Friday, May 1, 2015

Bell Custom Fit Star Carbon Review

Image borrowed from Bell Powersports
It is common knowledge that a motorcycle helmet is the most important piece of gear any rider owns.  It's also the hardest part to get to fit correctly, at least it was.  Recently, Bell launched their Custom Fit program, a first for the consumer motorcycle helmet industry.  The Custom Fit helmets are made to match a 3D scan of the rider's head.  I've made no secret of my love for the Star Carbon in my previous crash test and review: Crash and Burn Part 2.

I had my head scanned last year at the MotoGP races in Indianapolis, and Bell keeps them on file.  I had planned on my next helmet being a custom, but I decided to go ahead and order one sooner rather than later.  Suann ordered a custom for her first helmet while we were in Indy, and has been really happy with hers.  Seeing that custom fit badge on the back of her lid did make mine feel a tiny bit ordinary!

Making a Good Thing Better

Family Photo: the Custom Fit is on the left, not that there's any difference in this shot.

From behind, the difference is clear, with the very conspicuous custom badge and different DOT sticker.
As much as I love my off the shelf Star Carbon, putting it on the racetrack exposed an issue with the way it fits me.  The issue is the way it sits on my head.  I never noticed it on the street, but on the track with my head down, the helmet was cutting into my visibility a little bit.  It wasn't enough to make it unsafe, but it was enough to be a little bit of a distraction.  One of the options on the Custom Fit helmets is a "race" fitment that rotates the helmet back on your head about five degrees to raise the eye port in relation to the rider's eyes.  Knowing this was an option was all the push I needed to go ahead and order a custom for the track.  I'm going to keep using my other one on the road since it fits great for that, and it's wired up with my SENA communications system. 

As I mentioned in my last post, Bell continues to impress on the customer service front as well as the technical side of things.  Not only did they turn around my helmet extra quickly, but they were great to work with as always.  The process was smooth, and after I got it, I got a call from the engineer who handled my helmet to make sure everything fit perfectly.  I was happy to report that it was perfect.

To sweeten the deal even further, the Custom Fit Star Carbon comes with a Transitions shield (my favorite feature) and a huge assortment of interior padding to adjust fit if needed, and adjust for break in over time.  

Comparing Two Stars

The two helmets are very similar.  Outwardly, they are identical aside from a different certification sticker and the custom badge on the back. 

Look inside, and there are obvious differences!  In the interior pictures above,the custom is on the left, and the standard is on the right.  When I first opened the box, I was surprised at how little padding there was!  The padding doesn't even quite cover all of the EPS (expanded polystyrene) liner, and it is a lot thinner than the padding in the standard helmet.  There's also an exposed portion of the EPS liner at the back of the helmet that's covered by fabric on the standard one.  Despite the lack of padding, the custom helmet is more comfortable!  The custom Star also has better ventilation, which I assume is a product of both the thinner padding and the deeper channels in the thicker EPS liner.  The helmet feels lighter too, since the weight is perfectly distributed across my head.  After a full day at NCBIKE wearing my new helmet, I couldn't have been happier.  I never had to fiddle with anything.  I just put it on and forgot about it until it was time to take it off.  That's all I can ask for.

Interior name, size, and date sticker.  Look at how much uncovered EPS liner there is!

Due to the more even contact with my head, I'm sure the custom fitment will also protect me better in a crash too.  I'm hoping not to write that review for you!

Just in case the fit isn't perfect, the helmet breaks in a little, or your head shrinks, Bell has you covered with all of the extra pads they include.  2mm increments in thickness!  I think they're serious about these things fitting perfectly.


In short, Bell's Custom Fit program does exactly what it sets out to do.  It provides a helmet that fits both the rider and their riding style perfectly.  The astonishing thing to me is that it does that for a completely reasonable premium over the standard Star Carbon.  An extra $300 or so is no small sum, but factor out $120 for the included Transitions shield, and you're left with a real cost of about $180 for the custom fit option.  That's about a 25% upcharge for a bespoke helmet.  Try getting a tailored suit for 25% more than off the rack.  They'll think you're joking!

Right now, the biggest downside to the Custom Fit line is that you're limited to just the Matte Carbon look.  I love it, but not everyone does.  I think some are going to say "doesn't a custom helmet deserve a custom look?"  Luckily, you can pretty easily add a personal touch to these lids.  I already did my standard one, and will be doing my custom soon.  I'll take photos of the process, and put together a how-to post when I do.

