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Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Service time and other stuff!

It's hard typing with Annie cat on my lap demanding attention......

It was the winter solstice yesterday in the Southern Hemisphere - days get longer from now.  In a recent post, fellow moto-blogger Sonja asked what was wrong with the weather.  That applied to Europe and Germany in particular but the same applies down south.  Torrential rain and floods on the eastern seaboard of Australia and New Zealand has had its fair share of rain too.  However, on the positive side, the weather has been unseasonably warm for the last few days and temperature records are being set in many parts of the country.  Our village peaked at 18 degrees C yesterday - not bad for mid-winter!

The Suzuki has racked up 12,000 km from new in about 6 months, (90% of it mentoring with IAM) and was due for its first significant service, With a dire weather forecast for the rest of the week, I thought it would be good to get it over and done with.  The dealer I bought it from in Auckland has a really professional and likeable sales team but when taking it back for the 1000 km check, their service team gave the impression of indifference.  That may be unfair, but it's impressions which count.

A few weekends ago, I copped a rear puncture near the city of Hamilton.  It was a relatively slow leak but being 170 km from home, I didn't want to risk a temporary fix failing and leaving me stranded miles from anywhere.  A quick call to Boyd Suzuki in Hamilton who were just open for the Saturday morning saw a really sympathetic response. They said just get the bike to them and they'll look at it straight away.  They were as good as their word, fixed the tyre and I was on my way in less than an hour.  Even better, the total cost including labour was only NZ$45 - fantastic!  They may not have made much on that repair but their excellent service has seen me switch my business to them.  A real example of the impact of good customer service.  More on this later.

Getting ready for the trip south under threatening skies

Arriving in Hamilton 2 1/4 hours after setting off, the bike was taken off to the workshop as soon as I dismounted and was told that it would be around an hour and a half to complete the service.  Felt a bit sorry for the technician as I'd cleaned the bike for him and by the time we got there, it was covered in crap again from the damp roads.

With a bit of time to kill, there was plenty of time to wander round their well-appointed accessories area and showroom.  With a fairly new bike, there was no risk of being beaten to a pulp by Jennie for putting a deposit on a new one so it was a good opportunity to cast a dispassionate eye over the Suzuki, BMW and KTM range which they stocked.  However, that didn't negate a drool over the accessories!

A small part of their accessories area

My current textile riding pants are at least 5 years old.  The term "waterproof" was clearly added to their advertising material by a marketing team who had their fingers crossed behind their collective backs.  They leaked in the crotch about 2 weeks after purchase so plastic overtrousers were always worn over the top for longer hauls.  However, it got to the stage where even regular applications of Nikwax Tech Wash and Nikwax waterproofers failed to stop me looking like I was incontinent, even on short runs.  What a great time to browse along the racks for replacement pants!

There was no way I could justify the expense of Rukka gear or similar but a browse of various websites saw owners singing the praises of mid-priced Rev'it Factor 3 pants. Lo and behold, there was a pair of my size in stock so it was off to the changing room. Lots of quality fittings on the pants and they were a perfect fit, even with armour in all the right places. One feature that I particularly like is that they are a relatively slim cut.  My old ones are quite baggy and I've always felt that I looked like the sort of rider who features in 1950's and 60's adverts for sensible 500cc British single cylinder machines.  Different story with my silver and black summer leathers - mutton dressed as lamb!

A brisk march up to the accessories counter with the impending purchase gave a nice surprise in that the person behind the counter was someone I knew.  Kat used to work at the Triumph franchise up the road and we'd always got on really well when I owned the Street Triple.  She gave me a nice discount on the pants which was completely unexpected and certainly added to the customer experience. It's instances like this which go a long way to building customer loyalty.

Rev'it Factor 3 textile pants

With that part of business concluded, it was time for a wander round the showrooms.  The first thing which struck me was that if you pulled the decals off most faired sport bikes and painted them the same colour, it would be a real challenge without closer inspection to determine what brand they were - simply not enough differentiation for any one of them to stand out above the rest.  However, the naked or semi-naked bikes did show a bit of design flair, even if some of them weren't to my particular taste (whatever that might be!)

Having (probably unjustifiably) dismissed faired bikes in a single sentence, I must say that the KTM range were particularly appealing.  With their ladder frames, sharp edges and bold colours, they were really eye-catching. The bike in the foreground of the photo below is a 200 cc learner-compliant bike and is as sexy as hell - never thought I'd be saying that about a 200!  I'd happily own one of the naked KTM 390 or 690 singles for behaving badly on in the twisties close to home.  Small fuel tanks would put me off one for longer journeys but I guess it's the old adage about fitness for purpose.

