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What catches us out as our skills and experience improve?

By Nick Ienatsch April 3, 2018

Many riding-technique articles are aimed at new motorcyclists with the goal of short-cutting their learning curves. Expert riders have learned many lessons over the years, one way or another, and found methods that allow them to thrive and survive on two wheels.

It’s not tempting fate to say that many experts get to a point where they can’t imagine ever crashing again. They aren’t overconfident, but their approach to riding has been sharpened so precisely that big crash-causing mistakes are virtually eliminated.

At the Yamaha Champions Riding School, I am surrounded by experts, and I don’t just mean my instructors; many of our students are also highly proficient. My staff and these advanced-level riders often discuss how expert riders crash, and these conversations have been a recurring theme in my writing.

I must ruefully add that expert riders find fascinating and inventive ways to crash. I have written about my own mistakes, but here are three more examples—two from friends and one from an acquaintance. Put them into your “I never want to crash again” notebook, please.

1. Equipment failure aided by a technician’s mistake.

A close friend of mine lost rear grip during a trackday and high-sided his MV Agusta in an expensive but not physically painful way. The crash was a mystery until an hour later when his friend came within a whisker’s width of also high-siding. Both are immensely talented and experienced riders, the former a multi-time AMA champion.

The common connection? Both used the same rear tire warmer. That warmer’s activation light was on but the blanket didn’t heat the tire—it failed. Upon hearing “last call” for their groups, both were ready to ride and pulled their warmers off with gloved hands. Yes, they should have checked the warmers, but they are “experts” and have used warmers for decades.

A simple habit, one that all of us must adopt right now, could have saved my friend from a lot of drama: Remove your tire warmers with at least one bare hand. If you’re pitted with friends and see them remove their warmers while wearing gloves, put your bare hand on the tire and rim. “Hey, this thing’s not hot!” is a game changer.

2. Last call, but wait a few minutes.

One of my instructors traveled to a non-local race and was excited to run against new competition—really excited. He was fast at his own track and could hardly wait to run at a different one.

“Last call” rang out for his first practice of the weekend. He pulled off his warmers and idled to pit lane, ready to roll. But wait, a bike had broken on the last lap of the previous practice and my instructor’s group was held on pit lane. On cold asphalt. On a chilly morning. But he was still excited.

He never finished the first lap, crashing spectacularly on cold tires. The cold air and asphalt seeped the heat out of his tires during the unexpected wait. He and his bike were hurt, and his race weekend was over.

“As I was sliding, I was already mad at myself,” he later told me. “The wait cooled my tires, and I was pushing too hard on lap one.”

Notice how he didn’t blame the tires or the wait. At YCRS, we begin the program by examining a tire’s grip potential and how that potential relates to a sliding scale depending on temperature and/or road-surface conditions. You can ride relatively briskly on cold tires or wet pavement, but you can’t put too much braking, acceleration, or cornering loads into the tires.

My guy knew and respected this but he let his excitement for the weekend take priority over what must always remain a rider’s main priority: tire traction levels.

3. Extra equipment fouls the process.

One of our students broke his hand in a crash when the top of his boot became wedged under his motorcycle’s saddlebag mount and locked his foot under the peg, limiting his body movement and reducing cornering clearance. Freak accident, yes, but that’s how talented, expert-level riders get caught out; they rarely make just one mistake and crash.

This guy is good, fast on everything, including the streetbike he brought to our school. I don’t know if his boots were new or if he had just installed the saddlebag mounts or if this was his first time at a racetrack with this particular bike. But the crash happened early in the day and brings me to one of the main tenants we discuss with our expert-level students and instructors: We crash when something changes and we don’t take time to adjust to that change.

A “change” could be new brake pads, a new compound the tire guy wanted you to try, your friend’s bike, or myriad other possibilities. Four-time 500cc World Champion Eddie Lawson has talked about two slow laps to begin every weekend, and this advice is what we recommend when something changes: Get a feel for the bike at something less than 100 percent.

If this rider’s boot had gotten caught under the saddlebag mount at a slower pace, he might have not experienced any drama. The higher your speed, the less time it takes for you to cover the same distance. One second at 30 mph with your boot caught under the peg equals 44 feet. At 60 mph, that number becomes 88 feet.

Streetbikes ridden on a racetrack present several challenges, not just from the time/speed equation but also from the increased chassis loads and higher engine rpm. In my experience, aftermarket bits and amateur assembly—overinflated tires, rearsets that haven’t been thread-locked, incorrectly installed master links, improperly safety-wired oil filters, etc.—are the problem, not stock pieces and factory assembly.

In this case, hanging off a motorcycle at a racetrack positioned this rider’s boot under his luggage mount and inadvertently locked his foot in place. That never happened to him on the street, but the stresses and challenges of the track necessitate finer preparation.