Trail Braking with Yamaha Champ School


Guest: Chip Spalding, business development manager and instructor at the nation’s premier motorcycle riding school: Yamaha Champions Riding School.

Episode Summary:
Get ready to master the art of trail braking as I am joined by the business development manager for Yamaha Champions Riding School, Chip Spalding. Listen in as we debunk the misperception that riders should never touch the brakes in the corner and learn how trail braking is an essential part of riding technique. Chip elaborates on the critical role of trail braking in their curriculum and how 70-80% of their students are street riders.

Moving forward, we turn our attention to how skills learned on the track can be transferred to the street. Engage with us as we dissect the variables of apexes, the slowest point of the corner, and the decision point. We further compare the benefits of Yamaha Champ School’s two-day program and the one-day program for street riders.

As we conclude, we encourage all listeners to invest in formal education to become safer, more confident riders.

0:00:15 – Bret Tkacs
Welcome back to Around the Wheel with Bret Tkacs, and we have a special guest today: Chip, from a school down in California. I’ll let him introduce himself, but this is a topic that’s extremely near and dear to myself. I’ve talked about it before, I’ll talk about it again because I think it’s that important, and that’s talking about trail braking, and I’m not going to talk in dirt, I’m talking about the street, I’m not racing, because that’s where we spend so much time as adventure riders, as street riders, and I just think it’s an extremely misunderstood and… it’s just one of those skills that we need to know, should know, and is just so noticeably absent in rider education. Hey, Chip, why don’t you introduce yourself?

0:00:56 – Chip Spalding
Hi Bret, my name is Chip Spalding and I am the business development manager for Yamaha Champions Riding School, and I’m also one of the partners. We’re based on the West Coast in Indy Motorsports Ranch in Arizona and on the East Coast at NC Bike in North Carolina, but we operate at schools all over the country and online with our online curriculum Champ U.

0:01:19 – Bret Tkacs
That’s fantastic. I’m going to start off with the… so, people may have heard of Nick Ienatsch; he did a bunch of riding and he’s one of the primary members of that school, or founding member. He wrote a book way back in 2003 called Sport Riding Techniques. I still think it’s a really solid reference for riders who are on the street or track riders. There’s a quote in this book where he talks about trail braking. It’s called ‘Setting the Speed Precisely’, and I’m just going to read this because I really want to give people an idea for all you that are listening and I did what we’re going with this and it goes:

“Trail braking’s bottom line is safety.” Hey guys, this is really the truth and this is why I think it should be an all rider training. “The ability to trail brake allows you to set your cornering speed closer to the apex, which is the slowest point of the corner. Those who use their brakes in a straight line and then let go of them to steer their bike are deciding very early in the corner what speed they need. If you always ride the same road, this technique works okay as long as there are no mid-corner surprises”. And this is just part of what he’s talking about in this book, and that’s one of the things I stress so highly when I talk about trail braking to street riders is that – look, the idea that somehow you’re going to dive into a corner and then brake hard to make up for errors is completely a misnomer.

To me, what I think, trail braking is the key to never overrunning a corner, ever, ever, ever again. And as riders we’ve all done that. And I know when you’re down at your school, you guys do a lot of track – the skills and obviously you help racers, club racers and others get much, much better. But your school has a really high emphasis now on bringing street riders in and you have a couple different programs. How does trail braking incorporate into those programs at your school?

0:03:12 – Chip Spalding
Excuse me, I would say that at this point, 70 to 80% of our customers, our students, have no intention of being racers, being track days folks, riding on a track when they come into the school. Now a whole lot of people leave the school and go oh man, I got to do this some more. They have such a good time. But the intention coming in is not to go racing, it’s just to be a safer, more confident rider. Trail braking is just a massive part of our curriculum. It’s foundational.

0:03:46 – Bret Tkacs
From my experience – and I’ve done a lot of different track schools. I’ve been in the industry for 27 years and one of my things is I take classes every year, usually more than one. There’s no school in the country that I know of that has such a strong emphasis on trail braking. I mean you guys, in my mind, you are the trail braking school, so obviously you firmly believe in this technique.

