Seven days, seven events, one emotion
THEY say you can have too much of a good thing. I disagree. Maybe I’ve just got an addictive personality, but when I find something I love doing, I just want to keep doing it. Riding bikes is one example.
I try to satisfy my addiction every day, whether it’s riding to work or something more serious, but sometimes that’s just not enough. I want more. So I devised a plan to take a week off work and cram in as many riding experiences as possible. There’s so much to do these days, from track days and schools to race meetings and pub gatherings, that I wanted to see as much as I could in seven days. So I packed my toothbrush and credit card and set off on an epic week to do what most people may only do in a year.
As a Suzuki GSX-R750 owner I decided there would be no better way to start my adventure than by attending the Suzuki race school at Leicestershire’s Mallory Park circuit. They use GSX-R600s, which I’m familiar with, and it’s also a school rather than a track day, so I’d get plenty of instruction to help me for the week ahead.
We got started at 6.30am on Saturday morning as I had to be at Mallory for the briefing session at 8am. I filled my Suzuki to the brim, lubed the chain and reminded myself that I had new Bridgestone BT010 tyres on, so I’d have to take it steady while I scrubbed them in.
It was one of those mornings when you feel God must be a biker. Even at that early hour it was hot and the sky was cloudless. Shame about the tyres. I set my trip clock to zero, fired her up and threw my leg over the bike for the first of many, many great experiences.
Getting up at this time on a Saturday morning may not sound like the ideal way to start a weekend, but there is one big advantage – most car drivers are still in bed doing what they do best, dozing. And that means the roads are clear for me. If you’ve never been for a breakfast run give it a go. It really is worth getting up for.
I arrive at the circuit within 45 minutes, and I’m guided to the pits and the briefing room. Unless you’re a regular track day nut you’re going to be nervous in the briefing session. The dangers of riding round a race track are clearly spelt out by the instructors, who remind me this is a serious business which shouldn’t be taken lightly. I listen intently because, until now, my track experience is virtually nil. I’ve done three laps of Donington on an Aprilia RS250 and a 20-minute session around Brands Hatch on a Ducati 748.
My mouth is dry as I make a mental note of everything I hear. There’s a lot to take in, but the experienced instructors make sure everyone knows what each flag means, what to do in case of problems and what course the day will take.
Desperate to get going I finally jump on one of the GSX-Rs. They don’t have mirrors, lights, indicators, numberplates or speedos. Even the seat is a racer-style square foam pad. And it feels good. I’m finally achieving my boyhood dream of being a racer. Sort of. Myself and three others follow an instructor for a few steady laps to see which way the circuit goes. I’ve been to Mallory to watch British superbikes several times, but it looks very different when you’re on it. The super-fast first right-hander, called Gerards, goes on forever and it’s hard to hold the right line all the way round. The hairpin is unbelievably tight and it’s made worse by having cones splitting the track to allow different groups to pass in safety. And the flip-flop Bus Stop chicane is again much tighter than it looks on TV.
Once the sighting laps are over and everyone knows where the track goes, the instructor ups the pace and we try to follow.
If you’re keeping up without looking out of shape, he’ll go faster. If you’re having a hard time keeping him in sight, he’ll slow down to your pace. It’s the perfect way to learn.
As the speeds increase I manage to stay with him and I’m amazed at how quick I’m going. It’s way faster than I’ve ever been round corners on the road and I’m gobsmacked at the angles of lean I’m achieving. Before long, there’s a satisfying scrape from my right knee slider as I round Gerards, then again at the Esses. This is serious fun, but as I’m getting into my stride, the instructor pulls us in. Damn. He’s noticed that two of our four-man group are struggling with the pace and hands them over to another instructor. That leaves just two of us and my ego is loving it. I’m actually quicker than someone! Come on...!
This time I’m asked to lead as the instructor follows me. I go as hard as I dare without taking any daft risks, and the rush is immense. It probably looked pathetically slow to onlookers, but I felt like Chris Walker on speed.
I may be a relative track virgin, but years of riding on the road have obviously taught me something. In what seems like a matter of minutes the session is over and I can’t believe I’ve been out for over an hour.
