Happiness is a complete to-do list

August 16th, 2016

It feels like the calm before the storm.  In a couple of days time I leave for the Isle of Man for the Classic TT, where I'll be in two races:

  • Classic Lightweight, for thoroughbred 250GP bikes
  • Classic Superbike, for production based superbikes from the 80s and early 90s

I'll be riding my 1992 Kawasaki ZXR750 in the Classic Superbike, as I did last year.  The Classic Lightweight race is new for the event this year, and is the reason why I bought my 1996 Yamaha TZ250 back in the Spring.   But to get to the relatively relaxed state I'm in right now, required an awful lot of work - it's almost impossible to convey the organisational logistics required to compete in an event like this.

Learning the TZ

Since I wrote my last post, I've ridden the TZ a fair bit more.  Firstly, I spent two days at Cadwell Park, at a track day, and that's where I fell in love with what the TZ can do.  It's corner speed is just so immense, and it is so flickable and easy to steer.   And then I did a couple of track sessions, and then morning practice, at Jurby in the Isle of Man.  The practice session was soaking wet, and the TZ was equally fun on wets in the rain.  Unfortunately, the actually racing was cancelled because the track flooded, but I had gained even more confidence in the bike, and, almost as importantly, I met Billy Craine and Andy Broughton, of whom more later.

As well as learning to ride the TZ, I've also started along the road of learning how to look after it.  This is a journey that never ends, and I've only taken baby steps so far.  But one of the most obvious things is that many of the significant engine parts have mileage limits; perhaps the most significant of these is the crankshaft.  A TZ crank is rebuildable (unlike the Honda 250GP bike of the same era), but this needs to be done after every 600 racing miles.  And you do so many miles at the Isle of Man, you really have to start with a fresh engine, meaning at least a reconditioned crank, new pistons and rings. And after the event, it will be nearly worn out - the race is four laps, which is 150 miles, and I'll probably do around twice that in practice.

I've kept mileage records since taking ownership of the TZ, which had done 340 miles since the last crank rebuild, and I knew that by the time I got to the Classic TT, the engine would be just about at its mileage limit, so I needed to get the engine refreshed beforehand.  Fortunately, the bike came with a spare crankshaft (which was already at the 600 mile limit), so I took that to Dennis Trollope, famous in British racing circles, to get it reconditioned.  After the Jurby race meeting, I took the engine out and passed it to Billy Craine, mentioned above,as Billy and Andy had offered to do the rebuild for me.  Billy knows TZs inside out, and Andy knows them even better.  The rebuilt crank was sent to them by Dennis, and they rebuilt the motor with all the required new parts.   The plan is then to fit the engine the weekend we arrive at the TT.  So far, this plan is all on target, although there was a moment of panic, when Billy reported to me that the clutch basket needed re-riveting to its backing...but I couldn't source the rivets from anywhere - Yamaha don't supply them, and most people get them made specially. But Billy contacted Manx engineer Steve Moynihan, who could both make the rivets and fit them.  Andy reported a few wrinkles regarding slightly different compression ratios on the two cylinders, but he's set it up to be 'safe', so that I can get some laps in - which is why I'm there, after all.

Sprucing up the ZXR

While the bike both looked good and went well last year (despite breaking its chain on the third lap of the race), there were a few things that definitely needed to be improved, as well as a host of minor tweaks.  The major items were the front forks, the radiator, and the bodywork.  When I built the bike for 2015, I ran out of time (and to a lesser extent money), and so ran the bike with the original standard forks.  In fact, I didn't even change the fork oil.  For 2016, I wanted to fix this, and sent the forks off to Maxton Engineering, who are experts on race suspension, especially for the Isle of Man.  Not only did they strip out the 24-year-old Kawasaki internals and replace them completely with their own, they also got the stanchions re-chromed and the lowers re-anodised.  So the shiny bits are newly shiny, the black bits newly black, and the internals completely new - they're effectively brand new forks.

Similarly, the radiator was the original one, and was definitely old and scruffy, and a long way from being efficient.  So I commissioned a new radiator from ace Manx fabicator Phil Wall, proprietor of Boal Engineering.  This arrived a few months ago, and is a thing of beauty.  

