Flat-tracking Harleys with Ruben Xaus

Al’s three-day Harley jaunt continues, with a flat-track race against a former WorldSBK star

Flat-tracking Harleys with Ruben Xaus

IF HARLEY-Davidson was a band, it would be something like The Rolling Stones, or AC/DC. Been going forever, hated by Da Kidz, but floating on a gigantic sea of money from the folk who live and breath H-D. Middle of the road in many ways, but amazing at what they do – and resolute in sticking to the knitting, as it were.

So when I went to Croatia with Harley last week, for a three day mega-experience, it ended up feeling a bit like a weird concept triple album, from a Yes-class hypergroup. Day one, on a brace of 1200 Sportsters, we’ve already covered – and in many ways it was a moderately standard gig.

The Sportster is probably the closest to a normal bike that Harley does, and a 100-odd miles cruising about Croatia’s country roads was a perfectly pleasant riding day out. The adult-oriented-rock disc in this triple-gatefold.

But day two was about to get very weird. For starters, we’d been told to bring some wacky kit – a curious melange of offroad, touring and road race gear – full body armour, enduro boots, MX gloves, maybe some leathers? Because we were going flat-track racing, apparently.

And the legend that is Ruben Xaus was going to be showing us how to do it, on a stable of Harley-Davidson 750 Street Rods, 220kg custom roadsters, tweaked with race wets and Ohlins shocks. Oh, and no front brakes, at all. Hmmm. Looks like we’re heading into the realm of 16 minute drum solos.

Now, I’ve zero experience here. My offroad skills are scant at the best of times, and I’ve never done any speedway, grasstrack sidecar, Japanese Auto Race, or any other kind of wild nonsense ike this. But I’m always happy to have a go, so get stuck into the spirit of the gig, enthusiastically heaving on my (old) Alpinestars leathers and Tech 8 MX boots, and having a steel ‘shoe’ cable-tied onto my left foot, of all things.

Next thing I know, Mr Xaus is briefing us all at 90mph, firehosing a load of technique, tactics and skills info into my addled brain (we’re on the early shift, and it’s not even 9am yet). I feel like a tourist in Dublin who’s asked a local for directions to the station, and been assaulted by five minutes of barely-comprehensible instructions. ‘Got that’? Of course, we all nod ‘yes’, despite not having understood much more than ‘toorn roight at de end dere’. Though in this case, it’s turn left, as it happens.

Xaus: knowing what he is playing at...

I’ve grabbed the essence though, I think. Use the steel shoe as a sort of third wheel, sliding round the corner, get your weight over the front, use gears and rear brake, break traction and spin the back end round the 180-degree turn at each end of the mini-oval. Seems easy enough – let’s go!

My sanguine attitude lasted about 25 seconds. Long enough to walk over to the bikes, pick one, and get on it. The missing front brake lever fazed me a little, but not as much as when I tried to lift my MX boots up and onto the footrests. Now, I have stumpy legs, but the seat feels about four inches away from the pegs.

I have to contort my legs and feet up round my ears to get on, and working the brake and gear lever takes a superhuman effort. The steel sole doesn’t help of course, and I’m properly struggling even to work this bike at the most basic level. FFS, what’s going on?

I manage to trundle round a few laps, in the manner of a pissed three-legged race contestant. It’s really really bad – I’ve got cramp in my thighs already, and I’ve no idea how the hell I’m going to manage much more of this.

Dowds: playing silly-buggers

The first thing is to dump my boots. I thought the Tech 8s would give loads of protection, and help with the steel shoe sliding malarkey, but combined with the stupidly-high pegs, there’s nothing to be done with them. Luckily, Harley has brought some RST road boots – although not in my size (45 – and you know what they say about big feet). So, with a pair of one-size-too-small boots crushing my bunions, I set out again for another practice session.

I’ve sort of got the hang of the idea now, I think – manhandle the bike round the corners as quick as you can, try not to highside the thing, then thrapp the cock off it for one and a half gears down the mini-straights, then slam down a gear, and try not to lock up the back wheel on the way into the next bend.

It’s all very sketchy though, and watching Ruben Xaus every ten minutes showing us ‘what we should be aiming at’ isn’t helping a whole lot either. He’s a lovely man, and everything he says makes perfect sense in theory. But when I get back onto the bike, it all might as well have been in Sumerian for all the use I make of it.

Then – joy! – the lovely organiser (Princess Wendy Hearn PBUH) announces that we’re going to have a mini race tournament now. Gah! I get drawn against road test legend Trevor ‘Lord’ Franklin, (who now ploughs the PR furrow for H-D) and we’re first out ffs. Three laps of frenzied thrapping, and I just pip Trev to the post. I suspect he’s let me win, though I’m not sure if it’s because he’s the superlative PR man, or if he’s as knackered, hot and bothered as I am. Another three laps, gawd ’elpus.

Giving Harley's PR man Franklin what-for

Next up I’m pitted against Rich Taylor, a top bloke who works at GQ magazine (and helps out at this parish from time to time. Now, one of the vagaries of this ‘sport’ becomes more important – when you’re in second place, you take a short cut, turning at the first haybale up the top end. It makes the racing a lot closer, and so you need to think about tactics too.

Being in second place in the penultimate lap makes sense – then you get the short cut and the chance to get into first for the flag. I’m far too tired for tactics now though. Indeed, I’m too tired to stay on the bike for more than a couple of laps. I lose concentration for a second on the straight, misjudge the downchange and braking, and end up staring down the barrel of Rich’s Street Rod exhaust, clip his back wheel with my front, and go down like the proverbial sack of spuds.

Nothing injured (except the pride of course), and at least I don’t have to ride these bladdy things any more. Do I? Ah. Apparently, I have to do one last race for third-place, against another Harley PR bloke, the very nice Steve Colling.

It all passes in a blur, my last reserves of stamina fast dissipating into the baking hot Croatian air, and somehow, somehow, I manage to cross the line just about neck and neck with Mr Steve. The judges decide that the silly wanker journo should get a prize, and I end up with a very nice third-place trophy and a podium place for my pathetic efforts.

Catalan man and Man at Milletts: Dowds pics up the sympathy trinket...

So, as the needle hit the runout groove on this particular disc from Harley-Davidson’s Croatian Concept Album, what have we learned? Well, firstly, that this flat-tracking malarkey is harder than it looks, and while it’s a proper laugh, I’ll not be using it as the basis for a new midlife crisis. Secondly, while the 220kg Street Rod might not look like much of a dirt bike, I’m as rotten on it as I would be on anything else, probably…

*Fancy getting into this nonsense? The DTRA (Dirt Track Riders Association) https://www.dirttrackriders.co.uk organises races, including the high-profile Dirtquake and Snowquake events. If you’re young, fit and full of adrenaline (unlike Al) then get stuck in!

Eyes on the pies. Er, prize, yes, prize. Definitely...