Commitment

by

Jeff Hughes

 

The beginning parts were straight, as we left the shop and headed westward.  The early morning sun warmed our backs, the day soft with promise.  With no rain anywhere in the forecast, surely it was a good day to finally lose my track virginity.

I had hooked up with Alan and the half-dozen others thirty minutes earlier and I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that my stomach was full of butterflies. I’d been to Summit Point dozens of times over the years watching the races, of course.  But now, for the first time, I’d get a chance to actually get out there myself and see what it was like.  Just thinking about it brought shivers of both excitement and fear.

It was also the first time for a new concept that Cycle Sport, the Yamaha dealership where I hung my hat, was trying out.  The idea was for a “track day,” where riders could ride the track at speed, but without the formality or competitiveness of racing.  The instructors and control riders for the day included guys like David Nees and Randy Renfrow, local WERA racers for whom the racetrack was like a second home.  Randy would turn pro the following year, exposing his talents to a soon-to-be-appreciative national audience.  And a couple years after that he would win the first of his AMA national championships.  But to me, then, they were just the pals I hung out with at the shop.

Rolling westward, soon enough we passed Berryville and the topography began to sharpen.  The formerly straight tarmac began to turn curvy.  A few miles on, David turned down a route I had never been on before, one contorted by twists and turns.  In my first surprise of the day – in a day full of them – he turned up the pace.  Despite having the fastest and most powerful bike among our little group, I immediately began to struggle.  I considered myself a pretty decent rider but these guys were clearly in a different league altogether.  Using the extra acceleration at my disposal, I lit it up down every section that was even remotely straight.  It didn’t make any difference.  I lost ground on every corner, the gap between me and the others quickly growing.  Soon, the boys were gone.  I had been dropped, as they say.  Like a piece of rotting cheese.

 

 

How does one go fast around a corner?  In many ways it’s the existential question of our sport.

The answer, at once both simple and complex, begins in our head.  In how we decide what is achievable.  In what we define as reasonable.  And how we frame a task which at first seems straightforward - but which in fact is actually bound to a multitude of factors.

It starts with crafting a balance between our desire – do we want to just hit that corner briskly, really hard, or do we want to absolutely rail through it? – and the risk that we perceive attendant to each of those efforts.  The backdrop to it all, of course, is the worry - perhaps morphing into outright fear - of crashing.  For at some unconscious level we recognize that there are limits to our ability, the capabilities of the bike, and what the road offers.  Exceed any of those and you go down.

Or, as I wrote some years ago, “how much fun shall we have today?”

Once we’ve made that judgment of risk versus reward, we move into the realm of the corner itself.  To all the factors that dictate how we will traverse it.

There are the aspects of the bike itself.  How the frame performs.  How the geometry of the bike affects its steering.  How the tires and the suspension respond to the road.  How the characteristics of the engine either expand the opportunities for or else impose limitations upon the rider.  And how the ergonomics of the bike either support or detract from the whole effort.

It’s interesting that riders focus so often on the bike.  They twiddle with suspension settings, believing there is some magic combination which will suddenly make them fast.  Or they spend money on a new pipe, expecting that the handful of horsepower they gain will somehow make a difference.

It never does, of course.  Much as we love the gearhead part of the sport, the truth is that the bike is the very least of the go-fast equation.  A good rider will be fast on virtually anything with two wheels.  And a lesser rider will still struggle, regardless of how capable his machine is.

Which leads us to the harder aspects of getting through that corner.  They exist in a tier.

First is the environment.  There is the road itself – its size and composition, how it tracks, the other traffic upon it, and the traction it affords.  There is our visibility through the corner – a huge factor which often dictates the line we choose.  There is how the road “flows” – how the sections before and after our corner affect our entry and our exit.  There is weather, which can affect our traction, our visibility, our tires, our suspension, and ourselves.  And finally there are the threats that the environment presents – those objects and characteristics that might bring us to grief should our trip through the corner not happen exactly as planned.

A good rider quickly and intuitively pulls these different threads together in his mind.  A glance is sufficient for him to make the judgments he needs.  He connects the dots in a flash of cognition.

Notably, it’s also the one area where long experience is extremely beneficial.

Remember Michael Jordan’s failed attempt at becoming a major league baseball hitter, despite his unquestioned, extraordinary degree of athletic talent?  Well, it wasn’t a surprise to most baseball experts, who had long known that becoming a top-flight hitter requires two things:  major league talent – which Jordan certainly had; and a vast mental database of pitches thrown – the visual memory of tens of thousands of baseballs coming at you while you stand at the plate.  Jordan didn’t have that.

Same thing on a motorcycle.  The rider with the visual memory of a few hundred thousand corners will instantly see patterns and subtleties in the environment which are lost on less experienced riders.  Their judgments will be faster and more accurate. 

From there we move into the hardest parts of getting through that corner – ourselves.  The mental and emotional aspects that we bring to bear.

There is our familiarity with the bike.  Our familiarity with the road.  Our tolerance for risk.  Our judgment of how we’re riding at the moment – are we in the zone, or is this one of our off days? 

There is our management of fear – the ability to surmount our oftentimes counterproductive survival instincts that Keith Code so accurately identified many years ago.  And the flip side to that – the confidence that we bring to this corner.  Do we truly believe in our ability to get through it at speed?

And at some level our intuition comes into play, sampling the ephemera of possibility, the tiny bits of truth given off in an obscure fourth dimension, guiding us through it all.

There’s one more thing we need.

As we arrive at the corner itself, as we move from preparing for and assessing the corner to actually riding through it we need… commitment.

Many riders make the mistake of continuing to deliberate all those aspects we’ve talked about even as they enter into the corner.  They are afraid to commit to the turn, wishing for just a few more feet of pavement to pass beneath their wheels, a tiny bit more certainty of what the corner holds.

Such vacillation is the death of good riding.

The irony is that most corner crashes are, upon examination, entirely avoidable.  They don’t occur because the rider overrode the corner.  They occur because the rider overrode his belief in himself.  He failed to commit to the corner.

None of which is to suggest that we ought to go charging blindly into the next corner, believing that confidence alone will get us through.  We’ve all seen those young riders who are high on testosterone and risk tolerance and low on everything else.  The guys for whom it has yet to occur that the deal isn’t just to get through this next corner – but through all the corners.

No, clearly we need to intelligently assess all those characteristics of the corner as it emerges in front of us.  But it does mean that there is a time for making judgments and establishing a plan; and then there is a time to actually execute that plan.

So commit to the turn.

Or, as a friend of mine once solemnly intoned, “turn or die.”

 

© 2009 Jeff Hughes