When Big Bob, my moto-mentor, came home from the Cornerspin motorcycle school I texted him to ask how it was. He didn’t reply for a few days. Finally he wrote, “I have been trying to figure out how to describe just how amazing it was, but I just can’t do it justice. So you should just take the class.” Big Bob is one of the most accomplished riders that I know, so this was quite the endorsement.
That’s how I decided to travel from Chicago to North Carolina to take on Cornerspin. The school advertises itself as "Road Racing in the Dirt." While this is an accurate description of the school, it hardly covers the depth of what it truly is. In the few weeks I’ve had to digest taking the school, I still find myself tongue tied to explain everything that I learned.
I thought it would be more adventurous to ride rather than fly down there, so I pitched the idea of a trip to a few friends. They were all for it, so we drew up an elaborate back road route from Chicago to Salisbury, North Carolina and set off on an epic adventure.
I made the trek on my 2007 Kawasaki Ninja 250, my everyday rider since I started riding in 2012. Despite putting 16,000 miles on the bike since I bought it, I had some fears about riding. I got nervous about traction, particularly in a corner. When I first got my motorcycle, I dumped it in front of a group of riders when I was riding away from a guy’s garage that had a gravel road. I wasn’t even going fast; I just didn’t know what I was doing. It was completely mortifying and left me with a fear of gravel. Rain made me nervous too, because I had heard of so many motorcycle accidents in the rain.
Another fear became apparent during our ride to North Carolina. There was one particular incident that I didn’t often encounter often on the flat straight roads of the Midwest: a series of steep downhill switchbacks that I just didn’t feel like I could relax in. I actually had to pull over for a moment to tell myself to calm down and keep it smooth. I had two major hopes for attending this school: first, I hoped to feel more confident on the ride back to Chicago. Second, I hoped that I was not going to be in over my head for this school. I was nervous that I couldn't do it.
Despite my mental hang-up with the downhill curves, we arrived at the Cornerspin facility in Spencer, NC, safely. For the trip down there, we mostly rode US-421 and US-321. These are great roads for motorcyclists, and we also we able to hit "The Snake" on US-421 as part of the trip.
Class In Session:
Arriving at our class on early Saturday morning, we suited up in the clean gear that Cornerspin rented us and reported around a row of dirt bikes that we'd use for the day. The bikes ranged between 100 and 150 cc bikes, most students found themselves on Honda XR100s. When I realized that every single bike was outfited with street tires and the course we'd be tackling all day was compact clay I knew I'd be conquering my traction fears head on.
Aaron Stevenson, the chief instructor and a former national champion road racer, gathered the class around, "This weekend you will feel like I've opened a fire hose of information on you, and you'll walk away with a Dixie cup of information."
The first task of the day was to get acclimated to the environment we'd be training on. Upon my small steed, I descended onto Aaron's dirt track. It was set up exactly like a road racetrack, only in miniature. Sweeping left and right decreasing radius turns, a straight-away, and even a corkscrew that was sectioned off for the time being. The micro-machine course made our small dirt bikes feel like they were going much faster than they actually were. In reality I couldn't have been going more than 20mph. During my first few laps it was pretty obvious to me that I had no idea what I was doing on this course. I was continuously afraid of losing traction, never quite sure how fast to go, the combination of these two elements made turning overwhelming for me. Many of my classmates managed to get their first crashes out of the way, and it was clear that the slow speeds of the bikes would work to our benefit as we aimed to push our skills to the limit. After about 20 minutes of this, we parked our bikes and began our first lesson of the weekend.
As I said, calling Cornerspin “Road Racing in the Dirt” isn’t a complete description of the school. First and foremost, it’s a school about traction control. Aaron is a master of having small sound bites that will stick out in your head, and one of his most memorable was, “Traction control is in your right hand, not on a box in your motorcycle.” Traction is defined as the grip that your tire has on the surface you are riding on, and learning to control it means learning to be in control of the environment that you are in. Cornerspin has many ways of teaching you how to gain this control.
Continue Reading: Real Rider: The Cornerspin Motorcycle School Experience>>
On the first day of the class, you are trying to master the machine that you are on in a low traction environment. Aaron said that you always have 100% of traction available to you, but you have to understand the environment that you’re in to know exactly where that limit is. On our slippery dirt course, I was unsure that I could define what the limit was – I was afraid I’d just endlessly crash throughout the weekend. After a series of drills and break out sessions we started to learn how to use our body position to gain control in the traction environment we were in.
