Pace vs. Risk: Rubber Side Down, Part 2

A long-time roadracer and dirt-bike rider finds love in the canyons of southern California and describes his guidelines for survival and enjoyment

Nick’s Note: Keith Culver is not alone on the YCRS staff because two other full-time roadracers have recently started street riding: Chris Peris and Kyle Wyman, the latter just returning from a magazine trip to Spain where the highlight of his time there was not lapping a new track, but discovering some amazing canyon roads. In the second part of Keith’s Pace Versus Risk article, he walks us through his canyon-riding approach that keeps the fun high and the risk low.
Keith Culver standing next to his motorcycle

Keith Culver, literally lost in canyons he’d never seen or imagined, but whose roads he handled with confident smoothness and great pace. This was just before the 2016 Long Beach IM Show and we rode all day with no drama, following the techniques and approaches Keith lays out in Part Two of his Pace Versus Risk article.

Nick Ienatsch

We’re back to discuss how to reduce the two major canyon-riding “Risks” we discussed in part one: Lean Angle and Abruptness…while still enjoying your pace. Yes, I wrote “your pace” because everyone has a different pace and comfort level. Most of that comes from experience but it’s not all about laps or seat time. A famous motorcycle-training guru once told a story about a guy who finally took training after ten years of riding and after class, that rider said he realized he’d had only one year of experience, repeated ten times.

At YCRS, Nick and Ken like to say “Practice makes permanent” as opposed to “Practice makes perfect”. I recently took a gun safety class and they used the very same term. If you have a million laps or miles doing something incorrectly, there’s a good chance you’re not perfect. Freddie Spencer, three-time World Champion and the only rider to ever win the 250 & 500 World Championships in the same year, said he only had about five perfect laps in his entire career. “Practice makes permanent, not perfect.”

Nick and Keith discussing riding techniques

In this picture, Nick points, saying: “Look at your future. You’re going to move to southern California and start canyon riding.” Keith is laughing because he just can’t imagine it, but he applied the skills to minimize his risk and discover a new passion. He and his wife Tischa like the beach too. (Anthony Sansotta)

In this second part of PACE-vs.-RISK we want to get to the techniques that I’ve learned to maintain a good ratio; but to do so, we need to figure out how to mitigate the risks: Lean Angle and Abruptness. Practice mitigating them to help make your avoidance of them permanent.

I recommend working on the avoidance of abruptness first because the smoother you get, the better chance you have of mastering the methods of minimizing lean angle, or the time spent near maximum lean angle (maximum risk). If you can stay smooth, avoid being abrupt, and keep lean angle to fun rather than dangerous values, you are on your way to better PACE-vs.-RISK ratio.

At YCRS they have great drills for decreasing your learning time and helping you not only be faster-safer but also safer-faster. Read through these pages, then get out and play with the thoughts I’ve put into this article. If they make sense, maybe I’ll see you at a school someday.

Smoothness or Lack of Abruptness: For everyday riding, I just think about everything I do as if I’m riding on ice. I squeeze my brakes on or press my brake pedal down as smoothly as I can to load the contact patch of my tires on the road smoothly. That first 0-5% of braking (or throttle) is the part that counts most. This is what I was taught and have practiced every day I ride, drive, or even ride my bicycle. I also avoid abruptness by always riding as if my wife is on the back. If I am abrupt, her head is going to jerk and she will be annoyed at me – never a good thing. I want to be so smooth that she can’t tell when I applied throttle or brakes. I practice that even when she is not on the bike…practice makes permanent.

I do the same as I come to the end of my braking, just as I am coming to a stop. I want to avoid allowing the forks to bounce back up by how smoothly I reduce front brake pressure as the bike stops. Practice that and then use it all the time to see just how smoothly you can release the brakes. At a higher pace, if you release the brakes too quickly as you enter a corner, that abruptness bounces the forks up which causes you to run wide and kind of unloads your front tire. We don’t want to ever take rubber off the road or head towards that double yellow line. Smooth release of brakes!

For track riders, this tip is the cause of most cold tire crashes. Many think that they can’t use the brakes into a turn on a cold tire so they let go of the brake lever as they enter the turn and end up falling. They were abrupt and took away the pressure that the tire wanted to have pressed into the pavement (load = footprint). Yep, more cold tire crashes come from the front being under-loaded than over-loaded. As my wife always says, “True story.” Nick wrote an article in Cycle World magazine about it: Cold Tire Crashes.

