Zero To 180mph In A Day

Can a bona fide biking novice learn to ride in the morning and do flat-out speed runs on a litre sportsbike by teatime? Your CBT was never like this

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On the face of it this might seem like a deeply irresponsible exercise, and there were winces of disapproval all round among the TWO hierarchy when the idea was first suggested. Then everyone decided it would be really funny, and at the same time make some profound point about something or other. Like the state of our liability insurance. So we went ahead and did it.

And we had the ideal lab rat. Peter Fickling is a freelance designer who had done a bit of work for TWO, and had innocently enquired about the possibility of being involved in something 'dangerous and stupid to do with bikes' while last working for us. We called his bluff. Enthusiastic enough to be well up for our 0-180mph in a day challenge, yet bright enough to have a healthy awareness of the potential risks (well, some of them), Peter, or Speccy Bender as we called him despite being neither gay or rarely wearing glasses, had one key factor in his favour: he had never ridden a motorcycle before. Ever. He was brilliantly and spectacularly clueless about the whole thing. Perfect.

The plan was beautiful in its simplicity. Take one total novice (Speccy) to a big, long piece of Tarmac (Bruntingthorpe), teach him to ride and then go ballistic. But we needed some bikes. So we chose a CBR125 to show him the basics, a Hornet 600 to get him used to a bit of power and a Fireblade for going mental on. All Hondas, but more down to coincidence and convenience than anything else. The CBR125 is a best-selling learner tool and Honda had one available, the Hornet is Niall's longtermer and he'd have it with him on the day, while the Fireblade is the most civilised of all the 1000cc sportsters and yet capable of a genuine 180mph in the right conditions. Its HESD speed-sensitive steering damper was a big plus, too.

Cavalier bravado aside for a moment, we had given the day some thought. Things can go wrong on high-speed runs - crosswinds, tankslappers, bird or animal strikes, disorientation-induced mid-runway panic braking bail-outs, engine failures or punctures can all throw a spanner in the works at 180mph, and these needed to be factored in to the instruction. The point of the day was getting Speccy to 180mph, so the teaching was to be tailored specifically to that goal. That meant stripping away everything he didn't need to know about riding bikes, and adding some extra stuff he did.

Initially we would follow a CBT-esque curriculum, but that would soon veer off on its own unique and accelerated learning tangent. With past CBT-teaching experience and a good few years of road and speed testing I was going to be head teacher, while Professor Mackenzie was there to provide his expert input. Speccy wasn't going to know what speed he was doing while riding - we didn't want him distracted - so speedos were taped up and datalogging equipment used to record real mph. On all his runs Speccy would be accompanied by myself and/or Niall. On the high-speed runs I'd lead on my GSX-R1000 longtermer with Speccy on the Blade but, most importantly, he was never, under any circumstances, to overtake the lead bike. If he did, something had gone wrong. Or was about to. It was also agreed that if myself, Niall or Peter felt at any time that things were getting dangerous, silly or scary then any one of us could call a halt to the day and we'd go home.

After a brief introduction to the bikes and their throttles, brakes, clutches and gear levers (Speccy was noticeably relieved to learn that all three bikes followed essentially identical control layouts - we're not sure what he was expecting to find), it was time for the first lesson: pushing the CBR125 around in circles. Sounds daft, but it's a good way to introduce the concept of smooth braking right. By walking the bike around and alternately squeezing gently then grabbing the front brake, it's easy to get a feel for how to slow a bike smoothly and in control. Speccy sussed it within moments. Time for lesson two: pulling away.

No matter how much trouble you're having mastering a smooth pull-away from a standstill, you're not going to make it any better looking down at the controls instead of straight ahead. This was drummed into Speccy right from the off as it's also an essential part of very high-speed riding - look where you're going, not where you're at or don't want to be. Looking me in the eye, Speccy rode directly at my groin as I stood 18 inches or so in front of him, arms outstretched and palms open to catch his clutch and front brake levers and stop the bike before it floored me.

