Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

August 23, 2017
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The need for speed

An emergency physician revs up his adrenalin during a sportbike racing course in Las Vegas

I was hauling some serious butt down the straightaway on the inner track at Las Vegas International Speedway. I had just passed Susanne, an airline pilot from Atlanta and was chasing my nemesis, a lawyer from Laguna Beach.

My left thigh slid off the inside of the bike and my knee stuck out sideways in what I thought was a perfect triangle, ready for some trail braking into turn one, just as I was passed by Jason DiSalvo, one of the top AMA Formula Xtreme riders (a support class of the AMA Superbike Championship). He passed me while riding on his back wheel at about 200 kilometres an hour with his right foot resting on the back of his Yamaha R6.

Welcome to Freddie Spencer's High Performance Riding School in Las Vegas. Freddie is himself a three-time MotoGP champion, and he holds the unique status of having been the only rider to win the MotoGP championships in the 250cc and 500cc class the same year. He's the real deal in the sportbike universe.

I was there for two days of sport-bike riding and race training, a generous gift from my wife Jenny for my 50th birthday. I'm one of those people that emergency physicians (like myself) shake their heads over — I have a serious need for speed and this was my opportunity to straddle a race-ready Honda CBR600RR "crotch rocket" and twist the throttle. I had a clean track ahead of me, and there were no speed limits, no cops, no opposing traffic.

There were 13 other students in my class, including an airline pilot, a lawyer, a stand-up comedian from Los Angeles, a biotech hotshot, a UPS driver from Houston and two very lucky kids, 14 and 16, whose father owns a local Budweiser franchise and Ducati dealership. To one extent or another, we were all Valentino Rossi (Moto GP world champion, known on the circuit as "the Doctor") wannabes. I have been riding for over 30 years. My current bike is a 2000 BMW R1150GS, but I secretly lust after a Ducati 999R or a Honda RC51.


All Reved Up
The two-day high performance course involved class work, skill development in turning and braking as well as some lap time on the track trying to use what we'd learned in the classroom, trying to pick the perfect line — trying to pass the lawyer.

I was hot under my armoured racing leathers and my adrenalin level rose rapidly as I got on the bike for the first time and fired up the Honda which, I noticed, redlined at about 17,000 RPM. I was a little nervous about meeting my self-imposed expectations; Freddie and the three instructors had made it very clear that we were to stay well inside our comfort zone.

The best learning (and safest riding) is done at about 75 percent of your ability. Beyond that, survival reactions start to kick in and can often lead to mistakes — some of which can be quite serious since they involve falling down awkwardly at high speeds. I wasn't particularly keen to test my leathers at 150 kilometres an hour.

All the motorcycles had been shod with brand-new, sticky Michelin racing tires. We had been taught about contact patches and loading the tires when accelerating and braking. We had also been encouraged to trust the physics of lean angles and friction coefficients by hanging off the bike.

Once I was on the track, I could have sworn that my knee and face were mere inches from the asphalt as I carried the bike through a decreasing-radius turn while Nick Ienatsch, my instructor, used a constant barrage of hand and head signals to communicate things like "get your knee out" or "get your head down to the inside."

I was supposed to put all my weight on the inside foot peg when going hard through a curve, with my outside leg hugging tightly, high against the fuel tank, to keep me from falling off the bike. Meanwhile I was also trying to feather my front brake to push me into the turn, the radius of the turn decreasing rapidly as my speed plummeted. I brushed past the apex cone set as a target for us, saw the exit and looked up to the next orange marker.

As I unloaded the brakes and evenly rolled on the throttle, the acceleration naturally straightened the bike out as it hurtled towards the next turn. Just when I thought that I was going flat out through a chicane, Nick turned around on his bike, gave me a broad smile and a thumbs up, all the while pulling away from me and riding with just one hand on the controls — these guys are good.

After the first day of class time and riding, I was physically and mentally done in. The students all piled into the transport bus back to our common hotel. To my amazement, as soon as they were settled in, they pulled out a bristling array of cell phones and Blackberries; they seemed desperate to reconnect with deals, schedules, gigs and court cases.

I, on the other hand, was happy to be incommunicado and heading back to the room for a cool shower and my wife's company as we headed out for the evening to gape at some of what Las Vegas has to offer. We saw the Cirque du Soleil show "O" at the Bellagio and were blown away by the set, the performers and the immense creativity (and insane amount of cash) it must take to put together a show of that calibre.


Born to ride
Heading for bed, I closed my eyes expectantly but found that I had difficulty getting to sleep. I was anticipating the next day's ride. I was hoping to get to the end of the day with some coveted scuffs on my knee pucks: I tried to visualize my line and my braking targets and to get more aggressive with my lean angle.

It was like those nights in childhood, after a great day of Kick the Can or an exciting soccer game. I could hardly fall asleep waiting for the next day so I could go out and play again. As an adult, a physician, a father, a husband and someone battling the stresses of modern life, it had been too long since I'd felt like that.

The second day, I squirmed in class and found it difficult to pay attention to the instructors as they talked about the finer points of riding at high speeds while we reviewed some of the tapes from the previous day of riding. The little boy in me was saying "I want to go outside to play. I want to go to the race track and go fast on my motorcycle."

Much to my astonishment, I saw on the video that I had been riding well outside the ideal line and my body position was not nearly as aggressive as I had imagined. I was all the more determined as I headed to the track, repeating a mantra to myself, trying to kickstart and fool my 50-year-old body into meeting a higher standard of expectations.

Despite three decades of experience on motorcycles, I found that riding a sportbike put me on a new learning curve — it was fast, it was physically and mentally demanding, and it was extremely addictive.

I really only had one close call during the weekend. I had been concentrating on an instructor as he communicated with hand signals to a student in front of me. I was so intent on following their interaction that I failed to notice that, at 180 kilometres an hour, I was quickly running out of straightaway.

I had to make a quick decision. I'd have to go well beyond my comfort zone and use fuller braking and leaning than I had previously attempted or revert to some of my dual-purpose skills and go off the track into the dirt as slowly and straight as possible. I opted for the latter. My heart only stopped briefly as I headed off the course toward the grandstands at about 60 kilometres an hour. I was grateful for the helmet; it kept anyone from seeing my red face as I pulled back onto the course.

As a treat in the afternoon of the second day, each student was a passenger for a couple of laps with Freddie himself piloting his Honda VFR800. It was an amazing and humbling experience. Riding with a passenger and recovering from recent shoulder surgery, Freddie would not be leaning into the curves but could only rely on weight transfer to a foot peg and his abilities to follow the perfect line and employ braking and acceleration. We were told to take special note of his use of the throttle.

Somehow Freddie still managed to go way over in the turns — deeper, I suspect than I managed to do on my own. I could barely see his throttle hand move as he went through the gears, accelerated and braked. He demonstrated a style of aggressive riding while making it utterly smooth and easy. I was thrilled to have that experience, as were the rest of the students.

I hope to return to Laguna Seca to see my heroes on two wheels race. Meanwhile, at night I dream about chasing down Valentino Rossi's Movistar Yamaha R1 on my Red Bull Ducati 999S, coming into the last turn before the final straightaway.

 

Dr Lloyd Hildebrand is a family doctor in Saanichton near Sidney, BC and practices out of the Saanich Peninsula Hospital. He has been riding motorcycles for 30 years, both on the highway and off-road. For their 25th anniversary, he and his wife Jenny rode down to Monterey, California to watch the World Superbike Races. His next road trip is planned for the fall.

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