0:04:10 – Chip Spalding
Yes, I wouldn’t want to say that we’re the trail braking school, because we do talk a lot about all the other stuff a motorcycle does, but it is a fundamental part of our curriculum for sure, because the brake lever is the most important control on the motorcycle. You use it to control speed, control direction and set chassis geometry. You can’t do any of the other cool stuff a motorcycle does without doing that first.

0:04:37 – Bret Tkacs
So as riders… and I hear this all the time with instructors who are talking to me… obviously MSF is the larger curricula that we know, but whether it’s Team Oregon or the curriculum used in Washington or any others, I so often hear street instructors who are training new riders and they always say “well, don’t ever touch the brake in the corner”. And actually, the other thing that’s interesting about this, by the way, Chip, is I did a bunch of research on this when I was looking into the whole four-finger myth and even those they do specify that when you talk to them in person, it was intended for first line riders in a parking lot learning the basic skills, but they just don’t seem to understand what trail braking is. And if you have the chance to fill a room full of these instructors who teach riders that they shouldn’t be using the brakes in a corner, that they should release and set their speed all before, what would you tell those instructors? I mean, how do you convince them? If you can convince them, you convince the riding public.

0:05:41 – Chip Spalding
We all trail brake naturally. You trail brake in your car every time you turn in your driveway. You don’t get all your braking done in the straight line and then jump off the brakes and pitch it into the driveway. It’s not how anybody drives. You stay on the brakes until you’re happy with speed and direction. You do the same thing with a motorcycle.

The theory behind not teaching new riders how to trail brake is that they’re not competent enough to use the brakes and steer at the same time, and we just simply don’t believe that a new rider should be taught anything differently than a veteran rider. How do you know as a new rider, that you need to start using the correct technique? Well, when you fall down, we’d rather them just not fall down. So let’s use the correct technique from the start.

0:06:29 – Bret Tkacs
I would actually argue… I’m going to be upfront. I mean, I’m not an unbiased host here. I’m a trail braking fan. I actually incorporated it into the new rider training that Washington has been using for several years now. Our incident rates have gone down with that curriculum. There’s some other elements that were incorporated into the development of that to help with greater success and everything else.

But certainly from my perspective and, by the way, the argument that I think some of the instructors are going to have is again so well, yeah, you’re talking about cars, but cars don’t follow over; bikes do, and we can certainly dive into why those dynamics still not only apply to motorcycles but actually apply in many ways. I think even more so why this is so important. But trail braking is… I almost think that when you tell people you cannot brake in a corner, that we potentially could be causing more accidents than we’re helping. Because when a student – and I’m the same way, when I take a class, I want to be a good student. I’m going to leave the things I know behind. I’m going to listen to and try whatever that school is teaching me, whatever that instructor is teaching me in it, and then I’m going to filter out those things that work for me or those things that work into other processes or techniques that I’ve been taught over the years.

But the idea that you go into the corner and you want to be a good student and then when you get in and you’ve misread the corner and you’ve made an error, you realize this corner is tighter than you expected, or it’s a normally greater than 90 degrees and you were expecting 90 degrees, and you’re going faster than you’re comfortable in that corner, because most of the time it’s not really attraction limit, it’s our brain shuts down before we actually run out of traction; were the ones that cause ourselves crash. But being a good student, you just hear that thought in your head. The instructor told me don’t use my brakes in the corner, and so you wait and you wait, and you wait until you get to a point of panic and then you dynamite the brakes. Because they’re teaching press and pray, right? When you go into a corner too fast, then you just need to push harder and pray that you make it. And well, let’s face it, my brain is shut down. I’m already terrified in the corner, so I’m not going to do that. What you end up doing is dynamiting the brakes too late in the corner and then you do it harshly and aggressively in the bike wipes out, you go: See, you’re not supposed to touch your brakes in the corner. When you’re scared. Yeah, you’re terrified!