It’s straight into a debriefing and we’re all told our good and bad points. Speed is not a factor. You’re marked on categories like attention, lines and braking. I was told my braking was typical of a road rider – not hard enough. I left a margin for error, and while that’s fine on the highway, it’ll leave you for dead on a track. It is something I’ll have to work on during the week ahead. But otherwise I received a pretty good report and I felt confident that I could improve now I had been relieved of my track day cherry.
Jumping back on to my own bike I had to leave the track behind and switch my head back into road mode. It was time to think tractors, cat’s eyes, wildlife and cars again. Still, at least the 50-mile run up to Mallory had scrubbed my tyres in and I noticed I was cornering and braking just a little bit harder than I did on my first journey.
The weather was still tropical and the relief of changing from my sweat-stained leathers into shorts and grabbing a cold beer was the business. A perfect end to a perfect day. Roll on tomorrow – the World Superbikes are in town.
Day two of my adventure dawns even warmer and clambering back into leathers isn’t the ideal way to keep cool. But they’re a necessary evil and riding up the fast A6 to Donington Park without them isn’t an option.
It’s that time of year again, when the world’s best roll into Britain for the first time to do battle. WSB without Foggy is like the Eurovision song contest without Terry Wogan, but I have high hopes for the Brit boys, especially fellow GSX-R rider Walker. And I’m determined to meet another Suzuki hero of mine – Pier Francesco Chili.
With my tyres well and truly scrubbed in and my confidence high from my track experience, the run up to Donington is a joy – even with my missus on the back. When I first set out I was nodding at all the bikes I saw, but by now there’s so many riders that I’d look like a nodding dog if I acknowledged them all. I’m five miles from the circuit and even the bikes are gridlocked.
The sun is getting stronger and the heat from all the engines is becoming unbearable. But it’s a great free show and there’s a certain feeling of unity when you’re among hundreds of like-minded souls. As riders get bored, engines are revved and there’s even a boy on a Ducati 996 Foggy rep doing burn-outs to keep himself – and hundreds of other riders – amused.
As we paddle our way closer the excitement builds. Could WSB survive as a spectacle without Foggy? Today would tell.
My first glimpse of the banking down by the Old Hairpin gave me the answer. I hadn’t seen it so crowded since the GP hey-days of the 1980s. What a place to spend a day. The banking here forms an amphitheatre and on a day like this the atmosphere is brilliant.
Flags are flying, air horns are blasting, the excited crowd is gooning around and the area is a sea of Foggy, Walker and Neil Hodgson merchandise.
Racing has changed since I started spectating as a kid, when crowds were reserved and only really applauded for the winner on his slowing down lap. Now fans go nuts for their heroes as soon as they appear on a sighting lap. It remained like that for the rest of the day, with the biggest cheer coming when Hodgson and Walker did Chili at Coppice to take first and second in the second race.
I’ll never forget the reaction. Kids, grannies, gorgeous girls and fat tattooed blokes were all going hysterical for their favoured riders. You couldn’t have written a better script.
My only worry was that Chili’s misfortune may have rubbed off on his mood, and he may be locked in his motorhome sulking. But Frankie’s a gent, and he spared a few moments for a chat even though he looked like he was ready to cry. When I asked him why he didn’t win the race he simply replied: " Because I hurta my balls on a da tank. " Fair excuse.
Riding home among the throng of superbikes I had to ask myself if biking gets much better than this. And the answer was yes, especially when you’ve got your second track event of the week to look forward to the following day.
Norfolk’s Snetterton circuit is about 95 miles from my home, and with signing on starting at 8am it meant another early start. But there’s a magical ingredient which helps you get up bright and full of beans in the morning. It’s called not going to work. Oh, and the chance to ride flat-out around one of the fastest tracks in Britain.
My trusty GSX-R was ready and waiting as I opened the garage and let her sit on idle for a few minutes. The whirring, purring turnover rumble belies the positively evil howl from the air induction when she gets a head on. But it would have been criminal to disturb the idyllic twittering of the birds and sleepy suburban noises of electric milk carts and the postman’s squeaky pushbike with a good rev session, so I crept off in second as quietly as I could.
Now this might sound pervy, but there’s nothing quite like waking up with your bike. What I mean is that both of you are drowsy at the offset, but come alive as the road unfolds before you. I need a coffee, my bike needs fuel. My bike needs a little choke while I choke on a fag. Gradually, the temperature gauge on the Suzuki creeps up just as I start to come around, and before you know it, we’re both going full-chat down country roads.
