An introduction to bike racing
This year’s club racing season is nearly upon us, and I’m nearly ready. I just need a bike.
Part One: The Preparation
This year’s club racing season is nearly upon us, and I’m nearly ready. I just need a bike.
I need to tell you that the reason for being bikeless is that I recently blew the engine on my race-prepared beast during a punishing winter training schedule in southern Spain. I need to tell you this merely to assuage my guilt, and it is in fact a whopping lie. The real reason is that I haven’t quite got round to buying one yet. And it’s not just the bike I’m currently lacking either. Oh no. I also need to rapidly aquire club membership, an ACU racing licence, the compulsory race training that allows me to apply for a racing licence, and some leathers. And probably some other stuff I haven’t got round to thinking about yet. But apart from that – I’m there.
You see, my basic problem is that I’m spectacularly lazy. I just find that I put things off for a bit and then before I know it, great swathes of time have passed. For example, the electrics in my flat messed up the other day leaving me with no lights. I say ‘the other day’, but it’s now three years ago. Those tea lights are cheap in bulk and nothing particularly has made me need to fix the lights. I didn’t even know it was three years until friends pointed it out. I honestly thought it was a few months.
It’s not just the organisation and form-filling side I have to struggle with either. As well as possessing a disconcerting lack of motivation, energy and will-power, I also have the mechanical skills of a dolphin. And not one of those clever Seaworld-trained ones either. I can honestly say that I don’t know one end of a spanner from the other, unless it’s now considered de rigeur to refer to the two ends as ‘the round end’ and ‘the normal end’.
But I have a secret weapon in that respect at least – a good friend of mine who has offered to help. We’ll call him Sam. Everyone does; it’s his name. A genuine mechanical expert who not only does know one end of a spanner from the other but quite probably knows their real names, and likely as not what sizes they come in too. Without his help there’d be no point in even attempting to start racing, and I’ll be calling upon his motivational skills as well as his mechanical ones.
So what about the riding itself? Was I born on two wheels and feel a bike to be a natural extension of my body? Nope, I got into bikes in my mid-20s, and even then I never quite got round to booking my own lessons and test. My girlfriend at the time became so bored of listening to me promising to arrange it that she booked a course for me while I was at work one day and just told me I owed her three hundred quid when I got home.
Did I find that once on a bike I had a natural and un-tapped raw talent that saw me immediately drifting sideways into corners with the back tyre smoking like my morning toast? Hardly.
The truth is that I tried a few trackdays and decided I quite liked it. I had a good time, I wasn’t rubbish at it, and I discovered something about myself that a childhood of avoiding organised sport had managed to keep from me – I was horribly competitive. It seems odd to only find that out once comfortably settled into my thirties but I suppose I’d never quite got round to looking into it before. After a handful of narrow-eyed, throttle-wrenched, buttock-clenched trackdays, culminating in a rather predictable crash while trying something imaginative at Clearways, I decided I really ought to do the right thing and take it outside into the car park, so to speak.
And so, like many before me and many to come after me, I am nervously entering the rather daunting world of amateur racing. I feel a little like a kid waiting for his first day at school to arrive. All alone except for a new pencil case and a suspiciously-orange drawstring swimming bag.
I don’t promise to win anything. I don’t promise to even make it to all of the rounds. Hell, I don’t even promise to make it to any of the rounds at this point. But if I do manage it then it just goes to show that anybody can, oh so literally. So if you feel the urge as I do, then start saving the pennies (or, ideally, pounds and lots of them) and do something about it. I’m even looking at a bike this weekend which just goes to show what a potential winner I am!
So, if you see me at a race meeting this year, perhaps having a sandwich or enthusiastically watching Sam do stuff with the bike and handing him the round end of a spanner, then wish me luck. God knows I need it.
Part Two: The First Race
And so it begins. I’m sat on the starting grid staring at the rear tyre a few feet in front of me with my heart both beating fast and in my mouth. It’s my first race. Ever. I’m a rookie, a beginner, a newbie. I’m a complete race virgin.
Regular readers of these articles (ie. if you read the other one) will know that I was previously utterly unprepared and bikeless with the start of the season fast approaching. However, and rather uncharacteristically, I did actually manage to pull my finger out and do everything necessary in time to start the first race. This involved trivialities such as finding and buying a bike, but predominantly involved writing cheques. After one particularly expensive lunchtime sat scribbling piles of them at my desk at work I went briefly mad and began to offer every passing colleague a blank one inviting them to just help themselves.
