Clare does Cadwell

Feature article by Clare Gamby

Pics by Steve Gregory and Simon Bradley



You’d think that by now I would’ve learned not to just willingly accept any challenge the guys set me. The last one had me setting out on my first ever solo lap of the Nurburgring on a bike I’d never even sat on before, let alone ridden – the GSX-R600 the team were reviewing at the time. But that’s another story. On this occasion I think they took the stealth approach…and it worked, I was in before I realised quite what I’d agreed to.

Okay, so it seemed like a good idea at the time – novice rider has her first track day in the capable hands of Rapid Training. Chatting to the guys it all sounded like it would be great fun. Bear in mind that their combined years of biking are more than double my age (sorry fellas!) and you may realise why I was lulled into feeling warm and cosy about going on my first track day when I’ve only been riding for 8 months. Now chuck in a heavy dose of reality and you may begin to understand why on the eve of the experience I started to wonder what on earth I was doing at a B&B in Louth just a few minutes from Cadwell Park. A serious case of second thoughts. Was it fear? Being honest, I would say that must’ve been an element, however the main problem was simple nerves. Don’t forget, this is coming from someone who doesn’t ride every day and when I am out on the bike it’s on nice sweepy roads in the depths of Oxfordshire when the sun is shining.

So there I am. Wide awake and restless, trying not to think about the prospect of binning my bike let alone my pride.

Just take it at your own speed, the experts say, it’s not a race. And they’re right. I know this is going to sound very textbook but I’m convinced that the key to having the most fun on a track day as a novice is to go at your own pace, not everyone else’s. Sure, if I hadn’t pushed myself then I wouldn’t have learned as much as I did, but only a couple of times did I have that random “so who’s in control then?” sensation. More of that later. That doesn’t mean that the competitive streak in me didn’t come out, it most definitely did! I’m pleased to know that I held my own on the track with some nifty overtakes that easily compensated for the number of bikes that nipped past me.

And so the morning dawns and not without a little trepidation I ride out with the rest of the team, marginally reassured that the roads are dry and the clouds are white and fluffy (for the time being). As we rolled up at Cadwell I did feel a bit daft knowing that I was going out in the novice group (thoughtfully called Group 3, presumably to make us feel better!) and the nerves were most definitely still there. Chin up and on with it. This time I didn’t want them seeing the look of a startled rabbit through my visor. Bike checked over, stickered and taped up, I parked up with the rest of my group while the guys parked up in Group 1. Guess I’ll be on my own now. Preconceptions? You bet. I looked around me, certain that my first stereotype image was about to be reinforced. This is definitely a gig for boy bikers who just wanna go faster. Well, that’s what I thought. So I’ll be wrong on that one then. I was surprised (and pleased) to see a fair proportion of girls there too – and more to the point no they weren’t all in the novice group!

Talking of preconceptions…Gixxers, Blades, you name a sportsbike, that’s all I thought I’d see there. Totally wrong. In my group there was all sorts. With the SV parked up in respectable company I went in to register and sign my life away…sorry, sign the exemption forms. That’s one thing that is most definitely true of track days like this one – generally, your standard insurance won’t cover you for damage to your bike caused on a racetrack. Nothing like additional psychological pressure there.

So, that’s it then. Checked in and there’s no turning back now. Right. Best get a coffee and wait.

This is where Rapid Training has got things sussed. They take your mind off the waiting game by giving you a briefing before your first session. Flags: yellow – bad, red – really bad (no: really, really bad), etc. Etiquette: yes, there is some, please use it. Instructors: can’t miss ‘em the yellow bibs give them away and they’re on the right line. Fun: it’s out there, go get some.

Did I say that my mind was distracted by the briefing? Well, that’s true but it’s short-lived. As we made our way out to our bikes for our first session, everything very sharply refocused on the task in hand.

Now there are good things and bad things about being in the novice group. On the upside you get to spectate as the other groups go out first on their sessions and nobody has any expectations of your ability. On the downside? You get to spectate as the others go out and nobody has any expectations of your ability. You can take this either way. I chose positive thinking: see how the “experts” do it and then show them what I can do.

The first session out is for only 10 minutes and thereafter the 3 groups rotate in 20-minute sessions so that for every hour you get 1 session on the track and 2 off and you definitely need it. Intense concentration for 15-20 miles at a time takes its toll far more than average road riding. The breaks in between are more than welcome both for physical/mental recovery and as a chance to chat with the rest of your group.

Hang on, did I just say only 10 minutes? It seemed like a lot longer.

As we rolled out for the sighting session, we probably looked like a fleet of newbie ducklings in a neat little procession. And I guess this is probably not that far from the truth. Most (if not all) of the riders in my group had never been to Cadwell Park or on any track day and so had no real concept of the track dynamics and how to ride when you’re out there, other than the commonsense aspects. Keep as tight to the lead instructor’s line as possible was the advice – the more you stray from it the harder it is for you and subsequently the riders following your line. Worst case scenario is that whoever is at the back will end up riding a totally different line and not get to know the best (and ultimately the most fun) way round the track.

