Sunday, 24 July 2016

PPIHC - Sunday - Race to the Clouds 2

The timing loop start is a few hundred yards up the course… so no need to get a Dirttrack-type on-the-milli-second start-line blast-off. Just get her off the line in my own time… firmly. Start as you wish to proceed! I get her going without fuss and give her beans through first gear. Up to second then short-shift as I tip her into the first left-lander – the timing loop is just on the exit of this first turn –I try and get her smoothly in and drive hard out while tripping the clock.

It starts – thousandths of seconds flashing by so quickly they are just a blur. A thousand moments later, digital ‘1’ appears under the ‘sec.’… let’s try to get as few of those as possible. Tick-tock-tick-tock… I try get on the gas hard at the exit as I setup for the first fast right-hander just moments down the course.

Feck! This is hard. From standstill, with no warmup, then trying to push the limits around a fast turn within a few seconds. Imagine this: Arriving at a track you have never been to before. You go out on a road-bike you have hardly ridden before and go around in cold, early morning conditions for just 3 laps. Two days later, you roll up to the start line on the same bike, but now you’re in a race. No warm-up laps. No sighting lap. That first turn you’ve only done 3 times before, in different conditions. You’ve got to do 10 minutes of laps as fast as you can. Then it’s all over. This is what Pikes Peak is like. It’s hard!

I’m tentative on the throttle… trying to feel the traction. Seems okay… I get her upright and pour on the coals down the very short straight for the next right-hander. It should be nearly flat-out… but I throttle off way before and then feel my way to the entry. “What a knob! Go, go, go!” I chastise myself. Next right hander I’m only marginally better.

At the TT you go from zero to flowing, flat-out 150mph turns, downhill, lined with kerb-stones, poles and garden walls. It took me a year or two and many practice starts to get my head into that. Probably at least fifty stand-still starts before I could do the turning jump through St Ninians and Bray Hill flat-out. But once you ‘know’… you ‘know’. Your mind overcomes that feeling that you’re just about to get mashed into the stonework and it’s going to hurt like almighty-fuck. Your mind overcomes this in a fleeting moment and with ease… because you ‘know’.

Despite the hours of study and well over a hundred on-board starts, I still hadn’t got my head into these Colorado turns… or these turns into my head. I didn’t ‘know’ and my body closed the throttle and hit brakes way too early – it was involuntary. My mind was screaming at my self-preserving instinct… “Stop fucking around and GO FAST!”.

You got no second chance here. On circuits you go round in circles… if you screw it up one lap… soon you’ll have another go at it to get it right. I had one chance at those first three turns… and I screwed them up. Fuck.

Into the first of the left-handers. I set it up out to the right and turn in late… I pull the Big Duck over and start carving an arc to the apex. I cross the double-yellow line in the centre of the course. The bike has a little two-wheel slide. Shit! WTF? I don’t remember that in practice! A bit un-nerving. Out to the right again for the next left-hander… carrying bit more speed. Shit! She just slid over those lines again. This sucks.

I’m trying to get on the gas earlier and harder… but she feels as if the rear is just about to let go. I was warned about this all week. Practice is early morning, a lot cooler and surprisingly grippy. Race day is always a bit later, warmer but counter-intuitively slicker. Weird. There are theories of dust and spectator traffic pissing coolant on the course. The best I’ve heard is that as the tar warms, it sweats. It was sweating like a net-vested short-order burger flipper.

I slow things down in my head to try speed things up on the course. Keep focussed… ride to the conditions. “Remember where you are on this squiggly line to the clouds… what’s next? And what’s after that? Where do I need to be? Can I go faster? Give it more throttle? Get off those damn brakes! Don’t turn in too soon!” I just try and relax into it, make no stupid mistakes and keep it flowing. Despite struggling to know how fast I can get into turns, it starts to come together. Right-right-left-right-wide open-brake-down one-in deep-left-right-right… like a ticker-tape rattling through my head.

