With talk of hip flicking, California and superbikes, the prospect of a wet Wednesday near Louth doesn’t immediately spring to mind as the right place to be.
Even the term ‘school’ could have been overlooked for the promise of riding. On track. In the sunshine.
But all was not lost because I was equipped with a £9999, 148bhp, MotoGP-replica Suzuki GSX-R750, the ‘mini Nurburgring’ itself; Cadwell Park, and a day packed full of on-track training as part of Level three of the California Superbike School.
Each level takes a whole and very structured day to complete and the levels don’t relate directly to the ability of the rider; quite simply if Valentino Rossi turned up he would have to complete Level One before Level Two. You get the gist.
Then, Level Four is manipulated to suit the riders’ requirements – whatever skills you want to concentrate on from any of the previous three levels or if there’s any shady areas of your own bike skills that you wish to work on then the rider coach will create Level Four around you.
For the 60 attendees on the day, each hour consists of three 20-minute sessions; either in the classroom, on the track with your rider coach or having a rest, digesting information, chatting with others, eating, drinking or calling your mum. There are five briefings and five track sessions in total with plenty of information to take on board. Some mad folk even book back-to-back courses and stay on for the following day or will have completed the previous course on the previous day. I say mad because there is so much information to take in and like any new skill to learn, it takes time to practice.
As the day progresses so does the pace even though the emphasis on the drills is very much teaching and mastering skills much like a school instead of a track day. Just like in levels one and two, the first drill of level three uses just one gear and no brakes to keep speed down but concentration up.
So, having already taken part in Levels One at Silverstone on the Stowe circuit two years ago on a School hire Ducati 1199 Panigale where I was taught all about throttle control and turning the bike with an eye-opening lesson on counter steering. Then it was onto Level Two which took me to Brand Hatch last summer on board a Kawasaki ZX-10R to focus on developing visual skills to make the road or track an easier place to ride, spotting danger, a reference point or even an exit point of a corner early enough to amend your line
And now onto Level Three on the physically demanding, narrow yet picturesque 2.2 mile Cadwell Park circuit where even the straights are curved. And the bonus of having completed two of these school days before, is that I knew what to expect which can be a little daunting.
With bike and riding kit packed in the van the night before as well as extra fuel, a bit of food and a towel I was good to go for the 90-minute trip to Cadwell Park.
My overnight excitement was dampened, literally, by the clattering of rain on bedroom window. Nonetheless, I was on site ahead of the recommended 7.30am and once the obligatory signing-on, licence check, kit check, tyre pressure adjustment and of course a quick brew and bacon sandwich area all out of the way, the standard safety and introductory briefing takes place.
Before starting an engine, my group of six all there for Level Three were directed to mini marquee in the collecting area where a rider coach while sitting on a 959 Panigale explains drill no. 1: Hook Turn.
And just like real school, I get an earful from Christine, aka ‘Shouty Lady’, because I’m late to class! She’s there to make sure everyone is in the right place at the right time. A PA to all 60 of is essentially.
After reminding ourselves of Level Two’s hand signals including the last drill of that session; 'Pick up' which focuses on getting more grip as you drive out of a turn. And that moves us on to Hook Turn, the key point of which is stabilising the bike on entry, mid-corner and exit.
Again, before splashing our way onto the circuit, one-by-one we get our bodies into a position on the 959 to encourage a faster and soother turn. The spine is almost parallel with the ground and while the lower body stays rigid offering stability, it’s the head and upper body that move further away from the bike in the turn.
The "locked on" position on the bike is found by pushing on foot peg to lock the upper leg (femur) into the tank squeezing the thighs and pushing the heel into heel plates.
Leave a fist width between the fuel tank and your gentleman (or lady) parts to allow free movement around the tank without being too close, an affliction known as "tank shagging"!
When lean down either side of the front fairing the inside elbow makes a v-shape and while the weight is more forwards, it loads the front suspension which leads to better front end grip and the bike turns better without more lean angle. Ideal for wet conditions…like today.
As the throttle increases, the effect of the hook turn decreases because weight transfers to the rear leaving less grip and stability at the front. This technique is also useful for corners that tighten.
Once the coach is happy you can “lock on”, it’s off to your bike and out for the 20 minutes track session to put it into practice. And you’re encouraged to use one or two gears and as little brake as possible to keep speed down and concentration on the task up.
The rider coach will be out there on track too and is likely to have another two or three students to look at. He’ll assess by riding behind you then overtake giving a relevant and pre-discussed signal. He’ll sit in front for a few corners before waving you through. After the session he’ll then debrief you on the good bits and the bits that need a bit of work.
Then it’s straight back to the classroom for lesson Two: Pivot steering which is designed to offer stability in the fast turns or bumpy sections of the circuit – ideal for Cadwell Park.