The sexy KTM range

My eye was caught by the rear view of the latest BMW 1200 GS below.  Fellow moto-blogger Nikos will probably put a contract on me for saying it but I wondered who had sneaked a main battle tank into the line-up of bikes - bloody hell, it's a wide beast!  The designer was probably a military vehicle or agricultural equipment designer in a past life.  Being towards the end of the queue when long legs were handed out, I'd be looking in the accessories catalogue for retractable trainer wheels.  Having gently taken the mickey, I'll freely admit that it was a 1200 GS that had little trouble in keeping up with my Street Triple on our local and bumpy twisties when I was trying hard to shake it off.  And of course, for pan-continental journeys, they are almost without peer.

A sturdy Bavarian ummm... motorcycle

The BMW XR1000 shown below looks anything but agricultural.  Tall but slim, it defies any normal label of adventure, sports or touring with a modified 4 cylinder motor from the flagship superbike chucking out 160 bhp. Not really sure how well it will sell in NZ as buyers of adventure bikes over here generally use them at least in part for genuine off-roading.  How well the XR would handle anything other than a bit of fairly smooth gravel would be interesting to see. 

Very stylish XR 1000

There were two BMW's which really caught my eye.  I almost missed the first one as it was wedged between some other bikes and was painted gloss black without any lurid decals - a real stealth weapon if ever there was one.  This was the S1000R super-naked with essentially the same motor as the XR.  It was so slim and compact that it could easily be taken for a small capacity bike.  An unobtrusive real missile - my kind of bike!

I did manage to photograph the other bike with real appeal (below).  This is the first time I'd seen an R9T in the flesh.  Its apparent elegant simplicity really shone - what you might call "retro chic", I suppose. Polished metal fuel tank, uncluttered looks, a seat height for the vertically challenged - just lovely.  Price tag very similar to the new Thruxton Bonneville 1200.  It will be interesting to see how sales of both go.

The R9T - gorgeous simplicity

Sure enough, the GSX-S was ready bang on time and what's more, they'd washed all the crap off too, bless them! The total bill, including the new pants was a shade under NZ$600.  Admittedly, it wasn't the sort of major service requiring the bike to be half-stripped but nonetheless, it was a good price which will keep me going back.  Finishing on a light note, I left Boyds and stopped at the traffic signals about half a kilometre up the road.  Suddenly, there was an alarming amount of steam coming up from the bike and for a heart-stopping instant, I thought a radiator hose had come off or developed a leak.  It's amazing just how much water the radiator fins hold after a wash - the surplus was just flashing off as the engine came up to temperature!

All in all, a rather splendid day........

Friday, 3 June 2016

In praise of warm paws, a tyre update and other stuff

Even where we live in NZ, we get sometimes light winter frosts first thing in the morning.  Before readers who get REAL winters tell me to harden up, let me explain!  Most of the mentoring I do involves 500 km days, often in colder parts of the country which also means early starts from home.

On a naked bike, wind chill is a big factor.  I hate the loss of feel with thick winter gloves and although I've had heated grips on some previous bikes, my fingers have still suffered on longer runs.  Not good for control, especially when in the company of other riders.  Last spring, I took the plunge and bought some Gerbing G3 heated gloves from Revzilla in the US.  They sat in the cupboard until yesterday when the first cold spell of winter struck - the first opportunity to try them out in anger!

Gerbing G3 heated gloves

The gloves themselves have heating wires throughout the whole glove, including the fingers which is what I saw as the big advantage over heated grips. The componentry consists of a fused connector to the battery, a variable temperature controller and a wiring loom from the controller to the gloves.  In my case, this goes up the inside back of my cordura jacket and down through the sleeves between the jacket liner and the shell.  Gloves were US$140 and the temperature controller a further US$50 -  a little more than heated grips but not expensive in the scheme of things.  Incidentally, the gloves are made from the softest leather I've ever encountered.

Battery connector from under the seat - tucked away when not in use

Connector to the temperature controller

Temperature controller

The temperature controller sits in a small digital camera case which is looped onto the waist tensioners of my jacket - very quick to adjust (but not on the move!)

Connector from sleeve to glove

Connecting everything up is hassle-free as the ample wiring length means that you can connect up the gloves before slipping them on.  It's easy to run the surplus back up your sleeve but it's not really necessary as they don't flap about or get in the way of anything.  Similarly, there is sufficient length in the wiring from the controller to enable you to get on and off the bike without having to unplug.  The connectors look pretty sturdy which was a worry when initially buying the gloves as fellow moto-blogger Richard Machida let me know that he'd had some connector breakages on his. Perhaps they've been redesigned since then but time will tell.  Besides, with Richard residing in Alaska, his probably get a lot more use than they're likely to in NZ!

