This article appeared in the January Issue of Motorcycle Explorer Magazine. It looks a Level One of the California Superbike School syllabus which I attended in August 2016, with a particular focus on the relevance of the training to adventure biking.
December 2012 – I was stranded in southern Chile. A week earlier I had come off my Tenere, losing it in a descending, tightening turn on a Patagonian gravel road. With time to kill whilst the local Yamaha mechanic assessed the damage I found myself in a hostel swapping stories with Bart, a Dutch KTM 990 rider who was heading south to where I’d come from.
His crash story trumped mine with ease. Rounding a bend on a Peruvian mountain road, he had found himself confronted by two lorries driving abreast each other as one attempted an overtake. To his left was a precipitous drop and to the right, a cliff where the road had been cut into the mountain. He opted for the latter, swerving violently and almost clearing the path of the trucks. A glancing collision pushed him into the cliff. His bike was a write-off and his escaped with a broken leg and a few crushed ribs.
It’s a memorable story, but one part in particular stuck in my mind. He explained that, anticipating such dangers, he had adopted the technique of moving well into the oncoming lane for right-hand bends (they drive on the right in Peru) to increase his visibility around the corner. He figured the extra reaction time this bought him was longer than the time needed to execute a rapid counter-steer and cross back on to his side of the road – and it had saved him in this instance. It was a technique he had learnt on a advanced skills course run by the police.
Over the following 30,000 miles of riding, many of them on twisting mountain roads, I came to the conclusion that the highest probability of an accident was in a bend. Even if I avoided another self-inflicted crash like the one in Patagonia, a myriad of other dangers awaited me; in addition to overtaking trucks I came across rockfalls, mudslides, herds of goats, stationary donkeys, other motorcyclists and of course countless pedestrians lurking on the far side of bends.
During my travels, I met many overlanders who had included some rider training in their preparations, but every one had opted for off-road training. The further I rode, the more convinced I became that advanced on-road training should be an adventure biker’s priority. Despite actively seeking out dirt roads wherever I could, the reality was I rode the large majority of my South American miles on tarmac. So I made the decision to undertake some advanced training when I returned home.
Back in UK, I met up with an old friend who had recently qualified as a coach at the California Superbike School. I’d heard of the school, but knew nothing about it and assumed it to be the reserve of sports bikers and track day junkies. But Nick isn’t a sports biker – he rides a Multistrada – and by the time he explained the syllabus and told me how it revolutionised his riding, I was convinced it was the way forward to improve my road riding skills.
The California Superbike School has been around for a long time. Founded by Keith Code in 1980, it has trained over 150,000 students around the world, from recently-qualified riders to track racing champions. Keith was the first person to study in detail and then articulate the ‘science’ behind riding motorcycles. Identifying each essential component of riding, he evolved a step-by-step progressive training syllabus built on four levels (one day per level), which proved to be simple yet highly effective; the unequivocal and ongoing success of the school is proof enough of this. Others have since emulated this approach, but Keith and the California Superbike School were the pioneers.
Arriving early at the Silverstone Circuit on a beautiful summer’s morning, I looked around the registration hall to see what type of rider chooses to attend the school. Yes, there was a crop of boy racers, but the age range spanned decades and encompassed riders from all backgrounds. As I got talking with others, I discovered some were returning students who had completed the syllabus years ago, whilst others had only been riding a few months. There was a barrister, a retired GP, a young lad soon to depart on his first long journey with his brother to the Alps aboard a Street Twin, and a few female riders amongst them. This broad church was also evident amongst the bikes parked up in the pit lane; amongst the sports bikes were Street Triples, a Hypermotard, a couple of Multistradas and my Tiger 800.
Level One is all about cornering. The exercises – taught over five sessions of theory followed by track time – took us through throttle control, identifying turn points, quick turning, rider input and what the school calls ‘two step’ – identifying your turn point then switching your focus to the apex before entering the turn. But what the day is really all about can be boiled down to one thing – achieving a stable bike throughout the turn. Each track session left me feeling that my riding skills were improving exponentially, but it was the theory covered in the classroom that absorbed me most. It made so much sense, and I wished I’d known it all at the very start of my riding career.
The first ‘Golden Rule’ we were taught was the need to roll on the throttle smoothly, evenly and constantly throughout the turn. A simple instruction, but there is so much science behind it. We were shown that the bike’s suspension, both front and rear, extends when you accelerate (we all assumed the shock compresses). Constantly rolling on the throttle counteracts the forces which would otherwise slow the bike in a turn and applies acceleration, thus ensuring the suspension remains at its mid stroke where it is must be to operate optimally. This also maintains good ground clearance to allow the bike to lean in further. Applying acceleration also shifts the weight back on to the rear tyre, which has a greater contact area with the ground and thus more grip.
