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Yamaha Champions Riding School Review | Learn From The Pros

Getting Educated at YCRS Motorcycle School

Motorcycling is a particularly interesting hobby in that the limits of the sport are constantly being redefined. Whether we are speaking in reference to the technology and motorcycles, or the techniques that are used to control them, it is an ever-evolving landscape.

At a certain point, we all need to accept that topical research is only that, and it’s time to pack up the truck and enroll in a true training course. That is why I found myself at the Yamaha Champions Riding School during its two-day Champ School at Buttonwillow Raceway Park in the Central Valley of California.

The Yamaha Champions Riding School has been in business since 2009, with industry stalwart Nick Ienatsch at the helm as the Lead Instructor. Ienatsch has been instructing riders for over a decade; most notably, he was the Lead Instructor at the now defunct Freddie Spencer High Performance Riding School. Many of the techniques taught at Fast Freddie’s school are being employed today, with adaptations and improvements along the way.

Yamaha Champions Riding School author rides
Lead follow with Kyle Wyman.

Ienatsch has dedicated his life to motorcycling, producing iconic riding-related titles such as Sport Riding Techniques: How To Develop Real World Skills for Speed, Safety, and Confidence on the Street and Track, The Pace, and The Pace 2.0. Along with having a few national titles to his name, as well as being a former staff writer at Motorcyclist, founding editor of Sport Rider, and regular contributor to Cycle World, he’s a voice that I have had quite a bit of faith in, even prior to taking the Champ School.

To help herd all of us around the track, Ienatsch employed Ken Hill, Kyle Wyman, Chris Peris, Marc Schellinger, and Keith Culver. Their collective résumés are beyond impressive—there are enough race wins, titles, top-10 finishes, and years of instructing between them for me to be satisfied that we were in good care.

With riders like that in the instructors fold, one could incorrectly assume that this is a “track school” or a “racing school.” The Yamaha Champions Riding School is what you make it, simply put. If you are a street rider, you will employ these techniques on the street. If you are a budding professional racer, we’ll all watch you use them on TV or from the grandstands in a few weeks.

In my class, we had riders that spanned the entire spectrum of experience, from those who have owned a motorcycle for a mere three months, through skilled enthusiasts, to track day junkies, and current/aspiring racers.

Despite that Grand Canyon sized leap between each end, the curriculum is not modified to each person’s skill level—you will learn what everyone learns. As I quickly discovered, the issues I had to work through as a rider were identical to those above and below my skill level. The ethos behind YCRS’s teaching is that they have sourced information from current and former champions so successful is distilled and taught here.

Yamaha Champions Riding School Review, Day 1

My day began with an assortment of a treats and a hearty serving of classroom time—roughly two hours or so—where I was given the full scope of the program and introductions to the team.

The teaching style is structured, yet delivered in a personable and approachable manner with various humorous anecdotes to aid your learning. At YCRS, you will learn under what is known as the “umbrella of direction”, and what falls under it are the fundamentals of motorcycle control. Developing this well-defined set of fundamentals is one of the core pillars of the YCRS curriculum, and that means:

  • Bike placement; being in the right place on the track or street at the right time
  • Vision and focus
  • Motor controls; all your input to the bike
  • Turn-in rate and turn-in point
  • Body positioning
Yamaha Champions Riding School track map
Chris Peris explains braking zones at Buttonwillow Raceway Park.

Essentially, this sets the stage of learning for all who attend the two-day Champ School. Every time we ride a motorcycle, we consider these steps—the difference is that we may or may not be cognizant of that fact.

We all use the throttle and the brakes, and we turn a motorcycle. YCRS wants us to truly understand what we must do as riders and what it takes to actually achieve proper direction on a motorcycle.

Another key component that falls under the umbrella of direction is grip. Grip is looked at through a numerical system, with 100 points being your maximum amount of available grip. Things such as lean, throttle or braking subtract from the available points of grip.

Beginning with 100 points of grip, if I were to use 40 points of lean, then add 80 points of brake, that would leave me with -20 points of grip and I would be on the ground. Or, if I were to use 50 points of lean, and then add 100 points of throttle that would leave of me with -50 points of grip and a spectacular high side.