If I wasn’t writing a cheque I was filling in a form. Or, most frequently, filling in a form and then attaching a cheque. If you want to take up a new and challenging hobby but have a limited budget then I recommend trying something a little cheaper; space travel perhaps.
However, with the help of friend and mechanical guru Sam (ie. Sam did all the work and I made encouraging ‘Ah’ noises while sipping tea and nodding sagely) we had the bike ready for the licence test day at Snetterton. On the day we left at 4am but arrived around five hours late after getting trapped on the M11 which was closed down in the early hours. Despite missing much of the available track time I did manage to complete all the required formalities and made it onto the last three track sessions, finally getting the chance to ride the bike and pick up enough knowledge of the circuit to at least know which bits went right or left. This was useful as the first race of the season was also to be held there.
Four weeks later we returned for the first race, armed now with a total of 45 minutes’ experience of new bike, new track, new tyres, leathers, helmet and pretty much everything else. Well, ‘new’ in the sense of new to me – ‘everything else’ was in fact either found or bought second-hand on eBay. We toyed with the idea of buying a huge motorhome with built-in garaging facilities and jacuzzi, but decided in the end to just use Sam’s car towing a caravan we found in a field. It seemed much cooler. And quite frankly, my bulimic chequebook had stuck its papery fingers down its throat and coughed up its last.
Arriving in the middle of a blustery Friday night (practice days? Pah!) we eventually found a spare patch of grass in the dark and set about pitching our camp. This involved fighting the wind trying to put up our suspiciously poor-quality gazebo (eBay, bargain) and then sticking in a couple of camp beds. Mine was from the 70s and had spiders living in it but nevertheless provided a tantalising proposition after endless hours in traffic, especially as I’d been off work with man-flu and had come straight from my deathbed to be there. Once set up, we boiled some water and sat down to a celebratory Lemsip before calling it a day, setting an alarm for 6:30am and taking to our camp beds. Mine, alas, did not respond well to being dragged out of retirement and as soon as I tried to make myself comfortable it developed a sudden and dramatic rip along its entire length and deposited me on the grass. Still, I was knackered and having seen the quality of the gazebo when it arrived in the post had had the foresight to invest in an ex-Army waterproof sleeping bag cover (eBay, bargain), so spent the night where I was.
The morning was still windy, and damp from a night of rain. Laughing in the face of physics, the gazebo had actually survived the night which left me staggered, yet predominantly dry, so we unloaded the bike and set about readying it for scrutineering. Once that was over with we headed back to our camp to discover the gazebo lying in a torn and twisted heap and flapping its cheap and transparent canvas in the wind. Despite being annoyed at the waste of money and unsure as to where we’d spend the next night, I was relieved that the laws of physics appeared back in action and was also cheered that the wind was now drying out the track too. A few last-minute jobs to attend to and then into qualifying.
I eased the bike into the collecting area and idled up to the lady marshal who was checking us in. “Where’s your pass, dear?” “My what?” I answered, getting a little worried. “Your practice pass dear, you would have been given it when you signed on.” “Sorry, when I did what? Uh oh…” I don’t believe I strictly adhered to the paddock speed limit as I shot back to the race office, lent the bike against a pole and went in to sign on. Still, I was back just in time and rolled into a seemingly deserted track to warm up. The track had definite damp patches despite being mainly dry now, and my tyres were brand new and un-warmed so I took it easy, determined not to do anything stupid so early on. I managed a lap anyway. After a tentative first pass I decided I was maybe being too careful, so upped the pace slightly to get a bit of heat into the tyres. Despite being fresh they appeared impressive and passing under the bridge for the second time I turned left and then swung the bike over for the right-hander. Nope, didn’t happen. The front gave way and I decided to slide along the track for a bit before trying out the rumble strips and then sampling the mud and grass. The bike was trapping my leg which was a little sore, but the ever-helpful marshals were immediately on the case and picked the bike and I up.
I was furious with myself as I was led over the tyre wall, but a quick inspection of the bike showed me it had escaped any serious damage at least. It had, however, snapped the gear lever off so I was forced to wait where I was until the end of the session. The marshal did a fine job of cheering me by telling me that I had at least crashed with some style, but the reality was that I’d start the first race with nothing but my tip-toed out-lap to qualify me.
