That’s my house. 407. Look for it on Cribs next season. Rudolph does not belong to me. The two girls ride him around Calabogie faster than I went on the Gixxer. I got even with his cousin, though. Note 6 pt bungeed to seat of my rad sport-tourer.
It’s early August and I am writing this to you from Canada. The worst possible scenario has come to pass – substantial changes were made to the bike without a substantial drop in lap times. There was shame and embarrassment, followed closely by binge drinking and an unexplainable mock-turtleneck purchase. My mother told me I wasn’t welcome home any longer. The MotoUSA offices were now off limits as well. I’ve never had a restraining order against me before. It’s not as funny as I imagined. I really can’t come within 100 feet of any of their editors.
After making bail I pored over all my options. The only reasonable solution I could come up with was to illegally cross the Canadian border. I squeezed into the generator compartment in my friend’s trailer, though it turned out to be totally unnecessary. They love us up here! On the way in, the border guards gave my boys a six-pack of Molson Lite, a KD Lang CD and a “100 Ways to Get Your Caribou On” cookbook (could come in handy now that my performance tuning career seems likely to be done). Point is, I’ve decided to start over and make my home here at Calabogie Motorsports Park with all these friendly Canadians who never read the first article. They actually think I’m fairly quick up here. I’m never coming back…
So what happened? We’ll get into it. Bear with me because this is not as neat and tidy as the first article where we watched my lap-times drop like an ill-placed helmet on a bike seat. This time things got weird. Things got psychological. Things got hot.
As we discussed in the last piece, the plan was to only make changes to the chassis for this second installment of The Experiment. The steam room was left untouched…for now. Special thanks to Skip Dowling and Bob Blandford for their help in getting the manufacturers participation. The parts were purchased online and Speedwerks in Delaware did the install. The changes made to the bike were as follows:
1. Stock bodywork was replaced with Armour Bodies. This is about the single biggest weight savings you can make. Yes, more than an exhaust. I didn’t take exact measurements but the headlight assembly alone weighed as much as…well…Pedrosa. I’m obsessed. I know. He’s just so little. (Side note: My friend took a picture of his leathers at Laguna a few weeks ago and I swear they looked like racing replica onesie pajamas, sans feet. Keeping the baby-bjorn dream alive. The day will come. I will carry him close to my bosom.) Build quality on the Armour Bodies is great. They’re very flexible and fit better than other brands I’ve used in the past.
2. Woodcraft rear-sets. They’re good, though I miss the more expensive rear-sets with ball bearings. Those have zero lateral slop and while the Woodcrafts get the job done, there is still a little movement in them. We’re on a budget, though, and they work just fine while costing about $200 less than the high-end stuff.
3. Woodcraft clip-ons went on next. I tilted them down a bit further than the stock bars. I like having that extra weight on the front end. That’s really the reason for getting clip-ons. It’s about comfort and control. Comfort is important in a way I never really understood prior to this. We’ll come back to that later.
4. Stainless steel brake lines replaced rubber ones and race pads replaced the stock sandpaper. Huge difference and a must-have. The last change to the braking system was a Brembo master cylinder that just arrived this week from Yoyodyne. As far as changing calipers and rotors, well, I’m not saying it won’t help, but as far as bang-for-the-buck goes, it’s pads and lines all the way. There is no more fade as the SS lines cannot expand and the pads offer far greater stopping power. The Brembo master cylinder will offer feel the stock MC could never approach.
5. Changed the gearing by going one up to a 47-tooth rear sprocket and one down to a 16 on the front. I wanted some more oomph off the corners and this provided it. However, it’s a constant dance depending on what track you’re on. I was revving out in a few corners at Lightning but then found it perfect here at Calabogie. Ideally, you’d have a set of sprockets and change them accordingly from track to track.
Weight savings is notable as the stock sprocket is steel compared to aluminum for the aftermarket version. The 520 chain also saves some weight over the stock 530.
