Gremlins raise their head

August 24th, 2017

I'm a bit behind with this blog, so a couple of quick updates coming up.

After the great practice session on Tuesday night, when I got in two laps in each bike, something had to go wrong...and it did.  We'd had a brief electrical gremlin on the ZXR when I brought it in on Tuesday - Simon turned the kill switch off, and the starter motor ran!  I was out on the TZ when this happened, so only heard about it after the event, and the guys hadn't been able to replicate it.  But in parc ferme on Wednesday, with minutes to go before practice started, the problem re-0ccurred.  Fortunately, the TZ250 was sat next to it, tyre warmers on, so I went out on that, and the guys wheeled the ZXR back to the awning.

I did two good laps on the TZ, and was starting to learn the course again on it - it's quite different than on the ZXR!  You have to be in the right gear at the right time, all the time...but when you are, it's sublime.  The faster of the two laps was only 102mph, but at least we were going in the right direction.  However, I also had a few missed gears, which made me fear for the gearbox, so I rang Andy Broughton when I got back, and arranged to take it to him to look at the next day.

The next morning we were up and at it. I took the TZ across to Ramsey, and we spent about four hours on it.  Andy pulled the gearbox out, gave it a close inspection, and pronounced it absolutely fine.  So the finger of suspicion pointed to the gearchange linkage, and the bloke with the size 10 boots working it (me).  The gearchange is designed to work in 'race pattern', one up and five down (if you don't understand how motorcycle sequential gearboxes work, you can skip this bit).  I'm a road-rider at heart, and always use 'road pattern', which is one down and five up.  So I have the actuator on the gear shaft 180 degrees out from where it's meant to be, which is fine, but not optimal.  So I tweaked it a bit - more later.  Andy also pulled the heads off, and checked the exhaust ports - while doing this, he tested the plug caps, and found one was registering way to high a resitance.  So new plug caps were added to the shopping list.  We put the bike back together, and I headed back to the awning.

While I was TZ-ing, I got a message from Simon and the guys looking at the ZXR.  It was this picture, with the message "Found the culprit!":

ZXR starter culprit

I rushed back to the paddock with the TZ, with a list of jobs.  I wanted to put a new chain on, change the main jet in the front cylinder back to a 410 (based on Andy's advice), fit the new slicks that the guys had had fitted in the paddock - all in an hour or so.  Which, of course we did, but we did forget to check one thing...can you guess what it is yet?

Practice got away on time, and I went out on the ZXR first, as normal.  My starting partner was James Ford, number 60, on his Kawasaki ZXR750, which seems to be just as fast and no faster - we towed each other round, both passing two or three times, and finishing within a second of each other too.  I set the fastest lap I've ever done on the ZXR, at 109.5mph, which I'm very pleased with.  I pulled in, chatted with the boys for two mins, deciding whether to do another lap on the ZXR, or take the TZ out.  I elected to take the ZXR, and this time the gremlins appeared - along the flat out sections through Glen Vine and Crosby, it felt like it was being starved of fuel.  It was ok through the slower cornes of Glen Helen, but started playing up again along Cronk-y-voddy and through Barragarrow.  I stopped at Kirk Michael and rode back on the public roads (this is legal! - here I was riding a full on race bike in the traffic!).  I got back to the paddock with a good 40 minutes of the second practice session remaining, and got on the TZ and headed out.  It instantly felt crisper and faster - replacing the dodgy plug cap had evidently made a huge difference. I flew down to Quarter Bridge, and tried to change down...and I couldn't!  We hadn't checked the adjustments I'd made to the gearchange linkage with me sat on the bike, with boots on.  I could just about stamp down through the gears, but there was no way I could do another 36 miles like that, so I turned off at Quarter Bridge and rode back to the paddock again - this time only a mile or so.  I had planned to fix the linkage and get back out...but the session had been cancelled due to bad visibility with low cloud at the top of the mountain.  

Taking positives from a mixed evening - I'd done one very good lap (for me) on the ZXR, and the TZ felt much much better in the 1 and half I rode it.  Tomorrow we need to fix the fuel system on the ZXR, and treble check the gear linkage on the TZ.  And then get out in the evening for the last practice session.

