Bracing... not braking

Learning to race makes you a much safer motorcyclist on the road, says Tim Luckhurst
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Sasha delivered the safety briefing with all the brisk efficiency of a WAAF girl prepping bomber crews for a raid on the Ruhr. There was a stark contrast between her breezy cheerfulness and the mood of nervous anticipation among her audience. Tension simmered as she taught us the flag signals that the track marshals would use to warn of danger. I prayed the hazard would not be me, bloodied and unconscious beside a broken motorbike.

Sasha delivered the safety briefing with all the brisk efficiency of a WAAF girl prepping bomber crews for a raid on the Ruhr. There was a stark contrast between her breezy cheerfulness and the mood of nervous anticipation among her audience. Tension simmered as she taught us the flag signals that the track marshals would use to warn of danger. I prayed the hazard would not be me, bloodied and unconscious beside a broken motorbike.

Fear reached its apogee as she concluded: "If you do get it wrong and find yourself coming off the track, try to hold your nerve. Don't brake on the gravel. Brace your arms and head straight for the tyre wall. That way you have a chance of staying on the bike. A lot of customers have thanked us for that advice."

I contemplated pulling out. But then I recalled the kind words of Rita Ebbage, who books riders for the Niall Mackenzie Track Day School at Knockhill Racing Circuit. "People are usually nervous. Ninety to 95 per cent of customers have never ridden on a race track before. Part of the trick is getting people to realise that this is a school and they are not going to get their knees down on the first lap."

Getting a knee down comes naturally to Niall Mackenzie. He won three successive British Superbike Championships between 1996 and 1998. His reputation attracts riders to Knockhill from every corner of the UK. It attracts fellow racers, too. Bob Grant, the reigning Scottish champion, and Calum Ramsay, the former British 250cc champion, are tutors at the track school.

Grant, who lent The Independent a sports bike for the day, understands his clientele. Some are budding racers, keen to learn from the masters. Many are middle-aged riders, anxious to learn to control powerful machines. "They have bought a new bike and they realise it is nothing like the Triumph Bonneville they used to own 20 years ago. A modern 400cc bike is twice as powerful as a 750 was back then. On some modern bikes you can drop a gear to pass a car and find yourself doing 130mph. Then you're into a corner and you don't know what to do."

I have been riding long enough to avoid making that sort of mistake, but as I roared out of the pits behind my teacher, Calum Ramsay, my tongue was dry and I could hear my heart above the engine note of my mount, a Kawasaki Ninja ZX7. The mantra "brace don't brake" was bouncing off the inside of my helmet and making my arms stiffen involuntarily against the drop handlebars.

The first corner at Knockhill is a gentle right-hander called Duffus Dip. If Ramsay took it at racing speed, I was going to be left hopelessly behind. But he didn't. For lap after lap, my teacher led me carefully through the racing line, teaching me to brake while upright, lean and then clip the apex of a corner before standing the bike up again to accelerate out.The school uses traffic cones on the corners as guide posts. You just join up the dots to find the perfect line.

After five laps I started to enjoy myself. The late turn into Taylor's hairpin and maximum acceleration into the start/finish straight began to feel like fun. On lap one, the idea of approaching a 180-degree bend at 100mph then braking and downshifting to second gear in seconds had seemed mad. Now I found myself looking forward to it.

I actually thought I was riding fast until Mackenzie passed me on the approach. I might have been stationary. He had ample time to check my position before dipping perfectly into the hairpin. By the time I got round, his rear tyre was already approaching the pit lane 300 yards away.

I shall never ride that fast. I do not want to. Another customer put it well: "What you learn is what a modern motorcycle can do. You learn how far you can lean. You realise that when you go into a corner too fast, you don't need to snatch at the brake, just lean further. The bike will lean a lot further than you think it will."

You come away from this day school a better rider. Bob Grant says: "It used to take five years, but these days the technology from motorcycle racing makes its way to standard production bikes in a matter of months. Every rider can learn something from being trained to use it properly."

Mackenzie's assessment sheet for my day reads: "Superb. Well done. Good and safe. Improved every session." He gave me 73 marks out of a possible 100. I am proud of that. After 20 years of motorcycling, it was hard to admit I knew nothing about racing technique. Now I know a little and I am a much better road rider as a result. There are motorcycle track schools available at race circuits all over Britain. If you have the time to get to Scotland, learn at Knockhill.

The Niall Mackenzie Track Day School at Knockhill Racing Circuit costs £155 per pupil. Contact www.knockhill.com

motoring@independent.co.uk

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