Wednesday 2 September 2020

Back at Wiscombe

 [ Written for the NHCA Hill Climber magazine, as penance for causing the first red flag at Wiscombe]

With the season being canned before it even started - my Hartland entry form is still sitting upstairs unposted - I'd written off 2020 completely. But if I'm writing this, then I must have binned it at Wiscombe and had to write something for Reg as penance. That's fine by me, because if my days-since-last-crash counter is back at zero, that means I got to ride at all, which is great, and I was pushing hard enough to make a mistake, which is even better. As it says on a thousand tshirts: If you're not crashing, you're not trying hard enough, right?

Anyway, Wiscombe. I'd already had a play at Shelsley (thanks to the powers-that-be for that one) so wasn't starting completely cold, but thanks to the Bat Flu it's been over a year since we were last at Wiscombe and the hill was greener than I was. Holed up in the socially-distanced top paddock for a change, we all got a chance to check out the hill on the way down before ragging it back up. And just as well we did, as every run brought something new. First moss. Then rain. Then a car dumped a gearbox full of oil on pretty much the entire racing line, which must have miffed the sidecar crews a little bit because I thought that was their job. But everyone made it to the top one way or another, nobody got hurt, and we got to do it all again the very next day.

So why am I writing this? I lost the back on two runs trying to tap the power on at Martini, and one of them ended with a little pirouette, and me on my backside trying to keep my helmet off the round. Makes a change for me to bin it at a final corner, as I usually do it at the first. Crashed my bicycle after dropping the van off too - lost the front in the rain that time. Nice to mix things up a bit, but at this rate I'd best get a head start writing another article for Reg.

I won't even pretend to know who got FTD. None of it really matters very much, because there's no points, no championship, and I guess we're all doing it just for fun. My times were nothing to shout about and I doubt anyone broke any records, but Simon Wilson had brought his CRF along and we have a nice little grudge match going on between the two of us in the absence of a proper championship. Hopefully everyone enjoyed the weekend at least as much as I did, and more than the usual thanks to everyone involved in organising - it must be a right pain at the moment, especially with Covid precautions in place, and it's hugely appreciated. Without you guys, I wouldn't get to fall off and write about it.

Tuesday 11 September 2018

A weekend on the hills

[ Written for the NHCA Hill Climber magazine, as penance for causing the first red flag at Manor ]

I'm pretty green at this hill-climb lark, having been cajoled by Pete Fisher into a one-off ride at Hartland a couple of years ago. The ever-generous Simon Wilson was happy to lend me his 250 and 450 for a double entry. While that visit was nothing stellar, when I tried again the following April I managed to pick up a couple of championship points and, rather ungraciously, beat Simon on his own bike! If not for already spending too much time and money racing short circuits, I'd have been straight back for more. But the bug had bitten, and I knew I'd be on the hills again at some point.

Ignoring the view at Hartland
(Photo nicked from Facebook, so apologies to the unknown snapper)

I'd fancied a shot at Wiscombe since popping down to spectate a couple of years ago. With Manor Farm nearby, and both days bikes-only for double entries, I figured I'd make a weekend of it. Simon was kind enough to lend me his bikes again, having scampered off to other classes, so I booked a van and headed down to Charmouth.

My first job at Manor Farm on Saturday morning was to walk the hill. It never tells me much about what it'll be like to ride at speed, but it's always good to know where blind bits go in advance. Things have changed since the guide on the website was written - after the horrible off-camber first corner, the nice fast bit down to a bridge, and the short blast up the other side, instead of turning right through a hedge I found a wiggly footpath across a field to the finish line. It's like threading a needle on a bike, so I don't envy those daft enough to rag cars up it.

My first practice run wasn't exactly textbook. A hot head, cold tyres, and lack of recent practice meant I asked a bit too much of the rear with the bike still on its side, and it spat me off in the first corner. All happened rather quickly, but from the way the bike (and I) landed I'm guessing it was a highside, so that's now ticked off the bucket list. Once I'd got the bike back to the paddock, and let the adrenaline wear off, I could feel throbbing in my boot, so took it off to see what I'd done. And promptly put it back on again before anyone sensible saw what I'd just seen.

Taken after the swelling had gone down a bit!

Being one of the first up on the tiddler each time gave me a lovely view of other people being much better at threading that needle than I was. Almost everyone crossed the line on the black bit between the bales, which is quite important as it saves someone having to run over and break the beam for them. I was very ginger through the first corner after my earlier antics, losing a couple of seconds to the pole every time, but made it to the top seven times without falling off, which was nice. I even picked up a point on the 250, a mere six-and-a-bit seconds behind the whippet-like Glyn Poole at the top of the sheet. People with names like Tilley, Short, Hodges and Mills took the top spots, which I understand is quite normal at these events, and records fell in almost every class. Fastest of the day went to Tom Short with 27.03 seconds, half a second under the old record, which is frankly bonkers.

The fun part over, we loaded the van, refuelled at the excellent local chippy, and headed over the county line to Wiscombe.

Trundling down the hill to the paddock, I thought "this is more like it". One of my favourite circuits to race at is Thruxton, a Proper Circuit by any measure. Wiscombe is, I reckon, a Proper Hill. It's also long, and steep, which made the mandatory walk up Saturday evening a tad awkward after my off a few hours earlier. Even walking around the paddock had become a chore. Still, it had to be done - nobody likes a quitter - and once back at the van with a shandy in my hand I was looking forward to ragging the bikes up it in the morning.

