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Survival Skills at the “Rider Performance Day” at Castle Combe

Once again, Survival Skills turned out this week to give the “Smart Riding” presentation at the Rider Performance Day hosted by Castle Combe circuit, on behalf of Somerset Road Safety Partnership.

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Wednesday’s event was the first of three scheduled for this year, the others being:

Wednesday, July 28 Wednesday, Sept 15

As numbers were a bit low, it was possible to run the entire session with just one group, which gave me chance to give my presentation, then get out on the track with the instructors from the circuit and try out the exercises that the students on the day were doing.

This wasn’t a bad thing, because I was riding a virtually new XJ6 Diversion and the braking exercises gave me the chance to try out the ABS for the first time in a controlled area. Braking hard is usually one of the first things I test on a new bike, but for some reason I hadn’t actually tested out the ABS to the point of a front-wheel lock up.

The first braking exercise involving the front brake had the trainees “grabbing a handful” to see what happened. As I often demonstrate on my own courses, without ABS the effect is that the front wheel locks – but the momentum of the bike itself pushes the machine in a straight line, and as soon as the brake is released it straightens itself up again. So you just have to be ready to release the brake when you feel the wheel lock.

It’s good to be aware of this, and better to actually have experienced it.

The second front brake exercise had the trainees braking hard in a controlled ’emergency stop’. Now, this is something we teach on basic training, at CBT and at DSA riding test level, but few riders ever bother to practice again. The problem is that when they DO need an emergency stop, the average rider only uses a fraction of the brakes available or panics and locks up. The consequences of both errors don’t have to be explained.

I’m used to demonstrating hard stops, but what surprised me was how hard it was to actually trigger the ABS on the track itself. I really did have to hammer the brakes on to activate it.

It’s wise to remember the track really does have far more grip than the average road surface, but ‘Shellgrip’ (the specially-laid high grip surfaces placed near pedestrian crossings and junctions) will get very close.

I was also surprised at just how smooth the ABS actually was when it did kick in. There was no noticable pulsing through the lever or any hop, skip and jump from the front which I have experienced with an old BMW system, it just stopped.

The other exercises involved trailing the rear brake on slow turns, again something I encourage trainees to master on the road, and slow balance. Fortunately I had no problem with that either – would have been embarrassing if I had!

After that we got to ride out on the circuits, doing a series of laps behind an instructor with one trainee after another peeling off to the rear of the group after being towed round until we’d all done a couple of laps directly behind him.

The circuit is marked out with cones on the corners – the suggested braking point, the “turn-in” point, and an apex to aim for and the instructor showed everyone the correct line. The only slight problem was that it was done so slowly it wasn’t actually that easy to follow the line as the bike was almost upright. Perhaps feeding the speed in gradually lap-by-lap would have been better.

Anyway, we were then released in small groups to go and play on the circuit.

Totally out of its natural environment, I was amazed at how well the XJ6 handled out on the circuit. Whilst I wasn’t going absolutely flat out (I’ve never ridden there before and whilst the braking points were marked I never felt totally comfortable their braking points were mine!), I did manage to get the pegs down in a couple of the corners.

The steering was delightfully neutral – on the few occasions I overcooked it into the bus-stop chicanes and was off the ideal line, modding the line was easy.

The Dunlop Roadsmarts were pretty impressive too! Still didn’t get rid of the chicken strips – I must have been hanging off too much!

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The high speed bump damping is a bit too hard and the rebound probably a bit too soft which led to a bit of harshness over bumps and slight wallows in the fast bends, but let’s remember this is very much a non-sports bike.

The only major problem was that whilst the high bars weren’t an impediment (I actually like the old ‘Eddie Lawson’ style bars – loads of leverage!), the position of the footpegs and gear shift were. I found it almost impossible to change gear because they were just too far forward and I couldn’t get my toe over the lever to shift down again! Fortunately the motor is so flexible it handled most of the circuit in second gear, with 3rd only really needed on the run along the straight up through Quarry to the tight right hander.

With better use of the box I dare say I could have carried rather more speed up the main straight through Quarry, but even so I was able to hang onto the coat tails of a guy on a GSXR750 who, like me, was feeling his way round the circuit, and no-one got past me from behind.

But it was all put into perspective when one of the instructors flew past on a 999 on the last lap to make sure we’d spotted the chequered “end of session” flag!!

One thing it did show me was that the brakes weren’t anything like bedded in after what I would have said was some reasonably vigorous use on the road during a ride with a mate on Sunday – a few squeezes on the braking exercises we did before we got out on circuit showed there was loads more power than I realised – so brakes have gone from controllable and a bit soft, to controllable with more than enough!!

I thought it wouldn’t make a trackday bike – and for an experienced trackday rider it won’t, but it would make a pretty good bike for a trackday newbie to start learning how to ride on tracks, simply because you can forget about the bike and get on with learning lines, braking points, steering, hard braking and the rest.

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