It’s fair to say that I’ve been rather skeptical about rider/driver ‘training’ in the past. After years of competing in single seaters, I’ve seen numerous half-rate drivers undergo expensive tuition, trying to buy speed - an approach that in isolation, rarely works. Ultimately, you need to be at a certain level of development (racing competitively) before you start to see the benefits of in-depth professional instruction.
But what about on two-wheels; where there’s so much more to tailor? Could a well-trained instructor really ‘transform’ the technique of an inexperienced rider? This was a question that came up when I was chatting to California Superbike School (CSS) instructor Duncan McLeod at the recent Motorcycle News (MCN) bike show. He guaranteed that regardless of someone’s on-track experience, the School (world leading in the art of riding tuition) could make them a faster, safer and more consistent rider. A big claim, and one that I had to test out.
A couple of months later I found myself on the drive up from London to Silverstone to take part on CSS’s Level 1 course; a level that focuses on the six most common riding errors. From what I’d read online, it all sounded very serious and intensive, but I was excited to learn some valuable on-track tips.
I would also be be riding Ducati’s new 959 for the day, a bike that on paper looked like the perfect machine for the job with its sophisticated electronics suite and revised 157bhp motor. Best day at ‘school’ ever? Quite possibly.
Things kicked off bright and early at 7am to ensure we had enough time to get through the day’s action-packed schedule. Unlike other schools, CSS takes a highly structured approach to tuition, with a whopping five classroom lessons and five track sessions making up the Level 1 course.
In the first session, we were given fairly straightforward instructions which focused on throttle control and stability; two areas that are intrinsically linked. We were to lap the short but demanding Stowe circuit in one gear (third for the 959) without touching the brakes. Simple enough, right? Not exactly.
For the first few laps I found myself running far too deep into every corner, but as it turned out, this was no bad thing. Being unable to touch that right lever makes you focus extra hard on your entry speed and your ability to get the bike turned. And as the session progressed, I found myself becoming more consistent, which allowed me to turn my attention to opening the throttle earlier; thus stabilising the bike earlier in the bend.
Opening the throttle mid-corner is something that many riders (including myself) find intimidating, but the benefit of riding on track is that you can try different techniques every lap, without worrying about surface changes or oncoming traffic. The Ducati’s traction control system was also encouraging, working away in the background to stop you from becoming part of the scenery.
Over the next few sessions we worked on turning in faster and nailing our entry points, and as we went through each drill you could feel each separate technique coming together to form one cohesive skill set. Riding faster while feeling safer really is a great feeling.
Nailing turning points and working on visual skills was useful (see video below), but I’d already picked up a lot of these techniques from my experiences on four-wheels. So for me, the most beneficial lesson of the day was learning about rider input and relaxation. In the morning sessions, I felt like I had been riding fairly well, but I was coming into the pits after 20 minutes with sore forearms and shoulders. Something I put down to my horrendous levels fitness and the fact that I was giving the Ducati a good spanking. But as it transpired, this was not the case.
After a chat with my encouraging instructor Martin Plunkett, he informed me that I had been sitting too close to the tank, pushing down on the bars (as opposed to push/pulling them fore and aft) and not using my legs to lock into the bike. As a result, I’d been putting tremendous pressure through my arms, thus tiring myself out. Inefficient and ineffective. Oh dear…
In the afternoon sessions, I started to incorporate all of the small changes that Martin had suggested. As I turned in I made sure that I was sitting further back in my seat, and began using my legs to grab the tank as I leaned in and I made a conscious effort to relax my arms.
Within a few laps, everything felt absolutely natural, and combined with a basic visual drill I was lapping the track quicker than ever before. And the brilliant thing was, it all felt easy. No stress, no panic and no panting!
By the end of the day, I was genuinely surprised at how much I had developed as a rider.
Granted, with tuition starting at £415, the school is expensive, but I’d argue that it’s money well spent. The levels are cheaper than most bolt-on modifications and the skills you learn last a lifetime. I’ve already started incorporating the new techniques into my day-to-day road riding.
However, I did feel that the size of Stowe circuit, combined with the high number of bikes on circuit made for a rather crowded experience. So if you’re tempted to book, I’d opt to take the course at Brands Hatch Indy or Cadwell Park, circuits which lend themselves to overtaking.
Now to book that Level 2…