Five tips for better riding from California Superbike School

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“The number one thing instructors tell you when it comes to cornering is to look through the corner. So what the hell does that mean?”

You could have heard a pin drop in the classroom as 17 students shifted nervously in their chairs. Dylan Code, the instructor at California Superbike School who posed the question, sat patiently waiting for a response.

So this is why riders sign up for California Superbike School, I thought to myself — for the answers to all of those questions we thought we already knew.

California Superbike School.

If you are not familiar with California Superbike School, it is a traveling classroom that stops at different racetracks across the country to help riders of varying levels improve their riding. They offer one- and two-day classes and provide a one-stop-shop experience for riders harboring an interest in riding on the track but who might not want to make the investment in their bike or their gear. The only real requirement of folks attending the school is to have about a year of riding experience under their belts. Everything else, from leathers to helmets, to a brand new 2016 BMW S 1000 RR can be rented.

I attended the two-day class at New Jersey Motorsports Park, the local track for those of us residing in Philadelphia. With the two-day class, use of the Beemers is a requirement (twist my arm on that one), and the student-to-instructor ratio drops to two-to-one. I was curious as to whether the S 1000 RR would be overkill for this class, but my coach Benny explained that because of all of the electronic aids on the BMW, they have seen a reduction in crashes since switching from the Kawasaki ZX-6R.

California Superbike School

Over the two days of instruction, I was blown away with how drastically I was able to see my riding improve and my lap times fall. The following are the five biggest takeaways I brought home with me from the school. Keep in mind this article is not meant to act as a substitute for attending a track day or a formal riding school. Rather, these are just some tips that I picked up that significantly helped my riding.

Know where you are looking

Dylan went on to explain that while everyone from your MSF instructor to your Uncle Bob tells you to look through the corner, there is a huge disconnect with what that really means. Our second day consisted of four separate lessons focused on training our eyes. As we don’t have time to break down each lesson, and I am no Dylan Code, here is a brief overview of my two favorites: Reference Points and Wide View.

Think of these two skills working together to create “funnel vision.” As you are riding into a corner, particularly coming off a long straight or faster section of road, you want to keep your eyes up and your focus as wide as possible. As you get closer to your corner your vision begins to focus, or funnel down, on the first of your reference points, your turn point.

Spurgeon Dunbar BMW S 1000 RR

Simply stated, reference points are the points to focus on as you look through the corner. You should have a minimum of three reference points to calculate your pass through any given corner. The first is your turn point, that is, where you will initiate your turn. The second is the apex. This is where the motorcycle hits the innermost point of the track during cornering. The final point, your exit point, is where you want to end up. Often times because the exit point is “active,” it is the trickiest of the three to navigate.

I found that by keeping my vision wide I was able to improve corner entry speed, even though I felt as if I was riding slower. As I neared the corner, I used my peripheral vision to locate my turn point as I slowly narrowed, or funneled, my vision. By the time my turn was initiated, my foveal vision, or sharp focus, homed in on the apex. Once I knew I was in line to hit my second turn point, I began to widen my vision once again, smoothly tracking my third and final exit point as it guided me out of the corner. By that time, my vision was once again widening to capture the entire road unfolding in front of me.

Different corners require different approaches and when you’re riding on the street, your approach will be different than when on the track. But keep this in the back of your mind and think about how you are looking through the corner. You should think of navigating a corner as connecting a series of dots. Your goal should be to “straighten the curve” as much as possible with your chosen line.

Slow down to go faster

At the beginning of the course, all of the instructors introduced themselves and speeches were made. The one speech that stuck with me more than any I heard that day was one that Lance gave me the night before the class. Essentially he told me to focus on technique, not speed. He insisted I spend my time on the track not worrying about getting lapped by everyone and their brother, but instead practicing each of the skills the instructors presented. And guess what? The ol’ boy was right.

Spurgeon Dunbar California Superbike School

I entered the course as a level one student and sat silently through each of the classroom sessions, hanging on the instructor’s every word. I would then head to the track, where I would spend the first half of each session getting lapped countless times while I slowly traversed the track, focusing only on the skill that had been addressed in the classroom.