I’d never been to Snetterton before and opted for the most direct route. Doh! The roads were dull, straight dual carriageways and even though the early haze was burning off as the sun rose I was getting bored – and stiff. The Suzuki is no more cramped than any other sports bike, but on a straight road you don’t get the relief of occasionally having to shift your body position.
A quick stop at a roadside cafe for a coffee sorts me out and I make it to the track with time to spare. But it looks more like a race meeting than a track day. There are race-kitted bikes everywhere and even tyre-changing equipment and motor homes. But after my experience at Mallory I was confident enough to sign up for the intermediate group.
The morning briefing session is pretty straightforward and it’s apparent that most of the riders attending are very experienced. As I watched the first novice session from the pit lane I notice there’s even race bikes in that group – and nobody looks slow. Had I made the right decision?
In the first session I didn’t feel like it. I wasn’t sure which way the circuit went and although following the instructor for the obligatory three laps helped, I still didn’t feel ready to go for it when he waved us through. It seemed like everyone else was ready though. Bikes came hurtling past left, right and centre, some on good lines, some just well out of shape. Suddenly all the advice about taping up your mirrors made sense.
The sun is high in the sky by now on what proved to be the hottest day of the year so far. I’m sweating buckets and panting so hard that my visor’s steaming up. No wonder top racers have to be as fit as Olympic athletes. Your wrists and forearms get pumped up from braking and accelerating harder than you’ve ever done in your life, your neck aches with all the high-speed buffeting, your foot starts to feel every gear change and your whole body feels the exertion of tugging the bike in the direction you want it to go. A 15-minute session may sound like nothing, but believe me, if you’re not used to this and you’re not fit, you’ll be well relieved to see the chequered flag. I was glad to see it for more reasons than tiredness. I hadn’t really enjoyed my session – it all felt like too much too soon and my confidence was dented by seeing all the faster boys going past me. But I was determined to learn and improve, so I lit up a Marlboro, swigged on a bottle of chilled water and thought deeply about what I was doing. I told myself I could accelerate harder and brake harder than I’d been doing. I knew where the track went now so that would be one less thing to worry about. I knew I wasn’t revving the GSX-R as much as it needed and I realised I could tuck in more along the fast back straight. If I could improve in all these areas and just relax I was sure I could go better. I did. The second session was completely different and I loved every minute of it. I tagged on to a fairly fast guy who seemed to know what he was doing and I learned when to brake, peel in and get back on the gas. And this time, I didn’t give the Suzuki another gear until I’d used up every last drop of power from the one I was in. I remembered what my instructor told me at Mallory about braking too early, so I made a decision to squeeze the lever harder and later than before and I was amazed at how quickly you can stop 166kg (365lb) plus my own 70-odd kilos without drama.
I felt much faster, smoother and more comfortable than I did in the first session and there were far fewer people coming past me, except on the long Revett straight. As soon as I was getting on to the straight and the bike was upright, I was pinning the throttle to the stop in every gear all the way up through the box until the Suzuki’s digital speedo was showing 160mph – but bikes were still howling past!
If you’re a complete track novice you’d be better off starting at a rider skills course such as the one at Cadwell Park – my next destination.
When I pulled my leathers on at 5.30am the following morning they were still wet from my efforts. Not a pleasant experience. But the weather was still sublime and riding the 90-odd miles to Cadwell was top – especially when I hit some of the twisting, undulating roads near the circuit. But I remembered readers’ letters in MCN about the Lincolnshire police being a bit over-zealous, so I forced myself to calm it.
The Rider Skills courses are run by former GP racer and TT winner Roger Burnett, who just happens to be Hodgson’s manager as well. He’s a busy man, but not too busy to welcome and brief you personally. The whole school came about when Burnett identified a niche in the ever-growing track day market. He said: " It can be a very intimidating experience riding on a track for the first time and no-one was catering specifically for novices. We thought we could give them a good introduction, get rid of their nerves and prepare them for more track days. "
I know exactly what he means. This is my third such event in as many days, and I think I’m really starting to get the hang of things, which is more than can be said for some of the other participants on this course. The contrast to the standards of the day before at Snetterton couldn’t have been greater. After our instructor led us for about 10 laps going no more than 55mph down the back straight, we pulled in so he could check everyone was happy and comfortable. I couldn’t believe it when one rider said he wouldn’t be happy going any faster. I waited for the punchline – it never came. Another rider had a problem with left-handers and another refused to put his feet up on the pegs to stop them getting trapped! I’m the last person who wants to slag off other riders because and I’m no Superman myself. But when basic riding techniques are at fault it makes me wonder how some people manage to avoid accidents on the road. All credit to the instructor though, who worked with these guys to build up their confidence and speed.
