The sound and smell of the racetrack are nauseating at 7 in the morning. Oil, petrol, and fear hang in the air. Bikes are being rolled out of vans, trailers, and trucks of all sizes. The clash and clatter of aluminium ramps, car doors, and folding tables, ring out across the paddock. It wont be long until bikes are screaming down the main straight in front of me at 240km/h. I’ll be wearing ear plugs inside my full face helmet to hold out the damaging resonance of the engine. But right now, beyond the sounds of setting up, the air is calm. I notice the fresh sea breeze that is drifting over the Phillip Island racetrack. I’ve made it, I tell myself. 1005km from home. I’m about to embark on a challenge I’d never thought I’d have the pleasure and pain to do. To ride on an international MotoGP circuit after recovering from a crash in my first race. Having driven so far I don’t want to “waste time” or “chicken out” of going fast. However, step-by-step I need to tackle the anxiety of recovering and pushing my limits.
When I’m out on track I try to think of only the next corner. To help reduce my anxiety I plan off track what I want to do on track. There was no “how to start doing track days” guide, I had to build my knowledge and my confidence together. Now, I have to rebuild. I work through my routine. I set my table, my gear, my tools. I lift the bike onto its stands and unroll the tyre warmers. Then I hear the distinct clatter of metal bouncing on concrete. My girlfriend’s missing ring rolls to a stop on the floor. She’d lost it at the last track day. The one that I’d crashed on. Diligently she’d packed up my gear and driven me to hospital. Now the ring is here, reminding me of the care I’ve received from others in chasing my dreams. Is it coincidence or is it fate? In this moment, between the rush of nerves and excitement, I don’t know, all I do is laugh. I slide into my race suit. The clack of boots on the metal stairs builds as the group of riders head for their safety briefing. Smiles of anticipation shared between us. My smile beaming internally as I hold the ring and the fortune it favours.
In order to quell the anxiety of anticipation, every time I start a day on the track I take the time to breath, to come back to the moment. I try to feel rather than think. In only a few moments, out on track, I’ll feel the speed, the grip of the tyres, the wind blasting against my visor. Right now I feel the waves of nerves and breath through them. I look down at my journal. ‘Step 1 Check yourself and the bike’. Goal complete. The bike is more than capable of dealing with the limits of the course, it’s me and my ability that I need to focus on.
I fumble my way through the day. Unsure of lines, braking markers, and turning points. Like learning a new dance routine, the steps and the timing are all off. At the end of each session I return to my journal to make notes. Step by step I learn more about myself. The anxiety fades as the void in my brain is filled with experiences. Each lap, each turn, each feeling, building on the last. I roll out of my last session knowing I have two more days to learn and a lifetime to improve. I pack my things neatly, close the roller down on the garage and begin the hunt for food and a place to park the van for the night.
What does it mean to ride on track?
It means freedom from limitations of others
Limitations self-tested against limits of thought
Trust in others around you
To pass safely and to race you to new limits
Fun in the fears you face
and in opening the door to new ones.
The morning of the second day is smoother than the last. My mind and body know the track, the gear is ready to go, and I am settled in with breakfast and a decent sleep in. The weather plays nice. Clouds dance across the sky and the ocean dances with it. This is the first of two days with the California Superbike School – a worldwide motorcycle coaching school. Their courses have developed me on my road bike and now, with the R6, I was hoping to further develop my track skills.
So with the help of a coach I push against my fear. Running deeper into the corner, tipping the bike further over. I am in no way the fastest person on track, but I’m the fastest version of me out here. Around I go and with each lap I tackle the straight as hard as I can. The wind and rush of my heart summiting over the crest of the hill. I don’t quite manage to hold the throttle down to the end of the straight into Doohan corner, but I do get close. For us track novices, the nerves ring true to the failed attempts, the unsettled lines, the fear and anxiety of pushing a little faster into a corner. Therein lies our camaraderie as track day riders. Sharing fears and triumphs. No rider is free of mistakes. Overconfidence is wiped away when you go sliding down the tarmac.
The sessions come and go. My coach sends we out with specific instructions. The sequence of corners is broken down to single movements. The dance moves made less awkward. The day ends and I’ve great progress made. As I lay in the van, I picture the track. Feeling the forces echo in my body. The line, the lean, the letting go of fear. I fall asleep deeply.
Therein lies my love of this sport.
It’s a test of my mentality against the physical obstacles presented to me.
Building resilience against the reactions of fear.
Day three. By now I am proud that the bike and I have lasted so long. New riders take the places of old. I watch the joy in others arriving at the track. Rather that focus internally, I decide to carry my camera around the pits and snap the faces of nerves and excited that I know so well. Coaches high-fiving students, riders ecstatic for breaking through a barrier. Being on track begins to feel more comfortable than sitting off it. My fears and the locations at which they are triggered are known. As I approach them, I anticipate them, accept them, and move with them. Whether I’m working on braking later, turning sharper, or pushing harder, I know the challenge is internal first. I feel like I’m developing my resilience to my realities.
The last session looms, and like a child still wanting one last go on the swing I climb aboard the bike. I ride out and feel my energy drained. I watch my coach join in behind me. I feel my body and mind fall out of step. I miss all my usual lines and make a mess of every corner. I sheepishly return to the pits early. But as I remove my helmet it pulls with it a big grin. I’ve done it. Three days on track. My coach arrives back and smiles “you look spent.” I am and I’ve enjoyed giving all my energy into developing myself.
I begin to pack away the bike and all the gear. Laid out on the floor I see just how many tools it takes to take on your dreams. From tyre gauges, to bottles of water, to my Dad’s doctors bag (now my trusty tool bag), each is important as another. But amongst these instruments I’ve learnt that my own fears, anxieties, and achievements are paramount the my own success. Each time I take myself out, push a little harder, and receive care from myself and others around me, I get a little sharper, a little better.
That is all I wish for every day and every time I throw my leg over a bike – to get a little better.