The most visible change is the new bodywork, with a fresh paint scheme.  Last year's bike had a second hand fairing and seat unit which I bought from Mistral Engineering, who run beautifully prepared ZXR 750s in period Kawasaki France Endurance colours.  Not only was this paint now looking a little scruffy, my bike looked like one of theirs, which was mildly embarrassing for all concerned.  And with the new radiator, the fairing didn't really fit as nicely as it should.  I ordered a new seat and fairing from PRF Racing, which then required new mounts from Ian Harrison at Mistral.  And then I spent over 20 hours in the workshop making sure everything fitted properly.  It was slow and laborious, but at the end of it, it was all just right.  Then all the bodywork went to Denis, of "Denis Motorcycle Resprays" in Cirencester, and he did his usual brilliant job, and in double quick time too.  Once fitted, I had to get some photos, I was so pleased with how the bike looked

The ZXR with its new paint

A plethora of other little jobs have also been done, some earlier in the season, including:

  • Lock stops (to restrict the amount the bars can slap from side to side over the Manx bumps)
  • Digital temperature gauge
  • All three sets of wheels shot-blasted and painted green, with new bearings fitted
  • New adjustable rearsets

So, both bikes are ready, or will be, and everything else is set fair - including the crew

The Race Crew

Like last year, old friends Alex Ferrier and Simon Weller will be helping me again this year.  However, due to an unfortunate incident with his R1 Turbo and Cadwell Park, Alex has some broken bones in his hands, so we've enlisted an additional new crew member - confusingly another Simon.  Simon Wilson, in fact.  The New Simon is flying over, while Alex and the Old Simon are coming in the van with me, and we'll all be there on Friday 19th August.

I am so very much looking forward to it!

Getting used to the TZ250

July 3rd, 2016

Regular readers might recall that I bought a TZ250 earlier this year, and had a torrid first outing on it at Brands Hatch, where it wrecked its gearbox.

After this,  I handed the motor to Dennis Trollope, one of a handful of experts on all things TZ in the UK, and he repaired the damage and fitted a new gearbox for me.  I got it back about six weeks ago, and fitted it and fired it up, but Dennis was insistent on it being given a run on the dyno before I raced it.  He has a good friendship with the chaps who run Dynotech, which is convenient for me, so I took it there on Wednesday, and they ran it up and down the box, and pronouced it good to go.  And we got a power figure out of it, which was a handful of bhp down on compable TZs, but we'd done not set-up at all, so I was happy to live with that.

After this I got a late entry in the NGRRC meeting at Castle Coombe over the weekend of 2nd and 3rd July, which was all a bit of a rush, but I really just need time on the bike. The North Glos club (were I started racing, back in the 80s) now runs the official GP250 National Championship, and the field is pretty fast and competitive.  But that's comes with the territory when you decide to race a GP bike. I loaded up on Friday, met up with mate Pat Evans with his race R6 in his van, and we managed to find a fairly decent spot in the paddock.  We both got scrutineered and signed on that evenng, which was a good plan as free practice started at the amazingly early time of 8:40am on Saturday.  Long-time mechanic Alex Ferrier arrived even earlier, and we were ready to roll out for our session on time.  Although, in the process of bump starting the bike, we discovered that some numpty (me) had fitted the gear change mechanism to give a 'race pattern' ( 1 up and 5 down), instead of the usual road pattern that I use.  There was no time to change it, so out I went.  I have ridden with a race pattern before, but not for a long time (maybe 10 years) .  I can do it as long as I give it enough attention, but this is a bike that demands a lot of attention in other areas, and soon as my focus was distracted (e.g. when someone came past) my brain would go into auto-pilot when changing gear, and I'd push the lever in the wrong direction, and change down instead of up, or vice versa.  But, still, I was riding the bike, and getting a little used to it, and also learning the circuit as well - the last time I rode here was in 2012.  Best lap was 1:34, which put me not quite last in the field.

There was then a few sharp showers, which left the track soaking, so we put the wets in the bike, as well as fixing the gear change pattern issue.  I knew the circuit would dry quickly, but I was also confident that the TZ, with its lack of weight and power, wouldn't trash wets on a drying track.  And so it turned out - there was pretty much a dry line all the way round by the time we got out for the official timed qualifying session, but the bike seemed happy enough on the wets, although I did pull in to check them after 6~7 laps.  They were fine.  At the end I was 19th fastest, with only a couple of people behind me again, this time with a best lap of 1:30 - amazing what not having to think which direction to push the gearlever does!  And I was getting a little more familiar with the circuit.

