Back to Arizona! After last year's successful event at Nissan's test track, Al and Alice Krause have been able to secure more track time to give all us hopefuls another chance at cooking ourselves.... But April should be a whole lot cooler than July, and Dave assures me he has the cooling system working well - we definitely learnt a lot last year. I currently stand 6th in the best-hour-ever rankings, so we'll see if I can move up a little this time. At least living in Oregon now means it is a whole lot nearer, and no jetlag!
Wednesday 4th April.
I had intended to leave home at 8am; however, having woken up at 7:45 after having trouble getting to sleep last night, I didnít actually finish getting packed and out the door until 8:15. No matter, I had already checked in on-line, and Eugene airport is small and generally not terribly busy.
But of course, it was raining Ė not hard, and not too cold, so no bother. I just donned jacket and overshoes and headed out on the tikit, suitcase in tow. Riding at an easy pace whilst pulling the trailer felt slooooow. But the airport is close, so it was only a 45 minute spin. I rode into the terminal to a quiet corner, and went about packing the bike and trailer into the case. Very easy; total time was 13 minutes, including packing my cycling shoes and wet gear in with it. Then just baggage drop, a quick change of clothes and here I am sitting at the gate with 30 minutes to departure. Perfect!
I duly arrived at San Francisco, and meet up with my friend Duncan for the connecting flight to Phoenix. After an opportunity to catch up Duncan and family, Dave and Becky came by to pick me up and head onto race HQ at the Francisco Grande hotel just outside Casa Grande.
Thursday 5th April.
I got up and went for a short spin on the tikit before breakfast. Then it was bike fettling time; lots of equipment appeared on the front lawn in various states. Not too much to do to my Varna; just checking fit and a few details. I took a short ride with the top off just to remind myself of the handling and check the gears etc. Other teams getting organised were Bryan Ball in the Varna Orpheus, Ellen in a Varna clone, and the Germans with one of the Hawk bikes. Garry Hill has the Frank'n'liner, M5 #8 and Kevin Berls Varna. And then Sam Whittingham rolled in, with no less than four bikes on the truck - the Varna camera bike, camera trike, original Diablo and an all new Diablo. Should be interesting out at the track tomorrow!
Friday 6th April.
First day at the track. Much more relaxed than last year, just hand the release forms in at the desk and roll in. Myself and Hans Wessel had declared ourselves ready to make an attempt first; Hans was chomping at the bit, so he went first. He ran a few laps, but then pulled over with some sort of trouble. There was a Nissan tourbus due on the track at 10am, so we decided to wait until afterwards to go. I did some pre-cooling with wet towels and ice, then climbed into the Varna. It was hot already, much hotter than expected for this time of year, apparently just over 90 degrees fahrenheit. But still cooler than last July! Last year our starts were flawless; not so great this time as I hit lock to the right and fell over.... Still, Freddy did that last year then went on to set the record, so maybe good karma.... Second attempt was not much better, I was falling left but got caught and rolled back. Dave was getting a little flustered, so Steve Nash stepped in to launch me, and finally I got off safely. As usual the bike took forever to accelerate. 40mph came up pretty quick, but I was at 1.6 miles before I reached 50. Then on the back straight, where last year I peaked at 56mph, I was only up to 53. But I was still trying to get comfortable in the bike, shifting around and getting used to the handling again. After about a lap and a half I was feeling more settled, and was running at about 52mph average; okay, but not really fast enough. The mister was working well - I have a pump on the bar which sprays a mist over my torso, but the crack we had put in the bottom of the windscreen wasn't enough to provide any noticeable airflow. Still, I was feeling okay. Eventually thirty minutes came round and the clock only said 25.4 miles - last year I was at 26, so this was pretty disappointing. Then I was stuck in the dilemer of whether to continue to set a mark for the event, or quit becuase I was going to be slower than last year. It is hard to stay in the bike, so without a whole lot of motivation to continue I pulled in to the pits the next time round. At least this time I wasn't overly hot, and felt alright - I could even walk! I'm not sure why I couldn't go fast enough; maybe just the conditions - heavy air? Either way, I'll be good for another crack on Sunday morning. Hopefully running at a slightly earlier time and with more airflow.... It actually turned out that I did the longest run of anyone; everyone was having problems of various kinds, or was just using today for test runs. And in the afternoon the wind blew up, so we packed up early.
Tomorrow's plans are more hour time first thing, then some flying 200m attempts, if the wind co-operates!
Saturday 7th April.
