Monday, August 10, 2009

Buell Training and Racing Day

September 16, 2008 - Tuesday

In one word: fun.

It rained non-stop all of Saturday. I woke up to the sound of pounding rain. The Beastie carried me across wet autobahns to the southwestern side of the country through drips and drizzles. The track in Lignières wasn't for a moment warm or dry. And the two hours of homebound driving left girl and machine dirty, gritty and sopping wet. But Saturday was one awesome day.

I left at quarter to seven in the morning, when it was still dark. I was wearing my leather AlpineStars gear under the new rain combo I boguht the day before over that, my leather driving boots, and my ventilated summer gloves. I didn't wear my winter gloves because of the cloth insert which is freezing and impossible to get off or on once it's wet.

I refuelled in Zürich before hitting the autobahn. I'm surprised I never get bored driving the autobahn. I just hate the idea of my tires wearing away and turning square as I watch the Beastie count kilometers. Of course on that particular morning, I was kept busy making sure I had enough space between me and the guy ahead, following red taillights through the haze and rain and waves of sprouting water.

A time or two I wasn't sure if I was following the right autobahn, but I reached Biel, where the rain lightened somewhat, and followed the directions I'd been given, driving along a mountain through picturesque little villages with cobbled streets, halfbeam houses and names like Diesse and Nods before reaching the TCS track outside Lignières.

The road to the track was full of potholes and puddles and gravel. Outside the chainlink fence were praked some cars and two heavy-duty quads. Inside the fence on the right side was a lineup of over a dozen brand new Buell 1125Rs. On the left was the line of privately-owned machines. Most of them were XBs. My Beastie stole the show from all of the them.

I parked it, greeted the guys who were watching the new arrivals come in, and went into the Buell tent to pitch my stuff and warm up a bit.

The tent had enough room to hold the 50 or so people involved in the Buell Day. There were about 30 attendees; the rest were organizers, experts, mechanics, caterers and medics.

The tent had two large upright heaters in it which were constantly covered in wet gloves, masks and a sock or two. At the entrance of the tent was a desk that held waivers, applications, and the free T-shirts they handed out to every participant. In the back right corner was a table set up with croissants for breakfast, coffee and hot tea. I peeled off my gloves and placed them, my helme and backpack along the tent wall, and asked the caterer in attendance for a tea. I'd just received it and was warming my cold hands, which looked even colder because some black color from my gloves had turned them a strange shade of purple, when a familiar voice said, "Hey, hoi!" It was the pony-tailed mech from my garage. I'm ashamed to say I don't know his name; I think it's Peter. At any rate, he was there with Achim, the boss of the garage. It was good to see a couple familiar faces.

We warmed up a bit and then went to register. I got a Buell keychain with a name tag on it, filled out a waiver that I was responsible for anything that happened to me or my bike, and since I was female I got to pick between a yellow Buell T-shirt and black one with a ladies' cut. I chose the black.

The guy behind the counter was Alain, the boss of Trimoto in Cortaillod, and the guy who sold me the Beastie last October. I don't think he recognized me, but it was kind of neat to run into him again.

(That evening Löchen told me I should have reintroduced myself, shown him the Beastie and made a point of how well it was running, even though I'd bought it with water in the oil and a funny sound in the engine and so on and so forth... Brothers.)

On the left side of the tent, Harley Heaven in Dietikon had three Buells displayed. A regular production 1125R, a customized white XB12 with black racing stripes and silver rims with black spokes (awesome!) and another customized XB12 which I felt srry for because it was pimped ghetto-style with gold Chrümmer, gold accents and horribly sissified Hawaii flower print in offwhite, gold and tan with the words "Princess Buell" written in a curly type along the airbox cover. The poor machine.

I sat down at one of the tables in the tent, watching the screen in the left corner, where a Harley DVD where various stunts were being shown.

A guy whose name tag said Alex sat down across from me. Most of the men here were in there late thirties or older, some over fifty or nearing sixty, which surprised me. But I guess that's the demographic sector that can afford Harley prices... The guys there in their twenties could be numbered on one hand, and I was by far the youngest of all. There was one other woman there, a German twit. But I'll get to her in good time. Back to Alex.

He sat down across from me and said, "Your bike looks good, very pretty. Where'd you have it done?"

I realized then that it's standard to bring your bike to the mechanic's or to a special customizing company, say, "I want this, this and this done" ad just pay the bill afterwards. Now I understand why some people need to get 30,000 frank loans in order to pay for a customized bike.

I explained that I'd had the airbrushing done by an artist in Dübendorf, that I'd bought the special GFK parts directly from Frank Parts in Germany, and the accents had been acquired from Polo and E-Bay, and most everything had been mounted and installed at home.

Alex was a fun guy to talk with. His Buell was '97 S1, the only one there, a mean little bugger with an insane amount of torque. He's had it for 11 years, only put 25,000 km on it but wouldn't trade it for the world. And no problems with it, neither.