Second evening practice, and qualified already

August 23rd, 2017

Today was one of those days when the Manx weather can surprise you in a good way.

We woke to find ourselves actually in the cloud - the fog was down to sea level.  The forecast said it would burn off, but only in time for more rain to arrive around 4pm. No one was very positive.  But still, we didn't really have much to do to the bikes, as Monday's practice had been cancelled.  I felt pretty confident in the ZXR, after the single fun lap on Saturday, but the TZ hadn't run on the course at all yet.  So went through to the process of getting ready for scrutineering, and then...the sun came out!  It clouded over again, but had lifted high enough for the rescue helicopter to fly, and the rain failed to arrive.  Practice actually got away nearly on time!

Now we have permission to run the TZ 'out of class', planning for the practice sessions has become a lot easier - basically, the ZXR in the first session, the TZ in the second.  The first session was only 45 minutes, and my start number of #64 meant I'd probably not get away until 10 minutes after the session started.  This meant I could get two laps in on the ZXR, come in, take a breath, and then go out for two on the TZ.  The team of Simon, Simon and Alex are pretty well practiced by now, and the bikes we soon sitting in parc ferme looking purposeful:

ZXR & TZ ready

By 6pm parc ferme was a mass of mechanics, bikes being warmed up, riders trying to look calm.  Clerk of the Course Gary Thompson reported that one of the rescue helicopters was reporting on conditions, and 10 minutes later the word came that we were good to go!  The bikes with the first 20 numbers from each class went up to Glencrutchery Road, and were soon leaving in pairs.  I anticpated the call for my group perfectly, and was on the road paddling forward towards the start marshall and away within 10 minutes of the session starting.  I went down Bray Hill at what I though was my usual pace, but my starting partner (who I beat of the line as usual) came past me on the brakes into Quarter Bridge.  But that was OK, and I hung on to him, and in fact we saw each other, back and forth, several times over the next two laps.

I was going faster, I knew, but unlike on Saturday, people weren't coming back to me in nearly so many numbers.  And a couple people came past me, too.  Early in the lap, the ZXR felt like it wasn't quite getting enough fuel, and worred about another fuel pump failure, I started changing up a little earlier, instead of revving it to the 12,000rpm redline.  The problem went away, and on the run down the mountain I revved it out again, and it was fine, so I decided to press on, as planned, for a second lap.  By the end of this the first session was over, and I was flagged back into parc ferme - the second session was already starting from the pit lane.  I was pretty bloody hot!  Fortunately, Vanessa was ready with a bottle of prepared energy drink, which I definitely needed.  I took a minute or two to recover, and then we fired up the TZ250, and headed for the starting line for the second session.

Wow, but the TZ is a different riding experience from the ZXR!  It's a fair bit slower (75bhp vs 130), but so very much lighter that it accelerates really well, and brakes and handles so much more easily.  It took me a while to get the feel for this, but I was soon enjoying myself.  In this session I was out with a lot of old 350s and 500s from the 60s, which are much much slower, and so I had to keep my wits about me for other traffic.  And I was also fairly well matched with a few of the modern 650 SuperTwins, which have ~20bhp more, but are also a lot heavier.  

After last year's debacle (only two completed laps in practice, and then it seized and threw me off on the first lap of the race), I admit to being a little nervous, but the bike didn't put a foot wrong, and won me over with its surefootedness and ease of turning.  I patted the tank as I came down the mountain on the first lap, and flew along the startline to start my second.  By this time the cloud cover was 100%, and as I came over the mountain it was definitely close to dusk - it wasn't that easy to see the rev-counter!  But the bike was great, right until I accelerated out of Governers Bridge to finish the lap and the session, when it coughed with the unmistakable feel of running out of petrol.  I got it over the line 3~400 metres away, but then it died completely as I turned up the pit return road.  I took my helmet off and started pushing (after pulling my phone from my leathers to message the team and let them know what was happening).  The pit return lane is probably less than 200m long, but I was very pleased when I saw Simon coming towards me to take the bike.