6. Case Covers. I got my hands on this new brand from England called GB. What’s interesting is that they fit over the existing covers and are made from a heavy-duty nylon similar to crash mushrooms. Hard to say how they’ll hold up in a fast low-side, but they look sturdy. I actually did drop the bike already. I was sitting on the handlebars doing a one-handed stoppie (it’s how I like to come into the pits after each session) when I realized on the dismount the kickstand wasn’t down. Okay, I was changing the oil and it slipped. Whatever. Still, it hit the deck and the GB covers fared well for the experience.
7. Suspension. Biggest change made. I decided to go with another new (to the U.S.) manufacturer called K-Tech. They’re also an English brand. Am I becoming an Anglophile? (could explain the mock-turtleneck…and I’m not sure Canada is so different from the U.K. as they share the same taste in women adorning their currency…read: old). K-Tech
has been cleaning up in British Superbike for a couple of years now and Jake Zemke doubled at Daytona with them at the AMA Superbike season opener. Beyond those obvious reasons, I chose them because I wanted to continue with the theme we started last month of keeping our hands calloused and grease stained. Since K-Tech is new to the States, there isn’t a ton of information out there in regards to baseline settings. So without a tech on hand to consult, a lot of the set-up would fall on me to figure out.
8. Diet pills. Shedding weight from your ride is expensive. Much less so from yourself. My goal was to lose 45 lbs in a week. I went with Dexatrim. Inexpensive and easy to find. Yes, I considered Rimonabant, but it’s hard to get your hands on since it was banned in the States and I felt we should keep things on the list that were readily available. Anyway, there was some nominal weight loss, though it was accompanied by a significant reduction in self esteem. I ended up at a Taco Bell six miles from the track, crying and binging (predominantly chalupas with extra fiesta salsa) in the parking lot.
This is a wildly inaccurate photo of Steve. He looks docile and kind here. He actually threw a torque wrench at me moments later.
I left my place in New York on Saturday, July 17th. Drove down to the Speedwerks shop where its proprietor, Steve Long, met me at the door with his usual, “What’s up, Hollywood?” I don’t mind it on the phone but in a busy bike shop it’s really not the kind of attention I’m looking for. “Hey, Hollywood, I said a 4mm Allen.” “Hey, Hollywood, who taught you to use lithium grease to take off a handlebar grip?” (Compressed air or rubbing alcohol work best. Whoops.) “Hey, ‘wood, what does Uma Thurman smell like?” And the most common, “Hey, Hollywood, give me that.” That last statement was uttered every time I picked up anything resembling a tool.
True, if I did the work myself it would have taken longer. But it would have gotten done. The old carpenter adage of measure twice, cut once is one of my favorites, though I’ve multiplied the first half by a factor of six. Steve has a child and Dave, the mechanic who did the lion’s share of the work, has a girlfriend. They have lives. Sitting and watching me drill bodywork at 3:00 a.m. doesn’t fit into their schedules. Understood. Still, I learned a lot.
How elegantly trick is that? In a pinch, Steve once made a set of tire warmers out of banana leaves and some jumper cables. True story.
Steve showed me a couple of tricks worth sharing. One is covering the safety wire for the permanent cotter pin on the rear axle nut with rubber brake line hose. Nice and tidy (see photo). He also drilled a hole in the belly-pan which I yelled at him about (thought I finally had him nailed!) until he explained that it would be sealed with duct tape. The idea is that if it ever does fill up – which it did two weeks later during a freakish thunderstorm – instead of having to remove all the bodywork, you just pull the tape off the bottom and watch the water drain out.
Oh. I see. Uhhh…nice job, Steve. Carry on.
“Hey, Hollywood, go sit down on that stool over there.”
On the positive side, me sitting on a stool drinking beer for the better part of the day meant the build went off without a hitch. The scheduled NESBA event started the following morning so we had to finish by day’s end.
To start, I want to say something that will probably cause some sort of debate, though I believe it to be true. For most riders in our skill group, the front end of the motorcycle is much more important than the rear. As a group I think we are all much more comfortable with the idea of a low-side than a high-side. We are sooner willing to dive in on the brakes a little deeper than we are to gas it up early and spin the rear coming out of the corner. As a group, we also have the tendency to ride the front through the corners. This requires great feel from our forks. As the photo shows, most of us have only the most elementary form of traction control and that means a well set-up suspension system is critical.
