Riding a Slow Bike Fast

Story by Andrew Boss// Photos by Fatima Malik, Marcel Kutschenreuter, Richard Seck
February 13 2019

Many experienced riders realize that in the right environment, small bikes are a lot of fun

Throttle pinned on the back straight, butt shoved against the rear cowling hump, chest slammed as close to the tank as I can get it and my left thumb pushing up on the chin bar of my helmet so I can see the track ahead. In the periphery of my vision I see him coming up on my right – trying to edge in front before the 300-metre mark, where it is verboten to pass. I tuck even tighter and attempt to stretch the throttle cable past the stop. Ha! Andrew is forced to chop his throttle and file in behind me before the sweeping right-hander.

From there, we are banded together snakelike in a picture-perfect racing line. I’m in the lead, nailing every apex as we have been so meticulously trained to do throughout the weekend. The only thing that spoils the party is Jeff, another member of our Red Group, drafting and passing Andrew and me on the back straight and then never giving us a chance to respond. Still, if it were a race, which it’s not supposed to be, I’d be on the second tier of the podium at the end of the weekend!

The above snapshot is courtesy of my old friend and riding mate of 35 years, Richard Seck. Over the sweltering Canada Day holiday weekend, we participated in Racer5’s introductory program at Grand Bend Raceway in Ontario for three full days of road-racing instruction. This unique riding school teaches everyone – from the most sprightly to the most spongy – to be one with the track, and one with the 125.

You read that right – 125 cc motorcycles. If you think you won’t fit on one or that it won’t be possible to have fun on one, you’d be wrong on both counts. One of the students taking the course was over six and a half feet tall, and if you can’t tell from the pictures, everyone had a blast!

Beyond the sheer fun of it, what Richard and I discovered was that if you want to improve your road riding, try track riding and maybe even racing, then Racer5 may be the ideal venue to do so.

Baby Steps and Training Wheels

Marcel_Kutschenreuter_07Class started on Friday at 8:15 a.m. Riders were placed into three groups based on experience. Ages ranged from 17 upward, with brand-new riders and some with 40 years under their belts (albeit expanded to the last notch in some cases). I was heartened to see 25 per cent of the attendees were women. Liz and Tammy were two capable female riders in our more experienced Red Group.

With rider to instructor ratio not exceeding 6:1, you are guaranteed a close relationship with your teacher as well as the fellow riders in your group. We were fortunate to have Angela Hiba leading our group. Angela has some serious racing experience, having campaigned 125 GP bikes as both an amateur and a pro, and bringing home championships in a male-dominated sport. She is also passionate about her teaching. You quickly get an idea of her skill when you get on the track and she rides the perfect line while mostly looking behind at her students.

Instruction is set up in a progressive manner, regardless of riding experience. You have to walk, literally, before you can ride. And that’s exactly what we did after discussing course safety, flag meanings and general track etiquette. Our single-file track walk, which is said to help lock your brain into the correct line, had Angela pointing out markers purposely placed for our training: orange cones denoting braking, turn-in and exit targets, along with ones racers use when they don’t get the luxury of orange cones, like pavement gouges, surface repairs and skid marks.  

Momentum Is Your Friend

Fatima_Malik_04Using these markers is one of the keys to being smooth and consistent on any size bike, but more so on a 13 hp 125, where momentum is paramount and every wrong move you make is instantly transferred to the light bike.

Little 125s on this track required no countersteering. Cornering can easily be accomplished by weighting a peg. Emphasis was placed on body positioning: sliding sideways off the seat, head forward and offset above the mirror mount in the corners, sliding back and tucking for accelerating in the straights, foot placement to maximize cornering clearance and not shredding your boots unnecessarily, adjusting your grip to hang farther off the end of the bar, knee placement, elbow placement, etc. It’s all a bit of a dance, and I dance like Elaine from Seinfeld.

To assist in learning how to do this dance more elegantly, Racer5 has built a “leaning bike” to teach each rider to optimize body positions for the straights and the corners. Angela ensures that everyone gets it right and that bad habits are eliminated. Back on the track and with a few laps under my belt, it all started to make more sense. (Despite this, I’m still a terrible dancer off the track, but that’s not Racer5’s fault.)

After every riding session, during which Angela follows each rider, pointers are given to address issues and improve everyone’s skills. This is the true gold of the course. Having a highly experienced instructor chipping away at all your bad habits and you seeing the benefits of applying the advice in the next riding session – priceless.

Curb Your Enthusiasm

Marcel_Kutschenreuter_04Our pace progressed as the weekend did. Jeff, an experienced and enthusiastic member of our group, went too hot into the last corner leading onto the back straight and had to brake hard to avoid crashing into the slower rider in front of him (me). He tucked the front and slid into the runoff area. He was fine, and we were far safer than on the street, but it was a reminder that anything can happen on a racetrack.

One of the bonuses of riding Honda CBR125s is that an off is not going to break the bank. At the end of the weekend, Jeff paid $65 for the various bits that broke off the bike in his low side.

As the speed increased, so did the challenge of orchestrating everything that we learned. Practice is the key, and we got plenty of it with this three-day program.

Did I Mention It Was Hot?

It was possibly the hottest weekend of the summer, with the humidex reaching 44 C at one point. By Day 3, Fatima, Richard’s lovely wife and newly appointed track photographer, had had enough and decided to spend the last day at the private beach back at our hotel. Thankfully, Marcel of finalvelocity.ca – the Racer5 track day photographer, stepped in to offer his services.

Interestingly, I observed that despite the scorching temperatures, Angela did not sweat, thus adding to her mystique.

Richard, however, was showing signs of having some heat-related misfires. Upon hearing the call for Day 3’s first track session, he freaked out – “Someone stole my riding suit! It was hanging on the canopy just a second ago!”

He was wearing it. Yes, better hydrate some more.

Sunday Funday

By the afternoon of Day 3, we were practising passing techniques on the long back straight. Riding in a faster procession was fun, but passing was the real deal. Bike parts were beginning to touch down. That’s actually a sign you are doing something wrong, but it does mean you are now gaining momentum. In the afternoon session, I finally strung a few corners together using Angela’s desired line. Oh my goodness, what a feeling. Carrying the momentum from the straight into the carousel and into some ess-bends was a yell-in-the-helmet moment of exhilaration!

The last two sessions of our long weekend brought more freedom. We got to pass on the back straight and then find our own pace. These final sessions were basically what a Racer5 track day session is like, which I have since done at the Canadian Tire Motorsports Track. Highly recommended.

What Richard failed to mention in the opening paragraphs is that in the first of these two sessions, I took full advantage of the drafting technique we learned and got a chance to lead the group and ride at my own pace – reasonably interpreted as “ride over your head,” which I did. I was like MotoGP Champion Valentino Rossi, and could remember focal points and turn-in points and holy cow, it was great! No one passed me from our group (including Richard, who did eventually get close enough to try), and I actually caught the second group of riders in our session and passed them!

In the last session, I was actually leading the pack again and was passed by Richard. But could I pass him? Hell no. Did I try? With all my might! He’s 18 kg heavier than me. What was happening? It’s all about drive and momentum, and my friend’s technique entering the passing area was better than mine. So after 35 years of riding together, Richard and I remained tied for who is the fastest. Until the next time.


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