Stay tuned for a future how-to post on polishing custom patterns into the matte clearcoat.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Things Not Proceeding According to Plan!

Something has gone awry:

Colin Edwards' bike operating sub-optimally back in 2003.  He was okay.

Sometimes things don't go the way we plan, even when it's a really cool plan.

I’m sure many of you saw my announcement about riding with Motorcyclist Magazine at Circuit of the Americas.  SQL Sentry and I were very excited about the event, and some promotional stuff we had planned around it. 

Unfortunately, with about 10 days to go, Motorcyclist cancelled the event.  I was told by the person organizing the event that Dorna, the owner of MotoGP, exercised an option for a tire test the day of the event.  How this wasn’t known well in advance is beyond me.  Maybe it was and just wasn’t communicated.  I was hoping to be able to report that the event was rescheduled, or that Motorcyclist had offered another event as a replacement, but no such luck.

Making the best of a bad situation:

The first really positive takeaway from this experience for me is the way others got involved to help me take advantage of the opportunity.

  • SQL Sentry as a company, by offering to sponsor me to attend the event.  And as a community, for all of the people here who were excited to see me get the opportunity to participate in the event.  This particular project didn’t pan out, but we have some more cool ideas for the future.  Stay tuned! 
  • My girlfriend, Suann Griffin, who has not only been incredibly supportive of my riding in general, but also chipped in a whole bunch of hotel points to defray some of the cost of the trip.
  • Bell Powersports, by rushing the production of my Custom Fit Star Carbon in time for the event. Bell’s customer service is something I’ve talked up before, but this was really above and beyond.  I’ll be reviewing the new lid and showing some pretty cool visual customizations to my old one in an upcoming post. 
  • Team Pro-Motion Sportbike Club by providing me with some patches for my leathers and stickers for my helmet, but also for the riding tips I mentioned in my last post.

Thanks everyone!  It’s a great feeling to know so many people came together to help me out, and share in my adventure.  This one didn’t pan out the way I had planned, but there will be more! 

The Races and Other Goings-on at COTA:

My view for the Moto3 Race at the start of the day before the clouds broke up.  I moved to the end of the back straight for the Moto2 and MotoGP races.
Another bright spot was a great day of bikes and racing at Circuit of the Americas on Sunday. 
I started my day in the exhibitor and vendor areas.  I got to check out the latest bikes, in particular the 2015 Yamaha R1, Ducati 1299 Panigale, and Aprilia RSV4 RF.  2015 is going to be a good year to be shopping for a literbike!  The updates to the Panigale and RSV4 build on platforms that were already strong, and the all-new R1 appears to answer the shortcomings of the prior model and adds some great new features.  It is lighter, more powerful, and physically much smaller, and adds top-shelf electronics. The carbon fiber bodywork and upgraded components on the R1M look great!  I’m looking forward to getting a few test rides in!

I’m also looking forward to finding my way back to Circuit of the Americas.  What a track!  The facility is amazing, as is the track itself.  It is incredible to look at, and an awesome layout.  Lots of elevation change, as well as both high-speed and technical sections.  It also looks to be a very safe track.  Quite a few riders came off their bikes through the four races on Sunday, but I didn’t see anyone that looked the least bit worse for wear.  The paved runoff areas and good track design kept bikes and riders from tumbling…a slide always being easier on bike and rider than a tumble.  Most riders that went down were able to rejoin the race.  It’s a long haul, but maybe I’ll make a vacation of it this summer or next.

The MotoGP series never fails to put on a great show.  From the drafting and corner speed contest on the ultra-lightweight bikes of Moto3, to the sheer speed of the powerhouse MotoGP bikes, to Moto2’s middleweights that are a little bit of both.  The races are short enough and the riders evenly matched enough to ensure plenty of passing.  I much prefer watching a 20 lap sprint race where every lap counts to a four hour slog that’s a chess match of pit strategy and attrition.  

