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I already know what the first question is going to be: "Have you ever ridden on track before?". Feeling faintly stupid, I at least answer honestly: "No", I reply. There's no response, no twitch. Colin and Costas know we're not pros. Sadly, they're about to find out how non-pro I am…
I should take a step back. Sometime late last year, I ran into Honda's PR people, who told me about an event they planned for the coming year. To prompt the new CBR250R cup, they wanted to give a few journalists a CBR250R and a chance to compete alongside some of Canada's brightest up and coming talent. Better yet, it's on CSBK weekends.
Now, I've never really had much time for racing and track days. Sure, I like to watch on TV and who doesn't love going fast, but I've always thought it was too expensive. And I think secretly, I've always been a little scared. But when an offer like this comes along, it has to be taken and so we asked if we could take part. Honda said yes…
Now, I consider myself to be a reasonably fast road rider - I've rarely had trouble keeping up with anyone I've ridden with, but even I know I needed to do some prep. My first step was to post on Reddit. Most people said congratulations but had little to offer. Others just laughed - "road riding counts for nothing on track" one commenter said. My next step was to ride as much as possible. Given the comment above, maybe that's not going to help much but it's fun. I had plans to do track days and talk to friends who used to race. I even thought I might lose a few pounds. Guess how much of that I actually got done…
And so, license day is now upon me. My instructions are to be at Mosport at 8am. I could have been at St Eustache a week prior for training with Miguel Duhamel, but I couldn't make it. Shame.
As I drive there with my wonderfully supportive wife, I don't think she realizes how scared I've become. I'm quiet most of the way in the car and she asks me if I am OK. "I'm shitting myself" is all I can reply. And I am. For weeks now I've been harbouring this secret dread that I'm not as good I want to be, need to be. HAVE to be. This isn't a for-fun exercise. In a couple of weeks, Honda will expect me to be lining up on the grid at Shannonville with a bunch of other riders and I HAVE NEVER BEEN ON TRACK BEFORE. I can't shake this feeling that I might be in over my head.
As I drive there, I'm also realizing it doesn't matter now. I'm committed. All I can do is ride as well as I can and hope they say it's good enough. It's not helped by the fact that I've been teaching all weekend and I think I might have got a minor heatstroke yesterday. Or is that me just preparing my excuse ahead of time?
When I arrive, I realize I had my instructions wrong. It's not Mosport I am meant to be at, at least not the main track, but the development track. it's smaller and much tighter, just like my sphincter is getting.
Time to take stock. Just what am I afraid of? Well, crashing is a good place to start. Hitting someone else? Flying off a cliff? And then it occurs to me. All that is in my control. Relax, work the bike and it will come. If I'm not fast to start with, I can admit it and deal with it later. It will come. It will come… I have a feeling I am going to be repeating this all day.
The session starts with a run through of general race etiquette and the use of signal flags. All good stuff, and we need to know it. Surprisingly, I thought we might have covered apexing, but that's left to a walkthrough of the track a little later on. It's not a big track, and like most "flexible" roadways, there's a lot of additional turns into the infield, just to lengthen the lap. It also helps slow us down. That's a good start. Slow, I can do. Most of the walkthrough is pointing out our markers, and walking the racing line. it's also chance for them to point out some of the caveats, which in the case of this track is rough patches in the gravel.
After maybe an hour of classroom and the walkthrough, it's time to suit up and we then get to meet our bikes: The CBR250R is actually bigger than I realized. It's not huge by any means, but it's also a much roomier bike than the older CBR125 I am used to teaching on. It does look pretty too, all in black with some white logos. All I can think about it which parts will hit first.
But it's also a surprise to ride. Honda don't seem to want to quote the power figures too much but I was told it's maybe 25. It's helped by a very nice Akrapovic can than really makes it sounds the business and the race fairing definitely sheds a few pounds. There's a few other trick bits, but aside from the can and the lack of lights/mirrors, this really is the road bike. Now, that might not sound like a lot, especially in a world where the average literbike now makes almost 200bhp, but it's enough. Sure, it doesn't pick up and drive in the same way my Tiger 1200 does, but then that's also not the point and I was pleasantly surprised with the amount of torque the motor has. Keep it about 5000rpm and it will drive up to about 9000rpm where it makes peak power. It will rev further, but it just gets toothless up there and you're not making the progress you think.
After a couple of laps of the parking lot, we're allowed out. First up, we need to follow Costas, our instructor, around the track like baby ducks following the mother. The first lesson is this - You need to be pulling the throttle to the stop if you're not cornering. OK, so basically, to race I need to go as fast as possible. But it's also a sighting lap or six. We're meant to be looking for our barking markers and turn ins.
Six laps flies by, both figuratively and literally and by the end of the fifth, I think I am starting to relax. The checkered flag seems to sense this and out it comes. Back in for water (it's 28C outside and its surprisingly warm) and a debrief. That was cool-down lap pace. Next up is a little faster. I'm nervous again… And so the day proceeds this way. 15-20 minutes of track time, followed by 15-20 minutes of drinking fluids and Costas telling me to go faster while look slightly more scared.
Each lesson focuses on something new - body position, opening the throttle earlier, braking later /etc. and with each session, I think I am going faster at least, but then so is everyone else. I am starting to realize how naturally cautious I am. I am braking more than others and turning more slowly. Just before lunchtime, Costas is now coaxing us to hang off. It's also clear that while pretty much everyone said "no, I've never been on track before", it's also not entirely true. It's slowly revealed that pretty much everyone but me has at least done a track day before and several have even raced in some capacity. I feel a little better. But it also exposes that there are certainly two groups and I am left in the slow group.
After lunch, I'm definitely making progress. I'm still pretty much the slowest, but it's not so bad any more. I am starting to see where I can improve. Where I am braking too soon. Visualization really helps, as does hanging off and at one point, I manage to put a knee on the tarmac as well as a toe slider. However, by this point, I am starting to get tired and the weekend is taking it's toll. On my last session, which would have been the last of the day, I realize I am lapsing in concentration when I almost run wide at turn one. I'm not moving my head enough and I realize there's nothing more for me to learn today. I finish up my lap and come in half way through. Sure, I could have pushed it, but that's when the accidents happen.
As I'm packing up, I'm reflecting on what I've learned. Most of it's pretty obvious, to be fair, but the expertise on trackside was invaluable. I at least knew what was wrong and it was more like coaching I needed to get past it and the Honda guys really helped in that regard. I was pretty pleased when I got my certificate, but even more pleased when Costas said how much I've improved by hanging off. I'm pretty sure he's being nice, especially as the series opener in Shannonville is less than two weeks away. I wouldn't say I am ready to race, but I'm certainly looking forward to riding.