Words: Phil Suriano
Photos: Phil Suriano and California Superbike School
RETRO REVIEW – this article originally appeared in JUST BIKES No.343 – September, 2017
If you’ve always wanted to ride a sportsbike at some point in your life, but have always put it off, you’ll empathise with my mate Doug.
Having turned 50, Doug sits in an unenviable statistical group – the middle-aged male who decides to take up riding a sportsbike. Call it a mid-life crisis, call it making up for lost time, call it whatever you like, actually; the fact is Doug fell in love with bikes – particularly fast ones - and because I work for JUST BIKES, he figures I’m the fount of all knowledge when it comes to motorcycles. That’s how I enter this story.
To backtrack a few years, Doug’s introduction to motorcycling was on a Vespa around Sydney; that gave him the
bug. From the moment he got his “L’s,” Doug was a convert to two wheels for both work and play. However, it wasn’t long – and when I say that, I mean only four weeks after getting his licence! - before Doug started thinking about something bigger, bolder and with a bit more juice.
On his daily commute into the Sydney CBD, Doug said he’d enviously study the larger and more exotic road bikes next to him at the lights. This led him to the classifieds, where he’d spend hours looking for his dream bike. He would constantly ask me about various makes and models he was interested in, all of which seemed way over the top for a guy whose only riding experience had been on a Vespa.
I should also mention one crucial thing about Doug – he loves speed. We all have mates like this, right? I’m talking about those for whom faster is always better. As such, Doug would constantly be asking me about various superbikes, but knowing his experience level, was always suggesting milder and altogether more “upright” small-capacity models instead.
For many reasons, not least of which was my advice, Doug decided to start his journey slowly – well, sort of – by renting different bikes to see if they lived up to his expectations. First cab off the rank was a LAMS-rated (only because he was still on his P’s) Ducati 659 Monster. That weekend had him buzzing: he was hooked on throwing his leg over rather than stepping through! After the Vespa, he described the Ducati as “like hopping into a slingshot.” Doug confessed that there were a couple of scary moments that weekend, namely corners that approached way too quickly. This rental phase continued (now on a full licence) with a Yamaha R6, followed by a Ducati 848 and then a BMW S 1000 RR. After every test ride, his enthusiasm grew and grew!
After riding the BMW S 1000 RR, Doug made his mind up – that’s what he was going to buy.
This was even after he buried that a rental S 1000 RR into the side of a car. He was OK; his wallet took the hardest hit, as the driver wasn’t insured and he lost the $5K deposit on the rental – yikes!
You’d think that the experience of being catapulted over the bonnet and landing on the road would make him a bit gun shy, but
Doug’s passion never wavered - he loved riding and loved the BMW.
I had jokingly suggested he’d maybe taken a hit to the head in the fall, but Doug’s mind was not only firm, but firmly made up – he was going to get an S 1000 RR and nothing was going to stop him.
Despite my concerns, I did have some sympathy for Doug, as he’s a father of three daughters, so there are plenty of times when he needs to escape the house and get some “me time.”
So, after weeks of research, he threw caution to the wind and bought a 2016 model BMW S 1000 RR from Bike Biz Sydney. Nursing it out of the showroom, he was sitting on a 198hp rocket ship that could zip to more than 200km/h in about 7 seconds. That’s an awesome stat, but also terrifying for Doug (and me), as he really had buggerall idea on how to ride it properly.
Clearly, he had bitten off more than he could chew, but hell, this is Doug. He was on a mission and wanted to do the whole big-capacity sportsbike thing while he still could.
Learning the Code
With his brand new BMW, Doug’s weekends became focused on going for rides, but he quickly learnt that his experience and ability were no match for those of his mates; the more he tried to keep up, the more obvious his mistakes and the more dangerous it became.
Like any activity with a degree of risk, there are definite skills involved in riding a powerful sportsbike properly; skills that, frankly, Doug didn’t have in any measure. But, to his credit, he recognised this and realised that he should learn from a professional, rather than by trial and error.
A friend gave him a copy of “A Twist of the Wrist. Vol II” written by American ex-racer, Keith Code. After reading the first couple of pages, Doug became a little alarmed as he interpreted Keith’s primary message as: riding a motorbike is extremely dangerous and your basic survival instincts are usually what will kill you. To succeed, you essentially have to ignore them, harden up and teach yourself to respond with techniques that are basically counterintuitive.
‘Yeah right!’ thought Doug. Overcoming one’s primal instincts as you encounter those butt-clenching moments of fear is easier said than done.
In any case, Doug persisted with the book and the more he read, the more interested he became. To understand how a bike performs, Doug learnt you first have to understand the physics. Once you understand the physics, overcoming those instinctive - yet often counterproductive - survival reactions comes a little easier.
Digging more into the Keith Code story, Doug learnt that Code had set up a series of rider training schools in the US named California Superbike School (CSS). Most JUST BIKES readers will be familiar with these courses, especially since the Australian arm of the California Superbike School started up in 2004.
