Learning to Fly - California Superbike School
For many motorcyclists the aspects and requisite skills of riding are learned on the street through trial and error, or by self discovery. Unfortunately, some of those lessons are learned the hard way: through pain and insurance claims.
Crashing can definitely make a rider lose interest in riding and create a loss of confidence.
In many states rider training –– like that offered by the Motorcycle Safety Foundation –– is mandatory in order to receive a license. Words have meaning, though, and “Basic” is just that. But the 160-horsepower motorcycle under your rump requires true skill to ride correctly and safely.
Attending a riding school is the direct route to gaining competence and confidence on a motorcycle, specifically a high-performance one. The track is a controlled and “safe” environment when compared to the street, country road, or highway. It’s safer because of the absence of oncoming cars, erratic traffic, dodgy tarmac, random road debris, or the odd leaping deer. Taking to the track won’t guarantee safety on the street, but gaining confidence and increasing skill can definitely give a rider better odds.
In the United States, one of the premier schools for educating people to become better, safer and faster motorcyclists is the California Superbike School. Owned and operated by Keith Code since 1976, it is a household name in the motorcycle world.
Code has written extensively on the topics taught in his courses. His books, Twist of the Wrist, and Twist of the Wrist 2 are considered required reading by many riders. Over the years, Code and his instructors have taught thousands of riders, from novice to world champions like Wayne Rainey, Ben Spies and British Supersport champion Leon Camier.
Instructors at California Superbike explain the theories and skill behind riding safer and faster in a logical manner. They have a knack for turning the intimidating or confusing into an epiphany. The biggest joy for both rider and instructor is seeing the “light bulb moment,” whether it’s a perfectly negotiated corner or just a small change in a throttle-hand position. There is always something to learn from the track.
In a nutshell, the school is structured in four separate segments. The first three levels of instruction focus on every aspect of ride craft: identifying common errors, vision, throttle control, braking, entering and exiting corners and body position. The fourth level is the culmination of all concepts taught in the school. The last of the four-day curriculum is also unique to the individual rider, where specific skills can be sharpened or weak points are re-addressed. Moving past Level 4, there is the opportunity for one-on-one instruction and the Code R.A.C.E school.
I attended Level 3 at the Virginia International Raceway in April and –– just as when I attended the school in 2010 –– learning definitely occurred. Regardless of state or country (the course is also taught in the United Kingdom) the curriculum is consistent and the instructors on another level. Riding the new 2016 BMW S1000RR Sport isn’t so bad either.
The school maintains a fleet of them for students to ride if they don’t have their own bike. This is a great option for folks flying in to attend a course, and it’s great opportunity to test ride. Crushing hydrocarbons by way of German engineering isn’t fun –– said no one, ever.
After my day at VIR I sat down with Code and asked some questions
1. In regard to riding a motorcycle on the street, if you could distill down to the the top five skills required, what would they be?
“In times past, I had soundbite-type answers for that but the more we train riders the more I see those good-advice answers aren't effective in helping riders improve... I'd love to do an experiment to answer that question: take a number of riders and train them exclusively away from the street, never even bring up the subject of street riding but give them a very thorough training program on what we at the school consider to be the fundamentals of motorcycle control. I'm willing to bet that they'd be much safer than someone who only had basic rider training, even if they had ridden lots of street miles. My reasoning is that good control is good control. No matter what the circumstances a rider who is solidly grounded in the fundamentals is as good as it gets.”
2. In your experiences from riding and teaching through the years is there one skill or attribute that is the most difficult to understand for racers and track day riders to attain faster lap times?
“I can answer that one. For track riders and racers it is judging turn-entry speeds. They have great difficulty wrapping their wits and actions around improving entry speed. There is so much going on at a corner's entry, it's the most complex part of riding and you really have only a few seconds to get it right. Some say that braking techniques are the solution but my experience tells me that it is our underlying perception of speed that governs the ability to master turn entries. Indeed, it is why we begin every school day with the one gear and no brakes riding format. It puts the rider's attention on targeting their entry speed rather than focusing it on how they are using the brakes.”
3. Leveraging skill and confidence seems much easier (to novice riders) with a smaller displacement motorcycle. With that said, what was your mindset and intent for using the S1000RR at California Superbike?
“Aside from the S1000RR being a very comfortable, great-handling motorcycle I figured that the electronics would provide just enough of a buffer so that many of the usual rider errors wouldn't result in instant panic. It isn't necessarily the rider errors that cause single-vehicle crashes, it's the knee-jerk corrections the rider makes, from the panic, that is finally responsible for the accident. As it turns out, I was right. The student crash rate went down a whopping 40 percent compared to the 600s we had been using and has stayed down for six years straight, which is how long we've been using the S1000s.”
4. You have taught world-class racers and entry-level street bike riders. Trying not to age you, what do you think has evolved in regards to safety and rider abilities over the years?
“I won't be modest on this one, the drills and technical understanding we've developed at the Superbike School and through my books and videos are what many people now take for granted as being how to ride correctly; much of it is now considered ‘everybody knows’ common knowledge, like it was there all along. Data and techniques on and about riding simply didn't exist when I started researching and training riders in 1976.”
5. For a first-time rider, choosing a new bike can be a daunting task. What advice could you give an enthusiast who wanted to begin an adventure on two wheels? What type of bike is best suited for learning?
“Conventional wisdom on the subject is to start off with something smaller and go up from there but bikes are so good these days, I really believe buying the bike that is your heartthrob is the best way to go. I don't believe the size and power of a bike is responsible for rider safety. Rider training is the way to achieve that end.”
6. Onto the future of California Superbike, are there any new plans in the works for expanding or additions in curriculum? Can we expect a new video soon?
“No new books or videos are in the offing at present. Even the first A Twist of the Wrist book material still holds 100-percent true after 32 years, the same is true of Volume 2 after its 22nd birthday. I do have enough material researched and written for another book but I'm focusing it all on improving our school day delivery. The evolution of our curriculum is ongoing. Just in the past three years we've developed over 100 new drills and exercises in our coaching toolkit to help riders handle specific riding problems.”
7. You are well known for having the skill to explain complex material regarding everything motorcycle. What do you think is the next big technological advancement that will change the rule book? Or will it get easier?
“Here again, the fundamentals of riding are what they are and won't change as long as motorcycles have two wheels. What my days consist of is researching and developing what underlies rider errors and providing our coaching staff with more and better understanding of what problems our students struggle with, and how to remedy them. Because they are so conscious of their struggles, most riders have no idea how good they can be. They know they can improve but until they get the actual basics in place they have no idea how much. It's our everyday, every-student job at the schools to show them.”