By the time I’m stretching the cables down the short ‘Halfway Picnic Grounds’ straight-away, lined with spectators, I’m really starting to enjoy it. I’m treating it as a fast blat on my local roads with no traffic to make room for or to think for. I can carve wide lines from white-line to white line. This is fun!

On some turns there are about three feet of tar on the other side of the white line… inviting… tempting. Despite the sliding on the middle-lines, I give it a go, hoping the white lines have a bit more grip than the yellow. Front end slides as I cross the line, I apex, then slip on the way out again. Nah – just as slippy, just not worth it.

Up through the fan-zones at Ski Area and through the beautifully cambered, one-eighty degree uphill sweeping turns. More crowds lining the course through Glen Cove. I take it easy through as I feel my tyres rumbling over the loose gravel on the inside of the turn. I give myself lots of room going into George’s Corner – “Late, late, late!” I get the best line through there all week and can get on the gas hard and fast. The full-race system on the Multi reverbing off the steep rock-face on the outside of the turn sounds awesome!

More crowds up through Cove Creek and I’m just loving the fast triple right-hander leading up to Elk Park. “Right… keep turning… right… keep turning… look through the turn… right…”. I approach Elk Park a lot faster than in Wednesday’s practice - this is the first time I’ve done this section on the Big Red Duck. I brake early – the heavy girl takes some stopping… “Whoooah, girl. Whoah.”. Remembering Carlin’s coaching, I run her deep into the outside lane for the switchback and drive a wide arc in the middle of the course, avoiding the steep incline at the apex. Nice!

Up the steep hill towards Ragged Edge - I’m unsure how fast I can get through this turn where the course just seems to end in an expanse of clear blue sky. I err on the side of caution and have loads of room through there and even more through the next fast Armco-lined left. Hard on the gas for the short squirt before more heavy braking for the first series of Double-yous.

One, two, three Double-yous… fast, blind, blue-sky right hander… just… keep… turning…

The Armco for the start of the next series of Double-yous pops into view. Nice! Switchback number one, number two, number three. The tall, heavy Duke is a bit of a handful through these switch-backs and I’m giving myself plenty of time and room on this very unfamiliar stretch. Careful on two… that’s the turn I screwed up a few times during practice. On the brakes into three I think I feel the brake lever coming back to the bar a bit more than before. “Huh? Are my brakes fading?”

Saturday, 23 July 2016

PPIHC - Sunday - Race to the Clouds 1

Been back at work... nose to the grindstone. The race write-up was done in pieces while I travelled... so it got kinda long. Here is part 1:

Sunday 26th June, 01h30. My alarm wakes me from dreams of mountains, sky and a single track going up. With sleepy eyes in the hushed, warm stillness of the suburbs, we get our stuff together and we’re out the door by 02h00. 02h15 and we hit the back of the queue which is already down to the turn-off a mile or so from the park gate and a few hundred yards along the route 24 dual carriage-way.

We crawl to the intersection then on the climb up to the gate. Spectators are being waved off the entrance roadway along the way and into a big parking lot for ‘Santa’s Workshop’ – a creepy, bizarre Santa theme park. I guess it makes sense in winter when covered in snow… but having a ‘Pensioners Day’ at over 30 degrees in summer is just weird. By 03h00 we’re through the gate and climbing the few miles to the race paddock.

We find the bike paddock – a rough clearing on the side of the road just before the car paddock (the dirt has been graded flat for the cars). Head and hand-held torches pierce through the dust like light-sabres. We are directed by one of these waving sabres to a small space – I get in okay and drive into the rough ground as far as I can, stopped by a big log. We have space behind to offload and not block the road.

We unload the bike and get her setup. It’s a strange atmosphere. Trucks, vans and cars everywhere… moving, backing-up, parking. Crowds everywhere… crew, organisers, spectators. All moving in some sort of hushed, organised, chaos. We make sure everything is set before the roll-call, rider’s briefing, morning prayers and then driver’s briefing. We curl up in the quiet warmth of the van to try get some more sleep.

I wake when it’s already light, the edge of the van door digging a crevasse into my back. “Uuuugh… “. I move around to try get comfortable. No chance of that. I am thinking to get up and about, stretch the stiffness outta my bones and see what the craic is in the paddock when Travis appears at the window. “Morning!”

