Limits are like belly buttons – we’ve all got one. But how do you find yours?
Sean Emmett finding taking it to the limit. Riding imitating life...
Do you know your limits? Most successful athletes do. Take Mo Farah, for example (yeah, I know it’s a different type of track from the ones we normally talk about). During the 5000 metre race at London 2012 he started slowly, but with 10 laps to go he moved to the front, with a pack of the quickest runners. Had he peaked too early? Did he have enough in reserve? He certainly did – he sprinted to the finish. His rivals just didn’t have enough ‘gas left in the tank’ to catch him. Mo paced himself perfectly because, thanks to a rigorous training regime, he knew his limits. It’s equally important for motorcycle racers to know their limits, if not more so, because if you push things too far on two wheels there’s a pretty strong chance you’ll hit the deck.
Is physical endurance really important when you’re riding a motorcycle? To a certain extent it is. While it’s true that the bike’s doing most of the hard work, if the rider becomes fatigued then it affects his judgement and reaction times. However, the really important limit to understand is the amount of traction that you have (or feel that you have). After all, it is the limit of traction that will make the difference between crashing and staying upright. If you’re within the limits then you will have grip and not crash. Once you surpass the limits of the tyre then the problems will start...
In my experience most riders never find the limit – they either remain in the comfort zone below it, or go beyond it. Most of the trackday crashes I’ve witnessed were due to the rider asking too much of the tyre and not knowing or understanding exactly what a tyre can and cannot cope with. In some cases the riders couldn’t tell me what happened – or even which end of the bike broke traction first.
The problem with finding the limit of traction is that you can’t rely on trial and error, because error hurts and can be expensive to fix. So how do you pinpoint the elusive limit? The key to finding the limit is to understand that a difference of one mile an hour can be all it takes. That’s a tiny difference to gauge and you need to be able to feel it. The only way to achieve this is to be relaxed on the bike. We bang on about this a lot at the California Superbike School and that’s because it’s fundamental. The stiffer you are, the less likely you are to feel the limit, because you’re effectively fighting the bike, not ‘rolling with it’.
On the equipment side of the equation for track riding, grippy rubber is great – if you can use it. Buying full race tyres that are meant to operate at 90-100 degrees Celsius when your corner speeds aren’t high enough to produce those temperatures is a waste of money. The heat has to go into the tyre before the grip comes out to be used. The best plan is to buy street/sport quality tyres that will warm up more easily and operate at their peak with lower temperatures. Aside from that, you will start to get a better feel for the tyres squirming around underneath you and begin to feel the warning signs. Another trick it to run slightly lower tyre pressures than recommended. This will also aid you in finding that edge of traction you so dearly desire to understand.
Here’s one final piece of advice. If you’re serious about finding the limits of traction, do it in a controlled environment. Public highways are definitely out of the question – you don’t want to discover you’ve run out of grip on the M25 during the rush hour! You might want to consider getting some professional coaching on track. After all, there’s no point in spending money on grippy rubber if you don’t know how grippy it is!
TO SLIPPER, OR NOT?
Q Should I invest in a slipper clutch? A few of my mates have, or they’ve got one on their bikes as standard. I don’t think I’m missing out on much as my corner entry is OK, so what am I missing out on in not having one?
A Have you noticed any big differences between their entry speed and yours? When you’re braking and downshifting, do you find that sometimes you change down too early, or not give it enough throttle and the rear wheel skips or even slides as you engage the next lower gear? The slipper clutch corrects rider errors with speed and gear selection when changing down through the gearbox. It gives the engine a slightly easier time by gradually feeding the new road speed for the new gear through to the engine. Some of your attention on this is released because the mechanics of the slipper clutch are doing it for you. Consequently, you’ll have more free attention for something else. This is what you may be missing out on. If you had this free attention, what would you want to spend it on? Here are examples of what your free attention could be used for; would you want to set your speed more accurately for the turn? Do you have enough, or even the best, reference points for each turn? Is your 2-step as tidy as you’d like it to be? Do you have a clear mid-turn target area to aim for when you turn? Could you get all of these things nailed without a slipper clutch? Would your investment be better spent on something to do with your riding than something to do with your bike?
Riding Coach, Matthew Hartley
FIT TO RIDE?
Q What’s the best thing to do over winter? Keep my hand in and ride on the road and on the cold-but-sunny days on track? Or should I go off road because that’s what all the top racers seem to when they’re not racing?
A Keep warm and dry! For sure if you aren’t riding your bike you could get ‘rusty’ and possibly slip back into old habits when you next swing your leg over a machine, so riding off road will certainly keep your senses sharp (and off-road riding is also a lot of fun). I would also suggest spending some time in the winter reflecting on what went well for you in the last season, where your biggest gains came from and reminding yourself of what you did to achieve these gains. This will help to make sure that you can maintain your form in the new season and be able to start again from where you left off. The new season will also bring new challenges as the improvements of last year will perhaps have liberated some new areas of concern and opportunity for further improvement. Now is the time to decide how best you want to take on these new challenges and make your plans accordingly so that when the sun comes out and its warm enough for grip rather than sliding you can begin to carry out your plans. Riding is fun in winter, but cold and be warned that the cold can take your attention away from more important things...
Riding Coach, Matthew Hartley