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Common Tread

What I learned at the Street Skills riding course

Aug 18, 2016

Can you teach an old dog new tricks?

If it’s been a number of years since you first heard SIPDE, SEE, or T-Clock, then chances are riding a motorcycle is something you do without much additional thought. You operate the shifter, clutch, throttle, and brake all together in a practiced harmony of fine motor skills.

If it’s been a number of decades since you heard those terms, then chances are you’ve probably told a couple of lies around a rally campfire. Heck, it’s hard to ride long without eventually giving into the temptation to beat a friend down some twisty strip of road. If you do that enough times, you start to think you know what you’re doing.

So when a buddy from the New Jersey Moto Guzzi Owner’s Club suggested we schedule a private motorcycle track day, it sounded to me like a great opportunity to show everyone how awesome I am, right? At least that’s what I thought.

Italian motorcycles
Your regular ride is the only bike you need to take a course like Street Skills. Photo by Bryan Finch/572 Creations.

The course: Street Skills

Jon DelVecchio, a high school teacher by trade who has spent the last decade teaching riding and driving skills, is the owner of Street Skills, LLC, a private riding school licensed in the state of New York. Through Street Skills, Jon offers various programs, which can include on-road or on-track training.

We decided to schedule a Cornering Confidence class which, despite being held on a track, isn’t about striving for the fastest lap times. Instead, it focuses on sharpening the particular skills that are used in cornering. As such, a major purpose of the class is to make you a safer rider by making you a better rider. Even better, Jon limits the class to 20 to 25 riders, so our group would have the track virtually to ourselves the entire day.

Jenn and Kevin
Jenn and I eagerly anticipating our first lap. Photo by Bryan Finch/572 Creations.

OK, I was on board. I figured I could play on the track for a day and maybe I’d even learn a tidbit about riding at the same time. My wife, Jenn (known as the woman who puts up with me), had often talked about trying a track day since she started riding a good 15 years ago, and to be honest I was excited because somehow, in my nearly a quarter century of riding, I’d actually never been on a track. In fact, after our initial MSF courses, neither of us had actually pursued any formal rider training.

The scene: New York Safety Track

Tucked into the rolling hills just north of the Catskill Mountains is a small private facility known as the New York Safety Track. It’s a surprisingly beautiful location surrounded by towering trees and until you roll right up to the gate, you wouldn’t know those trees hide an airport and track.

The track is a 2.1-mile, 40-foot-wide ribbon of pristine asphalt with 18 turns, 450 feet of elevation change and a great combination of curves, hills, and blind drops. The airport uses the main straightaway as the runway.

Getting started

The morning started with breakfast, paperwork and quick tech inspections for the bikes. With that out of the way, Jon held a short classroom session to lay down the rules and touch upon the Street Skills philosophy “Learn, Refresh, Affirm.” Jon hoped that through this class everyone would learn something new, relearn skills they once knew, or at least confirm that they were doing something right. Rules were simple and could be boiled down to a simple “don’t be a jerk.”

Jon touched upon each of the skills on which we would be working throughout the day and they included: body positioning, looseness, braking, throttle control, smoothness, vision, line selection, cornering, etc. We didn’t know it at the time, but he was building towards a specific end game, and each piece would fit together to form one whole result.

Guzzi on track
My eyes and body may look the business, but under that helmet I was grinning like a giddy schoolgirl. Photo by Bryan Finch/572Creations.

Straight and flat

Jon talked about keeping the bike straight and flat. By straight he meant that the straighter up and down the bike is at any given point (less lean angle), the more control you have over it. Remember that friction pie you were taught in the MSF training? Your tires’ contact patch has a finite amount of traction that can be divided between braking, acceleration and steering.

By flat, Jon wanted us to keep the suspension in the “sweet spot,” meaning toward the middle of travel with room to move both directions. He talked about how extension or compression of the fork or shock changes things like steering quickness and effort. By keeping the bike straight and flat, we would maximize control of the bike, and control was the ultimate goal.

classroom session
I might have paid more attention in school if my classroom had a whiteboard diagram of a race track. Photo by Bryan Finch/572 Creations.

At registration, we were split into two groups. One group would have a coaching session to learn a skill while the other group went out on the track and practiced it. On the track, coaches would ride among us to observe and provide feedback or answer questions.