The idea behind body positioning was familiar to me as I'd done ice riding, but I had never had it broken down so perfectly. In a low traction environment, you have to keep your body upright and push the bike down below you while you sit on the tank to maintain control of the front end. You use your lower body to turn the bike, and your upper body to guide the bike. Aaron is a master of breaking down these details, and in the series of drills we worked on through the morning until lunch he was able to make sense of each little piece of the control we needed over our bikes. One rule for the day, however, we weren’t allowed to coast. Coasting only meant you left your maximum performance on the table.
To be honest, I knew I wasn't committing enough to some of these exercises. Using my lower body to control my motorcycle wasn't something I was used to and I continued to use my upper body to get the bike to turn. I wasn't the only student doing this, and Aaron knew it too. That's when he said the smartest thing he could say to force us to use the technique, "Okay, now take your left hand off the handlebar and put it on the gas tank and do the drills again."
What!? You want me to what?!
This is the beauty of Aaron’s instruction. He pushes you to a limit that you are comfortable with, and then he finds a way to push you beyond it so you can make significant improvements in a short amount of time. On such a small bike, the price for failure isn’t that high: you crash a 150-pound bike in the grass at 15mph. Then you get back up, pick the bike up and try the exercise again until you stop crashing. As I relentlessly attempted each exercise with one hand, I eventually stopped crashing. Not having the ability to use both hands meant I had to rely on my lower body. Which had me believing I might not be so bad at this after all.
By the middle of the afternoon, Aaron changed the configuration of the course for a new twist: now there was the uphill corkscrew and a steep decreasing radius turn. We lined up to discuss the decreasing radius turn before we would have the chance to check out the new course configuration. I watched in awe as one of the instructors repeated a simple set of steps: brake, turn, gas. No coasting! With each brake, the back end of his bike slid around. Unconcerned by this, he’d push the bike down to turn and grab a handful of throttle. It looked beautiful, and it seemed so simple. I couldn’t wait to give it a try.
As Aaron discussed what we should be watching for as we came into the apex, I noted the giant blue barrel sitting right next to the apex. My boyfriend said, "There is no barrel!" and Aaron repeated the sentiment – to avoid the barrel, we need only look down the course and not at the barrel. It was really quite Zen.
It was finally our turn to try out the course. I cautiously rode my bike in the first lap, noting the turns and realizing that entering the corkscrew required a sharp right turn uphill. As I began my second lap, I began to pick up speed. When I came through the decreasing radius turn, I realized I wasn’t looking through the turn but at that plastic barrel I was told not to look at during instruction. As you might have guessed, I plowed straight into it, knocking it over and going off course. A prefect lesson on target fixation! I began giggling as I rode back onto the course and decided that I shouldn't do that again.
As I got over my giggles, I tried to focus on keeping my elbows up and those three simple things: brake, turn, gas! I began saying it inside of my helmet as I came into each corner. With each lap I felt the back end slide out more and more as I braked. I shrieked with delight. After a few laps I realized that no one had passed me in quite some time, but I could hear someone behind me. I pushed the bike even harder and into the next gear. I was probably doing 25mph but it felt like I was doing 90! With this speed, I flew into the turn for the corkscrew but I slowed down too much and the engine began to lug. I almost dumped the bike, but I made a recovery and stopped dead in my tracks for the moment. As I started to crack up, I felt a hand on my shoulder. One of the instructors told me he'd been behind me the entire time and said I was killing it. I wanted to keep going. Aaron cheered for me as I came through a turn. Eventually I hit a mental wall and almost wiped out multiple times in one lap, so I decided to call it a day.
Continue Reading: Real Rider: The Cornerspin Motorcycle School Experience>>
The next morning felt like a bus had hit me. It hurt to clench my hands. I grabbed the glass of water and bottle of ibuprofen that I’d left next to my bedside, and swallowed a handful of them. I knew Sunday was going to be a rough day.
On the second day of class, you are trying to master the track. We had learned the skills to manage the machine, but to push our limits we needed to learn how to deal with changes in elevation and how to find the perfect line.
We warmed up by taking laps on the same track configuration that we’d ended the day with. Eventually this turned into riding the track one handed. I came to the realization in these laps that I had continued to depend too heavily on my upper body, because I was too sore to continue using my bad form. I was now forced to utilize my lower body to even out the strain. Just as I began to synch into the rhythm of the course, Aaron announced that we’d be reversing the track configuration.
As I made my first lap in the reverse direction, I realized that the “okay” uphill corkscrew had turned into a terrifying downhill corkscrew. I was coasting thru the turn, trying to slow down as much as possible. I felt like I was back on US-421 on that terrifying downhill sweeper that had paralyzed me just days before. I hoped to relax into the corkscrew turn with each lap, but I let out little whimpers with each attempt. I’d hit a mental block and I didn’t know what to do.
