The basics of riding fast

Lighter and faster with every passing year, modern superbikes rock, but getting the best out of them without ending up in the undergrowth needs some serious skill. Here are the basics

We are truly blessed these days. Fair cop, world peace isn't exactly looking likely too soon and the planet's best brains are yet to find a cure for the common cold, rainforests are disappearing faster than Abi Titmusses' dignity and, if scientists are to be believed, the earth is set to become a gigantic fireball somewhere around teatime next Tuesday.

But leaving weighty issues like these behind let's turn our gaze back to the world of motorcycles which pack the firepower not only to see off any so-called 'supercar', but may even be capable of firing you beyond the

Earth's atmosphere if only you could find a ramp big enough. We've never had it so good. Take the new GSX-R1000, it being the most of the mostest right now. For £8800, you get a bike that weighs in at 166kg dry, packs 165 genuine back wheel bhp, can shred the quarter mile in 10.1 seconds and which will rip you to the dark side of 170mph in little longer than it's taken you to read this paragraph.

To put all this into perspective, Neil Hodgson's 2000 BSB title-winning superbike only had three more horsepower and was two kilos heavier. And it cost two hundred grand. Now that sort of performance is available to you and me for less than the price of a very crappy small car. That's what I call progress.

So now we literally do have superbikes on the road, it's time for a good long look at ourselves because chances are we ain't superbike riders, which can leave a yawning chasm between us and our bikes.

Sure the throttle works both ways, and yes these bikes are only as fast as you want them to be, but the simple fact is you can't ride bikes like these for a few weeks of the year and expect to be anywhere near the money on them. Kid yourself you can and you'll be a bonnet ornament before summer's out.

But making the most of your superbike on the road isn't so tough and once cracked, you'll find the rewards are enormous. So unless you really do have that HRC factory superbike deal tucked behind the breadbin, step this way for the fastest summer you've ever had.

Lesson One

FAST 1 - FAMILIARITY BREEDS CONTEMPT

Yup, just as last year's hot mistress becomes next year's nagging housewife, so roads you know can turn ugly. Just because you've been around that corner 500 times doesn't mean there isn't an upturned milk float on the apex today. Wherever you're riding, use your imagination, always expect the worst, and you'll live to be 100. Get complacent and there's every chance that one day you'll get bitten.

If you're new to 1000cc sportsbikes then roads you think you know can suddenly become very unfamiliar, and this can lead to nasty consequences. The biggest difference between big sportsbikes and the rest of the two-wheeled food chain is the speed, and more specifically the speeds they can get you to in the blink of an eye. Obvious really, but it's amazing how many seemingly smart people fail to notice this and then find themselves upside down in hedges wondering where it all went wrong.

Normally this is on a corner, or more precisely, next to the corner they've just left in an undignified manner because no matter how fast their bike can propel them between corners, there's a limit to how quickly their abilities can actually get around said curve.

The way to avoid this problem is to give yourself time. I'll let Mark explain. "Too many people ride in halves between corners. They're either accelerating or braking, when what they should be doing is riding in thirds. You accelerate, then plateau at whatever speed is suitable for the pace you're riding and the conditions, and while you're there you take time to absorb what the road and surroundings are telling you. From here you move smoothly into the next braking phase when it comes along."

Iain has had his ZX-10 for a year now and, while the two get on well and he's coming to terms with its excess of horsepower, he admits, "it's still much better than I am.

"On the one hand this is great because the bike really flatters me as a rider, but on the other I know I've still got a long way to go, especially on a bike like this".

So back to the theory. The key to fast road riding and survival at speed is all in your head. It matters not a jot how fast your bike is because if your brain can't keep up with what's going on, you're stuffed.

You'll know when your brain can't manage because not only will it feel like you're a passenger in the Millennium Falcon on the hop to light speed, but you'll also be tense, chopping on and off the throttle and brakes and riding much like you did when you passed your test. The difference is you're now poised to make 130mph mistakes rather than 30mph ones.

The way to chill out is to back off, not to hang on for grim death thinking you can muddle through on hope and good fortune. This doesn't have to be by much, but enough to let you read the road you're on and to build a picture of what's happening not just in front of your front wheel but way beyond, as far into the distance as you can see.

Lesson Two

FAST 2 - READING THE ROAD

Sounds like a tall order, but the clues are all there if only you know where to look. "Reading a road you don't know is seen by many riders as a black art," says Mark, "but it's not so tough. Open up your vision beyond what's immediately ahead, scan around to the sides and deep into the distance and you'll find information on what the road's doing everywhere."

The thing to remember is that on a litre bike this conveyor belt of information can be rushing by at an alarming rate. Something that is, for a split second, over there, will very soon be right here - and then just as quickly it's gone. If it's too much to take in you're going too fast. Back off.

