Thursday, June 21, 2007

At the airport.

This line is called "Dressing up". The idea is to line up mirror to mirror and 23 inches apart. For some reason the cops decided to make their own line a little behind ours. We were the first in as the police bikes followed us. Steve's bike is first, then Jerry's K1200LT, with Sophie next in line. That's Jerry taping name tags to the headlights of the police bikes. This is an awesome set of exercises. It's also the most dangerous for instructors.

Our group actually started at the airport while the rookies went at it on the track. Normally we use Woodburn Drag Strip for the braking and swerving exercises. The man who owns the place is nice enough to let us use the space for free. Lately, though, the temptation to rent strip time for money has won out. Such was the case this time. Our intrepid Operations Manager, Ron, had procured the use of a runway at McMinnville Airport. Interestingly, it's right across the highway from the Evergreen Air Museum.

The drag strip is fairly close to the track. McMinnville Airport, in contrast is somewhere around 25 miles away. I'm going to be the last to complain about having a reason to ride more. Especially when we have a police escort! It is such a trip riding with a pack of motor cops. Besides being a nice ride, it's also a trip down memory lane for me. This trip wasn't your typical group ride. Jerry and Steve were riding pairs in the lead. Jerry's on the inside. I'm lined up right behind Jerry. Right behind me are seven rows of cops riding two by two. Normally a rider could be a little nervous being tailed by 14 police bikes. Not this time. Those cop bikes are like a great big security blanket. Unlike a normal group of bikes, we're more of a pack than a group. Bikes are mirror to mirror except for me. I'm by myself. Following distance is about a second or a little less. Interestingly, on the way back to the track we pass the other group in the opposite direction. The groups are travelling to switch venues. For a brief moment there's 34 bikes filling the entire roadway.

Nobody's allowed on the airport runways without a flashing yellow light on top of a vehicle. With all the cop bikes nobody's got a flashing yellow light on top of their helmet! Ron meets us at the gate in a van with a rotating light. We dutifully follow Ron to our designated location. Each end of the runway is coned off. I'm looking up and hoping the cones are visible from the air! Wouldn't do to have a plane invade our space, would it?

The reason we need the long space is to allow the bikes to achieve 70 mph. The runway works awesomely well. Space doesn't need to be wide, just long. I'm amazed by how great the surface is for traction. Wet or dry, we could probably still do our thing. The only hazard is some small lights parallel to the path of travel in the swerve. Their metal casings are slightly raised and could be a little slick.

The first exercise is maximum braking. There's two braking chutes running in opposite directions. Running two lines gives the officers more rotations. In the beginning the exercise is run at 45 mph. Then the speed is raised to 60 mph. The last part is run at 70 mph. Watching the cops haul the bikes down from speed is extremely impressive. They all have ABS. Sophie's the only one without. Being the stubborn fool I am, I insist on riding demos. First at 45 mph, then 60. Thanks to the great traction and some well honed skills, my stops are pretty good. The distance is just barely over the ABS standard but well under the non-ABS standard. It's an ego thing! It's not just stopping distance, though. It's all about a controlled front fork compression. It should start right away and be linear throughout until stopped. Good technique is key, even with ABS.

If you ever want to get a firsthand impression of just how good ABS is, standing and watching these bikes is the way to do it. The standard we've established for ABS bikes is 216 feet at 70 mph. One of these days I'll have to share the story of how we came up with these standards. Our riders were consistently stopping in the 180 to 190 foot range. I'm standing at about the 175 foot mark so I can be there to offer coaching. The sensory impressions are just awesome.

First, there's the bikes coming at you doing 70 mph. Then you see the front of the bike start to dive. The bottom of the upper fairing starts a rapid descent towards the front fender. You can hear the ABS clatter somewhat. It sounds like "chk, chk, chk" very rapidly. The gap between the fairing and fender is pretty narrow, now. You see the front forks doing a little pogo stick type dance as the ABS works. Apply and release, apply and release, over and over as the ABS cycles. The front tire's on the verge of a skid but never gets there. The sound of the tire squealing and the noise of the rubber scrubbing against pavement is a distinct one. These bikes are stopping so hard that I see some of the rider's rear ends a few inches up off the seat.

It all happens so fast that it's hard to coach. That's why an instructor has to be top notch. We take mental snapshots of the bike all along the way. How was the initial application? What happened in the middle? Did the rider let up or was that the natural action of ABS? Did the rider keep reeling it in until the bike stopped, or was there some letup at the end? How do you coach briefly and concisely so the number of passes each cop gets is the greatest?

Swerving is next. This is where an instructor needs to be light on their feet. I'm standing behind the swerve box. It's a barrier made of tall cones. My job today is to call the riders and indicate which way to swerve. Left or right. I am wearing bright orange gloves. As each cop approachs the swerve box I extend the appropriate arm. That sounds tame, doesn't it? Remember, I'm standing directly in front of them as they approach at 70 mph! Not only that, but I have to signal them at the right time. Ideally, they will have a hundred feet to move the bike 8 feet right or left. If I'm late with the signal, I'm probably going to get hit. If I'm too early, there's no challenge to the cops. On top of all that, the last part of the exercise is an "ALL RIDE"!

What does that mean? I no longer call them. They're coming on their own, one right after another. Lots of repetitions that way. I don't dare look behind me at all or I'll get behind on the count. If that happens these riders will pick their own direction. My options are limited as I'll now have speeding bikes six feet to the left of me and six feet to the right of me. There is no place to run.

It takes a surprising amount of force to move a bike 8 feet sideways in a swerve at freeway speeds. Yeah, freeway speeds. In fact, with a 55 or 65 mph speed limit, depending on if the freeway is urban or rural, I could get ticketed at 70 mph! I have to trust that the cops have some skills.

After swerving practise is done, we move to swerving, then braking, or braking, then swerving. Never, never, never, try to do both at once. Now my signalling has to be more complicated but much more precise. More than once I see a rider start to brake while still leaned over in the swerve. It's not pretty when the rear tire steps out. It makes me pucker and I'm not even the one on the bike. The cops know just how serious a matter it is to master these skills. They're much more disciplined here than they will prove to be on the racetrack later this day.

I'm really lucky to be a part of this training. We're literally helping these cops stay alive on the streets. It's also a blast to watch and coach. It's not your average work day, that's for sure!

Miles and smiles,


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