In the past year, I’ve tried to make a point of cementing certain track techniques by practicing in my street riding. The main objective is to turn certain things into a habit at the track. Given that I can’t ride track all the time but I can fill in a lot with street rides so the rides themselves are still fun and I’m able to work on cementing techniques.
Before I head out for a street ride, even a 20-minute quickie, I’ll pick one or two things to practice while I ride.
Here is a list of some of the things I’ve been working on.
Body timing – this is the process of preparing for the next corner as soon as I’m finishing exiting from the corner I’m in. This includes getting feet into the right position, outside thigh, lower and upper body. This is great to practice on street rides and has carried over to the track riding. I find that by having my body setup for the upcoming corner early, I am smoother with my inputs and can carry more corner speed and I’m more precise.
Brake pressure – this one is a little complex. One of the things that I’ve been working on is building brake pressure AFTER turn-in a la Ken Hill. This is quite contrary to conventional wisdom as the MSF and many other schools of thought would have you do the majority (or all) of your braking while nearly vertical. In many corners, this technique may not be appropriate but in 90 degree or greater corners, particularly if they’re uphill and/or positively cambered, you can quite safely go in light on the brakes and add more brake pressure once you’ve tipped in. I’m finding this to be more and more appropriate on the street rides (given appropriate circumstances). YCRS encourages you to hold the brakes, even if only a tiny bit until you can see the corner exit and are able to safely accelerate. Having just returned from a 3-hour street ride today where I was consciously executing this today, I found that I was able to carry a higher overall corner speed (because I didn’t slow much before tip-in), I could very reliably get to my apex by modulating the brake pressure, and I was smoother through the corner, even if at tip-in I felt like I might have been carrying a bit more speed than I should, I started to feel more in control. Today I worked on this in one higher transmission gear than normal to reduce the effects of engine braking.
Screwdriver grip – this is the act of holding the inside handgrip like you would a screwdriver. Doing so allows you to more easily move your wrist and lower your upper body and bring your head to the inside of a corner. No, you shouldn’t be hanging off massively on the street but you can still practice getting your hands into the correct position on a street ride.
Light on the bars – a death grip on the handlebars is going to make your bike very reactionary to your slightest inputs, you won’t have much feel for what the front tire is doing, it will likely be difficult to turn, bumps will be felt throughout the bike, you’ll get tired quickly, etc. It cannot be overstated how important it is to be delicate with the handlebars. In order to truly be light on the handlebars, you have to have a solid lower body connection, namely your feet. You need reference points for your feet to the pegs, heel guards, etc., your outer leg needs a solid lock into the side of the fuel tank. To be as effective as possible, you should actually have very little of your weight in the seat of the bike during cornering. Some people will talk about weighting the pegs to turn the bike and if considering physics, this doesn’t actually hold water directly, however, what weighting the pegs actually does is it forces you to engage your feet and by carrying most of your weight on your feet it tightens your abdominal muscles and all of this works to keep weight off the handlebars. If this is unfamiliar to you, it’s a lot easier to work on it at a street pace than the frenzy of a track day.
Throttle application – this means smooth and gentle application of the throttle in a linear then progressive application of it. On the street, I’m not going to hold the throttle wide open for extended periods but I can practice my throttle timing. Keith Code talks about applying the throttle in such a way that once you begin applying the throttle, you don’t prematurely roll out of it. Ken Hill talks about a slow initial throttle and those who are slower with their initial throttle tend to be quicker to get to full throttle. When working on it consciously, I work on that deliberate initial throttle and will often get to full throttle, even if I roll out of it quickly, but it’s the idea of creating that muscle memory of exiting corners this way.
