Kyra Sacdalan is a motorcyclist through and through. One thing she hasn’t done is spend a lot of time on a racetrack. She’s an intermediate street rider with some off-road experience and a couple of days on a kart track. Zack Courts is Executive Editor at Motorcyclist and started roadracing at age 16. He grew up on a dirtbike but is not especially comfortable or experienced in the dirt or over jumps (a key facet of supermoto). The team here thought the best way to see what SoCal Supermoto is all about would be to send both, and see what each of them learn. Head honcho Brian Murray accepted Kyra and Zack as students, and they each spent a day in Riverside, California, for a supermoto baptism.
Step One: Start Slow
KYRA: Already, I’m a pretty reserved rider. And the only two times I’ve circumnavigated a racetrack on my own accord were aboard a TAG kart and a 50cc Honda Super Cub. Brian started the cool, damp day with some warnings and Round One’s homework: don’t crash. We’d be on the track for 15 minute sessions all day, with Brian or his team signaling us when there was one lap to go. When approaching the track exit, stick your leg and arm out to let everyone behind you know your plan (and prevent a collision), and all the other gestures, you sort of had to guess. The indication I received most regularly early on were a couple pats on the rear fender, courtesy of Brian, and a “follow me” sort of wave. This is how he’d corral the less confident in the group to lead them a little quicker, and more accurately, around the more complicated sections. Maybe I’m shit at this? We were given the distinct “last lap” finger, and then I pulled off-course—adrenaline still whizzing around my guts.
ZACK: Supermoto has always been undeniably cool, but I don’t have a lot of experience with it. I did one asphalt-only supermoto track day years ago. My first session I tried really hard to go slow and adapt to the Suzuki DRZ400 school bike. As a racer, I always want to go as fast as I can, but I knew I was out of my element so I just rolled around and tried to learn the course as best I could, and not embarrass myself. I’ve been on a lot of racetracks, but I still get a lot of joy learning a new circuit—even a little go-kart track nestled next to the 60 freeway in Riverside. Brian teaches foot-out supermoto style, not knee out like a roadracer. That goes against what I usually do, so I practiced “kicking the apex” (in other words, waiting to be on the throttle before putting my leg out) and keep my torso neutral and relaxed.
Step Two: X’s and BRAP
KYRA: Homework during Round Two had us practicing “BrAP”—Brakes: applying 90 percent front and 10 percent rear as you approach the turn; Ass: sliding your butt to the opposite side of the lean; Push: with arms bent and elbows out, pressing the handlebars into the turn for counter-balance. Brian also suggested, “this time, try to ride over the X’s at the exit of Big Monza and Little Monza,” the most grandiose and tightest corners on the track, respectively. Wait, X’s? This session was better for my nerves but not for my aim. I felt more capable, and started toeing the line of my limits—moving more briskly on the straightaways, braking later, leaning harder, really trying to fight for position when faster riders filled my helmet with the sounds of their approaching machines. What seemed hardest in all of it was finding that invisible line, the one that keeps the flow, creates the shortest distance and sets you up best for the next hurdle.
ZACK: The braking was intuitive to me from years of roadracing, and I didn’t need to focus to achieve smooth deceleration. But the body position thing was weird, so I concentrated on trying to move my butt to the appropriate side of the saddle, and consciously pushing the bike down into turns. Focusing on the little white Xs marked on the track helped fine-tune my lines, too. Brian teaches an exaggerated late-apex line, to help conjure the instinct to set yourself up for the next turn. It works, I think, and having tangible markers to aim for on the track is an excellent training tool. I also practiced braking hard enough that the rear tire would slide into corners—because, I mean, come on, isn’t that one of the points of supermoto? Holy crap it’s fun.
Step Three: Nail the Lines
KYRA: A thick, weathered, rectangular white poster board was unveiled before this session, with a rough drawing of the track. Two colors were drawn around the racecourse representing a good line and a bad line. Engines revving once again, I took lines I might otherwise not have chosen on a road or dirt-bike. Cruising as casually as possible, trying to etch each precise revolution into my memory, deeper and deeper so navigating might become second nature. Gradually, we sped up. And for the life of me, I couldn’t keep those damn lines in check. It’s as if I was doing worse than when we started. Focus… Breathe. You’re the only person who cares about your success. That wasn’t entirely true, as was evident when Brian pulled out in front and gave me the friendly “follow me” pat on his rear fender. Damn. But as with each time the Pied Piper of Supermoto guided me down the correct path, it all began to click.