0:08:47 – Chip Spalding
When you’re scared, you operate the controls abruptly. You’re scared! When you operate the controls abruptly, the tire will take a tremendous load, but it won’t take an abrupt load. And so, if you’re already on the brakes, even at 1%, the front already loaded weight is already forward and you say oh well, you know what, I’m going a little quick. Or there’s sand in the road or there’s water coming across or whatever obstacle… it’s tightening up. You squeeze a little bit more brake pressure and you’re not abrupt. There’s already load forward on the tire, there’s already grip there, nothing bad happens and a slowing motorcycle tightens its radius.

0:09:28 – Bret Tkacs
Well, there’s two ways to tighten the radius right? Either lean more…

0:09:32 – Chip Spalding
Lean angle or slow down, and lean angle is finite. And so, let’s pretend we’re on the street, we’re on a cruiser, which you know – low ride height, not very much lean angle to play with, and the corner is tightening up, you’re off the brakes, you’re not going to make it, you can’t add lean… you can’t throw lean angle at it. So what do you do? You get scared. You snatch the front brakes on. If you don’t lock the front tire, then you collapse the fork, you flatten out the front tire, which makes the thing not want to steer anymore, and you go off the road.

0:10:06 – Bret Tkacs
My definition of trail braking is a little broader than what I believe what you guys teach, and you can please correct me if I’m wrong. he way I define it is a planned, deliberate deceleration that begins before your turn point and finishes before the apex. And the reason I define it that way is because I think there’s different ways to trail brake. There’s front brake, rear brake, both brakes. It could be a trailing throttle. There’s some techniques that teach overlapping brakes with throttle. Others where… specifically for street use, where you don’t overlap those. But with that definition it kind of makes it a broad range of how to trail brake but what I want to make very clear to riders is that it’s a planned and deliberate process, which means, as you just indicated, one percent. I just say leave your brake light on, and so when you come in and you do your braking, you’re still planning for the corner, you’re still doing most of your braking before you enter. That’s the whole idea. But just leave the brake light on so that if you get into the corner and things aren’t exactly what you thought they were – because you can’t commit to an exit that doesn’t exist yet. If I can’t see the exit then I shouldn’t be off the brakes, not until I know where that corner is going. And that’s the idea that I want to get across to people is that this is not a reactive technique, it’s not a an emergency technique. This is a plan, because you know that the roads make changes and you.. may be riding through a corner you’ve never seen before and you’re never gonna see again.

0:11:37 – Chip Spalding
What we’d ideally like to do is do every input to the motorcycle intentionally. We want to intentionally control the motorcycle, not kind of wait and see what happens. Our definition is basically keeping the brakes on past tip in until you’re happy with speed and direction. We don’t talk about the apex is, quite frankly, there is no apex on the street. We also recognize that there’s different types of corners. So, you know, for instance, we’re gonna be in Homestead in two weeks teaching a school and the last section of corners is a right/left chicane that goes on to the NASCAR banking or the front straight. You absolutely stay on the brakes past the first apex.

If you’re at pace, you’re still on the brakes through the whole right/left section. If you give up on the brakes before the apex, the bike will run wide, you won’t make the next left. So we don’t define it as before the apex or at the apex or after the apex, because that depends on what type of corner it is and how quickly you’re going. If you’re not going very quickly into that last section, at Homestead for instance, you may have gotten off the brakes way before the apex, because you just weren’t carrying that much speed to need them. And there’s nothing wrong with that either.

0:12:48 – Bret Tkacs
And I did a whole video on just the apex on the street is BS, as you just called it out. There is really no apex, specifically. And just to clarify, all those of you who are listening to us today, what we’re really saying is: You have a tip and point and you have an exit. Whatever happens in the middle, the apex is a byproduct. You know, when you look back at the corner, when you’re all done, you would go oh, that’s where I came closest to the inside of the corner. But we’re not on the street. You don’t get to pick that because you have to pick the exit and then things just happen. It depends how quickly you turn in, depends on what’s happening afterwards. There’s so many factors that change that apex on the street that if you ride a familiar road and you go oh, I know where the apex is in this road, that’s a dangerous thing to do. On the racetrack, absolutely, 100%, right? We know what the track is. It’s predictable. But on the street, no, not even if you know it.

