Breakdown: Over the Top

Breakdown Over the Top

May 28, 2014 10:00am

Glen Helen is a monster. Climbing those massive hills and storming down the other side commands respect from everyone, be it the local novice or Ryan Dungey. Having raced this national ten times, I know very well the pause that I took every time I dropped off into one of those long downhills. It really is the most demanding track of the year for mind and body. Everyone may not like the track, and I may be one of those people that doesn’t, but I do recognize the unique aspects of racing that Glen Helen delivers. Can I also add that it’s a lot more fun now that I’m watching it instead of racing it?

Such a unique track demands a unique set of skills (cue Liam Neeson). One of the most important skills is staying patient in corners. I know what you’re thinking, staying patient in EVERY corner is important. That’s true, but Glen Helen raises the bar in that category. The reason is simple: When riders get impatient in corners, mistakes are inevitable. Proper body position goes by the wayside and as a result, so does rear end traction. This is an especially large problem at Glen Helen. For all of those steep climbs, getting rear end traction exiting a corner is imperative. Example: Have you ever seen a rider get passed at Glen Helen climbing a long uphill and wondered how that happened? With both riders holding the throttle wide open, surely they would be going the same speed, right?

It is all about corner speed when climbing the massive hills of Glen Helen says Jason Thomas. 
It is all about corner speed when climbing the massive hills of Glen Helen says Jason Thomas.  Photo: Simon Cudby

There’s not that big a difference in engine power at this level—no one is making up multiple bike lengths just by twisting it. This is where the corner comes into play. The speed up the hill is a direct result of the speed in the corner before it. If Rider A exits the corner with reckless abandon, it may look incredible, but in that wild form he is excessively spinning the rear tire and losing forward drive. Rider B on the other hand can “roll through” the corner, which in essence means both a lack of throttle or brakes. It may look slow but by carrying momentum and then applying the throttle at the appropriate time, he will maximize traction and speed. As Rider B gains momentum through the corner and applies the power to the ground (instead of spinning the rear wheel like Rider A), he will start accelerating much more quickly up the hill. He will be in control and able to execute proper body position for climbing a hill, and can also be patient with line choice—missing one small bump, or one pile of deep loam, mud or sand can make a huge difference in speed. On a track like Glen Helen where seemingly every turn is followed by a steep incline, remaining patient and being mindful of technique can add up to a huge difference in lap times.

I noticed this specifically in the first left hand turn, just after the start. Entering the turn there were a number of ruts to choose from, all leading to a different route up the hill. The main line was certainly the inside and that’s the line most riders utilized. Since it was on the inside, it had the steepest climb rate, therefore making technique even more vital. I watched literally hundreds of runs through this turn on Saturday between eight practices, two consolation races and four motos. Watching all of those individual runs, I saw some good and some bad. The rider that really stood out was Christophe Pourcel. In typical Pourcel fashion, he didn’t appear to be trying, yet when you watched how much momentum he was carrying up the hill, it became clear that he was actually going very fast. He wasn’t braking nor accelerating with any ferocity, but just let the bike continue its natural flow. When he finally did turn the throttle open on his factory YZ250F, he was fully prepared to unleash the force of his machine. His perfect technique in the turns is the reason that he was able to set the fastest lap in both qualifying sessions. In a vacuum setting without anyone near him, he could employ this form and raise his overall pace around the track. Perfecting the turns would lead to a visual difference when climbing the hills. I could literally see him moving faster in his ascent than those around him.

Motocross racing at the highest level is full of both obvious skill sets and subtle nuances. The ability to combine these is what makes not only local pros into national level riders but also into champions. Everyone is so concerned with sprinting and upping their intensity but sometimes the adage “slowing down to go faster” truly does play out. Knowing when to shift the emphasis from “attacking the track” to really thinking about how to go faster is a skill most will never master. When perfected, it really is a beautiful thing to watch.