This counts as a very good evening's practice.  I have to do 5 laps within the qualifying time, including 2 on each bike, and with Saturdays I'd now comfortably done that. So far, this year's practice week has been in stark contrast with last year's.  But there's always something more to strive for - the two laps on the ZXR were 106 and 107mph, and I'd hoped for a little more, and the two on the TZ were both 99mph, which I was definitely disappointed with - last year one of my practice laps was 104mph!.  Still, it's only the second night.

When I got back to the tent food was being prepared, and TZ-guri Rik Ballerini was there.  We granned something to eat, and then Rik and I took the heads off to check the jetting.  This was complicated by running out of fuel (which would have leaned the mixture off), but as this was brief, Rik was comfortable he could tell.  My original thought was that we were too rich, as I'd jetted up to use 410 main jets. [The general advice on the Isle of Man is to run 2~4 jets sizes bigger than you'd normally use, due to the very long periods of running flat out in high gears. The bike had had 370s in, from the dyno and Pre-TT Classic].  My expectation was to come back on jet size to use a 400; in the end, we decided to just put a 400 in the front cylinder (which runs slightly cooler) and leave the 410 in the rear. 

Yabba Dabba Doo - Reprise

August 21st, 2017

Quick follow-up to the post about the first night of practice - I was very pleased to be 18th fastest in the Classic Superbike class - results here.  And the bike is still fast too - 151mph through the Sulby speed trap, despite me not keeping it pinned through the kink at the end of the straight.

In other news - yesterday (Sunday 20th Aug), there was no practice, so we took the TZ250 to Jurby airfield circuit to give it a run. I went out and did 6~7 laps, and it was all great, so we put it back in the van.  I also caught up with Billy Craine, and Andy Broughton, who re-built the engine after last year's seizure - we popped the exhausts off and Andy got underneath with his torch and dentists mirror and looked at the pistons and ports and pronounced everything OK.

I also asked the Clerk of the Course if I could practice the TZ out of class. The problem is that there's two practice sessions each evening, and the TZ and the ZXR are both meant to be in the same one - this means that I have to choose one or the other each evening.  This request was approved, so now I can ride both bikes each evening, which makes things much easier.

We've a few little jobs to do as I write this (Monday morning), but nothing serious.  Unfortunately, the weather forecast for this evening is not great, but this being the Isle of Man, anything can happen.

Yabba Dabba Doo!

August 20th, 2017

Yesterday was one of those days that gives you the payback, and reminds you why you put all the effort and money into this in the first place. But before that, the story so far.

We loaded the van on Wednesday, and headed off first thing Thursday morning.  First stop was to collect Alex and load all the camping kit, which lives at his house.  Even though the new longer van, with it's added layer of shelving, had swallowed all my stuff pretty easily, by the time we added the kit required to house and sustain six people for ten days, it was completely stuffed again.  There followed the usual grind up the M6, but we arrived at Heysham in plenty of time, and met the two Simons (this might get confusing), with Chris (Si Wilson's son) and their van at the port.  Si Wilson has a ride in the one of the seveal vintage/classic parade laps, on the bike that won the 1966 Thruxton 500 (which confusingly was at Brands that year), so had that bike in his van, along with Simon Weller's road bike (a modern 3 cyclinder, 800c Triumph adventure bike - a Tiger? I'm rubbish with modern bikes now, it seems).  Here's the van before the addition of all the camping kit:

Loaded van, before we added all the camping kit

The boat was a little late, for unknown reasons, and we rolled off into Douglas around 6:30pm.  And then the 'fun' started. The TT paddock has new layout and arangements this year, due (as I understand it) to a health and safety audit last year that threatened to throw the book at them.  Some of this was no doubt justified, but the effective net result is that the paddock is no longer big enough.  We queued for about 3 hours to get our pitch, was being hastily laid out on the fly in the overspill field in Nobles Park. We set up on the dark, finishing about 11:30 pm, and our evening meal was a beer. I was not happy.

