Wednesday, November 19, 2008

On Track.... Quite Literally!

I've been riding motorcycles for 27 years and during the course of those years I've watched the bike racing on the TV and said to myself "I'll do that one day". I had planned to do it before I was 40 but somehow that just seemed to pass me by. Even though the thought became increasingly forefront in my mind over the last couple of years, I did nothing about it. I guess this was partly due to the stories I had heard of complete bedlam with novices and full blown racers being on the track at the same time and partly as I couldn't bear the thought of my bike and myself in the kitty litter.

I don't really know what happened, but one day I found myself looking at the IAM website and reading a write up on a "Rider Skills" course held at Mallory Park race track... before I knew it I was signed up in a novice group for the afternoon event on 9th October.

As the weeks passed and the date approached, I became increasingly nervous, what had I done! What had I let myself in for! The appalling weather in late September and early October didn't help with these thoughts either. The day before the event I left work trembling even though the forecast was for an exceptionally nice sunny day and high temperatures. The day had arrived, and I had planned to set off around 9.30am for a nice leisurely trip from Reading to Mallory, aiming to get there in time to watch the later part of the morning session, well that was the plan. I didn't get into the garage until 9.50 as I seemed to spend ages fumbling around getting everything ready, then the bike refused to start! It's never done this before! Was it trying to tell me something, had she refused at the first hurdle? Eventually the bike decided to fire up and we were off. My riding was terrible... I could not seem to concentrate, but as the miles rolled by my nerves seemed to relax somewhat.

Arriving at Mallory, I joined a group of IAM riders that was growing as time passed. There was just every kind of bike imaginable, including a massive BMW K1 200 LT. I found out later that a Goldwing had taken part in the morning session! I didn't have time to check out the track so instead I got chatting to the others waiting in the car park, whilst I eat my sandwiches. As it turned there were quite a few first timers all of whom seemed as apprehensive as me. The sound from the track was impressive as bikes roared around having fun; I really should have gone and taken a peak, as you can't see from the car park. Then 12.30pm arrived, the sound from the track ceased, the main gates opened to allow access to the centre of the track and I was in a line of bikes heading for the registration office. The first thing was to sign up and get allocated to an instructor, then grab a cup of tea and wait in the briefing room for the pre-session talk. Here we met the organisers Roy Aston and John Lickley who along with others gave us our welcome and pre-session briefing. This consisted of learning how things worked, the layout of the circuit, consideration for others, what the flags meant, what not to do (it was not a race and there were no talent scouts watching), and also something that I can only describe as the "fandango" manoeuvre that was used to swap places with the instructor and fellow group members down the start/finish straight. This manoeuvre was necessary to have your turn at the front of the group. Briefing finished, on the bikes and down to the pit area where we met our instructors and were given coloured and numbered bibs. Our group turned out to be quite small with only three pupils (Me (Phil), Paul and Phil) and our Instructor Paul Jones. Paul was an amazing guy who rides bikes at a very high standard as a day job and has been a track instructor on skills days for a couple of decades. He was also an extremely fun guy who lived bikes. Paul explained that he had a syllabus to teach us and we could only progress through the stages if he was happy that we had all reached the required level for each.

Our first session was simple, one lap with the instructor leading, execute a fandango down the straight and continue until everyone had one lap at the front, at which point he would lead us back into the pits. This was all to be carried out around 60mph, but don't look at the speedo! It sounded simple, but as we were the last group to exit the pits, the track was quite full, and checking that you didn't get in anyone's way on the first corner was a little nerve racking. A couple of laps into this session it hit me...."Oh My God I'm on a track!" I whooped as I took off my helmet back in the pits, much to the amusement of a couple of people. "I've done a lap" I said, "err.... four actually" Paul replied. Paul explained that the first session wasn't much more than a look at the track and a huge ice breaker for our nerves. It really worked.

The next session used to be "no braking laps" but had been replaced with "single gear laps". Paul wanted us to use 3rd gear, 2nd allowed at the hairpin and the bus stop, but to use the brakes as little as possible and each person would have two laps at the front. He was looking to ensure that we had perception skills and that we could judge throttle response appropriately for the hazards. Out on the track things felt good, the Fazer having bags of engine braking, and no dramas for any of the group. Our pace hadn't been any higher than the first sessions, perhaps even slower in some sections with no brakes.

Back in the pits and the brief for the third session was any gear allowed but hard braking. He wanted to see a smooth transition from throttle (accelerating) to brakes with no coasting. Braking must have been completed with the bike upright before turning in and without upsetting the bikes stability. I.e. smooth application of the brakes, hard braking with a big squeeze and gentle release so that the bike did not dive and buck. Each person now had three laps at the front, but he also wanted us to "up the pace" somewhat to ensure the desired level of braking was achieved. This would also allow us to experiment with braking distances which he hoped would get shorter and shorter with each lap. Just for good measure Paul said that as I was last in the line I should be an expert by the time I was leading the group. No pressure then! As it turned out the following laps became rather processional following other groups which meant we didn't really achieve the pace Paul was looking for. That was until half way through my first lap when the entire field of riders in front peeled off into the pits leaving me with an open track. It looked so enticing and scary at the same time. Up to the hairpin and I braked way too early coasting the final few metres. Next time around with increased pace and braking later for all the corners, things really started to make sense. It's amazing the feel you get from the brakes and how controlled you can be.

Back in the pits and Paul seemed pleased so on with the next session which was about gear selection for various parts of the track. We now had four laps at the front but we no longer needed to stick to our line formation once complete. Paul had one last piece of advice before going out "Overtake when you get the chance". Out on the track the advice about short shifting for various sections made sense and seemed to be working. I was starting to use the throttle more effectively through the Esses giving more drive down the straight where we were now passing other riders, much to our jubilation. It was my turn in front and I had been making steady progress with more throttle and brakes being used as everything started to fall into place. However on one lap I fixed my sights on passing a rider some distance ahead on the straight. I gave it more throttle than I had before and was approaching him fast. At some point I realised that I was not going to get passed and brake to my usual entry speed before needing to turn into Gerrards. After a very brief moment of mental debate I decided to accept my higher entry speed (still a lot slower than some) and attempt an overtake through the corner. What a feeling it was as I rode around the outside and accelerated out of the corner. I'm not sure if they heard my "Yahoo!" in the pits. The only problem was that in the excitement I suddenly realised I had missed my braking point for the next chicane, Edwinas. On with the brakes and I squeezed as never before. Gentle release and turn in and I was through. Phew! Back in the pits Paul commented it was nice to see the increase in pace and moving the braking point so far on. If only he knew!

The next and final session was "out on your own". Paul would be honing around keeping an eye on us, but we could do our own thing. We still had 45 minutes left of track time, but before we did anything he made sure we took on plenty of fluids. I went out with 30 minutes to go and 15 minutes in I was pretty tired and starting to make mistakes. I eased off a bit and just enjoyed the track and the experience for the rest of the session until the chequered flag came out. Paul seemed happy with us stating that we had doubled our speed and halved our braking distance.

Finally there was a pit lane debrief with everyone, just to calm things down, before heading home.

I was a lot slower than many people around the track, in fact I was the slowest in my group, but I had experienced my bike and myself in a whole new light. What a day it had been and one I would recommend to everyone.

Thanks to John, Roy, Paul and everyone else who made the day possible, it was greatly appreciated by everyone.

Photos of the event can be seen at http://www.photoboxgallery.com/roberthands or my personal pics can be viewed at

http://www.flickr.com/photos/pashworth/sets/72157607960474703/. I didn't say I was Valentino Rossi so don't expect too much.

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