Monday, July 09, 2007

Fast track at work

The needle on Sophie's speedometer is buried solidly at 115. That's miles per hour, not kilometers. Sometimes she forgets she's a sport-tourer. This spirited mare has the heart of a sport bike. Still, though, I know I shouldn't be riding Sophie this fast.

Behind me are a couple of other guys who agree with me on that point. Two motor cops are in hot pursuit. I can hear the blare of the sirens. In the mirrors I see headlights with little blue and red lights dancing on either side. They're about three seconds behind me but gaining little by little. It's time to contemplate my next move.

Pull over? I don't know. We're already at triple digits and these boys are excited. Try to out run them? I could probably do it. There's some curvy sections of road ahead and we're coming upon them real fast. This could get ugly. For the cops, that is.

Meekly pulling over isn't an option. I decide to turn this into a learning experience for the cops. These guys are aware of the turns ahead. In anticipation one has dropped back slightly. They're no longer side by side. Maybe I can use this to my advantage. I slow down just a little, hoping to suck the first guy into riding right on my tail. I know this blacktop like the back of my hand. The lead rider's going to get a surprise real soon if my plan works.

For the next few corners I ride proper lines. I know what's going through my pursuer's minds. High adrenaline situations create tunnel vision. They're excited about catching me. Their focus is totally on me. Will they forget that they're riding at high speeds in twisties and sacrifice their own lines? Time to find out.

The two cops are following my lines. So far I'm riding good ones so the cops are getting more comfortable. Time to shake them up. A right hander is coming up. I should late apex this one and hold my press. That will put me to the right which will set me up perfectly to late apex the next turn, which goes left. Messing up the line will throw a rider really wide. It's a tight turn with no camber. The good news is that if a rider goes wide there's a big grassy area for run-off. I'm hoping to make at least one of the cops run off the road here.

I late apex the right hander but don't hold the press. That puts me in the middle of the roadway instead of to the right. I've slowed down enough so that the lead cop thinks he's gaining on me. Sure enough, he's following my line like I knew he would. The guy can almost taste the capture. I early apex the left turn. It puts me in a dangerous situation. The early apex throws me wide but I'm doing this on purpose. At the last minute I throw Sophie into the left hander. I hate doing this and only hope my skills are as good as I think they are. With a sickening grind of a footpeg we make the turn, coming within an inch of going off the road.

Looking over my shoulder, I'm rewarded with a giant dust cloud. The cop's run the big BMW R1200 off the road. Fortunately, the guy's remembered his training and keeps the bike upright, using the ABS to stop in the grass. Now it's just his partner and I.

A quick flick right and left puts me onto a straight stretch. I keep Sophie in a lower gear and come close to her redline. There's a reason for this. I know that there's a big left hander coming up which is going to require scrubbing some speed. I don't want to use the brakes, figuring that the officer will get a clue from my brake lights. I want this to be a surprise. My plan sort of works but literally backfires. I wanted to use engine compression to scrub off speed so that I didn't have to show my hand by using the brakes. Sophie's in third gear at about 7500 rpm. As I roll off and get ready to downshift, she gives out several very loud backfires. They sound like gun shots. It was enough to warn the officer. He scrubs speed but it's almost not enough.

He stays on the road but it really screws up his lines through the next two corners. I put the right foot peg on the pavement and power through the right hander, putting more distance on my pursuer. Catch me if you can!

Soon, we all pull into the paddock and shake hands. It's been a fun exercise.

That's right. This hasn't been fodder for a "Cop's" episode or "World's Craziest Police Chases". We're on a race track. And I'm getting paid for it! Talk about the ultimate work day.

Commuting eighty miles, putting on about 180 more on a race track, and another eighty miles home. We should all have it so hard.