This numerical approach to grip is helpful in that it makes grip tangible. Of course, we’re all aware of grip when riding, but I never had the Newtonian point driven home enough to conceptualize it like this.

Everything must be done in balance; as we increase lean, we must reduce—or more accurately—manage braking and throttle. As we reduce lean, we can increase the amount of braking or throttle application. It is a slow exchange, not a binary reaction.

Yamaha Champions Riding School Nick 100 Points of a Tire
Nick Ienatsch explains the 100 points of traction: If you add lean angle and brake quickly, you’re going to hurt yourself.

Coinciding with this introduction to grip is the answer to how we should manage it. Ienatsch stood before a group of paying students, and explained the result of improper brake application. This is where you will first hear the phrase, “Load the tire before you work the tire.” It is a mantra to help defeat abrupt inputs on your bike. It will not be the last time you hear it, and by the end of a two-day course it will be unceremoniously beaten into your subconscious mind.

To demonstrate loading the tire before working the tire, Ienatsch held a lone Dunlop Sportmax Q3 before us and illustrated the difference between abrupt applications of brake vs. progressive ones.

If Ienatsch were to hold the tire at lean and slowly apply pressure, it could sustain the full weight of his body. However, if he tried to lean into it without loading his weight into the tire, it would quickly slide out from under him. The same poor result occurred when Ienatsch randomly slapped the tire, simulating someone jamming the brakes on.

Ienatsch was able to support his weight against the tire because gradually applied pressure. That allowed the tire to create a larger contact patch, thus ensuring more traction—a simple but effective demonstration that showed the importance of having smooth, deliberate actions in regards to brake pressure. If we don’t follow that rule, it can result in a sudden loss of grip that we are unable to mitigate.

Schellinger jumped aboard a Yamaha FZ-09 and put on a show of controlled braking. First, he ham-fisted the brakes, which resulted in a bit of skidding and a completely upset chassis. Proper braking means that you can control the contact patch and the bike’s geometry.

Yamaha Champions Riding School outdoor school
Yamaha Champions Riding School watches video outside

He explained to the entire class that braking is a progressive motion. We must learn to modulate the braking in accordance with the need of the corner. Building pressure in the brakes incrementally ensures total control of the brakes, and allows us to properly “work the tire before we load the tire.” See, even I’m saying it now.

Schellinger then proceeded to bust a couple myths, namely that adding speed will help you tighten a corner. In his quick demonstration, he displayed how adding speed increases your radius (makes you run wider) and forces you to lean over further, raising your overall risk.

For the YCRS crew, lean = risk. Schellinger then displayed how slowing the bike with the brakes will decrease your radius—simple enough.

We also had a discussion on vision and how we need to assess our position on track. For several other students and me, this was a massive turning point. YCRS’s method is to look ahead and scan back continually, reassessing your position in relation to where you want to be on the course or street constantly. That is something I felt I was already doing but there are some significant differences.

What Ienatsch and company teaches is using our depth perception in order to interpret all of this information. That means constant focus and use of our eyes. When they stress keeping your eyes up, do it.

While that might seem somewhat abstract, if you operate any sort of vehicle, you already do this. The example Ienatsch used in the classroom was coming up to a stop sign. We see the stop sign and we assess how much brake pressure is needed to do the vast majority of our slowing, and then incrementally release the brake so we come to a smooth stop. If we were to look at that braking data on a graph, it would look something like a shark fin—building pressure up, then trailing down.

Yamaha Champions Riding School Grid Lineup
Yamaha Champions Riding School Beginner Group

The aforementioned approach to braking is the inverse of what I was doing prior to taking the Yamaha Champions Riding School. My previous approach was to spot my entry point, slow the bike as late as possible, release the brakes, maintain throttle position, and then get on the gas once I hit the apex. There are several problems with this technique, and while it’s widely appreciated in the motorcycling community, it’s both inefficient and unsafe.

I used this essentially because of the unwarranted fear surrounding hitting my brakes in the corner. While I knew that using my brakes in a corner is safe to do, as long as they are applied correctly, it was still something that I struggled with on a mental level because of the stigma surrounding it.

Secondly, this technique of rushing up to corners, and then braking at an arbitrary point, meant that I was reacting to everything that was happening. Worse yet, I’m failing to load the tires as well as the suspension correctly. The only reason the bike is turning is due to body positioning.

