After decades of riding, I’ve learned that it’s always the equipment’s fault. Okay, actually, I thought this a long time ago, then I rode with Canet, who always seemed to lap significantly faster than me on identical equipment. So I learned that the reason I went slow/crashed/ran off/didn’t win the world championship was not because I didn’t buy a $1500 shock, didn’t have the “right” tires, didn’t have a 1000cc superbike or a factory ride, etc. No, as this entire continuing-education section shows, the number-one part that makes the motorcycle work is us, and we should invest in that.
Which is why I attended the Yamaha Champions Riding School. I’ve been fortunate in this job to get a ton of seat time on all kinds of bikes on all kinds of roads, trails and tracks around the world. But no matter how much you ride or how good you think you are, there is always room to improve. Even world champions are not the fastest every time. So we all must continue to learn, both when we are on and off the bike.
The “Champions” part of the YCRS name is important. Of the six instructors at work during my two-day school at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, all are successful racers. Contributing Editor Nick Ienatsch is the lead instructor and a two-time AMA roadracing national champion, podium finisher in an AMA 600cc Supersport race and second-place finisher in the AMA 250cc Grand Prix championship. Scott Russell (yes, that Scott Russell) is also an instructor. Recall his AMA and World Superbike Championships or perhaps one of his five Daytona 200 wins or his victory in the Suzuka 8-Hour.
When they preach “champion’s habits” and tell us we need to “look GP to ride GP,” you pretty much have to listen. And while I’ll never be jockey-sized (sigh), they are correct as it relates to body position on the motorcycle. More on that in a moment.
Classroom instruction is efficient, high-impact and laced with glib humor that carries serious undertones. All that stuff above about fancy shocks or the factory bike comes from them. They also say vaguely cryptic things like, “Don’t crash your coffee.” Translation: Being a master of your attention and motor skills and truly focusing on something as simple as not spilling a cup of coffee (ever) translates to improved focus and control on your bike; that truly successful, fast, safe riders make a life commitment to behavior that positively influences the outcome when riding a motorcycle.
And you do plenty of riding at YCRS (mostly on YZF-R6s), all of it quite pointed in the sense that you’re never just lapping without aim or goal. Our school ran with six instructors and 21 students, so there was almost always a teacher there to talk with you, lead you around to work on specific things or follow you with a video camera. And that camera doesn’t lie: Instructors use those videos for critique in the cold, hard world of Formica and whiteboards. It’s at this point that most of us recognize the chasm between how Valentino Rossi looks on a motorcycle and what we actually look like. But this is a truth-hurts moment that guides you on the path to enlightenment and helps you understand how to execute real change in your riding.
What did the camera and critique do for me? Body position is a key issue in my ability to take my riding to the next level. I have a fairly large melon that apparently weighs quite a bit and has a huge influence on the behavior of the motorcycle. Look at the photo of me following instructor Ken Hill (below) and compare our form: I am far more centered in the bike than he is. If I hung off more and got my head down, it would lead to less lean angle needed at a given speed, putting me on a better part of the tire.
They discuss trail-braking as a means of adjusting not just speed but also steering geometry (through fork dive). They bring in real measurements and figures from top racing tuners who relate that they’ve observed their national and world championship riders compressing the front end only to a certain point (most of the time) and then smoothly maintaining that load down to the acceleration point of the corner while trading braking force for cornering force.
Repeated drills focus on clutch control, smoothness, threshold braking, getting your eyes up sooner and more. Typically, the school switches tracks or layouts between Days 1 and 2 so that techniques are applied to corner execution rather than students simply beginning to learn the track. My favorite drill was at the end of the second day when instructors sent each student on a lap with instructions to do something specifically uncomfortable, such as ride one-handed or sit on the passenger seat or use no front brake. That last one was a great drill that helped me immensely with rear brake control.
Ienatsch and company feel that teaching people to be better riders is a crusade that will positively influence the sport as a whole. “I truly believe the U.S. and other countries have been going down the wrong path for about 20 years,” he says. “‘Get all your braking done in a straight line’ and ‘if you brake midcorner, your bike will stand up and run wide or lowside’ are both wrong, and we prove that at every school. Trail-braking—brakes at lean angle—is the one single technique that can save a rushed corner entry and our sport.”
Overall, the YCRS is slick, professional and superbly organized. There is a reason a school that costs $2295 for two days or $3395 for three days has a 43 percent student return rate. The core schedule is at Miller Motorsports Park (visit www.millermotorsportspark.com for more information), with dates at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca added for 2013.
YCRS was fun, exhausting and not only helped me improve over that two days but gave me the mental equipment and techniques to keep improving every time I ride. And also when I’m not riding. Care for a cup of coffee? I promise not to spill.