Level 3 is fun. There's no way around it, its easily the most fun level on the track. But, there are a few qualifiers to this statement.
Firstly, there are certain expectations in Level 3. Primary among them is that you must know what you're doing. Yes, Level 3 requires a certain amount of skill to be safe. Some people, despite years of riding, don't have that skill yet. Others have that skill only a few months after their first Level 1 session. What's the difference between these people?
I've seen this one little thing hold back a number of riders. One of them was me.
Yes, my ego used to get in the way of learning.
I was so convinced that after being the "fast guy" on all the hill country rides, that I would immediately excel when I started racing.
Holy crap was I wrong.
I dove into the deep end so sure that I would start winning races that when I was barely breaking into the top-10 week after week I was shocked.
"It must be my bike", "I need better suspension", "I need more power", "I need more *#&$^%"
I looked everywhere for the missing ability except the one place I could get it - my own head.
I was so busy trying to go fast I completely missed the importance of riding smoothly. I was overcooking corners, running off track and generally creating a bubble of risk all around myself. I was looking back on the straights to make sure I was pulling away from other riders only to find they were catching me at a rapid rate. I was so convinced that I could keep up with more experienced riders that I was inches away from a crash most of the time I spent on track.
How I managed to survive this period I still can't explain.
How did I fix this?
I started riding slower.
The brain of the average rider can't focus on anything other than survival when the risk of crashing is imminent.
I can't analyze my corner entry speed and braking points if I'm pushing as hard as I can. If I'm inches away from running off the track, that's all I care about.
I cant fix my line through a high speed corner if I'm fighting to keep the bike away from the outside curbing.
But by slowing down, my risk of crashing dropped dramatically. By coming into a corner at 75% of my (perceived) maximum speed I had a safety buffer, and this gave me time to think about what I was doing. I had time to think about where I was on the track, where I needed to be, and how to get there.
Coming into that same corner at 105% left me no time at all to think about anything other than how to avoid running off the track.
Now that I'm a rider coach I see this all the time, in all levels. The same behavior is obvious in Level 1, just at a lower speed than riders who make the same mistakes in Level 3.
At MSRH recently I was riding for fun in Level 3 early in the morning, following an experienced racer. He was trying as hard as he could to keep up with another rider, but with predictable results for someone pushing at 105%.
When he realized he was starting to run wide out of Sugar and Spice he target fixated on the outside of the track. What happens when we look off the track? We go exactly where we look.
Fortunately there was nothing to hit in this area and he was able to get back on the track. The problem was, he didn't learn from this mistake. Rather than calm down, take a deep breath and step back from the edge, he continued to push as hard as he could. Who can guess the result? I caught up to him again half a lap later, just in time to see him run off the track in Diamonds edge, another double apex corner. Unusually, this rider was incredibly lucky and again managed to get back on the track without hitting anything, but this is rare.
Why did this rider repeat the mistakes that caused him to run off in the first place?
We all have one, but not all of us can control it.
And an ego unchecked can cause serious injury.
Had I been instructing on this day I would have pulled this rider off the track. Usually a quick break like this can make all the difference to someone riding too fast for their abilities. I normally ask the rider how they feel, if they need to take a breather, remind them that perhaps they should think about whats happening instead of focusing so hard on speed that they cant recognize other factors. After coaching track riders for nearly five years I make it a priority to identify riders who are about to crash, and intervene before they get hurt. And just a few words can make a huge difference in how the day ends for that rider.
A rider making the step from Level 2 to Level 3 can do so for two different reasons. Ego, and confidence.
A rider who moves themselves up to Level 3 before being advised to do so by an instructor can find themselves where I was, pushing 105% in all corners, looking back to satisfy their ego that they are leaving other riders behind, and generally focusing on not crashing instead of riding smoothly.
But when a rider is told they should move to Level 3, confidence is what allows them to make the move safely.
Unfortunately for most male riders, ego can cause a lot of problems. A man who wants to ride with his more experienced buddies will often crash rather than let his ego take a back seat. I've seen it so many times, the newer rider who tries so hard to keep pace with his friends, who refuses to just let them go. We tell riders over and over, "Ride your own ride. Don't let others dictate your pace. Don't push yourself, increase your pace incrementally."
We say this for a reason. I've seen everything from mild crashes where the rider managed to get back on the track, to compound fractures, destroyed bikes and serious, job threatening injuries. All thanks to an ego that wouldn't allow the rider to slow down.
Fortunately for the female riders, they are eager to listen and, in my experience at least, always learn more quickly because they have better control of their egos. Many times I've wished that over-eager male riders could be more like their female companions and listen not just to what I say but also be more observant of their own actions.
So yes, Level 3 requires a certain amount of ego. But more importantly, it requires confidence.
A rider who knows how to ride fast might be ready to be bumped up to Level 3, but not until he or she also knows the value of slowing down.