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Diary of a motorcycle trackday novice.

Fancy doing your first motorcycle trackday?

I finally did my first bike trackday last weekend and thought i'd write about the experience for anyone who's undecided on trying one out.

Like most people who've owned and ridden bikes, i've often wondered what it would be like to really open the thing up on track. The occasional spurt up to silly speeds whenever you get a clear patch of road is all well and good but basically in the UK, these times are limited by...

  • Speed cameras and camera vans round every corner. A moment of indiscretion can easily see your license torn up by the man or, even worse, see you spending the next 6 months trying to avoid picking up the soap in the prison showers.
  • Bad road surfaces. Surfaces in the UK vary widely and your Sunday blast suddenly loses its fun factor when midway round a fast left-hander you hit a damp steel manhole cover with a grippiness rating somewhere around that of Teflon.
  • Not wanting to slam head on into a lorry/roadsign/dry stone wall at 100mph.

The fact is that any foray out onto the British roads puts you at the mercy of the other road users and the plentiful and varied road furniture is not known for its impact absorbtion.

Anyhow, the above is stating the obvious but i'd say a lot of us ride stupidly on the road sometimes when the mood takes us. I'd consider myself a safe-ish rider, i'm not a speed merchant, I don't dress up as a Power Ranger on Sunday and judge how well the day went by how much i've worn off my knee sliders. Hell, i've even got the 'chicken strips' on my tyres still intact so its probably fair to say that I ride like a fairy most of the time. But saying that, there's something inside me that wants to hear the bike scream, crack the throttle full open and wring every last ounce of power from the thing. So how to do that without it ending with me embedded in a Tesco van on the A34? A trackday! That's how.

Coming out of Lodge corner

A trackday is something i'd always fancied but had never got round to doing as there were to many "What If's". What if I get on track and everyone else is loads faster? What if I smash the bike up on the first lap? What if I smash the bike AND myself up on the first lap? What if I shell out the cash and then just simply find out in the first 5 minutes that I don't like it?

In a moment of madness one night, fuelled by several cans of Stella, I went online and booked a trackday at Oulton Park then promptly forgot about it. It was only a few days later when the confirmation arrived in my email inbox that I thought 'oh feck' but by then I'd paid my money and it was non-refundable. I didn't have a clue how these things worked and just basically had an email telling me to turn up at Oulton at some stupidly early time during the British winter. Great.

As the day approached, the weather turned. Surprisingly, for November in the UK it was bloody cold and raining, who'd have thought it! The night before my trackday we had torrential rain so I made the decision to not bother going. The first time on track was a big enough prospect without having to deal with slippy monsoon conditions.

To get to Oulton for the stated 7.45 I'd have to forgo my Friday night bottle of wine and get up in the dark and cold in time to ride to the track. Luckily I didn't have a drink that night 'just in case' and when I woke up and looked out of the window the weather was ok-ish. Grey sky, bit damp, cold but no lashing rain.

I made the decision then to go for it and am glad I did!

I was running late by then though and had no chance of making the time they'd given me so just had to jump on the bike there and then, no preparation, no time to get any gear together. I just put on my two piece Alpinestars leather jacket and track pants, threw a bag of crisps and a couple of smoothies in a rucksack and went. Didn't know what to expect but here's how it panned out.

Arrival at track.

I rolled up at Oulton at around 9.00. Not good, i'd missed the briefing and noise testing but luckily the trackday provider sorted me out. Got given a briefing where they explain the various flags and how to react to them. These are the ones I remember

Green: Track clear and open. Yellow: Caution, incident on track, take it easy through areas marked by yellow flag. Waving yellow means the problem is immediately in front of you. They told us not to overtake if yellow displayed. Yellow/Red striped: Fluid or debris on track ahead warning of possibly slippery surface, said we could overtake under this - but at our own peril! Black: Means there's a problem with you or the bike. Will be combined with a marshall pointing at the offender. If you are flagged with this, enter pits at next opportunity. Red: Session over due to hazard/crash, slow and pit at next opportunity. Chequered: Obvious.

If you need to slow for a flag, let riders behind know by raising your left arm to avoid someone who hasn't seen the flag slamming into the back of you.

They then explained what sort of riding is unacceptable i.e. popping wheelies, dangerous overtakes on the inside, overtaking and causing a rider to change course. They just basically stated they had a duty to protect riders and anyone behaving like an idiot would be immediately removed from the track and not allowed back on. Got the impression they had zero tolerance for messing around which, for a novice, was reassuring to hear.

The briefing was a blur as I was nervous about getting out on track but make sure you remember the flags as you'll see them displayed a lot and if you don't remember what something like the red/yellow means then you could easily come a cropper.

