Braking is a state of mind: A CSS Story
Motorcycling has three basic components: accelerating, braking and turning, and that’s what I expected to learn at the California Superbike School (CSS). So imagine my confusion when I was told the first session on track for day one at the CSS at the MMRT (Madras Motor Race Track) would be fourth gear (quite a pace on the TVS Apache RTR 200)... and no brakes!
But before I can tell you more about the three-day weekend that opened my eyes to something that I have been doing (albeit erroneously, in retrospect) for almost a decade now, a little perspective is in order. I’ve had prior experiences at the MMRT with various riding schools, all of which started off by getting to know the track layout via a ‘sighting lap’, usually done in second gear. Technically, that too is a “no brakes” drill, but at that pace, it’s more like “no brakes needed” rather than “no brakes allowed.” A subtle yet meaningful difference.
After getting my gear checked for the compulsory elements: a full-face helmet with a d-ring fastener, full-body leathers, full gauntlet gloves and racing boots with adequate shin, ankle and heel protection, I headed to the main pit area where our seminarist Steve, after a small introduction on track motorcycling, said, “Master the throttle before touching the brakes,” the logic behind the ‘No Brakes Drill.’
Before letting us loose on the track, we underwent a cornering drill, to help loosen up on the bike and get our riding stance sorted. We then exited the pit lane for lap one of the weekend. Corners 2 and 3, a hard right-left, were negotiated brake-free. Heading into the chicane, I gassed it a bit more, which meant a dab on the brakes for corner 4, a pattern I followed for the rest of the lap. At the post-session debrief, my coach Siddharth Trivellore (Sid) told me I could have stayed brake-free simply by throttling “smoothly, evenly and consistently.” Major foreboding there!
In the next classroom session, Steve showed us videos of riders on bikes of all shapes and sizes stay rubber side down simply by maintaining a steady throttle. Back out on track, Sid guided us on where and how much to open the throttle. Soon, a smoother throttle saw me go round the bends using the brakes less and less.
A few sessions in, Steve posed a simple question: “How do you turn faster?” The answer: Spend less time with the bike leaned over, the essence of quick steering. Now, we all know how counter-steering, or subconsciously pushing the ’bars on the side you want to turn, works. But doing it quickly and deliberately is easier said than done, as too much pressure too soon can have disastrous results. So, for the second time that day, I went on track with my heart in my mouth. Soon, Sid overtook me, tapping the back of his bike, the universal “follow me” signal. I followed him to C4. He flicked his elbow out at the point he wanted me to turn. Prohibiting anxieties, I steered left at that very point… and whooshed through it! I followed Sid through a few more corners before he gave me the thumbs-up and waved me past. Overall, the drill was of immense help, especially during the last session of the day, where I was still able to maintain a steady pace despite a light drizzle.
‘Where you look is where you go’ an oft-repeated adage, is more psychology than physics, as our body always follows our eyes. Applying this in the sessions that followed, I kept my eyes peeled for any discolourations or tyre marks on track. Over the next few sessions, this bank of reference points gave me a much better grasp on how far and fast I needed to go around the corners. In the zone, I was in fifth gear through most of the track (dropping to fourth only on the longer corners) and hardly felt perturbed when another bike was in the way of any corner I was approaching, and Sid’s smile and the way he said “Smoooooth” during the debrief meant I was doing it right.
However, add in fast moving traffic, and one point missed meant one corner fudged. Anticipating this dilemma, the final session of the day dealt with scanning the track when on the move, helping me correct my line when other riders crept too close. And my new-found confidence meant I couldn’t wait for the secrets of the final day to be unveiled!
The final day of the CSS felt like a revision of all that was taught from day one, collated and then turned to eleven! After two days of drilling in the importance of throttle control, effective vision and quick changes in race lines, the very action of motorcycling had taken a different meaning for me.
The easy way that lots of manoeuvres made by the world champions in the sport were explained meant that by the time the drills in which I could brake approached, I felt more cloistered than relieved. The last few laps on track went by in a jiffy, so relaxed and energetic was my frame of mind. And coincidentally, the amount of time I was on the brakes on my last lap were nigh identical to that on my first lap on day one, notwithstanding that I was probably going one-and-a-half times faster.
Lastly, Sid adjudging me the most improved rider in my batch showed how infectious my enthusiasm must have been.
CSS, for me, was the thrill of a lifetime and cemented my belief in founder Keith Code’s words, “The real fun of the ride is in the corners.”