This is the second article I wrote for Motorcycle Explorer Magazine, covering my experiences during Level 2 of the California Superbike School syllabus and my emerging views on advanced training.
Back in the UK after three years exploring the Andes on my Tenere, I found myself sharing a coffee with Nick, an old friend and coach at the California Superbike School. He was explaining the School’s syllabus to me.
“When I did the training as a student”, he explained, “the impact of Level One was evolutionary. Level Two, however, was revolutionary – that’s when my riding really changed.”
He didn’t tell me why – that, he believed, was for me to find out – but I nevertheless trusted him. Convinced that the California Superbike School would have a big impact on my riding, I signed up for both Levels One and Two.
I learnt a huge amount from Level One; back on the roads after the training, my cornering rapidly became smoother, more stable and more consistent. However, I soon realised there was a gap in my riding technique; with my focus on selecting the turn point and the apex, I was neglecting wider observation such as hazard awareness, and vice-versa: I was struggling to allocate my visual attention to both aspects of cornering. But I shouldn’t have worried – Keith Code and the California Superbike School have this covered.
Level Two of the syllabus is all about visual skills. A month on from Level One and back at Silverstone with about a hundred other students, we were taken once again through five theory sessions, each followed with a twenty-minute track session under the watchful eyes of our coaches. The key concept of the day was simple – in order to ride smoothly, quickly and safely, the rider must acquire information, through his or her vision, with which to make the right decisions at the right time. Improving the acquisition of information was our aim.
We started with the technique of using reference points to help us orientate ourselves and make decisions – when to brake, when to turn, when to adjust our line. We were shown that a series of reference points, identified one after the other, provides the rider with a smooth flow of information and avoids target fixation.
In the second session, we deliberately rode different lines through the corners to highlight how the space available to us will change as our line changes. A track has a fixed surface area, but the amount of space available to a rider – and his perception of that space – will vary as his line changes. Thinking a particular corner will offer up exactly the same amount of space every time will quickly get a rider into trouble.
Unlike the more practical drills of Level One, such as throttle control and rapid turning with counter-steering, I found these techniques less tangible and harder to grasp; there were no mechanical drills on offer to help us. Furthermore, whilst I could see the obvious application of these two drills to track racing, I was struggling to see how they could be used on the road. Compared to the elation felt after each session during Level One, where the improvement in my riding skills was very evident, I felt a little deflated after the first two sessions. Something wasn’t clicking.
The next drill was easier to grasp – the ‘Three Step’, a logical evolution of the ‘Two Step’ taught during Level One. Here, the rider practices switching his attention progressively from the turn point, to the apex and then the exit point, to establish that smooth flow of visual information we need to ride quickly and safely. Yet I was still wondering when I would encounter that ‘penny dropping’ moment, that revolution in my riding that Nick had spoken of. It transpired that it wasn’t far away; in fact, it was waiting for me at Turn Five during the following session.
The next drill is called ‘Wide View’ and is all about using peripheral vision. We all possess peripheral vision, all the time. The problem is we usually don’t use it, for to do so takes practice; and we use it even less when our attention becomes fixed on a specific point. A simple classroom drill, catching a pen thrown to us whilst maintaining eye contact with the thrower, highlighted the effectiveness of peripheral vision; all but one in the group caught the pen with ease on the first or second attempt. Try this at home.
Out on the track, I did my best to use this ‘wide view’ technique. We had been told that one effect of using peripheral vision is to create the perception of slower speeds, thus giving the rider more time to make decisions. But I wasn’t quite getting it; maybe the track seemed to pass a little slower, but it made little difference to my riding. Then, coming off the back straight into a series of corners with a group of riders just in front of me, I had my ‘road to Damascus’ moment. As I entered the first bend, my peripheral vision stayed locked on. I picked my turn point, switched my focus to the apex, and then switched again to the exit point – but all the while I maintained complete awareness of all the riders just a metre of two from me. I rode as smooth a line as I had all day, as if the track to my front was empty.
Every time I had previously negotiated this series of bends in heavy traffic, most of my attention had been allocated to avoiding the other riders around me. Identifying and using my reference points were relegated to second priority; and more often than not, throttle control suffered as each adjustment by the riders in front forced me to respond. Now, however, I was able to take in all the information I needed concurrently. My reference points and riding line remained clearly identifiable whilst I simultaneously monitored the position of riders around me – including those on my shoulder. As long as I kept my ‘wide view’ switched on, it felt effortless and very safe.
So perhaps this was my ‘quiet revolution’. I had been expecting something dramatic, but this was a subtle yet profound shift in my riding ability. Here was the key to fusing those apparently conflicting demands of road riding – selecting your turn point and apex and then ‘three stepping’ though the turn, whilst maintaining vision in depth to watch the vanishing point and identify emerging threats. I practiced it extensively on the 1600 mile trip around Scotland that immediately followed Level Two, and it worked – some of the time.
