The Car & Bike Special 2017: Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Cornering
Less than a year ago, I became a first-time entrant to the fast-growing legion of sportsbike owners in India. It was wish fulfilment — not the club membership, but the acquisition of a Triumph motorcycle. After years of stoking the dream, I found myself riding out of a Mumbai dealership on a factory-fresh Triumph Street Twin, their newest take on the iconic Bonneville, which was immortalised by the eternally-studly Steve McQueen in the classic movie The Great Escape.
The increasing presence of high-end motorcycle manufacturers like HarleyDavidson, Ducati, Aprilia, Triumph, KTM and the recently arrived BMW is playing a pivotal role in the surge of high-performance machines on Indian roads. It’s also encouraged the Japanese big four— Yamaha, Honda, Suzuki and Kawasaki—to move beyond the lightweight, cost-conscious two wheelers they’ve been selling to content Indian consumers for years now. But the kids— especially the ‘grown-up’ ones—want more, and they want them fatter and faster.
The last bike I owned was an anorexic (but beloved) 100cc steed in the mid-’90s that I only ever rode within Bombay city limits. Ever since I sold it, I’ve ridden very sporadically over the years, at most a Royal Enfield Bullet. My new Street Twin’s 900cc engine was a quantum leap of power and torque suddenly entrusted to my rusty hands. I figured what I really needed to do was learn to ride it well. The decision to ride a motorcycle implies the willingness to take on a risk. To do so on Indian roads raises that risk considerably. Add a blisteringly fast bike to the mix and you’ve got to take the idea of safety very, very seriously. I did, by enrolling in one of the world’s most reputed rider training programs—right here in India.
Once a year, the California Superbike School (CSS) sets up shop at the Madras Motor Race Track, bringing down some of the world’s finest riding coaches. Now in its seventh year, the Indian programme is a passion project of the Chennai-based motorcycle enthusiast father-son duo of TT Varadarajan and Siddharth Trivellore, scions of the legendary TTK family, who otherwise run Maya Appliances, one of India’s largest kitchen appliances companies. Held over two long weekends in the month of February and March, it fills up fast. I was lucky to get a slot, and found myself in the midst of a program that was to forever change the way I ride.
I was intimidated at first, imagining being surrounded by speed demons with many more kilometres of riding under their belts. The sight of those flying machines lined up in the pit lane— Kawasaki Ninjas, Yamaha R1s, Triumph Daytonas and Speed Triples and KTM RC390s—underscored the concern. Would I be able to keep up? I didn’t have to. As Gary Adshead, the school’s chief riding coach, put it: “The word ‘superbike’ in the school’s title shouldn’t be perceived as a barrier to motorcyclists attending. The majority of our students are road riders who have recognised they want to improve their riding skills. The technique may have been developed on track, but it can be used just as effectively on the road.”
I couldn’t have put it better. My fears were allayed the moment the course commenced. The CSS program is set up to train riders of virtually all skill levels. Each of the three days the course runs features an intensive mix of classroom instruction and practise sessions on the track. During the track sessions, every rider is observed and guided by a personal coach, based on their respective riding abilities. The learning curve is steep, but incredibly fulfilling; seasoned riders spoke of being surprised at how much they had to unlearn in order to properly absorb the offered wisdom. I hit the track and began to tackle those corners— gingerly at first. But with each class and every lap, those corners became friends I looked forward to visiting. And while I may not have become race ready by the end of the course, my riding had changed exponentially. I was more aware, more in control and a hell of a lot more confident. All of that adds up to being a better, safer motorcyclist.
What is a superbike?
The definition of a superbike can ignite some debate. Some argue it applies only to race bikes, others insist it includes all motorcycles with an engine displacement upwards of 650cc. India goes with the latter, referring thus to high-powered bikes ranging from urban motorcycles like the Harley-Davidson Fat Boy to speed machines like the Aprilia RSV4 to adventure tourers like the BMW R1200 GS. In 2016, Kawaskai sold 388 Ninja 650s, Honda despatched 200 CBR 650s, Suzuki hawked 177 Hayabusas and Triumph fans picked up 331 Street Twins. Harley-Davidson obliterated all those figures combined. It sold 2,590 Street 750s. All those figures are nothing compared to the under 250cc range of bikes or even the explosion of Royal Enfields, but the highways on Sundays are getting noticeably more crowded with speed devils and fat-assed cruisers.
The Zen of riding
After returning home and allowing all that classroom instruction and applied wisdom to internalise, I discovered something interesting: the most fundamental lessons for better riding and effective cornering contain invaluable clues to tackling life’s daily excursions. If I can apply these techniques to the twists and bends of my own personal journey, this ride’s going to be a whole lot smoother and a ton more fun.
On the track: The moment you approach a corner, you must first find your turn point. This is the spot from where you will find the straightest line to your exit and, thus, the fastest way through the turn.
In life it’s no different: When you encounter an unprecedented bend in your path, find the shortest line out of it and take it without hesitation. It will be your fastest way out of a potential crisis.
Track: The moment you’ve found your line and begun to turn the corner, open the throttle smoothly, evenly and continuously. This is the most effective way of keeping your bike stable. Any deviation in acceleration— either releasing the throttle or cranking it too hard—will destabilise the machine.
Life: As soon as you turn into a new road, and after you’ve established your way forward, make a determined go of it—smoothly, evenly and continuously. Awareness and conviction are your surest way ahead; doubt and hesitation, your greatest chances for pitfalls.
Why India is among the most dangerous countries to ride a bike
India’s killer roads accounted for the death of 1,37,000 people in vehicle accidents in 2013. In 2015, that number rose to 1,46,000. That’s 400 deaths a day, or one every 3.6 minutes. Two wheelers account for 25 per cent of total road crash deaths. According to provisional police data provided by states, Uttar Pradesh recorded the maximum number of road deaths (17,666), followed by Tamil Nadu (15,642), Maharashtra (13,212), Karnataka (10,856) and Rajasthan (10,510).
Track: This visual manoeuvre involves identifying your turn point in advance of the corner, using your peripheral vision to ensure you hit it correctly, all the while turning your head to identify your exit point.
Life: The uncertain way ahead also contains a series of familiar bends, the result of repeated habit patterns. The two-step is an invaluable technique to employ. Each time you repeat a pattern of behaviour, be more aware of which way to steer and how to hightail your way out of it. Over time, those twists will turn from fearful to fun.
Another critical takeaway for me from the course is the concept of ‘target fixing’, an instinctual survival response that will more likely cause an accident than save you. Target fixing is the focussed attention given to a danger ahead. Locking your gaze on an obstruction in order to avoid it will actually probably cause you to hit it. Whereyou-look-is-where-you’ll-go is the simple philosophy. Every time I’ve tried to avoid a pothole by staring it down, I’ve gone straight into it. I now use my peripheral vision to be aware of it while directing my eyes to the path away from it. Two-step, baby. It works with every hurdle, on the road or off it.
The California Superbike School was first brought into India, according to Adshead, “to address the casualty rates for Indian motorcyclists as well as educate them on how to feel more confident in the art of controlling the bike in the corners.” Indian roads are challenges at the best of times, with pathetic road conditions, indisciplined motorists, darting animals and pedestrians who inscrutably look in the opposite direction when crossing highways. With road accident numbers on the rise (see box) that high-powered machine under you could be either the source of your greatest joy or your quickest way out of here. Might as well learn how to ride it well—you’ll live longer to enjoy it.