As much fun as it is, this is serious business. It also has real world implications. Not just for motor cops, but for anyone riding with others. We ran two four hour sessions. One in the morning and one in the afternoon. Between the two somewhere near 50 officers participated. There were some corner braking drills and a lot of work on riding the track properly. The venue was Portland International Raceway, a circuit just shy of two miles long. In June the Champ cars ran there. On this day the track belonged to us.

For the final evaluation, one of us would act as a "rabbit". I prefer to think of myself as more of a fox toying with the hounds. Two officers would be held for a count of three and sent in pursuit. The pair, in turn, would be followed by another instructor who would evaluate the pair of cops. It's called a "Violator Contact" drill. Our objective was to teach them the importance of not sacrificing their own lines during the chase. The rabbit's job was to ride bad lines fast in an effort to make the cops do just that. A lot of the riders got sucked in. The one outstanding exception was the officer in the picture just above. Nobody could shake this guy! You can see Sophie on the other side of the paddock wall in the background. The cop's waiting to see if anyone else wants to play.

Here's an example of how riders can get into trouble. The rabbit's just cut the end of the chicane off instead of going around. Notice the hard right turn? Now check out which way the officer's looking. He's watching the rabbit to the left while making a tight, fast, turn to the right. It gets ugly soon but he avoids going off the track.

As much fun as it was, we were exhausted at the end of the day. Riding fast like that all day takes a tremendous amount of mental energy. Remember the elephant picture above from an earlier post? Now look at my front tire!

Sometimes it takes its own toll on instructors. One of the guys crashed his ST. His bike is a year newer than Sophie. He missed his line on the chicane and early apexed. It threw him wide and into the grass. In an effort to save it, the bike fell over, dumped him off, and went spinning back onto the track on its left side. I'll spare you the gory details of the trackside treatment by the paramedics. The instructor suffered a compound and open fracture of his left leg just above the ankle. Both bones with one sticking out of the skin. I saw the X-ray later that night when some of us went to the hospital. With all the plates and screws, his left leg is about three pounds heavier than the right. No riding for three or four months. That's a part of the risk we accept.

We're training at a very high level. Sometimes bad things happen despite our best efforts. Without the risk there's no accomplishment. In the process we increase our knowledge base and experience. The result of that is being better able to equip riders of every experience level to take care of themselves. Only a few of us can or will step up to this level, as you can imagine. We're fiercely proud of what we do. Our own riding is also better for it, too.

What's the takeaway for the average rider?

You've heard the admonition to ride your own ride. How do we do that?

If you're in a group, don't focus on the rider ahead. There's a lot of good riders but there's even more that are less than competent. Point your nose towards the target you know you should be aiming for. The target you choose, not the target dictated to you by the rider ahead. In other words, look past the next rider. Use your peripheral vision to watch other riders. Your line may be different than theirs but that doesn't mean it's not a good one. It sounds so simple but continually catches riders out when they fail to apply it.

The faster the pace the harder it becomes to avoid getting sucked in. At the same time it's even more critical to set your own target. I assure you, though, it will be well worth the effort. You may even be able to add some value to your riding buddies!

Miles and smiles,



Anonymous said...

That tire must have gotten hot as hell!

Reading up on my bike it seems that the FI VTEC hondas like my VFR run lean so they meet CARB standards. If I was running it that hard on a racetrack I wouldn't be surprised if it backfired a few times. I'm no engine whiz but I remember that lean carburation can be a cause of backfiring.


Steve Williams said...

Wow! That is some intense riding. On the track and the commute on top of it all. To have it too good!

On my Vespa I would slow down and then ride in little circles around them.

Steve Williams
Scooter in the Sticks

Krysta in Milwaukee said...

Question about looking one way & turning the other... Generally a bad idea, as that one officer found out, but sometimes necessary (or at least expeditious). So how to do it safely?

As an example: My preferred route to Karl's house takes me to the end of the next block from my house, then turning left across a divided road. I make sure there's nobody coming from the left, and check traffic from the right to see anyone w/ a turn signal coming my way, before I start across.