These little guys are the real secret to a fast lap. It’s also the only time you’ll ever see them as they are now submerged in oil. Thankless job.
We went with the K-Tech 20SSRK damping kit. This replaces the stock dampeners on the bike with units that provide a measurable improvement in damping control. On the track this translates into more feel. Feel is everything when it comes to fork performance.
The next step up would have been to use a drop-in cartridge kit which replaces everything but the outer fork tubes. They’re the standard for all racers who are required by their series to use stock fork outers – Supersport, Superstock, etc. I’ve used them in the past and they’re great but I felt like we didn’t need to go that far for a trackday bike. And I was right. This dampening kit is the higher end ‘R’ version and it is obviously well made. It also costs over $1,000 less than a drop-in kit. In addition, we replaced the stock fork oil with a better, more racing oriented type.
Talk about O.G. I figure if Shaun White can prance around with his gold medal then I can go to Whole Foods with that thing around my neck…
Actually, one serious issue K-Tech has with me using the shock is that I am currently the only rider on earth in possession of this piece who doesn’t have his name stitched across his leathers. Apparently, the shock doesn’t work as well in that configuration.
We went with a K-Tech shock as well, though this wasn’t your standard, off-the-rack shock. No, they blinged me out for this one. Next year K-Tech will be selling a comparable shock to the high-end Ohlins or Penske you are probably familiar with. For now, they are still working with prototypes. This one is carved from a single piece of billet aluminum and has the trickest pre-load adjustment you’ve ever seen. The shock comes with a small, independent canister of compressed nitrogen that fits onto a nipple on the shock just above the spring. When you connect the canister the gas pushes down the spring enough to where what was once an annoying job of cranking the collar with a spanner wrench becomes a simple spinning of it with your pinkie finger. When you remove the canister the spring bounces back, holding the collar in its new position. I didn’t change pre-load more than once but I must have connected that canister about 47 times to show anyone who was interested and many who were not.
“Grandma, just get up and look at this. Yes, I understand you’re tired but this is awesome.”
Now, before you get upset about me using the unobtainium shock, let me just say that the difference in performance between it and the mass-produced shock will be unnoticeable to you and I. In fact, using this shock really dovetailed nicely with the premise of this whole series. It required I put my hands on it to make it work. There’s no shiny brochure explaining what settings to start with. Even Dave, our crack mechanic, sat and looked at the nitrogen canister with a puzzled expression before he realized what it was for (Steve thought it was a Swedish penis enlargement pump). Point is, when we got to the track I had to figure it out for myself. I had to get in there and play with the settings until the bike felt right.
After all the parts made their way onto the bike, we got the clip-ons and rear-sets in a position that was comfortable for me. We then set the sag front and rear for my weight plus leathers. As far as the dampening settings, we just put them all in the middle. No point guessing until I got on the thing while it was moving.
Chain/sprockets – $250
Bodywork – $609
Rear-sets – $300
Clip-ons – $135
Case covers/sliders – $382
Brake lines – $167
Master Cylinder – $260
Fork kit – $376
Shock – n/a
Total – $2,479
NJMP – Lightning July 18th
…Not everyone loves the new girl. Awkward.
“Just stay on your side of the trailer.”
“You’re a 2005? That’s so old. Maybe he’ll donate you to AMI.”
“At least he cared enough to paint me. Tramp.”
We (…ok, Dave and Steve) finished the build around 9:00 p.m. on Saturday night and I drove straight to the track. Got lost on the way there and rolled into the paddock pretty late. I immediately woke up all the control riders I could find to show them the pre-load adjuster on the shock. Strangely, they did not find it as urgently fascinating as me. Might have been a timing issue? People are weird.
In the morning I spooned a new set of Dunlop 211 GP-A’s on and got the tire warmers set up. I put my gear on then took the bike in the parking lot and bedded in the new brake pads (just get up to 40mph then slowly but surely bring the bike to a stop – repeat 4 or 5 times).
I’m sure you all know how important being prepared is but I’ll say it again. The feeling of hearing the five-minute call and realizing that you didn’t clean your face-shield, didn’t put gas in the tank and badly have to urinate is not a good one. It affects your riding.
