Recently, I’ve been pondering the “why” of racing. Why bother? It’s time consuming, it’s expensive, and I fear I’m becoming slightly one-dimensional as a person. I have loads of mates who aren’t into bikes, but I find myself trying to turn our conversations into bike speak. When they are starting to look at me in bemusement, as their eyes begin to roll, I realise that I’ve done it again.
What’s that Steve McQueen quote? “Racing is life. Anything before or after is just waiting”? It’s a cool thing for a movie icon to say, however coming from the lips of a middle aged man it just sounds trite. And even S. McQueen Esq. didn’t really believe that it was true.
But nearly 24 hours after the race has ended, my head is still buzzing. It’s a combination of adrenaline, over stimulation, sleep deprivation and the pain killers for my chronic arm pump. It’s a good feeling, and one I know I’ll miss now that the season is over and the long winter sets in.
I’m busy at work, and thankful to be so. I’m also sick of sleeping in the back of the van, it smells of petrol, tyres and oil, it’s cold, the floor is hard and I’m too old and middle class to put up with it. I’m normally up with the lark anyway, so I elect to wake up at 03:00, have a little breakfast and a lot of tea, then head out on the road. I’m preferring a night in my own bed over my sanity it seems, but it sounds like a good idea so why not?
Arriving at the track before 06:00, no moon, no-one around except the guy on the gate and, inexplicably, a black cat which I initially mistake for a rat skulking in the gloom, I feel a slight anticipation, a small amount of nerves but I think that’s healthy. I’m now an experienced novice and unpacking, organising and scruitneering is becoming second nature. I text Trigger as I’m reluctant to knock on the van door at this hour, fortunately he’s a trooper and switches on the tea urn and finds the paperwork for my trip to see the guys in orange. They are early risers too, some I’m in and out in no time, sign on and commence the waiting game.
Except today isn’t quite routine. I haven’t done the test day, so my brand new race slicks will have to be scrubbed in during qualifying, which is potentially cold and damp. We’ve got some real fast guys appearing on the entry list. I go through my little niggle of doubt, what if I inadvertently baulk one of the megastars dring their fast lap? Well, with respect, I’ve paid my entry fee so the track is just as much mine as theirs, so tough. The laptime gulf is significant, I recently got down to a 1:53, whereas these guys will be about 20 seconds per lap faster. I’ve also broken a Golden Rule, which is DO NOT PUT ANYTHING UNTESTED ON THE BIKE ON RACE DAY. I bought a quick action throttle, it was sitting in it’s box on my desk looking all sexy, so I relented and broke the Golden Rule. I’ll live to rue that decision later in the day. Even monkeys learn, as I like to say – evidently I don’t.
Qualifying is a disaster, mitigated by Trigger’s mega early pace which sees us in 13th place overall, third in class. Unfortunately no-one listened during the briefing, a common problem. It’s cold and damp, there’s no temperature in the tarmac at all, the track is probably pretty green too. Out lap, red flag, ambulance, clean up. Out lap, red flag, ambulance, clean up. These are experienced guys who are throwing themselves at the scenery. If they can’t manage 30 minutes of qualifying, how on earth are they going to survive a three hour race? Trig misses the pit board, quali has been shortened so I get about seven minutes to scrub my tyres and do three flying laps. Fortunately I know Trig has set a decent time so I just trundle round. As I go out three guys fall of in one lap, including one of the Truelove brothers sharing our garage. He’s OK, but his bike is destroyed. Then Wil comes over with the news that one of the Team Army guys has broken his leg. I feel sorry for him, but I do wonder where these guys keep their brains. But enough of all that, I don’t have enough spare brain power to process it all so I shut it out and concentrate on my own stuff.
Remember the Golden Rule? I call then Golden because they are absolute. The knowledge to write these rules was hard won. And I broke the Golden rule. I can’t emphasise enough how much of a dickhead this makes me feel. My sexy new QA throttle is shit. Expensive, but still shit. Two hours in the fitting just to make the bike worse. It’s too slack, it feels rough and gritty, the cables fit badly and don’t clear the fairing properly. And the action is no faster than the standard one, which fits well and has a silky smooth action. What a waste. My advice to you is trust your instincts. I did wonder if it was any better when I was fitting it, but I was blinded by the bling. In the winter it’s coming back off and going on e-bay instead. I adjust the cables and make it as good as I can for now. And I kick myself reasonably hard. Again, it’s an untested change, I’ll be in my first session of the race when I test it, no pressure then.
