What difference does a millimeter make? According to Ken Roczen, it’s obvious.
Last Thursday I got to hang out at the Moto Sandbox, the riding facility formerly known as The Nest (and before that, Villopoto’s Place. Before that, Langston’s place.) The regular Sandbox crew is supposed to be Roczen, Cole Seely, Adam Cianciarulo, and Chase Sexton, but now Roczen and Seely are out with injury and their Honda HRC 450 replacement, Christian Craig, has taken their place. Craig is shaking down the 450 after this mid-season injury call-up, and today is one of the first days where Roczen’s rehab schedule gave him time to head out to the track to watch Craig ride.
It’s amazing what riders at this level can pick up just by watching. This group has spent a lifetime studying other riders and other races, studying practice footage, and testing motorcycles. They’ve spent every waking moment thinking about how to ride better—and probably some dreaming moments, as well. You might think you know this sport—and I might think I know this sport—but we don’t know even a fraction of what these guys know.
At about 11 a.m. Cianciarulo rolls out for another moto. Later, Sexton comes out, and then Craig (they’re all on different programs. AC is doing long motos today, Sexton is working on sprints). Roczen then walks to the infield and instantly notices things—like where AC is touching his front tire in the whoops, and how just changing that could “gain a couple of tenths.” When AC’s long moto is done, he and Roczen chat about the dirt and if it should be watered and lines in the corners. AC heads back inside the shop and Roczen moves to another section, where Craig and Sexton are perched after completing their sprints. Roczen explains to me that for this track, he can tell Craig’s bike is super snappy in second gear—a gearing change might be good, but some mapping tweaks would probably be better.
Later, Craig and Sexton go out for another session, and Roczen is trying to point out where Craig’s 450 really hits hard and how he has to work to prevent wheel spin. I pretend I can see that, but he’s talking tiny, tiny sections, like the fraction of a second where Craig is hard on the gas between jumps. I say that yes, I can see it, but I’m totally lying.
Later comes a study on the balance of the bike. He and Craig start a discussion about raising the forks in the triple clamps. Before he was injured, Roczen says he had been running his forks pretty high this year—kind of, as the riders like to say “choppering it out.” This is a term the riders use to describe a high front end—it kind of a resembles a Harley-Davidson, with the high handlebars and low seat, AKA a Chopper.
Roczen tried a lot of combinations in testing, so he’s pretty familiar with how the bike reacts to fork height changes. In contrast, Craig’s front end is lower. Kenny runs his 5mm higher, so he recommends Craig try just 1mm higher, just to start going in that direction.
Craig’s mechanic makes the change. The front is literally only 1 millimeter higher than it was earlier. Craig takes off, and within a half-lap, Roczen already knows. “Nah, look how low it is in the rear now,” he says.
Again, I mock some understanding. “Uh, yeah. Way low.”
Finally, I give up and ask Ken. Where does he see this lowness in the rear? Is the suspension too deep in the stroke on the jump faces? The landings? The whoops? I think Kenny is mystified that I can’t see what he’s talking about. But, bro, we’re talking 1 millimeter higher in the front!
A lap later, Craig pulls in. He immediately mentions how much lower the bike feels in the rear. Are you kidding me?
Back inside the shop, Sexton and Cianciarulo are discussing the whoops and where to set the front end down. They start talking about Monday, and how the track shaped up then, and then last week, and how the lines and dirt change. Their knowledge and precise analysis is quite mind-boggling. These guys can feel everything and remember it all. In the background, mechanics work away at the bikes, digging into toolboxes for wrenches and screwdrivers. But the real toolbox is what the riders at this level have honed for years—their mind, and their eyes. They feel things you can’t, see things you don’t. At this level, this is the sharpest tool of all.
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