One of the hottest topics of conversation at Austin revolved around two men who were not there. One, Dani Pedrosa, is out after having had radical surgery to try to fix arm pump. The other was a man who would have liked to have ridden, but whom fate, or HRC, decided against. Casey Stoner made it clear in a tweet on Thursday that he would have liked to have ridden, and that he did not feel he needed protecting.
The back story? It seems that it was actually Casey Stoner's idea to ride at Austin, to replace Dani Pedrosa, but HRC rejected the idea. HRC, having seen Stoner's test times – rumored to be well over a second off the pace of Márquez and Pedrosa at Sepang – feared that the Australian would not be competitive at the two races Pedrosa is certain to miss. HRC top brass, especially Livio Suppo and Shuhei Nakamoto, have a soft spot for Casey Stoner, and apparently feared the effect which struggling to finish ahead of the satellite riders could have had upon the Australian. In the tweet he posted on Thursday evening (shown below), Stoner made it clear that he had entirely realistic expectations of how replacing Pedrosa may have turned out.
Bummer I'm not racing, no prep was needed as I wasn't planning on winning, just replacing a good friend and having some fun in Texas!:)— Casey Stoner (@Official_CS27) April 9, 2015
What does this mean? It seems safe to infer that Casey Stoner will be back on a MotoGP bike sooner rather than later. A full-time return remains entirely improbable, but a wild card, or another replacement ride, could happen pretty soon.
There was a general feeling of sympathy for Dani Pedrosa at Austin. In the press conference, Valentino Rossi went out of his way to praise the Repsol Honda rider. "[With] Dani, we miss one of the best riders of MotoGP of the last years," Rossi said. "Sincerely, I hope that he can fix the problem, and like a lot of times in the past, he can come back soon, stronger than before." Though still despised by a small number of mainly American fans, for an incident that happened nearly ten years ago, and has been forgotten by everyone involved, Pedrosa is well-liked in the paddock. The past two years or so have seen him open up, the Spaniard often cheerful and smiling, though he remains rather terse during press debriefs. If you can ask him a question he is interested in answering, he is a great interview. If he does not want to answer, it's like pulling teeth.
There was a touching moment with the other party to that incident from Estoril 2006. Austin is Nicky Hayden's 200th Grand Prix, and as the only American rider in the paddock, he was of course in the press conference. His family surprised him in the press conference, bringing in a cake celebrating his 200th GP, and a placard for him to hold. Hayden received a generous and deserved round of applause from the assembled media and his fellow riders, before sitting down to start the press conference. He was genuinely moved by the whole situation. I watched him closely after being presented the cake, and though he did his best to hide it, the 2006 world champion was choking up. Whether he will ever reach the heights of 2006 again remains to be seen, but he is still a likable and hard-working rider.
Pedrosa's predicament sparked a debate on the merits of surgery, and on dealing with arm pump. We had long conversations with Cal Crutchlow, Sam Lowes and Bradley Smith on the subject, which threw up a few interesting notions. Two things were clear from all that was said by all three riders, all very different in physique and in riding style. Firstly, taller riders have few problems. Secondly, modern braking techniques – using one finger to brake, rather than the whole hand – could be a major influence.
Bradley Smith was particularly eloquent. When asked if he had ever suffered arm pump, Smith confessed that he never had. "Touch wood, I'm fine," Smith said. "But look at my arms compared to who we're speaking about." Though fit as a butcher's dog, as a rather charming English expression has it, Smith is tall, gangly, and slightly built. Compare him to either Crutchlow or Lowes, and they are much more compact, shorter, stockier, more sturdily built. That was definitely a factor, Smith opined. "It seems that longer riders or taller riders seem to struggle less. I don't know if it's the distance between the elbow and the wrist. Because if you imagine all of us have very similar muscle between A and B, but if it's smaller, then it's more compact in there. We're talking about millimeters of space, even less than millimeters when it's inside the body. It's such a complex area, the fact that I have a bigger surface area to spread it about."
Having grown up riding motocross - "one of the most gruelling sports imaginable," in the words of the Tech 3 rider - may have helped, Smith felt. "I think my body is a bit accustomed to it, from six years old I've been riding motocross, and it's one of the places we see it more, and I think I've just been lucky with that." Did it help him to ride more loosely? "It's impossible to say. My braking pressure is the same as the others, but I think it all depends maybe on how many fingers you use on the brake as well. I actually go whole hand to the brake, which if you think we are talking about muscle contraction and being able to get blood in and out of an area, opening your whole hand is potentially helping that circulation through and back. You're also not straining one specific muscle. If all you're using is one finger on the front brake or two, that's a very specific muscle group, whereas if you're using all four, you're spreading the load."
This was a school of thought Sam Lowes could agree to. Lowes also brakes with the whole hand, rather than with just one or two fingers, as is the fashion among many of the GP riders. Lowes put it down to having grown up riding Supersport bikes, rather than racing Grand Prix machines from a young age. He would roll off the throttle and brake in one smooth action, he told us.
Why would using four fingers to brake be better than one? The most reasonable hypothesis is that using the whole hand gives the forearms a moment to relax. If arm pump is caused by a lack of blood flowing through the forearms as riders tense up, and contract their hands into a fist, then forcing the forearms to relax must surely help. Stretching all four fingers releases the muscles which tend to cause arm pump, and allow blood back into the muscle, and down to the hand.
Holding on to the bars with two or three fingers, while you operate the brake with one or two fingers, created a double whammy on the forearms. Braking with a single finger, or two digits, meant that a lot of stress was being placed on particular muscles in the forearm. In the meantime, you are using the other two fingers to hold on to the bars, which are also exerting pressure and loading up the muscle. By using four fingers, there is a brief period with no pressure on the forearm, as the riders unfold the hand and reach for the brake lever. Squeezing it distributes load more evenly, stressing the forearm muscles perhaps less.
Of course, if it rains on Sunday, then arm pump is simply not going to be a problem. Riding in the wet is all about confidence, and with reduced track grip the limiting factor, rather than outright mechanical grip, the loads placed on rider and bike are orders of magnitudes less. So far, the weather looks good for Friday, things getting worse by Saturday and Sunday. But that's just the latest forecast, which is likely to have changed by the time you read this. It is definitely going to rain this weekend, the only question is when. And how much. Things could get interesting.