What is a Skills Day?

Most courses the TVAM runs are fairly clearly labelled. Look, Lean, Roll – that’ll be cornering then. Advanced Braking Course – reckon we can figure that one out. Slow Riding – not rocket science. But Skills Day? What skills are we talking about here? Because barbecue season is upon us, and I could certainly benefit from some culinary tips…

To further confuse matters, I’ve heard it referred to both as a Road Skills Day and a Track Skills Day, the former surely redundant given that every TVAM ride is all about developing Road Skills. The latter is supported by the promised venue – Thruxton race track in Andover, and conjures up images of leather-clad club racers learning how not to high-side into the gravel traps.

 

Pat Coneley, who runs these Skills Days for TVAM finds these misinterpretations exasperating, to say the least. “It’s frustrating, because the very people this training is designed to benefit are often put off, thinking it’s not for them. But in truth, our ‘Skills Days’ should have something for almost everyone. Why not come along and find out for yourself?” I’d hesitated to sign up in the past for the same reason I’ve never participated in a full track day – the stories of the expensive crashes caused by amateurs exceeding the limits of their machines. Still, curiosity and the promise of an interesting article for the magazine won me over, despite my misgivings.

My first surprise was when I was asked, by email, to choose which group I would like to place myself in. Group C was labelled as being for those with zero track experience who didn’t want to feel pressured by other riders. Group A was for those who had attended the Skills Day before, on top of existing track experience. That put me squarely into Group B, then – my 20-minute taster session at Brand’s Hatch and tourist’s lap of the Nürburgring pegging me right in the middle. Fair enough…

An 8.45am sign-on and instruction to bring a full tank of fuel meant an early start for yours truly, giving me an opportunity to break in the new tyres and brakes I’d installed the day before. We’d been advised not to show up with marginal consumables and that every bike would be checked to ensure all were safe and legal. We’d also been reminded that tyre warmers and missing number plates would see us straight home – this was not a trackday!

This point was hammered home when I rolled into the paddock and took stock of the machinery my fellow club members had brought with them. I was expecting my humble V-Strom to stand out like a sore thumb amongst a sea of race-replicas, but instead it was like parking up at St. Crispin’s. A 200bhp Kawasaki ZZR1400 rubbed metaphorical shoulders with a 47bhp Triumph Street Twin. Over there, a brand new Honda Fireblade sat parked next to a twenty-year-old VFR. I’m told previous ‘Skills Days’ were attended by cruisers with footboards and learners on 125’s. It’s never about what you ride – it’s how you ride it.

After detaching and stowing my bike’s removable luggage in the designated cabin I quickly signed in and sat down with the waiting throng for our start-of-day briefing. Little of the content here would have been a surprise to anyone who had read the material Pat emailed out previously, but afterwards we were sent out to assemble into teams of four within our chosen group. Our instructor introduced himself, then queried us all individually about our riding experience before we headed into the session briefing.

The format of the day was simple. Briefing on the hour, on-track at 20-past the hour, debrief 20 minutes later, rinse and repeat for six sessions, with an extra hour for lunch in the middle. The content of those briefings and track sessions is where things got really interesting. For starters, the speakers were at pains to point out, once again, that this really was not a track-day.

Each briefing focused on a different set of skills and techniques that we would practice in our groups while out on track – IPSGA, body position etc. The first, and probably most important was that of lines through corners. The presenter delivered a masterful bait-and-switch by first showing a diagram of the perfect line through a tight left-hander. He then overlaid a second graphic demonstrating how equally applicable such a line was if there was a second lane of traffic travelling in the opposing direction.

The point that was made here, and indeed continuously throughout the day, was that a racetrack was chosen for this training purely because it enabled us to try out these concepts in an environment devoid of hazards, distilling the training down to it’s purest form. Each and every exercise was designed to hone skills that could be used every day on real roads. Easy repetition of the same corners enabled us to slowly perfect our line through a variety of bends, and coloured cones marking the ideal turn-in, apex and exit points helped perfect the detail. And for those who believe that good cornering lines are only relevant to boy-racers on GSX-Rs, there are plenty of graphic examples on YouTube of what happens when riders get lines wrong on public roads.

Doing this sort of training on the road would be impossible; the cones would be a hazard to other drivers, and other drivers would be a hazard to those trying to focus on nothing but hitting that elusive apex. Organising such a large group within in a loop of public road would be a logistical nightmare, such an event likely ruined by other traffic getting in the way. Furthermore, the high-grip, zero-distraction environment enabled all of us to focus on our lines rather than worrying about the variable grip levels and junctions that mark out real-world riding.

In my mind, not enough was made of marketing a few of the other useful benefits to holding such training in a true off-road environment. Firstly, this was an obvious extension to the Look Lean & Roll and Advanced Braking courses. Small versions were even offered to those in the less confident Group C right there at the track! Such focused courses help us realise just how far it is possible to safely push our machines, and that we barely exploit a fraction of their capability in normal riding. The ‘Skills Day’ will let you push those skills further in a far more realistic environment than a DVLA test centre.

Secondly, the race track setting allows an obvious additional factor: speed. Those of us riding less powerful or less sporty machinery may think our bike’s lower performance envelopes mean that we should not push them too hard when riding on the road. But as the day wore on I found myself regularly tapping up against the voluntarily-imposed 100mph speed limit. I realised that my 70bhp V-Strom was perfectly happy accelerating to, cornering with, and braking from, much higher speeds than I’d have expected such a design to be comfortable with. I suspect that the rider of the Triumph Street Twin I observed chasing down Ducatis for a couple of laps was equally surprised at how capable their bike was!

Sportsbike riders weren’t left out in the cold either. Able to exploit the additional lean-angle offered by their wider tyres they could safely gain more confidence for maintaining safe, fast lines through corners. Those, like me, nervous about riding on track quickly lost any such fears and were left thirsting for more. I myself asked for, and received, additional one-on-one training with our instructor on my body position to help me better manhandle my narrow-tyred bike through high-lean corners, something that had been troubling me in my road riding of late.

As the sessions wore on, we were allowed more and more freedom to ride separately from our groups, overtaking as necessary to maintain clear track ahead for us to practice on. Everyone rode – just as with every TVAM ride – within their own limits, at their own pace, and could focus on improving their own riding corner after corner. Twenty minutes was the perfect amount of time to get a rhythm going, but not so long as to become tired and lose focus. No-one crashed, and everyone left the circuit on the same set of fully-functioning wheels they arrived on. I’m sure the rides home, however, were not only quicker, but also safer…and even more fun than usual.

I suspect what puts many people off attending the ‘TVAM Thruxton Skills Day’ is the cost. Other events, notably 7Ws, offer more days, better scenery, as well as plenty of learning opportunities for less money. But renting a whole race track – one that it is otherwise impossible for members of the public to turn a wheel on – is an expensive endeavour. And once you’ve completed TVAM’s various specialised courses and learned from our world-class observers on the road, this really is the very best place to take your training to the next level. Having attended once, I will be signing up again as soon as possible, and can fully understand why many members I spoke to were in fact attending for the third time.

So, are you struggling to gain your confidence on Britain’s tattered roads? Come to Thruxton; they have grippy, glass-smooth tarmac for you to enjoy.

Are your corner speeds limited by what you feel your tyres can handle? Come to Thruxton; they’ll help you find out just how far from those limits you really are.

Are you avoiding group rides because you think your chosen machine can’t keep up with faster motorcycles? Come to Thruxton; they’ll help you see that those limits are all in your head – and then help you smash through them.

There’s something for everyone here. Come find out for yourself!

Nick Tasker

First published in Slipstream July 2018