Keith Code Recalls Learning During His Early Racing Days | CODE BREAK

Let's talk about feelings…as in controls. You can feel what the bike is doing, but do you really know what's going on?

From my first race in 1961 to when I turned AMA-Pro in 1976, I had roughly 25 single-day, club-level races under my riding belt. Trackdays didn’t yet exist, so at the age of 31 the bulk of my accumulated experience was mostly on the road, scores of passes over Mulholland Drive and through bumpy Griffith Park, in addition to a couple thousand miles on the street as a teenager, plus my daily riding in Los Angeles traffic. These days, that amount of track time can be acquired in just a few months.

I should also mention the half-dozen dirt track events (with two wins!) back East where I was raised that rounded out my portfolio as a newly minted pro racer, with a cocktail of dirt and asphalt flowing through my competitive veins. For better or worse, I had some work to do. Compared to most expert racers of that era, I was in probably the bottom 5 percent in terms of accumulated track time.

My first-ever pro superbike race was at Laguna Seca. Finishing second—after getting the holeshot and leading the first half of the race—filled me with pride and confidence. But lurking beneath that pride and confidence was a horrible realization: I had a lot of “feel” for what was going on with the bike, but I had virtually no idea what I was doing at the controls of the bike. When I asked some of the other pros to share their riding “secrets,” it was disquieting to discover the truth: They had little more actual knowledge on how to go fast than I did.

Off I went in search of the answers—only to run into more problems when it came time to communicate what I felt. Translating into words what you feel when you’re riding isn’t easy. It’s simple to feel but very difficult to describe. Imagine describing what it feels like entering a particular corner with the intention of another rider using your words as a guide. You’ll soon realize that so much of what you are describing is muscle memory, unconscious nerve impulses, your own individual sense of timing, the sensation of speed, your confidence to lean the bike over, traction feedback, and more. These are all sensations, or feelings, and, as such, quite difficult to accurately or effectively communicate to another rider.

Can’t we just learn by reverse engineering? From the outside, that seems simple enough; watch better riders and just copy what they do. Unfortunately, when watching other, better riders, you can’t even see, much less mimic, the subtle perceptions that initiate the actions required to ride well. Forcing someone into Marc Marquez’s riding position is tough enough. Then there are those outrageous, elbow-dragging corner antics, which are contrary to our very survival instincts and patterns. Short of a Vulcan mind meld, learning by copying someone like Marquez isn’t going to work for most of us. Golf swings, batting, skating, diving, swimming, hurdles, and more athletic pursuits suffer the same problem. How do you accurately and simply describe and communicate such a complex action?

The simple answer is this: You can’t, nor can I, nor anyone else. Instead, ask yourself this question: How do you enhance the perceptions that underlie and initiate speed and direction changes? How can you feel more and feel better when you’re riding your bike? Enhancing your perception is much better than mimicry, which only provides superficial understanding and control.

Students at our school always begin the day riding the track in one gear without using brakes—unless they grossly misjudge a corner, obviously—and with the speedos covered up. This isolates their sense of speed and improves their ability to accurately gauge corner-entry velocity. Student reactions vary from fear to scoffing. By day’s end, however, many riders are still riding without braking or braking only very lightly, taking satisfaction in exploring and enhancing their perception of speed. With or without brakes, the correct speed must already be in the rider’s mind, in his own personal language, to succeed.

In the 1970s, when Keith Code began racing superbikes, track time was hard to come by. So too was quality riding advice.
Keith Code and "Pops" back in the day.