In our article in last month’s issue of the Motolegends magazine, we postulated that slow is the new fast. But that doesn’t mean we’re not speed freaks here at Legends Towers! And so last month we journeyed to California to take on the formidable Laguna Seca circuit, under the tutelage of cornering guru, Keith Code.
We may not think that wearing knee sliders on the road is particularly cool, or that maxing out the revs when riding through a rural village is particularly clever, but we still like to push a bike, or rather ourselves, to the limits whenever we can. And that normally means off-road somewhere, or on a track.
Over the years, we’ve done dozens of track days and training programmes with the likes of the European Superbike School, the Ron Haslam Experience, and others. But, for us, there’s nothing to touch the Californian Superbike School that was set up by racing supremo Keith Code, who wrote the Twist of the Wrist series of books and videos.
We attended our first Californian school at Cadwell Park over 15 years ago. In fact, that day James Toseland was there as a pupil. He was just a teenager, but already his precocious talent was annoyingly evident. The Californian Superbike School is unlike any other motorcycle training scheme. In most schools, it’s normally a quick run through the preferred racing line, as prescribed on a white board, followed by track sessions based on a simple follow-me-if-you-can principle.
They’re always great fun, but it’s frequently only a matter of time before confidence levels overtake the rider’s knowledge and skill. Often with inevitable results! Keith Code’s way is different.
Frankly, even though attending the school will help you circulate faster, your lap time shouldn’t be your all-consuming focus. The school is called a cornering school. Any idiot can go fast in a straight line, so all four levels are about helping you corner more quickly and more safely. I remember back at Cadwell all those years ago being asked, in the opening session, to put in the fastest lap I felt comfortable with.
After that, all the riders in the group were instructed to ride only in top gear and to use no brakes. Amazingly, within a few laps we were all lapping just as quickly as we had done using full brakes and all the gears. Like all track day novices, we had been going flat out down the straight but then, having scared ourselves silly, we would over-brake, and go round the corners at half the speed we could have done.
It was a salutary lesson. In the intervening years, Sara and I have attended a number of Keith’s schools, both here and in Europe. We have completed all four levels, but have still occasionally found it useful to go back and refresh our memories by undertaking, once again, the lower levels.
But what we had never done was attend the school in its own back-yard: California. Earlier this year, the opportunity arose. The timing worked, and so we set off to master the Corkscrew, as well as the other subtleties of the Laguna Seca Parkway.
Day one sees us and about another 30 students in a classroom. Keith welcomes us all and then passes over to his instructors to make their introductions. We’re signed up for Level 3 today, and Level 4, which is virtually a bespoke programme, for the second day. It’s a beautifully hot and sunny Californian morning, and the conditions could not be better.
The students come from all over. There are a few other Brits, an Aussie, a couple of Columbians, some gentlemen from the East, a couple of girls and, as you might expect, Americans from all corners of the Union. The first drill for those on Level 3 is the so-called ‘hook-turn,’ a technique designed to allow a mid-corner adjustment of the line; particularly useful in a tightening radius turn like Laguna’s corner Two.
Outside, our immaculately prepared BMW S1000 RRs are warming up, waiting for their pilots. We’re told to take it easy on our first few laps, We’ve never done the Corkscrew before. The tyres are cold, and this is a circuit where the bike spends most of its time turning left. Before the end of the first lap, there’s somebody in the kitty litter.
Predictably, it’s the guy who turned up on his own BMW S1000RR wearing a brand new set of white and blue Motorrad leathers. He was last heard extolling of the bike’s capabilities and his prowess at exploiting them. And it wasn’t to be his only track surfing session. The following day he was to put matching black tarmac stripes down the other side of his immaculate new leathers!
For me, I’m determined not to leave California in plaster. It wouldn’t be the first time that I’ve come home from a biking trip on crutches or in a wheelchair, but this time I simply don’t want to be the person who wrecks a bike. It’s too embarrassing, and it would be bloody inconvenient too if I couldn’t fly home in a couple of days’ time. Throughout the day, we practice a number of other exercises, with arcane descriptions like the ‘lock-on,’ the ‘power-turn,’ the ‘knee-to-knee,’ and the ‘hip-flick.’
