I have a confession. I’ve never had any formal instruction when it comes to riding motorcycles. No classes. No track days.
I come from the old school. Taught myself to ride on a high school buddy’s bike. Would trade him my Pontiac Fiero for his Honda Ascot 500 on weekends so I could learn. OK, get the giggles out of your system now, I owned a Fiero and rocked it proudly. It was 1984 after all, simpler years before Orwellian premonitions began to manifest. Point being, though, I wanted to ride so bad, I’d swap my new car just to spend a weekend rippin’ around the Bay Area on Paul’s Honda. He ran down the basics to me, and since I already drove a stick-shift, the concept of clutch and shift came pretty easy. The Ascot 500 was a great bike to learn on, easy-to-ride, with enough power to make a newbie feel like they were flying.
That said, I’ve always wanted to take a riding class. I’ve seen the stories of Waheed having a blast at Colin Edwards’ Texas Tornado Boot Camp, watched Byron’s riding skills blossom after taking Rich Oliver’s Mystery School and Z2 Track Days Novice School. So when Can Akkaya offered a chance to take his “Cornering School,” I was stoked at the chance to take my first riding class. Akkaya runs a multi-tiered riding program called Superbike-Coach, offering everything from a “Wheelie Course” to a “Knee Down Class” to track days. His “Cornering School” has three levels, each one focusing on different skill sets and principles. As they say, you’ve got to walk before you run, so we signed up for Cornering School Day 1 eager to see if this old dog could learn new tricks.
The class was held at Stockton Little 99 Raceway, a tight little kart and supermoto track tucked into a corner of Stockton’s San Joaquin County Fairgrounds. The class is open to riders of all skill levels. Our class consisted of approximately 30 riders, three of them women, with a wide range of riding experience, from less than a year to over 30 years. Riders are divided into three groups based on experience and skill level, and riders can be moved either up or down if Coach deems they’re not in the appropriate group. Like the people in the class, the motorcycles ran the gamut as well, from a Suzuki Hayabusa to Ninja 250s, an Indian Scout, and even an old Beemer Boxer. Unlike other track days, no bike prep is needed beyond the basics, proper tire pressure, good brakes and a full tank of gas. While you’ll want to wear gear with basic armor, there’s no need to come in full leathers. If Coach feels you’re not protected adequately, he’s got extra chest, knee and elbow protectors on-hand you can rent for a small fee.
You can see the wide range of motorcycles people brought for Superbike-Coach’s Cornering School 1.
For the class I would be riding a 2016 Kawasaki Ninja 1000 ABS. Yeah, I know, with its 1043cc Inline-Four, it’s a whole lotta bike for such a small course. But it just happened to be one of the motorcycles we were currently testing. And it’s actually very rider-friendly. The riding position is more upright and relaxed than the ZX-10R, the light-action clutch is easy to modulate, and the Ninja Thou gives riders the flexibility of two power modes and three levels of Kawasaki Traction Control (KTRC) to choose from. A storm the day before left a few wet spots on the track during the morning session and a standing puddle on the inside of Turn 6, which they coned off. Considering the conditions, I opted to set the KTRC on 1 so it would provide a little assistance without being overly intrusive, but left it in full power mode. Gotta get the heart pumping with a little edge-of-your-seat action, right?
Sitting there listening to Coach in the introductory session there’s a flighty feeling in the pit of my stomach anticipating taking to the track for the first time. Before that session though, we get to know Coach better as he shares the trials and tribulations of his racing career, from becoming German Track Trophy Vice-Champion to just missing out on a MotoGP wild card due to an ill-timed crash and injury. His experience lays the foundation for trusting what he says because he’s practiced what he preaches on world-class tracks around Europe. He touches on some of the basic principles and philosophies that made him competitive at the international level, hinting at how they can be parlayed to everyday riding on the street.
The first laps are spent familiarizing ourselves with the layout of the track, learning the capabilities of our motorcycles, getting a feel for traction, and provide Coach an opportunity to make some initial observations of our class. No passing is allowed in the first session, though it would be allowed later at a designated spot on the track. Despite the fact that Stockton Little 99 Raceway is relatively short, it’s a challenging blend of rights and lefts, a mix of faster sweeping corners with the tight, technical transitions of the “bus stop” to the hard-breaking right-hander known as Turn 11. The first session is filled with more wrangling than flow as I get better acquainted to the Ninja 1000 on-track and the layout of the land.
Superbike-Coach Can Akkaya brings many years of experience as a professional racer to the table and enjoys sharing what he’s learned with people willing to listen.
After the first session, Coach Akkaya addresses our group about embracing their fears, and how much riding is mental. He touches on focus and proper breathing, and the importance of relaxing when you ride as you develop trust in your bike and abilities. Sometimes it feels like he’s speaking in generalities instead of specifics. But one thing he said stuck in my mind.
“Stay away from stupidity.”
We head out for the second session trying to grasp the concepts of our latest conversation on the track, Coach encouraging us to focus harder as we ride. The big puzzle is still nebulous at this point, but feeling better on the bike and more familiar with the track I push a little harder, lap a little faster, find better rhythm. About three-quarters into the session, Coach Akkaya, who had been watching us lap from the side of the track, waves me over to the shoulder. He tells me I’m too harsh on the throttle in turns, the abruptness causing the bike to stand up and lose momentum. He taps on my left shoulder, tells me to relax the tension in my left elbow and shoulder which will naturally drop your body into turns. He finishes by saying to relax and concentrate more on being smoother instead of faster. While I’ll stop short of epiphany, I will say his observations hit the mark and his advice made perfect sense.