Because a bike is harder to turn at 150mph than 20mph there are certain positions the rider can adopt to still feel connected with the bike but keeping the flow and momentum all while loosing as little grip as possible. The key here is to lifting the body slightly. Very, very slightly by pushing gently on the pegs and using the thigh muscles. Doing this allows the upper body to get to work encouraging the bike to move. Understanding that the less lean angle of the machine equals more grip which is ultimately why we hang off a bike. So, use the inner thigh on the outer leg for support against the tank and sit further back in the seat to, once again, ‘lock on’.
Two gears are permitted this time as the GSX-R750 and I head onto the now slightly drying track. I tell myself that with practice comes confidence and find that Park Corner and the following long right-hander known as Chris Curve are perfect for this drill. They’re both fast, one longer than the other and are ideal to test your ability to use the outside leg to hold yourself against the tank while sitting further back in the saddle for maximum stability. I’m noticeably quicker as each lap passes and realise that something that is so simple to learn has great benefit.
An added bit of advice stemmed from this drill from my coach, Chris ‘Butch’ Butcher – who was with me in Level Two – told me that as I was hanging off the bike, while my head was over the apex of the corner, actually the wheels of the bike were still two feet away from it so next time out I should concentrate on saving those two feet and leaning that bit further over the rumblestrip.
The next drill moves that on to the next stage and is probably the most circuit-oriented lesson. Knee-to-knee is based on the transition of the bike from one corner to the next if they are opposing directions. So, coming out of a left hander and straight into a right, at the bottom of The Mountain for example. Or the other way, at the Gooseneck or Bus Stop.
By retaining one knee against the tank at all times in that transition stage keeps the bike as stable as possible and allows the rider to slide from one lean to the next. Slide, not bounce, nor up and down again, just straight across and as the knee you’ve just had hanging out/down slams back into the tank think of Newton’s Cradle. As one ball hits the others, the other one pops out. The same goes for the knee.
After the track session my rider coach, Butch told me to be a little more aggressive and get the knee locked in earlier to prepare for the corner. The whole process could be quicker but at least I got to practice this during the next drill.
But then it got tricky. Hip Flick was up next for Drill Four where coordination is the key. The faster the left-to-right corners (or vice versa of course) means it's more difficult to transit fast enough. What’s the answer? Well, move the bottom half of the body into position while still in the first corner while the top half stays doing what its doing to finish. Then as soon as you’re through the first part, flick the hips to propel the top half of the body into position for the second corner.
It was hard enough to get the coordination right in the classroom on board the stationary 959 let alone doing 70mph through the right and left of the Gooseneck. I tried it a couple of times but the dexterity and poise of a professional ballerina is not something I’ve been blessed with so I concentrated on positioning the bike’s wheels over the apex in Coppice and Park Corner instead.
The final drill of the day on what was now a fully dry circuit is called Angle of Attack. Once again, it refers to how information is processed on the approach to a corner to work out what the body can do to position the bike to ensure you’re about to take the fastest route.
The best example to use is consider you’ve just overtaken someone on the approach to a corner. It might be the same corner you’ve mastered 30 times already today but by approaching it from the middle of the circuit rather than the left-hand side as you’ve been used to, all of a sudden the dynamics of the corner have changed. You have to slow faster, turn quicker and your turning point has changed. The apex of the corner has too. This drill teaches you how to make the best out of the situation.
On the track we’re encouraged to deliberately create a negative angle of attack. Pretend that we’ve just dived up the inside of an opponent and stay to the right of the track on the entrance to the Gooseneck. Use the eyes to keep looking where you want to go. They will look for danger by default and it’s easy to get distracted.
Using all gears and as much brake as you need, the pace for this final drill is quick. Much quicker than before as fellow students some of whom are doing different drills from different levels are all on the same concept of all gear, all brakes.
Overall, the method of teaching is hugely efficient and effective. Your time is maximised with just the right amount of theory, practical and rest during each hour. There’s plenty to take in and I’d encourage note taking (or just read this time and again!) because when you get home and are asked how it went, I guarantee you’ll have forgotten at least one of the tips.
That’s because the day is physically demanding too. On a track day you’ll mainly just be whipping around lap-after-lap evading the crazy folk hunting for the invisible trophy but on a school day it’s all practice, practice, practice. The focus required on learning new skills requires concentration, thinking about the last time you approached that particular corner and how you can make it better this time. I am pleased to be able to recall elements of the day from my own notes which I’ll be thinking about tomorrow morning when I’m back on the Africa Twin for my commute.
Ok, it’ll be down the A605 instead of Cadwell Park but many of the drill skills can be transferred to the road.
Tips, credits and handy info
Head to www.superbikeschool.co.uk for more information.