Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Riding a motorcycle the right (less wrong?) way - Part two

It's been nearly a month since our last installment and I'm actually preparing for another trip to the racetrack. We left off at the end of part one having identified a goal that would hopefully allow my brain to take in more information and maybe even be able to learn from it. Leading up to the trip I'd decided that I needed an easy way to evaluate my intensity level while riding. Joe suggested wiggling my elbows. At first blush this idea seems pretty ridiculous, but it turns out to be very effective. It's not possible to do this unless you're calm and loose.

I'd planned to ride Saturday and Sunday and was prepared to pay cash and ride Monday too. Another good, if somewhat crash prone, friend Aaron would be accompanying me for the weekend. For this particular trip, on Saturday the track was run clockwise which is opposite the normal direction. I'd only done a couple of lead-follow laps in this direction prior to this track day so the track was almost completely unfamiliar to me in that configuration, making it even easier to avoid falling into old habits. The lack of a well rehearsed line combined with several decreasing radius corners, forced me to keep a sane, safe pace that allowed me to remain calm. By the end of the day I was noticing that in addition to getting quicker, I was better able to process the visual information that the track was presenting to me. I was able to recognize earlier in each corner if my speed and/or line needed adjustment. As these adjustments were made I had spare brain cycles to alter the entry plan for the next lap and would more often than not remember it when I arrived at the corner again. Some of this can likely be attributed to the natural learning curve for what was effectively a new track, but it felt good regardless. By the end of the day it seemed that I'd made some progress and achieved the goal of remaining calm and loose.

Sunday saw the return of the familiar counter-clockwise track layout. It also brought the surprise arrival of Steve and Joe (yes that guy from part one). The goals remained the same, "stay calm, stay loose". Through the morning I was successful at remaining calm, I was noticing more and more 'stuff' as the day progressed. It felt completely natural to start associating these recognizable things with actions that I was taking on the bike, next thing I know, I'm developing a mental list of markers and associated actions (sounds kinda like Joe's mental checklist, doesn't it). As the day went on and I got more and more comfortable on the bike I started looking at other bikes again. I felt my focus moving away from staying calm and moving towards chase mode again. As soon as I recognized this, I decided that I needed a distraction. I proceded to act as if I had no brakes. This is a somewhat well known excercise that helps develop a better sense of speed, more trust in the front end, and ultimately leads to faster corner entry, higher mid corner speeds and earlier application of throttle on corner exit. By not using the brakes I had to go slower on the straights in order to enter corners at a speed that would also allow me to exit on the pavement, this took the chase right out of the equation while still giving my mind plenty of entertainment. I finished the day feeling good. I'd stayed calm for most of the day, was able to recognize and then correct myself when I wasn't, had a good time and best of all, I didn't test any of my equipment's crash worthiness.

It's back to the track this weekend where I hope to continue along the same path. I'm also feeling that with all this newfound calmness and spare brain cycles, maybe I can teach myself a new trick. The really fast guys use the front and rear brakes. I typically dare not touch the rear brake pedal, but why not give it a shot? If I'm staying calm and cautious the worst I'll do is learn something, right?

Monday, August 31, 2009

Riding a motorcycle the right (less wrong?) way - Part one

This will be a multipart story

So I've been riding motorcycles in one way or another since I was about thirteen. I really do have a great time, and once in a while I convince myself that I'm getting to be pretty good at it. That's about the time I learn some small piece of information that again convinces me that I've got it all wrong.

The most recent revelation of my two-wheeled ineptitude came as such things frequently do, in the midst of a conversation with someone that I reluctantly acknowledge is better at this than I am. I've chased Joe on one motorcycle or another for about six years now. We started on 250cc two stroke dirtbikes, moved on to streetbikes, and eventually made our way to an asphalt racetrack. Early on, things looked good for me. I was able to jump out front and hang on just well enough to make my ego feel pretty good. Joe was somewhere behind me, making and crossing off mental checklists. I was having the time of my life, too much adrenaline flowing to think of anything other than getting in front of the next bike. Fast forward a couple years and Joe is routinely whooping up on me and my attempts to keep up are resulting in more and more personal safety equipment tests.

Riding gear is expensive, and after you've walked away from a few crashes, some nastier than others, you kinda start to think that maybe continuing to play these odds isn't such a great idea. So I swallowed whatever pride I still hung onto and had a talk (actually several, I'm sure, but for the sake of the story we'll pretend that I only need to be told such things once instead of dozens of times) with my friend.