Why did it seem longer than 10 minutes? Well, it’s purely down to information overload really. Being on the track for the first time, you are faced with mentally registering where the turn in and apex cones are (definitely a bonus to have those!) as well as putting together a 3 dimensional map of the track in your head. I’m sure it’s obvious and that I’m not the only one who has checked out a track layout before going on a track day for the first time, but a 2 dimensional illustration tells you little more than the basic layout. Admittedly I did get a little more “insider” information about Cadwell Park before I went and not wishing to land anyone in it, I think one of the comments was something like “Oh, and of course there’s The Mountain, everyone wheelies over that”. And that was supposed to reassure me?? Anyway, it probably doesn’t sound like much to learn and certainly as the day progressed and the number of laps increased you automatically got to know where you were supposed to be and when/how you needed to get there.

Even after the first short session, the mood in our group had changed quite significantly with adrenalin-fuelled excitement being the most overwhelming aspect. We could not stop talking and laughing. Probably the most common factor as I looked around at the rest of my group was the huge grins on everyone’s faces (ah, that’ll be why my cheeks are hurting then – and I don’t mean the ones I sit on…). I can only put this down to the release of tension from having gone round the track for the first time. That was certainly the case for me.

As the day went on I settled into the routine of group rotation, improving with every lap and pleased with how the weather was holding for us. One of the best things I found with Rapid Training (no, I’m not on commission here!) was that at any point in the day you could collar one of your instructors for individual tuition during your session. After an “interesting” experience half way through my third session out, I knew that I wasn’t taking the best line on a couple of sections of the track and wanted someone to point me in the right direction. Remember my comment about third party bike control? Well this was one of those moments. There I was fully in the flow of things, hot on the tail of the bike in front as we hared past the paddock on the approach to Hall Bends. Ah, I guess he’ll be braking then…quite a lot…in fact more than I can. Disaster aversion tactics? Oh that was easy, cut past him on the inside, straight lining it over the grass. An “interesting” line I was later assured! Mind you I was in good company, one of the other guys from my group was already parked up there shaking his head (but still smiling) having totally misjudged his entry point as well. Like I said, time to get myself an expert.

I can happily say that without question, one-on-one tuition works really well and you definitely don’t feel stupid, honest. Mark agreed to run a few laps with me and said he’d find me out on the track on our next session. Um, ok. Having taken a fair amount of stick from the team when I came in for a break (yep, they all saw my off road experience), I knew I had a fair amount of pride to pull back and I was relying on Mark to help.

Two coffees later I rolled out onto the track with the rest of my group. After the first couple of laps I thought Mark had forgotten about me and that I’d have to catch him for the next session. I was wrong. Halfway into lap 3 a flash of yellow tears past me and tucks in front with his right foot hanging out. That’ll be Mark then telling me to follow him. So follow him I did, as tight as possible. Now until this point I thought I was doing ok, but it became apparent that I was coasting it round and not really pushing myself. Throughout the next 2 laps Mark made it clear that I was not using enough of the track nor was I looking far enough ahead on a couple of bends. Duly chastised by his hand and foot signals I pushed myself harder, tucking in tighter to the turn in point and looking beyond the exit of the bend. OK, OK, I’m sure this is all sounding obvious to you but remember where you’d usually find me when I’m on two wheels…

After those 2 laps Mark had either despaired of me or he was happy that I was taking a better line and he disappeared off to track someone else. Did his help work? Oh yes. No more offroading for me! Not only that, I also managed to christen my toe sliders round the hairpin on the next lap.

That neatly leads me on to my next challenge for the day. Could I get my knee down for the first time ever? No reason why not according to the team, purely a case of mind over matter. Oh and not actually knowing how to do it. Once again, Mark to the rescue. I thought I would feel totally stupid at this point by having to ask someone, but straight faced as ever Mark explained the theory and left the practice up to me. Mind you, why is it when faced with a girl, some people get very coy about trying to describe that you have to hang half your arse off the seat? Plain English would’ve been fine. Trust me. Anyway, did I manage it?

I would love to say that yes I did but it was obviously not my day for it. Everything else was in place (weight shifted over, one cheek on, one off, etc.) but my knee sliders remained untouched. Oh well, now I know how I guess I’ll just have to keep trying...

So far I’m sure this all sounds like a fantastic experience and yes it was but I would be wrong to say that there were no more “whoops” moments (although none were major, it was more the frustration and having to rebuild my pride).

Remember the fluffy white clouds that greeted us as we first got to Cadwell? Well, true to our expectations (the forecast had indicated that rain was likely) halfway through the day and not surprisingly, halfway through one of my group’s sessions, the sky started looking pretty angry. I think the word I’m looking for is boding…and it was boding big time. Hoping that the weather would hold off until we had to come in, we carried on looping round the track. By the way, riding with fingers crossed doesn’t work, I know, I tried it. With probably a couple more laps of the session left I was happily tearing down towards Coppice when the rain came. With a vengeance. It was at this point that I was reminded why I shouldn’t have bought a Dainese lid – just the slightest sniff of rain and bingo, vision impaired hugely. It was interesting trying to get round Charlies in the equivalent of a sea of fog. With my visor popped up a notch and vision clearing I carried on down Park Straight. Backed off hugely, we coasted round the rest of the track to the exit point where the marshall was flagging us in. Somewhat soggy round the edges, coffee seemed the perfect solution. And it was.