I can stop in the middle, between grassy islands (they call it a boulevard here) if there's traffic from the right, but prefer to keep moving & look right for traffic as I get to that point, which leaves me looking right but starting to lean left.

Feels a little odd, but has never been a problem. How to do it more safely, or what should I be feeling for, to catch a problem before it dumps me on the pavement?

Anonymous said...

Another great post today.
But riding home tonight I kept thinking about the crasher. Lessee, compound fracture Just above the ankle. Suffered by an instructor yet, so probably in the best gear available.

I would have expected a good pair of boots to leave him in better shape that that. Remember the guy who commented here how his racing boot was pinned under the bike with no harm?
Maybe we can learn from that & think about positioning ourselves during a crash. I know, you might remind us what your Grandad said... "Think about ridin, not fallin"! But still...
What would you tell us about positioning ourselves during a crash? I think you once said the cops were trained to stay with the bike? Better on it than under it!
Anyway please give your friend our best wishes, & remind him the best pain relief is always a fresh cup of coffee. [Perco-Dan] :)

-Michael Bird (forgot my google pwd)

Biker Betty said...

Wow, I know I would be exhausted after a day of riding like that. But my riding skills are nowhere near yours and a days ride in the Colorado mountains will suit me fine.

Sorry to hear about the spill and hope the officer heals fast. I, for one, appreciate all they go thru to keep our roads safe. We have quite a few motorcycle cops in my city and they seem to keep busy.

Ride Safe,
Biker Betty :)

Joe said...

"ride your own ride." That's what I told my wife off the get go as she's learning to ride. Good post, your site is one I come by on a regular basis.

irondad said...

Track temperature was around 131 degrees (f). We were literally cooking!


Somehow I could picture that. You probably could have given them a run for their money, I'm sure.


Good question. I don't mean to imply that a rider can't look anywhere other than the direction of the turn. Normally a rider should point their nose at the target. Your scenario is not the usual cornering experience. The key is not to fixate somewhere else. Quick glances are in order.

Think of it this way. If you're turning left but need to check something to the right, your head turn should be long enough to say "Hi!" but not "Hello". It may take two or three glances but keep them quick.

A turn is a lean. The lean is initiated by a press on the handgrip in the direction a rider wants to go. A rider will find that they subtly press in the direction they're looking. So if you look right you need to concentrate on separating what your head and your hands are doing.

In the scenario you mention, the biggest hazard will be too much throttle. You might catch a glimpse of a car coming at you and be tempted to "hurry up!". When you're turning like that the lean angles are surprisingly steep. It's easy to break the rear wheel loose if there's a bit of debris on the road. Be judicious.

You are correct in that the instructor had good boots. The break was down inside the area covered by the boot. I have since learned that the break wasn't caused by the bike falling on his leg. His left foot slipped off the peg, hit the ground and stuck, then got twisted.

In a higher speed get-off a rider usually doesn't have much control of how they come off the bike. It's more of a matter in how you land. The advice to officers to keep their feet on the pegs is applicable to lower speed manuevers. This is on the bikes like the Kawasaki's that have floor boards. One would not want their foot trapped under the boards.

The new BMW's don't have floorboards.

The last thing we want to do as motorcycle safety professionals is to have to teach how to fall off in a crash. After all, our efforts are focused on not crashing in the first place, right? However, things happen. If possible, a rider should try to get off on the high side of a bike. I.E. if the bike is falling right, push off to the left.

Biker Betty,
I would be happy to spend days riding in the Colorado mountains!!
Our goal is to keep the cops as safe as possible while equipping them to do their jobs.

Thanks for making this a stop. Hope it's worth your while.


Steven said...

Dan, Allen M pointed me at your site, and this is one of the first posts I read... it's an excellent story well told with a good lesson.... and "ride your own ride" fits for many situations in life, not 'just' time in the saddle.