With my eyes keenly open to today’s challenges, Aaron had another set of drills to help chisel out the difficulty. He called it the 'Three Ring Circus'. It was a set of three drills that would tackle all the difficulties of the track. He divided the track into three separate areas with drills that got progressively harder until they culminated into the ultimate drill: the downhill corkscrew (my nemesis).
By the time we’d made it through the drills, the day was already more than halfway over and we needed lunch. As we hydrated and ate, Aaron started prepping us for our final exercises – flat tracking and the “final exam.” Just as he was getting into the technique we’d use on the other course in the facility, the skies turned dark and it began to rain. Aaron continued to lecture, saying it would pass soon. It didn’t. After a half hour, the flat track course had flooded. After another ten minutes, the original course we’d been training on all weekend had also flooded. By the time the rain ended we still had half a day left, but the training courses were useless.
Aaron, however, came up with the brilliant idea to keep the class going – supermoto. As soon as the idea came up, his eyes lit up. He proclaimed that we could keep going and end the day on the wet road and gravel by the entryway.
Now I still had to ride back to Chicago, so at first I was having none of this. I’ve dropped my bike on the asphalt, and falling on the asphalt hurts. In my head I saw a catastrophic wipeout where I’d end up breaking my leg, and that would just not be good. But as Aaron’s idea gained momentum, I realized I didn’t have to go faster than I was comfortable and I could stop at any time. Reluctantly, I got on my bike with everyone else and followed the instructors to the entryway.
The instructors sent up a few cones and began trying this crazy idea out for themselves. A row of cones were set up on the asphalt. I watched as they gunned it straight down to the end of the cones, then made the tight turn around them and gunned it back down the other side of the straight. Though another instructor set up cones in the gravel to practice sliding out the back, the majority of the class was interested in seeing how our skills stacked up on the street.
Our little asphalt drill morphed into asphalt races against the instructors. Students and instructors would rev their engines in anticipation of hearing the start, and our class was notably gaining speed. Just as I was starting to feel a real rush and some serious confidence, two of our classmates clashed handlebars in their battle in the turn and wiped out. Aaron had to have a little chat with the class about not acting like a bunch of 12 year old knuckleheads (my words, not his), but also pointed out how much faster we felt comfortable going.
With Aaron’s observation, I reminded myself of my pain points upon coming to this class: fear of losing traction in a turn, traction control in general, and riding downhill twisties. Here I was, on wet pavement trying to turn myself around as fast as I could with some actual confidence in my abilities. Seriously, I felt like a miracle had been performed.
We wrapped up the day and said our goodbyes. My cohorts and I would begin the ride back to Chicago, and I was anxious to see if I would feel a difference in my riding. We couldn’t stop talking about the past two days
There was an obvious difference in my riding on our first day heading towards home. We took a different scenic route home and stopped in Asheville to explore the Blue Ridge Parkway. It was a Monday, so we did not run into much traffic. We spent a little more time pulling over to enjoy the sights. We took the Parkway up to Mount Mitchell, the highest peak in the eastern United States, where we took in some seriously spectacular views. When we decided we were done exploring, we rode straight back to the hotel without making any stops. As I dipped into each turn, I could feel the confidence I’d gained from Cornerspin in my riding.
The greatest proof of my improved skills occurred to me when we rode the Tail of the Dragon. We planned to ride it earlier in the morning, but it had been raining. We were almost done with our trip, so I did not want to give up the opportunity to check it out. So despite the wet pavement, we gave it a run. In each corner, I felt confident and picked up my speed as much as I felt comfortable doing. The storm that blew through had left some wet leaves on the ground, and at a few points I felt my back tire squirrel around on the wet foliage. I stayed on the gas as I had learned to do, and my bike continued to handle perfectly. When we finished our first run, a rush came over me. I was so happy that I wanted to do it two more times. I felt alive and one with my motorcycle. I felt at peace. I felt like I got my money’s worth.
Cornerspin was the best money I have spent on my motorcycle training to date, and it was also the most fun I’ve had on two wheels. If you’re interested in going, I recommend taking a friend because there is a $50 friend discount if you sign up together. That $50 will cover the rental fee for the clean gear they rent. They also offer military discounts. I am so thrilled with it that I want to go back again and experience the pieces of the course that I missed. Aaron offers a much deeper discount for repeat students, so it’s even easier for me to justify going back. The class includes the use of a small dirt bike for you to beat on for the weekend. I can’t recommend the class enough; check out http://www.cornerspin.com/ for more information on how to have one of the most fun weekends of your life.
About the Rider:
Jen Tekawitha is a motorcyclist on the street, dirt, and ice. She also loves taking pictures of her adventures or motorcycle races. To check out more of her work, visit http://www.JenTekawitha.com.