Avalon Biddle: What I've learnt from the track to the road
I began racing age 6 competing in mini motocross, then started road racing age 13. My life has since been pretty much dedicated to racing, spending six years racing in Europe and coming away with two European Women's Cup titles. Nowadays, I stick much closer to home (coincidently in tune with the 'stay local' trend!). In 2019 I won the New Zealand Supersport 600 Championship, becoming the first female to ever do so. I race a MTF Finance Kawasaki ZX6r, plus a KLX300R on the dirt. My favourite bike for the roads is a Kawasaki Ninja 400.
Most motorcyclists learn to ride on the road, and then later try their hand on the racetrack. That makes my experience kind of backwards! I learnt at the racetrack and then later transferred my skills to the road.
I'd like to share what I've learned while racing motorcycles at the elite level by firstly highlighting some important similarities. These include being smooth on the throttle, body position, ergonomics and riding gear. However, there are also some differences outlined below which are equally important to learn from.
I started road racing on a go-kart track. The track was pretty oily and slippery, teaching me the importance of being smooth on the throttle and brakes from a very young age. Particularly in the wet! There isn't much to explain about being smooth, other than practise, practise, practise. Constantly remind yourself that throttle application should be a smooth motion and practise being smooth on every ride, no matter how small. It's actually pretty hard to crash if you are smooth on the throttle and brake application. I find most crashes, particularly with new riders, tend to come from erratic movements such as suddenly grabbing a handful of front brake. You can brake mid-corner but it needs to be smooth!
Make sure you turn any traction control off in order to learn to be smooth in applying the throttle, as TC will mask aggressive throttle application. It's a great tool but you want to know how to ride a bike without the electronics, too!
Being tight, twisty and fiercely competitive, 'bucket' racing on the go-kart track also taught me the importance of always looking ahead to the next corner from early on. Looking ahead ensures that you end up where you WANT to go, not where you don't want to end up.
Importantly, set yourself up on the bike so that you CAN look ahead. This is why I always prefer bikes with higher handlebars for riding on the road - it makes keeping your field of vision upwards and open, much easier. Trust me, having competed in a four-hour race at Suzuka, crouching down and trying to look ahead for long periods of time on a race bike is not comfortable, nor pleasant! (It is far more aerodynamic however, hence the sacrifice on a racetrack when every second matters).
As I progressed from the go-kart track to racing on larger circuits, the physical size of the bikes naturally grew as well. As a (then) 14-year-old girl, it's fair to say the bikes were far too big for me. Even something as simple as bringing the handlebars close to the seat, or raising them up slightly, made them easier for me to reach. The subsequent increase in control you have over the bike is huge! Even nowadays, when possible I will bring the gear lever in as close to the foot peg as possible to make it easier for my small feet. On my ZX6R, this allows me to brake later on the racetrack because I know I'm not going to be fumbling around on the downshifts and can give the brake levers 100% of my attention. Other tricks can help taller riders too, such as moving the handlebars forwards or the foot pegs lower.
You have to make the bike work for you. It's equally important on the roads where you may not be riding fast, but you're on the bike for longer periods of time. So, if you are getting a sore back or sore wrists while riding, take a closer look at the position of your handlebars, brake levers, clutch lever, set and foot pegs, and consider adjusting them to work better for you. The newer the bike, the more possibilities there are likely to be for changing these positions.
Nowadays my gear is the 'best of the best', although this wasn't always the case. Ten broken bones and half a finger later, it's fair to say I learnt the hard way! Not only is the quality of the gear you select important, the fit for your body is equally important on both the track and road. I cannot exaggerate how much more you will enjoy riding in gear that actually fits! Plus, it will offer far better protection.
In the case of my missing half-finger: I was actually wearing quality gloves, they were just too big. I crashed at Manfeild and my finger must have been jammed underneath the fuel tank for the duration of the slide, grinding some of it away in the process. The glove had rolled around in the accident, and it was actually the inside of the finger that was ripped allowing my finger to make contact with the tarmac. The double-layer on the outside of the glove had done its job perfectly staying together, meaning I would have been fine if the glove fit properly.
Same goes for helmets, no one likes seeing the black liner of the helmet in their eyes while trying to watch where you are going!
Personally, I use an RST leather jacket and pants for riding on the road. Leather is very abrasion resistant and most of my riding is on open roads, meaning that if I came off I would likely be going for a slide down the road. Leather is very good for slide protection - hence why we wear it while racing as well. If you are doing lower speed riding i.e. commuting around towns, textile gear with good impact protection would likely offer better protection for the 'thud' if you were to hit the ground at low speed. At the end of the day, whether you come off or not, quality riding gear is important. Read up and invest in the best! Motocap.com.au is a great place to look for information about what to look for in riding gear.
While the skills above transfer well to the roads, there are certainly some key differences between racing and road riding. Speed being the obvious one here! In my mind however, there is one critical difference that most people overlook: attitude. Racing and riding require two very different mental approaches. To win a race, you have to be willing to take calculated risks and really trust yourself, the motorcycle, the track conditions and your competitors to push the absolute limit of tire grip. If you had this attitude on the road, however, you would be riding like an egghead - for lack of better politically correct words!
I have always been able to easily separate these two approaches by getting my 'thrills' on a racetrack. For me, road riding literally about getting from A to B safely and enjoying the bit in between. In contrast, racing isn't always enjoyable. It's thrilling, yes, but it's also hard work! The race wins and championship points up for grabs mean I am willing to push harder and race with the 'go fast or go home' mentality. It's just not the right approach for riding on public roads.
If you want to get your thrills, definitely head to a track day near you. You can open the throttle up and feel the thrill of riding fast in predictable conditions with no oncoming traffic. On the public roads, you simply need a more sensible attitude. You have to accept you genuinely don't know what is around the next corner. A 'winning' approach for these situations could probably be summed up by being cautious on the roads and calculated on the track.
The other major difference to touch on is the lines you take. I was very surprised at my first Ride Forever course with the lines we using. They were very different to sweepy race lines! It totally makes sense that you want to put yourself in a position on the road which provides margin for error of other road users, though. On a race track you don't have to worry about that so it was something new to me.
For more on this topic, I'd definitely recommend signing up for a Ride Forever course. The instructors can explain the lines far better than me, guaranteed! Even after riding for over 15 years before going on a course, I gained so much and I know you will too.
Stay Safe everyone,