Travis was at a friend’s wedding the night before and then still gets up early, rides through the queues and crowds to get to the paddock by 06h00 to help out. The Man is a legend in so many ways.

By 06h30 the stream of spectators going up the mountain is thinning out. “Paul?” “Here!” - Roll-call. I’ve never had roll-call at a race meeting before. Rider’s Briefing: “Course looks good. One of the Squadra Alpina will go up before we start and report back on conditions. Have a good run and stay safe.”
Morning prayers led by Doug Chestnutt – short and sweet, followed by some shit coffee from the burger van at the start line. Tyre warmers on, pickup our transponder then to Driver’s Briefing. Notes about the running order, conditions and safety. Double check everything on the bike… check all my gear. Go through the course map and an on-board refresher as we wait for the 08h30 start.

Before the start, Carlin Dunne from Squadra Alpina goes up the course and reports back: wet and icy through the last few turns. There is a 45 minute delay to the start. This year they are trying a new ‘Hot Grid’ system for the bike start. 20 bike ‘garages’ under awnings and with power for tyre warmers are setup along the road leading to the start line – all setup courtesy of Ducati USA. Thanks guys! The first 20 bikes are setup there and as they start, the subsequent starters fill the garages. Being in the Heavyweight class, we’re one of the last bikes away.

The first runners start… every 2 minutes or so, another bikes blasts off the start line. Our garage opens up and we wheel the bike up and get her back on tyre warmers - she’s never had her boots so toasty! There is a red flag and proceedings come to a halt. We wait it out under the awning. Even that early in the morning, the sun is harsh… would be unbearable in leathers with no shade. The garages are also fenced off from the public… apparently in years past it was always quite hectic, packed with punters jostling around while you were trying to focus under the blazing sun. This new setup is good.

Eventually things get going again and the riders ahead start moving up to the start line. I keep stretching, keeping lose and relaxed and start focussing on the job at hand. I think through the first sequence of turns. Get my mind into gear. No sighting lap… just roll onto the start line and go from zero to bat-shit in a few seconds. A bit like the TT.

“Have a good one… GO FAST!” I say to the three Heavyweight riders ahead of me. I give my wife a hug and kiss – she wishes me luck. Helmet and gloves on.


Ant and Travis get the Big Red Duck started up, off her warmers and ready in the hot-grid lane. I swing a leg over her. Go-fast wishes and fist-pumps all round. Then I’m bimbling down the spectator-lined hot-grid lane to the start line. Phud-phud-phud-phud-phud-phud… the big girl from Modena is about to get a thrashing of her life for the next 12 miles. I hope she’s up for it… I am.

The starter is waiting for me. I stop 5 meters from the start clock – another new thing for this year. The starter looks me in the eye and nods. I nod back. He points the green flag at me and then at the clock… the count-down starts. 10… 9… I flip my visor down and make sure it’s locked in place… 8… 7… I make sure my glove straps are secure… 6… 5… I prod the gear lever a few times to make sure she’s in first gear… 4… 3… I slowly let out the clutch just to the point of dragging… 2… 1… I start feeding her throttle… 0… the light goes green.

Sunday, 10 July 2016

PPIHC - Saturday - Rest

The early mornings were taking it's toll. I had kindda kept my body-clock somewhere between Colorado and Austria time... so it wasn't so much the early wake-ups, it was just lack of sleep. Five days on the trot with only 4 to 5 hours sleep. Just not enough for me. By six in the evening every day, Mr. Sandman had chucked grit in my eyes and my were bloodshot. I was just damn tired.

There is a cool 'Western Wear' store near the retail park just a mile from the cottage. we tried on some hats... I bought one :-)

Saturday we slept in... got my first proper sleep in about a week. We had a nice lazy breakfast before going to collect the wheels with new tyres on for the race and a few other errands in Colorado Springs. Ant and I then did a bit of prep on the bike for the race. Ant finished off the prep and Alex and I took a walk to the nearby 'Garden of the Gods'. It's quite spectacular.

