Wheel alignment

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!