The GP250 race was the first after lunch, and I was so keen I ended up being first in the holding area.  We formed on the grid, and then headed off for our warm up lap, and then re-formed, the red flag waved, we looked at the lights, and then we were off.  Pleasingly, my knack for getting good starts on a four-stroke also seems to be present on the two stroke, as I made a good 4 or 5 places off the line.  Of course, so of these struck back immediately on the run into the first corner, Quarry, and the others took a lap or two to regain the ground.  But still, I was racing, and it was fun.  The TZ needs such focus and concentration compared to the four-strokes that I'm used to, but I felt I was making progress.  Well, I was until the start of lap 3, when exiting Quarry, I suddenly had no drive - the bike revved, but we didn't accelerate.  I parked the bike against the armco, peered down and saw that the front sprocket had come off.  D'oh.   After a ride in the recovery van back to my awning, I found a replacement nut, and also a big set of brand new tab washers.  So Alex fitted it, with help from another old, old friend Tim, who had come to help as he only lives a few miles away.   But I'd still not finished a race on the TZ, although at least now I had started one.  And, on the plus side, on my one timed lap (lap 2), I'd done a 1:26, i.e. another 4 seconds faster.

Later that afternoon there was some significant disruption to the race program, after a serious accident had required much clearing up, and one rider to be taken to hospital by helicopter.  In fact, the delays were so servere that the remainder of the program was abandoned, meaning Pat missed his main race of the day.  The hope was it would be run on Sunday.

Sunday dawned bright and sunny, and so it remained all day.   Neither Pat nor I bothered with free practice, which was extremely brief (maybe 3 laps), but we looked at the revised program which did include most of the races lost the day before.  But not Pat's - he was unimpressed.  I had a warm-up session in the morning, and my race was the first after lunch again.  I checked with some other TZ riders to see what gearing they were running, and as I suspect, my gearing was a bit too short, so I swapped the rear sprocket for one with two teeth less.  The warm up session was fine, and the gearing change was definitely the right thing to do, but any hopes of continuing the pattern of "4 seconds a lap faster each session" were dashed - I only managed another 1:26 (although 0.5 seconds faster than the one I did in the race yesterday).   And then it was the usual paddock waiting game until my race came round.

Once again I was the first to arrive in the holding area, but only by a few seconds.  We were waved out onto the track, and I slotted into the same 19th grid position as yesterday.  Once again I got a decent start, and felt like I was in the pack as we streamed out of the first corner.  After a lap things settled down, and I was close behind John Hogg on his 89 reverse cylinder TZ - the last of the parallel twins.  On paper, my bike should have been much better, but still had a lot to learn, and we had a good dice for the whole race, although I never managed to get past him.  We both got lapped by the leaders after about 8 or 9 laps - that's the problem with 12 lap races!  But the main thing was that I was properly enjoying myself.  I still don't think I'd really experienced the fabled GP bike nirvana that people talk about, but I was properly racing, and the lean angle the TZ can achieve has to be experienced to be believed.

I came home in 14th place, with only two other finishers behind me.  And both of those were in the "Pre-92" class, so I was actually last in my class.  But I don't really care - learning to ride this bike is not trivial, and this was really my first race weekend with it.  And the icing on the cake was my best lap time - 1:23, so I found another 3 seconds in the race.  The winner had a best lap of 1:13, and that looks like a lot of time to find, but the four people in front of me were only a second or two faster, so that will be my next target.

I feel much, much happier about TZ250 ownership now.   

Great day and result at Pre-TT Classic

May 31st, 2016

What a briliant race weekend!

After qualifying on Saturday afternoon, we had a full day off before racing on Sunday. But we weren't to be bored - my great friend Andy Cowie had comprehensively blown up his GPZ600, so we had an engine swap to do. Alex set to, pulling it apart while I got supplies for breakfast and created tea and bacon sarnies. By the time Andy made it down to our awning from the other end of the Island, the trashed engine was out, revealing the full horror of its failure with the conrod poking out the front of the cases:

Say hello to Mr Conrod

We'd aleady swapped ancillaries (water pump, starter, etc), and then Andy and Alex put the replacement engine back in, while I sat down and wrote the previous blog article to this one.

By late lunchtime the 600 was finished and fired up. I'd attended to a couple of tiny matters on my ZXR750 - the back brake had been marginal in scrutineering the previous day (the only time it gets used) so I bled it and improved it. And the gearchange was a little low, so I adjusted it up a few millimetres. And then Andy took us out for a fine lunch to say thanks.

Race day dawned warm and sunny, as had every other day since we'd arrived. Andy's blow up had meant he hadn't qualified for his main class, and was therefore in the support race, for all the bikes in all the classes who hadn't qualified for whatever reason - a real wacky races event. This was the first race of the day, so the bike was through scrutineering by 9am, ready for a 9:30 start. Andy got a good start, into 4th place behind three 750s, and that was where he stayed - first F2 class bike home, which was a decent result rescued from a troublesome weekend for him.