On to the million dollar question - do they work?  Well, before leaving home yesterday, I deliberately set them at the low end of the range and they were fine in 2 or 3 degrees C temperatures.  Plenty of scope for cranking them up when temperatures drop even lower!  Happy?  You bet!

In a previous post, regular readers will remember that I was less than impressed with the Dunlop D214 sport tyres which were OEM on the Suzuki GSX-S 1000.  There were several reasons for this but as I cover up to 20,000 km per year and the rear D214 only lasted for 3700km before having to be replaced, cost was certainly a consideration!  I reverted to Michelin PR4's which I'd had on the Street Triple.  As well as being better suited for a bigger range of weather conditions, speed of roll-in to corners was markedly improved as the 55 profile PR4 has a sharper crown than the 50 profile D214.  The PR4 has now racked up nearly 7000km including a trackday. The profile remains excellent with heaps of tread left.  I'm picking that life will be 10000 km or better, which is pretty satisfactory on a 1 litre sport bike.

PR4 at ~7000 km

Finally, nothing to do with motorcycles but living in a benign climate, there are plants flowering in our garden through the whole winter.  Here's a selection of photos I've just taken.

Neoregelia Carolinae Tricolor bromeliad and the ever-present Annie

Close-up of unknown bromeliad variety

Various bromeliads - the banded Vresia is nearly a metre across

Climbing orchid

Saturday, 30 April 2016

The Bee's Knees, a visitor and how we choose our bikes

The Bee's Knees
Blame it on a combination of discus throwing as a school athlete and competitive sailing later on in life but my 68 year old knees aren't in the best of shape.  I had reconstructive surgery on one knee in 1980 but thanks to the benefits of cycling, I've managed to keep away from the butcher's (sorry, surgeon's) knife since then.

However, riding a sports bike with high pegs does cause aching knees after a day in the saddle. Waving my legs in the breeze to get relief during a longer haul is a regular occurrence. Not wishing to join that well-known geriatric biker gang "Sons of Arthritis, Ipuprofen Chapter" because of  an aversion to regular medication, it was time to look at other options.

Striking fear into the public 

Some years ago, I fitted a footpeg-lowering kit to my Honda Blackbird and although it was only a 25mm drop, the difference in comfort levels was huge.  A quick search of the internet revealed several options for the GSX-S. Some looked cheap and nasty and others over-engineered and pricey. The nicest-looking alternative was from a Buell, but required a bit of grinding, plus bushing of the pivot holes. I then found a member of a Hayabusa forum who sold a complete kit, using Buell pegs but professionally machined to suit the 'busa.  Trouble was, the forum post was 2008 so was he still around?  Sent an email, got a reply in less than 2 hours and yes, he was still making them and they fitted the GSX-S - yippee!!!

The postman arrived with a package from the US and it was instantly torn open.  What a treat to see some engineering of the highest quality - all properly bushed and polished.  In fact, they are better finished than the originals.  Kudos to Joe Satterwhite for setting such high personal standards.

Yumm - shiny farkles!

About 20mm longer and 25mm lower than OEM pegs

The first job was to get a builder's level out so that the height difference from standard footpegs to both the gear change and brake pedals could be measured and replicated with the new lower pegs. With that done, the old pegs were removed and the new ones fitted in under 10 minutes, including applying lubricant.  At this stage, I'm not going to transfer the "hero blobs" from the OEM pegs until I've tried them out on a reasonable distance run.

The final stage of fitting was a bit more time-consuming.  The gear pedal was easy to adjust to the new height - just undo two nuts on the change linkage, turn the threaded rod until the right measurement was attained and lock it all up again.

Setting up the gear linkage

The time-consuming bit was setting up the brake position.  To get the correct measurement, I had to cut a few mm off the thread of the brake cylinder clevis pin and it was easier to slacken off the whole footrest assembly to do this. The old pegs can still be re-fitted even with some thread removed so no worries on that score. The fiddly bit was adjusting the rear brake light activation switch to compensate for the new position of the brake lever - fingers like ET would have been really useful to stop getting cramp in them!!

The whole job took less than an hour and a half to complete, looks great and feels really comfortable - now to try it on a decent run!

