Have you ever been in a riding rut? I know I have. When my wife and I moved from the curvy roads of East Tennessee to the flat, straight plains of central Indiana, I all but gave up riding. Then we moved to Southern California and riding got interesting again. But I hadn’t ridden much for a few years and my confidence was low. I didn’t know the roads or the best places to ride, and I didn’t want to deal with the Los Angeles freeway system.
Then my wife (a saint, by the way) surprised me with a gift certificate for the California Superbike School (CSS). She sensed my reluctance to get back into riding. When the day finally arrived, with a bit of apprehension, I woke before dawn one Saturday and made the trek to Willow Springs International Raceway.
It was exactly what I needed. The class completely changed my mindset when it came to motorcycles and riding. And even though I’m 48, I’ve found a new passion for riding.
If you are unfamiliar with Keith Code, founder of CSS, he is a legend in motorcycle training. A former road racer, Code is a guru when it comes to how motorcycles operate. He pioneered high-performance rider training and motorcyclists all over the world use his books. He and his team have operated CSS since 1980 and have trained thousands of riders.
The beauty of the CSS operation is that it is completely turnkey. You can show up with nothing (except riding experience—that is required) and the school will provide everything, including the bike. They use the current model-year BMW S 1000 RR, so if you have an older bike, like me, it’s also a chance to see what technology has done for modern sportbikes.
Code has broken his training system down into four levels and each addresses specific “roadblocks” for motorcyclists. Instructors introduce concepts one at a time, with each skill building on the last. The final drill of each level transitions to the first concept of the next. Each hour is broken down into three 20-minute segments. First, riders go into the classroom, where a concept is introduced. Next, they head out onto the track to work on the technique. After a short break, it’s back into the classroom for the next concept.
Riders are assigned a riding coach at the beginning of the day and work closely with them on track and off. CSS uses a lead/follow system, where coaches follow students on track for several laps, then execute a pass and have the student pull in behind for several more. This allows coaches to identify problem areas and correct them right away. After each riding session, coaches and students meet up for a debrief session where specific problems are addressed and discussed.
I was nervous when the day started. I’ve ridden some great and challenging roads. I’ve been all over the “alphabets” in Wisconsin. And when we lived in Tennessee, our house was less than an hour from Deals Gap (a.k.a. The Tail of the Dragon). But I’ve never had butterflies like I did sitting in that classroom at Willow Springs.
After a few sessions, though, I started to get more comfortable. Though riding on a track, it is not a race. CSS emphasizes not pushing beyond your limits. Coaches meet students at their skill level to help them lift the anchors that hold back their riding.
By the end of the day, I could not wait to get back for Level II, which I completed a couple of months later.
Then, I saw that CSS was hosting a two-day camp in October at Mazda Raceway at Laguna Seca. Perhaps no road racing course in the U.S. is as famous, and I would argue that no corner is as revered as the Corkscrew, the daunting left-right down a three-story drop. It’s the corner where MotoGP star Valentino Rossi made his daring inside pass through the dirt on Casey Stoner in 2008. And where Mark Marquez returned the favor to Rossi in 2013.
Honey, I know what I want for my birthday…
Because my wife is the best, we planned a weekend in Monterey and the camp was slated for Monday and Tuesday. The camp format is slightly different than a regular class with CSS as there are more riding sessions and fewer students. This provides more face time with your coach, but also allows time for video recording and review. And camp lap times are recorded so students can track improvement.
I rode through Level III on Monday, focusing on drills emphasizing body position. Tuesday, I progressed to Level IV. Here, the format is completely customizable. Students decide where they are still lacking and work on drills to overcome specific shortcomings. Rather than a group classroom, a Level IV advisor works on an individual basis. Riding strategy is discussed and noted, and on-track coaches work alongside the advisor to ensure progress.
By the time I started Level IV, 15 concepts were floating through my mind. Trying to execute each one as I turned laps was difficult. I would forget something in one corner, kick myself for the mistake and overemphasize it in the next corner. For example, several times my focus on turn-in would result in late throttle and no drive out of the corner. My coach saw it right away and noted on my lesson plan, “Good lines, no drive.” Then we re-employed a drill from Level II to address the problem. Code has developed 146 additional drills just for Level IV to keep riders moving ahead. It’s also why riders return again and again to take the Level IV course.
Through many, many laps, my riding steadily improved. It wasn’t always my best riding and I was never close to being the fastest person on track. But I consistently dropped my lap time throughout the day. And there is nothing quite like having a breakthrough on the track and seeing the excitement of your coaches as they give you an enthusiastic fist pump and thumbs up when they fly by!
By the end of the camp, I realized that I was a lost cause. All I could think about was when I could get back on the track. A couple of months later, my wife bought me a BMW S 1000 RR for Christmas. (Have I mentioned that she is awesome?)
I’m in the process of converting it to a track-day bike.
California Superbike School offers training at tracks across the country, from February through November. For more information visit superbikeschool.com.