“What’s everybody’s goals over the next two or three days?” asks Dylan Code, lead instructor at California Superbike School. Some students/riders are saying they want faster lap times, others better bike control. I raise my hand. “I want to get a knee down, for the first time.”
I’ve ridden sport bikes for the better part of a decade, but I’ve never been on a track. It’s an entirely realistic goal, if I’ve got the balls to do it. And, if I do, there’s the opportunity to earn membership to the unofficial, highly coveted “Knee Draggers Club.” But before I get there, my limits will definitely be pushed.
Motorcycle riding schools have had a boom in popularity in recent years, and with the current crop of street bikes eclipsing the power and performance of race bikes from a decade ago, it’s easy to see why. Not only are riders looking to wring the most from their motorcycles, they also want to know how to survive riding them. As horsepower continues to rise and weight continues to drop, knowing how to properly handle a modern superbike has become more of a necessity than a bragging right.
Out at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway outfield course, the unforgiving sun sits unopposed in a cloudless desert sky. Inside the air-conditioned sanctuary of the track’s classroom, Code goes through today’s itinerary, an overview of the track and a rundown on the 2015 BMW S1000 RR we’ll be riding. The brief is capped with the suggestion, “Above all, have fun and be safe — and drink lots of water. Seriously, we’re in the middle of damn a desert.” The suggestion is not lost on me, as I sit in a fireproof one-piece leather suit, knee-high racing boots and leather gloves.
Not only are riders looking to wring the most from their motorcycles, they also want to know how to survive riding them.
We head out to the track for a three-lap lead-follow session, riding behind one instructor, so we can get a feel for the bikes and the track. We head back into classroom for a rundown on the first on-track drill we’ll be doing. A whiteboard with “throttle control” written across the top greets us and we take our seats for what turns out to be motorcycle physics 101. The lesson, though brief, is in depth and is helpful in dispelling more than a few motorcycle myths (yes, to initiate a turn you have to countersteer, turning the front wheel in the opposite direction of the turn; no, gripping the handle bars tighter doesn’t make it safer).
With a better idea of how a motorcycle handles, we head out to the track and are assigned instructors charged with finding and following us on track to make sure we’re completing each session’s drill. My instructor, Mike Pesicka, greets me with classic West Coast casualness and asks about my riding experience. I let him know my goal for the next two days, and he advises that if I follow his instruction and take his feedback, it’s definitely in the cards.
I head back out on track and get a few laps in, rolling on the throttle out of turns, the way I think I should. Little do I know that Pesicka has been following me on track, taking notice of where I go right and wrong. He passes me on the back straight and I follow him into the next turn. He exaggerates his arm movement, signaling when and where to get on the throttle. I’m getting on the gas too late; as soon as I’m at the right lean angle for the turn and on my line, I need to start feeding the throttle back on. After two laps of instruction, he tails me. I try to hit my marks, and after a few more laps, we head back into the pits for feedback. What I’m doing is just using the throttle to accelerate out of turns, but the throttle does more than that. Pesicka goes back over some bike dynamics 101: “Dialing in the throttle settles the bike, keeps it on line and balances it through the turn.” He uses his hands to articulate rolling on the throttle and the bike’s corresponding lean angle. I’m starting to understand.
The routine for the day: Classroom for a briefing on the next lesson and drill, then back on track, trying to put into practice what we’ve been told. Then, we return for critique. After “turn-points,” it’s “quick turn,” or how to effectively steer a bike at track speed, then “rider input” and learning to stay relaxed, and lastly “two-step,” a lesson on where to look and how to spot and hold your racing line. Each new drill builds on the previous, increasing both knowledge and confidence on the bike. Knowing where to turn is the foundational lesson, then you learn how to turn, and then you learn how to complete a turn by keeping your eyes smoothly transitioning from your turn in point to mid-corner point to exit. I’m getting down the first-day fundamentals, though getting my knee down still feels more than a few centimeters away.
Day two’s itinerary involves five advanced drills that hone rider focus at higher speeds and two free sessions to end the day. Meeting my personal goal on the first day was optimistic, so the second day is my only choice. But with the sun beating slightly hotter today and a hint of soreness creeping its way into my muscles, the challenge of dragging a knee seems to mount with each successive lap.
I nail the day’s drills, but during the last drill I struggle to wrestle the bike into the corner and miss a few of my marks. Saddling up for the last session, my last chance in this 48-hour crash course, Pesicka pats me on the back and lets me know I’ve been quick to learn the drills and adapt to critiques, so he’s been instructing me one step ahead of the course. We’re done with drills for the day, and now he asks me what I want to work on in the final session. There’s only one thing: getting my knee down. He nods and gives me a look of confidence, but offers a dose of reality: “You’ll have go into the turn at a good speed. If your position’s all wrong, I’m callin’ it off.”
I straddle the bike — knees sore, legs cramped, arms going weak, sweat covering my face. If I don’t drag a knee here, I don’t know when I will. I shut my visor and head out on track. I use the first lap as a warmup, a sighting lap to see what corners would be the best to get low. The left-hander turn-six hairpin is my best bet.
Rounding the last turn I crack the throttle wide open, brake into turn one, taking turns two, three, four and five at speed, getting a feel for the bike and for my body position. If I don’t get a knee down this lap, I won’t have the energy to try again. Coming up on turn six, I spot my turn-in, plant my foot hard on the peg, and hang my ass off the side of the bike. I hit my mark, throw the bike into the turn, roll back on the throttle — knee firmly planted on the ground. There’s no mistaking it — it’s a pure shot of adrenaline straight from the asphalt. I exit the turn, straighten the bike, and — pounding the tank out of excitement — nearly forget there’s another turn coming up. Now that I have the energy and the confidence, at every other turn a knee is scraping the ground.
Pesicka passes me, I give him the thumbs up and I follow him for the next few laps dragging knees, feeling like an old pro. Over the past 48 hours my riding craft has easily tripled. My turn-point and line sighting happens more fluently, my throttle control is more intuitive, and my body position is honed in. I’ve moved from fairly competent on the street to a capable rider on the track, in two days. We head in, pull off the track, park the bikes and have our traditional post-session critique. This one’s a little more animated. My adrenaline still pumping, Pesicka, nearly as excited as I am, shakes my hand and asks how it felt. It felt fucking amazing, and I say as much, beaming in self-pride. Pesicka is quick to quip back, “Now all you need to do is go full Marquez and get an elbow down.” Challenge accepted.