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  • Peter MacKay

A brief, yet memorable flirtation with motorcycles

My motorcycling journey began in March 2012. Over dinner, I dropped the bombshell that no parent ever wants to hear. I announced my ambition to acquire my motorcycle license. As you can imagine, the reaction was a bit more acrimonious than when I decided to stop piano lessons. Yet another family dinner spoiled by my affliction for speed.

Since watching my first Moto GP race in 2010, my desire to take the step into motorcycling had been steadily building. 2 years later this reached boiling point.

A few weeks prior to my dinner table announcement, motorcycling had engulfed my thoughts completely. One cold morning, a friend offered to take me out on his Suzuki GSXR-750, an invitation I duly accepted.

Pulling into my friend’s driveway in my Audi TT 3.2 V6, my young brain was about to be completely rewired. Sitting proudly on a paddock stand, the Suzuki super sport machine was primed for this early morning run.

My whole body tingled with anticipation, the opportunity to ride pillion on a motorcycle was a whole new experience. Pulling on a set of borrowed leathers, gloves and helmet, it was time to go.

Now at this point, it is important to pause and note my friend's track record on motorcycles. You may notice I have not named said friend, for reasons which will become clear shortly.

At the time, my friend made the annual pilgrimage to the Isle of Man TT. Unique laws on the Isle of Man do not enforce a speed limit on certain roads. During the fortnight of the annual TT festival, 13 miles of road, from Ramsey to Creg-ny-Baa, is converted to a one-way road. As a result, anyone with a motorcycle and a license can come over to the island and ride as fast as they dare, amongst daily traffic.

For my friend, a week at the TT involved riding flat out from the moment the ferry docked in Douglas. As you can imagine, after nearly 15 years of trips to the TT, riding at maximum attack, there have been some spills. Three to be exact.

So, it would be fair to point out that I was mad, riding pillion with this friend. Nowadays, I would be inclined to agree. At the time, I just couldn’t wait, the faster the better.

Setting off onto the country lanes of Perthshire, we take it easy for a mile or so. Exiting a village, following a snake of cars, trundling along, minding their own business. My friend taps my leg and shouts “ready?”. Before I can reply, full throttle is applied and roadside scenery flickers to a blur, flying past the traffic. All with the front wheel hovering in the air.

Never, to this day, have I experienced such a hit of intoxicating adrenaline. So brutal was the power delivery from the 750cc engine. When the engine spun at 14000 rpm, the shriek from the Yoshimura exhaust was deafening. It will stick with me forever.

Only the a slender gap was required to overtake slower traffic. This GSXR unleashed a whole new level of acceleration for me, the pace was unfathomable, considering two of us were on board.

Towards the end of the ride, a wide open straight was irresistible. At first sight of the open road, my friend pinned the throttle. All the way to the top of 2nd, 3rd and 4th gear. My weight lumbering over the rear wheel did little to discourage the front Pirelli Diablo Supercorsa tyre from lifting in the air under acceleration.

For a motorcycling novice, the concoction of mild terror and cask strength adrenaline, was intoxicating. Sign me up for some of this, I thought.

With my parents completely unconvinced by my tenuous reasoning for going motorcycling, I enrolled at ProScot in Kirkcaldy to train for my motorcycle license.

First up, was the mandatory CBT test. Aspiring motorcyclists must complete the CBT, before they can take to the road with L plates, on a humble 125cc machine.

Most of the day was spent crawling around a car park, weaving between cones. Sounds dull doesn't it? Not for me. Despite barely reaching walking pace, I was having as much fun as Valentino Rossi turning into turn 1 at Phillip Island.

After a brief ride on the road in convoy with the ever patient ProScot instructors, I came home with a CBT certificate in my pocket. On arrival home, the reception was far less jubilant than when I passed my 4-wheeled driving test.

Buoyed by my CBT success, I couldn't wait to visit my local bike shop and buy my first helmet. During the CBT, we had been advised to try lots of helmet brands and keep the helmet on for at least 15 minutes. Thus, ensuring a comfortable fit.

This was worrying. Only an AGV Valentino Rossi replica will do, thank you very much.

