Yamaha Champions Riding School Changed My Riding Life

Discovering the Rosetta stone of motorcycling speed and safety.

Riding the 2019 Yamaha YZF-R6 at New Jersey Motorsports Park during ChampSchool.
Riding the 2019 Yamaha YZF-R6 at New Jersey Motorsports Park during ChampSchool.Ray Bradlau/thesbimage.com

Call me a cynic, but when someone tells me three days of rider training will change my life, I’m a bit skeptical. After all, I’ve been riding motorcycles for close to 25 years. What’s three days?

As it turns out, besides learning the basics of how to ride when I was 11, the time I spent at the Yamaha Champions Riding School (YCRS) was the most important of my motorcycling life.

Ever since I got in touch with Nick Ienatsch, YCRS founder, lead instructor, and longtime Cycle World contributor, he's been going all Deepak Chopra on me. "The sooner you attend," he tells me over email, "the better your life will be."

“What would my better life even look like?” I asked myself, imagining how things would be different if I were several inches taller, more charming, and maybe not quite so hairy.

ChampSchool tuition is $2,200 for two days. The YZF-R6 rental costs an additional $400. ChampStreet tuition cost varies depending on venue.
ChampSchool tuition is $2,200 for two days. The YZF-R6 rental costs an additional $400. ChampStreet tuition cost varies depending on venue.Ray Bradlau/thesbimage.com

Joking aside, when I started doing this motojournalism gig and riding with the likes of Michael Gilbert and Don Canet, my deficiencies as a rider became increasingly apparent. "What the heck makes these guys so much faster than me?" I wondered. Do they simply have an abundance of god-given talent? Or are they unusually blessed in the brass department?

Riding a motorcycle relies on only a few basic operations. We’re all just twisting a throttle and squeezing a couple levers here, right?

Lacking an obvious path toward a better two-wheeled life, I signed up for three days of riding with Deepak Ienatsch and his stellar team of instructors, including racers Chris Peris and Daytona 200 winner Kyle Wyman. All I had to do was get myself to New Jersey Motorsports Park, and YCRS would hook me up with a Yamaha FZ-07 for the one-day ChampStreet course and with a new YZF-R6 for ChampSchool, a two-day track-only affair.

Ienatsch prepping riders before the first track session of ChampSchool.
Ienatsch prepping riders before the first track session of ChampSchool.Ray Bradlau/thesbimage.com

On a beautiful September day, I joined 17 other students and 8 instructors in the NJMP paddock for ChampStreet. Although YCRS is a Yamaha school, it's operated with a "run what ya brung" philosophy. The Harley baggers, Gold Wings, and Guzzis in my class were just as welcome as anything with a tuning fork logo.

Such indiscrimination goes to show that YCRS values its mission more than it does merely promoting the brand in its name. It’s about boosting the entire industry by building skills that will ultimately change the perception of motorcycling. That’s the heart of the course. And instructors wear their hearts on their sleeves with the words “faster” and “safer” printed on either arm of their button-downs.

My rental Yamaha FZ-07 was the perfect machine for ChampStreet. Lightweight and easy to ride, the FZ (now MT-07) is one of today’s motorcycle bargains.
My rental Yamaha FZ-07 was the perfect machine for ChampStreet. Lightweight and easy to ride, the FZ (now MT-07) is one of today’s motorcycle bargains.Ray Bradlau/thesbimage.com

“We’re all concerned with the industry not growing,” Ienatsch says. “We can grow the industry by training the new riders better.”

And, I'd add, by retraining people like me, who developed subpar skills on the street, where failing to use the best techniques can be less obvious than on the track, but potentially far more costly.

“There’s a different level of application, track to street, but it’s the same idea,” Ienatsch stresses. “We get students thinking about how a motorcycle is designed to work—and how you work it as a human being to have it work as it was designed. We start [ChampStreet and ChampSchool] almost the same way: ‘Here’s the load, here’s the grip, here’s the radius.’ ”

Charismatic and gifted at articulating the techniques he’s developed over decades of training other riders, Nick Ienatsch makes learning fun.
Charismatic and gifted at articulating the techniques he’s developed over decades of training other riders, Nick Ienatsch makes learning fun.Ray Bradlau/thesbimage.com

So we begin in the paddock by learning to be progressive with brake pressure, being especially cognizant of the first and last 5 percent of braking power.

“Load the tire before you work the tire,” Ienatsch says again and again.

By mid-morning we’re deep into practicing trail-braking.

“[I want riders to know] what speed does to cornering radius and how to most precisely control that speed,” Ienatsch says while an instructor demonstrates what happens to cornering radius and lean angle when applying either the throttle or the brakes. With progressive brake pressure, the instructor’s cornering radius tightens up as he comes to a stop. On the throttle, his radius opens up and he goes wide into the grass.

Taking the R6 on track.
Taking the R6 on track.Ray Bradlau/thesbimage.com

Now, none of this was totally new information to me, but hearing the instructors explicitly say, “You should be trail-braking in the corners—even on the street,” was enough to justify tuition all on its own.

