AFM round 7, 2010
Nine days before round 5 this year I felt myself slipping. So I made a promise I’d pedal up Page Mill hill six times before I left for the track. Half way up that first climb I wanted to kill myself, because I know myself. I typically consider the fist eight reps in a set of eight reps, the warm-up. The real workout starts with the ninth. I like to pedal my bike so hard I can’t see through my glasses, till beads of sweat drop from the visor on my helmet. I steal second every night I play ball, and usually come up from a dive bloody. I can’t afford to race, but still somehow I do it, with all my might. I am an underdog by nature, and by definition.
I rode in my first peloton a few weeks ago. There must have been thirty of these guys who came up on me, all dressed alike, all flying down the road within inches of one another. Each of their bikes cost more than my truck. And with each check they wrote to buy them, they also bought into a mountain of attitude. One at a time each one of them, like it’s peloton etiquette or something, pedaled up next to me, cleared my shoulders with their seat, then moved straight over into my front wheel – pushing me into the gravel. I knew what they were up to. Road guys hate mountain bikers. So each time they shoved me into the gravel, I came around their backside and up to their bars to square off with them again. I sat when they sat, I sprinted when they sprinted, I ignored them when they cursed me. I stayed with the leaders for six miles. It felt just like Laguna, sitting upright in a pack of guys at full tuck. But just like racing the Superduke, for me on my mountain bike there is no drafting - above my balls. I was surrounded by midgets. So by mile six I was in trouble. As I began my heartbreaking fade through the group towards the back, many of them had something bad to say as they passed, almost as if in disgust I was even alive that Sunday morning. I’m ok with people hating me, but not being able respond killed me. As I neared the end of the peloton I was greeted by one friendly voice. This guy was Australian, also dressed in green, also on an amazing carbon machine. But when this guy pulled his bars next to mine, he paused, turned his head to me and said, “Hey mate…” I looked over, still feverishly pedaling through gasps for air. I could say nothing in return. With a Cheshire smile across his grill he released me of my underdog struggle by saying just two simple words, “Good job.” I finally smiled, then promptly died.
I don’t know why it is or where it comes from, but I think it is a flaw. Power comes to me like it’s through a huge circuit breaker in a Batman movie – full on, or full off. There is no middle ground. So when Mike told me there was a shot we might make round 7 after all, on an RC8R, the first thing I did was panic - secretly. I am not stupid; I saw what our AFM’s ornery number 2 went through this year on his RC8R. You ask me, something was up with the front end on that bike – and they’d been developing that thing all year. We would get one day of practice…
I knew nothing about our future but one thing - you put me on that foreign bike with just 20 laps of practice, a questionable front end, in a championship race, straight out of the crate, you can almost guarantee that me and my Batman circuit breaker powers are gonna bin the shit out of it trying to do things it’s not ready to do. And I’m not the only one who knew that. So we took an RC8R off the floor of Tri Valley Moto a month ago and brought it to Gerry Piazza, not only measure its chassis, but to plot our path into the future. Gerry has a unique ability now to accurately predict what will happen to your chassis before you actually change things. And quite naturally, our intention was to change things.
Turns out KTM, like most manufacturers, deliver their mighty RC8R a little steep in the front end - for racing. It comes plenty good for the street I imagine, but we all know turning at 55mph is very different than turning at 155mph. So Dannyboy called on his ace in the hole – John Starks, and the two of them applied some of our Superduke lessons to this new RC8R.
Now I could leave this element of our story right here, in typical racer fashion, by simply stating, “We made some changes”. But that just wouldn’t be me, and that just wouldn’t be us…
I believe there are two ways to understand something. You can “get it” from someone else, or you can “get it” from yourself. I can’t count the number of drawings I have looked at considering “Rake and Trail”. Some on the pages of books, some on paper napkins over frustrated lunchtime explanations. Whatever. I “get” all these angles and projected lines, I understand the math behind them, I dig how different they make a bike feel through the turns, and even straight up and down. But I’ve got to be honest here. Maybe I’m retarded but after all this time I still don’t really “Get it.” You know what I mean? The “Oh holy shit, I GET IT” get it?
What I’m willing to tell you is that we decided to get our RC8R’s trail numbers to live within an adjustment window somewhere between 100mm and 105mm. But it comes from the factory with an adjustment window (achieved by sliding the forks up or down into the top triple clamp) somewhere between 96mm and 101mm. Batman hates those trail numbers under 100mm. That’s what I’m willing to tell you. What I’m trying to tell you, is why.
They say a picture speaks a thousand words. So, here you go - a thousand words..