My first couple of runs were cautious, all about learning the hill. Making sure it really did go straight on after the blind Bunny's Leap; learning how quickly the Gate corner comes up when you do keep it pinned over Bunny's; how many bends there are through the Esses (5? 10? 99?); and how late to haul it up before Martini - preferably late enough not to have to open the throttle again before grinding to a halt!

The perfect weather dispelled any fears about repeating the previous morning's trick through the first corner, and each run saw my times drop quickly down the lower fifties - the more seconds there are to lose, the easier they seem to be to find. The final runs saw me pick up another three points on the 250, still a country mile behind Glyn but ahead of plenty, and I dipped into the 49s on the 450, which everyone told me was quite respectable for a first visit. I'll take whatever praise I can get.

Records fell again in the 250, 750 and sidecar classes, with Tom Short taking FTD once more, a tenth-and-a-bit short of breaking the outright record. A special mention goes to (I think) Gareth Brown, for the spectacular crunchy noises everyone at the top heard him and his KTM make as they tumbled up to Martini at the end of the day.

And now for the epilogue. After dropping the bikes off at Simon's, sitting parked on the M4 for hours watching flashing blue lights, and eventually getting home about 2am, I took the van back Monday morning and went straight to the local hospital to get my by-then multi-coloured foot checked out. An X-ray showed why walking the hill at Wiscombe had been an ordeal, and I was given a funky boot to wear for a couple of months. That meant I had to cancel my entry for NG at Oulton Park, and no sneaky trip to Hartland either. Funny how, when the visor goes down, all that matters is getting to the finish line as quickly as possible. Racers, eh? We shouldn't be let loose without adult supervision.

You can't get these at Dolcis

Huge thanks to all involved with organising, marshalling and riding at both events, especially Simon Wilson for lending me bikes, let alone not killing me for crashing them. Hope to see you all again some time. And thanks to the staff at Queen Mary's Hospital, Roehampton, who I hope I never need to see again, ever.

Wednesday 29 August 2018

Another season almost over

It's been a while since I wrote anything up, and I was at Donington recently, for two more days ragging my old banger round the circuit.

Getting up there was the usual chore - picking up the van, loading up, sitting in traffic for four hours... this stuff always gives me a can't-be-arsed feeling that disappears the moment I roll out of the pitlane for the first time and realise there's nothing on earth I'd rather be doing.

MSV have taken over operations at Donington and they've already made some big improvements. The old second-hand leathers shop in the paddock has been replaced by a shiny new bar and restaurant that's similar to those at other MSV circuits. They've added some extra showers (previously there were only two, which wasn't really enough for a paddock holding about a thousand people), and they're hot enough to strip paint, let alone clean skin. Paddock 3, formerly gravel and muck, has all been freshly tarmacked, and there's fresh paint everywhere - no more blue and white, it's MSV red and white everywhere. The rest of the facilities at Donington were always pretty decent, for competitors at least, but it good to see some money going in, even if some of what made Donington feel different to other circuits is being lost.

There was a car trackday going on until 9pm so anyone wanting a garage had to queue up in the outer paddock and wait til almost bedtime, long after scrutineering had closed. I opted for the gazebo-and-generator combo for the weekend, which I kind of prefer anyway. I bought a yet another set of numbers (they keep changing this season, for various reasons), got scruted and signed on, and caught up with the usual faces around the paddock before an early night in the back of the van. Saturday morning I was up early to fit tyre warmers, fire up the genny, make some coffee, and join the race-day queues at the paddock toilets.

Back when I started racing, one thing I noticed at my first meeting was the difference between practice sessions and a trackday. While the latter starts with everyone lining up neatly in the assembly area, being waved out as pairs in an orderly fashion, at a race meeting it's like bulls being let out of a pen. Everyone jostles to get near the front for a better chance of a clear track, or at least not getting bunched up behind slow guys for a bit. At that first meeting I was happy to tag on at he back, but I noticed these days I'm jostling with everyone else.

It'd been a cold night, and it was still a cold morning for timed practice, though the sun was out and it started to warm up quickly enough. I had hot tyres, a big old GP circuit, and ten minutes to do two jobs: get my head up to speed , and remind myself which way the corners went. I usually cycle round the circuit on the Friday evening, but that hadn't been possible with the cars still going round, so I had to refresh my memory in practice. It felt rubbish. Wrong gear everywhere, crap lines, just hopeless. But it was only practice, and when I got my times I was pleased to see I was only a couple of seconds off my best times from past visits, so not a bad place to start.

Back in the paddock I just about had time to wolf down a bacon roll before I was back out for qualifying. NG have changed their format this year, with a proper timed qualifying session for all classes. In previous years, the qualifier was a race with a grid start, with positions mostly decided by when entries were received. The faster boys prefer the new format, knowing their position in the finals will be decided purely by lap time, but for the hobbyists at the back it's just another timed practice session, and a lost opportunity for another race. Still, it is what it is, and all the other clubs seem to do the same.

I felt a bit more comfortable with each lap, if a bit tired by the end, which I can only blame on holidays and weekends away, with no exercise and too much booze. The results showed me 29th on a mixed grid of 40 in three classes - pre-injection 700, streetstocks 700, and streetstocks 1300. The stockers are all pretty modern, with the front-runners having a good 90bhp (plus the electronics) more than my old banger. I was still 16th of 20 in class, which wasn't great, but my lap times wer easily on a par with anything I'd ever done round Donington before, and Lee, my in-class nemesis for the weekend, was only one spot and half a second ahead of me. I think everyone has a nemesis, not always the same one, because for those of us down the ranks, it's the people around that you're really racing against, not the guys at the front. I'd also finished in front of two bigger bikes that had been annoying me throughout qualifying, whose riders who were great down the straights but not so great through the corners. The power difference made them hard to pass, but starting in front would make life easier.

