While we live, we learn.
At least that is what I keep telling myself, and what I keep trying to demonstrate to myself and others.
And while I admit that a partial fear of the converse – If we stop learning, we’re dead meat – may be a component of my motivation, I’d like to think that stubbornly driving forward under any and all conditions is just a crucial part of my DNA.
So I embrace the new. Or, more precisely, new knowledge and new experiences.
Everything short of bungee jumping – which strikes me as a pointless kind of sticking a pin in one’s adrenal system – if I have not yet done it, bring it on.
So, it is in this context of seeking and embracing all forms of personal growth, that I am almost embarrassed to admit that until yesterday, I had never ridden a motorcycle on a racetrack. I’ve ridden nearly a half million miles on the street and on the dirt – crossing the continent and lapping the Great Lakes — but had never turned so much as a wheel on a closed, competition course.
Yesterday, though. Oh, yesterday.
One of my better pieces of self-made luck has been a relationship with Royal Enfield USA – the US Importer/Agent for Royal Enfield Motorcycles of Chennai, India. A long time back I had seen some details about new motorcycles that Enfield had in their development pipeline, and it was very clear that the company wanted to show it could do way more than build 350 and 500 cc Bullet Motorcycles. Those bikes would turn out to be the Continental GT 535, The Himalayan, and the 650 cc INT and Continental GT twins. I wanted to write about the Himalayan, but a rash of technical problems kept the timing from working out. When the arrangements started to finally gel, most writers had already had a chance to review and write about the bike, and I felt very late to that party. So I stuck my neck out and proposed instead of being late to the Himalayan Party, I’d prefer to be early to the 650 Twins party.
If you don’t ask, you don’t get.
All of the early coverage for the Royal Enfield 650 twins had been the result of an invitation-only press junket in Carmel California. You can assume from the construction of this description that I was not invited. All those present got a presentation, a nice meal, and 50 miles or so of Northern California roads to roll under the Enfield 650’s wheels.
I don’t know about you, but 50 miles is just about enough to have me know what questions I want to ask about any motorcycle, but nowhere close to enough to have me have any answers to those questions.
It’s a tease, but it isn’t an understanding, and it certainly isn’t any kind of relationship.
So, having asked and having got, I ended up with one of the Enfield 650 demo fleet in my garage, and got to be the first guy outside of India that would be able to really live with the motorcycle for a while, and see if it was something that could be bonded with, and much to my amazement and enjoyment, it was.
When I had to return the Enfield, I’ll cop to being kinda bummed.
A bumming that came to an abrupt end when Enfield USA decided to take their collection of demo bikes to a series of Road and Racetrack locations across the country. Enfield’s stop in my neck of the woods was at West Virginia’s Summit Point Motorsports Park, a legendary collection of 3 different racetracks that is such a brief blast out US 340 West out of Jefferson that I’m not sure it’s even far enough to fully warm up a BMW airhead.
All my family and friends had arranged for something else to do that day, Nature served up a perfectly sunny 76 degree afternoon, so there was no conceivable reason to do anything else other than pull on my seldom used Vanson perfed pants and jacket, throwing a few liters of cold water and some towels into the R90S’s cases, and BOOOOOMPing towards West Virginia at enthusiastically elevated speeds.
After some lovely road dancing on the last 5-6 miles into Summit, the Racetrack was awash in the sounds of Enfield’s 270 degree crankshaft vertical twin – with a bark and a power delivery much more like a Vtwin than the British twins the Enfield 650s most resemble. One dedicated fan had even ridden in on a 1969 Royal Enfield Interceptor 750 – the only one I’ve ever seen running and on the road.
A Royal Enfield Continental GT 650, with chrome accessory tank, flyscreen and S&S pipes
In the paddock of the Summit Point’s Shenandoah Circuit, Royal Enfield was set up large and was clearly ready to party. Their Black Tractor-trailer transporter, with artwork of the 650s served as a backdrop for the whole event, replete with DJ, Foodtruck, and a small army of photographers, videographers, and a few artists thrown in for additional color. Running the whole show and clearly busier than a one-legged woman in an ass-kicking contest was my contact at Royal Enfield, Bree Poland. Bree and her crew were wrangling riders through the sign up and release processes, checking gear, giving safety talks, and marshalling groups of roughly 25 riders around the Circuit.