Thankfully, my luck was in. A bright yellow and black, AGV fitted my head ever so snuggly. Emulating Valentino Rossi's first ever professional helmet design, this Italian manufactured masterpiece was just the ticket.

Now completely carried away, I splashed out on a pair of state of the art, Dainese leather gloves, which would prove to be a very wise investment.

So there I was, AGV helmet and Dainese gloves. All the gear and absolutely no idea.

My training continued with ProScot, surprising myself how I adapted to this exciting new discipline. After serving my 125cc apprenticeship, it was time to step up to a 650cc bike for my test.

ProScot trained their students on Kawasaki ER6 machines. Interestingly, this model has since been converted by legendary road racer and tuner, Ryan Farqhuar, into an affordable race bike. Creating a brand new 'supertwin' class in the process.

I just couldn't wait to hop on this beast and let rip. Thankfully, on my maiden ride on the ER6, I was at the front of the group. None of my fellow students hindering my progress.

Taking the first exit off a major roundabout, I gently coaxed the Kawasaki onto an arrow straight dual carriageway. Applying a handful of throttle, the ER6 galloped for the horizon. Quickly working my way up the gearbox, I flicked my left toe, moving the cogs. With every gearshift, I performed a one armed chicken dance, my elbow flapping back and forth, applying more and more handfuls of throttle.

On return to ProScot, I primed myself for a telling off from my instructor. But, this never came. Parking the ER6 on its stand, stepping off and removing my helmet, I winced. I was met with a smile from my instructors. "We have got another throttle junkie here guys!". Phew.

By June, it was test time. Thankfully, I was blessed with a glorious summer's day. Better still, my instructor informed me that the resident softie examiner, was on shift today. Let's get this in the bag, I thought.

All the test went like clockwork, until the closing moments. A rickety old van, filled with junk and both rear doors flapping around was up ahead. Keeping my distance, I couldn't quite decide whether to stop, go past or hold station. To make matters worse, this clown made the executive decision to bring his van to a stop with no prior notification to his fellow road users. Including me trying to acquire my motorcycle license. With cars approaching I bided my time, eventually being granted a gap in traffic to move past this wretched van.

Immediately, I thought my day was done. A certain fail.

Thankfully, examiner softie gave me the benefit of the doubt. A minor fault for hesitation but overall, a pass.

On arrival to ProScot, to return their bike, my instructors waited to congratulate me. I felt like a Moto GP race winner rolling into parc ferme to a hero’s reception from my team. Overjoyed, I blipped the throttle of the thudding twin cylinder motor in delight. After only 3 months, I was a motorcyclist.

7 days later, accompanied by the aforementioned friend, a constant presence during my motorcycling days, we made the short trip to collect my first motorcycle. On the day, the weather was atrocious. Making a journey in a car treacherous, let alone a motorcycle.

Unbeknown to my employer, my Father, the company transit van was deployed to transport my new prized possession back home.

My bike of choice? A Suzuki GSXR 600 K4. In simple terms, an unhinged, high revving and rapid super sports bike. You may have heard the term "crotch rocket" before? This bike would fall into that category. Suitable for a rider with 3 months of sporadic experience? No, of course not.

My Japanese machine was fitted with a Yoshimura exhaust, amplifying the high pitched scream of the 4-cylinder engine to anti-social decibel levels. My poor Mother, was tortured by the distant sound of me powering through the gears, miles down the valley from our home.

My first ride on the new machine began at 6am the very next morning after collection. Leaving for work around 8am, I had a brief window to get out for a run before the monotony of real life took over.

An alarm wasn't necessary; I couldn't contain my excitement. My heart began to thump as I pulled on my Dainese leathers, gloves and AGV helmet. Creeping out the house, I said a quick hello to our dogs. Both of whom, were bemused to see me up at this hour and dressed like a ninja turtle.

Pulling up the garage door, there she was, my Suzuki GSXR. Treading ever so lightly, I pushed the Suzuki out on to the road and climbed on board. My efforts to sneak out quietly were immediately rendered useless when the 600cc motor barked into life. I quickly scampered away, trying to limit the disturbance.

Within a mile, my motorcycling career was nearly over before it began. As I gently accelerated out of our village, I was greeted by a kamikaze hare running out in front of me. Immediately, I thought here we go, game over. Thankfully, so modest was my speed, I managed to stop in time. Both the hare and Suzuki survived.

