They say racing improves the breed. It’s true.
I was grumbling yesterday doing the workout Bill Gros assigned me. I rode corners for an hour, keeping a high tempo on the pedals, accelerating out of most turns, working on keeping my eyes on the point where I was going, and firmly planting the outside foot on the “down” pedal to carve crisp, planted arcs through the turns. I even threw in some 180 degree turns at speed on tight cul-de-sacs, and some sharp, mid-corner swerves (to avoid little rocks, twigs, or sewer vent pipes) just to add some demanding impromptu and technically trickier changeups. Still, I had to ask myself:
“Why the hell am I doing cornering drills? I’m a lifelong motorcyclist. I handle way better than most in my class, probably I’m too comfortable and move around too much, making others nervous. Why am I not out doing a long aerobic ride? Or some hills?”
That was my thought yesterday. Today an unwelcome experience on the road made me understand why the cornering drills are necessary for racing, and really useful for general riding.
I was coming back from a three hour aerobic ride with a few standing sprints stuffed into the middle. Cruising around Crofton Parkway, I tucked in with some traffic heading downhill on the inner loop, past the playground off Eaton. I was moving along at around 35 MPH down the hill, keeping a good tempo but still getting dropped by the very-much-speeding traffic. I was down in the drops, covering the brake levers and spinning along with my head up. There is a four-way intersection at the bottom of the short hill I was strafing. On the right side of the intersection, there was a woman in a dark red Buick eyeballing me. We made eye contact. “That’s good,” I thought. “I have the right of way, and she’ll let me by.” When I was maybe 40 feet away, she stamped on the gas, pulled into the Parkway across my lane and most of the oncoming lane, and stopped.
In the space of a second, a hundred possibilities flashed through my mind. I started scanning for possible reactions.
First I looked for an escape route. Unfortunately, the proper route, behind her trunk, was out of the question. Her trunk was overlapping the curb, she was on the wrong side of the road, or at least right in the middle, and there was no way around. As I looked for an escape I tried to slow, grabbing a handful of brake. Both wheels instantly locked up, so I released as quickly as I’d grabbed them. If my shitty Tektro brakes locked up at that speed, that meant I was on the shoulder of the road, the surface was too loose to stop, and I didn’t have time to change line and attempt to brake.
I kept looking for an escape route. The route in front of her car was dangerous, the worst choice, since she’d hit me if she pulled forward. There was also a woman with a little kid and a dog walking along the Parkway on that side, approaching the intersection. So front was out.
I was either going to regrab the brakes and T-bone her at maybe 20 or 25, or make some drastic turn. There was only one decent option available at that point, to try to make the left turn.
So drawing on the 85 or so turns I did yesterday, I threw the bike over to the left, eyeballed the center line, planted my right foot on the pedal, held my breath and held on.
The front and rear tire scrubbed the road and slipped a bit, and I bounced as the tired struggled to catch on the tarmac. I heard some pings from the rear wheel. I kept looking up the road, if I was going to ram the right side of my body into her car, it was going to be blind.
By the time I loosed my grip on the bars and took a breath, I found myself a few tens of yards down the road going 30 MPH next to the Buick, whose driver had suddenly accelerated like mad. I had made the left turn, and was riding down the centerline. The driver next to me had a death grip on the steering wheel, had an iron gaze locked on the road, and blew past me. I braked a bit to do a U-turn and the driver stopped about 40 yards up the road. She stuck her head out the window. I didn’t even approach the car, I didn’t want to give myself a chance to discuss the incident with her, or throw my bike at her car, or something equally stupid.
When I got home a few minutes later, I noticed a few rear spokes were pinged loose, but everything was otherwise hunky dory.
Upon reflection, the lesson here is that racing has improved my handling a lot, and that handling practice of the sort Bill is making me do improves my skills immeasurably. Though I’m not a terrible handler for a rank novice racer, I’ve got a lot to learn, and intensive practice (like handling drills) seems to improve the skills by an order of magnitude. Could I have made that turn before doing a couple days worth of practice cornering over the last few weeks? Maybe. After the practice I’ve had over the last few weeks, could I make the turn again tomorrow? Definitely.
Racing does improve the breed.