I love to survey riders. What do they want from riding; how would they like it to feel; how would they like it to look? Want is consistently answered with smoother, faster and increased confidence. Feel runs the gamut through smooth, solid, stable and predictable. Look also ranks smooth above all; followed by fast, which translates into hanging off, knee on the floor. That is the dream. Riders of all classes of bikes, once astride a sportcycle and at a racetrack, feel left out and are often crestfallen until that magic moment finally comes; the krchchshh of getting a knee down. If only the photographer had been in that corner…that lap. In the evolution of our species we’ve gone from knuckle dragging to knee dragging.
An alluring picture of what they imagine or wish to look like can hamstring anyone. These are most often gleaned from dramatic magazine or TV shots stored in their library of mental images and riders envision themselves in these poses as an end unto itself in their quest to improve personal riding prowess. Going for the look without some understanding of its utilitarian underpinnings is, in a word, wrong.
In the evolution of the art of cornering the look of it has had four complete phases--so far. The neat, tidy knees to tank, stretched out on the bike style of the 19-teens through the ‘60s was handed down, eye to muscle memory, as the path of least resistance; you could even say “the natural style” of riding. Phase two: Mike Hailwood let his inside knee come off the tank in the 1960’s and practically created a stock market panic in the riding style etiquette market, it was a huge departure from tradition. Paul Smart, Barry Sheene and others followed. Then, Jarno Saarinen actually moved his butt off the seat a bit which was emulated by many. The fourth phase is credited to and was pioneered by our own Kenny Roberts Sr’s knee down style hangoff in the 1970’s.
Initially this earth-shattering look was quite personal to the rider, each having his own iteration of the new form. Cal Raybourn and Kel Carruthers were halfway guys, still clinging a bit to phase two. Some others had lots of bum off, some with lots of leg and knee off, some rotated around the tank a la Mick Doohan. A few went head and body way down and on the inside of the tank, Randy Mamola style, some hung-off but remained sitting more upright like Kevin Schwantz. The torso positions for our other 500cc world champs of the era; Eddie Lawson, Freddie Spencer and Wayne Rainey were half way between, on the tank but not inside it. Most of the originals also tended to ride forward on the tank and finally, everyone was stationary in their hung-off position once in the corner. The neat part of that era, with all these splinter groups, was that a fan could have instant recognition of the individual’s style and look. Not so today, phase five is upon us.
Conceptually, hanging off couldn’t be simpler. Lower the combined Center of Gravity (CG) of the bike/rider combination and you go through the same corner at the same speed, on the same line with less lean angle: all in all, a brilliantly utilitarian racer’s tool with huge residual benefits; chief among them being an accurate, on-board gauge for lean angle and true to most evolutionary progressions, function now rules the new look and style of road racers.
Take a look; riders are low and inside of their bikes. More and more we see them perfectly in line with the machine, not twisted or rotated in the saddle. The bum off/body twisted back across the top of the bike positioning, which many phase four riders had been doing, was and still is an interesting piece of self-deception. With their torso mass on the higher side of the bike, it not only neutralizes the mass of the hips being off the bike but actually is a negative, raising the combined bike and rider C G--defeating the technique’s main function and purpose. Other notable changes include not being so stretched out as before but not always with the family jewels on the tank either. The one new variable in phase five riders is coming further off the bike mid-corner to exit. You’ll see it on the bum-cam position next time you watch riders like Val Rossi in Moto GP. That and the fore/aft in the saddle differences appear to be the only options available to our phase five evolution racers.
We have five choices now in how we can look and relate to our bikes. If you keep your eye on the style’s function and do some limbering exercises all the benefits of phase five will become apparent as you become comfortable with it. Is it easy? My experience says it is not a natural style at all and riders are hard pressed to assume the new form. If it is your desire to do it I suggest taking your time and step by step, experimenting with each of the stages through which it has evolved. Good luck.
ˆ Keith Code, 2007.