MONTEREY, Calif. -- Observe The Lean. Respect The Lean. Hell, exalt The Lean. If you don't rank The Lean among the most incredible aptitudes in sports, then your ranking must be ignorant. The Lean cannot be real. The Lean must be some ridiculous illusion.
Naturally, the people doing The Lean think The Lean routine. They perform it daily, weekly, monthly, on this continent and that. They did hundreds more last weekend, through the woolly "Corkscrew" portion of the Laguna Seca track at the Red Bull U.S. Grand Prix of MotoGP. "It all becomes second nature," professional rider Colin Edwards said. So, The Lean is normal.
The Lean most certainly is not normal.
To let the naked eye see it for the first time is to come across yet another marvel on the grand landscape of sports. You knew it was real, you know it is real, but still there's an element of, No. Really. No. Please. No.
Here came one just now, at Friday practice. He prepared to turn, to lean, to become unwittingly my first-ever, in-person, lean-viewing experience. Down toward tarmac went his one of the only two knees he possesses, and wide went two fresh eyes in witness. Of course, his knee all but hugged the track and may even have kissed it, scraping with the polyurethane protection at a speed I-don't-want-to-know. Then he went on.
"I saw a bumper sticker coming back from Daytona in the mid-1960s," said Earl Hayden, whose family has made a lifetime of motorcycle racing, and whose 31-year-old son Nicky won the MotoGP world title in 2006. "It said, 'Why Be Normal?' These people aren't really normal."
Here's a Kentuckian former racer himself -- a man who trained his five children as tykes by putting them on a hobby horse and strategically removing springs to teach balance, who has lived and breathed right up next to the sport for a solid decade -- yet even he said of The Leans, "They're going through 'em at 170 with their damn knees down and their elbows scraping the ground! It still just blows me away to see 'em dragging their knees and elbows at 170, 190."
Follow them on a big screen via an on-bike camera, along their twisting, undulating routes, and you might start to get nauseated. You might crave a Dramamine or a hard stare into motionless furniture. You might start to think they have unbelievably hardy inner-ear fluid. During the 32-lap race on Sunday, the fine little TV graphic that resembles a meter showed 4th-place finisher Alvaro Bautista tearing through Laguna Seca leaning 60 degrees to the left, then 35 to the right, 62 to the left, 59 to the right, 62 to the left, 63 to the right, 55 to the left.
"In the 1970's, they started to touch the knee," team owner Lucio Cecchinello said while giving a garage tour. "Five years ago, the riders started to touch here [elbow]. And now, we have some riders with exceptional talent that have started to touch here [shoulder]."
It's such human evolution. Where back in prehistoric times -- you know, the 1970's -- a rider protected his knee by cutting a plastic visor and putting it on a stick, Cecchinello said. Now, they ride along with elbows beneath magnesium sliders, particularly useful in such robust cases as Marc Marquez, the 20-year-old Spanish phenom.
"Marc Marquez is wearing through his magnesium sliders quite regularly," said Jeremy Appleton of Alpinestars, the gear manufacturer.
So then, what does one feel when mid-lean or, rather, mid-Lean? Apparently one does not feel much. "Sure, you notice it," the 37-year-old Texan veteran Edwards said, "but when you're at full lean at 60 degrees, it's waiting to come around on you" -- and the "it" would be the 350-pound bike.
"So you're always working," Edwards said. "It's hard to see with the naked eye, but you're working like hell then." In fact, they're all the time going around "calculating angles," he said. "Your brain's constantly working, and you don't remember any of it."
"I can probably pick four or five moments that meant something to me," he said of the race. "The rest, just, it's a big blah."
Now, you might think practitioners of The Lean would be hellishly rugged sorts, and right you would be. What you might not realize, until they come around the interview dais for a first sighting in plain view, is that they're slightly built. They're short and just shy of wispy. They're tough, strong, fearless, sturdy, sinewy jockeys who can lift more than you think, and who regard their skeletons differently than we do.
If most of us get a break anywhere in the skeleton, most of us consider it considerable. They get a break in the skeleton and, as Nicky Hayden put it, "If a doctor says you'll be ready in six weeks, we automatically think we'll be ready in three." And as his father said it, "If he ain't got a bone sticking through his skin, he's going to say, 'I'm doing great.'"
The younger Hayden lacks a bone sticking through his skin, but he does shake hands with the left these days, because, as he explained, "I've actually got a wrist that for the last four months has been bothering me. I've got a screw in there that needs to come out."
After a practice spill in Germany, the British rider Cal Crutchlow said he "felt sick." He became unable to eat. He became unable to see his left elbow because of the bruises. It seemed his body had to recalibrate itself. "I think it was just a case of, I hit my body quite hard, not just my arms but my whole body. As soon as I hit the track, I was a little bit like a rag doll."
Two of the top three riders of the nine-race-old season, Dani Pedrosa and Jorge Lorenzo, rode on Sunday with broken collarbones, which account for 46 percent of MotoGP injuries, according to Appleton. At certain moments of conversation, it seemed unfashionable not to bring along a broken collarbone.
Entering Laguna Seca's peerless "Corkscrew," with its harrowing, twisting drop, the 23-year-old German rider Stefan Bradl said, "Your body is almost starting to fly, and you feel everything is getting light for just a very short moment, and then you have the compression when you come back."
The whole thing makes a mighty pull on the body core. In the excellent and charmingly broken English that tends to pour from the European riders, Bradl said of the races, "Your body for about 45 minutes is always made stress." Come Monday morning, he said, "You are still difficult to move."