Ducati Island is one of the better bike shows I've seen, and it's just the parking for anyone who shows up on a Duc.  Foreground is a Panigale Superleggera (Superlight).
The new Yamaha R1M.  Not as pretty as the Panigale, but probably going to be much easier to live with!
The day wrapped up with the second Superbike/Superstock 1000 race of the new MotoAmerica series.  The racing was good for the second race in the first race weekend.  Jake Gagne on a Superstock-spec 2015 Yamaha R1 fighting for an outright podium finish with the superbike guys was the highlight of the race for sure!  The superstock bikes are not that far modified from the bikes you or I can go to a dealership and take home anytime.  They are down on power and technology compared to the superbike-spec machines, so to compete with top level riders on superbike machines was a major feat.  Hopefully Wayne Rainey and his team can continue to grow and develop the series, and rebuild motocycle racing in the United States.

Back to the track:

I went back to NCBIKE this weekend for another Team Pro-Motion trackday.  We ran the opposite direction, so I had to adjust my lines, and didn’t get to make direct comparisons to my last day, but I definitely got to apply what I’d learned.  I still have more to work on, but things are definitely moving in the right direction! I also got some good pics from Terry at Event Photo Now, so let's take a look at the changes I talked about in my last post:

Same pic from last year that I used last post, to show my older "crossed up" riding position.

4/19/15: Much better, still a little way to go, primarily in adjusting my grip on the bars, but this was much faster and more comfortable.
Next up will be a review of the Custom Fit Star Carbon from Bell, stay tuned!

Monday, March 23, 2015

Back on the Track: Surround Yourself With Expertise

I was back on the racetrack at NCBIKE with Team Pro-Motion on Saturday after what felt like an impossibly long winter break.  This was actually supposed to be my second day back, but the first got snowed out!  I closed out last year having made some progress getting used to the racetrack and my new bike. The bike also saw a few upgrades (rearsets and seat) in addition to the usual maintenance stuff over the winter.

Shaking Off the Cobwebs

Everyone else seemed to have the same idea I did; NCBIKE was packed!  I managed to track down some friends and sneak into their pit space so I didn't have to park out in the gravel.  When I rolled into tech inspection and signed in, I got my first surprise of the day.  I was going to be riding in the Yellow group (the lower intermediate group) rather than White (novice) where I wrapped up last year.  It's not uncommon for the more experienced novice riders to get moved up on a busy day, and I felt like I was ready for it.  I went out for the first session, and took it easy since it was still cool and we had a long sit on the pit road waiting on an oil cleanup.  I felt pretty good after the first session.  I didn't throw the bike into the weeds, and I didn't feel like I lost much over the winter.  Still had the same things to work on, but no new ones.

My biggest challenge has been finding the right body position and ergonomic adjustments on the big Kawasaki.  It's so different from the skinny Ducati v-twins I know and love.  It's not worse, it's just very different.  The Ducatis, particularly the old 916/996/998 series, force the rider into at least close to the correct position simply by removing choice and comfort from the equation.  The Kawasaki has lots of room to move around, and is shaped very differently, allowing more leeway to make the wrong choices.  This isn't entirely a bad thing, as giving those options allows for quite a bit more comfort on the street.

Since buying this bike and going to the track, I struggled with riding "crossed-up."

This shot from last year shows what I'm talking about.  My right shoulder is pulled back, and I'm dropping my hip into the turn to compensate.  My outside leg is doing a ton of work to hold me in this position.

This resulted in having to work very hard to hold on to the bike and position my weight correctly, without weighting the bars.  This meant I was spending too much energy and concentration on body position, and not enough on going faster or smoother.  I knew the problem, but hadn't isolated the cause.  The adjustments I made to the bike were helpful, but didn't get me all the way there.

Surrounded by Experts

My pit location with local friends and TPM coaches Donna and Sheldon was right between two other TPM coaches.  I met Paul and Brett pretty early on, and Paul was coaching in my group.  Paul very quickly gave me a refresher on the best lines at NCBIKE and that helped quite a bit.  As the day went on, I had lots of time to talk with everyone pitting near me.  As the day went on, to say I learned a lot would be an understatement.  Between conversations with the coaches, listening to them coach other riders, and the on-track instruction the coaches provide, there is a wealth of knowledge available at a TPM track day.

I went out for each new session with something new to work on, and came back in each time feeling a little better.

