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The art of speed

Ever wondered just how those motorcycle racers appear to be riding so dangerously but usually finish unscathed? We sent our resident biker to a school for the pros and found that there is a lot of logic behind what appears to be madness. Sukhwant Basra writes.

india Updated: Jan 27, 2013 00:55 IST
Sukhwant Basra

A wrong repeated many a time doesn't become right. However, rote and habit may well allow one to believe otherwise.

Your correspondent has been riding a motorcycle for over two decades. It's been a lot more than the regular biker on the street since my riding has been peppered with high-speed off-road rallies. To be honest, compared to the average fellow on two wheels, I had been lulled into the fallacy that I am quite the cat's whiskers.

It's unnerving for a man's very basics to be shaken. It's a blow to the ego to be confronted with knowledge that one has been wrong for 24 years; that one has been a monkey while thinking himself to be quite the dude. A day with the coaches of the California Superbike School made this rider realise that having that machine hum to your will is more a symphony of science than just feel. It was humbling; it was a revelation.

More than just instinct
Biking, after all, can be a heck of a lot instinctive for most of us. And we have this atavistic learn buried deep within our psyches that instinct is our bedrock - instinct is what heightens our response in fight or flight situations. In instinct we trust. So naturally, when it come to steering a bike, we do what comes naturally - lean away from the ground in case one has to tilt the machine; push the handlebar on the opposite side to veer; try to get the motorcycle upright asap in case of a sliding rear tyre and sit tight without fidgeting around too much to maintain the stability of the bike. In this instinctive form of riding, we forget one basic --- nature tuned our psyches and response mechanism for an animal that, at the most, was meant to lope over ground at 20-30 kph.

This riding of machines that easily accelerate in excess of 100 kph is not something that comes to us instinctively. Instead, as this writer was to realise, it requires reactions that are ground in knowledge which taps the scientific basis of the interplay of kinetic, centrifugal, centripetal and some other such fancy sounding forces that, to be honest, this biker brain with its standard Xth physics is unable to fully comprehend.

Knowledge is king
It all stems from where you stop calling them wheels and instead think of them as two gyroscopes whirling while you are positioned just between them.

But then, you may not understand the science behind your TV but it's easy enough to flip on and control. That's just the way it is with the techniques taught at the bike school.

One has heard of counter steer over the years and been curious about it but never really got around to figuring it out. Basically it's a steering input which calls for the rider to actually gently push the handlebar forward with the right hand if one wants to turn right and vice versa. Yup, want to correct your bike and make it go more to the right while zipping about at 100kph plus? Just push that right hand forward. Gently, please! The bike, amazingly enough, promptly starts going to the right. Want to make the turn even tighter? Ok, just lean over with your chest close to the tank and pull down on the handle bar even more. Easy to say, tough to execute at high speed.

As this rider found out, the knowledge that the box of tricks the school gives its pupils actually works, is the crucial edge between pulling out of that tricky corner or running off the track. In a tricky situation out on the road, this box can be a lifesaver.

Send the kid to school
The Indian market is now flooded with motorcycles that sneer past the 200 kph mark with disdain. There are a host of biker clubs coming up across the nation. Mean machines dot the roads and the fantasies of many a teenager who presumes that he must have that monster under him for respect amongst peers. They flood the nightmares of many a parent grappling with the to-give-in-or-not dilemma that seems to be such an eternal part of parenthood. If this correspondent was to have his way, he would make it mandatory for a special license requirement for big bikes. And this license would never be granted minus mandatory grooming at an instructional programme like the California Superbike School.

It took three days to unravel a lifetime of tarmac riding. I have come back a better and, hopefully, a safer rider. I can just hope that more riders learn just what to do with their big machines before they let loose that throttle. After all, what's the point in the thrills if one can't ward off the spills?

Not just flash
You must have seen motorcycle racing on TV and wondered at the nerve of those riders who have their knee almost scraping the ground as they lay the bike low in the turn. The involuntary thought that also rears up is that these are dangerous antics.

Actually, as it turns out, they are being safer by pushing their body off the bike. The whole deal is about centre of gravity. In a turn, if you lean your body off the motorcycle, it actually allows you to keep the wheels straighter and not lean the machine as much – that makes for safer cornering.

By the end of three days of incessant instructions, this rider was confident enough to push his upper body real close to the ground in each turn and it hit me that those competitive riders on the race track aren't just being flashy; they are just harnessing the laws of science to go as fast as possible while being safe.

The way they swivel their hips about on the seat to shift weight is all carefully calculated to hit a turn with the bike's lean angle and centre of gravity in sync. Fast-bike riding has more to do with knowledge than just brute courage. The latter, sans skill, can only lead to disaster.

All in the family
Like most initiatives in Indian motorsport, the California Superbike School is more about passion than making money. Consider the economics: the school costs about Rs 1.15 crore while at Rs 40,000 per participant for a three-day course, it just reels in about Rs 40 lakh spread over two weekends. In order to maintain the ratio of three riders per coach, the total number of the school is kept low so there can't be money pouring in from that side.

There is limited sponsor support - BMW provided some bikes for the coaches while Motul lubricants also came on board. The whole idea is the brainchild of TT Varadarajan and is being fuelled by his biker son Sidharth. The biker-mad family - after all, the fellow has a motorcycle parked in his drawing room! - has just sold off their business for a hefty sum and is putting some of that money in conducting the school. "The aim is to give exposure to young Indian riders so that they learn from the best early enough to do justice to their potential. Our plans include scouting and sponsoring riders in the hope that one day India will have a world champion," says Sidharth.

The father-son duo is pretty clear that this property is not meant for them in the long run. "We hope that with all the major manufacturers already in India, one of them will come forward to adopt the school. We can't sustain it for too long and, frankly, this is the kind of corporate-social responsibility that these manufacturers should be showing."