I only had an hour or so in the paddock before I was back out for another qualifying session. This year I've been entering the open 600 class with all the fast boys, as a cheap way of getting some extra time on track. It's half price for a second entry, and peanuts compared to the overall cost, so seems daft not to. Back at my first race meeting, some last minute schedule changes meant my fourth race started on a mixed grid behind the open 600s. I'd done the maths and knew the fast guys were going to catch me after just five laps or so. Sure enough they did, and it was rough. First one went past me at the end of the main straight. Then as I went to tip in to the third corner, I found there was already a bike on the apex, and another one coming round the outside. That put me off doing the extra class for a while, but these days I'm quick enough not to get lapped, occasionally even being the one doing the lapping, which I'll call some kind of progress. Qualifying saw me 32nd out of 40, but two full seconds a lap quicker than in the earlier session, and Lee this time only a tenth of a second ahead. Best of all, I knew why I was quicker, having experimented with a few extra gear changes, so it all looked good for the races proper.

The first lap of the pre-injection/streetstocks race was scrappy. The bike two rows in front of me on the grid, and right in my line, stalled at the start, and people were swerving around to avoid it. Someone went straight off at Redgate, and I had to force myself to stop looking at the bloke fishtailing through the gravel, remembering the 38 other bikes around me in the first corner. Another bike went down at Craner, with a huge cloud of dust and grot going into the old hairpin. After that it settled down a bit and I had a decent enough scrap, finishing 15th in class (out of 20), 21st overall, and almost 8 seconds ahead of Lee. I'd beaten my main rival, picked up a championship point, and hadn't felt tired at the end, so was happy enough.

The 600 race was much the same - some chaos on the first lap, finished 33rd overall, almost half a second a lap quicker again, wasn't lapped, kept Lee well behind me, and had tyres so hot I could smell them when I got back to the paddock. A good day's racing, with times going in the right direction and the bike tucked up for the night before the rain started.

Sunday morning was wet. Not biblical rain as we'd had at Snetterton earlier in the season, but the paddock was properly soaked. I never bother with practice on Sunday morning, preferring a lie-in and a mooch around the paddock, so I walked over to Redgate to see what the track was like. While there was spray coming up in the first session, a dry line had started to appear in the second. We were race 6, and I figured that by then, if the rain held off, it might be properly dry. And it would, had it not been for the heavens opening again, 30 minutes before the first pre-injection race of the day. We all promptly got busy swapping wheels back to wets, but I had a hunch we were making the wrong call.

Only a couple of bikes turned up in the assembly area on dry tyres. Rolling out of the assembly area and onto the grid, the track wasn't just damp, it was properly wet, and slippery with it. As was the first corner, but from there it was bone dry until the final chicane. I still can't decide what the right choice of tyre would have been, but I noticed someone pull into the pits at the end of the warm-up lap, clearly having decided it wasn't worth shredding a set of wets for the sake of a couple of points. I thought I might as well play, but I'd have to be careful, as my wets were already four years old and have seen plenty of dry use. I was six seconds a lap slower, tiptoeing around on cooked tyres, but so was just about everyone else, and I came home 11th in class, almost catching another bike in front of me across the line (albeit a streetstock, so didn't really matter). It had felt like a bit of a waste of time though, more a lesson in tyre management than a race, and I'd learned nothing for the final.

Not having entered the 600 race for the Sunday, I had a long wait for my last pre-injection race of the weekend. It was going to be dry, I was itching to play, and it was awesome. Straight off the grid I felt faster, and I was in a pack of seven bikes in various classes swapping places for the whole eight laps, passing here, being passed there. Sometimes frustrating, stuck behind some bikes that were slower in corners than me but had better drive down the straights, and I screwed up a couple of times, outbraking myself into the chicane trying to pass too many bikes at once. But I'd cracked the 1:20s, three seconds quicker than I'd ever been round Donington before, and only two and a half seconds a lap slower than the class winner, halving the gap from the day before.

Great fun, clear progress, and no crashing. All I look for in a weekend of racing. My next outing, skipping Castle Combe, would be Oulton Park on the 6th of October, and I couldn't wait.

And then I went to do a couple of hillclimbs, broke my ankle, and the season was over. Bah.

Wednesday 11 October 2017

Another season over

Last weekend I was doing the last round of the NG championship at Thruxton, mostly in those horrible neither-wet-nor-dry that everyone hates.

First practice was rather damp, but Thruxton has an odd (but immensely grippy) surface where the aggregate sits fairly proud of the asphalt, so it can be soaking wet but there's still no spray, making it rather deceptive. Pretty much everyone was on wets and taking it gently, but someone (and there's always one) who'd opted for a dry rear binned it coming out of the chicane at the end of the first lap.

I was out for race one on the R6 triple, so while the other practice sessions were on I was in the paddock, watching the tarmac for hints of dry patches, and seeing what other people were doing. Conditions were still mixed, with those who'd been on wets coming in muttering about grip and ruined tyres, and switching to dry rubber for their first races, while those who'd been out on dry tyres came in with thousand-yard stares and switched to wets. A combination of laziness and caution meant I decided to stick with the wets for race one - they've done three seasons, they're due for replacement anyway, and the afternoon was forecast to be dry, so ripping up a set of old tyres in the qualifier wouldn't be the end of the world.

