Now this may seem a trifle unusual in that we. as a magazine, are promoting another magazine's activities. But there's no reason why this should be the case - we're known for being objective here and what I want to share with you is a truly Good Thing.
The Nordschleife, or North Loop, is the correct name for the old Nurburgring circuit in Germany. Nearly twenty three kilometres, or fourteen miles if you prefer, of track winding through picturesque countryside. If you had time to admire the views then you'd be blown away by the prettiness of it. Eagles soar overhead, occasionally, while the mature forests are home to all sorts of things from deer to wild boar. Seriously, you could take your hiking boots or a mountain bike and still have a terrific time there without ever going on the circuit itself. But that would be slightly counter-intuitive for a reader of this august publication, I suspect.
Depending on how you count, there anything from twenty seven to a hundred and sixty eight bends, though really I'd probably put it at around a hundred if you count a bend as something you really have to take action to navigate around. A lap will take an average rider between ten and eleven minutes, more if you're very steady, less if you're very fast and/or you know where you're going. So you have a lot of bends and a lot of time before you come back and get to have another stab at that corner. Lots of the corners are blind, either at the entry or the exit, some are off camber and a few conceal radical direction changes that can catch out the unwary. And regularly do.
But that's not the scary part. No, the really worrying thing about public days is the mix of traffic and abilities. Yes, I said public days. Because in case you didn't know, this ferocious, rather scary circuit is open to the public. Legally it's a one way toll road, so all the normal German road traffic act rules apply. You overtake on the left, you must be licenced and insured and your bike (or car or bus) must be legal. That means that you on your first visit could be on the track with locals driving hotted up Porsches (which are bloody fast, especially around corners), other locals riding decent sportsbikes (also bloody fast though sometimes a bit more considerate), buses and the occasional elderly Citroen 2CV or similar going up the long climb of Kesselchen at around twenty miles per hour. It all gets exciting and, unless you're really on the ball, can be pretty tense. To put it into perspective, I've done something over sixteen hundred laps, I know where the track goes and when I'm in practice I can lap in around eight minutes. I've also instructed there. But I won't go out on my bike in public sessions because, quite simply, it's too darned dangerous for me - the risk/reward ratio just doesn't work any more.
And that's a problem, because I love riding the place and would urge anyone who loves riding motorbikes to give it a try. But how?
Well there is an alternative, and it's a good one. In fact, even better, there are two alternatives, depending on your experience of the Green Hell. That's what Jackie Stewart called the Nordschleife, and it's not a bad name really. Motorrad, Germany's (and probably Europe's) best selling paper magazine, runs training courses - Perfektionstraining - on the Nordschleife every year, and has done so for thirty years. They have a team of extremely capable instructors, run the course with typically German efficiency and, and this is the decider for me, give you at least two days on the track without having to share with anyone else. Just you and a hundred or so other riders. Plenty of room, plenty of time.
Depending on your experience there are two alternative courses. Ring Pure is for riders who aren't experienced on the Nordschleife. You get fairly intense instruction in groups for two days. You ride the track in sections for the first part of the course, learning those sections and giving yourself a sporting chance of being able to remember where the track goes. Or at least some of it. From sections you progress to riding complete laps, ducks and drakes style, and that's how you get faster and learn the circuit. Unless you're blessed with unreasonable levels of ability then this will be the absolute limit of what you are safely able to achieve on your first visit, and you will be physically and mentally exhausted by the end of it. The quality of instruction is first rate, and even if your German isn't up to scratch you can still enjoy yourself because there are always at least two, usually three, groups with English instructors. And of course all the Germans speak English anyway.
If you've visited a few times and have an idea of where everything goes then you may be eligible for Ring Sharp instead. I don't know who comes up with these names. Anyway, Ring Sharp is again a two day course in groups, the difference being that there is no section training and, after your group leader has satisfied him or herself that you're all competent you are let loose for free lapping. Again there's lots of room, there's coaching available if you want it and, frankly, it is jointly the most fun you can have on a motorbike. Again, instruction is brilliant and there are plenty of English speaking instructors on hand.
I was fortunate enough to get onto the Ring Sharp course this year, arranged through the unofficial UK representative of almost all things Nurburgring. Neil Leigh lives in the Ardennes with his wife Ann, where they run a company called Ardennes and Eiffel Adventures. As they are both keen bikers, and as Neil has instructed on the Nordschleife for a while, they naturally ended up providing an escorted ride service, and when Motorrad decided to open their courses to the Brits, who else would they go to for co-ordination?
The course started, in my case, with a relaxed ride across France and Belgium into Germany and thence to Nurburg. There are some of the best roads in the world on this route, as well as some of the most tedious, but be warned. Not only do these roads have the capacity to bite fairly hard, but the local police are getting tired of Brits in particular wrapping themselves around bits of roadside furniture and so they are rather less tolerant of tomfoolery than might be useful. So by all means have some fun and enjoy a sensible pace, but don't take the mickey, Anyway, after getting to the hotel (sometimes it's included in the course, sometimes, as in this case, not) there is a brief introduction to everyone, a reminder of the ground rules, a refresher on how to remove a rider's helmet after a crash (important, that) and dinner. You are encouraged not to drink lots of beer, though it's there. This year the Dorint hotel by the track was fully booked by Toyota who were launching some box on the GP circuit, so we just had the meeting rooms and one of the restaurants. The choice of accommodation was up to us. Not quite as convenient, perhaps, but it saved a lot of money.
