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Basic Training

by Jay McDaniel

SAM WELCH WAS chafing at the bit. Mounted on a race-prepped 1999 YZF-R1, he was attending an open track day at the Streets of Willow, an 11-turn, 1.6 mile racetrack tucked away in the hills behind Willow's main road course. Speeds on the Streets, he knew, were far slower than on the bigger raceway, but the faster bikes could still hit well over a hundred on the quarter-mile-long front straight. He knew his R1 could get up to that speed in second gear, and was just waiting for the opportunity to put the move on the guy in front of him.
Sam couldn't figure the guy. He was on some sort of dual-sport bike, but was dressed in full racing leathers with knee pucks. Sam and his three buddies, who'd brought a trio of brand-new R1's and a CBR900RR to the track, had seen the guy before the first session started, and were barely able to stifle their laughter. It was ridiculous. A dirtbike, on full knobbies, on a racetrack up against R1s and 900RRs? The guy looked like a freak. He'd just be in the way.

Out of respect for passing rules, Sam waited, albeit impatiently, for the longer front straight, which seemed to take forever to appear in his field of view. Once the pair of machines exited the final turn, and there was plenty of room to pass, he yanked open the throttle on his 1000 cc Yamaha and blew the guy into the weeds. That'll show him.

Forgetting the eccentric on the dirtbike, Sam began to really get with the program, upping the pace. He got some great drives and really deep lean angles, especially through the newest section of the track, which had been designed by Keith Code. Now that he'd put the other rider into the dust, he found himself wishing he had someone to dice with, just to make things interesting.

As he exited the last turn and rolled out onto the front straightaway again, he turned to look over his shoulder, hoping that his buddies might be pulling onto the track to join him. What he saw was shocking: the guy on the dirtbike was still right behind him. Despite the 120 horsepower advantage and state-of-the-art chassis the YZF provided, Sam had not been able to pull even a foot on the guy in an entire lap. Disheartened, he pulled off the track on the next lap to try to figure out what was wrong with his bike.

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THE ABOVE VIGNETTE sounds like either a fantasy or a bad dream, depending on who's doing the dreaming. But it was neither. It seems impossible, but this author—mounted on a 250 cc, 18 horsepower dual-sport bike—was able to circulate a 30-foot wide, Keith Code-designed racecourse as fast as another rider on a YZF-R1. It's difficult to image anything more humiliating, with the possible exception of learning your spouse has been sleeping with your best friend.

In defense of the R1 rider, I will say he was probably not as familiar with the course as I am, but he was certainly no beginner. The pace at which we were riding would have been considered extremely aggressive on the street—I was shifting the little four-valve, twin-cam single at 11,000 rpm, 1,500 beyond its indicated redline, to get every bit of power out of it. Mitigating circumstances aside, though, I cannot remember a more dramatic or poignant example of why it's the rider and not the bike that makes the difference. There were no excuses here. We were on a clean, well-designed racetrack with no other riders and no traffic to distract us. And I am neither highly-skilled nor aggressive. My skill level could be generously assessed as competent at best, and anyone who has ridden with me in recent years will assure you I am one of the most courteous riders on the planet, even on a racetrack.

Although it seems hard to believe a KLR250 could run with an R1 on any racetrack, even with some disparity between the riders, there are certain advantages the KLR has over the R1 that facilitate this seemingly remarkable feat. The first, of course, is light weight. The R1 is very light for an open-class sportbike, but the KLR has it beat by 200 pounds. Secondly, at the speeds encountered on that particular track—from 30-90 mph—the long-travel suspension on the KLR soaked up every track irregularity, and was superior under those conditions to the stiffer R1. Even so, given equal, competent riders, an R1 would no doubt be able to lap the track at a faster pace than a KLR250—though the difference might not be as great as one would imagine.

Dual-sport machines like the KLR may not garner a lot of oohs and ahhs at the local road house, but they are excellent for many of the challenges of street riding. They are also outstanding machines on which to learn and demonstrate basic riding skills. By "basic riding skills" I don't refer to the fundamental exercises taught in the MSF's Beginning Ridercourse; I'm instead referring to the building blocks of safe, fast riding at an expert level.

The KLR, like most dual-sport bikes, has relatively soft, long travel suspension. It's light and steers fairly quickly, although—due to its 21-inch front wheel and conservative rake and trail—it doesn't turn as quickly as many modern sportbikes. The soft suspension can in fact be a serious problem for a rider who likes to manhandle his machine, using brute horsepower at every opportunity and grabbing huge handfuls of brake to slow for turns. But light dual-sports are extremely effective in helping riders get past two of the worst problems most of us have: being smooth and gentle with control inputs, and overcoming a fear of fast cornering.

The extremely compliant suspension of a dual-sport machine is terrific at absorbing rough spots on the pavement; unfortunately, that same suspension bobs and weaves dramatically unless the rider is very smooth in shifting his weight and making control inputs. Putting in a half-day of track riding on a dual-sport and learning to make transitions, shifts, and braking inputs with ethereal smoothness, though, can put the pilot of an XL500 hot on the tail of machines like the YZF-R1. And once that smoothness becomes habitual, it translates into greater speed, safety, and comfort on motorcycles of every size.

The same basic training on a dual-sport can drastically expand a rider's comfort zone with respect to what he feels is possible in terms of entry and mid-corner speed on any motorcycle. Every modern sportbike is capable of cornering speeds well beyond the imagination of even the most accomplished street rider. The problem is that heavy, powerful machines don't always inspire high levels of confidence above a certain entrance speed for a given corner. Because it is much lighter and more forgiving, the dual-sport bike lets riders enter and go through turns more quickly than they might on a heavyweight machine. This may be only a differential of a few mph at first, but it is significant. Once a rider becomes both smoother and accustomed to entering turns more quickly on a lighter machine like the KLR, he'll be quicker and smoother on his regular ride. This is because his mind has begun to adapt to the higher speeds and his body is operating the motorcycle smoothly—both due to the training received on the smaller machine.

Some time ago, we received a letter from a reader who'd purchased a 1200 Bandit for his first bike. One of his questions was whether he could effectively learn to ride well on such a powerful machine. The answer, of course, is an essentially unqualified no. However, there's no reason for him to immediately sell his beloved open-class machine (even though it may strike fear into his heart at every twist of the throttle). Our recommendation was for him to pick up a used dual-sport or dirt bike for a few hundred bucks and practice till it hurt, and use extra caution when riding the bigger bike.

The same approach works as well for all riders, even those who claim vast amounts of seat time or riding experience. There are excellent reasons why Freddie Spencer, Kenny Roberts, and top national racers like Chuck Sorensen (who will likely take the AMA 250 GP title in 1999) train regularly on XR100s: these bikes provide the basic skill-building that is an absolute prerequisite to being fast and smooth on a bigger, high performance machine. Spencer's three-day school, in fact, uses a small fleet of XR100s on a dirt training course as part of the curriculum.

The second-best thing about these lightweight dual-sports, after their inestimable value as training bikes, is the fact that they're plentiful as dirt and dirt-cheap. But you don't have to use them in the dirt to train. They work incredibly well on the pavement, too. For less than $1000, a rider can add one of these delightful machines to his stable, reaping returns worth substantially more than the initial investment. If you are one of those riders who simply must have a powerful middle-weight or open class sportbike for his first, second, or even third bike, then by all means have it. Just make certain that when you accessorize, you add a cheap, used dual-sport bike to the helmet, leathers, gloves, boots, and tankbag you buy with the shiny new machine. Then—and only then—will the purchase be complete.

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