Riding on the track.

Feature article by Simon Bradley

 

It is increasingly likely that, at some point in your biking career, you will find yourself on a racetrack. Trackdays are becoming ever more popular as the only way to explore the performance of your bike without risking your licence and many advanced riding schools are now turning to tracks as a controlled environment for group training. Race tracks have a lot of very obvious advantages, and are by far the safest places you can ride. There is nothing coming the other way, for a start, and the tracks are designed with safety in mind so that instead of telegraph poles, phone boxes and walls you’ll find bales, gravel traps and wide runoff areas for when it all goes horribly wrong. If you’re on the track for rider training, your instructors will probably have their own ideas of what you should be doing, but if you’re on a normal trackday or if there’s a free session at the end of your training then here are a few tips to help you make the most of your time.

Choosing your trackday company is one of the most obvious, yet commonly forgotten, ways of making sure your day is as good as it can be. If you simply want to hoon around the track in the company of like minded maniacs then go for one of the companies advertising in the more laddish magazines. If, on the other hand, you would like to ride your bike home rather than having it delivered in a skip, you may want to look for a company that advertises itself as offering more tuition. Either way, you should go with someone who seems to be able to organise things coherently. Groups split by pace are a good thing, because whether you’re fast or slow yourself you will be safest and have the most fun if there isn’t too massive a speed differential between you and the other members of your group. We use Rapid Tracks www.rapidtracks.co.uk for all our UK short circuit sessions. They’re exactly what we need – well organised, friendly, flexible and sensibly priced.

Before you embark on a trackday, it’s worth taking the time to prepare yourself. First of all, check your bike over and make sure it’s fit for a day of being ridden rather harder than it may be used to. That doesn’t mean you need to lockwire the sump plug and fit race bodywork, but it does mean making sure the tyres have enough life in them, brake pads are OK and the chain is properly adjusted. Remember that if you’re riding to the track you’re going to be riding home as well, so err on the side of caution with tyres and brakes. You also need to make sure that the bike isn’t about to blow up, fall a part or otherwise expire, and it’s a good idea to check things like oil and coolant levels while you’re at it.

You don't actually need the latest in race replica supersports weaponry to get the best out of a trackday. I have had an unreasonable amount of fun on, of all things, a BMW R1100 GS around the GP circuit at Brands Hatch. Other people prefer things like CB500s, Hornets, Fazers and the like, although it is still fair to say that the majority of bikes you see will be on the sporting side of the fence.

Our top trackday bikes are, in no particular order:

GSX-R 750/600
Triumph 600 Daytona
Ducati 999S/749S
BMW 1150 GS
Yamaha R6
Buell Firebolt
Aprilia RS250

But that's just us. The simple truth is the best trackday bike for you is the one on which you are happiest. It may be worth noting, though, that there are no litre class multi cylinder bikes on the list. Make what you will of that, but we've found them a little too ferocious to really enjoy on the track.

Take a minute to check your kit as well. Make sure your leathers still fit properly and that if they’re two piece that they zip together. If you have sliders and expect to use them then make sure they are properly attached and have sufficient meat on them. Don’t forget the toe sliders on your boots - there’s few better ways of leaving a lasting memory than filing your little toe off on the way around Gerrard’s or Clearways.

For some reason, many tracks are quite a long way from anywhere. You may, therefore, want to travel up the night before and stay in one of the myriad inexpensive B&Bs which spring up around racetracks. It's a good idea, because, as we shall see later, the day will be very tiring indeed and an early o'clock start won't make it any easier. However, resist the temptation to have a skinful when you arrive. Although it may seem like a great idea at the time, a hangover will make you slow and wobbly the next morning. Not a good start to the day.

Popular UK Trackday venues and nearest town:

Brands Hatch - Dartford, Kent

Rockingham - Corby, Northants

Cadwell Park - Louth, Lincolnshire

Mallory Park - Hinckley, Leicestershire

Donnington Park - Derby

Oulton Park - Winsford, Cheshire

Snetterton - Thetford, Norfolk

Assuming you have made a wise choice in trackday organisers, when you get to the circuit you will see that there are several cones dotted around the track. These will usually show the turn in and apex points of most corners. They are by no means hard and fast points, and they will have been positioned for the safest, most conservative approach which is not always the fastest. It is, however, a good line to start off with while you learn your way around the track. Feel free to adjust it yourself as you go along. You will also find that there are instructors, usually identifiable by their bright coloured tabards, who you can latch onto and follow around. Talk to them, ask them things and use them. There is no better way of improving your riding than by following someone who is as near the top of the game as it gets around a racetrack at a reasonable pace.