0:13:41 – Chip Spalding
The problem with talking about apexes on the street is like you’re saying, there’s so many variables on the street. We can pick the ideal line on a racetrack. Consistently. If we’re riding correctly, consistently and constantly, we’re on the correct line, we’re making each corner the biggest radius as possible. But that’s not possible on the street. And you know, if you think about left handers, if I’m at the… what would be the apex on the racetrack, on a left hander on the street… at race pace, that would mean that my entire body would be over the center line, because the center line would be where you’d want your knee to be over.

That would be your apex, right, and how dangerous is that? You don’t want to do that on the street. That’s insane. You get pasted by a truck. So that’s why we don’t talk about the apex in terms of street riding. What we’re more concerned with at that point really is the slowest point of the corner, because the slowest point of the corner exists no matter whether you’re on the street or whether you’re in the dirt or on a racetrack. Every corner has a slowest point.

The slowest point is really just to find its maximum lean angle for that corner and the direction change, and so that’s really where we’re concerned, and on the street we like to even refer to it as the “decision point”. And ideally, when you get to the decision point which is, hey, can I see my exit? Is it safe to accelerate? Is there a truck there or a couch or a goat? That’s your decision point. And what control ideally would you like to be on when you get to that decision point?

Ideally, I’d like to be on the brakes because if there is a couch or a goat, I can do something about it. If I’m on the gas at that point, maybe I can, maybe I can’t.

0:15:21 – Bret Tkacs
Let’s take this because this is a learning channel. That’s what I do, whether it’s a podcast or the videos. I used to teach track-based street training, and I think it was a huge value to create automated responses. I mean, we do what we do all the time, so if I can’t help somebody develop skill set that they repeat, that they can take to the street and repeat so that when there’s a time they need it, that’s the automated response, then it doesn’t really do any good. Reading books is fine, but you gotta do it all the time. You gotta find a way to do it all the time, and one of the arguments, of course, is gonna be when you go to the track… first of all, there’s the concern that, well, this is my street bike and do I have the right gear and do I have the right tires and can I do this? And so I want to really address that, because I do think there’s a value to going to closed course on this. And the other side, of course, is on a track, we know the corner, we know it’s safe and, generally speaking, visibility is very good. When I’m coming down, I can see the corner, I know where the corner is going, so I can pick a line that’s going to be most effective.

On the street, that’s not the case. We’re often in blind corners on a very regular basis and, of course, with all those other factors: gravel, dirt, sand, cars, goats as you pulled up, how is it that… You have two main programs that you do? You have a two-day school, which I’m really looking forward to because I’m signed up to take that here in about a month and a half, and you also have a one-day school, which is much more affordable and far more focused on street-only riders. What’s your take on how you make the track a viable training location for street riders? How how’s that skill going to transfer for those that are listening, if they have the ability, the money or the opportunity, to come join your school?

0:17:13 – Chip Spalding
Ideally, I mean if we’re teaching people how to ride the street, we’d like to teach them on the street. Problem is that dangerous and uncontrolled, and unpredictable and not repetitive. You can’t repeat it, and so a racetrack is just a wide street where everybody’s going in the same direction. There’s plenty of runoff if you make a mistake. There’s nothing to hit, there’s no other traffic. And t’s repeatable. We can go around here, we can practice a skill… going into a decreasing radius, right hander. We can do it over and over again to get it right with relatively little consequence. I guess the misconception is that you have to go out on a racetrack and go fast. That’s simply not true. If you’re riding on the street, one of the street rider and the fastest you’re going to go is eighty miles an hour, well then it’s a good idea to learn how to stop and turn your motorcycle eighty miles an hour.