Bree had recruited Melissa Paris – a successful professional Superbike racer – to be our lead Track Marshall. And before I knew it, I was astride a white Continental GT 750, blipping off a few revs, fumbling a bit to adjust to pegs that were higher and more rearward than the INT 650 that I’d tested, and following an AMA Pro Roadracer out onto the Shenandoah Circuit.
And then the black and white curbing was sweeping by.
Now a Continental GT is not a modern technology track missile. The 47 horsepower of the bike’s stock configuration is probably right in line with my BMW /5’s stock output when it was new. The GT is a perfectly responsive classic motorcycle that has the virtue, though, of doing absolutely what it is told. My experience of it had indicated that the harder it was pushed, the better it liked it.
And then the black and white curbing was sweeping by.
Feel free to go ahead and mock, but the feeling that lifted me up to another place that sunny afternoon was one I’d never want to have not experienced. Looking down Shenandoah’s long subtly kinked backstraight, with its sharp left hander at the bottom by the treeline, I could simply see my riding playing out several moves ahead… a string that got longer in terms of playing though the rhythm of multiple corners the more laps I put in.
I was able to cut harder, with confidence, than I would ever do on the street – Summit’s racing surface was perfect – clean, grippy, and even where there were patches, the edges of the repairs had no effect on the Enfield’s grip or handling. Being able to focus like this on line and on mass management, without having to factor in errant aggregates or traffic, was a soul stirring illumination of an experience. I mean, I heard Angels singing. Now my Angels sound suspiciously like a large assemblage of 250 CC Two Stroke GP bikes, but they are angels.
The Royal Enfield continued to impress. It could be wrung out through about a 4000 rpm wide powerband, and had good acceleration and engine braking on the slipper clutch entering corners. Leaned well over and taking drive out of corners, the bike felt unstressed and comfortable on the sides of its tires, with plenty of chassis performance left in reserve.
So with a compliant and trustworthy mount, it all became about the riding.
There are several sections of tighter corner combinations where going from edge to edge of the tires and the transitions were absolutely dancing – I felt like I could put the bike almost exactly where I wanted it, and like I could always do it just a little better, and just a little bit faster.
And that is perhaps the most single dangerous statement in the motorcycling universe.
It’s why every racer that ever lived does it. And why I really never wanted to stop.
I get it now why people get completely obsessed over riding CB160s. Or how someone who has better skills and bigger stones than I lay claim to can see their entire life telescoped down to that pinpoint perspective that you get at the end of the straight on a 600cc or 1000 cc four cylinder superbike.
Yeah, even with my Continental GT’s 47 horsepower, the straights are still fun. WFO is still and always WFO. At those points, the stripes on the curbing blur by… faster.
Just at the point when my racetrack virgin self was really starting to internalize the oneness of the circuit, we ran out of laps.
This too, I suspect is a universal motivator for the racetrack-addled.
“Please, Sir…just one more go?”
Fortunately, today’s party permitted getting back in queue, and, after a suitable delay, heading back out again with what turned out to be the last group of the day to hit the track.
Perhaps I’m sensitive, but the Last Group was giving off less than subtle ‘Fast Guy’ vibes. The Enduro Coats and open face helmets were gone… these guys had helmets with spoilers.
Remember guys – this is not a race.
The Ever Efficient and tidy rider Ms. Paris – who was pretty used up after lapping all day – did notice that this group seemed to be a bit more comfortable, and increased the previous pace just enough to make things a bit more interesting. I had a few places on the course now where braking was the proper tool, and my progress through the corner combinations and the verve with which the long straights were greeted took me to a place where my mind was shiny and bright, my body performed in a state of grace, and my heart sang high in my chest.
I can’t understand for the life of me why I waited so long to do this. And I can’t wait for the next time I get to do it again.
To lean way over, roll open the throttle, and watch the black and white striped curbing go sweeping by.