Saturday, March 25, 2017

Surreal and exciting

It was quite surreal and exciting, but sad at the same time; my most rewarding two days of the trip. I wasn't riding the whole trip on my own, and had arranged to meet my son Will so that we could ride Route 66 together. Team MCC serviced the Norton while Will got over being six hours behind before we left Chicago one Saturday afternoon. The plan was simple ­ 2500 miles in 14 days, so that's just over 200 a day, right? Well, it didn't work out quite like that, as we spent two nights in St Louis, two in Oklahoma City another two in Springfield, Missouri. This meant some 300-mile days to make up the distance, but we were having so much fun it seemed a shame to move on so quickly. Route 66, by the way, isn't one continuous piece of blacktop. It stops and starts, and uses many other road names and numbers, but we did see a lot of it. The high points were Amarillo, where we met some nice locals who let us use their pool, and of course the desert areas, where you could pay $5.50 for a gallon of fuel and it was hot ­ up to 45°C. Drink lots of water and keep moving and it's fine. Still, it was great to feel a cooler breeze coming off the Pacific as we reached Los Angeles. Like New York and Chicago, the roads were six-lane highways and everyone was in a hurry, so it was nonstop life savers to stay on two wheels. After seeing Will off I was able to contemplate my final leg, 1200 miles north to Seattle. I started on Highway One, the magnificent west coast route that follows the Pacific through Malibu and Santa Barbara. If I'd had more time I would have stuck with it, but my shipping deadline was looming and I had to switch to faster inland roads. I covered 420 miles one day, ending up at the Lake Shasta Motel in northern California. Like most motels, it had a bar diner next door, called Klub Klondike in this case, with last knockings at 2am. In Oregon I became increasingly concerned about fuel.

Will this be your first of many expeditions? Absolutely. I've been planning and dreaming of a long expedition in South America for a while. I'm one of the least experienced riders in the team and really want to develop my skills before attempting a solo journey. It's like my first day at school. What are you looking forward to most? All the riding. It's also my first time in Africa and I'm really looking forward to discovering the local culture. I love travelling in remote areas and feel with the motorbike the experience will be more complete. Spending time with the team and making new friends is also a big part of the appeal for me. You're very young to be involved in large bike adventure riding. How did you get started and how has it impacted on you? I've been riding since I was 16 when Trailquest Expeditions was first set up. Initially, I was just helping out doing whatever was required of me, but I very quickly took to the bike riding/instruction side of things. My first expedition was the same year and involved a double crossing of the interior of Iceland. Since then I've taken every opportunity that has come my way to be involved. I never really think too much about my age. We're all driven by the same passion ­ riding motorbikes and exploring the world. My confidence grows on every trip ­ each throws up its own unique challenges, which allow you to develop both as a rider and a person. There's still a lot of the world out there for me to see. I like to test myself, so the more remote and challenging the terrain, the better.

Long Races

Dominique is much more than the team owner and manager of the most successful endurance team in history; he's a craftsman, committed to a sport that's steered his life for over 40 years... MSL: How did you get into endurance? DM: I always liked bikes and wanted to have a go at racing. I was still a schoolboy when I did my first race back in 1969. I had a Triumph Trident and entered it into a special 1000km race at Le Mans. It was a very big thing to do, because of the great distance. It was not easy, but the race was very rewarding. I fell in love with the sport and the unique spirit of the endurance scene.

I've never looked back. MSL: How much has it changed since those early days? DM: You can't compare the scene back then to what it is now. It was so less professional, with the focus being more on fun. No one had money, big trucks or big budgets and the paddock was much smaller. It was a lot more rustic, which was part of its charm. Compared to today, the scene's revolutionised, not evolved. The bikes we now race are of another world, being so powerful and hi-tech. People have to take things a lot more seriously. Personally, I look back on those old days with many fond memories. I can't ride a modern bike, but I still have my old Trident. MSL: What makes a championship-winning team? DM: It's all about the spirit of the team. The bike and the budget come second to the people in endurance racing. You can have all the money and the very best equipment, but if the team doesn't work like it needs to then you will fail. The riders are hugely important, but so too are the rest of the people around them. Most of the people in SERT have been in the team for decades. They've seen all the challenges that come about, some of which you could never imagine. You learn from those times and make sure they don't catch you out again. I'd sooner have one experienced man by my side than three who didn't know a thing about endurance. MSL: How affordable is endurance racing? DM: Any kind of racing is expensive. There are only four rounds of the WEC championship, but for less than what we spend in a season we could compete comfortably in the French Superbike championship. Endurance racing, when done properly, is far from cheap. You only need to think about the logistics to appreciate the financial requirements of our sport ­ getting our bikes, team and equipment out to Suzuka costs a fortune. And then you need to accommodate everyone, pay wages and so on. And don't get me started on the tyre bill. Endurance racing is not cheap, but for us it is worth it because nothing else brings the same level of enjoyment and satisfaction. MSL: Is it hard to find the right riders? DM: Things have got easier over the years. When I raced, fewer people cared or even knew about the importance of fitness or diet. They just rode bikes and had a good time. Those days are gone and we now need riders who are exceptionally quick, exceptionally fit and exceptionally strong in the head. You can find quick riders very easily, and most contemporary racers are pretty fit if they're racing at national or world level. But what's much harder to find is a rider with the right mental approach. We tend to find that people only develop the right attitudes in their late twenties. A resilience to the pain and tiredness that only endurance can bring, while keeping focused and not making silly mistakes. Finding new riders is not easy, but that's why we keep hold of the good ones when they come along. We're proud of how loyal our riders are and we appreciate having them. MSL: What makes the GSX-R1000 so suited to endurance? DM: Basically, the standard road bike is a tough machine, and even after we've tuned it the engine never gives us any problems. We've never had an engine blow up on us, which is pretty remarkable considering how long we race the bikes for during a single event. They crash well, too ­ we can always get them back to the garage to repair if necessary. MSL: What's been your career highlight? DM: There have been so many great times over the years. We've won a lot of world titles, which is always a very special occasion. You can go from feeling as low as possible to the highest feeling of your life. Like in 2013 at Le Mans when our bike developed a water leak. It meant a whole engine change, which took nearly an hour. Losing so much time is unthinkable in endurance, but everyone worked so hard and we managed to salvage precious points that led to us winning the title that season. You never forget times like that.

