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Adding a Dimension,

By Sam Smith. December 24, 2020.

Yamaha Champions Riding School – DW Burnett

“Before you ride,” they tell you, “have a plan.”

 

Big words. So big, they make you write them down—on the front of your lesson booklet, while sitting in class: B-E-F-O-R-E and so on, everyone in the room saying the words aloud, and then you are there, staring at that paper, wondering about the language.

 

Who, I thought, ends up on a racetrack without a plan?

 

A lot of people, it turns out. Me included, though I ­never would have guessed it. I walked out to the bike with a plan, and then I took a motorcycle on a track for only the second time in my life and tried to get my body to move and work right, all while concentrating on the usual motorcycle stuff like hard-braking downshifts and cornering lines and just plain-old not falling off, and somewhere in there, my plan said, “Thanks, but no thanks,” and proceeded to fly smack dab out the window.

 

In my head, cars felt easier. Feel is funny that way. Four wheels under a green flag may not have been ­easier, but if you have a pulse and half a brain in this life, it’s awfully hard to walk into a new world without immediately falling back on one of the very few skills that you believe you possess.

 

A word of advice: Don’t do that.

 

This past September, when I showed up at New Jersey Motorsports Park for a two-day version of the Yamaha Champions Riding School, I knew a few things. At the ripe old age of 39, I had been driving race cars for nearly half my life. Amateur stuff mostly, but also more than a few professional machines, from Group C Porsches to Formula 1 iron. I have raced everywhere from Goodwood to Laguna Seca. In 2012, after a decade in automotive journalism and club racing, I took a job at Road & Track, working there for eight years as a high-performance vehicle tester and editor. And once, a few years ago, in a moment representing significant luck and possibly even a bit of skill, I won an amateur roadracing championship.

The author, on the Yamaha in front, attempts to learn and get himself more off the bike. – DW Burnett

All of which is to say that I perhaps know a few things about cars. I was fairly sure that knowledge would only help so much. It seemed smartest to start from scratch, assuming I knew nothing.

 

So, I went to New Jersey and said as much.

 

“This is good,” Nick Ienatsch told me. “A lot of people we teach can’t get past the idea that they don’t know anything. Or that they mostly know…the wrong things.”

 

“Nick,” I said, “I’ve been riding on the street for 15 years. I’ve read all the books. But I don’t know anything.”

 

“Good!” he said, a finger pointed at my chest, for emphasis. “First step.”

In class, tired and thinking. – DW Burnett

Ienatsch talks rapid-fire, eloquent and chipper, often floating multiple ideas at once. He runs the YCRS as the lead instructor, was the founding editor of Sport Rider, is a former roadracer, and wrote a book on sport-riding techniques. He tends to listen intently after asking a question, a rarity in high-performance instructors of any stripe. This is almost certainly by design. If the visibility drills, lead-follow sessions, instructor-student ratio, and classroom focus are any evidence, the YCRS was constructed around the idea that student is more important than teacher. Another rarity.

 

I rented a Yamaha FZ-07 for all this. The bike was soft in both spring and damping, and not particularly powerful, the kind of device that demands specific treatment in order to go quickly. I had to concentrate on being gentle with it and performing smooth transitions, which is exactly why I rented the thing. (The YCRS also rents a host of other Yamahas, including the 164 hp YZF-R1.) I learned to navigate racetracks in slow and soft cars, and they taught me smoothness in input—that whole “slow machine goes fast” way of looking at the world, where you either squeeze every ounce from the fundamentals, maximizing corner speed, or every lap becomes an ­exercise in glacial motion.

Students line up for a drill at NJMP—Smith, in back, questions his sanity. – DW Burnett

I wore leathers, borrowed from the nice people at Alpinestars. The suit provided the first of many alien sensations—prancing around the paddock in a Gundam suit of polished cow. Off the bike, leathers make you walk as if a baseball bat were lodged in your lower intestine. On the bike, the suit feels natural, purpose-built. I do not own leathers, but I now cannot stop thinking, every day, about how I want to fill every closet in my house with a full-body cow condom in every possible color.

