So, 12 years ago, give or take a few days, I retired from racing. And while I always maintained an interest in the sport, and many friends kept at it, I was done with it. I’d had great times, made great friends, and was happy to be walking away with nothing left to prove. If you’ve ever read any of my old race diary, you’ll know that I’m not a competitive chap, and the fact that I’d never won a race never bothered me in the least. I’d raced all sorts of bikes, in all sorts of classes, and wanted to spend more time with my family. It’s also safe to say that I was completely bankrupt, and a few years off to repay my debts was also a Good Thing. Of all the races I’d had, the fondest memories were endurance racing. It suited me more, for several reasons. Firstly, the team spirit – no single person can win an endurance race, and working in a close team of friends was brilliant. But also, it suited my temperament more. I was never good at the aggression needed in a six lap sprint, but the more analytical approach to endurance racing definitely suited me. But anyway, none of this mattered, as I was retired, right? But then, back in March, a message popped up in my inbox from Alex, team principal at Darvill Racing: “Ronkers, Have you still got an ACU licence?” I replied that I hadn’t, and got another reply, this time from old mate and ex-TZR racer, Chris “Fozzy” Foster: “Get one before October and book a weekend off”.
A few weeks later, I was sitting in a classroom, chatting with BMCRC safety officer Pete Bartlett, taking the necessary course to renew my race licence. Dammit. I can resist anything except temptation.
In the intervening weeks, a plan had been hatched. I was to accompany Foz on the Darvill Racing SV650 at this years end of season endurance race, with the Andreas Racing Association, at Jurby airfield. Was I nervous? Hell yes. The nerves were tempered somewhat by the fact that I had the backing of such an experienced team, but still, I was nervous. The arrangement was basically that I would drive over to the Isle of Man with my leathers and boots, race, drink beer, and come home again. The bike was being prepared by Alex, and we had Phil doing pit signalling, with Liz and Maz supplying tea, cake, and big smiles. And as an added bonus, another couple of mates, Andy and Champ were to be in the same race. I’ve known Champ for years, and he’s often tried to tempt me back into racing – so it’s only fitting that my first race back would involve him in some way. The final travel arrangements were that I’d spend a couple of days in the office in Reading, drive up to Congleton with Champ, pick up Foz, and then get the ferry. Tickets were booked, holiday was arranged. Everything fell into place nicely.
“I wasn’t expecting to see an 18 stone Vietnamese transvestite in Reading this evening.” It’s safe to say that’s a sentence that I never thought I’d have to use, but there in front of me, on stage in The Oakford Social Club was, indeed, an 18 stone Vietnamese transvestite, and I exclaimed to Vanessa, Champ’s lovely girlfriend, that I was mildly surprised at the turn of events. We’d arranged to pop out for a bite to eat and a pint the night before an early start, and ended up watching a Drag cabaret act. And it was bloody brilliant. So much so that all thoughts of an early night went out the window, and we just scraped onto the last bus home. The next morning, with slightly dull heads, we both hopped in the car, pointed it North, and spent the next six or so hours on the road to Heysham. Everything was pretty much routine, as we sat on the ferry, chatting about events that were to come, drinking tea, and reminiscing about old times. Being stuck on a ferry, with no internet access, and a couple of old mates is a brilliant way to spend a few hours. Just chatting. No resorting to Google to sort out arguments. No sudden distractions from social media. Just a good old chat. Brilliant. We ended up dropping Champ off with another old mate, Keef, in Ramsey, grabbing a bite to eat, and then Foz and I heading back down to Douglas where we were based for the weekend. We both decided that discretion was the better part of valour, and got our heads down for an early night, rather than spending a night on the town. Besides, I rather think that Foz was scared that I’d try to find another Drag cabaret given my enthusiasm for the previous evenings entertainment.
