Learning to Learn (A Racers Tale)

This is the first installment in the Track Riders from one of our STG Sponsored Riders, Michael Weyant of RSP Racing.  Subscribe to this blog for updates and stay tuned for his thoughts when it comes to riding and racing. We hope you enjoy, A Racers Tale.  

 

I really struggled with a title for this writing. “Learning not to suck” or ‘Riding without ego” all seemed to fit but in the end I suppose this is for the best. Learning to learn. This will be all about learning about…well, learning. Not ‘I just got a motorcycle and now I am pulling out of my driveway’ but how to condition yourself to learn how to really ride a motorcycle proficiently. There will be NO actual riding tips here!

 

I will give you a bit of background, partially because it is important for you to have a frame of reference and partly to remind myself of where I was, where I am, and where I still need to go. Don’t worry; I will try to keep it somewhat short.

 

I began riding in 1985. Yeah, let that sink in a sec. Initially out of necessity (couldn’t afford a car) and eventually out of love. Not going to bore you with the details but many, many miles of riding different bikes (all sport bikes though, mostly GSXR) through sun, rain, and even snow. I should also add that I was entirely self-taught. There were no MSF classes or internet forums to get knowledge from. I literally hopped on a bike and trained myself not to die.

 

Fast forward to 2008, the year of my ‘rebirth’ to motorcycling. At this point I had already been riding 23 years. You could say that I was pretty certain that I knew all that there was to know about riding, or at least all that I needed to know. And then it all changed; I bought a 2008 Ducati 848.

 

I had been riding sport bikes my entire life but this bike seemed to be calling me a giant baby every single time that I got on it. It was absolutely begging me to ride harder, faster, and more aggressively than I ever had before. Now, I am generally speaking a law-abiding rider. I don’t ride like crazy on the streets, never have. I began to feel uncomfortable in the fact that I was starting to creep upwards on the speedo in places that shouldn’t see those kinds of speeds.

 

So, I started to do a little bit of research (with that newfangled interweb thing) and came across a local motorcycling forum. I started chatting a bit, asking some questions, and ended up meeting a bunch of people that told me about track days. What the heck was that??!?

 

Well, I went through all the excuses and finally convinced myself to give it a shot even though I was scared as hell, for myself and my ‘baby’. In the interest of keeping this somewhat short I had an absolute blast, and was completely hooked. I did track days for one year, and then in 2010 I started racing.  What my first sessions on the track taught me is that I had absolutely NO idea what the hell I was doing on a motorcycle. Everything, and I do mean everything that I knew about riding was wrong.

 

This was my first track day. Note the amazingly awesome body position and tremendous cornering ability! This was a serious blow to my ego. I mean, I was a well-seasoned rider and considerably older than most of the ‘kids’ that were passing me on my 130hp Ducati on their 70hp SV650s…and I think some kid passed me on a big wheel.

 

I had 23 years of ingrained habits that I just found out in one day were completely wrong. The way I sat on the bike, the way I gripped the bars, the way I moved on the seat, the way I used my brakes, the way I used my throttle…all of this and more needed tons of work if I was going to pass that kid on the big wheel.

 

So, I could do this two ways: Continue in my belief that I was old, wise, and make excuses about ‘just holding back’ or I could look at myself objectively, assess where I needed improvement, and make a plan to succeed. Thankfully, I chose the latter.

 

Looking in a mirror for some self-assessment can be a very challenging thing to do, but in the end every human being on the planet could benefit from an honest, objective session of introspection. The key word there is honest. None of this will mean squat if you cannot look at yourself and realize that you don’t, in fact, know everything.

 

This can be a very painful process and the haughty have the worst time of it. It is a knock-down drag-out fight between your will to learn and your ego. Some people simply cannot ever make it past this early stage. I know some really talented riders, very fast people and good racers that will never progress to become ‘great’ racers because they still are unable to come to terms with the fact that they make mistakes; they externalize blame.

 

This is probably where I would normally get all Zen-like and make some cryptic statement like “You cannot fill a vessel that is already full’ or some other fortune cookie wisdom that I got from a kung-fu movie. Cliché as it is, that doesn’t make it any less true. You must learn to put your ego aside when performing critical self-analysis.

 

So, here are some tips on beginning the learning process:
Don’t make excuses
I can’t tell you how many times I have heard from a track rider that they crashed because they hit a rock, someone did something in front of them, the motorcycle lurched/did something. Sometimes you will get an ‘I don’t know what happened’ which at least is a step in the right direction.
Yes, it is possible that there was some sort of outside influence that caused the crash (mechanical failure, oil, debris) but the sad truth is that overwhelmingly the fault lies with the rider, and our ego immediately steps in and places the blame elsewhere (externalizes) in order to save our fragile little sense of self. This is doing you a huge disservice because you stop searching for the actual answer, which means it is likely that you will repeat the same mistake.
Understand that you don’t understand
It is ok to not understand or know everything, as long as you realize this and then seek out the answer. This is how we learn and grow as human beings, not just on a race track. Realize that this (life, riding, whatever) is a long journey which will be a continuing evolution where you will layer knowledge on top of knowledge…which will eventually become wisdom =)
Be objective
Suppose you crashed, or suppose you got beat in a race, or suppose something unexpected happened. Why? Why did those things happen? Was there something that you could have done differently to change the outcome?

