by Reg Pridmore
Where does smoothness come from? For many, it’s a cultivated skill, acquired for reasons of safety, speed, or maybe just to be a classier-looking rider. Certainly, these are legitimate reasons.
For me, as a racer in the ’70s, it was a matter of survival, plain and simple. Smoothness was part of my race kit, like a good set of leathers. I didn’t become smooth for highminded reasons, or to impress anyone, or for bragging rights. I did it as a means of self-preservation.
My smooth riding techniques started as far back as 1965, when I had a horrific crash (resulting in a double compound fracture, broken ribs, broken collarbone, and a fractured skull). It was then that I began to formulate my philosophy of smoothness and control. I decided I couldn’t fight the bike. I had to work with it, using the controls and body inputs in a natural manner.
Imagine, for a moment, that the year is ’77. I’m riding a Kawasaki KZ1000. The hulking 1,046cc, four-cylinder motor has been tuned to make more than 140 horsepower (measured on the famous Axtell rear-wheel dynamometer). But here is the twist: This angry lump is wrapped in an almost whimsically flexible double-down tube frame. The spindly, 34mm forks bend and sway under braking and cornering loads. The bikes quickly earn the nickname, “flexi-flyers.” There is no fairing and only a small handlebar, making speeds of 140-plus a perfect opportunity to practice great body input. (These speeds were routinely achieved at Riverside and Ontario raceways in California. I reached 150-plus at Daytona, Florida, and Pocono, Pennsylvania.) This twitchy package—propelled by an explosive motor—means that any throttle, braking, and steering inputs must be made with a deft touch. At the fastest speeds it’s near impossible to lift my hands off the bar, because before I can grasp the levers, the wind forces my fingers back.
It was a monster, plain and simple. How did I deal with it? My philosophy was to let the bike have its own head. What else could I do? If I tried to manhandle it, I’d end up on the ground. Take a track like Sears Point, for instance. In what’s known as the “Esses”—a series of quick right-left turns, with elevation loss—the big KZ had a tendency to do what it wanted. The front end would push pretty bad. If I rolled off the throttle at a corner entry, the front would just drop away. Sometimes it would move and I’d think, “It’s not coming back this time.” But it would. I had to be smooth in all my transitions, use my knee as an outrigger, and try not to tighten up or panic.
The big Kawi wasn’t the only bike that forced me to exercise a gentle touch. The BMW R90S, which I rode from ‘74 to ‘76, was another classroom for dedication and smoothness. Here was a bike that had been brought to the thin-edge of reliability with titanium connecting rods, hollow valve lifters, hollow titanium pushrods, and a host of other modifications that made it fast but fragile. The transmission was a little antiquated, and would come apart if you were rough on it. Stock rpm limit was about 7,000, but we used to coax as much as 9 grand out of the motor in order to generate peak power, with no rev limiter, of course!
People called it a grenade, ready to explode. But the trick to dealing with a grenade is to not pull the pin, or, if you must pull the pin, put it back very gently. And that was accomplished with smoothness and dedication. I had to be in touch with the motor and chassis at all times, and monitor all my inputs in the correct manner.
Those old bikes would scare the heck out of anyone accustomed to today’s great sportbikes. These days, the bikes do a lot of the work for you. Sometimes I feel lucky that I was self-trained so many years ago, when control and smoothness meant everything. Riding those old bikes was the perfect preparation for the powerful machines we have today. You still have to manage the phenomenal power of today’s bikes very carefully, but in general, they have far more capability than most riders can use.
When I think back, I realize that in every era, riders have struggled to master the capabilities of their machines. It amazes me to think that the Isle of Man TT is 100+ years old. Those first riders, on their flat-tank Nortons and Triumphs, would probably think I had it easy racing in the ’70s, in the same way that I am amazed at the capabilities of today’s sportbikes.
Where does it all end? Thankfully, it never does. We all make the best of what we have. That is the artistry and the beauty of our sport. We try, sometimes we fail or fall down, but we move on, and we learn. It’s the learning that counts, and I try never to forget that, no matter what I’m riding. Experience is the teacher.
Excerpt from Smooth Riding – the Pridmore Way by Reg Pridmore with Geoff Drake
Smooth Riding – the Pridmore Way is available through CLASS or your favorite bookseller
Copyright Reg Pridmore