Our race was almost the last of the day - the Senior Classic Superbike race was due to go just before 3pm, so we had a lot of waiting to do. But there's a lot worse places to wait than in a race paddock bathed in sunshine, and we watched a few of the other races during the day while the clock ticked down. Alex and Andy took the ZXR through scrutineering early at 1:30pm, and then it sat on stands with tyres warming for an hour, while I alternated between drinking water to stay hydrated in the sun, and visiting the portaloos to expel the excess fluid.

Eventually it was time to go to the grid. While the program actually had 28 entries, a lot of people obviously hadn't sourced or sorted their bikes, because only 14 of us qualified, and I was in 11th, alongside Manx friend Mark Bamford in 10th. I'd made a best lap of 2:51 in practice, and Mark had been 2 seconds faster, so he was my first target. And I was confident that I had some more speed to find. The guys on the front row were professional road racers - Ivan Lintin, Paul Coward, Steve Mercer - and they were on top level bikes (all ZXRs) from Mistral Racing and Bennetts, so I wasn't going to see which way they went. But my mental attitude to racing is all about enjoying the riding nowadays, and I just wanted to bring the bike home, have fun, and see where I finished.

We did the warm up lap and formed up on the grid. The lights changed, and I got my usual excellent start, and made at least a few places into the first corner - Ballakeigin. Then we all streamed away towards Iron Gates, and I settled into the race. There was a big GSX-R 1100 in front of me, and I wondered if I might catch him. But while I could keep him in sight, I didnt seem to be able to make any ground. But then around lap 3 a GSX-R 750 tucked inside me braking for Cross Fourways, so I had other things to think about. I didn't know until after the race, but this was Jack Hunter, a young and talented manx racer, and also a really nice chap. I followed Jack through Church Bends, and it was immediately obvious in the run down to Great Meadow that I had a lot more power and acceleration than Jack - I just rode past him on the straight. I always feel a little sheepish doing this, so raised my left hand in acknowledgment as I came alongside. Jack wasn't bothered by my apology, and neatly outbraked me into Castletown Corner , so I just rode past him again down the start/finish straight. And so a pattern developed - I'd stay in front from the Start to Cross Fourways, Jack would outbrake me there, I'd pass again before Stadium, and Jack would get past again there or at Castletown Corner. I was confident I could lead over the line, but I realised that Jack was much faster than me through my worst section, the sinuous run from Ballabeg to Cross Fourways. So after a couple of laps of back and forth, I waved Jack through at Ballabeg, and followed him to see what I could learn. And I learned a few things! So the next lap, having easily passed again on the straight, I led this section...but Jack still outbraked me at the end of it. Still, the laps were ticking down now, and I expected to see the last lap flag soon. As is often the case, it took a couple more laps than I expected to come out - this was an 8 lap race, which meant 34 racing miles, and I never manage to count down the laps when I'm racing. But eventually the last lap flag did come out, and around the same time Jack stopped troubling me on the brakes - I guessed he might have given up the unequal battle against my ZXR's superior horsepower, but it turned out his bike had been going off song, and he pulled in rather than risk blowing it up.

I rode the last lap unaware that Jack was gone, and was pleased not to have to fight him off on the run to the line. Passing the chequered flag with the usual sense of relief, I still didn't know my finishing position. I knew I'd made a few places at the start, and had passed second row qualifier Tim Poole when he'd pulled out with machine problems. And I'd seen smoke from another blow up down the start straight too (this turned out to be Ivan Lintin), so I guessed I was probably somewhere between 6th and 8th, and so it was - I'd finished 7th. Which doesn't sound that great, from a grid of 14, but I am extremely pleased with this result, at a pretty high level race meeting. And it definitely laid to rest the disappointment from this event in 2015. And it also meant prize money - 7th place would net me £90! That's easily the most money I've ever won racing motorcycles, beating my previous record of £50 at Jurby South ten or more years ago.

I rode back to the paddock and stopped outside our awning feeling fantastic...and very hot - it was a scorching day! Alex and Andy put the bike on its stands, I pulled my leathers off and we cracked open a few beers between us.

Beer after 2016 Pre-TT Classic Race

Pre-TT Classic - qualifying done

May 29th, 2016

In marked contrast to last year, the bike has run pretty damn well through practice at the Pre-TT Classic this year.