Here’s where I have to admit I started to lose my cockiness. I thought I understood each of the concepts before I walked in the door, but in most of the day’s sessions I picked up something that I wasn’t doing or at least wasn’t doing well enough.

For instance, anyone who has watched a professional racer hang off the bike knows that body position affects lean angle. If you keep yourself bolt upright in a curve, then you have to physically push the bike further down. That costs you ground clearance and makes the bike (especially the tires and that friction pie) work harder. But if you shift your weight to the inside (and this can be from the waist up only, if you want, but could also include sliding your butt off the seat a little, too) you will get around the same curve at the same speed with less lean angle.

You’re thinking “Sure, I know that,” and maybe thinking, “Where’s the fun in reducing the lean angle?” Well, if it means the bike is more upright, more straight, then it you have more control. I love to lean as much as the next guy, but if traction is compromised or the road surprises you, shifting your weight will help get you through the curve.

I should mention that we had a real variety of bikes at this event, including some with limited lean angles, like a Harley-Davidson Road King. Proper body positioning can be even more important if the bike in question already has less cornering clearance.

Now, take it the next step. One of the first things we learned in the MSF was to look where you want to go. That’s an easy one, I’ve done that my whole riding life. Well, maybe. It’s easy over the years to not really look with your whole body. Looking just with your eyes doesn’t affect your body position. Looking by turning your head helps to involve the body. OK, I knew that too, or thought I did, but I don’t think I was always doing it enough. Take it a step further. How about looking with your shoulder too? Do that and you’re really going to help shift your body.

Between each session, Jon would huddle the group and go over a new skill he wanted us to practice. Then we’d head out onto the track to master it. Photo by Bryan Finch/572 Creations.

Kiss the mirrors

Jon told us to “kiss the mirrors,” meaning to turn and look and shift your body closer to the mirror. The more you do that, the more you reduce the lean angle necessary for a given speed, or the faster you can go with the same lean angle.  This was the first skill of the day and I was already making some seemingly minor changes to technique that had the potential to make major changes in my riding skills.

That’s pretty much how the whole day went. I’m happy to say that I was good to go on some of the skills, but I definitely honed more than I expected. By the time we got to trail braking and fluidly changing cornering lines for unexpected hazards, I was feeling pretty good. No, actually I was feeling fantastic, because I realized that I was more in control of the bike than ever before. And again, that was the whole point of straight and flat. It is about keeping the bike under control.

By the end of the day, most of us had ridden about 100 miles on the NYST, meaning nearly 50 laps, and it probably would have been more if a rain shower hadn’t slowed us down for an hour. Towards the end of the day, when I was chasing Jon around, I realized that I had indeed picked up my pace quite significantly from the morning. So even if lap times aren’t a stated goal, they sure could be one of the benefits.

As for Jenn, by the afternoon session she was handling her Ducati with a level of confidence and skill I’d never seen before. She had taken all of the lessons to heart and mastered new skills with proficiency, but more importantly was having a blast.

So, to answer my initial question, you’re damned right, you can teach an old dog new tricks, as long as he wants to learn. So how about you? Are you ready to learn?

Sunset at the New York Safety Track. Being able to camp at the track made it easy to get to tech inspection on time in the morning and to unwind after the day's session. Photo by Kevin Maher.

P.S. — Practicalities

Some things to consider if you’re interested in such a day:

  • It’s not like us to tow, but Jenn and I decided to borrow a trailer and tow the bikes to the track. We both had visions of having to ride a few hundred miles home on a bike that was tossed in a corner the day before, and it was a lot easier to carry camping equipment and extra gear.
  • Street Skills’ gear requirements are somewhat more relaxed than a traditional racer school. We needed a full-face DOT-approved helmet, motorcycle-specific jacket and pants (armor suggested), full-coverage boots and sturdy gloves, but there were no requirements for leathers, back protectors, chest protectors, or pants and jackets that zip together (even if those were all recommended).
  • Bike prep requirements are also relaxed: No glass had to be removed or taped and tech inspection focused mostly on the condition of the tires, brakes, and suspension. Bikes had to be leak-free.
  • The school fee includes admittance to the track the night before to set up and camp, so we were on site and ready to go in the morning. The track also allowed us to stay the night after the event, so we were ready to pop the first beers as soon as the last bike was off the track for the night. And as if that wasn’t enough, Street Skills provided breakfast, a home-cooked BBQ lunch, and as much ice water and Gatorade as we could consume to keep ourselves hydrated.