We were joined by other Buellers, including a 60-year-old guy who drove a white Firebolt and had an outrageous sense of dry humor, and a smaller man in his early fifties who bought a Buell because he promised himself a Harley for his 50th birthday and found they really weren't what he wanted yet. They all had stories to tell and opinions to voice and I enjoyed listening to them.

The rain continued unabated. Christian, the Harley-employed organizer of the event, was supposed to officially introduce the day at 0900 hours, but it ended up being 0930, which I don't think anybody minded too terribly because we weren't raring to drive in pouring precipitation.

At 0930 hours Christian welcomed us all, specifically the women, which I considered unnecessary. I know I'm intruding on guys' territory, and I try to be unobtrusive about it. No need to rub it in their faces.

We were introduced the organizers, the TCS experts who'd be guiding our training, and to the medics, who we all hoped would be rather bored that day. Christian said that if the ambulance wasn't there nobody would drive, and there was only one ambulance, so nobody crash and spoil things for the rest of the group.

We were divvied into three groups: French-speaking Swiss and two German-speaking Swiss, one with and one without track experience. I was obviously in the group without track experience, together with Alex, the 50-year-old who bought Buell instead of Harley, and the twit.

The latter sat on an orange Ulysses. I say sat on because she didn't drive it. I heard this was the third time she'd been to one of these Buell days, so she'd been "driving" for at least three years, and yet she had no more control over that Ulysses than your average Jugo over his R1. She snuck around corners, crept through straight stretches and braked as often as not. I've no doubt her poor machine has never been past 5000 rpm. And afterwards, when Knoblauch, our group's instructor, told her to drive her tempo, and not watch what the others were doing or try to match them, she excused herself by saying she couldn't find her flow today, she didn't know what the problem was... Yeah.

It was still drizzling when we got outside, but at least it wasn't pouring anymore. We drove a couple laps of the track to get a picture in our minds, and then the training began.

Our group started with an exercise that consisted of proper downshifting. It sounds silly, but there was a point to it, at least for me. I use my engine brake more than either front or back brakes, and if the rpm is past a certain point when you gear down, that fat back tire likes to slide around a bit. The point of this practice was to brake, gear down and let the clutch out before hitting the curve, which then you had to take properly. Good practice, no problem.

The second exercise was hairpin curves - my least favorite, I admit. But I learned quite a bit from that practice. It was a sharp right turn, and I learned to focus on a pointon the left side of the road, reach it, swing right, leave my left elbow to dangle (help relax and push the bike lower with my right arm), and drive tward the left edge on the other side of the curve. Good practice.

Either on this or the previous exercise a guy who drove an XB12 with an awesome-sounding Sebring exhaust slipped and laid down his bike. He scraped up the frame on the left side and broke his clutch lever. The lever was promptly replaced, courtesy of Buell, and he can cover the frame scrape with a black puck. No harm done, really.

The third exercise was the best of all: driving a good curve line. The sector of the track we used for that started with a straight drive which swung into a 120° left curve, swung up again into a straight stretch, another curve left and back to the beginning. We drove it a few times, Knoblauch told us to go easy at first and pick up speed as we went along, and when taking the curves, try to get your rear end off the bike, as if you were riding a horse.

Löchen taught me about hanging off at the beginning of summer. I only do it when I'm in my leathers, and I was going to make use of it this time.

I rode the circuit twice, normally, and the third round came down the first straight in second gear, letting the engine brake reduce the speed a bit so I could take the curve. I swung over left, so my right thigh was on the bike's seat, and drove that curve as smooth as you wish. And again on next the left curve. From then on it was nonstop hanging off practice and so much fun. Knoblauch gave me one little correction that let me swing into the curves at a later, better time and take them smoother. Of course, this was only practice in hanging off on te left side, with left curves being my strong ones anyway. But later on I got to practice some right hangoffs when we drove the complete circuit.

When Knoblauch waved us out to give individual advice, all he said to me was "Bravo." And darn if there was a better compliment he could have given me. Alex, sitting beside me on his silver S1, saw me beaming, grinned and said, "Some critique, huh?"

We did a few more laps after Knoblauch gave us his observations, and then it was time for lunch.

I joined Alex and the 50-year-old for lunch. We pulled off our biker jackets and put our gloves on the heaters to dry. Alex asked me if I didn't want something for around my neck; I looked chilly. He gave me a bandana, which I gratefully accepted, since I hadn't brought a sweatshirt. We were sitting at the nicely-decked table, waiting for food when Christian walked up. He too asked whether I didn't want a sweatshirt. I said yes, I would... And he brought me a black 1125R hoodie and said I could keep it. I grinned and thanked him heartily while the guys around me demanded whether they could have one too.