I'm no longer surprised by the firm feel, eagerness to lean or unprecedented amount of oomph. Not even the brakes can catch me out as I give them one last, hard squeeze at the end of the back straight. This machine is something else, and has twice the potential of what I'm drawing from it. The fact Vincent's still tailing me reiterates the fact, but he is a 10 times world champion. The final few corners feel the best yet, leading me all too soon toward the long run up pit-lane. The limiter's on, the bike's in one piece and I've just ticked a box I thought would never get ticked. The relief from the team that their precious Suzuki's still in one piece is beyond blatant. I want to go again, but there's no chance of that as the technicians start removing the fairing and fiddling with data feeds. It's game over, but what a great game it was to play. My heart seems to be beating flat-out and my arms ache. How these guys can stomach 24 hours in the saddle is anyone's guess, but it serves to highlight how much respect endurance racers deserve. Vincent comes over and gestures for my approval. The language barrier doesn't hide a thing; I'm ecstatic. It's over as quickly as it began, the team getting back to business and discussing strategies, making more changes to the Suzuki. They've got less than a month to prepare for round two of the 2017 WEC championships, but there's an air of confidence in the 10-man team. Was it all I hoped it to be? That and more, quite possibly the best three laps of my life.


The whole team's watching as I walk over to the highlymodified GSX-R, its technicians poised to remove the tyre warmers and release it from its paddock stands. I climb on board. The bike feels tall, poised high in the carbon Kevlar race fairings. The seat's rock hard and the rearsets force my ankles acutely rearward; it's no armchair. The bars are wider than expected, and their switchgear's confusing. Crew chief Dominique Hebrard steps over and translates them ­ on the left is a cluster of six buttons: plus or minus traction control, pit-lane limiter, total electronics reset and two different power maps. Dominique selects full power and the bike's Motech dash fire's into life, displaying traction position, power mode and revs. I'm ready to roll, the bike's limiter's engaged and now all I need to do is start the beast. This moment couldn't have come soon enough ­ a chance to ride the most successful Suzuki in history. A championship-winning GSX-R1000 valued at just under a quarter of a million euros, built and maintained by the most successful endurance team ever to grace the World Endurance Championships (with 15 WEC titles) ­ SERT. It's a 203bhp, handcrafted weapon. I'm terrified, but can't wait to clock up a few laps of the complex and damp Negaro circuit in the south of France. Below the main and rain light switch is a simple start button on the right bar's cluster. I hit it and the Suzuki booms into life as burnt gases race their way along the featherweight Yoshimura titanium race system. This is really happening. The garage door's raised as I pull in the clutch and select first gear. Only I don't. The bike's on race shift, which means the pedal works in the opposite direction. I realise as I set off and go to hook second, slotting the standard ratio 'box back into first. It's not embarrassing... honestly. Or at least it wouldn't be if 10-times world endurance champion Vincent Philippe wasn't following me out on track riding the standard GSX-R I've been using to learn Negaro's layout.

Endurance racing is really important to Dunlop, because it reflects both the durability and performance of our products. We take four 40ft lorries to every round, with two of them being full of tyres alone. We have to be prepared for every imaginable condition at a race, which means carrying lots of wet and intermediate tyres, plus a variety of three front choices and five different rears for our dry rubber. The bigger teams will require fresh tyres during every hourly relay (pitstop), whereas the smaller competitors might try to get two or three hours from a set. Tyre pressures pretty much stay the same regardless, but at night we'll almost always encourage teams to use harder compound rubber to get the best grip. We support around 50% of the WEC paddock, but we do our best to deliver a good level of support to all who use Dunlop.

It's all been third gear work up until now, but as we get onto the back straight the rest of the 'box gets some abuse. Twisting back the throttle, the power is relentless and radically sharper than the standard bike. Its response is instant and gear changes are super-slick all the way up to sixth, ahead of the heavy vy y braking zone looming. The Nissins get a good squeeze once more, hauling the bike up way too soon for the double right. This bike is going to take some learning, highlighted once more by the Suzuki's eagerness to flick overly sharp and lead us directly toward the inside kerb. The bike has to be picked up and realigned. Vincent's probably in stitches. Downshifts are as pleasurable as the electronicallyassisted upshifts, with the GSX-R's factory slipper clutch absorbing the abuse that's thrown at it. There's a little bit of back-torque to be felt, but nothing compared to what should be present, as the 'box gets notched down into second at the final hairpin, before the esses leading onto the start straight. We've done a lap already, but there's still so much to know about this bike. Winding on the gas in third, the rear wheel hits moisture. The power's adapted instantly, being eased off as the front and rear wheel sensors work with the Motech electronics to tame the slide. Once everyt ything's t under control, more power can be asked for and the next gear selected.