Improve Your Skills: Big Bikes versus Little Bikes

The similarities and differences between riding big bikes and little bikes on the track.

Sometimes the timing of things works out perfectly. I had just returned from a Penguin track day that had one of our annual women’s groups and was greeted Monday with an email from our editor, Allan Lane, who asked me to put together an article for an upcoming issue. Since I ride a ZX10R and several of the women attending chose smaller displacement motorcycles, I got some questions on the differences between riding big bikes and little bikes on the track. They were some very good questions, and we’ll address both the similarities and differences here.

The biggest thing to remember regardless of the bike you ride is that correct fundamentals are universal. Proper track vision that scans the track, supporting your body weight with your inner peg and outer thigh, soft arms at full lean, smooth initial inputs at the controls… these concepts are all the same. Our goals of carrying our straightaway speed deep into the corner, hitting our apex at the right trajectory and getting to wide-open throttle as early as possible also remain the same. In corners that require brakes on the entrance, we also find that the release point for the brake lever (the slowest point in the corner) is also in a very similar place on both bikes.

When considering the differences, we will look at how we might change our approach in an entrance-focused corner, a roll speed-focused corner and a drive-focused corner on each bike. Of course, not every corner will fit neatly into one of those boxes, but we can apply these principles in each segment of the track where we have a particular focus. In the end, your strategies and timing will differ those sections where the more powerful engine (and often brakes) on the bike bikes shorten the time to complete an action and require more force on the handlebars. As riders get faster, the top priorities for small bikes become a balance between raising the minimum roll speed, nailing the entrance trajectory and allowing themselves to get the throttle wide open early. Timing is everything. For big bikes, the trajectory at the apex remains important and the primary focus becomes the application rate of the powerful throttle and brakes along the way. The best riders in the world have the slowest hands when the speeds increase.

In a pure entry focused corner, we will be on the brakes all the way through (and often past) the apex. The two goals in these corners are to keep the bike upright for as long as possible while planning the most advantageous angle of attack at the apex. An entrance corner by definition will have a higher speed entrance and will be followed by a section that does not allow for the bike to accelerate (often a very long corner or a set of esses). Since the big bike will enter much faster, the brake application must start earlier. This affects our “pre-turn” location on the corner entrance.

For those new to the term, “pre-turn” is a phrase that Penguin uses to describe the process of entering a corner at a better angle of attack. It takes a 90-degree corner and turns it into an 80-degree corner, thereby shortening the time on the edge of the tire. The later the pre-turn, the more angle you can take away (see diagram below). By our definition, the pre-turn is simply a direction change that happens with the rider having to ask anything extra of the front tire. Since braking asks a lot of the front tire, the pre-turn often happens in conjunction with the dual action of rolling off the throttle and applying the brake. Since small bikes brake later and take less effort to turn, they can always pre-turn later than big bikes in these entrance focused corners. In an entrance corner that does not have a pre-turn (for example, one that connects a right/left bend allowing a completely straight entrance) the lines of a big bike and little bike will be exactly the same.

In roll speed-focused corners, the line is more a question of geometry. Riders in these corners simply try to make the largest radius corner they can fit between the outside edges of the track. Bike size has no bearing on this. All bikes follow a roll speed strategy and will trail brake approximately to the apex, release the brakes and almost simultaneously start rolling on. Remember that the end of braking and the beginning of the throttle are the most critical time to have slow hands.

The only question is if the roll speed line is right for your machine. The simple answer is that if the speed of the corner is high enough that your bike cannot spin the tire, then the roll speed line is the right choice. Penguin calls the speed at which your bike can no longer spin the tire (barring bad handlebar inputs) as the Threshold of Traction (TOT). That speed might be 50mph on a Ninja 300 and 100mph on a ZX10. In a 75mph sweeper, the 300 will be on a roll speed line, while the ZX10 will need to slightly square off the entrance and set a slightly later apex in order to release some lean angle on the exit.

The exit of a drive focused corner produces the most pronounced differences between big bike and small bike lines. Smaller bikes will apex slightly earlier and will run much wider trajectories out of these corners. Since riders must always release lean angle as the throttle is added, smaller bikes separate from the apex much more quickly than their high horsepower counterparts. On a superbike, I will always turn a little harder and longer as I come through the apex, which points me up track more and allows me to use all that horsepower that I paid for.

Drive focused corners are usually slower at the apex, which puts them below the TOT for much of the exit. Until you pass by your bike’s TOT, riders are not able to use any bar input to help finish the corner. Since the small bike will usually accelerate past its TOT midway through the exit, those riders can then complete their corner in the latter stages of the drive. It bears repeating that it is never OK to add or even maintain bar input in the initial portion of the drive on any bike. All bikes must be allowed to stand up in the first portion of the drive off the apex.

There are many other nuances between big and small machines, but understanding the basic principles will go a long way to keeping your tires firmly planted on the asphalt. Until next time… Ride fast. Ride safe!

Images: Lisa Theobald, Arcy Kusari

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