Flag signals are there for a reason and they are massively important. There are a number of marshals around the track, usually wearing fetching orange suits, who are armed with an array of brightly coloured flags and the uncanny ability to spot something going pear shaped almost before it happens. They are also blessed with an economy of action which means that if they actually start to do something (holding out a flag or, in extreme cases, running like Hell), there's a good reason for it. Knowing what the flags mean and paying attention to them could, quite literally, be a matter of life and death. Your morning briefing should cover flags but for the record, here they are:



Yellow flag
– there is an incident ahead. Slow down, be prepared to stop or take evasive action. NO OVERTAKING! If the flag is being waved instead of simply held out then take it even more seriously. Either way, keep your speed down until you see the...

 



Green flag – you are clear of the incident and free to resume your previous speed. Remember that the yellows may still be out behind you so you may come to them again on the next lap.

 


Oil flag - the track ahead may be slippery so you should be more careful than usual. This flag comes out a lot more often than you might expect, especially in places where the weather can be variable or where the track stays damp under trees.

 



Red flag – track closed. Slow right down and proceed to the pits slowly. Be prepared to stop if necessary. Expect almost anything to appear in front of you and be ready to react accordingly.

 


Chequered flag – end of session, game over, call it what you will. Carry on as usual this lap but pull into the pits at the end. There is no requirement for you to perform stand-up wheelies, punch the air or do any other victory celebrations. The marshal has seen it all before and all you'll do is look foolish and perhaps earn a one sided conversation with the clerk of the course.

 

Black flag – usually accompanied by the marshall pointing directly at you. There is something seriously wrong with your bike or your riding and the clerk of the course would like to discuss it with you. Now and in person. It may be that something is falling off, you may be leaking oil or you may be riding like a pillock. Either way acknowledge the marshall, slow down, complete the lap, get back into the pits and be ready to apologise or get the toolkit out. If you ignore a black flag you may well find yourself being banned from the track for the rest of the day. Best not to, then.

While we're discussing your not being a professional, it's probably a good time to discuss limits. Yours and the bike's. The whole idea of a track day is to have a load of fun, but you should also find that by the end of the day you will have learned a huge amount. You’ll also have explored areas of your ability that you may not even have known you had, and stretched the capabilities of your bike a little as well. But there’s the right way and the wrong way to go about it. You can just leap on the bike, tear out of the pit lane and throw it into the first convenient gravel trap if you wish, or you can take the opportunity to push gradually and to increase your pace as you go along until you get to a point where you’re going as quickly as you feel comfortable. One of these methods will mean you have a great day and will end up with your limits expanded beyond your wildest dreams. The other won’t.

It isn’t a race, it’s a trackday. It sounds obvious, but so many people seem to forget. There’s no champagne for the winner because there’s no winner. There’s no post race interview for the winner because there’s no winner. There’s no glory for the winner because there’s no winner. Have you got it yet? There is no winner because it is not a race. So you don’t need to risk everything on an outbraking manouvre, you don’t need to dive down the inside of that Fireblade on the hairpin and you don’t need to be massively competitive because there is no winner. That isn’t to say you can’t overtake or even have a friendly dice, because that would be silly. Just overtake in a reasonable place and in a reasonable way.

One of the worst things that happens on track days is that sometimes a rider gets taken out be someone else’s stupidity. On the road, while you’re more likely to get hurt, at least the financial pain is dealt with by the other rider’s insurance. On the track it isn’t – someone uses you as a braking point and it’d down to you to sort it out with them directly because neither of you are insured (although more on that later). Knowing the level of aggravation that could cause, it makes sense to leave a bit more margin when you’re going for an overtake or even when you’re just closing on a slower rider. Don’t try to use a gap that doesn’t exist or to brake like you’re Alex Barros because there’ll be tears at bedtime.

You are not a professional! Or if you are, the chances are that most of the others out there aren’t. Either way, something that you see Messrs Hodgson, Walker and Bayliss get away with is unlikely to end well for you unless you are totally sure both of your abilities and those of the other riders around you. So probably best let it go and remember that there’s another session in forty minutes or so.

One of the things you’ll find is that riding at 100% for even a relatively short period of time is incredibly tiring. Your body and mind are probably not used to running the amount of adrenaline that you will be producing, are probably not used to concentrating as hard as you will be and are almost certainly not used to things happening as fast as they are. Your pulse rate will probably be pretty high so you’ll be burning calories quite nicely, which is good, but the end result is that you will get tired far more quickly than you might expect. You’ll also be getting dehydrated, which won’t help. All of these things are good reasons why sessions are usually only 20 minutes long.
You can help yourself fight the fatigue in several ways. Right at the top is drinking plenty of fluid. Even when it’s not very warm you’ll find that the level of effort you’re putting in will be making you sweat. On a warm day you may well find that you’re getting through as much as a litre of water an hour. Fruit juice and energy drinks are your best bet, or just plain water. Coffee and tea are diuretics and will just make you need to go to the toilet. Eating is good, but avoid having a big lunch (more on that later) which will make you sleepy. Pasta, potatoes and rice are all good, and chocolate is a great way of getting a quick boost. It should be obvious, but having a couple of pints with your lunch is a bad idea.