I’m pleased to say that the rain didn’t last and pretty soon, Group 1 were out and starting to dry the track for us. Other than a few more light showers in the afternoon, the weather stayed in our favour.

In between my sessions I spent most of my time watching the other groups, in particular checking out the ride lines the more experienced riders took and the way they move around the bike. Definitely something I would recommend to any newbie like me. It was during one of these rests that I got stealth attacked again. There I was chatting to Steve while he took some shots of Simon and Adrian as they came over The Mountain. Each time Adrian came round his front wheel was up and the bike flew past with conviction. On the other hand Simon was road testing a datalogger and took a somewhat less aggressive approach, keeping the front end down so as not to dislodge the unit (yes, it popped off earlier on in the day much to his surprise – try putting that back on when your speed is in 3 figures…). Getting myself ready to go back out on the track Steve said he would take some shots of me on this session and why didn’t I try going one wheel over The Mountain for him? There you go, stealth attack. It wasn’t the bit my ears heard, it was what my brain heard, echoes of an earlier conversation; “The Mountain…everyone wheelies over that”. Right then.

Shrugging my shoulders and smiling I didn’t promise anything and made my way back to my bike. But Steve knew I’d bitten. By now I’d got things pretty much together with smoother lines and better carriage of speed so I guess the challenge just had to be accepted. With dogged determination I was back out on the track again. You want a wheelie? No problem I can do that. Err, hello? (logic tapping me on the shoulder) When was the last time you popped a wheelie? Umm…

Ok confession time. I haven’t…ever. Did I know how to? Not really, only what I’d picked up when listening to the guys chatting over a beer or two about previous exploits.

Decision made, it had to be on my first lap out or not at all. Bearing in mind that the track is only just over 2 miles long, I didn’t have very long to think about it and prepare myself which with hindsight was probably a good thing. So in the short space of time before I approached The Mountain, I got my plan together. A very simple one. Enter in a gear lower than I had been doing on this section and nail it. Later on the guys told me that the theory was fine…

It was at this point that I forgot to take into account a fundamental element – my bike and what it would do. I ride an SV650S. Chosen because it’s known for being an ideal newbie bike and is very forgiving. It isn’t exactly lively and you can pull away in completely the wrong gear and it won’t complain too much. Or so I’m told (honest).

Anyway, what I had in my head as I rounded Mansfield was that it would take a fair amount of throttle to lift the front end. It didn’t. Proving that I really don’t know my bike as well as I thought I did.

Did I do it? Absolutely. And then some. On previous laps with my usual approach, I’d felt the front lighten up but the tyre stayed firmly in contact with the track. This time you could’ve got a bus under it, ok slight exaggeration, maybe just a small dog with his ears tucked down.

On the approach to The Mountain I began to accelerate as usual but stayed down a gear. As I reached the crest I twisted back on the throttle and my docile little SV reared its head.


All I can say is that I fully expected to have a perfect imprint of the filler cap on my chest. Totally surprised by the bike’s reaction I quickly backed off and put the front back down. Coasting past the bike in front of me I carried on down the track with a massive grin on my face. Fantastic. I just hoped Steve got that one.

Next lap round I thought about trying it again but not wanting to tempt fate I decided not to, so with a shake of my head at Steve I was back to two wheels over The Mountain. There was only one downside to doing this on my first lap of the session – I had to carry on for the rest of the 20 minutes before I could post mortem the wheelie with the guys. Did they even see it?

By the time our group came in, I’d convinced myself that the SV had only lifted by a couple of inches at best. Time to find out how it really looked. Steve’s face said it all. Grinning nearly as much as me, he assured me that it was one hell of a wheelie and that he had captured the moment on film.

The rest of the day was fine as my confidence and ability grew. Before long it was time for the final sessions, 10 minutes for each group before we called it a day. I decided against going out for the final session, choosing to watch the rest of my group instead. It’s amazing how much a track day wipes you out when you’re a newbie. The combination of intense physical and mental commitment definitely takes its toll. Not only that, I knew that I still had the 100+ mile journey back home!

One of the biggest things I took away with me from this track day was getting to know my bike better and understand just how much I can really do with it. Before Cadwell, I regarded the SV as a total beginners bike that wouldn’t ever be much fun, just sturdy and reliable. Well, yes it is very reliable and docile the majority of the time, but I can definitely say that the fun factor is there. In spades, if you want it to be. I now have a massive respect for my bike, it can certainly outride me and it will be some time before I upgrade.

If I was to sum up what I think about track days then I’ve got to admit that to a large extent my preconceived ideas were way off the mark, in a positive sense. The day at Cadwell was fantastic, very social and a great opportunity to learn as much as you want. I came away buzzing with a huge sense of achievement and the knowledge that my riding had improved tenfold. As well as having a greater confidence in my riding ability, I now ride a better line on the road, much smoother and at a higher speed. I think it can be summed up as “making progress” in every sense.


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