A great and easy way to keep my brain on this came from YCRS’s Chris Peris, something Nick taught him when he was coming off mini-bikes onto the big stuff. Chris is a national champion, did some World SuperSport racing, and is now a YCRS partner. Just before my one and only pro race Chris said to think to myself as I enter every turn… “front-front-front-front-front” and every time I exit a turn, think to myself… “rear-rear-rear-rear”. It keeps your brain on being smooth with your brakes entering and your throttle exiting. I like it.

Kyle Wyman celebrating with champagne

“No, I don’t ride on the street,” Kyle Wyman would say. But then a magazine called and offered to pay him and suddenly, “Why yes, I ride on the street!” Keith’s guide to managing risk while maximizing fun is the same discipline a young professional Superbike racer like Kyle follows. Both riders keep the competition to the racetrack, riding “with” friends on the street, rather than “against” them.

Courtesy of KWR Collection

Now we can all practice being smooth and ridding ourselves of abruptness. Get it out of your riding, get it out of your vocabulary. If someone tells you to flick, flop, grab, stab, huck, or chuck, don’t listen to him. That promotes abruptness and is the opposite of smooth. Practice smoothness in your car or truck or on your bicycle as it should help set the muscle memory for when you ride your motorcycle.

Personal Experience: When I first started with YCRS I thought I was a great driver. I didn’t have any accidents and I could get from point A to point B faster than any of my friends, and everyone always gave me the keys to drive because they trusted me. Then I picked up Ken Hill and Nick Ienatsch from the airport for my first school as Operations Manager with YCRS. After our few days together, Nick and I had a debrief.

It was my first school and a HUGE learning curve for me. I nodded while taking in all the things I did well, more so the stuff I needed to do better, and gasped when he criticized my driving. I was like…what?… I drive great! I didn’t say anything; these two rider coaches were in an entire different league from mine so my lips were sealed. I was amazed, but Nick wasn’t talking about my safety or speed; he was talking about my abruptness. He wanted me to practice my riding while driving my truck. Three years later I’m still with YCRS and Nick throws me the keys to drive almost everywhere we go. Why? Because I listened to their speeches about avoiding abruptness in everything I do and it worked. My practice in my trucks is one of the main reasons I have a good PACE-vs.-RISK ratio on my bikes in the canyons.

As I enjoyed my new favorite hobby of canyon riding, I saw that the second most important risk we want to avoid is lean angle. Lean angle is pure physics but can be a bit more involved than being smooth because there a few ways we can avoid lean angle without going so slow we are bored.

One of the ways I like to avoid lean angle is to use my speed to adjust for a turn rather than lean angle. The school calls it Radius = MPH but in general, they’re saying you can’t go as fast through a hairpin as you can through a sweeper. So if you are approaching or find yourself in a turn that is tighter than you expected… SLOW DOWN! It’s not hard. It’s definitely not rocket science. You’re never abrupt anymore so you can roll off the throttle and squeeze on some brakes (smoothly) and your radius will tighten….without leaning over more. Slowing down achieves the same result of tightening your cornering radius, but without the risk of adding more lean angle. This tip is just as important for cruiser riders who couldn’t lean over more if they wanted to because their floor boards and exhausts are dragging. What are you going to do, cruiser riders?

In my opinion, this is the key to the PACE-vs.-RISK ratio: Choosing to slow for a corner instead of leaning more. No one can argue that lean angle is risk. It’s scientific. The more you lean, the more grip you ask from the tires and the greater chance you have of falling over. It’s gravity. It’s grip. It’s undeniable. So, if you can achieve the same result (PACE) without having too much lean (RISK), why would you not want to? Slow down but keep the same PACE? How is that possible? Easy, since you’re not going to lean as much or for as long, you can get into the turn quicker and get out quicker (less time). You’ll maintain your pace with more rubber on the road.

Unfortunately, I see this done incorrectly too often and fortunately, I have not been around for any of the drama that has resulted. I have been out riding with people who cross the white line onto the dirty shoulder because they entered a corner too fast. I have not seen a crash yet but know of many. These are usually painful and expensive but less often deadly. It’s the right hand turns that cause the deaths because when riders enter a corner too fast and don’t know how to slow down and tighten up the radius, they cross the double yellow line into oncoming traffic. In the almost-drama that I have witnessed, there is ALWAYS an absence of the brake light. Think about that one.