 

Did you really hit some oil in the road or did you give bar input while leaned over and grabbing some throttle? Objectively looking at a situation and pulling the facts out of it is a skill that you will need to hone. It is very easy to let our ego make up an excuse. Don’t let it!

 

GI Joe would be proud of me here because knowing the root cause, and you will see that phrase a lot from me, is half the battle. Get to the root of the matter and then the learning can begin.
Getting back on the horse/facing your demons/its all the same thing
This is mostly about track riding/racing but it can apply to street riding as well. Do you know someone that has crashed and has never been able to get back up to speed? Never fully regained their confidence? I do. Multiple someone’s actually.

 

These same people either swear at me or they look at me in awe like I am some sort of machine-god of racing because after I crash, I am immediately right back at my pace.

 

I can assure you, I am no deity…about as far from it as possible, actually. What I am is a man who can objectively look at a situation and determine the root cause, free of my ego. There have been a few crashes that were not my fault however the bulk of them were my own responsibility. The last crash that I had was a mechanical failure; my rear tire warmer wasn’t on.

 

After I put the bike back together, I did my best lap time ever in the very next race. I was able to do this because I had determined the cause of the crash and since I knew what it was I could plan to make sure that it didn’t happen again. Consequently it did not affect my confidence and allowed me to go faster.

 

The crash before was absolutely my fault. I pushed on the bars while I was leaned over too far and something had to give. Again, I know what I did wrong so I was able to get right back out there and hit it just as hard.
Taking small bites
It is very easy to become lost in the sea of ‘things that I need to work on’. Pick a single area that needs improvement and work on it. Do not become distracted by anything other than what you are working on. Yes, other mistakes will be made. Log them away for future improvement and focus on what it is that you are doing.

 

Do not dwell on things that are out of your immediate influence; that is wasted energy. Focus on the things that you can change, or that will garner you the largest improvement.

 

For instance, I once spent an entire track day working solely on taking right hand turns because they were so weak compared to my left handers. If a particular technique or section of track is frustrating you, take a step back and focus on determining what the cause is, develop a plan to improve, and execute the plan.
Learn how to deal with pressure, or better yet…don’t.
You will not learn well under pressure. I hope that you realize that you are the only one putting pressure on yourself. My advice would be to let that part of it go.

 

There is NO PRESSURE. NONE. There is no trophy at the end of a track day. No endorsement deal. No talent scout just waiting to draft you for next year’s factory Kawasaki team. It is just YOU and THE MACHINE. Do not bring any extra baggage with you.

 

Once you relax (key to learning anything) you will be able to start down the path to improvement. As much as you may wish it to be otherwise, you cannot force or speed up this process, let it occur naturally and at the pace that your brain can handle the input.
Keep it real
Go to the track with a plan to have fun, then set realistic and attainable goals and go after them. I think doing the latter will lead to the former =). Having goals that are too far out of reach will only lead to disappointment which will undermine your confidence. Know your limits and then push them just a little, but make sure that you have realistic expectations for your riding.
Worth a thousand words?
Pictures and videos are awesome learning tools. Out where I ride we are fortunate that there is always a pro photographer on site for our racing and track days. The local organizations out here will bring the students over to look at the pictures in an effort to help critique body position and lines which I think is a fantastic off-track learning tool.

 

I get teased a lot because I record everything. I use the video combined with my GPS lap timer data to see where I can improve. Where my on/off throttle markers are, tip-ins, brake markers, etc. See where I can push a bit more. I am literally fighting for tenths of a second now.

 

Anyway, you would be amazed at how many people think they are doing something different than what pictures will show. Again, honest criticism will help people more than delusions of grandeur. It is good that you are hard on yourself. You will learn faster that way as long as you do not allow it to progress into defeatism. Be sure to keep realistic goals in mind.
Having fun will make learning easier
Many times my teammates, people who have known me for years, tell me that I need to step back and relax, and that I should have fun. They don’t realize that I am having fun diagnosing and improving my riding. ‘Driven’ is the word that gets tossed my way a lot. Just because I am not giggling like a little girl doesn’t mean that I am not having the best time ever.

 

There is a definitely danger of ‘going too deep’ however, and losing sight of why you are there in the first place. I used to have a problem over-thinking things, and it is very easy to become overwhelmed if you allow it to happen. I learned to compartmentalize my approach to riding.

 

If you find yourself becoming frustrated, it is time to take a step back, take a breath, and remember that life on two wheels is good! Take a break, or focus/work on something else. Or heck, just ride around the track and enjoy the sensation of riding around a track. You remember…that fun thing? Above all, if you remember nothing else from my ramblings, take this last bit to heart. Life is too short to not be enjoying every single moment that you have on two wheels.

 

Michael Weyant
RSP Racing

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