Conscientious counter-steering – Most of us know on some level that to initiate lean we push on the handlebar in the direction of the turn we want to go. It’s so programmed into us though and most of us do it subconsciously. Try riding while thinking about the energy you put into counter-steering. Also, think about the relationship of your forearms to your handlebars when you do it (which will also help your body position) because it’s more effective the closer to your hands and forearms arms being on the same plane as the top of the steering head. If you’re on an aggressive stance sportbike, it’s easy to put more effort into pushing down on the handlebars which dramatically reduces the effect of counter-steering. In order for steering efforts to work efficiently, you have to push on the inside handlebar near the same plane as the steering head.
Brake-Throttle timing – this refers to the timing of using the brakes to getting back to the throttle and vice versa. Ideally, there should be minimal lag time between either. Even if you’re not hitting maximum braking or maximum throttle, you can still work on the relationship between the two.
Breathing – By ‘breathing’, I’m referring to the timing of inhaling and exhaling during certain controls and inputs. For instance, inhale deeply during braking and then exhaling as you turn in. Honestly, this is a hard one for me to remember to practice but the benefits seem very real. It’s on my to-do list.
Road (track) dynamics – Following along in the Ken Hill vein, this refers to using the right control at the right time. In a corner with less than a 90 bend, you should be accelerating past the apex (not necessarily WOT but definitely positive acceleration). In a hairpin corner there should be two apexes – one on the entry and another on the exit, your overall line, if viewed from above, would be somewhat V-shaped, not U-shaped. If it’s an entry corner (one where your deceleration zone is longer than your exit acceleration zone), you will be on the brakes to or possibly past the apex. On exit corners, your slowest point should come slightly before the apex and you should be driving past the apex. I practice this on almost every street ride, even in-town going around a 90-degree corner, which I usually treat as a balanced corner.
Braking drills – while this may not lend itself to a leisurely ride, if you have an empty and reasonably smooth bit of road, you can practice threshold braking. When I do this, I’m trying to get to the point where I feel the ABS kicking in or if I’ve reduced ABS sensitivity, I get to the point where I feel the rear start to lift and I try to set it down gently. As you build the braking feel you can add in downshifting while practicing braking drills. Make sure your tires are up to operating temperature first.
Acceleration drills – again, this requires a quiet area with a reasonably smooth bit of road. The idea here is to practice launches, getting to WOT as soon as possible. Definitely do not do this one if you’re anywhere near homes or businesses. I leave the TC/wheelie control enabled on a minimal setting on most of my bikes so most of them will let me do a small GP-style wheelie before setting the front wheel back down. This helps me build better feel for when the front will go light since I’m not a big wheelie sort of guy. Even practicing rolling starts from 10 – 15mph is helpful. Get a feeling for WOT acceleration in the first 2 or 3 gears if you can.
Passing drills – If you are highly familiar with the road and know that you have a safe passing zone immediately after a corner and you want to get past a slower moving vehicle, it often helps to drop back a little bit and setup for the pass. This will mean possibly entering the corner a little slower than normal and when you can start accelerating and as soon as you see the passing zone is clear, you can add more throttle to quickly and safely pass the slower moving vehicle. This lets you ‘get a run’ to minimize your time in the opposite lane to pass. Cross double-yellow lines at your own risk and comfort level. While it is a ticketable offense almost anywhere, the passing and no-passing zones are designed for vehicles with minimal acceleration capabilities. If you opt to pass on a double yellow, do it courteously and throw a friendly wave to the vehicle you passed. Also, be sensitive to the region you’re riding in. In the California Bay Area, most drivers are generally okay with a clean pass. In the Sierra Foothills, many take it as a personal affront and I’ve heard of pretty aggressive reactions.
Bike pick up – this refers to getting the bike vertical as soon as possible exiting a corner in order to apply maximum throttle. CSS has a drill called the ‘pickup drill.’ Even if you’re not getting to maximum throttle, you can practice this on the street by consciously getting the bike upright on the exit, continue hanging off while you get the bike vertical, push the bike away from you, or dropping your head (YCRS, CanyonChasers).