You then get a wrist band to show you've been briefed, you won't get on track without this. You also get a wrist band to show your group. As a first timer, I'd booked the novice group so mine was green. Then you need your bike checking. Most bikes I saw were dedicated track bikes and mine was the only one I could see with lights/indicators etc. I'd heard you had to tape over lights and remove your indicators but I didn't bother with any of this. My bike went on track in the same state I'd commute to work on it. Didn't change anything bar lower tyre pressures a bit. They seemed happy with this though and gave it the ok. The little SV650 was ready to rock 'n roll!

Noise Test.

I joined a queue of bikes for noise testing, this involves you rolling up to two chaps with a noise meter. They ask what type of bike it is, in my case 650 Twin, and then give you an rpm value to hold whilst they put a noise probe into the exhaust. In my case, I had to hold it at 7500 rpm for a few seconds and they then give you a 'passed' sticker for the bike. Again, you won't get on track without this.

First Session

Even though I'd got there late, I was still just in time for the first session. I had to ride straight from noise testing through the pit garages and into the pit lane to join the back of the queue for the first novice session. I was proper flustered by now having had to run around since I got there. Hadn't had time to collect my thoughts and now here I was in the pit lane waiting to be let out on track!

First thing that struck me as I lined up to enter the track was why did all these other 'novice' riders have full-on track prepped bikes splashed with sponsorship logos! They all looked like old hands with worn scuffed leathers and there's me on my little SV lining up with these 'Blades, R6's and GSX-R 1000's. Couldn't see anyone else around me who looked remotely novice!

I'd heard it mentioned before that obviously places on these trackdays are limited so riders just get whatever place they can. This meant my 'novice' group seemed to be mostly fast riders on fast bikes. As you can imagine, this didn't make me feel much better about my first time on track!

At first I thought I must have joined the wrong group and it wasn't the novices going out. It looked like this was confirmed when a girl started to try and get my attention, pointing at me and waving. She ran over and it (embarrasingly) turned out to be that i'd had to run around so much to get briefed, tested and onto track I hadn't realised i'd still got my rucksack on my back! The leather and armour meant i couldn't feel it!

Shit! There's me lining up to go on track with my crisps and smoothies on my back. What a tit! Bloke beside me on HM Plant Honda must had thought i'd taken a wrong turn on my way to work. Could just imagine the scene in casualty following a crash - "I'm sorry Mrs Durbs, but we've failed to retrieve the pack of cheese 'n onion from up your husbands arsehole".

Just had time to take off my rucksack and throw it to the girl before the green light winked on and we were off!

First Lap

As soon as we were out of the pit lane and hit the track, all nerves went and I got a massive rush from actually being on Oulton circuit. I've watched racing here since I was tiny so to actually be on the track on a bike was a massive buzz. We were set for 2 sighting laps, these were done at a pretty brisk pace and gave me a good chance to actually see the layout of the track. As I said, I've watched racing here many times but there are still areas of the track I've not been to as you tend to have a few spots you stick to for watching.

The track looks very different when you are actually on it, it seemed huge and was great having all this space to play with and lovely smooth (albeit very wet) tarmac. After the 2 sighting laps there was a big roar as throttles opened properly and again, big buzz from this. I set off pretty tentatively as this was my first session and didn't want to push it. Still, the feeling of full throttle along the straights was superb and the feel of the SV's back end slipping and sliding through the chicanes is not something you normally (or would want to) feel on the roads. Loved it!

Finally found other novices as started to catch other riders up and even passed a few! The fast boys had disappeared into the distance at what seemed to be an insanely fast pace but it was good to know there were other first timers on the circuit.

With the track being wet, I started to pass wrecked bikes and yellow flags which was a wake up call and caused me to back off a bit as the SV is my road bike and I could really do without it being wrecked!

This was a 20 minute session but seemed to pass in no time. Oulton is 2.6 miles long but believe me, those 2.6 miles just flash past in the blink of an eye. Coming into the pits after the first session I was grinning from ear to ear. All the nerves had been for nothing, it was just a great experience.

Ended up having 3 more 20 min sessions that day but unfortunately the weather got much worse. It was raining so heavily for session 3 that I could barely see where I was going for the water lashing against my visor. Had to ride one-handed a lot of the time so I could constantly wipe it away. Still, even with the bad weather, every session was great. I was riding slow, didn't get my knee down all day but every other rider there was riding in the same conditions so I never felt my pace was that bad. Plus it's a good feeling to overtake another rider on track in the lashing rain!

So from my initial regrets on booking a trackday I am really glad I went and did it and would recommend that any rider who has the remotest urge to get on track to just go and do it.

