Midwestern rugby lacks finesse. That’s the truth of things at the Division II level, at least – it’s just a bunch of well-fed boys trundling into other well-fed boys. Which more or less explains how I ended up playing center for Eastside Banshees RFC.
I wasn’t fast, I couldn’t side-step a house, but in weighing 50-100 pounds less than most of the other guys I had agility by default. I played for five seasons before being serendipitously retired by a major concussion.
I didn’t complain when I was advised to quit; the weekly experience of getting the shit kicked out of me by well-fed Midwestern boys had lost its lustre. And, as had been the case when I’d played football, and baseball, and soccer, I found I didn’t mesh well with aggressively competitive people.
There had been this one guy on my team who got under my skin particularly. He was a good, tough player – fearless when running the ball – but, Lord, was he a yeller. He played fullback and would hang out there behind us screaming his lungs off for the whole. damn. game. He was too much.
I think of that dude when I think about track bros: unnecessarily competitive, and so narrowly focused on a single objective (winning/riding fast) that they detract from others’ enjoyment of the activity. Track bros sees track riding as the alpha and the omega. They weight your value as a human being on your ability to huck a 1000cc supersport into a hairpin corner.
The track bro is the guy who will show up in every internet discussion about new riders or how to build up your on-road skills and insist that the only way to become a good proficient rider is to “get to the track, bro.” It’s an assertion that annoys me.
Ostensibly, the track bro is not wrong. Race circuits provide somewhat controlled environments (no oncoming or cross traffic, and usually a very clean and well-laid road surface) where a rider can push him- or herself to the limit of ability. Doing this repeatedly, when combined with self-reflection and analysis, has the potential to extend that limit further and further.
Theoretically, then, techniques developed when riding at 100 percent can be applied to road situations, where you should never be riding in excess of 70 percent of your ability (you have to leave something for dealing with the unknown unknowns).
~ SIDEBAR: RIDING AT KYALAMI ~
Earlier this year, the very nice people at Pirelli flew me out to South Africa to test ride their new Diablo Rosso Corsa II tires. Part of the event included getting a chance to tear around the recently refurbished Kyalami Grand Prix Circuit. Located near Johannesburg, the circuit’s been in existence since 1961 but was dramatically refurbished in 2016.
Myself and Jensen Beeler of Asphalt & Rubber were the only Americans at the event, amid a sea of Italians, Germans, French, Spanish, and one Greek bloke. Just about everyone was pee-their-pants excited about riding the track, including Pirelli’s own head honchos. But I was nervous as hell.
This was only my second time on a track, my first experience having come a month earlier, when Michelin brought me to Spain‘s Monteblanco circuit. In that case, testing the Road 5 tire, the purpose of being on the track was primarily to demonstrate aspects that would be difficult or illegal to replicate on the road (wet-weather performance and high-speed handling). The tire isn’t designed for track, so we were encouraged not to push too hard in lapping the circuit. Fine with me.
At Kyalami, however, we were testing a tire designed for both road and track use, and Pirelli was eager for us to get a chance to abuse the product. We were broken into groups of about a half a dozen riders and given 20-minute sessions to just ride like hell. Across the whole of the day, each group did four 20-minute sessions.
The riders were sent out 20 seconds apart and told to try to keep a distance from each other so as to avoid showing up in each others’ photos. It seemed pretty likely to me that despite my 20-second lead I was going to get lapped, and that stressed me out. Finally, I had to man up, own my noob nature, and ask Jensen for advice.
“I’m not afraid of the speed or of crashing or anything,” I explained. “I just don’t want to piss anyone off. I don’t want other riders getting angry at me for being slow.”
“Just stick to your line,” Jensen said. “Do that, and you’re good. If someone has a problem with you beyond that it’s his problem – he’s a dick.”
I was hyperventilating through my first session: trying to get my body right, trying to stick to my line, and panicking as to whether the line I’d chosen made sense. One benefit, though, was that we were using full road bikes, replete with mirrors – so I was able to see someone coming up behind me. Being passed by a bike going 180 mph is a lot less stressful if you know it’s coming.