In turn, you might surmise that people who epitomize fearlessness -- who perform The Lean as a regular aspect of being, who go to levels of velocity and daring most of us miss in life -- might end up with a gleam in their eyes. Right you would be yet again. Gaze across all of sport, and it would be hard to find better ambassadors or, for that matter, better press conferences.
Start off with Valentino Rossi, who is the coolest man in the world. Don't argue with me. With his curly locks, his long and determined and unkempt sideburns, his left-lobe earring, his blue eyes and his great-big smile, he's a legend with 100-percent comfort in his legendary skin.
He's Italian, he's got seven premier-class titles at age 33, he's uncommonly easy with fans, he's living the life, he's had his days on those Forbes highest-paid-athletes lists -- and boy, does he know how to wink. If there's an athlete with greater capacity to crack up press conferences, well, bring him-or-her on.
As the championship leader Marquez prepared to tackle Laguna Seca for the first time, Rossi said earnestly, to raucous laughter, "My advice to Marc is to go very slow in the first year, try to understand corner by corner, and then push next year."
When somebody asked about Rossi sharing a surname with the track doctor, Rossi cracked, "Then for me he is clearly unfit."
When a microphone out in the audience proved spotty, Rossi leaned into his microphone and volunteered, "Change battery."
And as somebody who had criticized Rossi for a daring overtaking of Casey Stoner here in 2008 -- off the track and through the sand at the "Corkscrew" -- prepared to ask about Marquez putting the same move on Rossi on Sunday, Rossi protested with eyes gleaming and his charm beaming, not a trace of indignation. "You guys broke my balls" over 2008, he said, and so, "What you say today? He has to be disqualified. Has to be disqualified."
Everyone and Marquez laughed -- Rossi had hugged the lad post-race out of respect -- and Rossi said, "On the other side now, I have a credit with him, so if I do one to him he cannot say nothing."
Said Marquez, "I already say to him I will pay the copyright," a not-bad quip for a 20-year-old just getting started.
MotoGP would be out-of-its-mind lucky as well to have Marquez -- the future, the top rider of the moment and one of the better smilers you'll find. He has one of those angelic faces that seems like it's almost smiling, even when he's not yet smiling. He seems to have more teeth than the rest of us. He also has fans, gathered steadily across his climb through the lower ranks of the sport. Some ask him to marry. Some ask, absurdly, if they can go riding with him. Some ask, even more absurdly, if they can ride his Honda, which like all MotoGP bikes is unavailable for public purchase, and which, counting development and construction, et al., has a cost with two commas in it.
Ask him about a photo of himself as a tyke on a motorcycle, and he says he cannot remember riding at that meager age. Yet his parents have told him that back then, near Barcelona, they would always say he could spend a weekend at home rather than riding, and he would always decline that option.
"Even now," he said in an interview, "if I am home I will be every day in motorcycle . . . But for me, when I'm on some bike, I need to be fast. I need to push. I'll say, 'Today I need to be quiet and I will not push.' Then it's, like, boring. I don't like."
Viewed as the biggest bale of talent since Rossi, he's surprised to lead the championship, to win Laguna Seca on his first try, to become the youngest rider to win back-to-back races, all of it. "When I saw the video of 2008," he said of Rossi's pass of Stoner, "I say, 'This is impossible,' but when I was there …"
Everything seems possible.
Rossi explained how he squandered a title with the blunders of excessive youth at Marquez's age, then added, "It's like Marc is me, but with upgrading." Then again, the coolest guy in the world could say that, in a sport where people seem to talk as well as they lean.
Bradl's father Helmut preceded him as a famous rider, but when asked if he'd lived up to his father with his first podium finish (2nd) at Laguna Seca, Stefan Bradl said, "No, because he was always so slow in Laguna Seca." The room exploded, and Bradl continued, "When he was close to his house, he was almost unbeatable, but it looks like I can be faster when I'm far away from the house."
The notion that doctors' injury reports sometimes might violate riders' privacy daunted no one, with Edwards saying, "I don't care. Doesn't really matter. As long as they're not giving out inches, or girth, or anything like that."
And you might guess that when people perform The Lean like most people perform teeth-brushing, protecting them would push technology, and on that, right yet again. Their suits alone require tours.
It's not just the aerodynamic hump on the top of the back, enabling "smooth air flow over the rider's back," as Appleton explained. It's not just the high-grade leather, the ventilation, the seven sensors at key human joints or the air bags -- yeah, air bags -- that aim for special care of the collarbone.
It's also that so many parts of the suit answer to a central processor. "The system is basically watching what's going on in a mathematical sense," Appleton said. "We are developing the algorithms all the time. If the system believes the rider is starting into some sort of unusual state … it starts to go through a check procedure. It's looking for a trend. Is this situation getting worse or getting better?"
The system can inflate in 45 milliseconds, he said, and combined with the sliders and the polyurethane and magnesium and the whole stew of it, the goal would come in those protracted slides crashed riders take, when forces don't relegate them to rag-doll mode. "We want the rider to slide as far as possible," Appleton said, "and if possible to come gently to a dignified halt, as opposed to being pitched and tumbling."
It's all no wonder, then, that riders become attached to particular suits. A dynamic photo of Bradl shows him in a mighty lean. His shoulder smooches the tarmac. We're told he continued riding from there. We're told he kept on with the race. We're told that that on one day or another, he might even do such a gymnastically frightening turn without even recollecting.
That's further evidence that the world churns with so many remarkable sports, and that here churns another. That's The Lean for you. You might figure there's a more impressive human spectacle somewhere in sport. There, finally, you would be wrong.