The first practice session was on Friday evening.  Roads closed about 6pm, and my class was scheduled to go out at around 7:30.  In fact, the Southern 100 runs with such military precision that I think out practice time was actually scheduled for 7:33pm. And so it went, too.  The weather was fantastic all day, and I'd even been wearing shorts before I put my leathers on - not typically Manx at all!  We were soon through scrutineering and the bike waited in the unique grassy holding area, with its tyre warmers on, ready for action.

Soon enough we filtered out to the collecting area, then went away on pairs onto the road.  The bike accelerated cleanly as it always does, and soon I was heading out of Ballakeigen corner and tucked in for the fast run to Iron Gates.  The Billown Circuit is 4.35 miles long, and is basically square shaped.  Three sides of the square are fairly easy to learn, but the fourth side, from Ballabeg to Cross Fourways, is fast and sinuous and tricky.  And I last rode here in 2012, so I really needed to re-learn it from scratch.  Still, "steady away", as old road-racers say, and the bike felt good as I started my first flying lap.  So good that I missed my braking point for Ballakeigin this time round, and nearly did a 3 point turn to get round - I lost a few seconds here.   And then I had a flying lap under my belt, which was already one more than last year.  But on the next lap red flags were out, and we all stopped.  And then that was the end of our session.    But by now I had a re-occurence of the issue we'd had at Oliver's Mount six weeks ago - once the brake disks got hot, they started to run the calipers and bind.  So we had work to do the next day.

Saturday dawned bright, but not as warm, but we were soon up and working on the bike.  We swapped the disks for the ones that had worked at Scarborough, and then <small voice> took the bike somewhere quiet to give it a quick test <cough>.  And then we set to working on my good friend Andy Cowie's new (to him) GPZ600-based F2 bike, which had been overheating the previous evening.  The problem was soon traced to damage in the water pump, which we swapped for a spare one he had, and we were all ready to go.

Practice on Saturday is in the afternoon, and we were off at 2:30pm.  The sun was out, the temperature had risen, and it wsa perfect conditions.  I was out early in the group, so a few faster guys came past me, but the bike was feeling great, the brakes were fine, and I was re-learning the circuit slowly but surely.  After 5 laps we were flagged in, and I was comfortably qualified.

I don't currently know my grid position for Monday's race, as the classes I practiced with are not the same as I'll race with.  I might even be in the top ten!  But I'm not too bothered about that - I'm here to a) have fun and b) get the last finish I need for my TT mountain licence.

Race day is tomorrow, Monday 30th May.  Update to follow sometime after that...


Pre-TT Classic - Prologue

May 26th, 2016

Last year's Pre-TT Classic was to be the first proper outing of my newly built classic ZXR750, and it was a disaster - I didn't complete a lap of practice, and didn't get to race. The full horror is described here.

But now the bike has a couple of decent meetings under it's belt. It ran very well at the Classsic TT last year, right up to the point when the chain broke. And it was also good at this year's Spring Cup at Oliver's Mount. Nothing is ever guaranteed in classic racing, but I'm hoping that any teething problems are now in the past.

Since Oliver's Mount I've improved a couple of things. The issues we had with the alignment of the brake calipers has been addressed by asking my good friend Nigel Eaton to machine up some spacers which fit in the forks, and do two things: they sleeve the bolt size down to 8mm, so I can use regular M8 bolts instead of the specially machined ones with an M8 thread and 10mm shoulder; and they space out the calipers so that they are correctly centred on the disks.

I've also fitted the freshly fabricated radiator, lovingly crafted by Phil Wall of Boal Engineering on the Isle of Man. It is a work of art. It was <cough> quite expensive, but quality always is, and the radiator I was using before was about the mankiest and nastiest thing left on the bike.

So the bike is ready, and today I loaded up the van with everything you need to go and race a motorcycle in another country. As well as the bike itself, and stands and spare wheels, there's all the tools, awning, workbenches, tyre warmers, compressor, spares...and leathers, boots, helmet...not to mention camping kit to live in a paddock for 4 days. It's fair to say the van was full. And that was before I got to Alex's place, and we loaded his kit in too.

Tonight we'll arrive in the paddock after dark, and just put our tents up to sleep. And then in the morning we'll set up the awning and our workspace for the weekend. And do all the race meeting business of signing on, getting riding gear and bike checked, changing tyres and all the other stuff. Roads close about 6pm in the evening, and practice will start shortly after - the Southern 100 Club run a very tight ship.

I'm writing this on the ferry, ready to sail to my favourite place on earth, which always puts me in a sunny mood. And the weather is matching it - the forecast is for 18 degrees and sunny - not at all Manx!