Thundering toward a particularly sharp corner, I spotted a headlight in my mirror but figured the rider would hold off until we got through the turn. Just as I was beginning to tip in, however, the rider came screaming by on the inside. It was Jensen, ripping the ever-living hell out of a KTM 1290 Super Duke.
“I fucked up, didn’t I?” I said to him after the session. “I was in the wrong place.”
“No, man,” he said. “You were exactly where you were supposed to be. There was some dude over to your right. I don’t know what the hell he was doing.”
In addition to our 20-minute sessions, we were also offered the opportunity to ride the track completely on our own, then along with a GoPro-laden bike, for the sake of getting video. I originally opted out of this, but Pirelli’s North America VP, Richard Butler, changed my mind by making this very good point: “When are you going to get to do this again? Why not have video of it? Even if it’s just something you keep on your phone?”
So, I saddled up on a Yamaha R1 and found myself assigned to chase and be chased by a camera bike piloted by none other than Pirelli’s director of motorcycles, Salvo Pennisi.
You will see from the video (above) that I am a slow, slow dude. The R1 is a demonstrably faster bike than the BMW S 1000 R Salvo was riding but check his tachometer at the 30-second mark on the video and you’ll see he’s not even pushing 6000 rpm; I wasn’t pushing him at all. My form is poor (I’m not moving around enough) and I’m such a noob that I don’t even have the right leathers, wearing a two-piece touring get-up, rather than a legitimate racing suit.
In short, the video is embarrassing. But I thought I’d share it so you can laugh at me. And because I’m trying to bolster TMO’s YouTube output.
~ ||| ~
But I have a few issues with the “Riding track makes you a better road rider” philosophy. Firstly, there are still some highly volatile aspects, namely: track bros. Sit and listen to them talk long enough and they’ll eventually brag – either overtly or indirectly – about doing something dangerously aggressive: bumping shoulders/knees in a turn, hitting another rider’s kill switch, buzzing a rider for going too slow, etc.
I don’t need that in my life. Especially considering the cost outlay.
Firstly, there is the expense of your bike. Most insurers will not cover track bikes, so if you send your pride and joy a wanderin’ in a chicane you’ll be paying every penny necessary to restore it to health. Not to mention the cost of tires, and the cost/challenge of getting your track bike to said track.
Secondly, there is the gear. Racing leathers are crazy expensive, yo, and unlike other moto gear they don’t lend themselves as well to multiple uses. You don’t tour in racing leathers, for example. And if you wear them out on a sunny Sunday road ride you just look like a tool.
“Hey, check me out in a £4,000 Dainese Mugello R D-Air suit – exactly the sort of thing I need for going 20 mph through Hereford town center. Nevermind the fact my Panigale has almost no steering lock, so I can’t filter as well as that 16-year-old on a Keeway Superlight…”
Thirdly, there is the cost of a track day: in excess of £120 – usually more. That’s without any instruction. That’s just you on your bike, hurtling around amid a pack of people who are faster than you and quite possibly negligently homicidal.
In other words, track riding is prohibitively expensive as a skills-improvement exercise. It’s like skiing. Skiing is great for your mental and physical health, but it’s also expensive as fuck. So, if you’re only in it to get fit, you’d be better off taking up running. If you’re heading to a race circuit because some track bro told you it’s the best way to improve your road riding skill, you’d be better off taking a road-focused riding course, eg, BikeSafe.
Don’t get me wrong, like skiing, it’s a whole hell of a lot of fun. When all the little pieces come together – you and the bike interacting symbiotically – it’s a pretty special feeling. But… ah… like skiing, motorcycling is something I do for solace. I’m a naturally high-strung person, and one of the reasons I ride a bike is to relieve anxiety. That’s not going to happen when I’m stressing about money and whether some track bro is gunning to ruin my day.
I’d rather be out on the road – on my own, away from the “safety” of a track.