Keen to attend a course, and with no small amount of encouragement from me, Doug decided to book himself in for a CSS ‘Level 1’ course. As the name suggests Level 1 is the first in a series of four levels of the California Superbike School program. All riders who sign up for a CSS course start at Level 1, whether they’re racers, experienced riders or novices like Doug.
Level 1 covers the first 5 skills in a core skill set of 15 drills, covered in Levels 1, 2 and 3. Above this, Level 4 is a personalised day, for riders that have completed Levels 1 through 3, where more than 100 distinctions can be called on to refine a rider’s technique.
With CSS Level 1 courses conducted at both Phillip Island and Sydney Motorsport Park (Eastern Creek), you’d think Sydneysider Doug would have chosen the latter. But, maybe due to watching too many MotoGP races, Doug selected Phillip Island as the place to break his track cherry. (Check out the CSS website: https://www.superbikeschool.com.au/ for more details on course locations)
As he was heading down to Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula for a summer family holiday Doug figured it wouldn’t take long to skive off to one of the most famous grand prix tracks in the world to learn how to ride his machine better.
Weeks after booking and having practically begged the CSS booking agent to push him up what was a pretty lengthy wait-list, Doug finally got the call up for a Monday session in mid-December. He was stoked! It was at that point that I decided to join him and document his experiences on the course.
The team at CSS were very accommodating and allowed me to join in. Having limited track experience myself, I think I was looking forward to the experience almost as much as Doug.
So, after dropping the family off, and with his pride and joy S 1000 RR carefully stowed on a borrowed trailer, Doug eagerly made his way to the Island, where I caught up with him.
Arriving at Phillip Island at the crack of dawn the next day, we joined a queue of about 40 others. We had expected more track-only machines, but the majority of CSS participants that day were either riding or trailering road bikes like Doug’s S 1000 RR.
The rental bikes that CSS provide for students are S 1000 RRs, too, so Doug would be in good company. I had one of these for the day, so I could more closely share Doug’s experience – or feel his pain!
Each CSS rental Beemer is stock standard, bar a brand-new set of tyres, oggy knobbs and axle armour for crash protection and tape over the speedo (I’ll explain why later).
Theory, then Prac
After registration, the day’s CSS participants were ushered behind pit lane to unload. I left Doug to get sorted while I organised my rental. Getting his bike onto a trailer only a couple of days prior was a first for Doug, so getting it off was, too. His trepidation must have been obvious, because when I came back, there were two fellow students – part of a really good bunch of guys and girls attending that day - helping him get the bike off the trailer.
Chatting to our fellow classmates, we learned that most were like us: commuters and weekend riders who wanted to improve their skills and learn better techniques for riding disciplines like cornering. One fellow student said he was “looking to replace riding enthusiasm with riding skill” and that pretty much sums it up.
After suiting up (full leathers, full-face helmet, proper riding boots and gloves are mandatory) and running bikes through scrutineering (also mandatory), we were divided up into groups: aside from us Level 1 newbies, there were a few Level 4 riders in action that day, too.
The Level 1 course conducted by CSS began in the classroom. After a short, yet thorough safety briefing, we got stuck into the first bit of syllabus for the day: Throttle Control.
While our instructors were talking, I realised why they kept the curtains down in the classroom. Just as one instructor began to talk, you could hear the Level 4 guys exiting Phillip Island’s Turn 12 and gassing it hard onto the straight. By the time they came past the classroom (above the garages that usually holds the VIPs and media at the MotoGP, their tachos would have been pushing past 10,000rpm as they shifted into fifth at about 220km/h.
Doug had never been to the Phillip Island circuit before, so he found the noise amazing. I saw his eyes light up as he realised he’d shortly be doing something similar on the track.
After the opening half hour theory session, we all saddled up and were rearing to go. As the Level 4 class returned to the pits, us Level 1 students were corralled at the pit exit, then led off for a couple of gentle reconnaissance laps of the famous 4.445km Phillip Island circuit.
On such hallowed ground, I found the experience both intimidating and thrilling, so I’m guessing Doug’s excitement and anxiety levels were turned up to 11.
However, it wasn’t long before we started to get comfortable on the track. While you never lose respect for your environment and your machine, excitement took over from anxiety.
With the Level 1 course, you get five sessions on the track, each of which is designed to help students like us put into practise the specific element taught in the classroom.
It’s not about speed, either - the CSS Level 1 courses and above are all about making you a better, smoother and safer rider, not a faster one.
Students are also assigned a professional rider (instructor) for each session. This instructor hunts you down on the track to take you through the drills. Not only was this educational, it also assisted in building our confidence when riding into and out of corners.
With the first session, we practised what we had learned about throttle control. More specifically, we would focus on using our throttle as the sole means of bike control around the circuit – no gear changes and no brakes for a whole lap. We were explicitly told to stay in fourth gear and not to touch our brakes. It seemed crazy, but after a few laps you learned a lot about setting up your speed for a corner: easing off the power on the approach and rolling it back on again on the way out. It was extremely insightful, especially with an instructor at your side.