I spent much of the downtime during the latter half of the day talking with Brett, and he hit on a few things that no other coach at TPM or at California Superbike School had mentioned.  During one of our conversations, I mentioned that I was trying out my new rearsets for the first time.  He mentioned that he finds that most people get new rearsets and put them on as far up and to the rear as they can go.  I hadn't gone all the way there, but that's the direction I went as well.  Brett pointed out that if the footpegs are too far back, you tend to fall forward and put more weight than you want to into the bars.  He showed me an easy way to test (DO try this at home!).  Get on the bike while it's on stands, and put the balls of your feet on the pegs as you normally would, and lift yourself about an inch off the seat with your legs.  If you fall forward, the pegs are too far back.  I tried this and mine were borderline.  I moved them up after another session, and came back in the next time feeling a little better.

When Brett rolled back in after his next session, I let him know that I liked the change.  He was working with Michael, who was getting ready to evaluate for the bump to the Blue (Advanced) group.  He was showing him some body positioning techniques, and called me over to join in.  We ended up using my bike for the demo there in the pits, since my stands were the most stable.  What the other rider and I learned was that one of the tricks to getting hooked in to the bike correctly is not being right up against the tank.  By sitting back in the seat, the rider's outside knee engages much more positively with the tank.  Then, by rotating the inside foot much further than I had been doing, the inside knee falls open to the correct position rather than having to be pushed out there.  Last, we learned a trick to consistently hang our upper body off while keeping our shoulders square.  This allows better vision and minimizes weight on the bars.  Even on the stands, I was able to feel the difference.  Sometimes a little change can make a big difference.

Putting it Into Practice

Just as we were wrapping up the conversation, the call went out for Red (Upper Intermediate) group, with the "last session of the day" announcement.  It turned out not to be the last session, just Red's, but it didn't sound like that.  I was bummed, since I wasn't going to be able to test out what I had just learned.  Brett told me to get on my bike and follow him; he was going to take me out in Red for an evaluation.  I was a little nervous, as the pace tends to pick up quite a bit as you move up a group, but I was also really excited to get to go.  We rolled out, and I told myself I'd take it easy and just work on what I had learned.  I did exactly that as we left the pits, and felt the difference almost immediately.  I had closed the gap to the rider in front of me by the middle of the first lap, and found a clean pass on the second.  Compared to my previous sessions, I was flying!  I didn't have a lap timer, so I can't quantify the difference, but I had moved up a group and still had to make several passes.  I was also noticing how much more mental "clock cycles" I had to work with.  I was going faster, but it felt easier!  For the first time, I felt like the bike was truly working with me, or me with it.  That 20 minute ride was definitely among the most fun in 14 years on bikes.  

After the session wrapped up, I came in to thank Brett for the pointers.  We talked for a bit, along with the other rider he was working with.  Brett asked us both to walk down to the sign-in area to bump up a group; me to Red, and Michael to Blue.  Neither of us had sought out the advancement, only the knowledge that led to it.  When we pulled into the paddock that morning, I never expected I'd leave two groups up from where I left off last year, and more excited than ever about riding. 

This Isn't Just About Riding

The awesome experience I had this weekend is similar in a lot of ways to my start working for SQL Sentry.  I dove in to the deep end of the pool, taking a chance on a big career change.  I found myself surrounded by extremely smart people who were all experts in a field I to which I was a newcomer, and I learned (and continue to learn) more than I ever imagined I would.  Having a wealth of knowledge everywhere you turn is incredibly powerful, if one can put their ego aside and listen.  I've learned that in both personal and professional pursuits, it pays to surround yourself with those with more knowledge and experience than you have.  You ride faster chasing someone fast than passing someone slow.

The timing of this milestone in my riding career couldn't have been better.  My motorcycle riding and my career at SQL Sentry are intersecting in a big way next month.  I have accepted an invitation to ride with Motorcyclist Magazine at Circuit of the Americas after the MotoGP race next month.  I'll be testing all of this year's new superbikes at one of the best tracks in the country.  Without the generous sponsorship I've received from SQL Sentry, I couldn't have made the event happen.  Stay tuned here and on both my personal and SQL Sentry's Facebook pages for much more in the coming couple of months. 

Circuit of the Americas, I can't wait!  Note that Rossi (46) is not struggling with riding crossed-up. :)

Thanks again to Brett, Paul, Donna, Sheldon, and the other TPM coaches that have helped me out.  Also, a huge thanks to Greg Gonzalez, Nick Harshbarger, Ken Teeter, and Kevin Kline at SQL Sentry for helping make the COTA event possible for me.