If all you want to go is eighty miles an hour at the school, go eighty miles an hour. That’s what we’re here to learn. There’s no pressure to go out here and… we don’t take lap times, we don’t care. We want you to be a safer, more confident rider. So typically, like a school you’ll come to in March, I think a full school was 24 students. So it’s very exclusive. We typically coach about four to one; three to one ratio, three students to every one instructor… for every one instructor. We break those 24 people into two groups of 12, based on experience, riding goals and pace, and then those groups are a bit broken down into smaller groups of three or four. And…I’ve had, in the same school, I’ve had a lovely lady who showed up at New Jersey with 400 miles on her Kawasaki Z400, that was her… the extent of her experience, and she had a wonderful time and she probably didn’t do eighty miles an hour the entire two days. And at the same school, I had Brandon Posh who won the Daytona 200 twice in a row. He obviously wasn’t put in the same group as her, didn’t ride on the track at the same time as her. They were working on different riding goals but the skills are still the same.

But Brandon was doing on that motorcycle and what that lovely lady was doing on her motorcycle was exactly the same thing. She was working on getting on the brakes and using them past tip in until she was happy with speed and direction; she was working on getting direction before she could accelerate, and not accelerate until she could take away lean angle and see the exit. Tada!

0:19:38 – Bret Tkacs
And I love the fact that, as you alluded to when we first started chatting, that there’s a lot more topics. We’re focused on trail braking on this podcast. And again, I still think, regardless what you just said, I still think you are the go-to school if you want to learn trail braking because it’s such…

0:20:02 – Chip Spalding
I’m not going to argue with you that we’re the go-to school for trail braking. I just don’t want to think that’s all we teach; it’s not two days of trail braking!

0:20:09 – Bret Tkacs

No, no, no, it’s… you know, it’s line selection, it’s understanding the ergonomics of the bike, it’s body position, it’s vision. I mean there’s so many things that you guys cover, but it all ties back in. I love that there’s a general theme and direction that the school goes, and that is such a valuable skillset, regardless of where you want to use that. Now you also have a one-day school that you do and from what I’ve looked at, looking at the pictures, and I haven’t observed that school yet. I haven’t attended it. So I’m really… I have no more information than anybody listening to this. In fact, I might have even less, depending what research they’ve done. But how does that one-day school… because it looks like by the pictures that it has more street bikes than even the big track, the more exclusive school does?

0:20:50 – Chip Spalding
Right. So the reason we created Champ Street, that’s what it’s called – so two-day Champ School and Champ Street. And Champ Street is a single day program, runs simultaneously as the two days. So if we’re at Buttonwillow on Monday and Tuesday, we run a single 8 hour Champ Street on Monday and then another one on Tuesday. And Champ Street is held in the paddock area of the racetrack, which is like a large flat asphalt area at Buttonwillow. We also use their cart track – specifically at that facility and we also do speed-controlled laps on the racetrack. And we created it for two different… for two reasons really.
The two objections to Champ School, the two-day school is the cost, because it’s expensive. It’s expensive, it’s exclusive, it’s geographically limited and it’s hard to get into. So we created Champ Street. The school at Buttonwillow is $2,600 for just tuition. Champ Street at Buttonwillow is $595. Right, so many factors… cheaper. Also, the biggest objection to coming to the two-day school is because it’s done at a racetrack and we teach at speed, meaning you can go as fast or slow as you want to. Because of the possibility of going faster than highway speeds, it’s required that you run full safety gear. So full leathers: Helmet, gloves, boots, you know the whole thing.