Mark again. "Hedgerows, telegraph poles and trees can be good pointers as they often follow the line of the road. Road signs and markings are useful - the more of them there are approaching a bend, the more severe it's going to be. Other traffic's helpful - look through and over hedges ahead using the bike's height advantage and you might see the tops of cars or a traffic jam around the next corner. If a car coming round the bend you're approaching is only dawdling but almost on two wheels then you know the corner's tight. If there's an open farm gate expect cows around the next turn, if you can smell cut grass then look for the tractor."

The list of clues telling you what's happening is almost endless, but the bottom line is you've got to work them out for yourself. Open up your vision, stay loose, and you'll be amazed at what you see.

As Iain was when Mark took the lead for a stretch to give a running commentary on what he was seeing and doing.

"Bloody hell", spluttered Iain into his Little chef hot chocolate afterwards, "I always thought my forward observation was pretty good, but after realising the detail Mark was taking in and just how far ahead he was seeing things, I know I've got miles to go. But I did begin to see how he could be so fast and smooth everywhere because he was working everything out so early. An impressive learning experience."

You can build up your own abilities by heading out for roads you don't know, then talking yourself down them as you go, running through what you can see and what you're doing about it. You may sound a bit mental, but at 80mph who's going to hear you? Exactly, so get on with it.

WHAT TO WATCH OUT FOR

  1. Cars going more slowly than we want to, so we've got to start looking for a way past if we haven't done so already. Is it safe? Is it legal?
  2. Farm tracks. Moments before this pic was taken we'd have been clocking that ropey pick-up truck to see if it was about to turn left or right into one of the farm tracks. It wasn't. But are vehicles (or animals) about to appear from either and turn left, right or make a dash across the road from one field to the other? And is there mud on the road ahead?
  3. The solid white line on the right of the middle of the road finishes up ahead. So what? It means the road beyond it is about to straighten up a bit - see 1. Once we're clear of the farm gate on the left, move left and have a look for a possible overtake opportunity
  4. Telegraph poles and trees follow the road in the distance, giving a clue to where it goes. It's not always a sure-fire indicator, but useful extra info to bear in mind. Can also indicate changes in gradient, like they do here

Lesson Three

FAST 3 - MAKE A PLAN

Now this bit sounds dull, but bear with me. You need to plan your ride. Not planning as in phoning your mates and seeing who fancies a thrash, but planning as in working out what you're doing as you're doing it.
It ties in with your observation and commentary, and simply means working out how what you can see will affect what you do.

"Position, speed, gear, is all you need to apply whenever anything comes up that causes you to change course, speed or both," explained Mark. "It could be a car, a busy garage forecourt or simply another bend; either way you need these three things sorted to manage whatever it is."

Let's start with position. What you want is maximum vision at all times, so if there's a left-hander coming up get as far to the right as you can for the best view around it; if it's a right-hander, head to the left, and if there's traffic ahead don't get too close - you can't see squat stuck behind a lorry. And don't be afraid to use your head, literally, and stick your neck out for a better view. If you're getting a shift on, you and your bike should be constantly jockeying for the position that allows you to see as far ahead as possible.

You also want to give yourself maximum chance of avoiding anything untoward, so if there's roadside dodginess like lay-bys, pub car parks or side roads waiting for someone to leap into or out of without looking for you first, put some space between you and them. If they're on the left you drift right, and if they're on the right, drift left. Also be aware that most road users are ignorant of the performance at your disposal. While you may be used to your bike, others won't realise just how quickly you can get from where they first see you to where they currently are. Worth bearing in mind before you stave into the side of some poor sod's motor because he thought he had more than enough time to pull out, or you genuinely weren't there when he looked a split second before he did.

Use both sides of the road if you can see it's clear ahead and there are no solid white lines. Don't be afraid to use all of the road to improve your vision, increase your safety, or for the shortest route between two points.

Next come speed and gear, and these two are much simpler: don't arrive at hazards so fast you become part of them. On a big bike keep the revs around half mast to give yourself the choice of shutting off for engine braking, or winding it on for proper welly. It's all too easy to have a big sports- bike shaking its head and pitching back and forth on its suspension if you get giddy with big handfuls off gas at high rpm. Much better to use a higher gear and less rpm to keep the plot steadier and more in control.

So let's assume you're heading for a right-hander. You've read the road, you've got your position, speed and gear sorted and you're ready for attack. Now what?

Stay out wide until you can see the corner's exit, even if this means starting the corner and staying on a wide line, because fast road cornering is about maintaining maximum visibility, then as soon as you can see the exit take the shortest line between where you are and where you're going.

Because your braking was done long ago and you're already in the right gear, all you have to do is wind the gas on progressively with a smooth hand, while feeling for grip from the tyres before catapulting yourself on to the next one, congratulating yourself on a job well done as you go.