ZACK: Brian had two excellent pieces of advice at this point in the day. One, he pointed out the age-old notion that suspension shouldn’t move abruptly. For example, going from hard on the brakes to maximum corner speed, the suspension ideally stays compressed the whole time. Any jerkiness in inputs leads to inconsistencies in the amount of traction available. Essentially, be smooth. The other thing he said was, “if you want to take all the fun out of riding, get a laptimer.” As a roadracer, I freakin’ LOVE lap times, and it’s one of the few metrics I have to tell whether or not I’m going faster. But, his point is a good one—if you obsess over a few tenths of a second you can betray the value of learning a new technique, and also suck the fun out flying around a track. And make no mistake, it’s crazy fun. So I worked on being smooth, hitting my markers, and not worrying about the laptime. And I had a blast.
Step Four: The Difference Between Dirt and Pavement
KYRA: So far, we had only been riding in asphalt, and at this point the dirt section was opened up. Brian’s advice as we tackled it was a matter of perspective: The difference in the on- and off-road sections aren’t between asphalt and dirt, but in the variable traction throughout the course. The team emphasized that success was born from rewiring our brains to not see a difference, but rather, feel it. If the bike seems loose, adjust; Or sticky, push it harder. If you worry about the dividing lines separating the blacktop from the earth, you may set yourself up for failure. Basically, preparing for the worst instead of reacting to reality, thereby cushioning myself from my true limits because I presume already that I know what they are. Maybe this works if the plan is to take a motorized cake walk. But if you want to really experience riding Supermoto—allow yourself to get a little out of control, be uncomfortable, pucker your cheeks and just try a lot harder.
ZACK: Kyra’s not kidding: Transitioning from dirt to pavement (and vice versa) is an acquired taste. Wrapping my head around it as Brian suggested—by feeling the traction rather than seeing it—was harder to do than I thought. I eventually followed Brian for a number of laps and what I learned was that he was much faster in the transitions between surfaces (along with being better at the jumps). Just like Kyra said, I had to go outside my comfort zone and really test my nerves to experiment with how much traction was available, for example, when transitioning back to pavement with dirty tires. Brian encouraged me to push it, and I did, though I couldn’t keep up with him. Like I said, acquired taste. Learning to do a lap on a combination of asphalt and dirt was a big breakthrough for me, and I would have kept going ‘til my palms bled if I was allowed to.
Step Five: Race
KYRA: Four laps to warm up, then park your motorbike for a Le Mans start. Sprinting in gear is not a graceful event. To my surprise, I mounted quickly, my bike came alive and I dashed towards Big Monza—in fourth place?! Ecstatic at my luck, the internal cheerleader switched on. Lean towards your goal. Be aggressive. You’re in a good position. All you have to do is hol… No sooner than my pep-talk began did my clearly quicker opponent whiz ahead of me and all my intensity as a humble reminder that rank, as much as ego, is fleeting. But dammit, I held on. Admittedly, I’m not often proud of my progress. But in these final four momentous laps, I BrAP’d, looked for the X’s, rode faster when it was fast and slower when it was slow. I adapted to the surroundings and changing circumstances. Even jumped—like both tires miles (okay, inches) in the air—the table tops in the dirt section! I made quick transitions and stayed two steps ahead. I rode full-tilt, decelerated hard and trailed with the front brake. Most of all, I didn’t give in… To fear or to my competitors.
ZACK: I’m actually really surprised that SoCal Supermoto turned all of the students loose in a race-style format. As someone who has raced a lot, it was a very casual scene, but as Kyra said, most people haven’t raced and it’s a huge rush! I even got a few butterflies in my stomach before the LeMans start. Racing around, and seeing a checkered flag at the end was a fitting way for the day to end and an awesome experience to bestow on students who have jumped through all of the training hoops all day. SoCal Supermoto is a grass-roots setup—the bikes are heavily used, the accommodations are sparse, and the track isn’t exactly a world-class facility. But for approximately the price of a set of tires, to spend all day, session after session, bombing around a closed course with private instruction and a gaggle of like-minded motorcyclists? Pure, unfiltered fun. I’ve already recommended it to a dozen people.