But the following morning the sun was out, and I realised out new pitch location and space was pretty good.  The paddock admin crew made amends by laying duck boarding for all the new  pitches, so the race bikes (and people...) will never have to roll over the grass (and mud if it rains). We got the main team tent setup properly (actually rotating it 180 degrees from how we'd pitched it in the dark), and I got everything in the awning, which is our workshop for the next 10 days, setup just how I wanted it (those who know me will know I can be a 'bit OCD' in this area...).  Following this, I did a bunch of admin things required for the meeting - signed on, got all my riding kit, and the crew's refueling protective kit checked and approved, attended the riders briefing, etc - at the end of this, we were ready to go.  In addition, new crew member this year, my partner Vanessa, who had volunteered to be quartermaster and cook, got a load of shopping in and provided lunch and a great evening meal (with salad! Some of the lads were shocked!).   And then we went to the pub.

Saturday dawned windy but bright.  This evening was the first scheduled practice session, but I overhead someone say that it hadn't actually run for the last 7 years, most due to the weather - certainly it was rained off last year.  But in addition, there was a worry about having enough marshals - it takes over 500 marshals to man the course, and the opening saturday is often short as a lot of the visitors to the event, many of whom are marshals, don't arrive for the opening weekend. A call had gone out by email last week, and Chris and Si Wils on my crew had already signed up, but they were still short, so Vanessa signed up too. She was assigned a spot at the bottom of Bray Hill, which anyone who knows the TT course will know is one of the most iconic and spectacular points on the course.  This would be her first time seeing race bikes on the TT course - I couldn't imagine a better way to start.

I borrowed Simon's road Triumph to do a 'sighting lap' of the course in the afternoon.  I can run through the entire 37.73 miles in my head, but there really is no substitute for seeing it with your own eyes, even at legal road speeds amongst the traffic.  It was dry and bright, but very windy over the mountain.  When I got back,  our time slot for scrutineering was approaching, and Alex and Simon were ready to roll the ZXR up for inspection.  My two bikes (the ZXR750 and TZ250) practice in the same class, which is annoying, and of which more later, but for opening night we'd decided just to get a couple of laps in on the more forgiving and easier-to-ride 750.  We're pretty practiced at this now, so the bike and a trolley full of stands, tools, tyre warmers, etc went up towards parc ferme, and I prepped my kit (i.e. cleaned my visor) and got into my leathers.  When I arrived in it lane, it was a hubbub of activity, with a couple of hundred bikes all on stands, tyre warmers on, riders trying to look relaxed (some succeeding, some not), crew members checking and tweaking details - basically a huge demonstration of displacement activity, while we waited for practice to start.  This was due to be around 5:20 for the newcomers (whose first lap is behind an experienced rider) and then 5:30 for the first group, which I was in.  But there was a delay, due to 3 vehicles having been left parked on various parts of the course. This is a usual thing in the run up to the roads being closed, and I'm pretty used to tannoy announcements of "Would the owner of vehicle xyz please move it immediately", and it rarely causes a delay.  But the owners of these 3 vehicles really couldn't be traced, and a recovery truck had to be sent to forcibly remove them, which delayed the proceedings by over an hour!  As it's an offence to have a vehicle on roads closed for racing, so I imagine, and hope, that the owners will get hefty fines.

But eventually we got away.  The newcomers went off in groups of 4 or 5, following their leader, and then, after 10 minutes to allow them to get far enough round the course not to be caught, our class was away.  For some reason I;ve been given number #64 on the 750, despite finishing 27th last year, which means a lot of bikes are in front of me.  The bikes start practice in pairs at 10 second intervals, so with multiple classes I reckon there was a good 10 minutes (i.e. 120+ bikes away) before I eventually got to the front, got the tap on the shoulder from the starting marshal, and headed down Bray Hill.

As usual, I beat my starting partner off the line, and, also as usual, as soon as I was riding the bike my head cleared and I was focussed on the job in hand.  Heading down Bray Hill flat out is always a great way to get focussed anyway, and especially on the first night of practice, after 50 weeks away.  In addition, I knew Vanessa was watching at the bottom, so I wanted to look like I knew what I was doing!  Bray Hill was fine, but as I reached the braking zone for Quaterbridge, my starting partner sailed past me on the brakes for no obvious reason, and then ran wide past the apex of the corner.  "Blimey, mate", I thought, "the race is a week away yet". Quarterbridge is famously a corner with not much to gain and plenty to lose, especially on the first lap with not-yet-up-to-temperature tyres, and a full fuel load, let alone the first lap of the first night of practice.  I followed him through Bradden Bridge, which he also made a complete horlicks of, such that I easily accelerated past him and into Union Mills.  I never saw him again.  