If I'd known how long it'd take to get through what should have been six back-to-back ten-minute sessions, I'd have done the wheel swap. By the time race one was called the track was officially damp but in reality pretty much dry, if still cold, and with pretty much everyone else also on wets, a lot of tyres would have gone in the bin after six laps. The overall pace was about ten seconds off what it should have been - rain tyres on a dry track are pretty unpleasant once they warm up - but I brought it home ninth in class after a reasonable tussle with a bloke on a steelie.

Come the start of race eleven, which included the pre-injection 700 final, the track was properly dry and I was itching for my only chance for a full thrash round Thruxton this year. I had another cracking scrap with the bloke on the steelie, swapping places a couple of times each lap - his motor was running like crap at the top end, so my power advantage down the back straight stopped him getting away. But mostly it was good, clean passes. If he ran wide out of Church or Segrave, I nipped past on the inside. And if I'm good at anything it's late-braking, so if I couldn't get past on the straight, I sealed the deal into the final chicane.

All of which saw me finish ninth in class again, with big grins and air punches all round on the cool-down lap. I had a chat with the bloke on the steelie on the way back to the paddock, and we'd both had about as much fun as we'd had all year. Ninth isn't exactly my career best at Thruxton, but there were plenty behind me, and any chance to rag a bike round Thruxton is one to be taken - it's fast like no other circuit in the country, and it's not like it's open for trackdays.

So that's it for 2017. Twelfth in the final championship standings, down from seventh the previous two years, but I skipped a couple of rounds I couldn't be arsed to do, and the pace this year was high. I cut four seconds off my lap time at Cadwell, and still finished last in class in three races!

The bike's now tucked up in the garage, where it'll fester til I can be arsed to change the oil after winter. I'm told the average club racing career lasts for three years, and that was my third season. Since I've no intention of hanging up my leathers just yet, I'm finally above average at something! As long as the bike's still running, and I've got the cash, it looks like I'll still be racing.

Now, anyone want to buy some knackered kneesliders?

Wednesday 29 July 2015

Playing with the big boys

So here I am, a little over halfway through my first season of road racing. Regular readers (if there are any) may remember I had my first outing at Cadwell Park in April, having missed the first two rounds at Brands Hatch in March after a bit of overexcitement while testing the bike at Cadwell a weekend earlier. Hurt my wallet more than anything, but allowed Mark to open up a championship lead over me early on.

What have I learnt over the last few months? Well, for one, that I'm pretty rubbish. Being lapped by the front-runners has become something of a fact of life, and once I'd got the circuit I know best (Cadwell) out of the way the last-lap board became little more than a distant memory. For another, that trackdays taught me nothing about racing. They taught me plenty about trackcraft - how to throw a bike around to get it to go round a circuit at a reasonable pace, which has very, very little to do with riding a bike on the road. But racecraft? That, it turns out, is another thing altogether.

After Cadwell came Oulton Park. I'd been to Oulton a few times for trackdays. My first trip was pretty much a write-off due to being put in the novice group and not moving up when I should have done. My second was ended after one session by a fatality, and my third ended after four sessions with me on my arse and the bike on its side. A bit of a mixed bag. As to the racing, not much to report - I only had two races, it being a one-day event, and achieved little more than collecting a signature for a finish, putting me one step closer to losing the novice jacket.

Next up was Castle Combe. This was a circuit I'd never seen before, let alone ridden. They do run trackdays, around once a month, but noise limits are fearsomely strict and even standard road bikes fail at times. This ruled out using the race bike, so I took the mirrors off my trusty old gixer thou and booked a day of practice. It wouldn't teach me much about riding an R6 round the circuit, but would at least let me learn whether it went right or left at each corner. And it'd be a day ragging the gixer round a circuit - some things just have to be done.

Because I'd never ridden the circuit before, I had to go to a novice briefing and was obliged to wear a natty blue jacket while out on track, to let people know this whole riding-on-a-track thing was new to me. Alright, not obliged, more recommended, but I thought it'd give me a chance to showboat past the photographer and get a happily ironic photo with my bib on.

Showboating as a novice at Castle Combe

If I learnt anything from that trackday, it was that road rubber was no longer going to be good enough. I'd been using Michelin Pilot Supersport tyres on the gixer for a couple of years, and always found them up to the job, but every time I took the right-hander at Folly, doing the thick end of 140mph, I could feel the bike skipping sideways. Not sliding, not at one end, both ends skipping across the tarmac, taking me towards the outside of the bend. I'd been using the same rubber on the R6, to keep the tyre bills down, but the time had come to start spending money, and I swapped the Michelins for a set of Metzeler Racetec RRs, full-blown race rubber, second only to slicks.

Castle Combe only sees one bike racing event each year - the Motorcycle Grand National, for which NGRRCC provides the bulk of the racing. Also on the schedule would be the British F2 sidecar championships, featuring all the big names from the TT podiums, and the Lansdowne Classic series, with big names from the past riding fifty year old GP bikes. Making room for those meant compressing the schedule, and that meant losing the Newcomer races and merging the PI700 class with Streetstocks. The former meant one less race over the weekend, which I was happy to trade for being able to race in front of a decent crowd, and the latter meant sharing a grid with 48 other bikes - a somewhat daunting prospect when starting 45th on the grid. That's a lot of bikes to dodge when trying to get a good start, and a lot of bikes piling into the first corner.