Christian shook his head and said they only had two. Yup, I'm lucky to be a girl.

Lunch was quite good, and it was served to the tables, which was unexpected. There was a mixed salad, chicken curry on rice (a bit overspiced, but still good), and crème brûlée for dessert. During lunch we had ten minutes of sunshine. Figures.

After lunch free driving on the circuit was scheduled. Our three groups took turns, fifteen minutes at a time, putting the skills to use we'd learned or perfected that morning.

I was out three times, I think, relishing that curve section, practicing the hairpin curve and noting what I needed to improve on, and keeping tabs on my tire traction. During my third round on the circuit, I noticed that my back tire wasn't stable anymore. I don't know whether it was the tire, since the PilotPower grips best between 20 and 40 degrees Celsius, or whether I had gotten to know the circuit and was driving faster and more confidantly when I shouldn't have, especially in my favorite section with the 120° curves. Most likely the latter. I was planning to just leave the circuit, whether our time was up or not, before the tire really walked away from me, but just then the checkered flag waved us all out anyway.

I found Alex and he said he probably wouldn't be going out again. The wet piste wasn't allowing for real speed or really low cornering. I agreed, saying I thought I was starting to get overconfidant; I'd driven well and a lot and I'd be fine with it if the day ended there. This was around 1530 in the afternoon, the sky still gray, rain still coming down in drizzles, with two hours of wet autobahn driving ahead of me yet.

Knoblauch, our instructor, joined us and agreed that he didn't feel like going out for much longer either. He'd lead the round next time our group went out and do a couple laps, and then he'd get off the track too.

Half an hour later, our group headed out for the last time, Knoblauch at the head. Alex decided to do a couple more laps on his S1 after all.

My mind was telling me to seize this last chance to train on a racetrack; my gut feeling told me I'd regret it if I pressed the Beastie much further. My bike had done me proud all day; I knew I'd been overextending on those last few laps and I knew I shouldn't push my limits. So I stayed put, left the Beastie standing nose to nose with an 1125R and watched the others drive their laps before going over to admire the row of 1125Rs which would be used as "rental bikes" the next day for those who came without their own Buells.

It was around 1600 hours, I was still studying an 1125R, behind a wall that blocked my sight to track. But I heard the crash nonetheless, clearly. There was the sound of scraping gravel, and a crunch. I hurried over to the entrance to the circuit.

An orange XB had driven out of the second curve - part of my favorite section of the track. I couldn't see who the driver was; no one else knew either in the beginning. We saw him get up, though, so he was all right. Alain went into the track and waved people out with the checkered flag. Alex, who had left the track after a few rounds like he said he would, came up. Peter and a shaggy-haired young man appeared too.

Peter asked me, "Wasn't this your group?" as the other drivers filed into the parking area.

I looked a bit embarrassed that my concerns for myself and my Beastie had been confirmed by another's misfortune. "Yeah, but I figured I'd call it a day before I got overconfident."

Peter patted my shoulder. "That's smart."

All the drivers had come off the track by now - all except Knoblauch. And now we knew who the unlucky driver was. Of all people, our instructor had driven off the track and wrecked his bike.

There was quite a bit of activity back there at the curve; people rolling the bike away, binding gas or oil or substance that had run onto the track, checking Knoblauch... It took a while before everything meandered back to us. Knoblauch was angry, though he kept his temper and tried not to show it. He caught sight of me and exclaimed, "I knew better than to stay on the piste! I said I wouldn't." I nodded sympathetically.

His Buell was very dirty on the left side, and somehow a hole had been punched in the oil keep by the back wheel. Some insurance agent was be real pleased to find about it on Monday.

The next group went out onto the track, and I figured I'd get ready to go home. I didn't have much to pack - the clothes I'd gotten, basically. Alex said he was ready too, so we could drive together.

I said goodbye to Achim and Peter, until the next service (in 3000 km, probably at the end of October).

One of the Harley employees stopped me and Alex then and said there was going to be a debriefing, whether we wanted to wait for that? Sure, why not.

Everybody was gathered in the tent to fill out a critique of the day. I had almost only positive things to say about all of it. A pity the weather wasn't better, but the organizers couldn't help that. Besides, maybe people would have been less careful on dry roads ad we would have had more accidents. I enjoyed every minute of the Buell Day, even so.

Alex, the guy with the Sebring-exhaust XB12 who crashed, a guy with glasses and I all drove together for a ways. The first two each got to take home a huge black umbrella with the Buell logo on it. They packed it sticking half out of their rucksacks, and we made a funny picture, cruising through the cobbled streets of the little towns, these massive machines with their growling engines - and old lady umbrellas sticking out of the backpacks of the drivers.

The Sebring guy split off before we reached the Autobahn; I left Alex and the other driver at a rest stop near Aargau and reached home around 1930 hours, wet, cold, dirty, gritty, tired and very, very happy.

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