Right about now I had my first and only moment of real doubt; as Speccy struggled with his throttle and clutch co-ordination and kangarooed towards my bollocks again and again, it dawned on me that perhaps this wasn't such a good idea after all. But the feeling soon passed. Pulling away smoothly isn't key to reaching 180mph, so I stepped aside and told Speccy to aim at a point about 50 yards away and ride towards it. And blow me down but he did. A bit wobbly but otherwise fine, with a nice smooth stop at the end. Flushed with success we went straight out onto Bruntingthorpe's handling circuit, me on the Hornet, Speccy on the 125. All of a sudden, with all that space around him and a bit of momentum to keep the low speed wobbles at bay, things were much easier. Two laps done and we pulled in to a round of applause from snapper Oli. Speccy seemed happy enough. Things were looking up.

Lesson three: tucking in. As we were working towards flat-out speed runs I wanted Speccy to get a feel for riding chin-on-the-tank. A quick demo then out for another two laps, now with added comedy as Speccy kept tucked in like a 125GP racer, even when braking. Why? We hadn't told him not to. It was important for him to get a feel for speed as early as possible, so eight miles and less than 20 minutes of total riding in, we sacked the 125 in favour of the Hornet.Back at base we had Speccy get a feel for pulling away on the Hornet as best he could, but got him straight out on the handling circuit before knocking his confidence back too far; there was no point spending time concentrating on the hard bits he was struggling with and didn't need to know anyway.

Another couple of short laps in and we went for a full lap of Brunters, including the two-mile straight. Braking down from 70mph Niall spotted Speccy was banging down too many gears too soon and getting a bit squirrely. Things were soon put right. Back at base we thought it might be nice to strap the datalogger on and try winding the speed up. It was nearly lunchtime. We'd covered 14 miles on the Hornet and Speccy had been riding for about an hour in total. But before we put the logger on it was time for lesson four: countersteering. Why, if we're only going in straight lines? Because it's how you keep the bike in line on the two-mile straight in a crosswind. After a brief explanation and demonstration, we took Speccy back out on the Hornet. Picking a 'lane' marked out by overbanding and doing about 70mph we had Speccy weave from one side to the other, using pressure on the inside bar to make the direction changes. Bingo. Countersteering sorted. It also made him significantly quicker through the chicane next time round.

Logger on and one hour 15 minutes of riding under his belt, we headed down the main straight. Niall nipped in front at the end of the straight and pulled Speccy over - he had been riding with his foot resting on the brake pedal the whole time. Round twice more and I wanted Speccy to get a proper feel for some acceleration, so the drill was to get into third, then pin the throttle and let the Hornet rev right out before changing up. He did, and made a slick job of the upshifts after that, reaching a decent speed along the straight. Back at base we downloaded the info: 131mph.

Lesson five: the Fireblade. With our accelerated learning going so well, and with nearly 30 miles and over one hour 30 minutes experience, it was time to get Speccy on the Blade. The Blade's grabby hydraulic clutch, firm suspension, tall seat and extreme riding position were no more or less familiar than anything the other bikes had to offer. First we went for three laps of the handling circuit, increasing speed up to an indicated 90mph or so on the straights and, it has to be said, not all that slow through the turns and the chicane.

Next it was logger on and time for some speed runs. The first was a bit of an abortion as Speccy struggled with the clutch, and the second was quick, but he dropped off in my mirrors towards the end because he forgot to change into top, although the logger said he'd hit 166mph. Hardly shabby, and I'd have been happy with that if I thought there wasn't more to come. The third run provided the biggest worry of the day as he got a superb launch and decided to pass me flat-out in third. Not expecting it, I was caught out and had to chase him down, but he had such a run the GSX-R could only catch up, not get by. By mid-strip I was indicating 186mph and about 15 feet behind and to his right. He'd broken our cardinal rule and got in front. It then occurred to me that perhaps he was waiting for me to come past - previously he'd only known when to start braking because I was giving him clear signals to do so. From in front. Now I was behind and stuck there.