Then, The Wait. It’s about four hours to the race. I get out of my leathers, wander round chatting, get some energy drink down, anything not to let the nerves build too much. I wander off to Melbourne Loop to watch Luke Batty in the 600’s and the tussle between Phil Bevan and Piers Hutchings in the 1000cc race. I’m aware of keeping my ugly mug away from the team, I don’t want to risk them getting sick of me. Fortunately today, The Wait seems quite short and it’s soon time to kit up.
I love the start of an endurance race, a heady mix of matey banter between the “holders” and the steely eyed determination of the “starters”. I have a few little patterns that I try to stick you, I don’t think I’m a superstitious person, so I prefer to view them as routines. To me, it’s a method of making sure that everything is done in the correct order and nothing forgotten. I won’t bore you with them, but I’m grateful for them as I see Potchy frantically gesticulating at his crew, he’s forgotten his armbad. That sort of thing would faze me for a while, but Paul shrugs it off instantly. Have a look at the pictures of the start, or preferably a video. It’s so exciting to be part of it, I can’t find the words to describe it. 48 bikes, 96 guys on the grid, running across the track, a jumble of shouts, curses, laughs, roaring engines and normally one or two getting push starts. Then for me it’s back to the garage.
It’s important to be ready at all times, even when you aren’t on track. Anything could happen, your team mate might only do one lap, he might do the full stint. My nerves are gone now, it’s a question of willing Trigger onwards. We get a safety car after a couple of laps, so any time lost or gained in the start is voided as the pack bunch together. The laps roll on and soon I get the signal from Andy. Helmet on, race face on. We’re down at the far end of pit lane so it’s easy to spot Trigger, but it seems to take an age for him to reach us at 37mph. Tel swaps the transponder and Nige beckons me out. Two steady laps, these tyres still look brand new and then PUSH. I’m pleased to get to a 1:54 quickly, despite raindrops on my visor from Foggy Esseses to Melbourne Loop, and my right foot won’t stay on the peg – I know what the Rossi Dangle is all about now, as I use it to wipe the oil off the sole of my boot. All too soon I get the “IN” board and Andy, Nige and Tel orchestrate another smooth handover. There’s a slight mist of oil coming from under the pulse cover, so Nige and Andy change my footrest for one with a deeper knurl, whilst Helen gets the brake cleaner on my boots. The most glamorous shoe shine I’ve ever had.
My second session is the best session I’ve had all year. I’m in a ding dong battle with one of the Rig-It.com riders. We’re passing each other five times each lap, he’s mega on the brakes so I hold out wide, thread the needle and do him on the corner exits. This goes on for lap after lap, until he makes a small mistake at Redgate and I get underneath him, and I know that now’s my chance. I absolutely ring the bells off my bike, pushing harder than I’ve ever done trying to break away. My forearms are pumping and it’s getting painful but I try to brake one second later at each marker, just one more heartbeat to try to break him. Two laps later I can’t sense him on my tail and I’ve come across another rider. I’m trying to clock who it is an how to pass safely when that blue GSXR is outbraking me on the inside and Mr Rig-It.com is back, obviously he’s been close all that time and I’ve just looked over the wrong shoulder or whatever. I don’t know the guys name and I couldn’t find him after the race, but next time the beers are on me buddy. Once again my heart sinks when I see the “IN” board.
It was a 1:50. Arse. So close to a 1:49. If you look up the lap times you’ll see that 1:50 is nothing to write home about, but at the start of 2015 I was nearer 2:00 so a 1:50 represents a massive move forwards for me. Whilst Andy fuels the bike and Helen cleans my boot, I resolve that the next session I’ll have a 1:49. I get to ride the last session so I push hard from lap one. But it’s getting dark, I’m a little worn and my arms are sore as hell. I’m trying much too hard and I’ve lost my flow and it’s mistake after mistake and my times are all over the shop. The biggest mistake is trying to take Goddards in neutral, never a good plan. Perversely this settles me down and I concentrate on being smooth and consistent. There’s no point in not finishing the race and letting the guys down. This is why we do it.