Getting lapped, and trying hard not to be

The weather was, on the whole, pretty good, but my results were pretty dreadful, crowned with a personal low in the last race of the weekend. Fluids on the track meant an extended wait on the grid and a second warm-up lap, and by the time the red lights went out my bladder was full to bursting. Unable to focus on the race (look, this is my excuse and I'm sticking to it) I found myself crossing the line in flat-out last place, and the only bike on the grid to be lapped. Still, at this level finishes are finishes, and I picked up two more signatures, putting me halfway to a Clubman licence. Despite the results, two days' racing is still two days' racing, and I drove the van home on Sunday evening sublimely happy and ready to put my entry for the next round in the post.

I also left with one glimmer of hope - wet practice times. From my first time using rain tyres on a wet trackday at Oulton Park, I knew I was happy to push in the wet. Almost happier than pushing in the dry. This was backed up by my times from wet practice sessions - whereas dry sessions would see me bringing up the rear, around 14 seconds behind the fastest in my class, wet sessions would see me close that gap by up to ten seconds. Nobody really wants to be labelled a Wet Weather Specialist, but with no other specialism I was happy to play the Ant West card if the opportunity arose.

First day on rain tyres

The next round would be at Thruxton, which only sees four race events a year - two for cars (British Touring Car and BARC) and two for bikes (British Superbike and NG). Beyond that it's used for little but car experience days - there are no trackdays, so if you want to ride a bike there, the only option is to go racing. This was one of the reasons I wanted an ACU licence. The fastest circuit in the country? Let me at it!

Friday started badly with heavy rain and I arrived in the paddock two hours later than intended. Scrutineering had already started, so I threw up my shelter as quickly as I could, removed the sidestand from the bike and pushed it over to the scrutineering shed. At the first round the procedural side of racing - scrutineering and sign-on - was completely new to me. I had no idea what I was doing, had no confidence the bike would be fit to race, and was a bit of a rabbit in headlights. Four meetings later and it's a different story. No more than half an hour later the bike and my riding gear had passed inspection, I was signed on and I had my practice card for the first session on Saturday morning.

Apart from setting up in the paddock and getting an early night, I had one other thing to do: walk the circuit. This being my first visit to Thruxton, and there being no way to ride the circuit beforehand, my first time on track would be timed practice on Saturday morning. I'd watched some onboard videos on Youtube, but all that'd done was scare me silly. I was properly nervous about Thruxton, and watching laps of BSB races wasn't the right way to improve matters.

The track walk was very useful - in the company of a couple of experienced racers, we spent an hour or so walking round the circuit, making a note of kerbs and apexes, and memorising which way it went at each corner. Even for an airfield circuit (with a live airport in the centre), Thruxton is featureless and offers very little to use as markers for braking and turn-in. Fortunately there aren't many places where braking is needed - with a couple of exceptions it's mostly a case of "how big are your balls", with vast sections taken at full throttle with the bike on its side. By the end of the walk the circuit no longer felt threatening, and I got an early night feeling fairly confident.

First practice on Saturday morning was a little different. A bend that feels comfortable at walking pace is a different matter with 155mph on the speedo. My times from practice weren't going to set the world alight, with a best of 1:44.24, but they were coming down with each lap and the bike was working perfectly. And I'd had the chance to ride Thruxton. As I said at the time, that alone made every penny I'd spent racing feel worth it. And it's a lot of pennies.

The rest of the day was mostly the same old story - I was able to keep other bikes in sight for the first lap or two, and then watched them vanish into the distance. At the end of lap four I saw the last-lap board, which meant I was going to be able to finish full race distance. I took the chequered flag without being passed, and the results showed I'd knocked five seconds off my lap time from practice, a best of 1:39.31. I had only done twelve laps of the circuit in total - including one on foot and one warm-up lap at near-race pace. The second race saw me put in a best lap of 1:38.76 and collect a handful of championship points. With another signature and another nibble into Mark's championship lead, I looked to the sky and prayed for rain.

The last race of the day was the Open Newcomers, for anyone on a bike over 500cc who'd been racing less than two years. At my first meeting, this was my highlight. This time I can't really remember much about it, but I put in a 1:37.86, my fastest lap of the weekend.

The forecast for Sunday was rain. Biblical rain. The kind of rain that makes people build boats and load them with animals two-by-two. And, luckily for me, the forecast was spot on. The day started with wind and heavy, diagonal rain, which stopped just minutes before third practice, when I was due on track. That meant the circuit would be soaking wet, but with no rain, which is pretty much my idea of perfection. The results, at first glance, told a different story. 17 seconds off the pace at the front. But a closer look showed me only 7 seconds off the pace in my class. Things looked promising.

The qualifiying race was a revelation. Rather than watch the pack run off into the distance, I found I could stick with them. Not just for the first lap, but for the second and third. And then I was closing the gap. For the last three laps I was tagged to the three bikes in front and had a chance to measure them up, work out where I was stronger and they were weaker, while watching them come close to disaster into the final chicane, enough distance between us that I could avoid the fallout and pick up a place or two if things went wrong. On the last lap I took a different line through the last turn of the complex, drove out of the corner, and passed bike 41 in front. He'd finished 31 seconds ahead of me in the qualifying race on Saturday, but had been slower than me in wet practice and now I was ahead. But not for long - he dived past me again into the next corner and the pack of four bikes crossed the line a quarter of a second apart. For most of the cool-down lap I was laughing inside my helmet, cackling with glee. For the first time I'd had an actual race, rather than an extended practice session; I'd had a chance to size up the bike in front, work out where to pass, and made the pass work. But I'd failed to make it stick. But this was progress, real progress. And my best lap was a 1:44.37, as fast as I'd been in practice the previous morning, in the dry.