In exactly such haste I relieved myself next to my truck. “Hey, buddy, there’s a porta-potty right over there!” Shit, someone saw me. “You’re right. So sorry. I’m just really claustrophobic.” Now I’m sweating profusely trying to fill the tank as I explain myself while spilling high octane on my leathers. Still cleaning the shield as the first riders take to the track. Damn! Next, I’m speeding through the pits and nearly kill a yellow lab wearing a bandanna. No mirrors on the bike so I miss the owner running after me in under-armor and flip-flops with a tire iron in hand. Be ready long before the five-minute call.
I mentioned earlier that I wanted to talk a bit more about comfort. After four years I finally got new leathers/boots/gloves for this season. I went with the Alpinestars Race Replica suit and the Supertech R boots. I’ve
Whatever. I don’t have to explain this. This is America. I don’t come into your house and ask you why there’s a Twilight poster in your garage with the shirtless werewolf guy on it.
never skimped on gear before but I’ve also never gone the ‘best of’ route. I know we’re supposed to be on a budget but hear me out – they’re worth it. The suit fits like it’s custom made and some of the smaller details really add up in a pragmatic way. The full length perforations kept me cool on what was to be one of the hottest days of the summer. The neoprene sleeve-ends and collar didn’t irritate my skin. The boots felt like bedroom slippers. I broke my foot twice in high school and have a bone spur that always bothers me when I wear motorcycle boots. Not with these puppies.
The hard part is putting a quantifiable number on that comfort. How much time did they help me drop? It’s impossible to really know. But here’s what I do know – the accompanying peace of mind is fantastic. Another thing I love about our sport is the totality of it. While riding on the bike any thought that enters our minds outside of brake, throttle or turn is unwanted. This gear allows me the chance to think about nothing but the job at hand; there is no longer any pain in my foot and no abrasion forming under my knees from the leather bunching up. The new Shoei X-12 helmet doesn’t make me feel like my contacts are about to pop out of my eye when I push past 120 mph, either. The overall effect is that the new gear empties a good-sized suitcase of possible distractions and leaves me to really focus on my mediocre ability.
Very excited to put these parts to the test, I roll up to the grid but sit back a moment to make sure everyone else is gone. I’d like at least one clean lap if possible to familiarize myself with the bike. The starter looks at me and gives me the signal. Click one down and off we go. I accelerate hard onto the track. Man, this thing feels stiff. Unforgiving. It’s not what I was expecting. It doesn’t feel like magic. I up the pace a bit. I can’t feel what the bike is doing. At all. It feels vague and unresponsive.
Somebody still likes going left. But why so angry? That’s like my de facto track face. Looks like I’m chasing down someone who kidnapped my dog. Relax.
The bike did everything I asked of it but it wasn’t giving me any feedback. It’s like the girl you take on a date who, when asked what she wants to do, continually says: “You decide. I’m fine with whatever.” So you get to pick the restaurant and the movie, but you don’t feel like you have a willing, engaged partner. You’re buying popcorn for a mannequin. You sure as hell aren’t gonna try to get fresh with her because you have no idea how it’ll go down. That’s what the bike felt like. She was happy to turn or stop or go, but it seemed like her head was somewhere else and I didn’t want to push her too quickly and get slapped.
Worse, I felt like I was barely moving as compared to last time out. I just didn’t have the confidence. I went around like that for most of the session, then gave up and came in. All that work, all that time spent. I was bummed. And I was scared. The article wasn’t supposed to be a detailed record of how to throw on a factory shock, spend a few thousand dollars in parts, then get yourself knocked back to the beginner group.
Then the shocker…
Look down at my lap timer and see a new personal lap record. I went down from a best of 1:13.02 last time to a 1:12.4. That’s over a half a second and I felt like I could have been waving to people in the grandstands doing a parade lap. What the hell is going on? Imagine if I actually start pushing…
So I spend the day getting the suspension dialed in. I added a little more preload, plus some compression and rebound to the front. Remember, I started in the middle of the settings and I ride the front pretty hard. I could give you the exact number of turns and clicks but I’ve decided not to do that. We’re all different weights and have different styles and skill levels; and the point of all this is to find the settings yourself. Besides, what do I know?
