Guest post from John Harrison
Understeering, pushing, scrubbing, Nosing it, washing out, call it what you will. One of the first things one learns when starting out on a bicycle is to be cautious with the front wheel when anything but upright. Tucking the front on a patch of loose gravel and you’re off, grazed knees, elbows and face.
Like most other people I learnt that lesson early on and I carried over my fear of losing the front end on motorcycles when I started riding them. Foolishly believing that knobblies would grip on wet grass and through slimy mud was literally, my downfall. When I graduated to the road, I studiously avoided manhole covers, white lines, cats eyes, anything that might cause the front tyre to let go, and always used the front brake delicately.
The opening shot of this 2015 video blew my mind when I first saw it. Mikey Rush looked to my unbelieving eyes to be crashing. I had never seen anything like it. The images of Rush and Brad ‘The Bullet’ Baker ragging it filled me with inspiration.
At that time I had ridden at my first Dirt Quake and had committed to entering the following season's DTRA championship. I remember showing the video to an equally incredulous work colleague who competes in the National Motorcycle Speed Hillclimbing Championship (tarmac and twisty) and telling him that I wanted to be able to ride like that.
Anyone with an ounce of imagination knows that when you lose the front it’s all over and you’re going down, yet here were Rush and Baker doing it on purpose, evidently using understeer to slow the bike and keep a tight line, and at ridiculous lean angles that would have ordinary mortals in a crumpled mess with bent ‘bars and a broken collarbone.
I downloaded the video (it's from Flat Track Live/ Thunder Media), named it Vineyard Wonder and watched it a thousand times over, every time mesmerised by the opening shot and the slo-mo at 20secs in, of Rush’s front wheel off the ground mid entry into the turn and him landing it pushing the front with the bike cranked over so far the left footrest is bouncing off the dirt. I still find it extraordinary, lovely and fantastic.
I put it down to the riders being ultra-talented US pro racers who are wired differently to the rest of us and could defy the laws of physics, having been motorcycling since the age of two. I certainly never expected to witness that level of skill myself.
Fast-forward to the first practise of the season the following year and my first ride on track with my old Triumph converted from a street tracker to a competition machine. Oliver Brindley was there using the day as a front fork test session. I recognised the 17 year old and told him that as far as I was concerned he was a National Hero, having recently out qualified Marc Marquez at the Superprestigio, then watched open mouthed as he repeatedly pushed the front end into Eastbourne’s tight turns. So it wasn’t a Yank only trick, it was a technique.
The following year at Peterborough I watched US Pro riders Johnny Lewis and James Rispoli battling it out and both understeering into the lead of the pro races. It’s one thing to show off like that when practising, but I didn’t expect to see it in a race. It was poetry in motion watching such unconscious skill and bike control.
The next time I was impressed by a rider nosing it was in the first pro qualifying session of the 2018 season at King's Lynn. At the end of the session, the unknown rider who had been fastest on track pushed the front wheel all the way through turn 1 and I instantly became a Gerard Bailo fan.
Later, while I was flagging turn 2, young Toby Hales repeatedly pushed the front end while leading his pro heats, making eye contact with me and grinning in the knowledge of me savouring every millisecond.
All these occasions had been when riders were on 450 DTX bikes. I was taken aback then, to watch Johnny Lewis demoing a brand new Indian FTR750 and slowing it down by pushing the front end on the shallow cushion surface at Peterborough in 2018 (see the top photo).
Listening to Dave Despain on ‘Off the Groove’, he said that the great Bart Markel was the first rider to perfect the technique of slowing the bike down by scrubbing the front, in the brakeless era of flat track.
Nowadays I’m used to seeing the best riders understeering, but it still brings an involuntary grin to my face as I watch in awe and admiration. I know I’m too old, too much of a scaredy cat and would just end up in a broken heap if I attempted it myself, but I’d still love to be able to master it. And I still watch the video for joy and inspiration.
Photos: Paul France/ Tom Bing/ DTRA