Under the green corrugated iron roof of the pit garage I stood, knees trembling beneath a steadfast veneer of armor and black leather. I’d just completed the first session of my motorcycle track-day and, in many ways, had just shit myself up.
I’d ridden a wave of excited apprehension through the torrential days leading up to it. I’d taken Friday off work and rented £240 worth of specialist track-bike for it. I’d cyclically bigged myself up and talked myself down over it. And here I was. After a 6am start to get to the track, an underwhelming safety briefing and too many coffee’s considering I’d be strapped into race leathers, I was doing it.
Having never been on a racing bike of any pedigree (my hacked up SV650 was as close as I’d been) – I was overcome with a wave of mild panic when riding out to take my place in the lineup. ‘Perched’ was the only way I could describe the feeling – the bike and the rider being very much separate entities. It was the cake and I was the cherry, with my knees bent all up and somewhere near my ears. I wasn’t used to being so perched.
Worse still were the brakes. They worked. So well that a quick brake-test stopped me dead and the bike stalled, all before I’d even moved a foot from my paddock stand. Add wet tyres and throw me on a race track and it couldn’t be more of an alien experience. Yet I followed the others in my Novice group straight onto Gerard’s bend, a huge sweeping right hander, and felt thankful for the gentle pace and no overtaking of the three ‘sighting laps’ before anyone was allowed to really hammer it. A short straight took you to a tight left and right, before opening up into gently curving right and left that looked like they could get pretty fast. Then the hairpin, 180 degrees carrying you through the bus stop chicane then steep left downhill back to the home ‘Kirby’s’ straight. It’s a tiny track, which is part of the reason I’d chosen Mallory Park as my first adventure. Easy to learn, tricky to master.
On the third lap the instructor rolled casually down the right hand side of Kirby’s straight and allowed all hell to break loose. Every corner I slowed down in good time and watched as streams of bikes came jeering past me, revving high. Out the other side they peeled away from me easily and into the distance. Still, I’d never been on something that accelerated so fast in all my life. I was perched on a terrifying rocket ship.
My only saving grace was Shaw’s hairpin – having been through the same thing, over and over and over on my way through the Italian and Slovenian alps on my three month moto binge. Here, I had everyone’s number. Bloody novices.
Back in the pits, as I stood around gibbering like an idiot, Matt, my Smallboy Trackbike pit crew for the day, swapped the wet tyres to slicks. The wet tyres had certainly had a distinctive feel, so I was thankful for more predictable rubber – especially since it would be my first ever use of tyre warmers. All I needed was one of those straw sippy-cups and a cap with the monster energy logo and I could’ve been a Moto GP rider. Aside from the lack of talent, of course.
I chatted to the other rider on a Smallboy bike. Simi, from Mauritius, was on holiday and visiting his brother who was also riding as part of a race team. Apparently Simi had been on a trackday once before, again on a Smallboy, where he entered as an intermediate and had another bike slog into the back of him in a corner. Not the most inspiring pit story…
By the end of the third session I was beginning to unlock the secrets of track success. No longer solely focused on being perched I could look at and listen to the faster riders around me. I started really slugging on the front brake, later and later into corners until I wasn’t being over taken any more. Overhearing a sneaky tip from a young racer in the pits, I pushed the breaking even further – grabbing a fist full of lever and using a firm stomp on the back breaks to steady out the inevitable wobble. By the end of the fourth session I was still hurtling along well after others in the group had lost their bottle.
Around the same time I figured out my shortcomings on the straight and out of corners. For some reason, I hadn’t shook the ‘fuel economy’ style of riding that had become so well established during my trips – shifting up at around 5/6 thousand revs. Effectively I’d cut my powerband in half. Aforementioned racer gave me some tips on gear selection (lower than I would’ve arrived at on my own) and again, I wen’t out there and shredded.
By lunch, wedged in the back of my Dad’s peugeot partner, forcing grapes and sandwiches down despite having no appetite at all, I was again behaving like a gibbering idiot. But this time I wasn’t through sheer fear, but raw elation. All my concerns about being shit at something (irrational, considering I’d never done it before..) had washed away as soon as I’d lapped my first rider. Too competitive, no?
In the final sessions the sun came out, the tyres were perfect temperatures and I grew the cojones to throw myself around Gerard’s bend without breaking at the end of Kirby’s straight. My outstretched knee slider scratched across the tarmac like a needle on a record, shining a light on the impotence of my earlier, slower attempts. Every round of Shaw’s hairpin was a knee-down too, thought the footpeg occasionally bit into tarmac as the bike was banked over so far.
My gears low, I revved the engine to red-line before flicking my foot against the quick shifter, not even having to roll off the throttle. Admittedly, this system got stuck a couple of times and I was left screaming down Kirby’s in third, with each attempt to shift up causing a burping lurch. I was only getting faster and faster! True triumph arrived when I started lapping Simi, who couldn’t muster the courage (self-admittedly) to carry speed through Gerard’s. The group began to feel quite novice as the techniques clicked into place. I became more and more aware of the eighty year old on his vintage Yamaha who looked like he’d just popped out for milk but taken a wrong turn. Bikes of all shapes and sizes, me included, hurtled past at speed yet the guy barely flinched. Respect.
More confident and more able, I pushed the envelope to (and just above) my skill level as I neared the end of the day. I locked both wheels into the hairpin, had to duck my head around the green and white concrete barrier as I’d took a line too tight. Then, parked up for the final time – I admired the work done to the rear tyre – both edges all bubbled and blistered. The sun that had emerged late in the session (and almost made it too hot – you can never please the Brits) was knocked out by rain clouds on the drive home. We’d been incredibly lucky.
I thoroughly enjoyed my day at Mallory Park with Smallboy bikes. The difference a race tuned bike (brakes??) and warm, soft tyres make is frankly unbelievable. Now back to skittering around on my GSR until I can afford something of my own to take to the track!
Anyway… here’s a shitty video, but it highlights how fast or not I was going (so fast that the sky turned to pixels around my helmet… I know, right.)