Saturday morning was spent in the local cafe with Liz, drinking tea and eating cake, after which we pottered off to Castletown and the Darvill Racing headquarters, to get everything packed and ready for the race. This was the first chance I’d had to see the bike in the flesh, and I instantly fell hopelessly in love with it. Alex is fastidious when it comes to bike preparation, and every detail was perfect. Other than the 500GP bike of Max Biaggi, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite so meticulously prepared. There wasn’t a bolt out of place. Even down to the shielding of the electronics in the quickshifter to try to eliminate the chance of RF interference. Final setup would be done after the Sunday morning practise session, as this was the first time that the bike had been used in anger in full Supertwin specification. Everything was cleaned, polished, and perfectly fettled.
I was secretly starting to feel that my 1990s leathers, would possibly let the side down somewhat.
With packing complete, Alex, Foz and me wandered into Douglas where we ate an extraordinarily tasty Chinese meal, and again, all got our heads down for an early night. I slept fitfully. Nervous at the events ahead. I obviously didn’t want to show this at the time, but am happy to admit it now. I was, frankly, worried that I’d either crash the bike, or cause someone else to have an accident. I determined that the best way to approach this fear was to basically give myself a damned good talking to. Everything was in place – I just had to ride the bike. And as we all know, that’s something you never forget how to do. It’s just like, errr, riding a bike.
I was obviously awake before the alarm on Sunday. We jumped into the cars, headed up to Jurby, and got set up. Liz and Maz then arrived, made tea, and were promptly despatched back to Douglas to collect Fozzy’s lid, which he’d left in the flat. I busied myself with climbing into my leathers, and scooting out for practise. This was it. Would I be hopelessly slow after all this time?
Well, yes. Yes, I was. I’d guess my first few laps were among the slowest ever seen at Jurby. The requirement was for each rider to complete at least four laps, and we had a 40 minute session. I was starting to doubt whether I’d complete my required four laps, at the pace I was going. However, after a few laps, I started to settle in. I wasn’t that comfortable with the race pattern gear shift to start with, but soon got used to that again. Otherwise, the bike was everything I’d hoped. Torquey, neutral handling, with strong, progressive brakes. The perfect bike for an endurance race really. I popped back into the pits to let Foz have his laps, and when he got back, we decided to raise the gear lever a bit to make downshifts easier. And that was all we needed to do to the bike. It was ready to go. The plan for the race was to run six sessions of forty minutes each. Foz would take the start, then we’d alternate, until I either crashed, or saw the chequered flag. So, Foz took the Le Mans start, and we quickly settled into second place in class, with Foz running steady 1:20s to 1:19s, with the occasional foray into the 1:17s when chasing someone. I knew that I’d get nowhere near these times, but if I could get within 10 seconds, that was my personal goal. Foz really is an exceptionally fast rider, was used to the bike, and I’d not raced for 12 years. I thought that was a safe, sensible goal.
After about 35 mins, Alex gently said to me “we just put out the three laps remaining board for Foz. You ready?” I had a quick glug of water, and pulled on my lid and gloves. This was it. No turning back now.
Foz came into pitlane, looking tired, but happy. We were still holding P2. “The last left hander is a bit greasy, otherwise, it’s all dry.” Alex topped up the fuel, I jumped on, and headed out onto track.
“woooooah, bloody hell, what was *that*?” I thought to myself, as a ZX10R shot past, fully 40-50km/h faster. I later learned that this was actually the ultimate race winners, aboard a ZX10R. But it was all I needed. I realised now, that I was racing. Not practising. And so I got my head down, and tried to find a nice rhythm. At the end of my second lap, the pitboard came out giving me my lap time.
Holy crap. I was actually ashamed at this. I could imagine the chaps in the pits, all thinking “bloody hell, we’ve made a mistake here”. Still, as we’ve already ascertained, I’m not competitive, right? So, I made a plan. I’d just keep doing the same thing, only looking for smoother lines until I either got faster, or my session finished. And this worked. By consciously forcing myself to relax, and look for corner speed rather than trying to make time with late braking, my lap times started to come down. 1:35… 1:33… 1:32… would I get below 1:30? 1:31… 1:31… 1:30… and then I got my signal to pit.
