The Other End of Sunset

Monday, April 03, 2006

Back in the saddle again!

Hi again, OtherEnders, it's been a while.

I've been very busy. The same stuff, on a different day, mainly.

But some ... unusual ... stuff too. Let's talk about that. Way more fun!

First, where am I? Yup, you guessed it! I'm on a plane coming back from LA. It was 72 and sunny most of the time I was there. Of course, it's usually 72 and sunny, so that's no surprise. But I appreciated it anyway.

The Bay Area is dank and rainy - or it was when I left, we'll see what it's like when I return.

I have a bunch of trips planned for the next couple of weeks - to China, to Europe, and to that lovely city in the Southwest again. We'll see if I make the papers again, and, if so, if I sound better this time. I wasn't overly pleased with how I did last time. We'll see what happens. I'm giving a new talk, made up of amalgamating several smaller talks and some new materials. We'll see.

But first, how fun is it to get to LA? I flew into Burbank this trip, not LAX, because it's closer to where I'm going. I had forgotten how much I like the Burbank airport. It's so small that it's cute. I mean, like, really cute. Like a ladybug cute. They don't have gates, only doors that you walk through, and go up stairs to board the planes. This means, however, that you can disembark the planes through front AND back doors. Man the planes empty fast. The runway is ... short. So the planes hit the brakes HARD, which is fun too. Really, tighten your seatbelt when you land. You are going to want it, trust me.

Then you walk out of the terminal, and walk about 100 feet to the rental cars. Busses? We don't need no stinking busses, walk over! It's a little odd getting out of the airport - you go down these roads around behind buildings that look a lot like the infield section of a race circuit. They are narrow, and one way, and have lots of signs telling you which way to go.

But apparently not ENOUGH signs. There's a place where there is a stop sign, for no apparent reason. And it's so important that people stop that there is a troglodyte, dressed as a woman, with a hand-held STOP sign that she holds up next to the real stop sign.

OK, nothing personal, but if you are going to ignore the 10 foot tall version that is planted in the cement, why would you pay attention to the 5 foot tall grumpy version? Well, it seems that the idea is that the troglodyte can MOVE. If you don't look like you are going to stop, she waves her little stop sign. Then, if you are doing a California stop, she waves the sign, AND her other hand, and points at you. If you run the stop, do you think she runs out into the street to prevent your hooligan-ish behavior?

Thank god she's there. I feel more secure just knowing that nobody will run that stop sign in the middle of nowhere in that cute little airport.

While at the same time I have to take off my slip-on shoes that have NO metal in them and almost no fabric.

Yup, I feel safer. What color alert are we at these days? Do we need to go bomb some OTHER oil-producing country today? Anyway, enough sarcasm, back to "content".

I came down to LA to ride in the California Superbike School. This is a bike racing school taught by Keith Code (author of Twist of the Wrist, volumes one through about ten thousand...). He's a great rider, and a great racer. And not the best instructor ever.

The course format is pretty much like any of the racing schools. First, a classroom session, where they go over some technique - throttle control, braking distances, press-and-release steering, turn points, look ahead - and then you go out on the track and practice. The cool part of Code's school is that there are these professional riders called "coaches" who ride around the track with you. Each coach is assigned to two riders, for the entire course. They know the drills that you are supposed to be doing, and they give you hand signals when you screw up. They are pretty amazing - they can cruise around these AMAZINGLY hard corners, looking backwards, watching you. Dude, how DO you do that? I can barely make it around the corner using ALL my concentration.

My coach was Andy. Andy has a day job. He runs IT for a silicon valley company. It's a small, somewhat odd world. Anyway, he was good at diagnosing what I was doing wrong.

Fundamentally, I did one thing wrong - I'm not that good at this whole bike racing thing. Don't get me wrong, I have reasonable technique, and I can look through a turn, and find the vanishing point, and all that. But I am too slow. I just won't push myself. Which means I won't get much better. And I get spooked by people passing me - which happens a lot given how flippin' slow I am! Seems like I'd get used to it. Oops, guess not!