We pulled in for another pow-wow, this discussion more meat-and-bones than generalities. With good reason. Akkaya began discussing apexes and radiuses, as learning ideal lines is at the crux of Cornering School 1. And not solely for the purpose of carrying more speed through a turn, though that is a natural result of hitting the apex. He also pointed out how it puts focus on what comes after the turn and leads to increased rider concentration. He then did an oral turn-by-turn analysis of the track to give us entry and exit points to aim for our next time out. He also went over viewing and line-of-sight, discussing the four-point vision method and pointing your nose at your next way-point. He talked about something I had been guilty of, craning my head too much as I kept my line-of-sight as far into the distance as possible at the cost of peripheral vision.
After that, we hit the track again, eager to find those elusive ideal lines. This time, Coach Akkaya took to the track with us on his supermoto, ripping off wheelies at will and sliding carefree into corners. He then slotted in front of riders one-by-one, instructing them to follow his lines through the turns, giving tips on where they should be looking and where their bodies should be positioned. I didn’t get a chance to follow Coach this time out, but still worked on my lines based on the diagrams he drew during our last discussion.
Coach Akkaya takes to the track on his supermoto to demonstrate the best lines through the corners of Stockton’s Little 99 Raceway.
That afternoon, we spent time learning the benefits of upshifting without the clutch, how it doesn’t cut power so abruptly and doesn’t cause as much dive on the front end. He also talked about the merits of using the next highest gear in corners and how it helps in smoothness and in getting feedback from the bike. Again we hit the track to practice what we just talked about, matching theory with application as we do clutchless upshifts, feeling the difference for ourselves.
Cornering Class 1 concluded with the basics of body positioning. With GP riders dragging elbows these days, Akkaya’s concerned that the YouTube generation is putting too much emphasis on everybody trying to hang off the bike and drag a knee. And while he admits at the highest levels body positioning is important, Akkaya thinks to start out, the perfect body position is whatever a rider is comfortable with, which varies person-to-person. In fact, when Coach rips off laps around the speedway on his supermoto, he uses little body English. And though he didn’t want us to put too much into it, he did demonstrate the basics – sit back on the bike, slide butt off, dig into bike with opposite knee, note the angle of elbow in relation to handlebar, relax shoulder and elbow. Riders in our group who said they were interested in learning how to hang off their bike then got a chance to go through the mechanics on a centerstanded FJR1300.
My last time out, I finally get a chance to slot in behind the Coach and follow his lines. After a couple of laps, the dots connect. Everything he preached throughout the day came together, and I began to flow instead of fight the track. He hand signaled to let me know where I should be looking, tapped body parts to let me know what to relax, gave me the thumbs up when I was finally able to nail the line through the dreaded “bus stop.”
- Before the day was over, we finally connected all the dots Coach Can had been talking about which resulted in the funnest laps of the day.
- How can you not smile after spending a day riding around a track improving your riding skills.
- Our third session of Superbike-Coach's Cornering School 1 was spent covering apexes and line-of-sight.
- This girl showed her wild side not only with her unique helmet but by demonstrating the skills she learned by the end of the day at Superbike-Coach's Cornering Class.
By the end of the session, I learned to relax more on the bike, to let the motorcycle do its thing instead of constantly wrestling with it. Before it was over, I definitely was smoother in turns, less abrupt on the throttle, and used a higher gear to allow the Ninja’s torque to pull me out of corners. I also learned to follow my nose, to use my peripheral more without altering my line-of-sight as drastically as I was before. When it was over, I was riding a wave of enthusiasm from improvements I’d made during the day.
A couple days later, Coach Akkaya reached out to me to make sure we’d made the seven-hour trip back home to Oregon OK. He also asked me what I thought about his approach to teaching. And while I don’t generally share personal conversations, I thought this one summed up my experience with Superbike-Coach’s Cornering School 1 well.
“You can be abrasive and make people feel uncomfortable at times, but that’s because you’re trying to break down many of the misconceptions in people’s heads that come from misinformation from their buddies and crap they see online. You’re frank and you’re honest. I think some people come in with the ill-conceived notion they are going to come out riding like a pro after one session, but that’s an illusion. You’ve got to walk before you run. At first people might not grasp where you’re headed, but if they listen, it all begins to make sense on-track. You’re very observant, and the tips you provided when you pull riders aside are spot-on. The chance to follow you on the course, taking note of where a rider’s eyes should be, learning the lines you take, and teaching riders to relax more and let the bike do the work instead of wrestling with it made for the funnest laps of the day. Your approach won’t appeal to everybody because some people can’t handle brutal honesty, others might think that there’s a magic formula to being a good rider, but it doesn’t work that way. You provide building blocks, and I appreciate you not overwhelming us with more info than we can absorb in one session. If you did, people would be thinking too much about everything that’s thrown at them instead of learning the little things one at a time.”
I concluded by telling Coach the first class left me eager for Cornering Class II. Guess you can even teach an old cruiser dog like me new tricks.