We were also taught the importance of rolling the throttle on only after you’ve steered the bike into the corner. This ensures that the bike is decelerating at the point of turning and the forks are compressed, thus changing the geometry of the bike and shortening the wheelbase. This assists the front end to tuck into the turn and bite.
All this was explained to us in the first twenty-minute classroom session. As we waited our turn to get on to the track and start applying the theory, I continued to think through what we had learnt and saw its application to adventure bikes. With a longer wheelbase, greater rake in the forks and often a twenty-one inch front wheel, an adventure bike needs more help turning than a sports bike or street bike. Furthermore, the suspension on an adventure bikes has more travel and is usually softer, so the effects of acceleration and deceleration would be accentuated. Perhaps, I wondered, there would be benefit approaching a corner a little faster and braking a little harder, to compress the forks more and amplify this geometric shift, thus sharpening the steering? I wouldn’t know until I tried it, but already this newly-acquired knowledge had got me thinking so much more about my riding – and the science behind it – than ever before.
Identifying a turn point and then having the confidence to turn in rapidly with counter-steering was the meat of the day’s syllabus. This manoeuvre reduces the time steering the bike and gets it pointed at the apex quicker, which means the bike needs to be leant over less in the turn. I have always been confident counter-steering quite aggressively; but when my coach Badger – who had been following just a couple of metres behind me observing my technique – pulled me over for a chat, he told me I needed to brace my body against the bike so that the full force of the counter-steer is transmitted into the bars. Back on the track and gripping the tank with my knees as instructed, I pushed the inner bar into the next turn and involuntarily came off the throttle momentarily, such was my surprise at the speed with which the bike responded. A small change in technique had such a big change in output; and I would never have thought to make that change myself.
As I drove home that evening, I found myself retrospectively applying what I had just learnt to my riding in South America. Amongst the thousands of bends I had negotiated in the mountains, some I rode perfectly whilst others saw the heavily laden Tenere feeling horribly unbalanced; yet I could never differentiate what I did right or wrong in each case. Now I was seeing it clearly – I had not applied the basic principles, most importantly consistent throttle roll on though the bend. The outcome… I wasn’t achieving a stable bike.
Another obvious symptom of poor throttle control on a heavily-laden Tenere, with its long and softer suspension, became clear. I now understood that coming on and off the throttle during a turn will cause the suspension to rise and fall, adding to the instability which I had experienced so often. This problem is then compounded when riding on a rough road, when the suspension wants to be left to its own devices to handle the uneven road surface, but the rider’s poor throttle control is preventing it from doing so.
I then cast my mind back to the situations where I had come across hazards on the road half way through a bend. Evasive action was nearly always the only option. It goes without saying that taking evasive action when the bike has good stability is going to be a major advantage. Some may see the primary purpose of achieving a stable bike as the way to riding a perfect line. In fact it is much more than that; it’s about your ability to handle the bike when faced with the unexpected and with very little time to react. First and foremost, it’s about your safety.
Bart then returned to my thoughts. The overlap between what I had just learnt and his situation was obvious. Having the confidence to pick a late and wide turning point opens up a corner and gives you greater visibility into it. And knowing you can turn quickly into the corner in the event of oncoming traffic will give the rider the confidence to adopt this technique. Honing your skills to execute a rapid turn with counter-steering and then employing this technique might save your life one day, literally.
I came away from Silverstone extremely impressed with the California Superbike School. Every aspect of the day, from registration on arrival, to the management on the circuit, the time-keeping throughout the day and the highly focused and personal on-track coaching, could not have been done better. Thirty-six years of experience is evident in everything the school does; it is a well-oiled machine, very professional, and entirely geared to improving the student’s riding.
I expect every road-based advanced training syllabus worth its salt will talk about counter-steering and road positioning to open up the rider’s visibility through a curve. But the open road is no place to experiment with and develop these techniques. Furthermore, practicing these techniques at speed, safely, allows the rider to develop the confidence that he or she can handle a situation where entry speed into a bend may be too fast, or the turn is tighter than anticipated. That’s the value of track-based training.
Of course, bike handling skills are only half of the equation which makes for safer riding; road craft, with observation and hazard awareness at its core, is the other. As I concentrated on applying the knowledge and skills learnt during Level One every time I took the Tiger out, I became aware that I needed to integrate these newly learnt skills into a wider riding methodology. When I was focusing on selecting and hitting my turn point, I wasn’t paying as much attention to wider observation; and conversely when I was focusing well ahead through the corner, watching the vanishing point and looking for hazards, I was neglecting my turn points and riding line.
I didn’t realise it at the time, but what I needed was to return to the California Superbike School and attend Level Two……
You can view the original article, and the rest of Issue 15 of Motorcycle Explorer Magazine, HERE
A follow-up article, looking at Level Two of the training, will appear in the March Issue of MEM.