The cool school

Royal Enfield Slide School
(Image: Gaurav Chandrasekhar/BBC TopGear India)

For most of us going sideways in a car or on a motorcycle is like the Holy Grail. It’s a skill that’s tough to master and requires tonnes of practice, especially on a motorcycle. Over the years I’ve learnt how to make a motorcycle dance on one wheel, but putting a motorcycle sideways around a corner, especially on tarmac? I’ll pass. Backing it in has always given me the heebie-jeebies. I’ve never been as scared of wheelies and stoppies as I have of going sideways and it has my stomach in knots like few things I do on motorcycles. So I just couldn’t miss Royal Enfield’s first-ever Slide School, held at CS Santosh’s own playground, the Big Rock Dirt Park near Bengaluru.

I would’ve gone on a limb in fact, to learn this dark art. It makes you look cool but at the same time it is very easy to end up on the ground after the motorcycle spits you off if you overcook a corner. So getting coached by the right people in the right environment is important. First things first, Royal Enfield has developed a purpose-built version of the Himalayan for the Slide School which was first showcased at last year’s Rider Mania (see box). And boy, does the motorcycle look inviting! Big Rock now has a purpose-built flat-track oval with hard-packed dirt as the surface. The track has two corners, typical of a flat-track circuit, though it isn’t very big. But then, it’s the way you go around them corners that matters more than the length of the track!

Our coach was Johnny Lewis, flat-track racer and trainer from the USA, who has helped Royal Enfield put things together. The best thing about the school? All it takes is three hours of your time, including classroom and riding sessions. It starts with one classroom session where the coach explains the basics of body positioning and the like, followed by a track walk to assess the corners and understand lines. To make things interesting Johnny had put ‘smileys’ around each corner, signalling that’s where you need to look as you come around the corner! Walking on the track allowed me to experience the hard-packed dirt and walking on it was a relief of sorts considering it wasn’t all loose gravel – it’s the marbles that make controlling a motorcycle so much more difficult.

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As sessions began we were asked to look at the coaches and other students on track and accordingly figure out reference points – where to brake/ downshift, get the tail out and when to open the throttle. It all sounded easy, until we got onto the motorcycles ourselves. In case you didn’t know flat-track motorcycles have no front brakes– no lever, calliper, disc, nothing! Your only bets to slow the motorcycle down or come to a halt are engine braking and the rear brake. The first couple of times I found myself searching for that front brake lever on some initial off-track excursions (natural instinct, no?), but I soon got a hang of riding without the front brake.

The basics are simple. Once you fix a reference point, shift your body weight and sit on the outside edge of the seat, bend the outside elbow and raise the arm and then stretch your inside leg such that you drag your foot on the ground. You have to get the foot down and drag it along, using it as a bit of a pivot. And getting the tail out isn’t the difficult part, that’s easy in fact – slam a gear down and close the throttle to kick the tail out and then use the rear brake and the momentum to slide. If you carry the right speed it’s easy to go sideways right up to the apex, though finding that balance is what is tricky! Scrub off too much speed and you’ll end up too slow at the apex, enter too fast and you’ll either get tossed off the motorcycle in a highside or if you manage to save it, you’ll head straight for the fence!

Get it right though and the next step which is opening the throttle at the apex is a cinch. Practice helped and over time I was carrying more speed, sliding up to the apex and at times even exiting the corner sideways as the rear tyre squirmed for traction under power! Progression is the key and you cannot be ham-fisted or ham-footed with the rear brake. And like any other form of fast riding vision is crucial to getting things right, as it helps you plan ahead. The best bit? I later realised that on most occasions when riding on dirt, we all worry about losing the front end. At the Slide School I barely remember worrying about the front end! By the end of our sessions I was able to stitch things together and get a hang of it. I was feeling good about having acquired a new skill, one I’ve wanted to learn for a while.

The joy was short-lived though as Johnny put on his helmet and did a few demonstration laps. Watching him slide the FT411 at much higher speeds and look utra-cool –with his inch perfect body position – every single time, made us all feel like mere mortals and I realised there’s so much more to learn. Practice, as they say, makes a man perfect. So if you want to learn sliding a motorcycle too, you can enrol yourself for the Slide School on Royal Enfield’s website. It barely costs anything once you get to Big Rock Dirt Park – `1,500 if you get your own motorcycle, `2,000 if you opt for the BS6 Himalayan offered by the school or `2,500 if you want to ride the FT411. I’d say, go for the FT411 – it is a lot of fun!