I turned this slider round before the last race to extend its life. It didn't last long.

The second race on Sunday was the last of the day, and the last of the weekend. Buoyed by my performance in the qualifier, I was itching to get out and see what I could do in the championship race. So long as I could get a reasonable start, and keep the pack in sight over the first couple of laps, I stood a chance. And so it was - lights out, first lap done, and head down. On lap 3 I passed 41 again, and this time I was determined to make it stick, taking defensive lines into each corner to make sure he couldn't dive inside me again to take the place back. This meant compromising the chase to the next bike, but I knew from the earlier race that I stood a chance of closing the gap. Half a lap later I glanced over my shoulder and 41 was nowhere to be seen, and I knew I'd pulled it off. That just left the gap to 113 in front.

Corner by corner I closed the gap down, and spent a couple of laps watching to see where he was strong and where I might be able to make a pass. On the last lap I knew what I had to do - carry more speed through Church, the last fast right-hander, and use that speed to draw level on the final straight, a flat-out sixth-gear left kink leading to the final chicane. As I exited the corner I could see he wasn't pulling away, despite being ahead, and as we passed through the kink I was alongside. That just left the chicane. In near zero-visibility with the spray, on a soaking wet track, I left it to the absolute last moment before hauling on the front brake, and immediately thought I'd made a terrible mistake. From roughly 145mph to under 30 in a matter of yards, I might scrub the speed but there was no way I was going to make it through the corner. But I was wrong - I just managed to haul the bike up, throw it in right, throw it back left, throw it right again, and I was onto the finish straight. In the wrong gear, with no drive, this would be all about the dash to the line, so I stamped down the box, whacked the throttle open and ducked behind the screen to take the chequered flag.

And that was it - I'd made another pass stick. Sixth place, my best ever result, beating seventh by half a second, and with a best and final lap of 1:38.87. Only a tenth of a second off my best time in the dry the day before, and only four seconds off the pace of the class winner, and almost six seconds faster than my previous best in the wet. A huge improvement over anything I'd done before.

It turns out I have bollocks after all. Big ones, when they're needed. And oh god isn't racing fun when you're doing it properly?

Next up, Anglesey. Another circuit I've never seen before. Suffice to say, I shall being doing my best rain dance.

Results here and here.

Monday 13 April 2015

First time racer

Well, that's it. Something I'll never be able to do again: last weekend I did my first race. Was it worth the time, money and effort? Was it fun? Everything I hoped it'd be? We'll come to that.

Seven months ago, in September 2014, somebody planted the idea in my head. Stop playing games. Endless trackdays. Do it properly. Go racing. November saw my ACU test done and licence arrive, December saw an extra bike in the garage and after many, many evenings, weekends and grazed knuckles in the garage, by March I had something roughly like a race bike. And then, the weekend before I was due to race for the first time, I crashed it while testing at a trackday. Cue a couple of frantic weeks of repair work and shopping for parts, ending with yet another bike in the garage being cannibalised for parts over Easter. Entry in, van booked, repairs done, and ready for another go.

Friday started early, picking up and then loading the van, and by lunchtime I was on the road. Cadwell Park is a long slog from south west London, six hours' drive in traffic, and after a lively dash down some single-track roads to avoid jams I parked up in the paddock at next to Mark's tent. Mark is the cousin of a friend of mine, and the three of us are all racing for the first time this season, all in the pre-injection 700 championship class with North Glos racing. Not superbikes and not MZs, it's a keen but relatively cheap class to play in, and not a bad place to start.

I had just enough time to unload the van, sort a few things out and take the bike down for scrutineering. I'd spent the week leading up to the event waiting for the nerves to kick in. They didn't appear until Thursday evening, and it was nothing to do with the race itself. I'd converted the road bike myself, with some professional help with the engine, and the ACU Road Race rulebook is long and detailed. My main worry wasn't that I'd get hurt or look like an idiot on track, it was that scrutes wouldn't let me race the bike at all.

My fears proved unfounded, with just a minor grumble about hollow tips on the foot pedals and plastic dustcaps on the tyre valves instead of metal ones. I promised to sort them out and that was it, my technical control card was signed. A few minutes later my kit had been approved and I was in the race office signing on for the first time. All simple formalities, for the most part, and I've done a lot of trackdays and gone to a lot of races as a (mostly quite drunk) spectator, but as a first-timer at a serious event it was all a bit daunting. Still, job done and I'd pretty much finished setting up in the paddock when my support crew for the weekend started to arrive. Paul (aka Eddie) was going to be around until Saturday afternoon, seeing me through practice and the first race, and Andy and Adie were around most of the weekend. Along with Mark and a few other people I already knew in the paddock, I was far from alone. After a quick dinner in town I got an early and unusually sober night, catching what sleep I could while the wind and rain howled round the shelter.

Saturday started before 7am as I packed up the tent, unloaded the bike from the van and got my head ready for first practice. Each race day starts with short practice sessions to meet ACU rules, and nobody gets to race without doing at least two timed laps. By the time Eddie crawled out of his tent I'd had the bike through noise testing, got the tyre warmers on and was about to get kitted up. And then the rain came back with a vengeance. Practice was going to be wet and windy.