The weather and conditions were bad and this nearly stopped me from going but with hindsight, I still had a great day and have now experienced a track in tough conditions so any future trackdays in nicer weather will be even better. Its also given me an appreciation of how much a bike can grip in the wet and I now know lack of grip in the wet is mostly in the mind.

As a newbie, i'd give the following pointers to anyone doing their first trackday:

- Don't just think about doing one - go and do it! Get it booked NOW. - Get there on time! I messed up by leaving it to the last minute before deciding i'd go. This meant I was unprepared, arrived flustered and had to rush into the first session. If the track is a distance from you, consider getting a hotel room or B&B so you can take your time and get there in the morning feeling fresh and ready to go. Also if you get there early, you get to bag a good garage spot. - Check you have the right gear. The organisers will specify a certain level of protective equipment i.e. if you have 2 piece leathers, they must have a full length connecting zip. Mine was checked before I was allowed out. I saw quite a few crashes so make sure your gear is good, all the riders who crashed that day walked away unhurt and this is because they were all wearing good quality full leathers and armour.

- Prepare your bike. I didn't have time to prep the bike but next time i'll take the mirrors off (they were a real distraction) and tape up the lights and indicators. I'd tape the lights up if only so it doesn't mess up the photographs. Most trackdays have a pro photographer there and a lot of my photos came out duff because the guy said the high-end camera they use isn't set to have a headlight shining at it! Some people say tape up the speedo but I didn't find myself looking at the console at all anyway. Play with your suspension beforehand to see what works at speed. Even as a newbie, I could feel my SV's suspension was rubbish and needs work for a decent track session, it was like a pogo-stick through the chicanes. Same with tyre pressures, look beforehand at what the recommended track pressures are for your bike, they'll be different then road pressures. This trackday had a suspension guy and a tyre guy on hand to set your bike up if required (for a fee, but think it was only around £45 for them to check and adjust the suspension). Most of the other riders were on race wets and again, these could be purchased and fitted on track. I stuck with my worn road tyres as didn't think i'd be going fast enough to warrant 'proper' tyres. They were a wee bit slippery and I locked up a few times but they gripped far more than i thought they would.

- Fuel - make sure you take enough. Most circuits offer fuel for sale but its expensive. - Take a mate with a car. I rode down on my own but luckily my dad and cousin came down in the motor to watch and they brought fuel, tools and butties. It was also nice to sit in the warm car at lunch when it was freezing cold and raining. Also, if the worst happens and you smash the bike up, how are you going to get yourself and the bike home? Also helps if you know a few people there. I was in my leathers and they (obviously) aren't suited to the wet, luckily a guy we knew turned up and went to his boot and fetched me some waterproofs to wear (cheers Colin!). Its also nice to have a few people around to take the piss out of your riding so whilst I still would have enjoyed the day if I was on my own, its better if a few of you go down.

- Listen carefully to the briefing, its a lot to take in but make sure you know it all and ask if unsure of anything. The flags are there for your safety, remember what they mean!

- Insurance. Remember you are probably not insured if you smash the bike up. You can get trackday insurance so if you are taking your brand new Fireblade out then it may be wise. I saw a lot of smashed up bikes being loaded onto trailers during the day. Even better, lots of companies offer fully set up GSX-R's or R6's for hire for the day - smash someone else's up instead!

- Take it easy, its not a race and you wont be pressured into going fast. Just go at your own pace and enjoy! It's a good atmosphere and no-one will take the mickey (well, not in a nasty way) if you are at the back of the pack. As slow as you feel, there'll always be someone slower (unless you are really slow, but if that's the case, so what? No-one cares!).

- Don't worry about the weather. If its wet, still go. I nearly didn't and that would've been a bad mistake. A wet track may sound scary but it's not at all. Its also good experience for a rider to be able to go quick in the wet without the dangers you'd get on the road.

- Take advantage of any tuition offered. My trackday provider had staff on hand to offer tuition free of charge. They would lead you out and show you how its done and let you know where you are going wrong. I didn't take them up on this for some reason, think it was because it was so wet so I just thought i'd use the time to get used to the track and not concentrate on knocking 1/10th off my lap times. On my next trackday, i'll certainly use the tuition though. Make sure you book through a provider who offers this service.

- Take some cash for photos. There'll probably be a pro photographer there snapping away and you get the option of buying the pics to take home. They ask a silly price (£30 for a cd of photos!) so haggle. I just went up at the end of the day and said i'll give you £15, take it or leave it and they took it.

Next Steps

Am I going to do it again? Yup, indeed I am. After that first taster i'm hooked. Next season i can see myself booking a fair few days at Oulton and may try Anglesey. Going to take tuition next time to get my speed up and hopefully it'll be on a drier track!

All the worries and misgivings I had about doing that first trackday were unfounded so i'd say to anyone considering it to just go for it.

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