Get Your Mojo Back

Find yourself backing off on corners you used to take at full throttle? Noticeably slower today than you used to be and feeling left out of the pack? We’ll show you how to get your edge back

I’ve got a big problem: I’m scared of riding fast round racetracks. It’s not something I’ve had an issue with in the past and there hasn’t been an obvious trigger event to make me like this, but it’s there. A fluttering voice of doubt in the side of my head that equates to a massive reduction in my speed around a circuit. I can’t feel what the bike is doing anymore, have no idea where the limit is, as a result I’m not sure how far away from a crash I am and I’m riding like a bloody novice. And it’s really starting to irritate me.

The truth is, whatever I used to have around a circuit I’ve lost. Tracks (and crashing) are both things that should hold no horrors for me. As a road-tester for this and other magazines in the late ‘90s I rode circuits all year round and generally crashed more times in a year than most road-riders do in a lifetime. I was a bit of a hot-head, fairly fast, never panicked and had a good feel for where the limit was. Sometimes I overstepped that limit, but before I returned to TWO it had been at least three years since my last proper laps. I’m rusty and out of practice – sound like you at all?

Determined to do something about this in the name of anyone who ‘used to be fast’, I grabbed a GSX-R750 and headed to Silverstone to meet Niall Mackenzie at a Focused Events trackday (www.focusedevents.com). Niall knows everything about going fast but also has the patience of a saint with a quiet demeanour who is very good at explaining things. I tell him my plight.

“Okay,” says Niall. “Get out there all morning and ride the track. You’ve never been here before?” I shake my head. “Then just ride the track and learn where it goes. Then in the afternoon, we’ll see where you’re at.” If you’ve never ridden here before, Silverstone is intimidating. This 3.2 mile circuit is vast, fast and arse-puckeringly quick through the corners. I’m about to set off in the intermediate group when Niall collars me and throws me into the fast group. “Stop sandbagging and get out there,” he swears.

I can still ride a motorbike, it’s the maximum attack stuff I find galling. And it’s strangely limited to sportsbikes at circuits. I’m racing motocross all this year and loving it, that holds no fears. Likewise ragging it on the public road (I know, you’re not allowed to do that anymore) is still tremendous fun when the mood takes me. But on this bike on this track, I’m a wimp. In my first session, every person in that group comes whistling past me as I thre’penny-bit my way around the legendary circuit.

It’s Copse and Stowe corners that are doing my head in. On the GSX-R both are approached flat-out in top gear, then you have to knock it down three and throw it in around the 120-140mph mark (depending on who you are). And I was just plain scared, every lap. The rear was about to come round, the front was about to tuck, it was pathetic. After the first session I pulled into the pits, slightly depressed. This was worse than I thought.

“Niall – I’m properly scared out there!” I catch Mackenzie before he rides out. “Nerves are normal at a circuit you’ve never ridden on before,” he says in that calm way of his. “You just have to get out and ride. There is an edge of danger to this whole thing, and a bit of fear will keep you safe. As you get familiar with the bike or circuit, then those nerves will go away.” What’s happened to me? I used to tweak the nasal hairs of fear and run away laughing just for fun. And I certainly never used to apply the words “used to” when it came to my riding skills.

More laps makes me faster but I’m still only mid-pack and the fear just won’t go away. Maybe it’s all those crashes coming back to haunt me. I’ve always crashed well and never broken anything major, but the thought of sending the pristine GSX-R skittling up the track is making me nervous. It’s that sound of metal on plastic that they make. And the speed at which the fast guys come flying past is unsettling me. Instead of tucking in and giving pursuit I’m glad to let me them pass. Concentrate, I’m telling myself. Concentrate on where the track goes, look for braking markers, use the full width of the circuit and relax. As lunchtime approaches I’m getting familiar with where the track goes, but Copse and Stowe still scare me stupid. Time for a debrief with Niall.

“Part of it is getting older,” he admits. “I weigh up the risks now and it sounds like that’s what is happening with you, although perhaps too much. When you’ve had a few spills you know things get hurt, but it’s still about just getting out there. You’ve been out of the loop for a while, and it’s the guys who are out there every week who are at their best. It’s about building rhythm and you’ve got to go back to basics. There’s no point rushing out there thinking ‘I’ve been fast before so I’ve got to be fast now,’ that won’t work. You have to start again and re-find your skills and your rhythm.”

