Last week, I found my niche. No, not being cast as the seventh dwarf, and I didn’t land a job where all I’m required to do is flex at a camera; what I’m talking about is racing around an international race track on a 650cc Honda motorbike. Let me explain…
‘OK’, I thought, ‘who is this Ron Haslam bloke?’ Well, turns out he’s not only disgustingly handsome, he’s also won three world titles and four British championships on two wheels. So how could I refuse? After all, the blurb on the website tells me it’ll ‘introduce me to high performance bikes’ and will make me ‘understand the finer points of riding’. And as someone who’s experience of two wheels is getting wet on a 125cc Monkey, I couldn’t say no.
And so, I turned up to Donington race track in my, ahem, perfect condition Mercedes S500, expecting to spend the first hour riding around some cones in a car park to ensure the instructors that I could handle a bike.
But no, not a chance. After a briefing, we were allocated our instructors (one-on-one in my case), told to suit up, and then lead to the pit lane where our Honda CBR650R motorbikes were waiting.
Nervously, I switched the bike on…except I didn’t; because my brain had turned to mush, I’d forgotten to twist the bloody key in the ignition.
A few fumbles later, and the 650R jumped into life. This was by far the heaviest, most powerful and most expensive bike I’d ever been on, so I gingerly popped it into gear and released the clutch. Creeping towards the end of the pit straight and behind my instructor, that’s when we were given the green light to hit the track.
And that’s when the real lessons began, starting with…
1. Open throttle on a powerful bike feels completely alien...
Anyone who’s ridden a semi-powerful motorbike or driven something like a Caterham 620R will know the feeling of twisting the throttle or punching the pedal for the first time. It’s a kind of ‘oh, damn, this is new’ experience, and one that makes you try it again immediately to make sure that the first time wasn’t a fluke.
In my first session with instructor Chris, we were riding at no more than 65mph while he was watching my every move, including body position, corner entry and exits, confidence, braking and track awareness.
After 15 minutes on track, it was time to come in for my first of three debriefs, and because I was on such a high, I was sure he was going to pat me on the back and say “wow, Alex, there’s nothing really to say…you’re a natural.”
Except this wasn’t the case, because…
2. My body position was laughable
“Are your arms and hands aching, Alex?”, Chris asks me. As a matter of fact, they were, and that’s because my poor positioning on the bike meant that I was fighting myself to get the Honda through corners. What’s more, my foot placement also meant that I was braking the rear wheel on occasion without me even realising.
After a few minutes, though, it was all clear. Feet go back, body moves left and right out of the seat through corners while the opposite leg anchors in on the side of the bike; this way, your body weight does the hard work, leaving your hands and arms free of tension.
With the theory discussed, it was time to hit the track again for round two of my training. And that’s when everything clicked and I realised…
3. I might be better suited to bike racing...
As weird as it is for me to say, I think I’d be better suited to riding a bike fast on track than I am driving a car fast on track. I say this for a couple of reasons…
To start with, I’ve raced in the brilliant EnduroKA championship for a whole season now. CT’s website Editor Matt and I have always been competitive, but the margin between us and the top three teams is sizeable. Sure, the cars will vary slightly in power, balance, tyres and braking, but these guys are simply better at getting a car around a corner than I am. What’s more, I occasionally misjudge a corner and lose concentration because a lot of the time, it’s easy, especially in KA racing, to get complacent.
The second reason why I say I’m probably better suited to riding a bike fast on track is this: despite my very limited experience on a motorbike, I found it easier and more enjoyable to go fast and push my boundaries. In fact, by the end of my third session with Chris, I’d doubled my corner speed, was doing over 100mph on the straights, and felt more excited and alive than I have in a long time.
That’s because I’ve always loved physical activity, and pushing my body to beyond its limit. Going fast has always been awesome for me too, and it’s the combination of these two things - physical activity and going fast - that meant that I was 100 per cent dedicated to the task in hand - pushing harder and harder on the bike, within reason, of course.
Being short is also a bonus on a bike too, as is being strong, so yes, my weird shape, love of speed, and desire to push myself physically means that I think I’ve found my niche.
Whether or not I’ll get the opportunity to get back on track is another matter - I still need to pass my A1 (correction: ‘A’) motorbike license - but my time at the Ron Haslam race school really was eye opening for all the right reasons.
What’s more, I’ve put the lessons I learnt to good use on the road. My body position is better, I corner more confidently and efficiently, and my awareness around me has increased.
So to anyone considering getting started on two wheels, or simply looking to improve or become more confident, I can’t recommend the day enough - it really is one of the best things you’ll ever do.
If you’ve got any questions about the day and experience, fire away!