Lesson Four

FAST 4 - CORNERS

"The number one cause of accidents these days is riders getting corners wrong," said Mark. "They come in too hot, or think they are, they panic, hit the brakes, the bike stands up and then they get target fixation on the nearest solid object - normally a tree or lamp post on a right-hander or an oncoming car on a left - and the end result's rarely pretty. The sad part is nine times out of ten the bike would have made the corner, it was just their head that couldn't manage it."

And it's a particular problem to riders of 1000cc missiles unfamiliar with the eyeball compressing acceleration available at the twitch of a wrist. All horsepower does is join corners together. It doesn't get you round them any quicker, it just gets you to them quicker. Get carried away on the straight bits and it's all too easy to find yourself starring in the panic scenario described above.

'Don't give up' is Mark's advice. These bikes are better than most of us, so even if you feel you're heading in too hot, you probably aren't. Look where you want to go not at what you're worried you're about to hit, stay off the brakes once you're turning in, lean into the corner and look round it.

One key to not getting into trouble in the first place is to use the vanishing point - the point where the two sides of the road converge as you look into a corner. If it moves away as you go in it's opening up, if it moves towards you it's gonna be tight. Don't rely on this as your only way of sussing a corner, but as an extra tool in your box it's dead handy.

It seemed Iain's time on other bikes had served him well, and he impressed Mark with his smooth, swift riding, but there were still a couple of pointers, the main one being that Iain was turning in too early.

"It's a common problem," said Mark. "People don't want to overrun the corner, so to be on the safe side they turn-in early. But this causes them to run wide, which leaves them off the power for longer, slows them down and interrupts their flow."

Once it was pointed out and with Mark on his tail offering a running commentary, the early turn-in was all but banished from Iain's riding. Not only had he just got safer, he'd got faster into the bargain.

Lesson Five

FAST 5 - OVERTAKES

Now we were cooking with gas, and from my perch atop an R1 following the boys I was starting to enjoy myself as the bike got a chance to stretch its legs and we cut a swathe across rural Oxfordshire.

But with our new-found pace came new issues, mainly in the shape of overtaking - Iain's Achilles' heel.
"Bodged overtakes are a big accident area," said Mark. "Riders just fail to see car drivers turning right all the time. The best way to keep out of trouble is to avoid  overtaking near any turnings and watch
drivers' heads and hands as you approach - even if they don't indicate they'll move before they turn if they're going to."

Iain was cautious and far from dangerous, he was just slightly too eager on occasion. "You're giving the cars a bit too much grief," explained Mark. "With bikes like yours it's easy to forget how fast you come up on other traffic and you need to account for that by backing off before you're all over them."

We've all done it. A few miles of traffic-free bliss, we're riding like legends, the bike's into it's groove and we haul out of yet another perfectly-executed corner and get back on the gas for the next one. And there they are, Mr and Mrs Caravan-Holiday, doing 40 in a national limit, him not having used his mirrors since the last war and her too busy yapping to see anything. Bugger.

Here we have the reverse problem to the lazy weekend rider. Where his head's running far too slow for his bike, ours is running far too fast for the speed we're suddenly back at. We're still trying to do 100mph at 40 and our perfect ride of moments ago is now a raggedy-arsed shadow of its former self.

The solution is in being able to change gear mentally in response to your surroundings and whatever happens to be going on, rather than leaving the house, winding everything into top and leaving it there, thus turning yourself into an accident looking for somewhere to happen. You'll get a much better view and be able to make a far better overtake by being a touch further back from whatever's in your path, and you'll avoid panicking them into doing something daft by looming all over their bumper.

The best bit though is that on any major sportsbike you care to mention, you also have the firepower at your disposal to lay waste to anything and everything in your way. All you have to do is use your head as hard as you use your bike and not only will you get ten times more out of it, you'll still be riding faster than ever by the time that cutting edge rocketship you're on now has long since been rendered slow and obsolete by the road going MotoGP bikes we'll all be riding come 2010. Don't you just love progress?

PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER

It's not really rocket science, and much of this feature covers ground we've been over in some form or other on previous occasions. It applies to riders of all bikes, not just 1000cc sports fare, so hopefully we can all take something away from it.

The key to it all is to think about what you're doing, all the time, and the faster you're riding the harder you have to think. Getting the most out of a modern superbike is more about having the restraint and respect for the machinery to know how much power not to use, and having the balls to admit there's far more
performance on tap than you, I, and most of the planet's bike riding population can ever competently or safely put to use.

And no matter how good we are or think we are, there's no shame in getting yours skills assessed every now and then by the likes of Mark Edwards and the boys at Rapid Training. At the very least you'll have a top day out riding your bike with like-minded souls, at most you'll end the day a smoother, faster, safer rider. Not only will it help you live longer, but you'll enjoy yourself more into the bargain. And you can't say fairer than that.

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