The point where I'd previously been slowing us down (which admittedly gave us a massive safety margin) came and went, and a good three or four seconds passed, which covers some ground at an indicated 186mph. The tyre wall at the end of the straight was getting bigger but eventually, and in good time, he rolled off and started to slow. I got back in front and it was back to base for a ticking off. Naughty Speccy Bender. Don't scare me like that again. But given the speed we'd reached on that run I was confident we could get near 180mph. Time for a proper go.

The first run went okay, the second was again hampered by a forgotten-about top gear. The third was a scorcher. After a dodgy start Speccy got a good launch and went nicely up through all the gears. I settled the GSX-R into top with Speccy in my mirrors, fixed in position behind and to my left, and not dropping off as the Suzuki maxed out. The wind was getting up and the GSX-R was getting a bit flighty across the overbanding, but we kept it pinned until I was sure we'd hit the mark. Back at base I asked Speccy how it had felt. "Very fast," he said, with admirable understatement. "Faster than the other runs. It started to get a bit scary that time. My helmet kept banging against the petrol holder."

Numbers crunched and we had his speed: 176.8mph. In a day, with two hours and 15 minutes total riding time and barely 50 miles to his name. And not a scratch on man or machine either. That'll do us. Job done.

And in conclusion

It's fair to say that Speccy exceeded our expectations as a pupil, doing exactly as he was told, to the letter, at (nearly) all times. "I'm not sure this would have worked with any old speed virgin," Niall reckoned, "but it was quite remarkable what he achieved in a short space of time." Having little or no prior knowledge of bikes and not being blinded by a pent-up enthusiasm for them worked in his favour, as he wasn't giddy with excitement and was more able to listen and learn. We had also put the fear of God into him over the preceding weeks as to how dangerous the task could be - so much so that I thought he was going to back out at one point. Faced with the relatively simple reality of the day he was calm, relaxed and receptive.

What Speccy achieved was damn impressive, although he was as crap at pulling away from a standstill at the end as he was at the beginning, and to this day he has no idea where the horn or indicator switches are on a bike. By his own admission, Speccy reckoned he would "die in a matter of minutes if I went off on my own without Tim to follow".

Speccy speaks out and rates his top three learner tools.

"I don't know much about bikes. Money, mother and my ex-wife have conspired to keep me well clear of them. But my ignorance is matched by intrigue and since freelancing on TWO I got the opportunity to find out more.

After learning about the brakes - important, I think - I learned clutch control by riding directly at Tim. I was unutterably shit at this, and the first two gears remain my Achilles heel.

Things got better when we got moving. Niall and Tim were very patient and exact and the progression through the bikes went smoothly. I assume most bikers would kill to have Niall give them personal instruction - never has so much experience been wasted on such a useless moron. A former GP rider and BSB champ telling a design monkey from Oxford, "You're leaving your foot on the brake all the time". Thank you, Niall.

The best bit was the beginning of the last and fastest run. I had stalled four times, but finally we launched faster than on any of the previous runs. At other times I had been excited but now there was an interesting splash of blind terror to make things interesting.My respect for all of you is now enormous. As soon as I can square it with the bank I will be back on two wheels, and maybe sooner if Tim calls again about a line of buses, a ramp and a tasselled jump suit."

THE SMALL BIKE

"Easy to ride and very good for wheelies (I saw Niall do one on it, so it must be). Also its narrow profile gives a big advantage when it comes to aerodynamics."

NIALL'S BIKE

"I liked the wonky information panel. The performance was consistently good too. Could maybe do with some wind wings [he means a fairing - Tim] like the red bike."

THE RED BIKE

"Looks quite snazzy and intimidates the novice, but I was reassured when I saw it followed the 'one wheel in front of another wheel' layout I had grown used to on the other bikes. Probably the best bike of the three, I think."