For the next few miles I wobbled along, quickly discovering how far out my depth I was. ProScot’s friendly, compliant ER6, was a distant memory compared to this highly strung machine.

Approaching a junction, I pulled the right hand brake lever with minimal finesse. My less than delicate touch resulted in my body jolting forward in the seat, slamming my testicles violently into the fuel tank between my legs. It's fair to say these opening miles were far from smooth.

Reluctantly, I pressed on. Certain that my new bike was trying to hurt me. But, slowly I began to settle in and acclimatise myself with my new steed. Typically, my short memory helped to get over the calamities of the last 20 minutes. As I approached a clear, uphill stretch of road, I wound on full power in 2nd gear and held on tight. Now this is the rush I have been looking for, I thought.

All of a sudden I wasn't frightened, I was exhilarated. One thing I learnt during my time on a motorcycle is that these two emotions are in constant flirtation with each other.

On return home, Mum was there to meet me. Although mainly relieved to see me return safely, I think she could sense my joy. My goofy grin remained fixated for the rest of the day. I was a motorcyclist.

Throughout the summer, I pounced on any pocket of dry weather. Chasing dry roads to ride my bike and hone my skills.

Before long, I was going on group rides with friends and living the biker lifestyle. But, for me, it wasn't about the lifestyle. Experiencing a level of speed so alien to me a few months before, that was where the thrill existed for me.

Inevitably, my first big scare wasn't far away. Despite over a thousand miles of spirited riding around the local roads, I had yet to make a major error of my own. Still slightly terrified of my bike, I tried my best to ride within my very limited ability.

My first and last big scare came heading down Glendevon, back towards my home. Following an enjoyable morning’s riding, I was cooling down and cruising.

To my horror, in agonising slow motion, I spotted a cyclist on the other side of the road. Minding his own business and tucked into the edge of the road, the cyclist was riding with the utmost courtesy to other road users. Unfortunately, the same could not be said for a buffoon driving a vulgar Porsche Cayenne. Said buffoon deemed it safe to overtake a cyclist around a blind corner, using the other side of the road to complete the manoeuvre. However, the other side of the road was occupied, by me. To this day, I can’t comprehend how close that Cayenne was to punting me halfway down Glendevon.

Completely petrified, I pulled over my Suzuki. Never had I experienced such a close brush with disaster. I don’t mind admitting that it shook me to the core.

At nearly walking pace, I rode home, shaking uncontrollably. Throwing open the garage door, I wheeled the Suzuki inside and shut the door behind me. It would be over a week before I even looked at the bike again.

In these situations, getting back out straight away is vital to rebuilding confidence. After a few more tentative rides, I knew something had to give. Time to sell the bike? Not a chance.

My remedy? Take the bike onto a race track, of course.

Knockhill are the flagbearers for Scottish motorsport. Without this facility, there would be no Scottish Motorsport. Since childhood, I have visited the circuit regularly. When I can’t sleep at night, I do laps of Knockhill in my head. On the lap record of course.

Track days at Knockhill are popular and customers travel from all over the country to experience the limits of themselves and their machines. When enquiring about opportunities to take my Suzuki on track, I was delighted to discover that track days were split into three groups. Novice, intermediate and advanced. No prizes for guessing the group I booked.

Wrapped in my orange novice bib, it was time to take to the track. Whilst slipping on my helmet and pulling on my gloves, my heart thudded back and forth. One after the other, my fellow riders fired up their engines, blipping the throttle, warming their machines. Lined in single file, we anxiously waited for the green light.

After two laps behind the safety car, it was chaos. Performing my best mobile chicane impression, riders ripped past me on both sides, I was terrified. Eventually, the chequered flag waved and the first session was over.

However, my short memory saved me once more. Having watched the intermediate and advanced sessions, it was time to have another go. Choosing to grit my teeth and step out of my comfort zone, I revealed pace in my motorcycle that I couldn’t believe existed.

By session three, I felt like Kevin Schwantz. Luckily, I found clear track for most of the session and was flying along. Or so I thought. Whilst feeling like I was riding at world championship level, out of nowhere, a fellow novice rider kindly reminded me of the reality.