The finished article

A Visitor to our Shores
The world is indeed a small place.  Jennie and I were on Vancouver Island in 2014 as part of a trip through Canada and Alaska.  Because of time constraints, we were unable to meet up with fellow moto-blogger Darlene aka Princess Scooterpie who volunteers as a motorcycle instructor on the island.  However, I recently received a message from Dar saying that a fellow instructor from the island; expat Kiwi, Debra Roberts would be visiting family in our neck of the woods so lunch at our place was hastily arranged.  Being bikers and both involved in training, we instantly clicked and it was non-stop chat.  Serendipity at its best, just a shame that we weren't able to get out together for a ride.

Debra and an old guy....

How we choose our bikes
And now for something completely different which might strike a chord.......

Y'know...... choosing and buying a new bike is normally a long(ish) process and involves much poring over brochures and specs, reading reviews and so on, culminating in a series of test rides. Most of the previous sentence involves dispassionate analysis and logic which is actually pretty straightforward.  Buying with the head is one thing but to be truly satisfied, a purchase involves both head and heart, doesn't it?   A darned sight harder to define what it is about bikes which touch the heart as it's such a personal thing.

When I bought the Street Triple, a Ducati Monster, Speed Triple and Thruxton Bonneville were tried too but it was only the Street Triple that made me say "I want it and I want it NOW".  Let it be said, it wasn't very long into the test ride either!  Six happy years ensued and it would get a pat and smile when I walked past it in the shed.  It was only replaced because the km's were getting up a bit but also because I had Chief Executive Permission to do so.  (Guys reading this may nod knowingly).

I won't go into the details of looking for a replacement as it is is covered HERE but the selection process was unusually rapid.... almost instant in fact.  The test ride of the GSX-S1000 revealed a bike with sensational performance, lots of features such as traction control/ABS and it had great ergonomics.  What was not to like, so I bought one.

Geriatric biker goes out for a quiet ride

Six months and closing on 10,000 km from new, I've sorted the suspension, it's now got good rubber, done a trackday and lots of mentoring with the Institute of Advanced Motorists.  A worthy replacement or step up from the Street Triple? Well actually, that's highly debatable and if pressed, I might say no.  I'm certainly not disappointed with its performance but it's not light years better than the Street Triple for my everyday road use. So what's the reason then?  Riding it is enjoyable and fun, but it's not exhilarating.  Bland is not quite the right word, not feeling "as one" with the bike is not quite the right description either. To be candid, I can't give you any concise specifics that make sense, but in a nutshell, there's no emotional connection.  Looking back on the test ride, it didn't "sing" to me like the Triple did and should have listened to my heart.  It gets properly cleaned and detailed because I'm an anal retentive engineer, not because it's a labour of love.  It doesn't get patted when I walk past it in the shed and that's probably the most telling thing of all. This is all a bit of a ramble but hopefully, other riders will make sense of it and understand.

Does this mean that I'm looking to replace the Gixxer?  Well no, at least not in the immediate future but it's unlikely that ownership will continue for more than another year or two at most. It's enjoyable but I want more than that. Looking at the 1200 Bonneville press releases, there's a bit of a heart flutter probably based on nostalgia, but who knows what will whisper in my ear when the time comes?

S'pose you could sum it up by saying that if you don't use both your head and heart when getting a new bike, it might not be a match made in heaven.  The path to true love is rarely a smooth one!

Sunday, 6 March 2016

A social ride and a bit of nostalgia

It's been an amazing summer for riding in NZ.  Relatively little rain, long hot days..... just about perfect.  Where we live on the Coromandel Peninsula, it's one of the great biking roads in the North Island.  Around 190-300 km (depending on route) of twisties and sweepers with almost no straights. Coupled with mountains and roads running right by the ocean, it pays not to be distracted by the scenery unless you're in cruise mode.

Motorcycling Nirvana!

The only downside is that during the peak of summer, it's chokka with tourists, many of whom have no idea how to stay on their side of the road whilst gawping at the scenery.  With Autumn on us and kids having gone back to school etc, numbers have declined - perfect for low volume traffic again, especially on weekdays.  It was therefore great to receive a phone call a few days ago that a couple of fellow Institute of Advanced Motorists Observers (Instructors) from Auckland were planning take the day off  on Friday and ride the Coromandel Loop.  Would I like to join them with an unsubtle hint that lunch at our place would be nice too, haha!  (a glass of water was the term actually used).

It's a while since I've had a purely social ride so jumped at the chance to have a run with fun people I trust implicitly.  Leaving Coromandel and heading for Kopu to meet my mates, the coast road was spectacular and almost totally free of traffic - magic!