By the end of the three-hour session everyone had improved, and equally importantly confidence was higher all round. I still wouldn’t recommend the riders I watched should head straight for a full-on track day, but the Rider Skills course does provide a solid starting point.
Another sweaty, quick ride home from Cadwell left me feeling exhausted. Riding a bike almost constantly for four days is not only physically hard, but it drains you mentally too because even if you’re not aware of it, you’re concentrating all the time – or at least you should be.
I was extremely glad I’d booked a relatively quiet day to charge my batteries and loosen up the growing aches and pains. The plan? Well, I couldn’t ride on so many circuits and not watch the pros doing it when I got home. Out came the racing videos and I settled down to watch how it’s really done. Believe me, you have even more respect for these boys when you’ve ridden the same tracks.
Four hours and five videos later it’s time to head out yet again, this time to visit another biking Mecca – the Waterman pub in Warwickshire. It’s been a huge meeting place for riders every Wednesday night for years, but I’d never been. And since it’s only 50 miles away from my house I decided to head down, even if the weather was starting to look dodgy.
It was raining lightly by the time I arrived and there was a healthy collection of bikes, but nothing like the numbers I’d heard about in legend (3000 by some estimates). There might have only been around 70 machines, but the variety was amazing, from rare exotica like an Bimota SB-6R to a WWII lookalike outfit.
Walking into the famous boozer felt like being transported to the Isle of Man. There was kit lying around everywhere, pictures of bikes on the wall, everyone was in leathers and all the talk centred on two things – bikes and the crappy British weather. You can’t expect a whole week of biking in Blighty without getting wet and while we were cosy and warm inside, the heavens opened outside. Bikes disappeared quicker than GP machines off the start line and only a few hardcore riders hung around any longer. Sadly, I wasn’t one of them.
The ride home really made me realise that you have to make the most of the opportunities you do get to ride in the UK. It was dark, wet, my visor was misting and the roads were unfamiliar. I tried to follow a car to know where the road went, but it just threw more spray at me. I backed off and followed at a distance, but even the driver would only dare to do 40mph, making the journey seem to last forever. I simply couldn’t see enough to go any faster. And I wouldn’t have believed even England could be so cold in May. OK, I only had my leathers on with summer gloves and boots, but it was absolutely freezing. I was shivering on the bike and couldn’t even tuck in as I had the missus on the back and that would be a little too selfish.
After what seemed like an eternity I arrived home only to find I couldn’t turn the key in the door as my hands were so numb. A hot bath and a whisky restored my blood’s temperature and then it was straight to bed for another session at Mallory Park the following morning.
That split second when you pull back the curtains to check the weather can do wonders for your mood. To my eternal gratitude it was sunny again, so my spirits lifted and it was back on the GSX-R and up the back roads to Mallory for one of Fowlers many track days. The set-up was pretty much the same as the event organised by 100% Bikes at Snetterton. Riders are split into novice, intermediate and fast groups, there are a few compulsory sighting laps and then you’re left to do what you want – within reason. Instructors are on hand if you want guidance, but if you want to get on with it yourself or run in your race bike, that’s fine too. It’s hassle-free and the 15-minute sessions are enough to break out plenty of sweat. Even though I’d only ever done one track day at Mallory the previous Saturday, I felt like a veteran returning. Once you’ve learned where the circuit goes and got over your nerves, it’s amazing how much more confident you feel. But I had to make sure that I didn’t get over-confident – I was determined to get through this week without crashing. There were only spaces left in the novice and fast groups and I still didn’t feel ready for the latter, so I opted for the novice group, which still had some quick riders.