CRS lead instructor and active roadracer Chris Peris explains body position and tactics in the classroom. – DW Burnett

The FZ-07 turned out to be a great idea—obvious weight transfer, broadcast in neon. Several instructors murmured approvingly upon discovering that I picked it. “It’s funny,” Ienatsch said. “Usually, car people at this school, they say they leave as better drivers. And the thinking is, on a bike, we have 5 inches of suspension travel to play with, and maybe that’s one of the reasons why the good guys here can hop into a car and be so good at managing weight. It’s just load, moving around, learning how to control it.”

“I’ve been riding on the street for 15 years. I’ve read all the books. But I don’t know anything.”

That control happens with your body, of course—another alien feeling, perhaps the most alien of them all. (Obvious statement is obvious: Short of multiple-G open-wheelers or prototypes, a car simply works absent the human body, engaging only with your hands and feet.) With road riding, I learned to get off the seat years ago, but training in proper form was another thing entirely. My eyes knew where to go, familiar with corner entries and exits, but my body rarely followed.

Attempting to unlearn bad habits on an FZ-07—riding at NJMP is safe, fast, and far more entertaining on a bike than it is in a car. – DW Burnett

Midcorner adjustments were a constant problem, my brain attempting to compensate for the mistakes my body kept making. My eyes would lock on an exit, and my subconscious would want to change the bike’s attitude, but then my head would only talk to my hands and feet, out of habit. In road riding, with lower commitment, this had never been a problem. In New Jersey, it just meant that I knew the line was over there and the bike was over here, and by the time I finally woke muscles and got them in motion to fix things, the corner was basically over.

 

The only saving grace lay in how slowly all this ­happened. Because I was slow.

 

Not that there weren’t common threads back to cars. The notion of trailed brake, for one, which is rotating into a corner while carrying the brake to the apex. When ­Ienatsch explained why trailed brake is so magical on two wheels—fork compression changes front-end geometry, literally making the bike more eager to rotate—I felt like an idiot for not realizing it sooner. I also suspected the end goal was similar—that a bike at the limit might give the same greasy-velvet-pavement sense of vaguely uncomfortable bliss given by a race car moving just about as fast as it will go.

The Yamaha’s headlight. YCRS rents a wide variety of motorcycles, up to and including the potent YZF-R1. – DW Burnett

In a quiet moment at the end of the first day, I asked one of the instructors, a semiretired racer named Ben Walters, if the parallel was real: Is a pole lap on a bike, for example, that same sense of guiding a machine skittering around up on plane, balanced on a feathery edge?

 

“Of course,” he said. “The thing is, most people get uncomfortable when that happens, but it’s just the bike sending signals. The key is to not do anything crazy at that point, just pay attention and listen.”

 

I spent a lot of time wondering how that felt—that sensation of getting the dance even half-right, aggressive but never violent. Maybe I even saw pieces of the whole, albeit slightly out of focus and from a distance. It probably didn’t matter because the fundamentals were enough to wake that same old itch—a desire to get better, a simultaneous mix of joy and frustration with my own flaws, all paired with the grace and rhythm of a motorcycle at speed; no traffic or animals, no mailboxes or intersections, just your body out in the wind.

The 68 hp FZ-07 served as an excellent rental mount, quick enough to need respect and delicacy, but slow enough to allow time for a new track rider to think. After two days of school, with a tweaked mindset and new skills to work on, Smith left as a better street rider, safer and quicker. – DW Burnett

There were filmed sessions at the end of each day, and then tape reviews, where everyone gathered around a screen and Ienatsch picked apart your technique in front of the whole class. My review was humbling, as was my physical pain the next day—that condensed muscle weakness born of new exercise, as if someone had lit a firecracker in my leg and core muscles, and my body was supported solely by ashes.

 

The pain went away eventually, of course. What stuck with me was another commonality with cars: the notion of the achievable. We may not all evolve into a Márquez or a Rossi, but anyone can fire a bike around a track and learn to be faster and safer on the road. You just have to forget everything you think you know, and then, ever so slowly, as you would with anything else new and difficult, start the long, occasionally frustrating, and thoroughly wonderful process of teaching yourself to forget everything you think you know and remember every last bit of what you’ve been taught.