From my first couple of laps of Cartagena on Thursday, I had a feeling I was going to get on with the circuit better this year than last. I had invested a bit of time watching videos on which lines to be taking and I felt I had found a better flow to the track. The sun was out, my bike felt good (last year there was an issue with the suspension which we didn’t discover until we got home) and I had some expert help lined up to work with me. I also felt much more at home on my bike than I feared I would, given it has been many months since I rode.
The experts I mentioned above were Andy White of KAIS suspension and Simon Crafar, ex-moto-GP star and riding coach. Andy has supported more world-ranking bike racers than most of us could name and is highly regarded in the race paddocks of Europe as one of Ohlin’s most experienced technicians and suppliers. Andy was there primarily to work with Danny on his new Ducati, but we had agreed he would help with my bike where required. I had arranged for coaching from Simon, initially all day for one day but we decided to spread it over two days, Friday and Saturday. This was as close to Full Factory support as I will ever get!!
Day one went well, I started dropping my times towards what would have been my best times from last year and whilst it felt ok, I was off pace and looking forward to some coaching. Andy did nothing other than check my existing settings and advised that they didn’t need changed because I wasn’t riding aggressively enough to trouble the shocks.
Day two and Simon’s initial appraisal was what I expected – I am twice as good at corner exit than I am at corner entry. All the improvement would come from better corner entry, better braking and better lines. No surprises there, I’m happy getting on the gas but I have struggled for a long time on corner entry and braking. We talked about it for five minutes, Simon let me talk and asked me a simple question. As soon as he asked it, a penny dropped. We discussed what I should be doing and I headed out next session on my own. Immediately it was clear where the problem lay and by sorting it, I actually fixed three things that I had struggled with all at once.
Many riders will recognise how frustrating it feels when you are not on the pace and you feel like you really don’t know where the improvements can come from. Well imagine being given one piece of advice that gives you five seconds…
Along with times immediately dropping, my suspension was doing the same. With my new-found aggression on the brakes, Andy was adding preload and compression after every session to stop the forks bottoming out. Finally I was asking the front of my bike to do some work…
On day three I achieved my personal ambition of a 1.44 early on and Simon was delighted – he wasn’t sure if I had that ability. I was – I have known for a while that while many aspects of my riding are good, something was holding back my potential – Danny has been saying the same for a while. Andy ended up putting heavier springs in my forks to deal with the added aggression on the brakes, making the bike turn much better on the Bridgestones I was trying for the first time. The Bridgestones will be my tyre of choice this year, replacing Pirellis – I love the way they feel and the fact they stay much more planted than the Pirellis which tend to squirm.
By the end of day three I was tired and elated. Simon had unlocked so much more potential and with the addition of advice on racing lines, Cartagena was turning from a nemesis to a gem of a track. I couldn’t get enough of it and was doing every lap of every session, with Andy ensuring my bike continued to handle despite the change of riding style.
Day four and I was on my own again, putting in as many laps as I could to get up to speed. Whilst dry, the weather was overcast, windy and temperatures were down. Simon reckoned lap times would be 0.5-0.75 seconds slower than the equivalent lap the day before which meant I was very pleased to be back into the 1.44s which I had achieved the day before. There is definitely a 1.43 in me. The number of riders on track thinned out as people loaded their bikes ready for the journey home, but I was chomping at the bit and enjoying every lap of every session. I was feeling fit and strong and loving riding the bike.
One thing I hadn’t considered – but should have – was the front tyre. If the front suspension was doing a lot more work, surely the front tyre was too? Well it was – I just didn’t notice. That’s why on the fifth session of the day it let go at 60mph in 3rd gear and dumped me and my bike into the gravel trap. The bike has very little significant damage and I have nothing more than a couple of bruises, so no drama. In fact I got a bit of a sense of pride that instead of rolling round on the front tyre, I am now able to destroy one within two days. I think a Pirelli would have given me more of a warning, but the Bridgestone was properly worn out so I can’t possibly complain. Just one more thing to keep an eye on.
Check out my spill HERE
The few people still reading at this point will probably have noticed that it is the first blog post in a year not to have rattled on and on about my shoulder injury from last season. Let’s keep it that way – my shoulder is now absolutely fine, nothing more to say (thank the lord). In fact whilst the first day was really hard work and I struggled to complete the sessions due to general fatigue, by day two I was feeling better and by the end of the four days I felt I could do a trackday every day for days on end. Between my training and my new, more economical riding style my stamina on a bike is exactly where I would wish it to be.
Was it all good? Almost entirely, but I will mention ‘opportunities for improvement’. Cartagena is typically Spanish in its operation, but sometimes a little too laid back for my liking. I crashed and whilst I wasn’t hurt, I could have been. Also, my bike was lying exactly on the line anyone else crashing at the same spot would have come off, so was a collision risk. For over four minutes the session continued with no marshall being aware that I had crashed and it wasn’t until someone else came off that a red flag came out. It was close to ten minutes before anyone was with me – if someone is injured, those ten minutes can potentially determine the quality of the rest of their life. The only other area for improvement has already been addressed by No Limits and it is trackside support. Parkitt have lost their contract so any complaints here would be a bit pointless.
Cartagena 2017 was one of the most enjoyable riding experiences I can remember. I found good lines, I found new techniques, my times improved dramatically and I know there is more to come. This all translates directly into increased potential for my season ahead. Expert advice from Andy White has seen my bike set up for a more aggressive riding style that I need to maintain and I now have the confidence that my suspension is starting from a very good place. Simon Crafar’s advice was even more relevant than it was five years ago when I last had him help me because I am at a different level now and his enthusiasm will stay with me throughout the year. The weather was near perfect, nobody (that I know) got hurt, it was a very well organised event, we had a load of laughs off-track and nobody’s bike failed. A fantastic trip all round, a welcome contrast to the year before.
Huge thanks to Danny Shaw, Andy White and Simon Crafar for their support, encouragement and help and also to the wider group of (ex) No Limits Racing competitors who made the trip a great experience both on and off the track.
Next blog will cover the other less serious aspects of our pre-season test….