Any training has the potential to improve your riding skills, but being safer in the corners takes a special kind of instruction
Story and Photos by Heather Bashow and Don Empey
The day begins at 7:30 a.m., with about 30 of us standing in line for registration, silently assessing one another: one or two are cocky and sharing their vast riding experience, some appear a bit nervous or humble, and others are quietly confident. I’m in that last set, although most are likely wondering what the heck I’m doing here. At any FAST school, there are men and women, ages ranging from teenage to very mature, and today, there is a 68-year-old fairly immature woman, which is me.
During registration, we are asked to sign a liability release and to decide which group we feel we should be slotted into – Group 1: most experienced and fastest; Group 2: experienced; or Group 3: fairly inexperienced. Most who have any riding under their belt wish to be in Group 2, including me, but I elect to be in Group 3. I have heard it’s a tiring day, and I would rather be ahead of the game than behind it. Also, Group 3 is led by Dan LeBlanc, the instructor I know best. Registration is also where riders are encouraged to purchase the available insurance. As safety-conscious as this course is, it isn’t often that a day goes by at FAST without someone taking an off-track excursion. It is extremely rare that the on-site ambulance is required – and even then, it is typically a collarbone break or slight concussion – but the damage to a bike can be extensive, and very expensive without the insurance.
Hall of Famer
Paperwork done, we are sitting at round tables when Michel Mercier joins us. A slender, fit man, Mercier has many years’ experience racing on dirt, ice and road in Canada, the U.S., Europe, Australia and Japan. An inductee into both the Canadian Motorsport and Motorcycle Halls of Fame, riders from across Canada who have grown up with his poster on their bedroom wall take his course. This time around, there is a rider attending from Singapore.
Mercier’s briefing covers safety, track rules such as how and where to enter and exit the track, and the essentials of street and track riding. He will continue to instruct throughout the day, preparing riders for their next session on the track, asking for focus on a particular goal. He injects some humour, but this is serious business for Mercier. He cares deeply about riders being safe, and takes it personally if someone crashes. His first briefing will last around 60 minutes, and then those who do not have their own approved clothing head off to be fitted with helmets, leathers, gloves and boots. You may use your own bike and riding gear for the FAST course if it passes an inspection to ensure it is track appropriate. However, there is no insurance available if you are not using a school bike. Most riders wisely choose to use the school bike and gear, and to purchase the insurance.
The school motorcycles are current Yamahas, Kawasakis and Suzukis, and range from 300 cc to 650 cc. Although I would like to use a bike with more grunt, I elect to use a Ninja 300, because it will handle most like my Honda CBR500RA.
Once leathered up, we meet in an outdoor classroom where a further briefing is given by Mercier, who introduces the track layout, flags and procedures; then we head to the grid to claim our bikes and meet our instructors. There is one instructor per group and up to 12 students in each group. While one group is on the track, the other two are receiving either class instruction from Mercier or individual assessment on the previous track session from their instructor. There are seven sessions on the track throughout the day, each with three parts: a briefing from Mercier covers what to practise and focus on, followed by riding on the track, and then a debrief from the instructor, who will advise where improvement should be made.
During the two follow-the-leader sessions in the morning, the students will switch positions to ride behind the instructors, so each student’s ability can be assessed, ensuring each one is in the most suitable group. It’s also a time for students to become familiar with their bikes and the track layout.
When directed to start the bikes, mine will not start. Hey, a special thank you to whomever of the FAST folks decided to hit the kill switch. They all love to tease. Instructor Sean Huffman, the kindest of the lot, leans over and resets the kill switch before my cone of confusion becomes too obvious.
Everyone at FAST knows me, but none have seen me ride. I should be a bit nervous, but oddly, I’m not. I will spend the day stuffing my competitiveness deep inside me. I bought the insurance, but I do NOT want to drop this bike, despite the fact my replacement photographer specified he is looking forward to some crash photos of me. He will arrive at noon, so I am covering the morning static photography. Consequently, I miss some of the briefing and later realize I have been hogging the track, and not quite understanding the switching of positions behind the instructor – and at this point, I would like to apologize to everyone who was in my group!
I find the 300 cc less throttle-responsive than my Honda, and there is a rev limiter that I was not expecting, but other than that, it feels the same. I…