I mistakenly believed trail-braking was basically only for racers, and that if I ran wide in a corner, my only course of action was to increase my lean angle. Ignorance, in this case, is not bliss.

I unwittingly memorialized my ignorance in my comparison test between the BMW R 1250 GS Adventure and the Honda Gold Wing Tour. I was on the Wing riding a stunning canyon road while Canet was far ahead of me on the GSA. I was having so much fun, forgetting that I wasn't on a supersport machine, and inadvertently discovered the limits of the Wing's cornering clearance. Dragging the plastic bumper on the cylinder head prevented me from using more lean angle just as the corner started to tighten up. I instinctively rolled off the throttle (good move, Richards), but I didn't dare touch the brakes because it was instilled in me that it could risk washing out the front end.

The slow turn 3b at Thunderbolt at NJMP.
The slow turn 3b at Thunderbolt at NJMP.Ray Bradlau/thesbimage.com

Was it sheer luck that the corner didn’t tighten up even more? I can barely think about it without breaking into a cold sweat. I don’t have any business riding a motorcycle if I have to rely on luck where my skill falls short. My own ability has to be my biggest safety net.

During the next two days on track at ChampSchool, I learned to carve a tighter radius,not by using a deeper lean angle, but by relying on the brakes. I didn’t need more cornering clearance on the Wing to save my apex. I needed to trail-brake. It’s a technique that’s a big part of the “safer” bit emblazoned on the instructors’ shirtsleeves.

YCRS instructors showing us how it’s done.
YCRS instructors showing us how it’s done.Ray Bradlau/thesbimage.com

I'm on an R6 trail-braking into turn 1. I'm not squeezing the lever at some artificially prescribed point on the track, instead I'm relying on my own intuition: When I get nervous, I go to the brakes. My brake light stays on past tip-in, and I gently trail off the brakes until I'm happy with my speed and direction, decreasing brake pressure as my lean angle increases.

Ienatsch’s mantras are swirling through my head: “brake until you’re happy with speed and direction,” “radius equals miles per hour,” “you have 100 points of grip,” “brake lighter, longer.”

The ChampSchool principles of riding are universal, regardless of skill level. My class had several brand-new riders, seasoned street riders, A-Group trackday enthusiasts, and even a 17-year-old pro racer whose speed made the rest of us feel like children, even though he’s the one who’s probably not even shaving yet.

The author in conversation with instructor Rob Cichielo in the paddock.
The author in conversation with instructor Rob Cichielo in the paddock.Ray Bradlau/thesbimage.com

"We say the same things to everyone," Wyman—who's campaigning a Ducati Panigale V4 R in the MotoAmerica Superbike series this year—says. "We don't subscribe to the idea that new riders should learn anything different. If they're learning something different than the advanced riders, then they're just learning something they're going to have to unlearn, so what's the point? We want to bring people into a position where they can be on a path forever and not run into a glass ceiling."

I hit that glass ceiling decades ago. I could’ve done 100 trackdays or ridden another 100,000 miles on the street and never gotten any better.

Drop your elbow, Richards!
Drop your elbow, Richards!Ray Bradlau/thesbimage.com

Now I know what makes Gilbert and Canet so fast. And Valentino Rossi, for that matter. It’s not just talent or guts. Nor is it that they have a unique riding style. It’s that they’re masters of a universal riding style.

The hack rides with a facile control of the machine, merely twisting the throttle and squeezing a couple levers as it suits him. The master rides with a facility of control that’s in response to external factors. As the machine’s facilitator, the master acts to encourage the motorcycle to do what physics demands of it, what the engineer designed it to do.

ChampSchool’s curriculum is like the Rosetta stone of motorcycle riding, deciphering the hieroglyphic speed of the master in order to construct a universal methodology of riding that’s relevant to all of us.

The R6 proved itself a great tool to learn on.
The R6 proved itself a great tool to learn on.Ray Bradlau/thesbimage.com

After three days, I’m no master. Next time I ride with Canet or Gilbert I still won’t be able to keep up with them. But ChampSchool illuminated for me the language of a better and safer way to ride. I may not have a command of it yet, but every time I throw a leg over a motorcycle, I know the way to get closer.

Since returning from New Jersey, I’ve been telling all my riding buddies that enrolling in ChampSchool or ChampStreet is mandatory. It doesn’t matter how long they’ve been riding or if they’ve never crashed. I can’t think of a good enough reason not to enroll in a YCRS class. After all, what’s three days?

The author with instructor Brian Smith.
The author with instructor Brian Smith.Ray Bradlau/thesbimage.com

Gear Box

Dainese’s Misano 2 race suit incorporates an airbag seamlessly. Simply snap the collar stays and you’re ready to go.
Dainese’s Misano 2 race suit incorporates an airbag seamlessly. Simply snap the collar stays and you’re ready to go.Ray Bradlau/thesbimage.com

Helmet: Arai Corsair-X
Race suit: Dainese Misano 2 D-air Perf.
Gloves: Dainese Full Metal 6
Boots: Dainese Axial D1 Air