I slunk back to Sam full of apologies and still angry with myself before heading for the race office to try and blag my way into another session. I had distant hopes of being allowed out with the other Minitwin group and perhaps be allowed to get a better laptime or at least some more practice time on track, but I was too late. I was positioned 34th out of 37 which seemed like a terrifyingly large group to race with, especially as most were going to be in front of me. Still, Sam had fixed up the bike and the rain seemed likely to hold off for the first race despite the forecast to the contrary, so everything was ready.
The minutes leading to my first race ticked past unflinchingly, and I eyed the approaching start time in the same way a turkey eyes an approaching Bernard Matthews. After a brief time in the collecting area we lined up on the grid for our warm-up lap and then re-grouped for the big moment.
I’d heard a lot of people talk about race starts and about the fear many feel, but I’d always been pretty confident. I mean, I’d played enough Gran Turismo, I knew the score. You gunned the engine, took off like a rocket, weaved through the pack and came out smiling at the other end in time for the first corner, hurrah! I found the reality lay somewhere between the two. I didn’t feel any actual fear but there was definitely some conflict going on in my brain. You find yourself sat on a line, looking at lights. This is just like at traffic lights on the road except that there’s another bike a few feet in front of you and, in this particular case, 35 others tightly grouped in the general area. One half of your brain, the Race Brain says “Right, hold the throttle open and dump the clutch when the lights go out, regardless of what all the people four feet in front of you do.” The other half of your brain, the Normal Brain says “Yeah, fuck off, you’ll die you imbecile!” You do it anyway of course and just pray like hell that the people in front do it too, albeit that little bit more slowly and leaving really wide gaps.
Please don’t expect any details of that first corner because I have no idea, but I think I passed some people, maybe some of them passed me back, there was definitely lots of locked-up tyres and smoke and then I emerged on the other side, still breathing. It’s quite something though, the whole experience, and feels about a million times more dangerous than it ever does watching TV or playing Gran Turismo.
My aim for the weekend had been to try and end up around half-way up the pack; to beat as many people as beat me. This wasn’t going to happen for me starting at the back with my limited skills though, and I’d re-appraised my ambitions before the first race to just not crashing. Not again. I found it hard to get past people anyway, and there were millions of them! A wall of people blocking my every route! I managed to stay upright though and made a healthy, if undramatic, five places. I’d found it a little frustrating but had also managed to slice a solid four seconds from my previous best time at the licence day, although clearly there had been plenty of seconds to choose from.
Still, my first race was over, I’d survived, made some places and lost some time. My path to podium glory was going in the right direction even if I’d need a few more years to get there! The second race remained positive with six more places and another two seconds, and this time I thoroughly enjoyed myself. This was proper racing with proper tussles, playing chicken with others on the brakes into corners, overtaking, undertaking and feeling fast even if I wasn’t really. The actual laptimes didn’t really matter much – it didn’t matter how far ahead and how much faster the winners were, I’d had a proper race of my own back there and returned to a grinning Sam out of breath and happy, just as the rain started.
Another day and another pair of races. Again the rain stayed away in the morning and I was raring to go, if aching all over from the previous days’ outings and slightly hungover. Mind you, I’d found out the previous evening that racing and alcohol DO mix, and I’d lost endless more seconds while standing safely and chatting at the bar!
I was now starting from 23rd, Saturday’s eleven scalps deposited safely in the bank. This time after a few passes at the start I found myself with empty track in front of me but not the talent to do anything with them. I was tiring towards the end too, and having forgotten that the Sunday’s races were scheduled to be a lap longer than Saturday’s found myself praying for the end to come. A nine-lap, twelve-minute race sounds brief and insignificant in words, but to an utterly unfit 30-something it can feel like an hour of jogging. Still, I’d made two more places to 21st and, more significantly, had managed another whole second from my time. The pace of improvement was slowing but still heading forward. My aim of ending in the top half was in reach and I wanted one more second off my time to make my weekend complete.
The fourth and last race of the weekend. Actually properly excited and raring to go now. Despite a threatening sky the rain looks like it will hold off one more time and my targets are in reach. I plan my path in front of me, through the crowd of bikes. The sound of engines revving violently, the marshal moves out harm’s way; the lights come on, they pause, they go out, bang! I surge forward, I see a gap, I go for it. Normal Brain says “Are you sure, do you want to be amongst it all as we go into the first turn, in all this danger?” and my Race Brain replies “Damn right!” without hesitation. But there’s something wrong. There’s smoke, there’s someone down. I see a bike sliding through the crowd on its side in front of me and I see others firing into it and into the air. My Race Brain, in command now and completely unfeeling tells me I can cut inside it, avoid the slowing and panicking crowd and pass the whole lot in one swift move. But within a millisecond I’m bearing down on the carnage and suddenly there’s nowhere left to go.
