to be. It's a 90 degree turn, not a hairpin, and I never really felt like I came out of it strong. I was always winding up the bike on the straightaway for longer than I'd like before you got that hit of acceleration. Which in retrospect probably wasn't a bad thing, as coming up to turn one again with too much speed really would be scary as hell.

What a track. I will ride it again. That much I know. Hopefully when I've had a lot more experience with tracks, and with riding, and hopefully it'll all feel very different...

Posted by mthaddon at 07:11 AM

April 11, 2009

Perfect Timing

Beautiful blue sky, warm Saturday afternoon. Perfect day for a ride on the bike. All this is heightened somewhat by the start of the MotoGP season this weekend, as well as my first trackday coming up on Wednesday. Exciting stuff.

So I headed out over the bridge into Marin for my usual circuit around Mt. Tam, down to Stinson beach and back along PCH. I was a little concerned about the back left indicator, which broke off when I had a cover on the bike a few weeks back and has been wedged in place with varying degrees of success ever since. So I kept looking in my mirror to make sure it was there. But other than that, perfect riding conditions.

There were quite a few cars and especially bicycles on the road, so there were a few slow sections, a few overtaking sessions, and then onto some clear road. About 6 or 7 hairpin turns short of Stinson Beach, it finally happened. My first fall on the bike. Was coming round a hairpin corner not any different from any of the others, but on this one I clipped the footpeg on the ground, and so brought the bike upright in reaction to that. Next thing I knew I was running out of road coming out of the corner. It was a steep downhill section, left hand hairpin with a grassy drop-off below the road. I danced on the edge for a while, and maybe in retrospect I could have leaned a little more and pulled it back onto the road, but in any case, my tires hit the edge of the road, then gravel, then the bike dived into the grassy bank below it, falling up hill, luckily. I put my hands out to stop myself falling, and there was some kind of a (very slow) impact.

I was able to pick the bike up fine, and with some gentle coaxing, was able to get it back on the road by standing uphill of the bike and gently accelerating it in the roadward direction while trying not to spin the backwheel in the soft grass, or hit it at too steep an angle. Once back on the road, after the embarassing moment of one of the people movers I'd passed a few minutes before stopping to ask me if I was okay, I rode on to the next roadside stop. I then got off and inspected the damage. I was damn lucky. Nothing at all really. Possibly a very marginal bend in the left hand handlebar as it'd taken some of the force of the impact, but probably because it was such a soft and slow landing, that was all. And for myself, I have a bruised left hand at the base of the palm. It'll be fine - the question is will I still feel it on Wednesday, and if so how much. Hopefully it'll all be fine, but tomorrow I'll have a better idea - if I wake up and it aches, that's bad news. If it's already on the road to recovery, then I should be all set.

So how do I feel? I wouldn't say I'm shaken, but it has made me think twice about my riding style. I've been riding so far for almost two years without incident, and have been riding progressively faster as I've got more comfortable with the whole experience. I'm now at the stage where I ride pretty aggressively, but smoothly (or so I thought). But the fact that this happened while I was riding in what I'd call my "normal" style, without any huge "oh shit, I screwed up" moment means one of two things. Either I'm riding way too fast for my ability and I've just been lucky so far, or I had a moment's lack of concentration, and the fact that it didn't feel especially different means that I could have a similar moment again. Whichever one it is, I think I need to slow down on the road for a bit, and work on my technique. Which is why I think in a strange kind of way, it's perfect timing that it happened now, because it'll make more just that bit more cautious on the track on Wednesday, and will hopefully mean I learn more and get more out of the experience as a result.

Bring it on!

Posted by mthaddon at 01:39 PM