We’re on track seven times throughout the day, each session lasting about 25 minutes. By about 4 o’clock, we’re all mentally and physically drained. The temperatures have been up in the thirties and, as much fun as it has been, it’s a relief to get off the bike after the final session.
There have been a few more offs during the course of the day, but nothing that’s required either mechanical or medical attention. Apparently, Laguna Seca often attracts a particular kind of student. As it is for us, part of the thrill is in getting to ride this legendary circuit. But for some that translates as trying to get around its 2.24 miles as quickly as possible.
Unfortunately, this isn’t a circuit to be taken lightly. It rewards those who respect its idiosyncrasies. Of course, one of those idiosyncrasies is the Corkscrew. Strangely, it’s nowhere near as frightening as it looks on TV. Perhaps it’s the dire warnings issued by the course director, but all the students seem to arrive at the invisible drop-off point at a sensible pace.
At this speed, the corner poses no problems. It takes a bit of time to get the line right and hit the turning points, but
it’s little more than a sharp drop to the left, followed by a quick ‘hip-flick’ to the right.
It’s like no other bend on any other circuit, but the approach speed for most of us is such that it’s not particularly intimidating. What is intimidating, however, is what follows. Having flicked right, you then flick left again to start a long sweeping, downhill, off-camber, double-apexed left hander, where the power is on pretty hard, and the bike is leant right over for what seems like an eternity.
For me, this is the most exciting section of the circuit. It also happens to be the section I’m worst at.
Elsewhere, I seem to be catching and passing other riders without great effort, but on this long downward sweep, I lose ground. It’s a section that simply requires a pair of testosterone charged ‘cajones,’ and mine are clearly shrivelled up in my Jockeys! Maybe I’ll improve on day two?
On our second day, the sessions are tailored to the rider, in order to address any real or perceived weaknesses in technique, or line. Each session on the track is followed by a five to ten minute chat with your instructor, an instructor that you share with one other rider. If necessary, you go back to the classroom, or do some work on the specially developed ‘lean bike’ that helps you find your optimum body position.
There’s also a session on the school’s rather ungainly camera bike. This footage is then analysed by one of the instructors
and, ironically, it is in the classroom that I make one of my biggest steps forward. From the high-mounted, rear camera
it is clear that I’m not looking far enough up the road, especially at the fast uphill section at turn six.
What one of the instructors notices is that my helmet sits too low on my head and, with a speed hump on my leathers, I’m simply not able to lift my head high enough to see where I’m going. A couple of bits of sticky sponge in the roof of the helmet and the problem is resolved. Suddenly, I can hit the apex at turn six correctly, and use the full width of the track on the exit. But it’s an adjustment that seems to help me all around the circuit.
I can’t think that I’ve ever attended any other course or school where an issue like this would have been spotted. Just as I begin to get confident, it’s all over. It’s been an exhilarating and inspiring couple of days. I’ve learned a lot and, although I’m ready for a beer and a burger, I’m already planning my return trip.
As far as I’m concerned, there’s no school that comes close to this one. Code’s CV is impressive: he’s worked with the best of the best, but his real genius has been in breaking down the science of going fast in to a number of easily practicable exercises and drills. And the course has been brilliantly run. The instructors are impressive. I don’t know how quick they all are in a race situation, but they’re faster than all of us and, importantly, they’re perceptive enough to be able to spot and analyse our weaknesses. And articulate enough to help us try and understand and rectify them.
The ‘lean’ and ‘slide’ bikes were useful aids, and the video analysis was a revelation, although sadly on camera you never
seem to be riding quite as quickly as you thought you were! The BMW bikes were simply amazing. The quick shift was a first for me, but over the two days there was never any doubt that the bike had more speed, talent and ability than I would ever have.
In fact, I have an embarrassing admission to make. The bike comes with three settings: Race, Sport and Rain. These basically dictate the amount of power the bike develops at different angles of lean.
The truth is that I never got it out of ‘Rain’ mode, but even so I swear that this bike was still the most ferocious and frightening machine I’ve ever thrown a leg over!
I leave the Parkway exhilarated, but with the feeling that there’s some unfinished business that needs attending to.
As one famous Californian resident once proclaimed: “I’ll be back!”