Anyway. The first proper day started at early o'clock with a compulsory on-track relaxation session. Sort of like yoga but sat on your bike. It sounds bizarre and I'm pretty sure it looks it as well, but it works as a means of learning to recognise when you're tensing up and forcing yourself to relax. And here especially that's a good thing, because if you're tense then you'll get tired faster and thus get more tense as you make more mistakes until it all goes horribly wrong. Or, of course, you recognise the problem and deal with it by relaxing. It should be obvious which is the preferred option. Anyway, fifteen minutes or so of "clenching ze butt" (yes, really) and then we were free to go out in our groups and start to do what we'd come for. Riding on the Nordschleife in just about perfect weather conditions - dry and sunny but not so warm that tyres or riders overheat.
The first few sessions are, by mutual consent, in groups. Each group has an instructor/coach/leader and we dutifully followed them around for three laps and a moderate pace. Let me clarify that. A moderate pace which would have had me wetting myself when I first came here back in the nineties. Just to reiterate, this course is NOT for 'Ring virgins. We carried on like this for a couple of hours, and then we were free to lap on our own until lunchtime, which was a typical German picnic of plenty of fresh meat rolls, cheese, fruit and coffee. An example of how well organised the course is. Each group has a number and each rider is numbered within the group. For instance, we were group seven, coincidentally led by Neil Leigh, and as the first alphabetically I was rider seven-one. Makes sense so far. Each group also gets a stack of beer crates with litre bottles of mineral water in them. You write your number on the cap of the bottle with the provided marker pen and when you finish your bottle you take another from the crate below and reuse your cap. Staying hydrated is not a problem.
Interesting how national attitudes don't necessarily stack up with the stereotypes. In the morning free lapping session, after everyone had been told to take it easy and build up, there were three excursions off the track in the opening lap. Nobody was hurt badly, though a few insurance premiums would be taking a kicking, but the really interesting point is that none of the riders were British. Indeed, none of the Brits came a cropper over the whole course, despite our reputation for being hooligans. However, in an attempt to keep things under control the management did decide to revoke a privilege - the promised ride through on the main straight failed to materialise, it remaining mandatory to come off and go through the barriers instead. Disappointing but hardly the end of the world.
At the end of the first day, twenty four laps complete and happy but knackered, it was a brief return to my B&B for a shower and change of clothes before dinner at the Dorint, the opportunity to exchange some more banter with the guys in the group and an extremely interesting, though perhaps overcomplicated, presentation from a man from Ohlins about suspension. That's all about suspension - how it works and everything, not just how to adjust it to make it work for you.
Anyhow. Back to the B&B and a very easy sleep. by the time my alarm went off I was already awake. The torrential rain on the tiled room had seen to that. Yesterday's glorious conditions were indeed too good to last, and the blue sky had been replaced by unremitting grey. There was standing water everywhere and no sign whatsoever of improvement. Even the ride to the track was miserable, but at least I had brought an oversuit and a pair of galoshes - possibly the least sexy motorcycle clothing ever but a perfect way of keeping dry feet with race boots on. The on bike meditation was slightly less amusing today, though keeping my helmet on made it easier to shut out the world. Again by mutual consent we stayed in groups for the first few sessions. Then we stayed in groups anyway. It was really quite horrible, and there was absolutely no way we could ride faster than we were or really learn very much other than how to deal with a bike moving around beneath you and to memorise the track layout even further. It seemed as though it was going to brighten up at lunchtime, but it didn't come to anything, and we eventually called it a day at around three o'clock after about fourteen laps, Neil suggesting that it was a numbers game - not if someone was going to come a cropper but when as the puddles were getting bigger and the grip reducing further still. It was still worth being there, and the place was still beautiful, but it definitely wasn't as much fun as yesterday.
Typically, by dinner time the rain had stopped, though there were some interesting lightning displays on the horizon. The evening's presentation was a genuinely fascinating talk by a sports psychologist about some of the things that go on in our heads as we ride, giving us an excellent insight into some of the issues faced by professional riders as well as mere mortals like ourselves. Then dinner, the opportunity to look at the very good photo's taken by the official photographers and exchange phone numbers, email addresses and more friendly banter before adjourning to bed. Our landlord had driven us to the Dorint and allowed us to use his drying room for our soaking wet kit, and the four of us staying there then shared a cab back. My kit was dry so I retrieved it when I got back and, after settling my bill, I turned in for an early departure.
Needless to say the next day was beautiful. Brilliant sunshine all the way home, though when I left it was foggy and bitterly cold. It was also five in the morning. A brief and rather dull dash across Europe saw me back on the shuttle and home. Total mileage was just over fourteen hundred, split roughly into thirds for the journey there, riding the circuit and the journey home.
So that's the report. You'll want some facts and figures. As near as makes no difference, the course will cost you roughly a thousand Euros. That includes all instruction and track time plus mechanical support if needed, lunch and dinner. Bed and breakfast accommodation will cost from one hundred to five hundred Euros, depending on where you stay. I'd be inclined to go for the cheaper end because, frankly, you gain nothing apart from convenience by staying at the Dorint. Though it is nice to be able to have a swim and sauna after a hard track session and before dinner, of course. Fuel is really down to your bike, but I got through four full tanks on the track plus another half dozen on the journey. I chose to use the tunnel to cross The Channel, which is boring but quick, easy and cheap at just twenty seven pounds each way.
So this experience is not cheap, but it is extraordinarily good value, especially when you consider that my laps alone would have cost me seven hundred Euros - probably a thousand if the weather had been better. And, of course, you get to ride without idiots in cars getting in the way, which just made it better and better.
If you're up for it, you can contact Neil at AEAdventures here. I stayed at Edgar Steffen's Pension Muhlenhardt which I can't rate highly enough. Seriously, if you really want to take your riding to the next level then go for the Ring Pure course and treat yourself to the best on-road riding experience you'll ever have. Until you do Ring Sharp, that is...