Keeping your peripheral vision continuously switched on takes effort and practice. It is not a skill that can be mastered in a day on the track; but the training can show you how to do it and also how incredibly effective it is when done right. A fellow student in our group explained that ‘blue light’ drivers practice for weeks to develop this skill. One drill they use is to give a running commentary (spoken out loud) to yourself whilst driving, calling out hazards and objects as they are picked up in your peripheral vision, whilst all the while maintaining focus on the road ahead. Of course, this can be practiced in a car just as effectively as on a moto.
Riding home after Level Two, I thought that my California Superbike School training was, for now at least, complete. In fact, it had only just begun.
I had been so impressed by the training methodology of the School that I immediately bought Keith Code’s two volumes of Twist of the Wrist – his training manuals which lay out the riding ‘science’ taught during the syllabus. Strictly speaking, they are not two volumes comprising a single work; the second ‘volume’ is essentially an evolution of the first, written 10 years later over which time Keith’s training methodology clearly evolved. Volume 2 more closely mirrors the current School syllabus and I would recommend reading it first.
Coaching is a specific skill. Being good at doing something does not automatically translate into being good at coaching something. Actually, the best coaches are usually not the best practitioners; their skills rest in the ability to analyse and understand the fundamentals of an activity, and then communicate it in simple and powerful terms to the student. Keith Code’s mastery as a motorcycle coach can only be fully appreciated by reading Twist of the Wrist. I have been involved in high-level training all my professional life, both as a student and trainer, and have read a lot of instructional material. I do not exaggerate when I say that Keith’s work is amongst the best I have read.
His genius rests in his ability to deconstruct the activity of motorcycle riding, understand the component parts and then explain them with elegant simplicity and brevity. Furthermore, his training canvas encompasses so much more than the physics of riding; he understands both the cognitive and practical forces at play, the psychology and the physics, and critically he understands the connection between the two. In his words, it is “the link between man and machine” which sits at the core of motorcycling riding.
This concept is no more evident than in the brief introductions of both volumes of Twist of the Wrist. Here, Keith lays out the cornerstone of his entire methodology in just a few hundred words. A rider only has a certain quantity of attention that can be applied to the act of riding; when most of that attention is used up, the panic alarm goes off; and the output of that psychological response is a physical one – an instinctive survival reaction such as involuntarily closing the throttle, which in turn undermines the control of the motorbike.
So, the fundamental aim of understanding the science and practicing the drills that Keith and the California Superbike School teach is to manage our finite quantity of attention better, and to overcome our survival reactions. Sounds simple, right? That’s what the best coaches do.
Motivated by the training during Level One and Two, and armed with the knowledge presented in Keith’s manuals, I found myself approaching every ride as a training ride, a chance to better understand how the man-machine connection works and to improve my riding. On occasions I would go out for a ride solely to explore a newly-learnt technique. When I had been at Silverstone, I had heard a few folks talking about how the School could almost become a religion for some; I was starting to understand what they meant.
Over the last few months, since completing Levels One and Two, I have become an committed advocate of advanced training. We may think we can improve our riding simply by accruing hours in the saddle, but now I see how limiting this approach is. Furthermore, I also now recognise the false economy most riders apply to training; we are happy to spend hundreds of pounds improving our bike, but baulk at the idea of parting with £400 to improve our riding. To para-phrase Gary Adshead, the chief coach at the California Superbike School in the UK: why spend hundreds of pounds upgrading your suspension, before learning how to ride your bike in a way that allows the suspension to function optimally?
Advanced training, along with continual practice every time I ride, will be at the heart of my riding from now on. I have already attended a Bikesafe course with Thames Valley Police, and a day learning to wheelie – not because I want to ride like a hooligan, but because I see the value is provides in improving confidence in bike handling. I will, without question, complete Levels Three and Four of the California Superbike School syllabus. I am also seeking out other skills-based training for specific techniques, such as skid control; and maybe some basic speedway training to develop drifting skills – the skills transfer to instinctively handling an unexpected slide is obvious. I also believe that off-road training, both on larger bikes and 250s, has a key part to play in developing on-road confidence; days training in the dirt will continue to find space in my diary.
Ultimately, though, all this track- and skills-based training must be carried over to the road. I would love to see the California Superbike School collaborate with an advanced road-based training organisation to develop a module for those of us who want to maximise the application of the track-based training to the road. In the meantime, I am now looking for an advanced riding instructor with a similar technical knowledge and training methodology as the California Superbike School coaches, who can help me fully achieve that carry over.
Reflecting back on that early conversation with Nick, I now see where the California Superbike School revolution in my riding actually occurred. At some moment on the track or in the classroom at Silverstone, something flicked an internal switch, or reset my dials. Since then, I see riding from a very different perspective. I now really understand the power of knowledge and the necessity of continual training. I better appreciate that riding a motorcycle is so much more than a functional activity to get us from A to B; it is an art-form, a quest for continual self-improvement and mastery of something that generates in us great satisfaction. I respect more the intimate bond, the connection, between rider and machine.
And I am now unequivocal in my view that we all owe it to ourselves to become the best riders we can possibly be, in order to increase our chances in what we all know is a dangerous sport.
Yes – I can indeed see why some call the CSS a religion.
You can view the original article, and the rest of Issue 16 of Motorcycle Explorer Magazine, HERE