This approach to riding does not give you complete control of the motorcycle. You are effectively leaving brakes out of the equation—a big deal on a bike. By failing to utilize trail braking, we are riding in a more chaotic manner, usually over-slowing our corner entry. Typically, we’ll overly aggressively brake, and then try to play catch-up and end up getting on the gas too early.

Let’s go ahead and erase that tactic of riding from the collective minds of motorcyclists everywhere. It just isn’t effective.

If you’re following along, the YCRS teachings have laid the groundwork for what we know as trail braking or Brake Assisted Steering. Direction seems simple, but there are a lot of aspects in play here.

Yamaha Champions Riding School Ken Hill Van instruction
Ken Hill explains braking during a van ride around Buttonwillow.

The instructors teach how we need to utilize braking effectively in order to line ourselves up parallel to the apexes. Once we’re happy with our speed and direction, we can then begin to release the brakes, reduce lean angle, and trade it for more throttle. The key here is that apexes should be looked at as a launching pad; hit those markers correctly, and that is when we can drive to the exit point.

After the class instruction, we piled into some vans and were introduced to Buttonwillow Raceway. For many of the students, this was their first time at the circuit. Ken Hill explained the finer points of the track, instructing us on how to enter the corner and where the apexes lie. What was truly eye opening however, was showing us how to spot our exits as well.

Even in an 18-passenger van, Hill could demonstrate the difference in handling behavior when he employed trail braking vs. without trail braking, releasing the brake and then tipping in. While there were several “wow” moments during the two-day course, this was certainly one of them for me, and take lots of notes.

In a couple of hours, you’ll have more information thrown at you than you know what to do with; that’s fine, nobody said getting an education was going to be easy. It’s a lot to take in, especially for beginner riders, so come prepared to learn.

It was after all this that we suited up, got in our groups, and hit the track for the first time. However, we were told to “have a plan.” It wasn’t too critical what the plan was, but it was impressed on us that riders need to have a plan before turning the key. We need to have our head right before we ride, as it’s easy to lose focus. For me, I focused on braking and body positioning.

During our introductions, I opted to be thrown in with the novice group. Our instructor for the time being would be Schellinger, who cared for the beginners very well. We fell in line and lapped the circuit, periodically cycling a rider to the front of the pack so that Schellinger could analyze our riding.

After a handful of laps, we pulled off to discuss the finer points. Schellinger critiqued our overall performance while offering suggestions, and we’d move on. It allows for much more rapid feedback than if we had done complete sessions.

We first worked on track placement, and how to nail our apexes. It took some doing, but within a handful of laps, riders who had never turned a wheel on a track before were lapping on line as if they’d had at least one track day under their belts. We also touched on braking, where Schellinger told us repeatedly to initiate the brakes earlier and “never give up on the brakes” until we had achieved the direction we want.

Yamaha Champions Riding School on-bike drill
Kyle Wyman instructs during the championship lap

One of the biggest improvements that I saw in the beginner group was body positioning. I saw several riders who went from having a relatively locked, upright position, to begin moving around when we took part in the “swerve” drill.

In this drill, riders were instructed on foot positioning and how to engage their core when turning. YCRS teaches riders to be on the balls of their feet with their toes pointed outward, be a bit away from the tank, have your outside leg locked against the tank, and drop your head in the direction of your turn. When the opportunity presented itself, we would then swerve by loading the pegs. For some riders, it was the first-time body positioning had come into play for them.

Within three laps, street riders who were not terrible riders by any means, suddenly looked far more confident and fluid out on the track.

After coming in and letting students absorb feedback, we went for a braking exercise that required us to come to a smooth, level suspension stop, next to an instructor. That might seem rudimentary, but go give it a shot.

Instructors placed themselves throughout the course, on straightaways, at apexes, and in the middle of turns. We were told to ride at our pace, then stop, without upsetting the suspension, directly next to the instructor. That requires consistent and well thought out use of the brakes, and that our eyes are engaged in the whole process.

Peris’ stop was in The Sweeper, which was perhaps the most difficult. We had to reduce lean angle while scrubbing speed and planning to stop directly next to him—it takes some doing.