This is the joy of a track day. Honestly, I felt like I was pushing my personal limit, which was laughably low. But, I was having a ball in the process.

Riding my motorcycle on the track consumed every part of my mind. Nothing was left to ponder the troubles of daily life. It was such a release.

My love of track riding, turned into an addiction. Every chance I had to ride at Knockhill, I grabbed with both hands. However, it couldn’t last forever.

On a soaking wet October day, I was booked onto one of the final track days of the year. So intense was the deluge when I awoke, I was certain the event would be cancelled. My entry fee refunded and saved for next season. No such luck.

Stubbornly, I jumped on the Suzuki and carved through the waterlogged roads to Knockhill. When I arrived, I was soaked to the skin but safe nonetheless. Circuit staff and fellow riders couldn’t believe I had ridden through the monsoon conditions. Everyone else transported their track prepared machines on a trailer or in the warmth of a van.

Parking my humble Suzuki road bike in the pits, I was out of my depth. Every other bike sat patiently on a paddock stand with racing wet tyres cocooned in warm electric blankets.

A green light illuminated at the end of pit lane, signalling that anyone stupid enough, could take to the track if they so wished. Rather than heading back to the circuit café for a hearty breakfast, whilst allowing the track to dry, I foolishly pulled on my helmet and fired up my bike.

It felt like the whole pit lane was watching, “What on earth is he doing here on that thing?” Tentatively, I pulled out of pit lane and onto the circuit. My Pirelli tyres ice cold, struggling to clear the standing water. I wobbled around at glacial pace for a few laps. Mercifully, my visor began to mist up, forcing me to pit. Nearly in tears, I was crippled with embarrassment.

More riders decided to take the plunge, perhaps wagering that if the numpty who turned up without wet weather tyres didn’t crash, then they certainly wouldn’t. Wrong.

For the next 30 minutes, the session was peppered with red flag interruptions as riders spilled off the track. Perhaps, this was one of those occasions when participants needed saved from themselves. An enforced break might have saved a few broken egos and wrecked motorcycles.

Buoyed by my earlier, slow, yet safe excursion on track, I decided to head out for another go. As each lap passed, my confidence gradually built. My fear of the wet surface began to fade and I simply rode around at a comfortable pace.

However, my ever growing confidence, eventually exceeded my ability for riding a motorcycle on a circuit. Exiting Knockhill’s tight final corner, I heaved the Suzuki upright and gently applied the power. Accelerating up the long, uphill front straight, I kept my chin pinned to the tank. Flying over the steep crest, approaching 130 miles per hour, I kept the throttle wide open. Passing under Beatson’s bridge, I gently squeezed the front brake lever and blinked.

As my eye lids lifted, I hit the tarmac hard. My beloved bike slid along in front of me. Slithering down the wet track, my speed seemed to stay constant, until reaching the gravel trap. My Suzuki encountered the gravel trap first, still travelling at high speed. As the nose of the bike dug in to the wet ground, the kinetic energy forced the bike into an airborne pirouette, followed by a violent cartwheel. I followed shortly after. Sky, gravel, Sky, gravel, sky. Eventually, I rolled to a stop. Before I knew it, Knockhill’s crack team of marshals surrounded me, ensuring my safety. Thankfully, I climbed to my feet with just dented pride.

My all the gear and no idea approach earlier in my motorcycling journey, softened the blow. Armoured Dainese race gloves, saved the skin on my hands. Thudding into the tarmac, was cushioned by my full leather suit and back protector. As my head struck the ground, my ‘sun and moon’ Rossi replica helmet absorbed the impact.

A transit van appeared to collect me and my ruined Suzuki. On return to the pits, the remains of my bike rolled out the van, in front of all my fellow riders. With that, my track day and my motorcycling career were over.

A local mechanic eventually acquired the remains of the bike and I believe it’s now back on the road, good as new.

So, there you go, 6 months of motorcycling. All that time, money and effort for just 6 months of riding. Do I regret it? Absolutely not. For once in my life, I had committed to a goal and achieved it. My brief foray into riding motorcycles, brought me closer to my passion for them. Only now, I must be content in an observatory role, for my own good.

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