We quickly swapped wheels - everyone has a spare set with rain tyres fitted and I was no exception. And then, minutes before my session was due to start, I noticed two metal tubes on the ground next to the back wheel. Early R6s have an odd arrangement with a roller bearing in the rear wheel, and the inner collar and spacer can easily fall out. That meant there was no inner race on the wheel bearing, so the wheel had to come back out. With perfect timing the wind picked up, and while Eddie and a neighbour fought to stop the shelter flying away, I quickly got to work, helmet on and fully kitted up. As I took the sprocket carrier off I realised I was an idiot - the spacer and collar were from the wheel I'd taken off, not the one I'd put on. I had moments left to fit the wheel, get my gloves on and head down to the assembly area, leaving Eddie to fight against the wind.

Practice felt much like the fast group at a cold, wet trackday, with one big difference - rather than an orderly exit from the assembly area onto the circuit, when the gate opened it was like bulls being let out of a pen. This wasn't playtime anymore. This was serious. And conditions were horrible. The rain had stopped but the circuit was like ice and even rain tyres struggle when stone cold. Coming out of Barn onto the pit straight, as I wound the throttle on, the motor bogged down briefly then came alive, spinning up the rear wheel and lurching it sideways. Taking it steady, I felt for grip and eased myself into the session. Entering the Mountain for the first time the yellow flags were out, and the track was full of marshals picking up a bike laying on its side halfway up the slope. My head wasn't quite in the right place after the last-minute panic in the paddock and the weather wasn't helping, but I needed the practice - my last visit had ended in the crash that ruled me out of racing at Brands the month before - so I stayed out for the session and tried to get comfortable. At the time I felt tense and slow, and my times were nothing to shout about, but looking at the results now they were actually relatively OK - 18th of 30, ahead of some who would demolish me in the dry later on.

Session over, I parked up in the paddock, added enough fuel to see me through the next race, and got busy cooking bacon rolls for breakfast. Racing, it turns out, is a bit like being a gerbil - hours of doing nothing punctuated by short bursts of frenzied activity. With practice over by 10am, and my first race not til around 2pm, I had time to kill, and it was mostly spent walking round the paddock looking at other people thinking the same thing: what the hell was the weather going to do, and what tyres would we need? Fortunately the rain held off, and the rest of the day was cold and windy, but dry. After what seemed like an eternity, the call came over the paddock tannoy - race 9 to the assembly area. It was time to pop my racing cherry.

I've ridden into the assembly area at Cadwell 80 or 90 times over the years for trackday sessions, but it never really meant anything, just a bit of fun. This felt different. At the gate I was told my grid position, which I already knew from the entry list in the programme. The first ten places go in championship order, and the rest are sorted by the postman - the last person to get their entry in goes at the back of the grid, and that was me in 15th place. Or, at least, I thought it was. The gate opened and we rode onto the circuit and down to the grid, where I took up my place at the back. There were no numbers by the markings so I stopped at the back and looked at the gaps ahead, wondering which idiot was in the wrong place. I hadn't realised four more had entered too late to get in the programme, and I was one row back from where I should have been. Still, I didn't mind - it was my first race, starting from the back would just mean nobody carving past me on the way to the first corner. And so the green flag was waved and we were off for the warmup lap. Warmup is meant to be taken at near race pace, and I quickly realised I'd missed a rare chance for a practice start as we took a lap at a pace that would terrify a novice at a trackday but felt quite comfortable on a circuit I knew well, and which was now completely dry.

I barely had time to react as the lights came on, almost wondering where everyone else was off to when they moved. But that was it. Lights out. Go. Go! GO! I watched as most of the pack screamed off ahead of me, took the first couple of corners carefully to avoid trouble, and then got my head down. I passed Mark towards the end of the back straight and spent the rest of the race trying to stay ahead of the bike I could hear behind me through every corner. I counted the laps down, pushing as hard as I could despite feeling tense and nervous, knowing this was the same circuit, bike, tyres and weather that had seen me on my arse just weeks before. Five laps, four, three, two, one, over the Mountain for the last time, through the last corner and I was across the line. That was it. My first finish. I was officially a racer. And I was completely exhausted. Sitting around all morning, the wind howling, too tense to eat or drink, I was dehydrated and tired, rookie mistakes. But I'd finished a race. I wasn't last. I hadn't been lapped. One off the bucket list. Job done.

Well, not quite done, there were two races to go before teatime. Four hours later, after ten more races and a few delays, the call came again. This time I was 16th on the grid - results in the first race deciding the grid for the second - and having started 18th in the first by mistake, I was two places up. I found the right spot, was ready for the lights and got away. Not a good start, but could have been worse, made up one place, and got to work. Another difference from a trackday - the pace is relentless, every corner counts, every straight matters, no time to relax, no chance to check your head after an iffy corner. I felt better than the earlier race, quicker, less tense, but everyone else seemed quicker still, and after I glanced back to see a bike behind me. I thought I was about to be lapped, and foolishly backed off a little, waiting, and then saw the bike I'd kept at bay in the previous race shoot past and start to pull a gap. I couldn't quite keep up, but a target to chase helped me focus and I tried to keep the bike in sight for the rest of the race. Last lap. Two corners to go and yellow flags warned me that Mark was on the grass at the old Hairpin. Last corner. Pit straight. On the gas. Chequered flag and in. I wasn't last again, I'd been passed by a slower bike, but I'd beaten an R1 and it wasn't a novice either. And this was a race that counted - the first had been a qualifier but this was a race with championship points. More importantly, it was worth a signature for my record card - I had the first of the ten I needed to lose my novice jacket and move up a grade to Clubman.

