On the 20th May 2017 I took part in the first International Disabled World Cup motorcycle race at the famous Le Mans Circuit in France.
This historic event was an official support race at the HJC sponsored French round of the MotoGP series. As one of the two British racers invited to attend the event, I was excited and honoured to be representing Great Britain in the 600cc category.
Pre-race reparation did not go entirely to plan as two weeks before the race, whilst demonstrating at the Donnington Endurance Legends event, I suffered a jammed throttle and went over the front of the bike, spearing myself head first into the gravel. Whilst I wasn’t too badly injured, the bike needed a new fairing and an investigation into why the throttle stayed wide open. After eight frantic days I was heading into the Channel tunnel with a repaired, but untested, race bike on my way to France.
Arriving at Le Mans, the International Bridgestone Handy Race paddock was found to be some distance away from the actual main paddock and pit lane, just outside of the actual Bugatti Circuit and along the 24Hour circuit. Surrounding us were campsites filled with bikes being bounced off the rev limiters non stop. Never before have I seen such a fanatical bunch of petrol heads incessantly feeding engines with fuel and listening to their exhausts bark a cacophony like an orchestra.
Whilst waiting in the transport to get to the track for Practice and Qualifying, we were treated to a thunder and lightening storm that brought hail down so hard the current session was red flagged.
The circuit became wet, really really wet. Our practice began in light rain and that got gradually heavier throughout. Everyone was cautious to begin with, but soon found that the newly surfaced track was giving amazing levels of grip. Having a new fairing changed my sitting position as the race tail piece with hard foam seat covering sat me considerably higher than being on the standard seat piece. The new position put a lot of strain on my wrists, not so much of a problem in the wet as I wasn’t braking hard, but it would be an issue in the dry.
In our qualifying we were red flagged half way through, the thunderstorm once again brought hail and standing water. Once it was safe we headed back out to finish the session. I was lucky enough to know the Data Engineer from the Mistral Moto2 team, so I was parked outside the garage which offered a bit of shelter. One of the rider’s dads popped out to offer his thoughts…
Mr Wayne Gardner (1987 500cc World Champion) simply thought we were all mad! At the end of qualifying I was 7th out of 30. A decent position to be in considering my top speed was between 10-20kmh slower than all the other top nine racers.
Later that evening my team and I were able to go back and visit the Mistral Moto2 garage to have about 30 minutes chatting with Wayne, get a good look at the Moto2 bikes, tour around the Tech3 MotoGP garage and finished off by meeting with their rider Karel Abraham. Karel was interested to hear about the racing as well as The Bike Experience (a charity I founded to teach disabled people how to ride motorcycles). It was great to see the interest from all the racers, and ex racers, in what we were doing.
Saturday brought sunshine, clear skies and a crowd of thousands of race fans. The start was a ‘Le Mans’ style grid line up, followed by two lap formation behind a safety car, then eight laps for the chequered flag. In pairs we lined up behind the safety car and I set about warming up my tyres. I was on brand new Bridgestone R10s that were stone cold due to a mechanical failure of the generator. Initially the under-pressure tyres caused me to bounce around and slip under braking.
After the first lap they were beginning to get some heat and the bike began to turn as I expected. At the end of Lap 2 the safety car pulled in, we rolled down towards the start line, all waiting for the Tricolore flag to be waved. The noise of the crowd went through my helmet, my ear plugs and into my very core, it was intense and massively addictive. The flag dropped and we were racing.
As expected, the 1 litre bikes came shooting up past me and the ones in front pulled away. I was cautious with the cold tyres and didn't want to get involved in any fairing bashing at the first chicane. Through the chicane and down to Chapelle the group was slightly spread out, and by the time we went into Garage Vert for the first time, there was a bit of order about the race.
I was gapped by the faster bikes on each straight and was forced into some very late braking in order to catch up. After the third time of locking the front on the brakes I decided it wasn’t going to be safe to continue this style of riding for the race. I went back to what I knew best, smooth riding. The seating position proved to be a problem for me. With a very dry and grippy surface I was able to brake hard, but that meant my backside started lifting from the seat and bouncing me off the centre line of the bike. I do not have stomach muscles, and so the act of trying to straighten myself up on the bike means lots of pulling and pushing on the bars whilst dragging my tummy onto the tank. As a result I cannot simply focus on going fast, as I can’t be sat on the ‘upside’ of the seat in a corner at pace. Nevertheless I enjoyed a decent battle with two litre bikes and another 600.
The chequered flag came earlier than I had expected, as I didn’t see the last lap flag waved to us. Suddenly it was all over, the marshals lined the circuit, the crowds waved and cheered, we all gave thumbs up to the other racers and waved back to the spectators. I was ninth overall from thirty starters. The position translated to fourth in all of the 600s (twenty of us) and second place in the 600cc paralysed class. A very respectable finishing position and one I and be proud of. The victory in my class went to fellow British rider Michael Reynolds, and congratulations go to him.
There were so many memories to treasure: being part of a MotoGP event, getting invitations into Moto2 and MotoGP garages, meeting the racers you see on TV, wheeling out onto the start/finish straight and hearing the cheer of five thousand people. The most important part was that we, the disabled racers, got to show the world that anything is still possible.
My thanks go to you; my sponsors, my supporters, my friends, my family, my fellow racers.
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