I didn’t touch the shock as it felt just fine. One of the issues prior to the K-Tech swap was the rear of the bike coming around on me under braking. This time the shock really did well to press the rear tire into the ground. No drama. That’s part of the reason why everything felt so slow. It was just working. I didn’t realize any of this on the day, however. All I could think about was why I couldn’t get into the 1:11s. All I could think about was what was wrong with the bike.
To be fair, the ambient temperature on the day was 92 degrees, with track temps off the charts and greasy to match. Compare that to the 72-degree high on May 16th, the date of the first day I rode the bike. Weather is one variable I have no control over. That being said, it still wasn’t the cause of my problems. I had yet to discover, or rather admit, what was really happening…
One Pair of Knickers and a Blue Pill
Unlike last time, no changes were made in the underwear department other than the expected daily rotation. Haha, right? Not really. That’s actually the major development from the last experience I had on the bike. The modifications dropped the lap times but that’s not what made the lasting impression on me. It’s how those laps were accomplished and how repeatable they were. I wasn’t straining to get them. I went out again in the afternoon. 1:12.8, 1:12.6, 1:12.7, 1:12.6. Ben, meet consistency. Consistency, Ben.
That being said, all I could focus on was my inability to break into the 1:11’s. I sat in the pits, exhausted, drinking so much Vitamin Water my urine was now Dragonfly/Acai colored. I began to make a slow realization. It started as a whisper then grew louder and louder. I didn’t want to hear it but there it was: “I should have taken the blue pill.” No, not viagra. The other one.
I put some very effective equipment on the bike and it made the bike better. A lot better. But the issue I described last time of finally being fast enough to see the shortcomings of the stock bike is now a laughable memory. The shortcomings of the rider, however, have come sharply into focus. Once again, I was the weak link. I could not convince my brain to allow me to brake later even though the new pads and lines were surely up to task. I could not convince myself to carry more mid-corner speed even though the suspension was yawning at me. I was the limitation. And just like Neo in the Matrix, there was no going back.
Steve from Speedwerks was nice enough to stop by in the afternoon. He checked on the suspension and we talked a little about what the bike was doing wrong – well…umm…nothing. We stood there for a minute looking at it. I had the urge to gently kick the tire or start a chewing tobacco habit to tacitly explain the lack of answers I had for him. He finally looked up at me and broke the silence with a gem. “I think you just need to go faster.” Succinct, accurate and f’ing annoying. I just need to go faster.
The 1:13.02 I did in May felt like I’d conquered Everest. And that’s because the bike was at its limits. I felt fast but I wasn’t fast. Now, the sum of the parts made me feel slow but I was actually fast. Understand? Good. Me neither. This, of course, is all clear in hindsight as I breathe in the fresh, Canadian air. At the time I was so perplexed that I even went so far as to go back the following week to see if I could do better.
Let’s Try This Again
July 25th saw me back at NJMP for an Absolute trackday. Roy Cadoo is someone I rode with years ago when I first got into track riding and who now runs a nice program with everything he’s learned over time. His focus is on feedback, something he continually asks for from his customers.
So here I was a week later on another scorcher – 93.9 degrees. Once again I could not get out of the 1:12’s, but again, those once difficult times came easily. One remarkable observation was that I had a few slides over the course of the day and, well, I can’t believe I’m saying this, but….they were predictable. The suspension combined with a proper tire actually allowed me to get the rear moving coming out of a few of the corners. Now, I’m not saying I laid down a blackie with the bars crossed up for 100 yards coming onto the main straight, but I am saying that the thing was moving around and I didn’t crap myself.
The tire wear was also incredibly different than it was with stock suspension. Remember the shot from last month? It looked like somebody stuffed my Dunlop into a food processor. I was getting twice the usage out of this set and they were wearing evenly. Remember, it’s not any one thing. It’s the combination of all things. Fortune cookie, anyone?
Still, I was convinced there was something wrong with the bike. Why wasn’t it shaking or tank-slapping? Why was the front holding the line without letting me know I was close to the edge? Because I wasn’t. That’s why.