Some of the time, no one is coming in the opposite direction but that’s a gamble I don’t want to make. The deaths occur when there is a car or truck coming on the other side. Someone recently told me there were roughly 15 motorcycle deaths in San Diego County last year. I did not follow up but would not be surprised if this is correct. What I do know is that way too many of them were caused by the rider’s being unable to hold line through a corner which he or she entered too fast. Many of the deaths, too many, were from riders crossing the double-yellow into oncoming traffic. I firmly believe that if they had the right skills, the ability to smoothly slow down at ANY time in their ride, many of them would still be with us. Check out Nick’s Cycle World article The Brake Light Initiative for more information.

How did I learn to use my brakes at any time in my ride? Easy, I started slow, always working on being as smooth as possible, and worked my way faster. I like to say the secret to being fast is having the ability to slow down. The misnomer out there that using brakes in a corner (trail-braking) is only for the racetrack or for advanced riders is so far from the truth, it’s really not even funny. It’s sad. Using your brakes while turning is natural. We do it in our cars every day. We do it on our motorcycles all the time too but don’t think about it until the pace is up and the voice in our heads says to let go of the brakes before you turn because that is what you were told when you were new to riding….. WRONG! In fact, the engineers who design our motorcycles design them for braking while turning, aka trail-braking, or “trailing off” brake pressure as you add lean angle. True Story!

I bet most of you use your brakes when turning into your driveway. I bet you do it in your car all the time. Here is another clue: Texting takes a LOT more skill and dexterity than braking… anywhere. If you can text, you can use your brakes while turning. Call it Brake Assisted Steering like YCRS does for those scared to “trail brake”.

I think this technique is the most under-rated skill in motorcycling. I believe that riders who do it are much less likely to fall or have drama than those who don’t. And the best part…. The gateway to this skill is being smooth.

Remember this because it is very important…your brakes are not on-off switches. They are infinitely adjustable levers. When Chris told me to think “front-front-front” when entering a turn, it was his way to remind me that traction is part lean angle and part brake pressure. For every degree of lean angle you add, you need to take away a degree of brake pressure. The more you lean, the less pressure you want in your brakes but you still want some. Much like the example of cold tire crashes, the chances of an incident from overloading the front from brake pressure is far less than the chances of losing traction by suddenly unloading the front (see above).

To practice this consciously, ride around your neighborhood (at legal speeds) and experiment with light brake pressure as you turn from side street to side street. An empty parking lot is even better but sometimes we must improvise. Experiment until you can make a turn going slightly faster than you want to be and can use the brake pressure to slow down to the speed you want to be. Within an hour you’ll be more than capable, guaranteed.

So, our PACE-vs.-RISK level is better than a few pages ago, right? Well let’s add one more skill to help avoid the lean angle RISK. It’s body position.

On the track, YCRS teaches getting off the bike pretty far (look GP to go GP), mostly at the exit of the corner because that’s when you want to accelerate so that’s when you need to lift the bike up onto the meat of the tire to handle the load from the acceleration. The act of hanging off the bike works in this direction.

Personal Experience: I went to a different type of class once where the teacher said that the reason that Sportbike riders get off their bikes was not to alleviate lean angle or push the bike up onto the meat of the tire but was to allow the suspension to work. Wrong. 100% wrong. If that were the case, our suspension guys would be setting our suspension with us hanging off our bikes instead of sitting in the middle of the seat. That’s a funny one. We get off the bikes to keep from having too much lean angle and we accentuate this action on the exit of the corners to get the bike up on to the meat of the tire to handle the acceleration (look at videos of Dani Pedrosa).. But that’s the racetrack, I digress.

On the street, trying to mimic racers may help you look cool to your riding buddies, but I’m more concerned with how the Highway Patrolman views me. If I’m doing 45 mph in a corner without hanging off and you’re doing 35 mph but hanging off like Rossi, who is the cop going to go after most of the time? I’ll save the hanging off for the track BUT will put myself into a position that I could easily get off to the inside of the bike and push the bike up quickly if I needed to. What do I mean? I mean I’m never going to enter a corner in the middle of my seat. Even if I’m not hanging off like on the track, my butt is already to the inside for the upcoming turn and my inside foot is up on the ball of my foot to apply pressure to my inside footpeg and initiate steering as well as preparing to hang off if I need to.