It used to be that you’d lean a bike over in a corner until the footpeg or exhaust was on the deck, then you knew you had about another 10% to go before you were on your arse. But the latest generation of superbikes don’t touch anything down and the other thing that’s changed is tyre technology – it’s come on a long way in just the last five years. You can ride much harder today with a huge safety margin and not even be aware of it.

“Tyre technology has come on a big way,” confirms Niall, “and I promise you will feel something before it happens so long as you’re smooth. Tyres give you loads of warning now, they build a great deal of grip into the trye but also plenty of safety and warnings.” For example, the old Michelin supersport tyres were famous for grip, grip, off! But now the very same tyres give you loads of warning when you’re getting near the edge or they’re going off. With this in mind, I set out again after lunch with Niall behind me on his GSX-R750 (we looked like a his & hers couple out there) so he can analyse where I’m going wrong.

It doesn’t half concentrate the mind having someone like Niall Mackenzie follow you round a track. Even though you know he’s twiddling his thumbs and thinking about his dinner tonight, you get your head down and try and show him what you’re made of. I’m out there hunting my limit, give it that extra 5%, knock it down instead of up coming out of Abbey and the back spins up with a shriek and throws me out of the seat. Nice work, slick. Then Chris Walker comes past me like I’ve just pulled up at a set of traffic lights. We pull in and I await Niall’s judgement.

“That was more like the old Sonic,” he says. “For the fear to go away you’ve got to relax on the bike, but you look at ease when you’re riding which is perhaps the most important thing. I’m convinced it’s just a question of saddle time for you.” But I’m not. You see, I’m just not sure I really care about doing a gazillion mph on a motorbike around a track any more. I did it for so long that I’m having real problems getting excited by the whole thing. I hate to admit it, but I’m starting to suspect that this just isn’t me. As the editor of a motorcycle magazine I should be more than proficient at riding a bike in all circumstances and I can still hold my own, but my motivation is on the floor. If you don’t want to improve, if you don’t care about being faster, then you won’t be. How much do you really want this? 

More laps, more lessons. If you’re just circulating then you’ll learn nothing. Break each part of the track down into sections, pick your markers and brake later, get on the gas sooner, concentrate. The moment you feel your mind wandering or you’re watching the bloke in front of you, you may as well be sat at home watching TV. Trackdays are expensive events and to get the most out of your day you need to really focus – at the end of the day you should be mentally and physically knackered from the effort. Suddenly it’s 5pm and the last session of the day. The temperature has cooled dramatically and half the riders have gone home. The track is mine. In the past I’ve avoided the last session like the plague (“just one more!” you’d say, before tossing it away). But I’ve got to find out if it’s really all over for me and racetracks. I nose the GSX-R up the empty pitlane and we go for it.

And suddenly it all comes together again. For 20 minutes it’s just me and Silverstone, and we’re flying. With no other riders to distract me I just get on with riding the circuit, stitching together the corners, using the full width of the track, clipping the rumble-strips with my knee, cursing when I don’t get the line right and making sure I do the next time. The Suzuki behaves impeccably, the tiniest of slides to tell me I’m getting somewhere near the limit, and I pull in at the chequered flag, tired and exhilarated. It’s taken all day, but I’m back on it.

Speed isn’t given. It’s not a right that you have access to just because you bought a fast motorbike and have done a couple of trackdays. Speed is like money, it has to be earned and you have to work hard to get it. When you’ve got some you want more, but it’ll come and go and when it’s not there you don’t half miss it. How much you want that speed and how hard you’re prepared to graft for it, is all down to you. If, like me, you used to be fast but found it’s slipped away, you just have to get back on the bike and ride. Road-riding alone won’t do it, you’ve got to get back on the track, start from scratch and work back up. And you’ll know when you’re getting there, because suddenly those fast laps will feel like the most natural thing ever and you won’t even break a sweat..

Congratulations, you just got your mojo back.