But I saw plenty of other people!  It's always a great confidence boost when you catch people who started ahead of you, and tonight was going to be an incredible confidence boost - I kept catching whole gaggles of riders.  It felt like 40 or 50, but was probably only 25~30, but still - these were all people on bikes that should lap at a similar speed to my 750.  I was actually held up at all sorts of places, but it was the first night of practice, and I was both considerate and careful getting past.  My bike felt just brilliant - fast, composed, and very good on the brakes, as I found multiple times as I outbraked people into corners (always the safest way to overtake).  I was enjoying myself, feeling fast and comfortable, and just loving it.  It was still windy over the mountain, but I was still catching and passing people too.  I was pretty sure that the lost practice time would mean I would only get one lap in, and sure enough, as I exited Governors Dip there was a board saying we were being 'short-lapped' and the chequered flag was out just along Glencrutchery Road and we were waved into parc ferme.  I rode the bike down to our awning with a big grin on my face, and Alex it put it on the stand while I gabbled like a schoolboy!  I didn't know how fast I'd gone, but reckoned it "felt like about ~105mph lap".

We had to wait for Vanessa, Si Wils and Chris to get back from marshalling, so I had time to grab a shower, then a beer, and then we all got together and Alex served up his legendary chili which had been bubbling on the stove for several hours since the afternoon.  My friend Rik Ballerini, who knows more about TZ250s than I will ever know, also turned up, and told us that on the live results app, my time was 105mph - so my seat-of -the-pants estimate was bang on!  We ate and drank and celebrated a good start to our Classic TT 2017 campaign.  Really looking forward to the next time out now!


It's quiet....too quiet

August 15th, 2017

It's two days before I go to the Isle of Man, and it feels like pretty much everything that needs to be done has been done.  I had a very long to-do list (actually, on, which I can't receommend highly enough for managing a set of tasks), and I've worked my way through it over the last few weeks (and months, to be honest) and now just about everything is in the 'done' column.  So let's set the scene...

Like last year, I'll have my two bikes, the Kawasaki ZXR750 and the Yamaha TZ250.  The Kawasaki covered itself in glory at the Pre-TT Classic on the Billown Circuit, and had an outing at Mallory where the rider, not the bike, was the weak link.  But it's good to go.  The last outing for the TZ was also at the Pre-TT, and while we are still on a learning curve with the bike, we're way ahead of where we were last year.  The ignition has been sorted (ditching the Ignitech unit for a stock Yamaha one), the engine was rebuilt by ANdy Broughton on the Island and I've replaced the machined and questionable cylinder heads with stock ones.  And the bike has a new loom, and has demonstrated that it charges reliably.  Last but not least, it's got new bodywork and paint, and is a thing of beauty:

TZ250 before leaving for the 2017 Classic TT

Less has been done to the ZXR (if it ain't broke, etc...), but she still looks lovely:

ZXR before leaving for the 2017 Classic TT

Not only have I been preparing the bikes...I've also done some stuff to my (new for 2017) van!  When we took it to the Pre-TT, with both bikes, it was pretty much full, and we knew we'd need more stuff for two weeks at the Classic TT.  As the van is a high top, and the vertical space above the bikes is wasted, we hatched the plan to drop a false floor in at height above where the bikes come to.  Crew man Si Wilson gave up a morning to help (I'm rubbish with DIY and wood, and he has power tools), and here's the result:

Van with a mezzanine

So we're all set for the boat on Thursday.  As last year, Alex and the two Simon's will be crewing, although this year has the added excitement that Si Wilson has a ride in the parade lap, on a bike that I'm now embarrassed to find I know nothing about!  It's a Triumph (I think...) and was ridden by Dave Degens back in the day.  I'll get more details and put it up here.

Next post will be from the Island, once we're set up in the paddock