‘It’s nice to have students who actually listen, for a change,’ went Nilesh ‘Nelly’ Dhumal, an instructor at BigRock DirtPark near Bangalore which also houses the first chapter of the Royal Enfield Slide School story. Now, I’d never been accused of such a thing within the walls of an academic institution, but riding schools are a different matter. Also, listening is no guarantee of understanding and applying, as I’d go on to demonstrate. If RE and BigRock have their way, though, they’ll have many more Slide Schools around the country, and we’ll all be the better for it. But that’s talking about the future; before that, there was a dirt oval waiting to wrap itself around my tarmac-fed brain.
Early in 2020, my two-wheeled colleague Janak had attended the first-ever Slide School, and my involvement in it extended as far as demanding the event-specific flattrack jersey that RE was handing out. I told myself that I’d wear it whenever I went to the Slide School in person. Suitably, it was this very thought that Nelly first swatted away by saying, ‘Forget everything you know about riding on tarmac.’ He looked like a guy who’s fast on a motorcycle, so I tried to listen. For company, I also had my friend Karan Lokhande who’s fast on pretty much any motorcycle in any condition, even if they’re not meant to be. I knew that my self-esteem was going to take a hit. Talk about being the architect of your own misery. The fact that I’ve spent typing two paragraphs about nothing to do with flat-track riding should tell you a lot. No, I didn’t become an immediate expert at the skill, and neither will you. No, I am not physically fit to ride around in left-handed dirt corners even at a moderate pace. Yes, the Himalayan FT 411 provided is a great tool for dipping your toes (perhaps even knees) into the art of flat-track riding. Yes, my dreams of sliding around an empty roundabout will have to be indefinitely postponed. All I can say is that if you’re serious about this kind of riding that seems easy, you better know what you’re talking about.
I am a slow learner, always have been, and I never harboured notions that one session would make me any faster. My bed, familiar and comfortable, is made of tarmac, not of dirt. At first, Nelly proceeded to explain the body position required for flat-track riding, and I immediately knew that my body was not capable of such a position; my broken left hip joint was already waving white flags. Undeterred, I went through the motions: outside arm angled, inside arm straighter; left foot skimming the dirt, right leg tight but relaxed against the bike; always looking further up the oval, not directly in front of the front tyre. It’s far easier to type this out than it is to actually perform, of course.
The FT 411 had a far easier time tackling the dirt oval than I did, as all machines built to a purpose tend to do. Having come away from the experience thoroughly sore and humbled, I can only tell you what to avoid, which might also be what you should aim for. The only thing I did right, I imagine, is fixate on my riding position. That method has always worked for me, but that’s no sure fix for anyone else. That approach might not have yielded spectacular results, but I did become more and more comfortable on the bike, and that matters a lot. We’re all extremely skilled at being comfortable, after all, and we must add to that particular repertoire.
For my part, before long, instead of skimming my foot along the surface, I was digging up clumps of soil with my heel. Willpower can be overcome by lactic acid, especially when you’re not expecting it. If you’re thinking going round and round on dirt is easy, well, haha. However, like I said, being adamant on getting the basics right always pays off, even if it takes a little longer than expected. For the first hour, Nelly insisted that we use only first gear, but use it fully — both on the throttle on the straights and off it when approaching corners. It might sound funny, but bottom gear is literally the foundation of feel.
As you can imagine, going on the throttle on a straight patch is easy. Everything else, not so much. You see, approaching a corner, there is no front brake on a flattrack bike; for me, that didn’t take much time to get used to. Riding old bikes a lot helps here. What was an entirely new feeling was generating enough engine braking to let the rear wheel kick out, loose and wild in the wind, for all I knew. The few times it happened, it simultaneously felt like the beginning of something special and the end of my life. You’ll know what I’m talking about when you do it yourself. That one action allowed the bike to line up pointing in the right direction, which wasn’t all the time, and hook up to get an exit. This was scary stuff for me; remember, we were still in first gear.
After an hour, Nelly asked us to use second gear, too, and more if required, which I am relieved to say I didn’t. You remember those videos of people banging their toes down on the gear lever and tossing the thing into a full-lock slide? Half of that happened to me, and I nearly regurgitated the McDonald’s burger I’d had for lunch. But at least I know it’s possible. I just need more time, and most people will.
Chasing glory is hard; chasing true skill, even more so, and only time, determination and the motorcycle can be your true friends. If you’re at BigRock, that is. Don’t know where else you could do such things. Want to know my takeaways? The right lines are important; Nelly set up cones to show us the approximate lines through a corner, and I was just glad that I didn’t flatten any of them. The right company, too, I’d say; Karan was freakin’ fast, as I’d expected but not volunteered to disclose; he flew past me regularly every three laps, adding to my misery. Not really, actually. I quite enjoyed seeing him getting comfortable and excited about flat-track riding. Above all, though, the teacher; Nelly, despite having a busy day, which showed on his face, was patient and supportive. Even when he left for some time, I could hear him shout out encouraging statements. Good weather would help me, too, if that matters to you. And that’s about it.
To amalgamate what I said earlier, I didn’t become any faster, but I did become more comfortable, and that’s the first step to getting anywhere on a motorcycle. I’d very much like to do it again. With a softer seat, preferably. And with a lighter and lower bike; for me, that’d make the difference, I just know it. For now, the Slide School jersey is humbly stored in my wardrobe. I suppose I’ll have to go back many more times to earn the right to wear it. But that should hardly stop you from trying; indeed, once you do try it, I bet it’ll be hard to stop, and then you’ll join me and many others in wishing that Royal Enfield and BigRock do succeed in getting the Slide School to as many places as possible. And when you do end up setting foot on the dirt, do me and yourself a favour, will you? Just listen to the instructors.