Why would I need to? Easy: variables. I ride for the variables. I want to be ready for the truck that is around the corner and out of my sight but crossing into my lane. Ready for the patch of gravel or water crossing my lane around that blind turn. If I ride ready for those variables, I can quickly get myself off the inside of the bike in order to push the bike up towards the middle of the tire where it will have more traction going through that gravel or water, at the same radius (I can stay in my lane). If you come around that blind corner with too much lean angle for gravel or water and have no way to take away lean angle immediately, your chances of having a problem are a lot greater than mine. This lowers my RISK and allows for better PACE.

So now we are all experts, right? We can all be smooth, without abruptness. We can all use our brakes anywhere in a turn to slow ourselves down and thus, always have more control over our bikes and our ride. We can now use our bodies to handle variables that come to us on the roads to avoid drama.

There is one more thing I do that is worth mentioning. Are you ready? I THINK ABOUT IT. I think about my riding every time I get on the bike. I learned this from YCRS also. Nick says to have a mantra. Have something that turns your brain on to the fact that you are about to do something fun, but also dangerous. I recently read a motorcycle crash study that says the only situation that causes more crashes than not being able to slow for a corner is not paying attention and getting hit by a car in a busy area.

Nick says that when he puts his key in the ignition, he says out loud, “Where am I? What am I doing?”. It turns his brain on. Freddie Spencer squeezes his grips three times when he gets aboard. Valentino Rossi kneels down and prays to his foot peg. These are the best EVER and they are all turning on their brains. I’m very conservative and cautious compared to the company I keep. Probably the reason I never achieved the racing success they have is because here is what I say: “What could go wrong and how can I avoid it?” Then I turn on my motorcycle.

motorcycle fuel tank with sharpie writing

This is not a staged shot. This is what YCRS students see in some of our schools: “What’s your plan” written in dry-erase marker on the tank. These three words serve to focus the rider on his or her immediate future. Develop a mantra, write it on your triple clamp or tach face, say it often to be in the moment.

Courtesy of thesbimage.com

Where are you riding? What are the road conditions? Who are you riding with? How much traffic is there? How are your tires? How much cornering clearance does this bike have? Think about this stuff every time you ride. I do.

Last on this note: whenever I enter a busy area, the other way to reignite my brain is to move my right index finger onto my brake lever. This not only reminds me that I have just entered a busy area with people in cars all around me, it also allows me to stop a lot faster than someone who’s finger is still wrapped around the grip. The chances of being abrupt in an oh-shit moment are much higher when you need to unwrap your finger from the grip, move it up and over the lever without hitting it with the top of your finger, and then squeeze the lever. Mine’s already there so there is less to do in that oh shit moment.

fingers on motorcycle brake lever

Fingers covering the brake lever not only reduces the time it takes to put your brake pads against your rotors, but serves to focus your mind on the fact that you’re in a crowded area. Read more about it in Nick’s Fingers Up story.

Nick Ienatsch

My deepest apologies for my long-windedness. It’s what I do. I just sit down and start typing when it’s something I’m passionate about.


Pace = Speed for the conditions Risk = The chances of crashing

Factors of Risk
Abruptness Lean Angle Brain Off

How to avoid Abruptness
Practice smooth braking and accelerating from slow to faster paces Practice smooth braking into a corner from slower to faster paces The first and last parts of braking are the most important The initial throttle input is the most important. Ride like you’re always on ice or as if your significant other is on the back.

How to minimize lean angle
Use speed reduction to negotiate a tightening turn instead of just lean angle Be able to slow down anywhere at any time. Be in a position to push the bike up onto the meat of the tire for changing conditions.

Turn it on before you ride. Have your finger(s) up on the brake lever, especially in a busy area.

There are a lot of questions out there and this may be the one we hear most often at YCRS: When do I go to the brakes? How can I know how far to brake into a corner or when do I release the brakes? When should I accelerate?

The YCRS formula works great everywhere. I use this on every corner I ride and use it to quickly learn a new track we visit.

  • Go smoothly to the brakes when you are scared (or nervous, for you tough guys that don’t get scared). No abruptness.
  • Stay on the brakes until you are happy with your speed (you’ve slowed down enough to be comfortable) AND you are happy with your direction (you’re ok with the current direction in which your motorcycle is pointed).
  • Accelerate ONLY when you can see your exit (where you want to go) and you can begin to lift the bike.

Do this over and over and over on every corner, and you will be well on your way to a great PACE-vs.-RISK ratio!

Thank you all for reading and remember to “Keep the Rubber Side Down”.