Experience: California Superbike School featured image

Experience: California Superbike School

2 Nov 2021
The teachings of California Superbike School became a religion for thousands of British riders in the 2000s. After a brief hiatus it’s back and Martin Fitz-Gibbons went along to become a Level 1 disciple…

What is it?
As the name suggests, it’s a riding school – but you don’t need to live in California, nor ride a superbike.

The California Superbike School dates back to 1980, when retired US racer Keith Code created a course to help aspiring competitors cut their laptimes. In the decades that followed, Keith’s students included Wayne Rainey, Fred Merkel, Scott Russell, Doug Chandler and John Kocinski.

By 1997 its success spread to the UK, where a sibling school was established. Unfortunately in October 2019 the firm behind the UK franchise entered insolvency and the school shut its doors. Thankfully, two of CSS UK’s veteran instructors – Gary and Martin – have resurrected the school for 2021.

The company behind the scenes may be new, but the training and principles are unchanged. The California Superbike School guides students through a syllabus of techniques (or “drills”) which get explained in a classroom, practised on track and then reviewed in class afterwards.

Where is it?
In 2021 the California Superbike School UK ran events at Cadwell Park, Brands Hatch, Bedford Autodrome and Donington Park. Their 2022 dates will be announced soon. We attended a one-day, Level 1 course at Cadwell Park, which costs £480.

Who’s it for?
Anybody who wants to be faster, safer and more confident on a bike – and who’s prepared to think about how to make it happen.

This is not a trackday, nor a thinly veiled excuse to wring a bike’s neck around a circuit just for kicks. Classroom time is at least equal to track time.

You don’t need to be a racer, or even familiar with riding round a track, but you do need to approach the day with a desire to learn and an open mind.

What do you ride?
Either your own bike or a rental. A cutting-edge superbike isn’t necessary – I took my well-worn 2001 Suzuki SV650S, which proved plenty capable.

So long as the bike is in sound mechanical condition and passes the circuit’s noise limit, it’ll probably be fine. Other bikes in attendance ranged from a mid-1990s Honda CBR600F, through a hard-charging BMW F800R, all the way to exquisite Ducati Panigales, KTM Super Dukes and even a BMW HP4.

But you definitely don’t need a dedicated track bike or tyre warmers. Uniquely, you don’t even need a brake lever guard.

If you don’t want to ride/risk your own bike, CSS UK offers a fleet of Kawasaki hire bikes. 2021 prices started with a Ninja 650 (£400 per day), progressing to a Z900 (£425) and peaking with a ZX-10R (£465).

Those figures include fuel, tyres and insurance, though there is an £2000 excess in the event of a total write-off.

What happens on the day?
All CSS newbies start at Level 1. The first stop is a classroom, where instructor Gary explains that good machine control begins with good throttle control. Might sound obvious, but to prove just how important it is, the first riding session is conducted in fourth gear, and without using any brakes…

It sounds barmy and, in truth, I’m a bit wary. But after a couple of laps, this alien technique really does boil away other distractions. It also keeps speeds down, which encourages you to focus on the task you’ve been set.

You learn entirely at your own pace – you don’t have to keep up with a group of riders, and there’s plenty of space on track thanks to the intentionally limited group numbers.

There’s none of the underlying aggression of a stack-em-high, sell-em-cheap trackday

Each rider is assigned an instructor for the day, who stealthily moves around within the group to find their students, follow them for a lap, then lead for a lap. When they pull in front, the instructor reminds you of the drill using exaggerated hand signals and arm-waving. Before you know it, the chequered flag falls on each 20-minute track session.

Back in the paddock, there’s a one-to-one debrief with your on-track instructor after each drill, then an overall assessment back in the classroom. There are lots of questions asked and feedback from students is expected throughout – both to check that you’re paying attention, and also to help you work out both what you’re doing well and where you could improve. The idea isn’t for the instructors to solve your problems for you, but to explain the tools which allow you to correct your own faults.

As the drills progress throughout the day, riders are allowed more gears and brakes. Students are told to cap speed to 75% of their maximum pace, to avoid any giddiness. Overall there’s a pleasant, calm, friendly vibe both on and off-track. There’s absolutely none of the underlying aggression of a stack-em-high, sell-em-cheap trackday here.

Between classroom sessions there’s plenty of welcome downtime too, so it never feels hurried. Off track, just as on it, the overall vibe is very chilled and stress-free.

What do you learn?
After throttle control, the four other Level 1 drills cover turn-in points, counter-steering, staying relaxed, and identifying apexes. Again each element and technique is explained in class, practised on track and debriefed afterwards.

Level 1 is very much a foundation course rather than a one-day wondercourse, so several track-riding topics aren’t addressed at all including body position and braking technique.

If you just want to turn up and have someone show you how to get your knee down, or come away with top-speed tales, this probably isn’t the right place to come. The CSS doesn’t claim to turn you into a racer instantly – that’s why there are also Levels 2, 3 and 4 to come back for.

At the end of Level 1 I definitely felt smoother and more confident on track, and had certainly ironed out a few bad habits I wasn’t aware I was guilty of.

Is it worth it?
There’s no avoiding the fact that £480 is a significant sum to spend riding your own bike for a day.

Clearly, the California Superbike School is a premium service, designed for those who are willing (and able) to make a big investment in their riding. But those who do attend feel like they get their money’s worth from the day.

Every customer we spoke to was very happy with their experience – in fact, the vast majority were either repeat customers (now attempting Levels 2, 3 or 4) or was coming back the next day to complete two back-to-back courses.

A Level 1 course at the California Superbike School doesn’t feel like a one-time experience. This isn’t a trials day or a wheelie school, where you just fancy a fun day out – this is the start of a journey for riders wanting to make a fundamental upgrade to their riding. If you want to improve and expand your skills in a safe environment with high-quality tuition, the California Superbike School is a fantastic place to learn.

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