Firth of Thames from the Manaia Hill

Meeting up with Morne and Harald in Kopu, there was a delightful surprise in store.  Morne was on his usual GSX-R 750 but instead of Harald being on his new Honda Crossrunner, he had turned up on his classic superbike from the late 70's and early 80's - the legendary 6 cylinder Honda CBX-1000. What an absolute treat to see one on the road again, and for it to be used like it was supposed to be used! More on the CBX shortly.

After quick greetings and a drool over Harald's bike, I lead the guys over to Tairua where we would stop for coffee and a chocolate brownie.  What a fantastic sight in the mirrors of the CBX being cranked right over in the twisties!  I should also mention that when I joined IAM in 2011, Morne was one of my principal mentors and having him in my mirrors used to make me highly nervous waiting for his critique.  Those nerves have gone but there was initially a sense of unease as it's impossible for an Observer to stop analysing people's riding, even subconsciously.  Oh well, better just turn in what will hopefully be an immaculate ride up front then!

Stopping at Tairua was a good opportunity to look at the CBX.  It has done close to 100,000 km and despite them allegedly requiring a much higher maintenance regime than modern bikes, Harald's has been bullet-proof.  It's had one complete engine strip but everything was in perfect working order. Original rear suspension was replaced with Konis many moons ago and non-OEM mufflers, but the rest is pretty much original.

The ultimate in bike porn - 6 pipes!

At my height of 5'8", owning one would be a nightmare.  The combination of a tall(ish) wide seat, a dry weight of over 270 kg with a high centre of gravity is a recipe for disaster.  Harald is much younger than me and must be close to 6'6" but even he is super-careful when manoeuvring at low speed.  Compared with modern bikes, the forks look totally incongruous.  Even late model 250 forks are more robust.  It didn't seem to stop Harald pushing it along at a fair lick though, even though he left a decent following gap so that the outdated disk brakes had a chance of slowing that huge mass!

The writer alongside the CBX - anyone got a stepladder?

From Tairua village, it was a brisk scamper up to the coastal town of Whitianga and the picturesque harbour as Harald hadn't been to the northern part of the Peninsula before.

Taking in the sights at Whitianga

From there, it was back to our place just outside Coromandel village for lunch, with a quick stop at the Coromandel Range viewing spot which looks down on Coromandel Harbour.

Coromandel Harbour from the lookout

A leisurely lunch on our deck followed, with plenty of water and juice to fix the inevitable dehydration from riding in high temperatures with leathers.

Two smooth dudes - Morne and Harald

Chilling after a hot ride.  Thomas the cat waiting in hope of treats...

That was the end of the ride for me as the guys got ready to head back to Auckland and the gridlock which is Friday afternoon traffic.  Magnificent company, great riding  and seeing one of the world's iconic bikes - what could be better for the soul?

Harald inspecting for inconsiderate squished bugs on the paintwork

Harald and Morne about to depart for Auckland

When Morne saw the photo above, he said it looked as if he was making the sign of the cross before setting out.  I said that it was totally appropriate given that our drive is extremely steep and that there would be a CBX with the mass of an oil tanker and indifferent brakes right behind him!

Monday, 29 February 2016

Some riding reflections and other philosophical stuff......

As regular readers of this blog know, I joined the NZ branch of the Institute of Advanced Motorists in April 2011. The trigger for this was that being 63 at the time, I wanted to sharpen up my skills so as to safely extend my riding career for as long as possible. Like most of who have been riding for a long period, I knew I’d picked up some bad habits which potentially put me at risk but it was hard to articulate where I was falling short and by how much. Correspondence with eminent motorcycle journalist David Hough at that time about ageing motorcyclists ended up with him challenging me to stop procrastinating and actually do something to future-proof my riding which neatly backed me into a corner!

Without going over old ground the UK Police Roadcraft system seemed to offer the best potential for dramatically improving my riding. (The summary of the initial benefits to me is HERE). It paid off massively and the on-going nature of the programme still allows an assessment of the quality of my riding (and mentoring ability) against measurable standards which have been proven to be highly effective over many years. There's much more to it than I can describe here but it's shifted my pleasure from riding fast (with all the attendant risks) to riding well. That's not to say that I don't enjoy a good fang from time to time but it's now a question of time and place, backed up by a system which allows you to decide what's prudent and what's not.

After sweating blood and tears and passing the IAM Advanced Test after 8 months of driving my mentors (called Observers) insane, it seemed a great way to repay the faith of those Observers by training as an Observer myself. The training took the best part of a year before being able to take the practical and theory tests and in late 2014, sat a further test to become regional Senior Observer. That journey has been periodically documented earlier in the blog.

