Last issue we covered the importance of body position and steering techniques and how they relate to each other. The only truthful way to describe the optimum body position is that it will vary depending on the rider's style and preference as well as the bike's strengths, weaknesses and setup. Anyone who teaches that there is only one optimum body position isn't being realistic or particularly observant in watching the variety of styles seen at the top level of AMA Pro Racing here in the United States.
So that SR's Riding Skills Series isn't limited to just one authority's opinion, and to share some insight on what the top riders in the country are doing and why, we set out to the sixth AMA Superbike round at Utah's beautiful new Miller Motorsports Park with a notebook of questions. The top riding authorities in the country shared their answers.
As the winningest rider in AMA Superbike history, the unflinchingly honest Australian has won six titles in the past seven seasons; thwarted only in 2002 by current MotoGP world championship points leader Nicky Hayden. No one is harder on Mladin than himself, and this season he is in the unusual position of the hunter instead of the hunted, with Yoshimura Suzuki teammate Ben Spies leading the points chase. Unlike most riders, however, Mladin finds this turn of events refreshingly exhilarating, even pleasurable.
"Oh, I love it," he says with a smile. "It's better than winning. I've had much more fun this year trying to reinvent myself to become more competitive in certain spots with Ben than I have [in past seasons] winning all the time. There's some stuff out there that I've seen that Ben was doing at a couple places at Fontana and Infineon that I used to improve to get myself back in the ball game consistently."
It's his willingness to identify his own shortcomings and his ability to change and improve that make Mladin the past and future champion that he is. "I've been changing a few things recently," he admits, "I mean, you have to. The kids come up with new stuff; they do things differently and go faster. If you don't change, it's all over."
While most riders talk about adapting their style to suit a certain bike or specific setup, Mladin is one of the few who seems to consistently net results from his adaptability. In 2000, Mladin and his Yoshimura Suzuki crew actually won the championship on a '99-vintage GSX-R750, putting off changing to the new-generation bike until the following year. When they did, Mladin and his crew, headed up by fellow Australian Peter Doyle, found solutions in the form of a thicker seat-pad backrest. "Oh, yeah, I actually asked for the foam trying to get my CG [center of gravity] forward," Mladin recalls. "My riding style didn't suit that bike, but I went on to win the championship that year [Mladin's third of six]. But when I first got on that bike...yeah, it evolved."
The current Number One plate holder says his adaptable riding style is key. "Yeah, that's why I work hard on the bike," he says, "just moving around. A lot of people are just stuck to the tank and ride, but I don't find that works every weekend. Things have to change, you know. Sometimes to get more grip you have to get back a little bit. Sometimes to get the front working you've got to get forward a little bit. You've got to make the bad days as good as you can, and if you're not willing to change, it's very hard to do that."
The second-winningest rider in AMA Superbike history, the fiery French Canadian veteran is known for always being a potential threat to win, willing to wring the maximum potential from his bike and riding around whatever setup shortcomings are there. "I try to adapt it to whatever I'm riding," Miguel says regarding his body position. "Like today, I changed my style a little bit so it's more Mick Doohan-ish. I lean the bike more than the body. We're trying to make our bikes ride lower to the ground, so there's less clearance. So I'm trying to steer the bike, because when I'm leaned over I just... I'm always changing and adapting my riding style to what I feel needs to be done."
Duhamel's distinctive, physically aggressive riding style is instantly apparent to veteran race fans. Like most riders, however, he admits his style initially came more from instinct than anything else. "You know, it just [came] out of necessity," he says, thinking back. "I needed to go fast, and it seemed that that was the way to do it. Back in Canada, when I started there, my left leg would actually be hanging onto the back number plate."
Obviously, that radical Randy Mamola-style body position has evolved, but Duhamel's trademark upper-body-over-the-bars style remains. Does he feel it gives him an advantage when sliding (pushing) the front end. "Yeah, I believe so," he says, "because when you weight the front, you can feel it more. But sometimes when it works really good, you can [hang off the bike more], have [the bike] a little higher and not lean so much and carry more speed. It all depends on how the bike's turning. You've just got to be able to adapt yourself to that setup that you have on every race weekend."
It's no coincidence that Duhamel shares the AMA Superbike win-streak record (at six) with Ben Spies. Duhamel's record stood for 11 years.
Winning six straight AMA Superbike races in the first three double-header weekends of the season, young gun Ben Spies sent everyone scrambling to catch up. Spies' signature elbows-out riding style is easy to pick out from the top of the grandstands, and easier still now that he's taken up permanent residence at or near the front to the pack.
Spies credits his unorthodox style to his shift from 125GP bikes to four-strokes. "I had a real problem with front-end push on the four-strokes," he says. "Maybe right when I got on the 600 I had a problem with that, and I really sit in the middle of the seat. I don't hang off much with my upper body, for whatever reason, I don't know. I'm real physical with the bike through the chicanes and stuff, and that's why my arms hang out. I think I just have more of an 'open' style [with my] upper body, but that comes from sitting in the middle of the seat."
Spies' technique seems to yield an advantage in certain circumstances. "I do feel that my style works better at tracks like [Infineon] and Fontana, where you really have to throw the bike around and stuff like that," Spies admits. "But it's at these faster tracks where I've found I've been laggin' a little bit, and that's what I've been having to work on. It's just mid-corner speed in fast corners, that was my weak spot. That's what I've been improving on. I've always been good in the tight, twisty stuff and the real technical stuff. Now that I've just got to, on the real flowing stuff, I have to pick up my speed a bit."
Spies' upper-body-to-the-inside style seems to be coming from the sport's younger generation of riders, but he's quick to dispel any notion that the veteran riders aren't keeping pace. "Some people think that, 'Oh, when you get older you stop hanging it out,' but I don't think that's the case," he says, shaking his head. "I mean, we won six in a row this year, [then] Mat came back at Road America and stepped up the pace and just rode harder. It's not like people say, 'Oh, you tend to slow down.' He's got a kid and he's pushing harder than ever. Like Miguel, he's not like that at all."
Like other successful racers, Spies' motto seems to be, "Don't let up and stop changing." "I critique everything," says Spies. "I watch it on video and see what I need to do different. I'm always trying to make it better. I feel like the team's workin' better and I feel like I'm ridin' better and everything's just jelling. Everybody on my crew, basically, hadn't won too many Superbike races. Then we won six in a row, but nobody's head's gettin' big. After I swept a couple of weekends, I just wanted to go back and train harder so that I could keep doin' it. I've got that taste of it."