The difference in my riding was amazing. I felt smoother, more relaxed and way quicker than I’d been just six days before. Practice certainly hadn’t made perfect, but it had helped. And then it rained. I’d done a couple of laps at Snetterton in the rain and it transforms the experience from one of fun into one of survival. From being confident and sort of knowing how hard I could safely push it, I had to reassess everything. It was a great experience to try and be super-smooth with the throttle and the brakes and to ease my bodyweight over the bike as steadily as possible... but I’d rather it be dry any day.
The pace of the week was really getting to me now. I’m not exactly the fittest person on earth and I was using muscles on the track that I never knew I had. I’d forgotten what it was like to wear clothes rather than leathers and the early morning starts were getting tougher by the day. I’d also racked up more than 1200 miles all at a pretty hard pace. But there was just one day left and it was the one I was looking forward to most – Ron Haslam’s famous Honda race school at Donington.
There were several reasons why I saved the best till last. Firstly, my riding would be much better so I could make the most of my final day. It was also at Donington – home of the British GP and one of the most famous tracks in the world. Finally there’s a bloke called Ron who I just happened to cheer in GPs when I was a nipper.
I parked the GSX-R to sling a leg over one of the school’s Honda CBR600s. Haslam led off on what must have been his millionth lap of Donington so I was pretty sure he knew where he was going.
Following the famous " RH " helmet and that legendary name on the back of the leathers was a bit of a distraction at first, but I forced myself to think of him as just another instructor. After a few steady sighting laps he picked up the pace before waving me through to take a look at my humble efforts. Disaster. The pressure got to me and I drifted out so wide that I was on to the grass and into the kitty litter for the first time in my life. Doh! But I impressed myself by not panicking and not braking. I kept it straight, scrubbed off speed and sheepishly rejoined the track. Sorry Ron.
I kept trying too hard, attempting to put everything I’d learned this week into one blistering lap – and Haslam could tell. When we pulled in he explained that I was going into corners way too fast and ruining my exit speed, as well as looking ragged. He told me to go in on the overrun instead of on the gas. This would give me more grip and more time to see my exit and get on the power. It was the best advice of the week. All of a sudden I got into a more flowing rhythm and it took much less effort to get round corners. Haslam also said I was lapping much faster than I had been before. Then I experienced another first – a rider crashed right in front of me. Cranked over too far and on the power too early, he lost the back end and went tumbling head over heels at Coppice. Haslam had to accelerate to get out of the way of the spinning bike and I had to grab a handful of brake to avoid smacking into him.
Again, I was pleased that I didn’t panic and stab the brakes, I just reacted sensibly, braked progressively and avoided both rider and bike. I wondered if I would have been able to do that at the beginning of this week.
Riding around with Haslam had been the highlight of my week. Not only was it a privilege, but it taught me some valuable lessons about my riding.
But unknown to me, the best experience was still to come. Haslam, kind chap that he is, offered to take me round as a pillion on a Honda FireBlade to see how it’s really done – and I agreed. To be honest, if I’d had time to think about it I wouldn’t have done it, but I just mumbled " yeah, OK " and was committed.
Back in the ’80s I used to enter MCN’s pillion in a million competitions to try and win an experience like this. I never did and I was secretly relieved because I wasn’t sure that I could go through with it.
Now, 17 years later, my time had come and I was wheelieing out of pit lane on the back of a FireBlade and heading for Redgate. Haslam had said we’d take it easy for a couple of laps before upping the pace, and halfway round the first lap his words echoed round my helmet. If this was slow, what was it going to be like when he " upped the pace " ? The sensation of speed and angles of lean as we flew down Craner Curves took my breath away and I was using every muscle to hang on. Another wheelie out of McLeans and then the pegs were down at Coppice for what seemed an eternity – and no, there were no hero blobs either.
After two " steady " laps I was launched into another dimension as Haslam started to do things his way. Every time we braked my backside would lift off the seat and my feet come off the pegs. If there had been an emergency stop cord I would have pulled it!
Seeing the pit garage after five laps was a relief unknown to me before, but I do know this, it was an amazing experience – just like the rest of the week. OK, there were times when I was aching all over, when I was freezing and wet and when I had to peel my leathers off because they were so soaked in sweat. But I’ll treasure every last minute of it.
Every week, MCN’s What’s On section lists all the track days and race schools coming in the next month.