I hadn’t intended writing any more about IAM but there have been some recent events which have given pause for reflection.

The first was taking on a new student (called an Associate) late last year to mentor towards taking his Advanced Test.  Rob is an experienced rider and currently rides a wicked-looking Hayabusa.

Rob's magnificent Hayabusa and some old bloke who also rides a Suzuki
(photo courtesy of Rob)

By profession, Rob is a fuel tanker driver with additional instructing responsibilities.  With his motorcycling experience on top of that, you'd be correct in assuming that he is among the top echelon of public road users in NZ when it comes to skill and safety awareness.  And yet in the first conversation with Rob, he felt that there was considerable scope for getting better.  Very early in the process, Rob mentioned that he would be keeping a blog of his experiences with IAM, partially as a record for his own pleasure and reflection but also for other riders who may find his journey of interest.  I can highly recommend Rob's blog for sharing his thought processes and experiences about advanced road riding.  I might also add that his blog has been very good for me.  It's a fantastic reminder that as a mentor, people learn and react in different ways.  I have a responsibility to interact and assist with the learning process which suits the individual and not take a "one size fits all approach" which is great for staying grounded.   The blog is both candid, humorous and inspiring; really highlighting the attention to detail necessary to reach the standard required to consistently ride at a high level and pass the Advanced Test.  Rob's first post can be found HERE and subsequent posts from the side menu or Newer Post button at the bottom of each page.  Rob's posts show that no matter how good any of us think we are, there is always plenty to learn.  Even more importantly, it shows how important having an open mind to learning is to make real progress, whatever the topic.  Hope that you enjoy Rob's journey!

The second event giving cause for reflection is that last week, another of my Associates, Lloyd; passed his Advanced Test and will soon move forward to Observer training, eventually mentoring his own Associates and keeping the cycle going.

Lloyd and his mighty TDM 900

Lloyd's test pass was announced by the Chief Examiner on the IAM NZ Facebook page.  Lloyd was inundated with congratulations from IAM members from around NZ.  Not empty gestures but sincere heart-warming words.  Pondering on this, it's a fair bet that the responses are a result of a couple of things.

Firstly, IAM members are well aware of just how demanding the journey to a test pass is and celebrate success with the individual concerned.  Sometimes, it seems that the world has gone too politically correct and that everything is getting dumbed-down to the lowest common denominator and simply taking part is sufficient, whether it be school exams, school sports or whatever.  Sadly, that is not good preparation for the real world.  It's therefore refreshing to be involved with a process which makes no apology for being extremely demanding. Apologists might call it "elitist" which is actually a country mile from the truth.  Stuff 'em - since when has Excellence been a dirty word and not something to aspire to?

The other factor which I'm sure plays a part in celebrating successes within IAM NZ is that there is a deliberately strong "no ego, no hidden agenda" culture which is reinforced at all levels of the organisation and all stages of development.  This means that members genuinely want each other to succeed and willingly help each other out.  That sort of climate provides a safe and supportive environment in which to learn something which is far from easy.  All I'll say is that it's both a pleasure and privilege to be part of such an organisation which promotes not only riding excellence but the spin-off of  strong personal growth.  Leaving the final words to David Hough, he said that the instructor always gets far more out of it than the student.  Right on the money David - we never stop learning!

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Losing my virginity!

A provocative title for the post but nonetheless accurate in terms of leaving it until I was 68 years old before doing my first ever track day at the weekend. Well, that's excluding a crazy lap of the Isle of Man TT circuit at dawn in 1969 with a mate before they closed the road for the racing that day! That doesn't really count though as it was on public roads and I was young, stupid and bulletproof. Only one of those 3 criteria applies now *blush*.

A handful of our Institute of Advanced Motorists local group are trackday enthusiasts and a wider invitation was sent out for other members to have a go. Being used to riding fairly fast on the road is one thing but on a track is another thing entirely, especially at Hampton Downs. It's an international standard track, highly technical with 11 metres of elevation changes and a couple of blind entry corners - eek! On their website, there is the statement that the fastest speed ever recorded on track is 287 km/hr by Kiwi Andrew Stroud on his Suzuki superbike. I really wish I hadn't read that before going there! However, you sometimes just have to step outside the comfort zone to prove that you're still alive and kicking so I thought that documenting my impressions of that first occasion would be good fun.