There are some times during a track day that are more dangerous than others. Oddly enough, unless you’ve been careless enough to book yourself on a day populated almost entirely by nutters, the first session is usually pretty incident free. People tend to take a few minutes to find their way around before going crazy. As a result, the second session of the day is riskier – everyone thinks they know where the circuit goes, they’ve remembered that they can lean a bit without falling off and they’ve overtaken (and been passed) a few times. So they’re racers, right? And we know what racers do, don’t we? After lunch is always a good one – there’ll be people who may not have read this (well, you never know) or who, even worse, may have read it but not paid attention. So they’ll have had a huge lunch and they’ll be half asleep but won’t realise it. Not a good thing. But the absolute best session of the day, assuming you’re in the spare parts or recovery business, that is, is the last one of the day. Everyone forgets, come that last session, that although they may have got their money’s worth out of the trackday, they still have to get themselves and their bikes home. And they go out and they ride like complete psychos. Oddly enough, this isn’t a good thing either.

So here it is. Summarised in just a few lines, a guide to how to go as quickly and have as much fun as possible on a trackday.

Set your own pace. Don't worry about being overtaken, just feel your way around until you know where everything goes. Once you're happy with the pace you're going, start to attack the track gradually, one section at a time, until you feel as though you are approaching your limits all the way around the track. Then, as the day goes on, you will find that you get progressively faster and those limits get raised all on their own with no conscious effort or pressure on anybody's part.

Be smooth. Look at the consistent winners - Rossi and Hodgson, for example - and you'll see their riding is smooth but forceful. And look at the consistent crashers - McCoy and Xaus spring to mind - and you'll see how they always look as though they are on the ragged edge, waiting for something to go wrong. Make like the winners. Make your braking positive and firm but smooth. Accelerate hard but progressively rather than just banging the taps open. Ride as though you mean it, yes, but ride as though you mean to stay on as well. A major plus is that your tyres, chain and brake pads will last much longer, and that will stay with you when you get back onto the road as well.

Use the cones. One of the most common mistakes a road rider makes on the track is turning in and apexing too early. The result is that they run out of track on the exit - never a good thing. Sometimes racers do it as well, like this chap. The cones provide a useful visual cue to help a rider do something that feels unnatural - turning in later, one of the most useful skills you'll pick up on a trackday. On the track it means that you can get the bike stood up earlier after the apex and get more power down sooner. On the road it translates to better visibility through the corner and a wider margin on the exit. It also looks much better.

Slow in, fast out. Get all your braking oput of the way before you turn in, then gently feed powre in all the way through the corner. The bike will be more stable and will hold a line better. You will also be quicker on the exit of the corner becuase you'll already have the power on. Plus, as Kenny Roberts once said, "Nobody ever lost the front under power." On the road it will make you smoother (see above) and will make your bike better able to handle bumps, holes and other typical road imperfections.

Don't get sucked into a race. Remember about riding at your own pace? This is part of it. Having said that, though, there's nothing wrong with latching on behind someone who's just a bit faster than you for a while. You may well learn something and up your game in the process. Just be careful not to follow them into the gravel when they get it wrong.

Smile and relax. Little known fact. If you're relaxed on the bike then you get less tired, your control is more accurate and you're more likely to have fun. Another little known fact. If you're not relaxed then it's very difficult to smile. So smile and you'll stay relaxed. You'll also probably have abetter attitude, you'll better be able to cope when someone passes you (see above again) and when you make a mistake you're less likely to fly into a nervous tizz or throw the bike down the track in disgust. So keep smiling.

Look where you're going. Sounds silly, I know, but it's one of the most common mistakes people make. Separating the direction you are pointed from the direction you are actually going is a knack that may well save your life on the road as well as making you faster, safer and far cooler looking on the track. Watch any professional rider and you'll see that they look through the corner rather than at it. Indeed, compare these two enthusiastic amateurs at a recent trackday. Who looks most likely to get around the corner? They're both in about the same place and both going at about the same speed. The secret is to look as far round as you can and keep your eyes fixed on where you want to go. On the road it will give you the earliest glimpse of the end of the corner, allowing you to accelerate smoothly out, and it will give you the most warning of any unexpected hazard as well as helping you to avoid it because, for all sorts of reasons, you will go where you look. So get that head moving.

Know your limits.

Don't give up.

Contrary to popular belief, the police aren’t stupid. And, being local, they might just know what happens on that racetrack. And they also know the local roads, the local accident blackspots and the good places to set up a speedtrap. After a full day on the track you’ll be tired, and although your riding ability will probably be as good as it ever gets and you’ll have learned a huge amount, you’ll be used to riding faster and in a more controlled environment. So do yourself a favour – take a deep breath and deliberately slow your riding down. Just pootle home and relax. Take the opportunity to absorb what you’ve learned and to give yourself a quiet, relaxing ride. After all, it would be a real dampener to either bin it or to get a speeding ticket on the way home after a great day on the track, wouldn’t it…




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