Maybe this image speaks volumes to you. Maybe it speaks Egyptian. To me it helps put a face with the name, Trail. Not enough trail and it’s too easy to over-turn, lose traction, and instantly land on your chin. Too much trail and it’s hard to turn enough, the bike steers slow, and front could plow. So trail is like anything else in racing – it’s a delicate balance of compromises. Our goal was to find 5mm more, which takes a lot more than simply pushing the forks down into the top triple clamp. So Dannyboy and John Starks came up with a cool idea of how to find it – in just one week. You see once again. no one sells different triple clamps for this RC8R. So they took our stock triple clamps and moved the steering stem forward, effectively changing the offset from 28mm to 24mm – which gave us just the trail we were hoping for.
John Starks finished the bike just in time for us to get it to Kyle Racing. Ohlins suspension was our next goal. Dannyboy handed the KTM to Jason and I Thursday morning like it was a baton in a relay race. This effectively gave Dan Kyle, of course, just one day to fit our bike with Ohlins suspension, front and rear. And in typical Dan Kyle fashion, he came through with flying colors. He had us set up with spring rates, valving, special hand made spacers, and a full installation in less than four hours. Then we were back on the road to Tri Valley Moto, to start the race prep. Everything - safety wire, reverse shift, power shifter, brakes, bars, gearing, chain, etc. etc. etc.. We nowhad just one day, Friday, to get that bike built. And once again the boys came through. By eight O’clock Friday night I had finally swung a leg over my very first KTM RC8R. And three minutes later it was in the truck headed for T-hill.
It wasn’t just all night long that I’d thought about it, this had actually been on my mind for the past two months. Can you build a strong enough relationship with anything to be your absolute best on, in just one day? Personally I had doubts, but publically I couldn’t wait to try. Forty-five years ago I got a slap on my ass for a birthday present. But this morning I got to ride a KTM RC8R, as hard as I wanted - It’s not so bad getting older. By the end of the first practice I liked the new power, but I hated the lack of feel. I don’t know a better way to describe this other than to imagine; on our beautiful Superduke I swear I could close my eyes and describe to you the pavement passing below it’s tires. I could feel seems, paint, texture, and most of all – grip. That’s why we could run around lap after lap, riding over the bike’s head all day and not get into trouble. But this RC8R, the way we had it set up, felt like I had winter mittens on. It was so vague, so soft, and so distant.
Our guess on gearing was close enough, I’d get used to the stock footpegs and bars, we cut the back out of the seat pad so I could slide back and get into a tuck, and Jason’s home-made upside down shifter bracket was working very well. But this vague feel from the suspension was really haunting out there. That, and with our nine hundred pound stock exhaust still bolted to the bike I actually couldn’t hear the motor. No exaggeration there, I actually had no idea where the power was. The RC8R has a digital dash, instead of an old school dial for a tack. Out of my peripheral vision I could see a tiny black bar growing across the tach’s horizon, but I had no feel for the relationship between the size of this bar and the engine’s RPM. Couple these two points together: nothing I could feel with nothing I could hear, and I was lost out there.
I had a quiet goal of 54’s by the end of day one, 52’s for the race. Our mission was to beat Tiger Boy Sunday, and I knew 52’s would do it. But by the end of Saturday we were rather alarmingly stuck at 57’s. We’d only got to run three sessions, which is typical when you’re scrambling around making changes, but what I found alarming was our first laps compared to our last – only one second faster all day. That’s a sure way to lose some sleep the night before a big race on a brand new bike…
Jason and I met with Dan Saturday night and I cried about my feelings like a schoolgirl in a plaid skirt. The process of interpretation that suspension guys have to navigate their way through always fascinates me. Some riders say, “I need more compression,” while others talk about “winter mittens.” Yet somehow these guys often come up with the hard answers to your problems. We changed front and rear spring rates Saturday night, in search of feel, and went into Sunday with a fresh attitude.
With Sunday morning’s unexpected rain came dreams about my past. Man I wish the AFM raced in the wet…
In our last chance to find speed before the Open Twins race, things felt slightly better, but also worse. There was slightly more feel, but I lost the front end in trun 3. Normally I wouldn’t be concerned about that, our Michelin front slick is the best front tire I have ever raced on. But this particular moment was kind of violent. It shuttered as it fell to the ground, then came back. Too late to work on now though, our race was a half an hour away.