After Session 1, Doug said he knew that he had made the right decision to attend a CSS course. I found it to be a real confidence booster, too.
Learning at Speed
The day continued at a frantic pace: it seemed we were always on the go, moving quickly between track sessions and the classroom.
Refreshingly, there were riders of all abilities with us and it wasn’t just a room full of blokes, either, with a good showing from the fairer sex.
With each session, we built upon the techniques the instructors had spoken about, so with each lap we could feel a tangible improvement in both smoothness and, importantly for Doug, speed.
The instructors and track coaches were all incredibly friendly and you could sense they got enjoyment from sharing their knowledge with us rookies. We were made to feel very comfortable at all times, with no instructor looking down on you. They are genuinely there for the students and demonstrated a huge amount of passion to assist each of us in developing the skill required to move on to the next session.
The classroom sessions were never dull, , being interactive, with new information cleverly layered onto what we’d learned in the previous sessions. There was no information overload, either.
If you’re thinking of attending a CSS course, I’d recommend reading Keith Code’s book BEFORE doing so. It’s not essential, but both Doug and I found it incredibly useful, as it made it that little bit easier to grasp some of the concepts being taught in the classroom for the first time.
Feedback & Fast Track
After each track session, there was time allocated for feedback, where the coaches would assess our efforts and provide one-on-one tips for further improvement. The instructors took you through each turn and critically assessed your performance, providing recommendations for the next session.
As the instructors not only watch, but ride with you through the corners, they’re able to provide first-hand feedback, thus giving you confidence to go into the corners faster and with greater control the next time.
By the end of the day, Doug, myself and the other students were incorporating all the skills we’d learned into the final track session, which the instructors later told me is a taste of what’s taught in a CSS Level 2 course.
As mentioned earlier, this course isn’t about speed or going faster - that’s why the hire bikes have that tape over the speedo. As you never knew what speed you were doing, you remained focused on the road ahead and your line through each corner, rather than the instrument panel. I was probably approaching the Island’s first turn at a speed I never thought possible, but I was focused on looking through the corner for the tip-in point at Turn 2.
Spent, but Fulfilled
The day spent at a CSS course is long - after a 7:00am start, things don’t wind up until about 5:00pm. Everyone in our group was knackered at the end of the day; not only from the physicality of riding a sportsbike all day, but also from the concentration and mental effort required to absorb all you have learned to not only steer, but also “think” your way around twelve technically challenging corners, lap after lap.
There is no doubting that, compared to ten hours earlier, our riding ability had improved – in Doug’s case, the improvement in ability and confidence was massive.
Doug told me later that the sheer fact of now knowing what his bike can do was extremely comforting and significantly improved his confidence. Even getting his bike back on the trailer was easier!
In conclusion, Doug and I came away from our day at the California Superbike School with a ton of knowledge, but also understanding that there was still a lot more to discover. Having learned the basic theory and then put it into practise on a racetrack was empowering - fear was replaced with knowledge and knowledge made our riding more enjoyable.
The day also ignited a greater understanding of why we partake in the dangerous activity that is motorcycle riding – in controlled conditions and with the right skill set, nothing else comes close to the thrill of it.
California Superbike School – Level 1 Course
A day-long CSS Level 1 covers five basic areas, with theory on each followed by practical sessions on the track. The five areas covered are:
- Throttle Control – An essential tool for cornering, mastering the throttle helps you maintain the best possible stability and traction. As mentioned, our first track session saw us use the throttle exclusively to moderate speed and corner entry.
- Turn Points – Knowing when and where to tip the bike into a corner sets you up for a good line through it, whereas bad entry points – usually the result of turning in too early – lead to a potentially dangerous line through a corner. Learning turn-in points from marked guides on the track help you apply the skill to everyday riding.
- Quick Turn – Essential for achieving not only safety and accuracy on the road/track, but also better overall control. Quick turning a motorcycle is the way to avoid a number of rider errors caused by slow-leaning a bike into a corner.
- Rider Input – Knowing when to be more engaged with the throttle and when to be more relaxed is key to the bike’s stability, general riding improvement and combatting rider fatigue. Finding the balance between control action and no control action is key.
- Two Step – Applying what’s been learned in the earlier sessions, ie. identifying the ideal cornering line, spotting the turn-in point and targeting the mid-turn position of a corner, sets you up for more advanced visual skills and drills. This final session is a taster for what’s taught in a CSS Level 2 Course.
Find out more at: https://www.superbikeschool.com.au/
CSS UPDATE: April, 2020
With the implementation of social distancing and non-essential travel directives due to the coronavirus pandemic, along with restrictions on interstate travel, California Superbike School operations at Sydney Motorsport Park, Morgan Park and Phillip Island were halted in late March.
At time of writing, courses were not due to resume until the following dates at the following circuits:
Sydney Motorsport Park – 1 June, 2020
Phillip Island – 17 September, 2020
Morgan Park – 19 October, 2020
NOTE: all these resumption dates may be subject to further changes.
For the latest information, go to: https://www.superbikeschool.com.au/ or the California Superbike School Australia Facebook page.