I have been riding motorcycles for almost 12 years (not professionally) and mostly didn't look at my motorcycle as anything more than two wheels to get me from point A to B.
The first time I saw a professional motorcycle race on TV, I had a torrent of questions bombarding my mind:
"How the hell is he leaning the bike so much?"
"Why is he not falling?"
"Isn’t that suit suffocating?"
Questions I thought I might never be able to find answers to. Until now.
Being an automobile journalist has its perks. Perks like getting to be a part of a one-day Young Media Racer Program organised by TVS Racing Training School. I just turned 30 and I don’t think I qualify as "Young", but I guess TVS has a different definition of the same.
The training session is organised to equip participants with the skills and the wherewithal they would need to be able to ride and race a motorcycle on a professional racing track.
All of this was to be achieved, in just one day! At first, I was skeptical. “Is that even possible?” But, considering I had 12 years of riding experience behind me, one day might just might be enough to cover the basics.
The Biker Gang
Nineteen journalists (including me) were taken to the Madras Motor Racing Track to receive training to compete in the third edition of TVS’s National Media Racing Championship which happens every year.
Auto journalists from all over the country participate in these races provided they qualify for the same.
A tour of the pits revealed 20-odd race-spec TVS Apache RTR 200 bikes which were specially modified for track racing. These were accompanied by two race-spec Apache RR 310s, which were going to be the lead bikes ridden by the trainers.
With most of the body shell reduced, free flowing exhaust, no headlamp or tail lamp assembly – these bikes were stripped down to the bare minimum.
Listen Up Folks
The first part of the training covered the basics of the track. The instructor briefed us on signs, riding discipline, what different flags mean and what one is supposed to do during a live training exercise.
Throttle control was next on the menu with focus on how to not use the brakes while cornering.
The good part about the whole exercise was that I got a chance to hit the track after each training session, which gave me the time and the opportunity to test what I learnt theoretically.
Since paper knowledge matters very little in motorsport, on track it was always going to be challenging.
Special emphasis was given to making us understand the meaning of the flags on the track as the colour of the flag decides how things will progress in the race. Here’s a quick guide to what the flags mean.
Baptism By Tyre
The cornering exercise was a tough cookie. Understanding from where the rider needs to start braking while entering a turn is key. I was instructed to ride at 50-60 kmph with fingers off the brakes. The instructor wanted all the riders to corner using the throttle, and only the throttle.
Since people use the front brake a lot while they are cornering, this is exactly what we were advised against. To get through the corner, the only way was to throttle aptly without hesitating.
I was able to maintain a good amount of traction between the wheels and the tarmac. The moment you hit the brakes, the chances of you slipping increase.
Riding a 200cc motorcycle gives you limited power. I was usually entering corners in fourth gear, but felt more comfortable finishing the same in the third gear. This was my comfort zone. The session was smooth and I was starting to get the hang of this.
Leaning the motorcycle while cornering is one of the most difficult skills to learn for a bike rider. Getting the riding position correct makes all the difference.
On a straight line, the best position to take at that point is the prone position which takes the wind resistance completely out of the equation. Your belly is supposed to touch the fuel tank and you elbows have to be below the handlebars. That’s the ideal position.
Before entering a corner, always position your head in the direction you want to go as this helps maintain line of sight. When cornering, lift a part of your hip and shift it towards the direction in which you are turning. It helps you lean better.
Simultaneously, you are supposed to extend your knee outwards to counter-balance when the bike is turning.
Let's be honest here. Nobody gets this right in the first run and I too struggled. Every time I entered a corner and got into position, there was always a wary feeling that I was going to slide off the track.
At times I was too fast while there were moments I didn’t have enough power to exit the turn, hence had to straighten the bike to avoid falling.
Tyre pressure also plays a pivotal role in this process so make sure you have the right amount of air in your tyres.
Eventually after a few laps, I started getting the hang of it and could lean up to a certain degree. I learned that maintaining speed, apt body position and staying off the brakes was the recipe for the perfect turn.
The last training session for the day was taking-off from the start line. I always thought that taking off while doing a wheelie is one of the coolest things bikers can do. Turns out, you can have points deducted for doing something like that during a race.
According to the rules, your tyres should not come off the tarmac when you start the race.
During take-off, as instructed, the bike is supposed to be on the first gear while holding the clutch loose enough so that you can feel the thrust of the motorcycle. The moment the lights on the track go out you're supposed to let go of the clutch gingerly ensuring the bike doesn't leave the road.
I'd say I had a decent start though the only thing the instructor asked to me correct is switching gears swiftly without letting go of the throttle. "Just flick the clutch as quick as possible", he said. Helps maintain acceleration.
'Time' to Ride
Post the training sessions, it was time to test all that I learned, on the racetrack. Each racer was given three laps to register the best time he could get. Each bike had a transponder attached to its instrument cluster to record the lap time. Sadly, that was the wrecker-in-chief for me.
I was heavily dependent on the gear shift indicator as a cue when entering corners so that I had would know the right amount of speed while cornering.
With the indicator concealed, I lost my visual cue which is why I mostly struggled during most of the corners. Turns out, most racers do not need any visual cues from the instrument consoles. Practice is the best way to negate this hurdle.
The best lap time I registered was a 2 minutes 54 secs where the fastest on the lap was 2 minutes 25 secs. As much I felt that it wasn't enough to qualify, turns out, there were people slower than me.
It was good to see I had made it to the list of 15 to qualify for the race. Yeah, I finished 15th! Give me a break, this was the first time I was on a track.
I'll be brutally honest when I say this: Motorsport in India is just like cricket in the US. There are hardly any takers for the sport. Which is why it's really difficult for the advertisers of motorsport in India to push the people for participation not only off the track but on it as well.
From a personal point of view, motorsport does have its share of dangers, but it also gives you the sheer joy of riding fast on a track and the adrenaline of competitive motorsports.
It felt great having cleared the first level of the training with a certificate to go. Next up, applying for a FMSCI (Federation of Motor Sports Clubs of India) certified competition licence.
In order for anyone to get into professional racing, an FMSCI licence is compulsory. A certificate from an FMSCI certified training school (like TVS in my case) always helps.
The first of the three races will take place at the Kari racetrack in Coimbatore in June where the first stage of the national championships begins. I’ve still got a few months to prepare. And practice.
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