It turns out that at similar lap times, we're having significantly different experiences inside our respective helmets. Once I get within 1.5 seconds of my personal best lap time at the track, things are pretty intense. It's best characterized as the kind of effort that superheroes are portrayed to be exerting when doing things like reversing the spin of the earth. Complete tunnel vision, no coherent thoughts to speak of, just an unbridled push to go harder, faster, NOW! At the same lap time, Joe is crossing items off his mental checklist. He has markers for everything, little variations in surface color mark braking, turn in, apex, throttle on, and shift points for every corner on the track. He's knows if he's on a fast lap based on where in relation to some mark he ends up going for an upshift. While I've been white-knuckling around this place for the last 3 years, he's been studying every inch of the racing line. Joe's speed is smooth and relatively effortless compared with the frenetic display of ever leaning horizon that my brain attempts to consume while navigating my approximation of a racing line.

This isn't the first time that I've witnessed him carefully select a curriculum for himself and through disciplined study and execution march towards an enviable level of proficiency (he's pretty damned good with a guitar too) and it probably won't be the last. So I decided to go back to kindergarten and try to do it right this time. After much discussion (we're playing down how much, remember?) and a bit of thought I decided that the important thing that Joe's method gives him that mine doesn't is calm. He has all of his markers by virtue of leaving himself sufficient brain cycles to acquire them. The plan was simple, remain calm.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Is this thing on?

Been more than a year. I guess I'm not much of a blogger. Things are pretty different this year. I work for a different company with a very different culture (I'm not sure I'm compatible, but options are somewhat limited these days, no?) I've added an aquarium to post pictures of and may even do that in the future. I returned to Jennings GP last month after a long break, maybe I'll write some about that trip too as it was rather interesting (to me anyway).

Last couple of weekends with Christy and the kids have been pretty cool. Two Saturdays ago, I took them all to a motocross racing school at Dade City MX track. It was a bit of a rough start but once loosened up everyone did really well. I was especially impressed with the improvement in Christy's form on the bike. Cailan showed some real bravery in riding the MX track, she didn't want to at first, but I talked her into trying it for one lap, after which she could park her bike under a tree if she didn't like it. She did three laps before pulling in with a big grin on her face. Colin was very ambitious and ended up somewhat disappointed that he didn't do any jumping. I was very proud of what he accomplished while there. We look forward to heading back after the weather cools down a bit.

Speaking of cooling down, on Christy's suggestion we took them ice skating at the Ice Sports Forum in Brandon last Sunday. Again the kids showed impressive form after overcoming a bit of initial wobbliness. Cailan was up for everything and when the time came went straight for the limbo line. She knocked the stick down on her first try. I cleared it, but then immediately wiped out aggravating an old shoulder injury. When they got tired or had a particularly rough fall, the kids would park in the penalty box for a few minutes until they were ready for more. During one of their breaks I saw Christy and chased her down. Right as I caught up to her she did a belly flop directly in front of me, as I dodged, swerved and jumped, her skate caught my shin a bit. She got some bruises I got a cut, we all laughed.

Overall things are better for me than they are for a lot of people. There's a lot of uncertainty and concern, particularly over financial matters, in our country these days. I don't have a lot of faith in the things that our country's leadership is doing in the name of trying to make things better. Generally speaking, it seems that trying to spend your way out of a debt problem is not just likely to fail, but destined to make things a whole lot worse before it does. I'm always cautious of people that claim something must be done right away, in my experience those people are trying to get something established before some other piece of information is discovered. That seems to be happening more often than not in government lately. It feels like we move from one hotspot to the next in these weekly news cycles where something will be talked up with much fuss made about it in advance of a decision to spend a ridiculous amount of money we don't really have on it. Then it's off to the next hot topic. When the week of frenzy is unsuccessful in gaining the necessary support for massive spending, then it is put back in the queue for another attempt in a couple of weeks. Those who are thoughful and outspoken are drowned out by the loud and vitriolic partisan arguments, until they've just grown too weary to try being heard anymore. The machine is running amok, and I'm increasingly of the opinion that the best course of action for the time being is to ignore it as much as possible, be available and good to your people (family, friends, etc.). After all, they only have power because a large enough group of people believe they do.

Hrm, this ended up going all over the place. Oh well.