Mar 2, 2012

Back to school

So the new bug in my motorcycle life is the racetrack. And no, that does not mean I want to be in the MotoGP. Hell, I don't even want to do the Honda or Yamaha one make cups. I just want to ride at a racetrack. Ideally every other day. What gives?

As many of you know, my first outing at the racetrack was unsettling for me. 100 per cent commitment, teetering at the edge of adhesion, sneaking one per cent more throttle is stuff I dreamt of. The question of riding that kind of hard simply doesn't arise. For the simplest of reasons.

I was a street rider then. The street is full of variables. Stuff mostly beyond your control. Weird traffic, bad drivers, bad riders, changing surfaces, animals on the road... You know the weird and wonderful list. In these conditions, I think the most I've ever committed is maybe 70-80 per cent. And when I've had to ride harder still, it's been always been a one or two corner sequence taken repeatedly, with friends kind enough to be watching for traffic to let you know in advance, on a stretch of road out of the way, utterly deserted and far away from civilisation.

So when I arrived at the track, I was utterly lost. I didn't know how to attack any of the corners. I couldn't figure out how to break years of play it safe, and then embrace the search for the fastest possible line through the corner. To bring the tyres to the point where the rubber is balling up on the edges and beginning to fall off under the severe stress you're putting on it. Everyone passed me that day, while I circled like a lost dog, going slowly and hesitantly.

I figured out that racing wasn't for me because being passed did nothing to diminish my awesome ego. I was slow, but I was still awesome. But it did pose a new challenge. How to figure out this beast? The immediate advice was simple - do not crash today. Do what feels right, ride within your comfort zone, ignore everything else. Just return home with good memories. Psycho bull? Not really, falling on the track first time out makes you more hesitant the next time around, or makes you swear off it.

But the past year and a bit have been different. I managed to go to the Indimotard track school (see this story by this guy) twice, and then attended two California Superbike Schools (see this story) as well. They tell me my riding speed, smoothness and skill in improvement terms is night and day. And I think my internal awesomeness mechanism says this is true. I do manage to hold my lines, my motorcycle isn't squirming around, I'm not breaking into cold sweats or swearing inside my helmet. I know where I am on the track and I know what to do there. And most of the time, I seem to able to manage to do the right thing, or nearly the right thing, at the very least. I'm not about to give any of our racers nightmares with blinding speed. But I'm fast enough to not be embarrassed to say it. I've become a fast track rider.

How did this happen? Lots of instruction and lots of time spent pursuing the skills rather than the speed. My understanding of it now is that speed is like a cake in a world devoid of all bakeries and pastry shops. You can't buy it whole (unless you have Graziano's genes, that is). The cake of speed is made of a number of physical and mental ingredients. And it's sort of like a treasure hunt. You have to get after one ingredient at a time, fill a bag full of it and then hunt down the next one. Each ingredient adds flavour to your cake. And one day, you discover that you have a cake. Then you can start working on making a better cake, adding flavours to it and so forth.

In my experience, most of us Indian riders cannot do this on their own. We neither have enough racetracks to figure out the components of speed on our own, nor is there enough track time available. Open days like the pay and ride Sundays at the Chennai track are a bit chaotic, the BIC is nigh impossible to access as a normal middle-class human being and the Coimbatore track I simply don't know enough about in terms of accessing it to make any comments.

But I do know this. TT Vardharajan and his Preethi crew do an awesome job of bringing the annual California Superbike School to India in January every year (for the past two years now) and the instruction and content offered is first rate. The course is logical, progressive and unthreatening. You learn, you see the logic, you practice it, you go faster. Simple. Cost? This years school was about Rs 22,000 for three levels, including a TVS Apache RTR 180 ABS rental (or you could bring your own bike, same rate). Add say, 5-8,000 to that for hotel rooms, 2-3000 for the cabs you'll need to get from the airport to the hotel and then the track, plus food and travel (say 15,000) and you are looking at spending about Rs 57,000 for the privilege. It's expensive, but I think it's worth it. And if you live in Chennai, it's half that, brilliant!

Then there is the TWO Track School run by Bangalore outfit Indimotard. This school is held over the weekend, takes two days per level and is far, far less expensive. Track cost is just Rs 4,000 for the weekend. The school ships bikes from Bangalore to the racetrack and the cost of shipping works out to about Rs 3,000. Sometimes you can also rent a Yamaha R15 from them, for about the same cost as well. Add the hotel - their deal hotel offers Rs 2,000 per room night, or Rs 4,000 total and the flights, say 10k and you have a track weekend that should cost you about Rs 20,000 all told.