It’s a drill that I struggled with, as I would usually brake a bit too hard and bounce the suspension when I came to a stop. After a few laps, however, all of us were doing much better.

If I do have one light criticism of the drill, it’s that the instructors working each stop can quickly become overwhelmed with bikes rolling up to them—it’s comparable to herding cats. Spreading the students out a bit more could help alleviate some of that.

It was then time to put our skills to the test with the cone drill. The idea is simple: Instructors place cones out on the track that force riders to use all the techniques to successfully negotiate the now modified circuit.

These cones can force you into the apex perfectly, they can force you to run wide, or add a chicane where one previously didn’t exist. Every lap was different as the instructors would reorganize the cones, forcing us to react to a new set of challenges.

At any rate, it reinforced the need to use our eyes, trail brake, control the throttle, be aware, and so forth. Mostly, I felt that it reinforced the importance of vision and seeing what’s coming next.

Yamaha Champions Riding School teaching
BMW R 1200 GS rider Kurt of California proves YCRS is for everyone.

I thought that we did swimmingly, as no one crashed and I, myself, only missed a single cone. Hill said that on a grade scale, we’d be getting a D-. The joke’s on Hill—D equals Diploma in ’merica.

With our terrible report cards fresh in our minds, we set out for our video recording laps. One instructor chases and videos you for a single lap while the rest of the students circulate around, stopping every single lap so that we don’t interfere with the riders being recorded. We were only released once “we had a plan.”

During the down time, we were also able to have instructors lead us or follow us out on track. I made use of this, and asked questions after every lap to the point of annoyance.

One huge issue I was having was failing to activate my core properly when braking. This resulted in me locking my right arm, preventing me from turning effectively. My poor foot positioning on the right side compounded those issues.

Hill’s quick advice was to tighten my core, drop my head down lower, and take a more athletic stance on the balls of my feet while focusing on activating my calf muscles. This allowed me to relieve pressure from my inside arm, helping me turn unimpeded. Both Peris and Wyman noted that my braking was still entirely too aggressive. I needed to start earlier, as well as involve my eyes in the entire process.

Yamaha Champions Riding School Test
It’s all about having a plan before riding.

We had some open lap time to work with instructors and go through what we’d learned that day. It was then time to head back into the classroom for a debriefing, dinner, and viewing our lap videos. The most beneficial portion of the video process is having the action there in front of the entire class, for instructors and students to see. Instructors will break down your lap, praising what is worthy, and condemning your mistakes.

While hard to believe, the criticisms between all of us were almost identical, though to varying degrees. Many of us needed to modulate our brake application more effectively, many of us had body positioning issues, and were failing to line up with our apexes properly. The skill level didn’t matter; the techniques were identical, regardless of where we were in our personal journeys.

So, with a lot of notes, a mind full of things we needed to improve upon, we wrapped Day 1.

Yamaha Champions Riding School Review, Day 2

Sore but determined, we sat down to another morning of classroom instruction.

Peris had us revisit a list that we’d put together the day prior, entitled five Reasons We Crash a Motorcycle:

  1. Lack of Focus
  2. Rushing the entrance of a turn
  3. Repeating mistakes (Not listening to direction from instructors)
  4. Abrupt inputs
  5. Cold tires

It is an important reminder as things can go wrong fast when we start falling into these traps. With that information floating in our subconscious, we set out once again with instructors. This time, I was told I would be under the tutelage of Hill. Hill’s group had some experienced riders, and from the beginning we began hammering the importance of proper body positioning.

Once again, I needed to point my outside foot outward, hang off the seat, and lower my head to release tension from my inside arm. All of these issues we shared at one point another, and Hill would remind us of it individually at every opportunity. That said, he did state that the riders in his group were showing dramatic improvements over the day before.

Yamaha Champions Riding School Ken Hill
Kyle Wyman working with a student at pace

Our video session kicked off a bit earlier as well, which was a relief as I was already sore. Ken’s statement that “you’re an athlete whether you like it or not in this sport” began to tumble around in my mind and I regretted succumbing to the catered treats.

By lunch, our video recorded laps were up on the monitors and we’d broken off in groups to view them. The improvements from day to day were astounding, and that goes for everyone involved. Students had shed major issues from their riding, showing massive amounts of newfound confidence.