Hampton Downs, North Island NZ

The track is a couple of hours ride from home which meant an 0500 alarm clock. Nerves weren't helped due to listening to wind and heavy rain on the roof at various stages throughout the night. The forecast said "improving" but riding down the twisty coast road from Coromandel in the dark, in the rain with no-one about was not a pleasant start to the day. Traction control was set to "wet weather mode" and fortunately, there were no anxious moments. With dawn breaking, the rain stopped and temperatures climbed as I headed south-west. Yippee - one less reason for sliding along the track on my arse!

Nerves were building on arriving at the track but impressions were favourable - fantastic facilities and the IAM team had booked a pit garage which was a godsend for a bit of shade in temperatures which were climbing to the high 20's.

Pit lane early morning - almost deserted

Team IAM starting to roll in
(photo courtesy of Barry Holland)

More Team IAM

IAM members getting organised

Getting signed in, having my "novice class" pink bracelet attached and subsequent briefings by Playday on Track (links with the California Superbike School) was a great experience for a first-timer. Quietly efficient and outstandingly professional, good-humoured and genuinely nice, approachable people. It was explained that if anyone binned their bike, they would have to wait for the recovery trailer which had "The Trailer of Shame" emblazoned on the side. No-one wanted to do the best part of a lap on that with their mates looking on! The expected behaviours by riders was delivered with a light touch but the message wasn't lost on anyone - very reassuring. All manner of IAM bikes took part, ranging from a BMW HP4 superbike, Suzuki V-Strom 650 adventure bike, various sized GSX-R's and everything in between. Any bike is fine for a track day - just get out and have fun.

Pretty in Pink - suits you sir!

An instructor from the California Superbike School briefed the novices that he would lead us during our first session at a moderate pace for a couple of "sighting" laps to help with our judgement - very reassuring! He recommended us to drop our tyre pressures to around 30 psi to allow for temperature and pressure rises - more on that later. The most worrying thing was the instruction to either remove our mirrors or tape them up so as not to get distracted and wander off line. For someone who uses his mirrors every 10 seconds or so on the road, it was a big ask to change that mindset! We were also told to return for a debrief after the first track session to discuss our experiences. Each session on the track would last around 15 minutes and with the different skill level sessions, this meant roughly an hour between rides. In print, this seems like quite a wait but boy, in reality the downtime vanished in an instant by the time you'd exchanged banter with your mates, checked the bike, rehydrated and got rid of it again with a nervous pee!

JK taping up headlights and mirrors on his FZ1

Earnest discussion about tyre pressures - Geoff, Harald and Ian
(photo courtesy of Barry Holland)

Grovelling to the God of Tyre Pressures
(photo courtesy of Barry Holland)

A quick trip to the toilet block for a nervous one and it was time to suit up and prepare to join the queue in pit lane for the novice class track session.

The first anxious wait to enter pit lane - no time for another nervous pee! Geoff and JK
(photo courtesy of Barry Holland)

Staging in pit lane
(photo courtesy of Barry Holland)

In no time at all, we were rolling down the slip road onto the track in Indian-file behind the instructor. Bloody hell, ingrained muscle memory of good road riding practice takes over and a quick glance over the shoulder when joining the track, then trying to see through the taped-up mirrors when braking for the first corner. What a complete Muppet I am but at least the sighting laps help to get rid of those habits before upping the pace! The next 3 or 4 laps go in a blur, trying to remember lines for each corner, and trying not to leave braking too late. All I can say is thank heaven for ABS in those early laps to disguise one or two panic brakes to scrub off excessive speed! So how did the first session go?  Well in all honesty, there were so many things to think about, I honestly can't remember any highlights as I was working so hard trying not to stuff up.  However, I stayed out of trouble and was happy that the bike went so well, so was looking forward to our next turn with a lot less trepidation than the first session. First priority was to bend my spectacle arms a bit more to stop the bloody things sliding down my nose with all the sweat!!

Where the hell am I supposed to be pointing???
(photo courtesy of Barry Holland)

Concentrate, concentrate!
(photo courtesy of Barry Holland)

Rolling down pit lane after the first session
(photo courtesy of Barry Holland)

The novice debrief immediately after the session identified a pretty common fault of turning in too early, resulting in running wide and losing both position and exit speed. His mantra of "In deep, out early/fast" drew the usual range of smutty responses from the riders!

"In deep, out early" - say it again (and yet again) guys!

