Flat Track School Is The Best Present You'll Get This Year
Standing amongst a group of bikers talking about their motocross, enduro and track racing experience, as a dedicated commuter, it was a bit awkward.
“What do you ride?” they asked. “Motorways” was my answer. Not wrong but not cool.
I was amongst this group of racers because I had accepted Jim’s challenge to get outside of my comfort zone and learn something new.
Never too old to learn, I thought, and it can only improve my bike confidence.
Which is how I ended up at the Champions Flat Track School in Lincolnshire taking part in the Level 1 (beginners) flat track day.
Flat track (or dirt track) is racing around an oval of dirt or grass. It’s like speedway but flat track bikes have suspension and rear brakes, which makes the cornering quite different.
Pete Boast (2009 British and European Flat Track Champion) runs the school and was our coach for the day.
There were eight of us, mostly in motocross-type gear, apart from me, in a commuter’s summer jacket and flip helmet.
Caption: Trying to find neutral again
Before we begin we strap a metal shoe to our left feet, this lets us hang our leg out like an outrigger, to keep us upright (most of the time). It also made finding neutral a real pain.
We spend the morning learning the basic skills by the most tried-and-tested bike school method: riding around traffic cones.
We were taught to “shake hands” with the throttle (approach it from the end of the bars) so that our elbows are high up. This means that when we’re leaning over in a tight corner our left elbow and thigh don’t get in the way of each other.
Weaving through the cones it feels awkward but gets us ready to start using our left leg on the “single cone of vertigo”.
It’s a great exercise: ride round and round a cone, leaning the bike lower and lower using your left leg for balance.
Caption: Pete shows us how and it looks like he’s not even using the sidewall of the front wheel.
It gives you confidence to be able to visualise just how stable these CRF100s are on tyres that look no grippier than winter tyres. It’s a dizzying exercise and hot work: between each session, we have to take our helmets off and unzip our jackets.
As our confidence builds we move into a two-cone-accelerate-and-hairpin exercise. The dance of rear brake, savage lean on the bars, waist twist and leg out, look where you want to go and accelerate up the straight is complex but when it comes together it feels great. As more of a foot-down than knee-down biker, I was leaning the bike much lower than I’d ever managed before and getting more confident with each turn.
Caption: One-on-one tuition from a World Champion
After lunch, it was time to take on the oval. In our groups of four, the sound of engines got louder, the competitive streak became wider as we refined our techniques. Being able to keep perfecting your technique in a warm, dry environment is a real advantage of the Champions set up. The only disadvantage is that the metal shoe starts feeling heavier and the legs get more tired.
As the track becomes warmer and we got more confident there were regular yellow flags as people slipped out on the corners. On 100cc bikes at no more than 20 mph it’s not scary and being able to feel the limits helps you find them. Yours truly managed to fall off twice in one move in front of the crowd. Not easy to do and a typical humiliation, fortunately, it wasn’t caught on film.
Caption: Jim comes in a bit too low
One thing we did notice was that the shiny patches that developed on the corners, had you seen them on a road, would have made you tense up. Whereas here it was an opportunity to get round the corner quicker, on almost road-going tyres. Knowing that you can cope with these surfaces are a great side-effect of training days like these.
The day ends with a chase - both teams on a horseshoe-shaped track with the goal to overtake the other team’s slowest member. I was under no illusion that I was being chased rather than chasing, all I needed to do was not fall off. Trying to keep smooth and remember everything we had learned over the day, I wasn’t setting any records. Thankfully my newfound skills helped me stay on just enough for our (very quick) youngest member to win the day for us.
Caption: Vertu 30 tries to catch a young whippersnapper
It’s been a week since the course and what do I remember? The learning curve over the day is fantastic, from first wobbles around the cones to an elbow-up, leg-out, bike leaning corner-cleaving dirt track novice. Some of my course partners have become effortless corner-gliders, all of us are grinning like loons and glad to see the back of the metal shoe. If you’ve not asked Santa for something this Christmas, put this top of your list.
Caption: Don’t worry, your legs will feel normal again in a few days