Riding it out in style
Questions and quick decisions race through his head. Amid the roaring superbikes and rabid riders, Marvin Mangulabnan needs steely focus to spot openings, calculate turns or zoom for the chase.
There’s an art—throw in science and math, as well—in riding big bikes. “It’s very technical,” says Mangulabnan, the 2016 Rider of the Year and overall winner in the Expert class of the 2016 Philippine Superbikes Championship.
“You have to be focused because this sport isn’t that easy. Every movement should be correct, every movement should be precise and consistent.”
It’s the danger that excites many. But for all the thrill-a-second action, a lot of mind work comes into play. “I analyze everything,” says Mangulabnan. “If there are 10 laps, I analyze each lap. I think about when to overtake, which lap, which corner.”
It’s easy to plunge into the sport for sheer pleasure. That knee dragging oh-so-close to the ground? As cool as it looks, it’s no fun trick. It’s a technique that helps riders in tight turns, and it’s a move that takes a lot of practice and prowess.
As Mangulabnan was quick to find out, superbikes demand a lot from the rider. “When I started, I felt like I couldn’t do it,” he shares. “It really surprises you—the power, the G-force, everything. It’s no joke. It’s not easy.”
Although it’s easy to assume that Mangulabnan was built for bikes—his family owns the HGM motor parts brand—he started quite late at 18. And even if his father Henry was into drag racing, two-wheeled rides appealed to him more.
“It’s a different feeling when you feel the outside world,” says Mangulabnan. “You enjoy the wind, the view, everything.”
Starting with the underbone scooter, Mangulabnan made a quick impact by winning his first three races to emerge as the 115cc and 125cc Super Stock Beginner overall champion in 2008. “The goal of many underbone riders is to eventually race in the big bike,” he says. “Every year, I made sure that I progressed.”
But that rise to the top had a lot of collateral damage, of the machine kind. Mangulabnan had no formal training as he relied mostly on instinct and instructions based on his father and rider-friends’ experience.
“At first, it was R&D—research and destroy,” Mangulabnan says with a laugh. “We wouldn’t know unless we tried. So we had many tests, many spills.” Add to that the career-threatening injuries, as he already fractured a leg and seriously dislocated a shoulder.
But a string of successes resulted from all the pain and hard work as Mangulabnan rose through the ranks, turned into a factory rider, and now at 26, rides with BMW Motorrad Philippines. And eventually, he also had formal training in the California Superbike School, a professional riding program launched in the country in 2014.
“During my underbone days, if I took a spill in a turn, I couldn’t approach that same turn the same way as before,” Mangulabnan relates. “There’s fear. But now there’s none. When I take a spill, my approach is I have to correct it.”
Fearless doesn’t mean less nervous, though. Mangulabnan gets solid support from his crew and shows full control on track, but right before his races, the 5-foot-6 rider admits he gets fidgety. “An hour before the race, I get so nervous,” he shares. “I go to the bathroom, I try to sleep, I check the time. Getting nervous has become normal. But at the paddock, I just try to sit down and save energy so I can give it all during the race.”
As the country’s new Superbikes king, though, Mangulabnan knows that work has just gotten harder. “I’ve thought about the pressure, but I’ve turned it into a challenge,” he says. “I’ve targeted this title for a long time. I know it’s harder to defend it.”
And in a sport where a fraction of a second can make all the difference, Mangulabnan knows that fierce rivals like Raniel Resuello and Dashi Watanabe can beat him to the checkered flag anytime. “Anyone can win any time,” he says. “It’s hard to predict. So I just try to be consistent, to be stable.”
Of course, there’s no taking away the fun in the ride. “There’s always enjoyment,” says Mangulabnan. “You can’t win in games if you don’t enjoy.”