Foz took his session, and I sat down, and was instantly handed a cup of tea by Liz, with a big smile, and a hearty “Well done!”. And I could tell she really meant it. Liz, if you ever read this, you have no idea how happy that made me. I took stock of things. I felt fine – achy from the braking stresses, but physically, fine. I’d taken nine seconds off my lap times, but was still a few seconds from where I wanted to be. But, most importantly, I was enjoying it. A smile crossed my face, as I sat there. Tea in hand, I realised that I was racing, I wasn’t a million miles off the pace I wanted, and I was enjoying it. It had been a long time.
However, things weren’t seemingly going so well on track for Foz. His laptimes were starting to slow. From regular 1:19s, he was now running 1:21 to 1:23, and obviously struggling. After about 30 mins he signalled that he needed to pit, and I got ready for my next session. When Foz got back to the pits, he looked shattered. Totally drained. It’s never nice seeing a mate in trouble like that, and my first instinct was to sit him down, and make sure all was OK. But before I could do that, Liz and Maz whipped him away, and I was out for another session.
Again, at the end of the second lap, I got my first time. 1:29. And while this was still, obviously, outside of my 10 second from Foz goal, it was a huge achievement for me. I mean, to put this into context, the winners were doing 1:09. But I don’t care. This was a brilliant spur for me to continue my plan to ride smoothly and consistently. 1:29… 1:28… 1:27…
I whooped with joy. 1:27. I’d achieved my goal.
1:26… 1:25… And then, a whole string of 1:25s. I’d reached the edge of what I was willing to push against for now. And I just kept on turning in 1:25s. It was, plainly obvious that I was nowhere near the limits of the bike. Modern tyres offer an amazing amount of grip, and I just couldn’t bring myself to use it all. Lap after lap, the tyres just stuck, and did exactly what I asked of them. No dramas, no lurid slides as they went off, no sudden and unexpected lurches. Just smooth, dependable grip. No, I’m not sponsored by Continental to say these things… Unbeknown to me, although fully expected, the team had decided to keep me out for the full 55 mins for this session, to let Foz recover. And for sure, at the end of the session, I felt those extra 15 minutes. My arms and shoulders were a little more achy this time, and I was very aware that for the last couple of laps, my attention had started to wander. Again, I handed the bike to Foz, slapped him on the back, and sat down. And again, a cup of tea was placed in my hands. I felt like royalty.
“Is Foz OK?” I asked Liz. The reply was that yes, he was OK, but had just run out of energy, but was fit to run his third session. I expected nothing less. Foz is one of those people who will never complain – he just gets stuck in. And for his final session, he rode smoothly, consistently and sensibly to conserve energy. We were now on the same lap as the third and fourth place teams, and they had their fastest riders out for the final session as Foz handed back to me.
“Go on mate. Enjoy it!” he said as he handed the bike over I was intensely relieved to see that he looked 1000 times better than at the previous handover. And so, I took the final session. And while we were knocked from P2 to P4 in the final 30 mins, I’m not unhappy with that. I was still turning in regular 1:25s, but the teams behind were down in the 1:19 or so bracket. I freely admit I’d have crashed trying to defend the position. And after a few more laps, the chequered flag came out.
I won’t bore you all with the details of packing away. It’s pretty tedious to do it, never mind read about someone else doing it. But, at the end of the evening, Alex, Foz and me ended up eating pizza, and drinking a cold beer. Before, erm, turning in for an early night. Last of the party animals.
I owe a huge debt of thanks to Alex. And of course to Foz, Liz, Maz (I know, it sounds like the cast of a cheesy 1980s hip-hop movie) and Phil. Am I going to do it again? Yeah, I reckon so. Watch this space.
From left to right: Maz, me (with a cuppa, strangely enough), Foz, Alex, Liz, and Phil.