At this point I was so confused and frustrated that I got it in my head I could go faster on my old track bike – a 2005 Kawasaki 636. So in the afternoon I took the old lady out for a walk. I was going to prove that the problem was with the Gixxer, not me. I threw down a blistering lap. Bike was all bent out of shape. I was pushing it to the max, something I felt comfortable doing with all the seat time I have on this machine. Came back into the pits with the article completely re-written in my head. “Aftermarket industry a scam. Younger, a riding god.” Then I looked at the lap timer: 1:15s. Are you kidding me? I put the Kawi away for what will be the last time. I even went so far as to put her up for sale on the NESBA site. I looked at the Gixxer, sitting there neglected, blamed, a castaway. It was time to start looking elsewhere.
The next day Absolute moved the show next door to the Thunderbolt track. I went along. Because I didn’t have to worry about lap times for The Experiment I really focused on my riding style. My friend Ilya told me I was not getting off the bike enough. I slapped him across the face then went out for a session. You know what? He was right. Not that I would ever admit that to him. Truth is my body positioning is a chiropractor’s dream and it became startlingly apparent that morning. My death grip on the handlebars was a real issue. I needed to relax. I also wasn’t pressing my outside knee into the tank to hold myself up with. I was using the bars to do that.
Basically, I was just fighting this beautiful machine every step of the way, then wondering why it wasn’t giving me accurate feedback. It would be like choking your waiter and wondering why you can’t hear the specials. As soon as I relaxed the problem went away. They all went away. Next thing I know I’m doing 1:33’s That’s three seconds faster than I’ve ever gone at T-Bolt. Somebody get me back to Lightning. Now! You bring the ambient temp down 20 degrees and I’m doing a 1:10. Hell, I’d be willing to bet I can do a 1:11 the next time I go out there regardless of temperature.
And this current three-day-long marathon I’m on with Pro 6 at Calabogie has strongly confirmed everything I’ve been hypothesizing. It has also given me that last bit of confidence I need. In fact, I’ve taken it to the next level. I’m trail braking for the first time in my life. I’m throwing the bike on its side entering corners. I’m opening up the throttle just past the apex. The Gixxer and I, we’re partners now and the best part is it’s effortless. I’m loose on the bike and it’s paying real dividends. On the last day I put a set of N-Tec slicks on the bike. You know, just to see… What? I was curious.
Remember that moment I described on the first day on the bike? Last session and I’m laughing in my helmet as I threw down that 1:13.02 around Lightning. Here it was again. In two days at Calabogie I’d worked my way down to a respectable 2:17.4 lap. Then I went out with those slicks in the first session and did a 2:15.8 followed by a 2:14.6 the next one. I had a long talk with Sandy, the Dunlop rep up there and he told me that the 211 GP-A’s we’ve been using in The Experiment are good for a 2:08 in the hands of a pro. That just means once again it comes down to feel, comfort and confidence. I went out and pushed on that slick because it made me feel like I had an edge.
Am I really fast enough for a tire to give me three and a half seconds? No. I’m not. It’s about how you feel at any given moment on your bike. Get it set up right. Put the tires on that make you sleep well at night. Step into the leathers that make you feel protected. Rent an umbrella girl for a half-day rate. Do all those things and know that at the end of the day you are the limiting factor. That’s not meant to be depressive. I find it exhilarating because it means that we have the capacity to change, to learn. If it really were the parts and only the parts then the guy with the deepest pockets would win every time. Thank god that isn’t so.
Ahh, yes. The one bike I have absolute mastery over. I own that thing. Fine, it once got away from me but it was in the wet.
Part 2 Wrap Up
Overall, the lesson I’ve learned so far through The Experiment is that if you don’t want to know how crappy a rider you are then don’t make any of the changes I’ve detailed in this article. If, however, you’re interested in moving past whatever wall you’ve hit then let’s keep pushing forward. Let’s confront the areas where our skills are lacking. Let’s use a properly set-up race bike to help us break through the most challenging barrier we face – ourselves.
Got a little preachy there at the end. You got chills, though, didn’t you? Admit it. You went and watched Top Gun. Poor Goose.
See you in a month for the conclusion of this series where I will chrome the frame, install a supercharger and fit a nitrous kit to the bike. Okay, maybe not, but we are going down the power path. We’ll see if that helps my sorry self any.