After turning few slow laps around the 2:50 minute mark (by comparison, MotoAmerica Superbike riders are circulating around 1:20 per lap), I would start to build speed and incorporate previous lessons of the day. By the end of the session, everything would start to blend nicely together.

Spurgeon Dunbar California Superbike School

By the end of the first day, I was able to keep up with some of the riders who had been passing me in the earlier sessions. By the end of the second day, I even managed to pass a few them, as my confidence, skill, and speed continued to improve. If you go out and just try to ride fast, you’ll never get the results you’re looking for. Focus on slowing down and honing the individual skills that need some polishing. 

Throttle control

This was the very first lesson of the entire two-day school and it took me almost the entire time to get it right. There was so much involved in this lesson that I had never really considered and I ended up filling multiple pages in my notebook.

The biggest take away, starred numerous times in my notes, is as follows: “Don’t roll on your throttle until your lean angle is complete!”

Spurgeon Dunbar California Superbike School

It sounds simple, and I thought I was doing it correctly, until I caught a glimpse of myself on the camera bike. With footage obtained from the camera bike, instructors can get a bird's-eye view of your chosen lines, body positioning, speed, throttle, and brake.

As it turned out, I was carrying throttle into the corner and then rolling it on as I initiated the turn. An approach that got me numerous head shakes and finger wags, the instructor’s way of letting us know we were making mistakes out on the track.

The correct approach is to get completely off the throttle as you begin braking and initiate the turn as you complete your braking. It is only when your lean angle is complete that you begin to roll on the throttle. Slower or tighter corners require a less aggressive roll-on. Faster corners will require a more aggressive roll-on. Consecutive corners require a bit of modification to this approach but overall, these basics opened a whole new world of understanding for me in regard to throttle control.

Body positioning

There was a lot of lingo that was thrown around to try to explain body positioning:

“Kiss your mirrors.”

“Dig your knee into the tank.”

“Point your pecker like you’re peeing on the track.” (The ladies in our group loved that one.)

California Superbike School

The main idea is that you are using the weight of your body to counteract the weight of the bike through a corner. The more you hang the weight of your body off the machine, the less lean angle the bike will require to traverse the corner. If the bike needs less lean angle to get through the corner, you just bought back the ability to increase speed.

Spurgeon Dunbar California Superbike School

In the earlier sessions of my day, I really believed I was hanging off the bike like Valentino. It wasn’t until my instructor pulled me aside and showed me some photos that I was able to see what I was doing wrong. While my ass was completely off the seat, my knees and body were planted firmly on top of the bike.

California Superbike School has a special bike to help riders with body positioning at low speed before they try it on the track. The trick is to rely heavily on your leg and core muscles to hold your body in place to alleviate pressure from your arms and the hand grips.

Spurgeon Dunbar California Superbike School

If you’re rolling through a left-hander, your hips should be pointed in the direction you’re going with your right knee digging into the right side of the tank. Your head should be low on the left side of the bike, eyes up and elbows out. You should have about half of your left ass-cheek off of the seat and your left knee will naturally extend out as you pivot your hips further into the corner.

CSS acknowledges there are many different approaches to body positioning, but they do ask all of their students to at least try it their way and make adaptations that work for them. This isn’t something that requires speed to develop. You can work on body positioning in an open parking lot. If you are going to practice this on the track, I recommend slowing down for a few sessions and really putting the effort into finding a result that works for you.

Take notes

Throughout my two days in the classroom and on the track, I managed to fill a notebook with the lessons I learned. I drew crude pictures of corners, motorcycles, and lines that would make my mother (an extremely talented art teacher) anything but proud. I did everything possible to document all of the advice and wisdom our instructors were trying to convey.

Spurgeon Dunbar California Superbike School

In addition to making it very easy to research the information for writing this article, my notes made it possible for me to “retake” the class anytime I show up for a track day. Before each session, I can sit and study the individual lessons I struggled with, reread the tips instructors gave me at the time, and practice those skills over and over until I get them right.

I was the only student in my class who brought a notebook and quite a few others approached me afterwards to comment that they wished they had done the same. So next time you are participating in a track day, class, or even if you’re just our riding your favorite road, throw a small notepad in your pocket and stop to document your successes and challenges. That way, the next time you’re out developing your skills, you’ll have a solid starting point.

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