Today was a good, fun day. I had a relaxed start, just getting up when I woke up, then after breakfast I rode the tikit out to the track (I never actually warmed down after yesterday's run, so I needed to spin my legs out). There had been several completed hours by the time I arrived, with Damjan putting down a cracking 52.3 miles to give him the third best time ever. Jacob from Germany set a junior world record at 42.3 miles in the White Hawk. Tanya set a new US ladies record with 36.3 miles (including a chain deraillment in the last five minutes which cost her a little). Frank Geyer did 39.5 miles in the new Frank'n'liner. Hans Wessel, in the White Hawk, did 47 miles - down on his previous personal best of 50.7 miles (in Germany). I was waiting for the sprints in the afternoon, so enjoyed hanging out and watching. I took the Varna for a spin on the infield with the top off; getting more used to it now. Unfortunately just after arriving at the track I was stung by a bee on my left upper arm - I pulled the sting out right away, but it came up pretty red and swollen.
Eventually everything was set up for the flying 200m. The start was at the bottom of the home straight, with the traps at the end of the (slightly faster) back straight. So about a 4.5 mile run up. Hans went first and clocked 56mph, followed by Freddy who did 59. I set off, after a good launch, and gradually accelerated. When I made my second gear shift it went down two gears, leaving me well overgeared; but I didn't really want to try to shift back, so just ground it round at 60rpm, waiting for the speed to build and the revs to come up. In the middle of the back straight I was in the mid 50s, and managed to just get the speedo up to 60mph as I went through the traps. Turns out I somehow did exactly the same time as Freddy! Slowing down round the bottom turn there were some very loud thumps, which I assumed was just the cracks in the track.... After a bit of a break I got taped in for a second run; I felt like I could go a little faster with a better gear change, and Sam had done 62.3mph, so there was something to aim at. A good launch, but the bike was going 'bang bang bang' - turned out the previous thumps hadn't been just the track, but the tyre going soft; now it was totally flat and the bang was the valve stem on each revolution of the rear wheel. So what to do? Would the crew behind me see that I wasn't accelerating? How would I stop? Afterwards it turned out they were sprinting to try and catch me up, but just failing. I decided to turn into the staging area in the middle of the straight and hope there were still some people around to catch me. I turned in, the bike still handling okay with the puncture, shouting 'Help! Help! Help!' as loudly as I could. Someone came running, but didn't quite get hold of the nose quick enough before I toppled over. Fortunately it was a very benign crash with barely any damage. By the time we had got the puncture fixed it was too windy and too late to make a second 200m run. Ah well. But I did have one more piece of riding for the day - the photographer who had come over from England with a reporter to cover me at this event had asked for the opportunity to take some action shots. Unfortunately the wind caused us to fall over when we started, so the pictures will show a few scratches, but cruising round the track at 30mph with the car alongside was the actually the first time I have ridden the Varna slowly. Very cool to be doing 34mph at only 130bpm!
Once back at the hotel it was time to sort out a few issues with the bike (Dave and Becky work so hard for me!), and get ready for an hour run early tomorrow.
Sunday 8th April.
The final day at Nissan, and unfortunately the weather - in terms of the wind - didn't really want to cooperate.... We were up early to be at the track at 6:30am, where upon I warmed up on the infield on the tikit whilst Dave and Becky did final prep to the bike. Racing was running a little behind schedule, so I finally got on the track at about 7:50. Hans was running at the same time, so he launched first. I then went to launch, got away okay, then inexplicably fell over to the right side. They picked me up and we tried again. This time I got away, but something didn't feel quite right - in the turn I was all over the place and realised that what was wrong was that I couldn't turn the bars to the right at all! I hit 50mph on the back straight, but decided it was crazy to try and ride any further without steering, especially with the wind, so pulled out to the second lane to signal to the following car that I needed to stop. The truck came round me and pulled over. Dave jumped out and stood to catch. I didn't dare slow down too much as I would fall over, so just went in hot - too hot for Dave as the nose shot between his legs and he ended up straddling the windscreen! We loaded the bike in the truck and drove back to the pits. The problem was the new mister head that Dave had fitted last night; it was jamming on the gear shifter when the bike was in the high ratio. Fairly easy to fix. Al Krause gave me a new start slot of 11:30, running with Damjan, so I could eat some breakfast and relax in the meantime. Which meant I got to watch Freddy and Sam race: The current record holder in the black Varna, versus the previous record holder in the white Varna. Freddy had his usual terrible start, going over once and requiring two restarts before finally getting going. Three minutes later, Sam was smooth as ever and glided off. The wind was still blowing - about 8mph, but gusty, especially in the North corner. Freddy was flying the first lap or so, pulling out a few seconds from Sam, but then Sam got the new bike cranking and was getting faster. Sam was starting to close the gap at halfway when we heard that Freddy had stopped on the back straight - turned out his chain had derailled and he wasn't a happy chap; I heard something about a possible new world record in helmet throwing.... So now it was all Sam - he had the splits from Fred's world record run last year written on his windscreen, so knew when he started to pull ahead that if he could just continue to control the bike in the wind then the record would be his. Which, depsite draining his drinking water at 30 minutes, he did, with an outstanding 53.9 miles!