For me, I had alleviated many of the issues with over-slowing on corner entry. I was utilizing my core during braking more effectively, and I’d began the process of correcting my body positioning on the right side. It was inspiring, to say the least.

Others, such as David Levi, a student in the novice group, demonstrated how to perfectly correct lines with the use of trail braking, while many others began truly nailing their apexes. The fast guys had increased their paces, while looking dramatically more stable—all thanks to correct trail braking.

I also took part in a two-up ride with Hill, which is an invaluable experience. Doing a two-up ride with someone as skilled as Hill shows a rider the limits of a bike. Keep in mind, during the two-up ride, an instructors body positioning is largely limited, so the rider must rely heavily on the core principle taught at YCRS—trail braking.

The ride perfectly illustrated how much pressure I should be building into the front or rear brake, in order to get the bike turned over at pace. After taking Cotton Corners two-up—a tight chicane at Buttonwillow—braking proved to be much less of an issue for me, as I now understood where and how hard to brake in that section.

Yamaha Champions Riding School Nick Ienatsch
Nick Ienatsch talks on the track.

We also had time to retake the cone drill and redeem ourselves. This time the students were asked to employ all of the instruction, and we even had a slalom course in an area that I usually blitz through (read: cheat). With only a few missed cones under our belt this time around, Hill proudly announced that we’d moved all the way up to a lavishly mediocre B-.

The rest of the afternoon was dedicated to working on specific techniques. We lapped Buttonwillow, then came in for a new technique to focus on. My weak points were braking and body positioning and, with each lap, those issues were slowly massaged out.

Finally, this brings us to the last session of the day—Champions Lap. Equal parts ridiculous and incredibly useful at exemplifying every aspect of teaching we had learned over the past two days, riders are asked to complete a lap with an outlandish premise in mind. It also affords students the opportunity to ride the full gamut of the YCRS fleet. Interested in the new Yamaha YZF-R1 and haven’t ridden it? Now is your chance.

For example, one student might be told “All right, you’re Valentino Rossi. He’s sick, but they need photos. You need to get out there and leg dangle on every corner entrance. Go!”

What does the leg dangle illustrate? The need to use your core and brace yourself against the tank with your outside leg, clearly I need to do more planking.

Another student might be told, “You’re in an endurance race and your teammate low-sided the bike. The left clip-on is broken; you can’t use your left hand. Go!”

He or she will prove that with proper foot position, and core activation, riding around with one hand on the bike works, even under braking. These are just a couple of examples, but you get the point: this is something you can do on your own in a parking lot or with some friends to refresh your skills.

Yamaha Champions Riding School in-class instruction
Watching on-track video footage and getting tips from YCRS instructors.

After making my rounds and speaking with students individually, I heard no negativity. Chad O’Hara, a current AFM rider said, “I came here thinking I knew everything, and the fact is, I didn’t know a thing. I’ve learned so much that I can go home with and start applying it at the races.” A result like that shouldn’t be dismissed. In fact, I’m not sure if there is any higher order of praise.

A school needs to give its students all the tools to be successful. With the help of the instructors at the Yamaha Champions Riding School, I can say that I’ve been given those tools. Let’s be clear, it is not an immediate fix either.

Coming into the school, I quickly saw major flaws in my riding and was given a skillset to not only assess them, but begin the long process of correcting them. No school is perfect and, largely, I think the result is dependent on the level of hunger within the student.

Be proactive, ask questions, and seek answers. My experience was positive—I asked questions and I received lengthy explanations with examples to justify the positions.

The Yamaha Champions Riding School left us all with focused minds and notebooks full of helpful tips to help keep us safe, whether we’re on the track or the street. The two-day Champ School will set you back $1995, if you provide your own motorcycle and equipment—I brought a Yamaha YZF-R1S, plus a Shoei X-Fourteen helmet, Spidi Supersport Wind Pro Leather suit, Racer High Speed gloves and TCX R-S2 Evo boots.

When I consider the wealth of information as well as the controlled environment we can learn in, it’s tough to argue against. We can research as much as we want, and I strongly encourage that, but at YCRS, we put the techniques into practice and that is an invaluable experience.

Photos by 4theriders

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