I then took Alex up to the top of Pikes Peak... I used it as a last real-life refersher of the course. Left, right, right, right, left, left, right, right, left, right... I was remembering it! It's so scenic all the way up. The views from the top are breathtaking.

I was still pretty tired, the heat didn't help. All week it was in the low to mid thirties. Mid-week when we were up in Denver with the Big Red Duck, it was thirty-eight in the shade. At one mile above sea level, the sun is angry... you start burning within 20 minutes. We got back to the cottage in the late afternoon and the Big Red Duck was all set and ready to go. Thanks Ant!

Loads of old-timer American iron around... most of them still in daily use.

Marajuana is legal for medicinal purposes in Colorado. I the little town of Manitou Springs, it is legal for leisure use too. It's a booming business with a dope shop on every second street corner. Maggies Farm had a big parking lot that was always full... a hundred yards down the road was thier overflow parking that was always busy too. A bit like Amsterdam for the Brits, folks come to Manitou Springs just to get stoned!
We crashed out for another siesta... my body had many hours of catching-up to do! An hour later I was woken by the regular afternoon thunderstorm. The light and summer weather in Colorado is very much like Johannesbug, South Africa - where I grew up and spent most of my life. Similar altitude, similar bright, hard light. Warm, dry and dusty. Most afternoons, huge, black Cumulus clouds roll in. Thunder and lightning. You can smell the rain... then a ten minute downpour. Clouds move on and the sun shines again. Everything washed and clean.

Loads of eclectic shops with cool stuff... like this one where you can get oil lamps, guns, ammo, tools, dungarees... everything you need for your western mountain adventure!

That evening we went to downtown Manitou Springs for a walk-around to check out the hippies and crazies and for the best steak in town at the Keg (local opinion that we have confirmed). We got back to the cottage and were in bed before it was dark - we had to be at the gate to the park well before 03h00. Between 03h00 and 06h00, they let the spectators up the single-carriage roadway. If you get there much later than 03h00, you'll be queueing for miles all the way back into town.

My head hits the pillow and I dream of a single-track to the clouds... tomorrow we're goin' racin!

Friday, 8 July 2016

PPIHC - Friday - Qualifying

The 2:30 am routine is getting tiresome. Not getting enough sleep is starting to wear on me. Last day of practice and the motorbikes are on the lower section from the Start line to just below Glen Cove. It's also our 'qualifying' day - our fastest times will determine our start order in class for the race on Sunday. Setting off at one minute intervals on the day, qualifying doesn't really give one any advantage. More for safety and the psychological effect.

Early morning setup.

We're all setup in the dark paddock just below the start line before the eastern skies start glowing. We go through the normal routine and I stretch and get warmed up for our sighting run. Ant and Travis have the Bug Red Duck's tyres all warmed up, engine warm, all fuelled up and checked over once more.
We start the sighting run about 15 minutes later than on the top section... it takes longer for the light to reach us in the low forest than it does higher up on the side of a mountain. In the dim glow of morning, we set off in single-file, carving a line of exhaust noise through the fast, flowing lower section.

Coaching from a PPIHC legend :-)

With only four real switchbacks on the section, there are over fifty faster turns. Some flat-out, some long, lazy, constant-radius 180 degree arcs. Combinations of lefts and rights... some double and even a few triple apexes.

It's a beautiful section of track... the biggest challenge is that through the forest, a lot if the turns look the same. I've been memorising the combinations in the onboard videos for the last six months... it certainly helps. I kinda know where I am and what is next... I'm thinking two turns ahead, making sure I'm in the right place to get through them fast and flowing.

Waiting at the top of the section with Tomasz Gombos.

We all wait at the end of the section as the sky fills with light... soon were carving our way back. Right, left, right, left, right, left, tight right... left, left... must remember that. I try a get the sequences burned in my mind going backwards too.

Debrief, tyres warmed, me warmed. "The 8 mile sign with the bear on it is your marker for the slower corners." Travis is giving me valuable advice. I'm taking it all in.