The track we were using was designed by Code a few years ago. The track is about 1.7 miles long - not too long - but there are 14 turns. Ok, that's a lot. You are working a lot during each lap. About half the turns are blind - you can't see the exit from the entrance. There are a lot of elevation changes. And they modified the end of the course to add 2 more hairpins. What that means is that as you are getting ready to enter the front straight - where the start/finish line is - you have a set of hairpins to navigate. In this case, it was 3 hairpins, a right, followed by a left, followed by another right. And they are about 50 feet apart. At 30 mph, that's about a second between turns. Of course, I wasn't going 30 mph there, but that's another matter.

My best lap on day one averaged about 50 mph, including the snail's pace on those hairpins. My top speed was just over 100. Ok, that's fast enough for me. I wasn't the slowest person in the class, but MAN I was not the fastest. I did improve a lot, though.

And I'm a better rider after the class. I had never been on a sportbike before - deal with it, I'm a cruiser guy! I like the way the rocket felt. It was small - 600cc - but much more responsive than my big V-twin cruiser (which is about 1500cc). It was fun, and twitchy, and I really had to focus on relaxation.

Odd, eh? To ride quickly, you have to be barely hanging on with your hands. The more you hang on, the less stable the bike is. Seems oxymoronic, right? Surely at 100mph, you have a death-grip on the handlebars to keep the bike from flying off the road! Nope, don't do it. Basically, all other things being equal, the bike will do the right thing if you don't screw it up - trust the bike, and pay attention to the traction, lean angle, etc. The whole goal of riding is to use the throttle to settle the bike - to make it stable - and then not to screw anything up.

My, if one is a control freak - like, say, me - it's an interesting exercise. You HAVE to let go. The ride sucks otherwise. You hang on with your knees, and trust the bike to get you there. And basically don't get in its way.

Can you guess what I spent most of my time working on? Yup, relaxing.

I love the Zen of motorcycling. Nope, not maintenance. I didn't read that book, Can't help you there. However, I can tell you that my head was so clear, and I was amazingly focused, during those laps. No thoughts of work, of the stories of those I love, of hairy failed executives, or anything else - simple focus on hands, and legs, and engine, and turn-in points. I can't describe how freeing that was for me. I'm already missing that clarity, and I'm not even back in the Bay Area yet, I'm still on the plane!

Can I turn around and go back?

Of better yet, how can I do what Howard suggests, and keep that clarity in real life. He does it somehow - I can't imagine how, but he does it - if there weren't enough reasons for him to be my role model, here's another. (He's amazing. You should get to know him. Anyway.)

I can't possibly be this serious for long, right? So let's move back into funny, shall we? Ok, racers (and instructors) wear leathers that have patches on that - you've seen them, watch NASCAR or so, the drivers are COVERED in brands. They look like mobile billboards. Well, the instructors at the school had a "Dianetics" patch on. Yes, as in "L. Ron Hubbard's great work" Dianetics. As in that religious thing that a few miscellaneous stars belong to and apparently yields couch-hopping as a side-effect.

Yes, as in that Dianetics. At first, I thought there was some cosmic branding joke at work here - like there was a brand of racing shock called "Dianetics" or so. But no, there, on the sale counter, were copies of the book by the man himself.

OK, so I didn't have the guts to crack wise at the school - plus it would have been disrespectful. And, there are even a few elements of the cult... oops, I meant religion ... that I can deal with. A lot of focus on mental development and dealing with your issues. OK, that's cool.

But I really want to know one thing. Just one thing.

When the aliens came down to Earth, you know, back then, whenever that happened? When they came down, were they riding sportbikes or cruisers.

That's all I care about.

One other brief comment on Code's school. If you buy something at the store, they give you a free gift - a book called the Way to Happiness. For those of you who are questioning, I'd like to assure you that, according to this book, avoiding murder is part of the way to happiness.

For what it's worth, I agree. I think NOT murdering others is an important part of my being happy. Perhaps it's true for you too.

However, I really liked the school, and highly recommend it, just try not to be as slow as I was.

Trust me, I am WAY faster in a taxi...

Enjoy the rain, remember there is sun somewhere.


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