Body position – there’s a lot to this and while I don’t encourage any street rider to become a Street Rossi, you can work on subtleties. This includes the screwdriver grip, forcing the inside of your outside thigh into the tank, conscious counter steering, foot position, making sure your inside shoulder is behind and the outside shoulder is further forward (leaping into the corner with your upper body), be light on the grips. Practice this with your bike on stands or a chock in the garage as well. A coach I worked with a couple of years ago said you should be leading the bike into the corner you are entering.
Reference points – pick a few turns and try to identify a few reference points – such as the apex, the slow point of the corner, an exit reference, etc. Even if your inputs are a fraction of what they would be on the track, do this enough and it will train your brain to be cognizant.
Using all of the road – At the track, I’ve come to realize that I don’t always use all of the track. On a street ride, be sure the road is clear but practice going further out toward the shoulder (again, make sure you can tell there isn’t debris out there first) and then using your portion of the lane. If you’re running at a spirited pace, be particularly aware of any oncoming traffic. If I see cars coming the other way, my apex is 3’ inside my side of the yellow line and I make sure I’m at a pace that still affords me the ability to move in more in case the oncoming car wants to dab a couple of wheels inside my lane. The idea is to get into the habit of hitting your marks, learn to use the brakes to get direction, and adjust your position on the road and the throttle to exit as close to the outside of your lane safely.
Rear brake – Admittedly, I’ve hardly ever used the rear brake at the track but I use it frequently in street rides. I think I don’t at the track because I don’t have any available mindshare but I know the benefits on the street. Where I particularly like it are in steep downhill corners, specifically decreasing radius turns and a little smooth ride on the rear brake nicely tightens up the radius.
Practice techniques that are apropos to the track you’re riding – My ‘home’ track is a really bumpy one in dire need of a complete re-pave. About a week before I ride there I’ll try to do a couple of street rides on the bumpiest roads near me on a firmly sprung bike. I find this gets my mind and body prepared to deal with the conditions at my home track.
Forget your favorite roads – If you’ve been riding the same roads (or tracks) for years and are trying to work on technique, it might be difficult because you’ve already programmed your actions based on past experience. If possible, try to ‘forget’ your muscle memory and focus on the road dynamics (see above). If it’s hard to get out of the rut, find some new roads and focus on the road dynamics.
Degree of Application – what you do on the road versus the track is not really that different, it’s really more so about the degree of application (Ken Hill, YCRS). At the track, you may get into a proper tuck and hang off all the way and if you do it to the same degree on the street, you’ll look silly, start going too fast, or invite unwanted attention. It doesn’t mean you can’t scoot your butt off the seat a little, but maybe not a whole cheek, etc. You can easily practice brake to throttle to brake transitions without doing stoppies or wheelies or hitting 100mph. Degree of Application.
Don’t try to do it all – When I go out for a street ride, I’ll usually just pick one or two of the above items to try to focus on. It’s just too difficult to remember and focus on everything. If you need to, write it on some tape and put it on your gas tank or tank bag, and consciously work on these things. I’m not a particularly fast rider but I feel like I’m continuing to build on my vehicle controls by keeping one or two of these items in mind on every street ride, then when I get to the track it requires little conscious effort. I am getting quicker and I feel like my technique is improving.
Another benefit of street riding… On hot track days, I find myself sweating profusely and getting tired before the end of the day. If you practice by doing extended street rides (say 3+ hours in hot weather), this will help acclimate your body to hotter riding. Maybe once or twice a month, bring ample hydration and go for a ride when it’s hot out. Be careful of course because as you get tired you are more likely to make mistakes or get sloppy. Stay hydrated and take breaks as often as you need. If at first, you find yourself not feeling well, maybe look for the most direct route home or for a swimming hole.
DISCLAIMER: Do any or all at your own risk, heed local speed limits, and be respectful of other riders and vehicles. Clean road is preferred with minimal traffic but if you know your bike well, less than optimal grip is sometimes beneficial for practicing certain things. Sometimes I like riding goaty uphill roads and practicing getting to the throttle sooner to see if I can engage the TC just so I can build a better recognition of limits of adhesion.