That was an objection for a lot of riders, because even though we have Dainese gear and Arai helmets available for rent, there’s a lot of riders that said you know what, I don’t want to wear leathers, I just want to wear my street gear. This is what I ride in. And so we created Champ Street and by limiting it to highway speeds, we can allow people to show up in their street gear. So, jacket, boots, gloves, helmet, that’s it. We teach the exact same things that we do in the two-day school, it’s just less of it. So we teach it at 8:1, student to instructor ratio. There’s no classroom time. Everything is taught on the bike. You know, it’s not catered. There’s no film review. We took out a lot of the expensive parts of the two-day school and it’s just a stripped down version. But people love it, and the remarkable part is the number of people that show up on a Goldwing. Look, I am a street rider, I don’t want to go out on that racetrack it’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard of and they come in to do Champ Street and they watch Champ School and they go I’m coming back and I’m doing Champ School. I want the full curriculum, and so it’s been really successful that way. we’re getting to work with a lot of riders who couldn’t, who wouldn’t be able to come to the normal two-day school.

So that’s fantastic. It’s the exact same content. We don’t go oh, you’re in the Champ Street program. We want you to only brake in a straight line and hop off the brakes and then pitch the thing in the corner with front end unloaded. We absolutely do not say that. We say the exact same things. Look, this is Champ Street and you’re on the street. You want to use the brakes past tip in until you’re happy with speed and direction, because that’s how the motorcycle was designed to work. And if you’re not using the motorcycle, as it was designed to work. It won’t work well. Period.

0:23:46 – Bret Tkacs
I really wish riders in general spent more time and more money on formal education. Motorcycles are a very complicated machine, more so than most riders realize when you would start getting into the dynamics and the effects of what happens, and at less than $600 for a high-end course, it’s really a great investment and anybody listening to this podcast is already in. I mean, if they’re listening to this, they’re already educated focus; they want to be better, they want to improve, but the general riding public seems to not quite understand and they’ll go out and buy some exhaust that makes the bike loud and not at any performance whatsoever, or they’ll buy the most expensive riding gear, or they’ll buy extra protection so the bike doesn’t tip over, instead of focusing on developing the knowledge, the skills and the hands-on feedback because that’s the real value of paying instructors or… to work with instructors, it’s that feedback to help them prevent needing that crash gear, to needing that tipover protection, and I wish that was a greater emphasis in this country.

I hope that we get to make a difference, one rider at a time. As each of these riders leave, going this was worth it, this was amazing; that they’ll go to their buddies, they’ll convince them that they should do the same, that we’ll have more and more options available in the United States, where you and I are both based… in time. But that’s what I have to say. I’m looking at the time here and it looks like we’re just about ready to wrap up this podcast. Before I say my final goodbye, I want to give you a chance. Is there anything else that you would like to throw out to the listeners of this podcast? What’s their parting thought? What would you send them out to practice today if all they get to do is listen to the podcast and they get to go out for a ride if it’s sunny outside?

0:25:39 – Chip Spalding
As I mentioned, the school is expensive, it’s exclusive, it’s geographically limited… even Champ Street. We’re going to do 32 events this year, but they’re still geographically-limited to a lot of riders. But we do have our online program called Champ U. The core curriculum is the main program and it is everything that’s in the two-day school and it’s only 50 bucks. Anybody can afford it. You take it in your living room. You know, on your computer at night, there’s a ton of drills that you can then try on the motorcycle. But if you have any doubt about whether getting some training can help you as a rider and you don’t want to spend two grand or three grand, spend 50 bucks. It will change the way you ride and if you learn something, maybe think about getting some other training. That would be the biggest takeaway for me. If I could say one thing to your audience.

0:26:37 – Bret Tkacs
I really appreciate your time coming on and chatting with me and sharing your knowledge and your experience with all the listeners out there. For all of you that are listening on this podcast, thank you for jumping on, for listening to this, for watching the videos I had put out, for supporting me on Patreon to keep these types of sponsor-free chats available to all of you. Have a great day. It’s just barely into 2023. It’s January 5th. So Happy New Year to you and go polish off your bike and go for a ride. If it’s too snowy, too cold right now, at least go give it a little look, a little rub and let it know that, you know, the season’s right around the corner.

27:26 – Chip Spalding
Thanks for having me on, Bret.

27:27 – Bret Tkacs
You bet. Have a great day.

Transcribed by