Being a vastly younger outfit, Indimotard's course material is differently structured, the instructors work with a marginally large group of students per session (three at CSS versus five-six at TWO) and classrooms are less structured. On the other hand, TWO offers more riding time on track (five 20 minute sessions per day at CSS versus four 40 minute sessions per day at TWO) and has open sessions where you're technically not at school but on a trackday, a great chance to get the instructors to work with you as well as a opportunity to apply what you've learnt for a qualifying style fast lap and see what the score is.

I've seen students get significantly faster and more confident at both schools but this is not a school comparison at all. The point is, I am yet to meet a student at either school who either doesn't swear by the instructions or doesn't intend to return and do it once again. As in, all students at both schools think this is value for money. A weekend well spent.

The benefits you already know. To give my own example, my abilities have vastly, vastly improved. I never imagined that I would be keeping up with certain characters who frequent the track, one of these gentlemen, incongruously enough, is nicknamed after an extinct flightless bird (he's far from extinct, most certainly can fly and isn't a bird no matter how you look at this). He is in many ways my hero. He is cheerful and affable in the pit lane and super fast, super smooth on track.

He was also by turns, much, much faster than me the first time I rode with him. This time, I found myself keeping up with with ease. And then, magic happened. We spend a set of five-six laps at a quick clip. Not quite on the edge but close enough to it for the experience to be rich and vivid. He followed me for a few laps and then I followed him for a few in turn. And it was pure magic. It was a riding memory I will have forever. I think he might as well. I've rarely felt so at peace, so overjoyed and so proud of myself all at the same time.

And that feeling makes me want to come back and ride the track more. And to return to school at every available opportunity. And I'm hoping I'll meet you there.

Feb 19, 2012

Next stop

So the track bug has bitten. Hard. And also biting is the missing end of my motorcycle immersion - ownership. I don't own a motorcycle today. I've owned a few before but had to sell them since my day job gives me many, many new motorcycles and I have to ride them, allowing me little time to have my own. But now that I've ridden the KTM Duke 200, I want one.

Why? Because it is intense.

On the face of it, it's a solid motorcycle. 200cc, 25PS, 125kg dry is a potent sounding combination. But there more to it than that. There is the stuff spec sheets cannot capture. And perhaps, it is right that they cannot. For the intangible is a powerful thing.

Let me describe a quick short ride to you. Get on the bike. It's freaking skinny in feel. The tank feels so thin, but not too thin. Pegs are back, handlebar is weirdly wide and upright. I think I'll want a fist fight about now, it seems to suggest just by the riding position. Start the engine up. It settles into a blatty, gruff idle. Blip the throttle. Revs rise incredibly fast and fall just as quickly. Gulp.

Click into first, roll on a bit of gas, let the clutch out. The KTM shoots forward with a strong sense of purpose. It forces a quick reset of your performance threshold right there. And then it bounces harshly, unceremoniously off the redline. Already? The damn redline is at 10,000rpm! How the hell did it get there? Snick into second, the digital tacho flashes across the width of the screen and bam, you're back on the redline. This is really getting annoying now. Snick up four more gears and it's the same story, until you see 140kmph on the speedo, bash into the redline once more and drop to 136. Holy cow.

The exhaust note, had it been louder would make this whole drama feel more real, but there is no getting away from it. A short geared set of ratios, a weightless crankshaft and a fast, effortless engine is a breathtaking combination. I'll have another helping of that, please. This time your left foot is a blur, up shifting just in the time, making the blat go louder and more urgent. This is lovely and super aggressive. Again, please?

Then comes a corner. Slide bum off to the inside a bit, hook up the outside knee securely in that extremely well-designed recess, find it awkward to hook up the ankle, but feel solidly hooked up anyway. And countersteer. Oh crap, I'm going to go off the track. On the freaking inside! Where is the 136kg kerb weight? Where the hell did they hide it? The motorcycle is without weight or inertia. It tips smartly, eagerly into the corner with almost no effort. The tyres give a great sense of hooking up and driving forward, the chassis is just so, the feedback you receive is excellent and there is no gap between you thinking of changing direction and the motorcycle responding. A chicane is dispatched with the same effort as you would use to bat an eyelid. And just that quickly. Oh my freaking god. I'm in love. For now. Until the 350 comes out...

Meanwhile back in the present...

I have to get myself one.

I'm going to make a few mods though. There has got to be a louder exhaust on it. I need to fashion and mount a set of heel plates. And I need to figure out what all I can remove or replace to lose as much weight as possible for the inevitable track days it will have to attend with me.

I always thought my next motorcycle would be a big one. A supersport class machine. But hey, looks like the future's orange.