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Slidin and Cryin

September 28, 2011

Riding the mountain roads in winter and early spring reminded me of just how little I know about this sport of Motorcycling. We had a great deal of ice and snow in Western NC, so our roads contained little surprises of traction-robbing deposits dropped in the most inconvenient locations.

My tense shoulders after winter rides drove me to watching On Any Sunday for the flat tracking scenes. I then popped “Faster” into the DVD player to watch Garry McCoy power sliding his GP bike. No inspiration hits me other than I want to know more about sliding a street bike.

A riding buddy passed me a link to “Cornerspin, Road Racing in the Dirt.” Not a flat track school, nor a dirt bike school, but a road racing school taught on mini bikes in the dirt.

On their site, I read articles by road racers and track day addicts wherein they thanked Cornerspin for shaving seconds off lap times on favorite tracks. It sounded convincing, but I was left wondering how applicable it would be for me: the average middle-aged street rider, with no predilection for racing. I signed on.

The entire weekend is about exploring the limits of a motorcycle’s traction. Using a diverse group of drills, Cornerspin aims to commit the lessons you learn to muscle memory. Building one upon another, my skill, and confidence grew by the hour. I’ll try to explain.

“You can’t believe how much traction you really have,” says Aaron Stevenson, the chief instructor and creator of the school, “until you learn to push it.”

Aaron loves his job!

He’s right and I did. The bikes are 100cc dirt bikes shod with street tires, allowing us to feel the loss of traction more easily. The first morning, we were drilling straight ahead braking on soft dirt using the front brake only, feeling for the limits of traction. Braking was not the only component here. Our coaches were grilling us on other disciplines such as: reference points for beginning and ending braking, proper body position that will allow you to control the bike when you do lose traction and most importantly: vision.

On my second pass, I felt the front brake lock up twice, each time my fingers modulated the pressure, returned me to traction and I stayed upright. I also learned that it is possible to lock the front wheel in a stop and not crash, it’s all in body positioning and handlebar awareness.

From the braking exercise on, I was driving hard toward my braking spots and applying maximum stopping in very loose conditions. I’m still in awe of the experience-I stopped harder and shorter than I’ve ever attempted on a road bike.

It's all about the gear: "How do I look?"

Did I fall? Why yes, I did…. 9 times. None of them hurt very much because we were outfitted with the Robo-Cop level of padding. I don’t know how Aaron and his guys do it, but the atmosphere throughout the weekend was more like a family gathering than a road race school; where everyone is taken care of, no one’s ego is bruised and everyone felt like equals. Don’t get me wrong, all of us were pushed to a high level of riding, and the technical classroom sessions during rest breaks were mind numbing with new input. Yet, at no time did I sense any “I’m More Experienced than you” which can be commonplace in motorcycle tutelage.

Another solemn moment in the classroom session: Aaron and students assume the proper handlebar position.

“Shut em down, I want you to hear this,” said Aaron. He explained the proper body position to stay upright while controlling rear wheel traction on the very tight circular course in front of us.

“…and once you have it down, I want you to take your left hand and place it on the gas cap. OK, start em up!”

I shit you not. The radius of the circle was such that staying upright with speed controlled dictated that we pilot our bikes by tipping them over pretty far to the inside…on slippery dirt. This was hard enough. Once we were comfortable we were to do this with one hand.

Guess what? I did it. We all did it, in a very short time period. This trend of starting small, then building the degree of difficulty is a constant at C-spin.

Testing the limits of traction. Ibuprofen is required.

“When we have the throttle applied or we’re actively braking, we’re pilots; we are in control. When we are Coasting we are passengers. Do not wait for the bike to guide you thru the turn. Be the pilot. Commit to the turn and do not stop trying,” said Aaron during our first classroom session. This idea became a mantra for the weekend and an important stimulation item as many of the drills became more complex.

On another drill we were running a very tight kidney shaped course comprised of three tight corners with a particularly tight 120-degree turn. The corner construction kept our speed low, so we could not rely on momentum to get us thru. We were forced to work the bike around every inch: it was all body mechanics, braking and gas.

The exercise was difficult, but if we used all that had been said about Gas, Brake, body position, reference points, eye discipline and commitment we’d do fine. Eventually I did. I slowly dialed in my reference points, found the proper line, and paid attention to body discipline and I was nailing it. It felt good.

Traction is all in the mind...student at speed.

“OK great! Now one handed!” shouted Pete over the engine noise.

I knew it was coming, and from the sliding circle exercise I knew it was possible. I did it. Shaky at first, but I came around. So did the other 5 people riding this tiny kidney with me. Our speed increased, and our lap times one handed seemed faster than two handed.

The kicker for getting a good lap was the first turn off the back straight. IT required braking very deeply into the corner and turning my head beyond my shoulder to look behind me before I tipped into the turn. It felt amazing to be braking hard and deep, looking beyond the apex (behind me) then tipping the bike and gassing it to stabilize the chassis…one handed.

Eyes locked on reference point...note the slick tires.

“Hey! Who can hit the barrel with their handlebars? Who’s gonna be the first?” chides Pete who is standing next to the blue barrel inside turn one.

I couldn’t believe it. Hit the barrel with my bars; on the inside of a 120-degree turn one handed. We did it. I must sound like a broken record at this point to you, but the skill and confidence building that goes on minute by minute was amazing. Not only is it very cool to nail a tight turn in the dirt, riding like a street rider, and then do it one handed, but the shock of hitting the barrel with the hand guard of my throttle hand was the unspoken gift.

A gift because striking the barrel proved that if the bikes chassis is stabilized with proper pilot position and throttle control, a leaned over bike will remain stable, even when striking a large object. On one pass, I actually knocked the barrel over, but I was accelerating out of the turn, so the bike tracked like a Sidewinder missile, and I only felt a mild bang on the bars.

A few days before I attended Cornerspin, I had taken my ’06 Bonneville on a route that was downhill gravel and dirt for a few miles. I remember well the fear and apprehension and the resultant tight shoulders and neck after the ride. With my Cornerspin skills fresh in my muscles, I am eager to try the new tools I’ve acquired in my Pilot Toolbox. A fire road on my road bike, when compared to sliding and braking one handed on a tight dirt course, seems like child’s play.

“Art, don’t you have a dirt bike? I mean, if I were spending $ on instruction, I’d sign up for a Keith Code school or a track day, not this dirt bike spinning thing you’re going to.” This same sentiment was repeated to me by street riding partners long before I took the Cornerspin weekend. Now that I’ve attended, I strongly disagree that the outcome of just horsing around on a dirt bike would take me to where Aaron Stevenson did last weekend.

There is no way that I could magically find the correct combination of body awareness, throttle control, braking sensitivity and overall skill jump just by thrashing a dual sport on fire roads. Cornerspin has a very unique formula that enables you to drink from a fire hose of knowledge in your mind whilst taking what seems like baby steps on the bike. The coaching is by experienced road and flat track racers who possess the maturity to comment in a constructive directed approach. Many times, they forced me to take control of my performance by asking pointed questions as to why I was doing what, and how I planned to get out of it.

Bikes, gear and track were all provided leaving us students to concentrate on riding. I have not pushed myself on a bike like I did during Cornerspin. I am still smiling at the bike handling skills that were drawn out of me. I could never have accomplished so much in so little time. I plan on riding this weekend, so I’ll report back on my personal observations about Corner spin skills transferring to heavy road bike handling on the twistys.

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