Banter between sessions - Geoff, Ian, Terry and JK
(photo courtesy of Barry Holland)

Tessa and Terry in deep conversation after a track session

Each track session was a huge learning experience, not only pushing a bit harder but trying to get lines right and identifying individual rider characteristics that allowed me to do overtakes without cutting things fine and making a fool of myself. In the photo below, I'm setting up to overtake a Gixxer rider on the exit from the downhill hairpin. I'd noticed that he was turning in early which was keeping his speed down through the bend. It was simply a matter of going in deeper , turning in and getting on the gas early (and making a complete stuff-up the next lap!) In a similar vein on the approach to the downhill hairpin, it involved going over a blind crest at pace before the hairpin. Some riders didn't like approaching what they couldn't see at a rate of knots and it was a great opportunity to gas it in second gear up to around 11,000 rpm and get some passing done on that short approach sprint. Wow - so much looking, thinking and learning! 

Looking at the apex and watching the rider in front in case he drifts wide
(photo courtesy of Barry Holland)

Hard(ish) on the gas on the way out
(photo courtesy of Barry Holland)

Part of the IAM team - Ian, Geoff, Harald
(photo courtesy of Barry Holland)

Some rapid line changing - Geoff and Steve
(photo courtesy of Barry Holland)

C'mon ya bugger, turn......
(photo courtesy of Barry Holland)

Getting it on!
(photo courtesy of Barry Holland)

I guess everyone finds one aspect of a track day harder than others and my challenge was the long uphill sweeper towards the pit straight.  Pretty hard on the gas whilst leaned over was ok until some fairly serious speeds were being reached then the airflow on a naked bike whilst moving around on it started to make the front end shimmy slightly.  Having the nerve to keep the bike rolled on when that happened was work in progress!

Fastest part of the track down pit straight
(photo courtesy of Barry Holland)

Rapidly scrubbing off speed at the end of pit straight at the 100 metre mark!
(photo courtesy of Barry Holland)

As mentioned earlier, cold tyre pressures were set at 30psi because of the temperatures generated on track increasing the pressure.  Out of curiosity after one of the later sessions, I checked the rear tyre pressure about 5 minutes after the session and it was 40psi.  It would have been higher than that immediately after getting in.

Having recently replaced the OEM D214 sport tyres for a set of PR4 sport/touring tyres for all-weather riding with IAM, it was gratifying that they coped really well with the track.  The higher crowns also made turn-in much quicker than the D214's which to be honest were pretty disappointing.

Melting the rubber off my new PR4 rear tyre!

Inspecting the front tyre for the first time, I got a horrible feeling for a moment that it was starting to delaminate but looking more closely, it was picking up rubber deposited on the track by other bikes due to the high temperatures.  Looking around the garage at other Team IAM bikes, we all seemed to be experiencing the same thing.

Picking up tyre rubber from the track

I saw something on TV recently about a rider, Paul Garrett, who had become a paraplegic through an accident.  He had resolved not to let his disability get in the way of leading a full and active life and with the support of family and friends, continues to race with the aid of velcro and other aids holding him onto his bike.  What an inspiration to us all for grabbing life by the scruff of the neck in the face of adversity - truly humbling.  He was stationed outside our garage and it was an utter privilege to see him in person.

Paul Garrett on his Triumph Triple - an absolute inspiration

Some thoughts about the day
They say that you can't teach an old dog new tricks but what an incredible experience!!!!  It's easy to see that trackdays could become really addictive.  I'll be forever grateful to IAM Treasurer Tessa for floating the idea in the first place and moving me out of my comfort zone.  Also to both Tessa and Terry for organising a pit garage which helped to make the day so enjoyable.  Special thanks  to Barry Holland from all of us who took part as he selflessly took over 1000 photos of us during the day whilst he stayed off  his own 2 wheels - pure gold!

Has it helped my road riding?  Probably not but why does it have to?  It's seriously good fun in its own right.  Indirectly, it has shown me just how good the Suzuki is in terms of handling when "pressing on a bit" - something one rarely experiences in normal road riding.  I was surprisingly fresh at the end of a long, hot day and this was probably largely due to continuous re-hydrating.

Thinking a bit deeper about the whole experience, it was a bit like the early days of joining IAM.  The amount of information you need to take in and process to make fast, safe progress round the track is initially overwhelming.  In later sessions, you begin to realise how much more info you're processing to make good decisions.  That's just the same as every IAM member experiences on the road when making the IPSGA process second nature en route to sitting the Advanced Roadcraft test.

As a final aside, fellow rider Terry who is an experienced trackday rider said "Watch your speed on the way home".  He was right on the money as riding at the legal open road speed limit felt awfully slow!!

A wonderful day in great company which I'll remember for a long time!