Do you remember the last time you reached the limit? Was it a last-second swerve to miss a car? Was it a desperate panic brake grab into a tricky corner at your local racetrack? Did you wonder what you could have done differently? As an avid trackday rider turned club racer, I have found the limits of my ability on the track. Twitchy hands, stiff body position, sloppy downshifts and a handful of close calls were enough to convince me to seek some professional instruction. So when I heard there was a women’s only class at the Yamaha Champions Riding School I signed up as fast as I could.
I was already accustomed to chilly temperatures at Utah’s mile-high Miller Motorsports Park after attending the last couple World Superbike races but the mountain air was especially crisp on this autumn morning. Luckily, we got to warm up right away as we packed into the YCRS passenger van and made some orientation laps with head instructor Nick Ienatsch behind the wheel. Being a complete newbie to Miller’s configuration, I was relieved to get a feel for the track under Nick’s guidance. During the ride we made stops in some of the corners so fellow instructors Ken Hill and Mark Schellinger could demonstrate correct and incorrect turning approaches as they zoomed past on their Yamaha R1s, all the while Ienatsch explained the differences between each method. The combination of verbal instruction and live demonstration proved an effective learning formula.
After a quick wardrobe change from street clothes to leathers, we were introduced to the fleet of Yamahas. I was delighted to spend the next two days aboard a fresh 2012 Yamaha YZF-R6. I enjoyed my time riding an R6 during Motorcycle-USA’s Supersport Shootout a few years ago, and was looking forward to riding it at a world-class facility like Miller. The YCRS staff already divided our groups by skill level. Fellow club racer Sarah Preston and I paired up with Ienatsch, who began putting us through the paces on track.
Through signals and hand gestures, Nick gives cues on body position and with the glow of his tail light he shows how deep he holds pressure on the front brakes into corners. Trail braking has always been a bit of a mystery to me… Like a majority of riders, in the formative years of riding I was taught to finish braking before steering into turns. Trail braking is the technique of applying the brakes through the corner and gradually releasing lever pressure as you arrive at the apex of the corner. Though the concept sounds quite simple on paper, it can be a bit more difficult to apply in practice.
As I followed Nick’s lead I began realizing that applying a gentle squeeze onto the front brake lever adds a great deal of stability entering turns and eliminates that odd “floating” sensation I felt during my last few races. It is also quite interesting to experience how the angle of some turns (hairpin, double radius, etc.) would affect technique. After practicing throughout the day I could drive the R6 deeper into the corner confidently.
A combination of verbal instruction and live demonstration got riders ready to tackle some of the more advanced riding techniques at Miller
After a few riding sessions the group reconvenes and we begin a series of drills focused on line selection, braking technique and gear shifting. Cones are set up to ensure we enter corners at the correct angle. Next the instructors stand at different spots on track to make sure we are engaging the brakes in smooth, gradual manner as we approach. During these drills I learn the importance of operating the controls smoothly, especially during braking. In the heated moments of a race I have found myself prone to stabbing the brake lever which led to some sketchy moments. Now that I have practiced these motions under professional instruction I feel more confident in using brakes with finesse. Hopefully it will transfer over next time when I’m under racing pressure.
YCRS also had us run through its signature Champion’s Laps drill in which the instructors create hypothetical scenarios where each rider must complete a lap by doing something different that removes you from your “comfort zone”. Although it seems silly at first, the exercise is designed to make you adaptable and prepares you to be ready for anything when riding. For example, I tried to complete a lap doing the “Rossi foot dangle” into corners and found the technique not well suited to my riding ability. I was also set in a mock endurance race where I had to forgo my R6’s GP-style shift pattern (reverse, one up, five down) for a standard-shifting Yamaha FZ-1. These exercises helped us be more comfortable when riding out of our element. But the learning tool I found to be most beneficial throughout the YCRS was its video instruction.
Each day we completed a lap while being shadowed by an instructor whose bike was outfitted with a video camera in order to record our movements and position on track. During lunch each student’s video was aired on the big screen and the instructors gave us an individual critique in front of the group. This visually demonstrated where we were making progress and where there was room for improvement. We also studied each rider’s body position and compared them to one another thereby identifying our strengths and weaknesses. These video reviews helped tremendously by allowing Ienatsch and his team to give us ideas for improvement. Witnessing the improvements of the entire class after each day’s video was gratifying and proves the effectiveness of the instruction.
(Above) Lead YCRS riding coach Nick Ienatsch offers up valuable insight between riding sessions at the YCRS women’s event. (Bottom) Ladies from all over the country came to hone their riding skills at the Women’s Yamaha Champions Riding School.
Throughout the two days I made a point to get to know my fellow classmates. From college students in their teens to more established ladies working full-time as financial advisers, these girls where from all over the U.S., from New Hampshire to California and it was cool to see how the freedom of motorcycling unites us all. I know my reasons for coming to this women’s only event, still I was curious as to why other ladies opted to do the same? For some, being with a group of females creates a better learning environment.
“Honestly, I chose a women’s only school so I wouldn’t feel intimidated by the men,” said Katie Schellinger, who recently got into riding sportbikes.
Several other ladies also mentioned that the smaller group size made for more intimate one-on-one interaction and more personalized attention with instructors. For most of the students at the school, the opportunity to connect with other like-minded riding enthusiasts was a big draw as well.
“One of the main reasons to do a women’s only school is the chance to meet strong, independent women,” said long-time rider and repeat YCRS student Catherine Long.
“Getting to meet other women who are really good at what do was extremely inspirational,” added Samantha Cullinane. “I felt everyone was very supportive of each other at all of our varying levels of riding.”
All said and done, YRCS not only improved my riding it boosted my confidence, too. Still at $2295 it certainly isn’t cheap and a dollar figure many motorcyclists cringe at… especially a scrappy club racer like me. But ask yourself, how much does a totaled motorcycle cost, or worse, a trip to the hospital? The money spent at the champ school is an insurance plan—one that will help you ride faster, with less risk. Still not convinced? The YCRS has a student return rate of over 30%. Half the women here were return students. But the real proof came a few weeks later at the following Chuckwalla Valley Motorcycle Association race where I shaved a massive six seconds off my lap time. I also scored back-to-back podium finishes for the first-time. I’m sure glad I chose to give myself an upgrade in rider ability as the skills I built at the YCRS accompany me each time I ride.