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.

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