Friday, 1 July 2016

PPIHC - Tuesday - First Practice

Tuesday is the first day of practice – which is like nothing I've ever experienced before...

Because the course is a single road rather than a loop, it is divided into three sections for practice: top, middle and lower. All competitors are divided into three groups with each group practising on a section at a time on consecutive days. As a Rookie, one has to have at least one completed practice run on each of the sections. With four days of practice, Tuesday is our 'bonus' day on the section that we will run twice.

The course is on a private toll road that runs from the base of Pikes Peak to the summit. The toll road owners dare not lose any revenue because of the event - despite the event brining in a huge influx of visitors and untold dollars in exposure - have you ever heard of Pikes Peak not in conjunction with the race? Greedy bastards.

As a result, practice is held in the early morning and finishes by 08h30. As competitors, we have to be off the mountain by 09h30... otherwise we have to pay a princely sum of $12 per person. Glad to help bring visitors to the mountain for them and line their pockets!

The logistics of getting officials, safety crew and race teams up a single road that takes vehicles 45 minutes to get up is tough. And to do this before first light so that practice can begin as it becomes light enough to see is even tougher.

We're up at 02h30. I'm calling VISA and the ACU to sort out some admin over a bowl of granola and fruit. By 03h00 we're outta the door and meeting Travis at the bottom of the mountain for the quiet, sleepy drive up to the paddock at Devil's Playground - 12,780 feet above sea level (for the Brits... Ben Nevis is only 4,416feet). We park up, unload and get the bike set-up on tyre warmers on the road near the start line for the top section. Devil's Playground is a third of the way to the summit at.

Parked up and waiting next to the Victory factory team

At that altitude the air is thin... there ain't much oxygen up there! Pushing the bike up the slope to the road and carrying the toolbox and generator 50 yards gets us out of breath. Everything is just a little bit harder work. There are oxygen bottles available for those that need – I don't use them to try and acclimatise my body.

It is a surreal experience: on the side of a mountain, waiting for first light and the sun to start rising below you before setting off in the twilight, on closed roads for practice.

Our first run form Devil's Playground to the summit is as a group. All 33 motorbike, quad and sidecar entrants follow the 'sweep-riders' up in the early morning glow. It's like a sighting lap – making sure the bike is working ok, getting a feel for track conditions, checking for ice, water, oil, gravel, wildlife and other hazards on the road. It's the first time I get to ride the road as a course rather than a ribbon of tar that is infested with scared, wide-eyed tourists in four-wheeled metal boxes.

Roll-call, riders briefing and morning prayers in the moonlight

We all get to the top where it is frikkin' cold (below zero) and windy. On the way up the bike has a bad flat-spot between 5 and 6 thousand rpm. I put it down to the cold. We descend a few minutes later in single-file, taking it easy on such an decline and with now cold tyres. Safely back to the paddock, tyres on warmers and we get ready for our first run.

I'm keen to get my first run done and start learning this place – so with just 10 minutes heat in the tyres (they take at least 45 minutes on the warmers to get to proper working temp), I hit the ignition button to start the bike up for my first run. The bike comes to life without me cranking the stater motor. “That's weird” I think to myself. I am not familiar with the bike's switch layout and how they all operate. I put it down to Italian strangeness, shrug and line up at the start. The flag guy dressed on arctic gear and thick wooley hat points at me and nods.

First run

Revs up, I get her off the line cleanly. Short-shift first and second to get into a comfortably quick “Braaaaaap” third for the first fast, off camber right-hander. Up another gear and through the blind, cresting left-hander. Run her out to the white line on the exit to setup for the next left. Down to the beautifully cambered medium-fast Bottomless Pit. A racer of years gone by said that if you went off at Bottomless Pit, you'd starve before you hit the ground.

I thread my way through the unfamiliar course. Remembering each turn and the next from my many, many hours of on-board footage studies. I take it easy, trying to take it all in, trying to get a feel for where my lines should be, what gear I should be in... how fast I can go.

Travis and Ant wait for my return. A year ago Travis lost his good friend and mentor Carl Sorenson during pratice on this section. Sorry to keep you waiting Travis... :-(

The bike bogs down horribly between 5 and 6 thousand rpm again. Worse than the sighting run. It didn't do this on our Sunday tests. Shit. Something we need to look into. I get to the summit steadily and join the group of riders... parking closely to try get shielded from the wind. As I pull up, I hear this whirring sound. I think it's the fan going. The engine temp is only 150 F. Strange. I hit the kill switch and it is silent.

Paul Livingstone is up there and we have a chat. After 20 minutes, we get the signal to go down. I'm cold and keen to get back to the paddock to get warmed up, look into the bogging down and get out for another run. The Big Red Duck doesn't start. Huh? I can't get any life from her. Fuck. This is not good. Carlin Dunne knows a bit about Ducatis and comes over. He is puzzled. We try get her started by rolling down the road on bump-starting.

Ant getting a hit of oxygen

We get a burble out of her... but nothing more. The faster we go down that steep descent, the less she wants to start. The slipper clutch just engaging. The engine is dead.

We free-wheel to Upper Gravel Pit. It's a steep uphill to the next turn, they need to get the next session started so we have to abandon the bike there. I get a lift back to the paddock with Carlin - our practice session is over. Bike problems suck. That I am missing an entire practice day sucks even bigger.

We pack up and watch the cars doing the middle section below us. Some of those cars are awesome! Big, bad-ass American racing vee eights with open exhausts booming up the mountain. The upside is that I get to watch a bit of what else is going on.

When the session ends, we get the van to the bike and load her up. We get down off the mountain and get her back to the cottage where Ant and I try find the problem while Travis heads back to his bike shop. The Ducati mechanics with the Squadra Alpina reckon our sprag-clucth is gone. A common malady with big vee-twins. Ant and I fiddle about and come to that same conclusion. We give Imperial Sportbikes in Denver a call – I bought the bike from them and they race Ducatis – they have a new sprag-clutch on the shelf and will fit it for us that afternoon.

Ant making gang-signs...

Ant and I load the bike and head 1 ½ hours north to Denver. We leave the bike in their capable hands and get some Asian-cajun food while they work. An hour later we return to the workshop. We are greeted by Tim; “It's bad news. Have a look at this...” He shows us where the sprag-clutch is inside the engine case. The end of the crank has snapped right off!

Holy Shit! This is bad. Not worth repairing – the engine is stuffed.

However, we're in luck... Imperial bought in a crashed 1200 Multistrada just a few days ago... and that motor will fit right in. Our motor is standard, so it should be plug-n-play. It'll take 20 hours and they'll only charge for the motor. That's real good of them – it's not their fault but they want to get me back on the hill. They get to work on Tuesday afternoon and we start making calls to find out what the options are for practice and qualifying.

Travis has the best moto-sickle shop in the world!

We get the go ahead to get out for the first official and mandatory practice on another bike for Wednesday morning. We just gotta make some runs. Back to Travis' workshop where he offers me his 2012 record-setting super-moto for the job. We get prepping... just a bit of lock-wire here and there, filter clean and some numbers. 'Pink to Purple' is soon good to go. We sling her in the van, back to Colorado Springs, pickup a supermarket dinner on the way and we have our heads down for some sleep shortly after 21h00. A non-stop day.

Prepping 'Pink to Purple'

South on the i25 back to Colorado Springs... price of gas: less than 40p per liter! And this was expensive...

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