The schedule meant I'd have two races to rest, take a drink, refuel and be ready for the last race of the day. But the weather and delays over the day meant we'd run out of time, and the remaining races would have to wait til the morning. It was time to pack up, open a beer and relax after a long day. Suddenly I felt hungry - all day I'd been trying to force down morsels of food, a biscuit here, a mini sausage roll there, my hollow stomach crying out for me to eat but the constant background adrenaline meaning I had no appetite. But with the racing over I was only too happy to head up the paddock to Andy and Adie's pikey palace for a meat feast on the barbecue.

Sunday started early again, but the still weather overnight meant I'd got more sleep and had a clear head for my second day as a racer. The extra races meant a compressed schedule and fewer sessions for practice. I started the bike to warm the engine up, got changed into my leathers, and then noticed the oil light. The bike has a known fault on one cylinder and drinks oil, and I'd forgotten to check it the night before. The R6 has a dipstick rather than a sight glass, and lockwire means everything takes longer, so I had to work quickly to top up the oil, re-check it, and re-do the lockwire on the dipstick and filler cap before getting my lid and gloves on, warmers off, the bike off its stands and getting out for practice.

Dry practice was less grim than the previous day but I was low on fuel and only got three timed laps before pulling in, bottom of the timesheet. I didn't have long to get more fuel, hydrate myself and get ready for the Newcomer race, postponed from the day before. The Newcomer races are open to anyone already entered in another class with less than two years' experience, and is mostly novices. With two races merged there was a wide mix of machines and abilities, with everything from teenagers on 30 horsepower 125s at the back to cutting-edge 200+ horsepower superbikes at the front. I clearly wasn't going to be troubling the front runners at my pace on a bike from the last century, and the quick guys were faster than the winners in my main class, but the grid was full and I was in the middle. Lights out, full throttle, up from first to second, and then the gearbox jammed, I couldn't change up. I backed off, hooked third as a few bikes passed me, and joined the eight-abreast fray in the first corner. The bike in front, a GSXR750 I'd been stuck behind in practice, did something - moved, slowed, I can't remember what, and I backed off slightly to avoid it. The bike behind me came alongside, there was contact, a clunk, the bike shook, and I looked down to see my clutch lever pointing skywards. With bikes close either side I bashed the lever back down, held a line, and two corners later the pack stretched out along the back straight, faster bikes vanishing over the crest in the distance.

I spent the next few laps hunting down the slower bikes that had got ahead of me at the start. First a VFR400, then a trio of SV650 Minitwins, catching them slowly through the corners, faster along the straights, and finally diving past on the brakes. My first chance to put in proper overtakes, helped a bit by a power advantage, the first two races having given me time to get my head up to speed and the first day nerves having mostly dissipated. As I pulled up in the paddock and got the bike on its stand, I actually bounced up and down with joy. I hadn't troubled the front but, again, I hadn't been lapped, I'd put in some clean passes, beaten some bigger and quicker bikes, and, crucially, the postponement meant I'd got a finish under my belt before lunchtime and was eligible for a second signature towards my licence. That was it, mission accomplished - two days, two signatures and a fifth of the way towards Clubman.

A couple of hours later it was time for the second pre-injection qualifier. Again, due to the compressed schedule, races had been merged, our bikes being bumped down the grid by the Open 600 class at the front. Those boys are quick, some using the club races to keep busy between national championship rounds. I'd done the maths and with them lapping 25 seconds faster than me, I knew I was going to be caught after about five laps, and be caught hard. With that in mind, I made up a couple of places at the start, fighting the gearbox again, and settled down into the race. Five laps in I glanced back and saw what I'd been expecting, took a steady line through Barn and onto the straight and watched as the leader shot past me like I was standing still. The second and third came through soon after as I tipped in at Charlies, the first diving inside me at the apex as I held my line in case the other came round the outside. One more lap and in. Another finish, 7th in class.

As the day passed, the wind picked up again, and as race 18 was called the rain started again. As with the day before, the question would be whether it would pass quickly or settle in, and with us out as race 19 there wasn't much time to change tyres. Within a few minutes the wind was howling and the rain was horizontal. The thought of trying to hold a line in those conditions with the fast boys screaming past just didn't appeal. I had a signature for the day, so the only reason to go out would be to pick up a few points to challenge Mark, as he'd not yet missed a championship race. Discretion being the better part of valour, I called it a day, loaded the van with Eddie's help, and went to watch the horror from the warmth of the clubhouse. For the first half of the race I almost regretted not going out, as the rain had almost stopped and the conditions looked no worse than I've endured at trackdays, but then the wind picked back up and I knew I'd made the right call, confirmed when Mark graciously declined the chance to open up his points lead over me. His bike threw him off at the end of the back straight. Two crashes in two days, you couldn't say he wasn't trying.

The day over, and the van loaded, I hit the road for the 200 miles or so home. By 11pm I'd piled everything I could put indoors at the bottom of the stairs, everything I couldn't in the garage, and crawled into bed, physically exhausted.

So, the money, the time, the effort. Fun? The first day was just hard work. I barely had a chance to enjoy myself in the races because the last-minute changes in the paddock, the sensory overload of the grid, the relentless pace and the sense of seriousness compared to a trackday, wore me out. I knew I must be having an OK time, because at the end of each race I was looking forward to the next one, but I was nervous, tense and quickly tired.

But the Newcomer race on the Sunday, that was spot on. It turns out all I need to have fun is a load of people on bikes that are slower than mine. Targets I can catch. But it's early days, and it takes more to go fast than power in a straight line. And I have eight more signatures to get before I can ditch this silly orange jacket. Pass me that entry form. I think I need to do this again.

Thursday 1 August 2013