I practiced a start in the hot pit, just before our warm-up lap. What a horror, the clutch grabbed and I couldn’t keep the front wheel down. Not a good sign – the start would be our first challenge. I launched it real careful off the line, we were fourth going into turn one. Over the rise toward turn two we made it to third, and actually got next to the angry RC8R going into two. Just then I thought about that Batman circuit breaker, and how much more work it would be dragging a crashed bike missing all of it’s unnecessary bodywork out of the weeds than it would be dragging a Superduke, so I backed off. In the next few turns I witnessed first hand what I thought would surely end in carnage. There is no way Siggy and #2 are friends off the track, cause they’re definitely not friends on it. Their first lap battle could be described in one word – mad. So we settled into a comfortable third and tried to find a groove. On our first run down the front straight though, Blackburn shot by us on his Ducati before start finish almost as violently as he used to when we were on our Superduke. I really didn’t “get” that. I hadn’t missed a shift, I was pinned in every gear, I was in a full tuck on a bike that now HAD a fairing, and this was an RC8R for shit sake! WTF? So I went into turn one with a plan to use corner speed to get Pat back going into turn three. No dice though, the instant I got into the brakes for turn one our rear tire came up into the air, landed sideways, and unsettled the bike for what should have been a fast entry. WTF again? That never happened before. I did my best anyway to chase Pat down but in turn three I lost the front big time. It was such a big moment even our crew saw it from the tower. Same violent shutter, only twice as bad, and twice as close to the pavement before it came back. Best I could do was simply stay on the gas, any other reaction and it was game over. Once we recovered from that moment I really began to wonder what was up. Not only was I losing the front but the bike was behaving badly just about everywhere. Going around turn thirteen and fourteen, which is basically two right handers one after another, most people (me included) usually just make that one nice arc of a turn. Suddenly I couldn’t do that. Instead this bike made it four turns. It would ratchet into the turn, stand itself up, I’d push it back down to complete the first part, it would stand up again, I’d push it back down and complete the second part, it would stand up again. The bike was suddenly possessed, Tiger Boy was on my ass, and I was suddenly crying inside my helmet.
Photo by Gary Rather - Garyratherphoto.com
I am no stranger to hard work. In fact I am drawn to it. And taking on ornery challenges is my mission in life. But this bike didn’t want to be ridden. It was like one of those wild horses standing off in the corner of the corral. The one everyone somehow knows to simply stay away from. But I couldn’t. On this day, at tha at moment, riding that wild horse was my job. And I rode it hard as I could.
Tiger Boy was the next to rocket by down the front straight. Again, no draft necessary. My heart said go after him like a wild Indian, but my head said wait. I kept searching for ways to ride around our challenges. Going in harder to point and shoot, soft arcing lines, manhandle it, caress it like a woman, lines with less bumps. I tried everything I could come up with but nothing made the difference we needed. At this point, on around the fourth lap, I made an executive decision – were we gonna win it, or were we gonna bin it? I chose none of the above because really, third place in the Open Twins championship was not our goal this year. In fact no championships were. Our goal was to race better as a team than we did the year before. To find our way past the issues we had as a team, and with our Superduke, in 2009. And to create a positive difference – for us, for Tri Valley Moto, for KTM, and for anyone who chose to come along for the ride. That championship we had already won. We brought it home in fifth, and lost our battle for third in the championship to a man who runs around the pits dressed like the king of the jungle. And now, as the result of this tragic loss, we must bow down to him and his teams great accomplishments – all f’ing winter long…
And to think, I used to like lions and tigers.
So don’t worry, I won’t leave such a gaping hole in our story. At this point you may be wondering what happened to our RC8R? Maybe how our great “Let’s make it happen anyway” team, and all of our efforts in the past two months to make this last round on a new bike - came out so poorly? Well this is a little embarrassing. But in the spirit of learning, and sharing, and gloriously painful honesty, I have to tell the truth. We screwed up.
With Open Twins over so early in the day, and Gerry Piazza still set up in the pits to measure chassis geometry, we figured let’s get an early start on next year by having him measure what had suddenly become the worst handling motorcycle I have ever ridden. As I slid out of my leathers, Jason went to push the bike to Gerry’s, then suddenly he stopped dead in his tracks and said rather loudly, “Well you can throw out all the data you just collected from the Open Twins race…” Right then I knew the mystery was cracked. “No one ever tightened the upper triple clamp! The bolts are backed all the way out.”
Gerry measured our RC8R as it came in from the race. Our two fork legs were almost three degrees different from one another, and our triple clamps were now effectively bent – from riding, not from crashing. Gerry said it’s the worst he’s seen from a bike not brought in on a flat bed truck. Oddly, I felt relieved by this discovery.
As bad as our bike was bucking, sliding, and kicking in protest, we ended up less than a second off our original race pace goal of 52s. So the future looks strong. Although our 2010 AFM season is now over, really many things for us are just beginning. So once again I feel lucky, in fact amazingly lucky, to be a part of such a great team.
Thank you everyone, and by this I mean you – the people who choose to come along on our gloriously painful escapades through racing and through life because believe it or not, without you none of this would be possible.