Smoggy and joining the dots.

I’ve been to Croft race circuit three times this year; four times in total. Yes, I’m hooked.

Rory, my Mentor, has been trying to persuade me to try track days. Me, I’m chicken. I remember being called ‘Mrs Snail’ many years ago when I was on a go-kart track; it’s stuck in my mind. I am not the fastest rider, I do however consider myself to be safe and smooth. So, I am on a journey to make myself safer and smoother in corners. What better way to do it than going to an IAM Skills Day, or four.

snail's pace

snail’s pace

There’s also another reason for my reluctance to do a track day. I need a set of race leathers. One piece. Right, let’s get things straight right now. I’m not an average size. In actual fact, I could think of NOTHING worse than the image of my curvy body in a one-piece leather anything. There, I’ve said it. If Cordura was acceptable, I’d be in.

So, there’s no getting away from it, other than losing about 3 stone and going on a 6 month boot camp, I am happy going to Skills Days. More of that later. I want to hold your attention.

So, off I went. This time though, I decided to leave Ruby at home. Why? Simple really. I have done 3 sessions on Ruby, learned lots, but realised that every time I came back from Croft, the learning, tips and techniques had transferred firmly to riding Smoggy. Two bikes couldn’t be further apart. I guess that’s the reason I wanted a ‘big girl’s’ bike. After racking up a substantial number of miles on Smoggy, I knew I was ready for another bike.

Ruby. My first Skills Day

Ruby. My first Skills Day

Smoggy is an 800cc BMW; Ruby is a Ducati Monster 1200s. Smoggy, is a very tame 71-ish bhp; Ruby is a bitty more brutish at 145bhp. She’s noisy, beautiful, red (the fastest colour) and bags of fun. Smoggy is a joy, my best pal and as I have found out this year, it’s not all about the power, it’s how you use the power available to best effect. Third gear is awesome. We could use that all day. Smoggy burps and farts and, as I have found out, can hold his own.

So, it was a ‘no-brainer’. Why not take Smoggy to Croft? Ed raised his eyebrows slightly when I told him. Then I explained. It went along the lines of: ‘Why not, I have learned so much on Ruby, why not take Smoggy and see how much I have learned?’ He didn’t argue. Good husband.

I like going to the Premier Inn in Darlington. It’s not the cheapest option, however, the staff are outstanding and the steak in the attached Beefeater restaurant is pretty damn good. The Sauvignon Blanc is really appreciated after a hard day on track. I have my priorities right. Not only that, they guarantee a ‘good night’s sleep’. Just as well, the last time I stayed there, I was wakened at 6:10am by what sounded like a mad maintenance man going bananas with a nail gun in my bathroom. I commented on it to the receptionist that morning. The next morning, I said the same thing. Thankfully this time, it was the back of 7 when the nail gun set off. I got both nights refunded. Bonus.

So, onward to Darlington. I had organised to meet Bob Crawley at Jedburgh. I was really looking forward to following him down the road, I’d never had the privilege of riding with him . He’s a real character and a magician on a bike. He’s known to be a bit ‘progressive’, however, probably seems that way given his skill set. Ex-police rider and an examiner for the IAM. Respect. As much as I have learned to use all the road (where it’s safe and sensible to do so), Bob uses ALL of the road (where it’s safe and sensible to do so). I think there’s nothing better than following a talented rider; it wakes you up to what possibilities there are. What was even better, he used hand signals. It didn’t take me long to catch on to them. Slow down. Point at a hazard that I potentially didn’t know was there. There was one that I think meant ‘don’t follow me on this overtake’. Fair enough. I didn’t; I learned. The hand signal that made me giggle was the ‘cuppa in 5 minutes’ followed by the ‘cuppa in 2 minutes’. That was followed by a conversation through our helmets that went along the lines of ‘shit, it’s closed’.

He’s switched on, is Bob. A regular traveller, knows that the Beefeater serves half price dinners if you order before 6.30. He made sure we got a half price dinner. Get in. Well done, Bob.

An early night, with no nail guns waking me up.

It was sunny outside. Does it ever rain in Darlington? Apparently, there was a 40% chance of rain that day. The rain gods were having a break. We escaped, rain free. What a bonus.

It was cold to start with. Given the temperature shocks that I’ve had recently, I had my Gerbing jacket on. Not plugged in, but needed. When I greeted Kevin and Mel at Croft, they were whining about the temperature. No wonder, it was a tad nipple gripping. Can’t fit a Gerbing heated jacked under a one-piece leather race suit, huh? *smug look*. Cordura rocks.

One of the things I enjoy is chatting to people before the session begins. I know it’s important. Some are literally keeking their breeks with nerves. It’s good to be able to tell them not to worry and just enjoy the learning and the circuit. Also, the big motivator is looking at their grins at lunch time. After all, that’s what we’re here for, having fun whilst learning. I can understand the nerves though, I was there too, last year. I’ve got over those nerves though, I was just gagging to get on track with Smoggy, just to see if I could ‘hold my own’.

Before anything starts we have a safety briefing. Necessary. What the flags are for, what to do and what not to do.

We are invited to ‘self-file’. We have to put ourselves in a group that we think suits our ability. Fine. Middle for diddle. Been there, done that; riding Smoggy. OK. Middle of the pack. The ‘balls-oot’ crew up at the top, novices at the end. Technical stuff; stand next to the tea-tray that you think reflects your ability. Much shuffling went on.

