atch any serious motorcycle circuit racing and there’s one – startling – feature that sorts the pros from the other riders: the way they scraaaape that inside knee along the track on fast bends.
Why do they do it when road riders mange perfectly well with their knee firmly on the petrol tank? Is it for show? Is it safer – or more dangerous? And how do you do it?
It’s become almost a rite of passage with sports bike road riders, despite extremely limited (safe) opportunities to indulge this technique best reserved for the racetrack.
To find out what it’s all about – and have a go – I went along to fabled motorcycle coach Tom Killeen.
Tom runs the acclaimed i2i Motorcycle Academy which tours the UK, roving from track to track, and which has a reputation for a certain wizardry in changing the way riders think and behave. Using humour, psychology and a near mystical understanding of how motorcycles behave, it has transformed many pupils’ riding.
His unorthodox techniques include experimentation with ‘machine control’ – letting go of the handlebars and steering by using body weight alone, steering a bike while standing – hands-free – on the footpegs. And by demonstrating physics with a bicycle wheel and an old tyre.
So it comes as something of a surprise, when we meet on a vast deserted former RAF aerodrome in Norfolk, when Tom explains that getting your knee down doesn’t really transform your riding. Or your cornering. It’s not even necessary. And not everyone’s cut out for it. Hmm.
What attempting the technique will do, however he says – as he spends a morning progressing us through carefully structured ‘building blocks’ towards knee-down while we take turns on his Triumph Speed Triple – is give us a far better understanding of what the bike is really capable of.
More importantly, it will give us a far better understanding of what happens to our bodies – and what goes through our minds – when we ride, regardless of whether we’re sitting upright, leaning, hanging off the bike, looking in the right (or wrong) direction, or just sitting on the machine with the engine off.
It’s strange magic that – over the course of 4-5 hours – unpicks habits and cognitive biases built up during years of riding, replacing them with evidence-based science, experience and skills.
First exercise is a simple 25mph figure of eight to acquaint us with the bike – and prove that we can ride without falling off. There’s plenty of room on the old runway, with the ever-present threat of grass verges and mesh fencing if we get it wrong.
Next, Tom asks us to consider what method of steering – leaning, or tweaking the handlebars – works best while repeating that figure of eight. First, we use the handlebars then – in the ‘straight’ section – we’re encouraged to take our hands off the handlebars, steering by body weight alone, after nudging the bike into sixth gear and letting go of the throttle.
It’s easy on the straights but initially I find it impossible to lean in the bends without dabbing the handlebars. “It’s years of learned experience – your body influencing your mind,” reassures Tom. “It’ll come.”
After repeated sessions – during which my two fellow pupils, father and daughter combo Peter (56) and Becky (28) Robertson, firmly beat me to it – I can indeed negotiate that figure of eight without the ‘bars. But only while turning right – not left. No matter how hard I try.
Next – interspersed by impressive, instructive demos by Tom – we experiment by shifting our weight off the motorcycle in stages, between cones. This allows the bike to remain more upright so that strategic parts, such as the foot pegs, have more ground clearance. You don’t want them digging in and throwing you off, after all.
It feels disconcerting at first. But the further I inch off the saddle – remembering to lean not just my hips but my upper trunk – the far tighter my turns become, even as the bike remains more upright. The further my knee protrudes, the better the balance, the more sense I have of how close to the ground I can go.
“Your body often reacts negatively towards sensations which in normal circumstances would require it to do something, for example correcting leaning while standing,” says Tom. “It’s why learning to lean with the bike can take a few cycles before it seems more possible.”
He’s right. The purple patch comes when Tom fits us with synthetic strap-on knee sliders and suggests we lean a little further while carefully edging our feet slightly beyond the end of the foot pegs, so that our boots can signal impending contact with the Tarmac.
Gradually it all comes together. Inside knee akimbo, body – and now bike – leaving harder into the bend, speed rises, the bend tightens dramatically (useful if you’re in danger of running wide on road or circuit) and the bends feel far more stable.
“It’s not actually necessary or important to get your knee down,” insists Tom. “But it lets you feel how far you really can lean the bike while it’s still under control. Think of it as a gauge as to how far the bike, and you, can lean if you want to.”
The tuition is also about accuracy, says Tom: ensuring you know precisely where you want the bike to be in the next corner, when you’re still lining it up for the one before. A vital skill on the road, too.
I feel like a pro as – repeatedly – I finally get my left knee to scrape the Tarmac, acclimatising to the sensation of leaning well off the bike. At least when I’m banking left. Contrary to the earlier ‘hands-free’ experience, I never do get my right knee to make that satisfying rasping sound against the wartime runway.
“Lean a little further,” advises Tom but my brain, or perhaps my body, or muscle memory, won’t quite have it. I’m still an inch from knee-down nirvana. The feeling of euphoria is there, however; it’s lots of fun while being given the licence – in comparative safety and under the eye of an expert – to play around with (someone else’s) bike. My cornering has improved dramatically, the bike feels more stable. I have a better understanding of what’s going on in a bend. It just feels… right. And I’ve got an excuse to go back, to work on that other knee…
Will I do it on the road? I doubt it. It would mean I’m going too fast for comfort and I can’t think of a single bend – apart from roundabouts – where it would even be possible. Plus, hunkering down slightly hampers your peripheral vision – vital on the road.
But I have a better understanding of my bike’s – and my own abilities. And I’ve gone some way to emulating those icons of the racing world. What’s not to like?
Where to stay
I did the i2i Knee Down course at former RAF Coltishall, a three-and-a-half hour ride from London. You could travel there and back from London in a day but I don’t recommend it; the course is surprisingly tiring so it’s better to stay locally, the night before, and arrive fresh.
I stayed at the Holiday Inn Express, just 20 or so minutes from the circuit and – sited on the outskirts of Norwich – handy to explore this pretty, historic, buzzing city. The rooms are spacious, comfy, clean and quiet and the service friendly; ideal prep for the course the following day, and with plenty of parking. They serve a good breakfast too.