Gary Trachy and Michelle Disalvo.

Mark Miller and Marcel Irnie on thier electric bikes.

Next run I'm on my own... trying to get the sequence if turns and my pace right. The Big bike is lazy and I've got to man-handle it around. There is a delay and we're waiting at the end of the section for a while.
Back to the paddock. A Japanese sidecar team have been having problems with their Formula 1 outfit... problems started on Tuesday's practice. The machine wouldn't start. They have been working on it since Tuesday Angus hang yet get a single run in. They're at every practice. Manuals out, checking, stripping down, reassembling, replacing, scratching their heads, discussing, checking, trying different things. The motor didn't even splutter... just cranks over. They are based out of a motel just down the street from our cottage. Every time we drove past, we'd see them on the forecourt working to fix the outfit. They spent days on it. Never once being upset or pissed off... just diligently working away to try fix it.

They were in the paddock opposite us working away again. As we were waiting for my second run, we heard their outfit burst into life. The Suzuki 1000 motor was alive! The whole paddock burst out in cheering, clapping and whoops! High fives and big hugs from half of the paddock... these guys just had massive grins on their faces as they then scrambled to get the outfit back together in time for a few practice/qualifying runs.
On my second time run, I'm 8 seconds faster than the first. Masahito Watanabe arrives at the top with us in his formula 1 to more cheers and hugs. There is another long delay as we wait at the end of the section. One if the other sidecars has gone off. It takes time to recover the bent outfit but both the driver and monkey are OK. We're running out if time. It's almost 8 by the time we head back down. Curfew is at 8:30. 

Back to the start line and I turn the bike around and join the small queue... I need to get at least one more run in. Cold tyres, but getting track time us more important. Soon I roll up to the starter and am ready for my last practice run. 

A minute later, the starter shakes his head and holds up a red flag. Shit. We wait... the minutes ticking away.
At 08:25, the starter gets the all clear and I'm off for my final practice run. The section is only 5 or so miles long... barely enough time to warm the tyres up. I just gotta take it easy. Despite that, I cut another 8 seconds off my last run. I qualify 4th in class with a 4:52 on the section. I'm way off the pace of the top three. Just need more track time. Masahito qualifies as fastest sidecar with just 2 runs!
World-famous dirt-bike riding Baja

Practice was just over 3 1/2 hours long. 33 riders/sidecar drivers over a 5 mile run that takes about 5 minutes. We get only 3 runs at it... 15 miles on track. As a comparison, TT/Manx GP practice runs around the same length of time... but with anything from 100 to 200 riders on a 37.7 mile course that takes around 20 minutes per lap. On an evening's practice, one will normally get 4 laps in... 150miles on track! 

This is the biggest challenge for me at Pikes Peak... so little time on a bike I don't know and learning 156 turns I have never ridden before. I am not a professional rider and want to come home to my wife in Austria... this is no place to take chances. I have no hope of getting a podium unless one of the faster guys don't make it to the top. I just gotta take it easy, enjoy the ride and get to the top.

Record setter 747 at the Lone Duck

 Cowboy makes the best smoked brisket I've ever had!!

A bit disappointed with the limited track time, we pack up and head down the Hill to the Lone Duck campground where Lisa (the landlord) cooks us pancakes and sausages for breakfast. Where we make plans for the bike prep and race day on Sunday. More shit coffee but we're so tired we still get our heads down for a few hours after.

Bumper-to-bumper all the way back to Denver...

That afternoon, we were back at the Lone Duck feasting on some home-smoked brisket that Cowboy had brought. It was fantastic! Then I drove back up to Denver airport through rush-hour traffic to pickup my beautiful wife who is out for the weekend. Back to Colorado Springs to catch the last hours of the 'Fan Fest'.

A few blocks in downtown Colorado Springs is closed off and they had food stalls, some race-related stalls and a few of the race teams setup. All to fastest qualifiers are also all setup and signing autographs. There was a mini arena with displays and some Freestyle MX. By 10 we were cream-knackered and headed back to the cottage for some sleeeeeeeeep.