I was determined though, I was on a 71bhp Smoggy. I wasn’t going to shift past the bottom of the fast group. I was conscious I didn’t want to hold people up.

So, our Mentors for the day were allocated, we had Pete. I don’t know Pete’s background, he didn’t say, however, he was our guru for the day. Off we go. The first thing that happens, we all go into a teaching session from the very knowledgeable Martin. He is a very good sergeant major, disobey him at your peril. I love the way he explains the learning modules. Many times over my 4 visits I wish I had had a pen and paper at hand. Very educational and there was a lot of stuff that at last, is sinking in.

As much as you are allocated a Mentor, there are other Mentors on track that ‘keep an eye’ on you. They are the people that for me, give you the best advice. The reason I say that is, a Mentor has to look after 4 people and give them feedback. Sometimes, it’s the ‘floaters’ that see more and have the time to give you top tips. If an ‘x’ man (a very knowledgeable coach) or anyone with an ‘M’ on his (no women mentoring)back give you feedback, soak it up. Concentrate. Ask questions. You can’t lose. Learn.

The whole day’s learning is supported by modules. Every step of the way, your learning is set up in different techniques. The most important part is joining the dots, or cones, hence the title of this blog. Joining the dots / cones for entrance, apex and exit is essential, then it’s all about adding together the stuff that you’re given in the teaching sessions and the feedback given on track. All of this added together makes it a great learning experience.

When a Mentor ‘finds’ you, he might tap the back of his seat. That means, ‘follow me’. There was one moment when Martin whizzed passed me. He went in front of the ‘speeder’ that was in front of me, having hammered past on the home straight. Martin slowed the guy right down; so much so, there was much shaking of his head. His hands even left his bike. It seemed he was saying, ‘WTF?’. I hope he learned something once he’d got the ‘how dare you’ out of his system. Remember, these Mentors will leave you standing. They have talent, and are chosen not just for their riding ability, but also for the way they put across their coaching and feedback. I get the feeling that the guy didn’t want tuition. Just suck it up, buttercup. Listen and nod. You are never too good.

The last couple of sessions I have had at Croft, there have been those that just want to hoon around the track; just going for the speed. It’s not about that at all. It’s about being accurate. Joining the dots… the cones. It’s not about speed or showing off how fast you can go and lapping people (I was prepared to be lapped lots on Smoggy). It’s not about that, it’s about accuracy. That’s the bit that some of the others don’t get. The Mentors try their best to have us disciplined, however, some don’t get it. It’s not about speed – one guy in our group was quick in the straights and slow on the corners. I found out just how slow. I got a really, really close look at his number plate. I believe Kevin got a damn good look at mine too! The only problem was I couldn’t pass him after the bend; Smoggy, no matter how much persuasion I gave him, just wasn’t powerful enough. What was good, we had a braking module. Off track. I made a complete and utter arse of the first session. My brakes disappeared and somehow I ended up in neutral. User error. No-one else to blame but me. That’s what’s good about these sessions. Finding out what your brakes can do.

In your Skill for Life training, we teach Acceleration Sense. That’s all well and good, it’s nice and tidy riding, BUT if you are riding with someone who hasn’t had advanced training, they wonder if your brake lights are knackered. So, do you REALLY know what your brakes can do? Ruby has ‘STOP’ brakes. Smoggy has single disc; send a fax and pop out the parachute brakes. However, go on a day like this, your hand and thighs will ache after it; part of that is from finding out just what your machine can do when it’s asked to stop. Even with a weenie single disc brake, the stopping power of my bike is quite excellent. *note to self – check brake pads*

What else? I could hardly walk down stairs after. The day after. Thankfully, all I had to do was jump on a train, that’s another story. I knew all about it when I got back on Smoggy to ride home, my thighs and stomach muscles had had a work out. What’s ace though is feeling the difference in your cornering after a day’s coaching. Cheers to Martin for getting me to look further ahead than I was already; and to Kevin and the other cracking Mentors for their input. It’s appreciated, guys.

As it transpires, I got rid of my ‘chicken strips’. In fairness, I’d had a good go at them before going to Croft. If you don’t know what they are: ‘The strips of unscathed rubber on the outer edges of a motorcycle tire caused by the rider being too “chicken” to lean the motorcycle all the way to the edge. Used as a measurement of a rider’s skill in most cases.’

In actual fact, I developed chicken nuggets. Lumps of tyre that people like Rory and Kevin and many others get on a track day. I made a good dent in my rear tyre. Go Fi. ROFL. I got rid of my chicken nuggets on the way home, with little effort and all at the speed limit, safely and progressively.

To put it into perspective, I went to Croft with a full tank of petrol (just as well). At the end of the day, I had approximately 55 miles left of fuel in Smoggy’s tank. When I went to ride home from Darlington I had a full tank of fuel. When I reached home, there was a range of 11 miles left. I did just over 90 miles on track. It’s 231 miles from Darlington to Tyndrum. Go figure.

Yet again, I had a ball and can’t wait to do it all again. The IAM are trying to get a Knockhill Skills Day next year. It can’t be an all day session as it would be just too expensive, however, it would follow the same format with training modules in between track time. Whether it gets off the ground or not, I’ll be back at Croft next year. I might even get brave and step up a couple of groups.

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