My Normal Brain takes over and suddenly I’m not thinking about winning places I’m working out how much this is going to hurt and whether I’ll live. I’m in a war zone. But I don’t panic and I stay focused. I brake harder still and realise quickly that I can’t go straight ahead onto the grass because the downed bikes are heading that way too and I’ll hit them at some point. So I turn hard right, into the corner that everybody’s forgotten about and manage to avoid hitting anyone. But then, slam! I feel a locked-up bike crash into my right side and realise very quickly that the bikes behind me are now piling into the group too. I’m knocked to the left and hit another bike. I think so anyway, I don’t quite recall. I just remember thinking that I’ve got this far and don’t want to go down now. I bounce from one bike to the next, still braking hard for the corner I won’t quite get round, but when the dust clears I’m onto the rumble strip at a low speed and let off the brakes as I roll onto the grass. I’m slow enough now not to slide on the grass, and somehow turn back onto the track, aware and slightly surprised to find myself in one piece and upright.
Without remorse and almost to my own slight disgust, my Race Brain steps menacingly into the spotlight again and tells me to go, go go; I must have made ten places, maybe more. I try to kick down a gear but realise for the first time that my left foot peg has been sheared off and my ankle hurts. I must have hit one of the other bikes harder than I’d realised. I quickly calculate how much chance I have of racing nine laps with nothing to put my foot on and arrive at the answer of ‘none whatsoever’. But I see red flags everywhere anyway. It’s all over for the time being, we have to leave the track.
I’m unsettled but want to carry on. I desperately don’t want to miss the restart so hurry back to the paddock while the others are held in a run-off lane out of sight of the accident. Sam’s not waiting for me with the paddock stand of course, he’ll be on the pit wall with his timer and unaware. I look around anxiously for anyone to help me put the bike on the stand and find someone nearby. There’s a pretty mean and urgent look in my eyes and when I catch his glance he runs over and helps me with the bike. I’m extremely grateful and jog limping to the pit wall to find Sam. I can see dust and ambulances at the end of the straight. Sam runs back to the bike while I head on to one of the mobile parts stores to try and locate a footpeg. After an age of rumaging through a parts bin we find one and I head back with it to the bike. Sam realises it’s the wrong bit, but after more running in different directions the bike is ready to go and he’s shouting at me to get my lid on. I’ve heard an announcement over the tannoy that the race will be restarted with two warm-up laps and only five race laps, and I rush to the collecting area once again to see if I’ll be allowed to join in.
I get there just as the warm-up laps are finishing and request to be let on. I’m told I can join at the back of the grid which is a little disappointing but fair enough, and I’m extremely grateful that after a delay of maybe ten or fifteen minutes I’ve made the race with seconds to spare. Although I was only ever heading towards the middle of the pack anyway, I feel fired up with all the drama and adrenalin, and starting at the back just makes me more determined. I get a flyer of a start, speed through a flock of riders and into the first corner again. I’m extremely aware that I’m the only rider with cold tyres and I’m pretty keen not to repeat the incident of only minutes previously so take the first lap with a little care. But then I’m having the time of my life. I’m on a mission. It’s my best race of the day and it feels the fastest by miles. I take someone on the outside of the last corner on the last lap and it feels great.
Sam is grinning broadly when I get back and holding out his timer. I didn’t even get to reach my halfway position after all, but I took nine places in five laps in the last race and managed to lose more than a second from the last race. Over the four races I dropped eight seconds from my laptime and gained twenty-two places in total, albeit starting from the back twice so ending up only 19th. There are no podiums, no trophies, no crowds, but I’m pleased with myself. In my own little down-the-rankings way I had a good race and felt like I’d achieved something.
I’ve realised that I’m not as fast as many people and will never be, but I did ok. But I squashed in a lot of experience into those two days and tasted a sample from the range of emotions that racing offers. I was at times frustrated, angry, determined and happy. I crashed, I finished. But I learnt an awful lot, improved my riding and had fun, and that honestly is the main thing.