Next up was Ellen, and the wind was only getting stronger. But she was able to wrestle her Varna around to just pip Tanya's mark to take the women's title for the event. Then is was time for me to go again... Damjan launched first - he uses a small launch trolley which is wedged on the back of his bike. His crew hold a piece of rope that is 15m long; thus, at the end of the launch section the trolley pulls off and away he goes. Seemed to work well. I then followed, once again having to accelerate the bike, which always seems to take soooo long... I was up to 55mph in the back straight, and holding over 50 in the home straight. But then into my second lap there was a pss-pss-pss-pss followed by a thump-thump-thump... Goddamn it the rear tyre has gone flat again! So, pull out, wait for the truck, pull off, get caught, drive back to the pits. Meantime, Damjan was cooking - his first lap was a whole minute quicker than Sam's, averaging 51mph, followed by the fastest lap of the event with an incredible 57.7mph average! But then he slowed down and came in at the end of his third lap. He said it was too windy to be safe to run. Some others still tried though, but no-one else completed an hour. Once everyone was off the track, all the bikes were assembled for a picture - it isn't often you see this many streamliners together at once! I was still waiting for an opportunity to run again - Sam and George had lent us a tyre from the older Diablo and the bike was good to go. But the wind was getting worse, with dust storms and strong gusts. Still, I was determined to complete an hour at this event! So at 2:15, I set off for my third and final attempt of the day. The wind was fairly, er, interesting.... the average was 18mph with the gusts a whole lot more. I just hoped Sam was right - he had told me that the wind will never cause a Varna to crash, you just need enough track width... Down the back straight with the tailwind I hit 57mph, and held this going into the North corner. Which is where it got particularly interesting; I ended up in the outside of lane two to use the banking to help get round the corner (the Nissan track has four lanes of increasing bank, with the outer one set for 100mph at 35 degrees). I exited at 50mph and was able to hold this all up the home straight into the headwind. On lap two I got caught by a big cross-gust and duststorm at 56mph and had to freewheel while I wrestled the bike back into line. Each lap on the North bend, as the wind got stronger and stronger, I was drifting higher and higher up the track, with the Varna at full right lock - my right forearm was getting realy sore from pulling back so much to try and keep the bike tracking. For three laps I maintained my 55/50 speed between the two straights, but then the wind was so bad in the North turn that I had to freewheel for a bit to ensure I stayed upright - I could smell burning in the cabin from something rubbing with the steering full to the right. Without pedalling my speed dropped to 46mph, and although I could hold this into the headwind I couldn't accelerate until I got round the South corner. Still, at this point I was just aiming to remain rubber side down and finish the hour. I too drained my 750ml of brink after half an hour, and my speedo lost it's reading for a bit. It was looking as if I would get to the end of the time in the nasty North corner; I couldn't sprint to the end because I was having to freewheel whilst in lane four (the top of the track!) at full lock to try and keep the bike going! To mark the distance at the end the following car will pull alongside and throw done a chalk bag on the track; this would normally always be on the outside of the rider - however, with me up the top of the track, Ron had no choice but to come forward in lane one, and I saw him in the corner of my eye, down below me. What a relief to finish; I was still getting blown about as I slowed down and came into the pit to be caught. I hadn't got too hot, despite running out of drink - the mister and Dave's new vent in the screen had worked very well. Good to get out of the bike though, whereupon I realised just how windy it had got! The spectators were amazed I had managed to ride at that speed in those condiditons - I just thanked George for building such a great handling bike! Then the best news - Sam came to tell me that I had somehow managed to beat my distance from last year and crack the fifty barrier with 50.105 miles, hurrah!
Back at the hotel there was time for a quick swim and well earnt sit in the hottub before the awards dinner. I ended up with the third best hour of the event: A new British record behind Damjan's new European record and Sam's new World record. Not bad! And I had also got second place in the sprint, beating Freddy by 7/1000 of a second....
Once again, huge thanks to Dave and Becky for being such a great crew and bringing the bike all the way from Illinois - and of course congratulations on their wedding, which took place in Casa Grande the day before I arrived (not your typical honeymoon!). Many thanks also due to Al and Alice Krause for organising the event, all the timers and helpers, and to Nissan for letting us use their track. Hopefully we will be back next year.
Photos, courtesey of Al Krause, can be viewed here. I am also lucky enough to have professional photographer Tom Salt's images from the event, including superb tracking shots from the car - check them out here.