Regulars might recall that when I attended the Southern Classic Bike Show in May last year, I rode to Sandown racecourse rather than Kempton Park; well I’ve been back there a couple of times since but I never seem to be able to find it straight off – which is pretty rubbish considering that it’s a large chunk of real estate and it’s less than 4½ miles from my front door.
This time around, along with my invitation to give Moto Gymkhana a whirl, Duncan MacKillop had sent me the same nice clear directions he’d provided for all the other riders travelling from across the country. So it was with considerable embarrassment that moments after congratulating myself on being almost there with a comfy ten minutes in hand, I noticed my turning sailing past as I headed irrevocably southwest on the M3 – next stop the M25! Which of course meant that I wouldn’t even be able just swing around a roundabout and come straight back! Bollocks! Bollocks Bollocks!
I pushed the Burgervan into the upper reaches of naughtiness and covered the six or seven miles to the orbital considerably quicker than I ever would have normally. I kept it nailed as I looped around the slip road and onto the clockwise carriageway where I joined the shuffling herd for a few miles before peeling off at the first junction and heading back the way I’d come. Unfortunately I stayed on the A30 too long and by the time I realised I was most of the way back to my place, I was reluctant to admit defeat and start all over so I studied the map on my phone and headed off again. I had to check it a couple more times before I arrived at somewhere I recognised and by the time I started riding around Kempton Park’s perimeter road towards the hi-viz bibs and massed cones of the Moto Gymkhana, the intros and briefing had been and gone.
My wife had been planning to join me by train and to bring our six year old to watch, but, assuming that I’d missed all the important informational stuff and therefore wouldn’t be allowed to take part, I’d called her to suggest that they give it a miss when I’d last pulled up; which was fortunate because it was immediately apparent that the organisers had chosen Kempton Park for its extensive tarmacked area rather than its capacious Grandstand – in this country at least, Moto Gymkhana is very much a participant rather than a spectator sport.
However, although health and safety are clearly priorities for the organisers, they weren’t in the teeniest bit snooty or officious, and dismissed my abject apologies before telling me they’d be happy to get someone to run through the safety briefing and walk me around the course.
The safety stuff was pretty much common-sense and was presented in that manner, so I was soon walking the course with Justin Leary (whose lovely wife Sarah had checked me in). He pointed out how important it was to maximise the opportunity to familiarise myself with the course and to work out precisely how I would ride it; to walk the exact line I planned to adopt, to approach each cone in such a way that when I repeated it later on the scooter I would be in the optimum position to take the quickest possible route to the next exercise.
It all seemed so simple as we strolled around the cones – left, or anti-clockwise, around the blue ones, right around the reds – with ample room to manoeuvre. Justin was happy to be walking me around because the track layout is different at every meeting and, just like everyone else, he had first seen it less than half an hour earlier and wanted to thoroughly familiarise himself before his first ‘attack’.
The way it works (and it all worked ever so smoothly) around eight to ten riders are directed to the warm up course where they have plenty of time to get their hips swinging and their tyres up to temperature. They then peel off one at a time in their running order to a final two-coned area where they do solo figures of eight until they are called to the starting box, from whence they launch themselves as soon as they are ready.
I watched the first few competitors – and make no mistake, as friendly as it is, they are all very much in competition, even if only with themselves – and it was abundantly clear that if I’d been harbouring any fantasies about just turning up and surprising the regulars, that was precisely what they were; and once I got onto the warm up course, it was obvious that even the slowest of them were in a different class. I got quicker as I went around and around the cones but I was still regularly pulling wide to avoid holding-up faster moving riders.
I’d established while watching the others that the fast boys – and girls – were looking for a time somewhere shy of two minutes but since my reality check, my ambitions were confined to completing the course without making a complete arse of myself.
And did I manage it? To hear the commiserative sounds emitting from the others after I came to a halt in the box I did, because as one of them pointed out, riding the 650 Burgman was akin to trying to steer a supertanker around the course; but the truth is they’re just a nice encouraging bunch. I was absolutely crap, I took over three and a half minutes, which was a whole minute down on the next slowest rider and I had more dabs than a conservation conscious chippie! My only consolation was that I didn’t lose any marks for taking any wrong turnings or straying off the course (which struck me as pretty paradoxical given the trouble I’d had getting there).
It’s true that the scooter’s wheelbase is less than ideal for the kind of tight manoeuvres the discipline demands but my real excuse (and it’s one that’s always guaranteed to buy me a little sympathy whenever I roll up my trousers and show off my scars) is that I ruined my right leg in a walking speed accident, which aside from leaving it weak and somewhat fragile, has also made me overly wary of low velocity tumbles. But as I say, nobody was demanding any justification and ultimately I’d achieved the only thing I’d really been aiming for, which was to get a practical impression of what was involved.
We took a break for lunch and I’d already untied my bib and declared my reluctance to accept a second chance to put my ineptitude on public display before the skies came over all apocalyptic and began dumping rain in the kind of quantities that had the local fauna queuing up in pairs and looking anxiously for an ark. Which was fortunate really because it didn’t look like it was the rain that had caused me to bottle out, whereas it was actually a damn good job I’d already announced my retirement because if I was crap in the dry I’d have been downright diarrhoeic in the wet.
Undeterred by the deluge, Rob Fox wandered off to walk the course again under a large MotoGP umbrella and I couldn’t help smiling at the irony of the picture he presented. Can anyone imagine a more striking illustration of the enormous chasm between the glossy circus the brolly was designed for – i.e. to be held by a Lycra clad dolly, to flatter a pampered GP pilot – and the altogether more prosaic world of Moto Gymkhana, where enthusiasts travel from across the country and pay to take every possible opportunity to get out there and do that thing they do.
While Rob was pacing and others were still eating or tweaking, I was sheltering under the timing gazebo smoking and getting a bit of background info from Duncan. I could reproduce my soggy notes but the information on their web site actually covers it quite nicely:
“Moto Gymkhana is a high energy technical motorcycle sport that doesn’t take itself too seriously. It’s all about skill – requiring accurate control bursts of speed and ruthless braking – rider ability not horsepower is the key to steering round a course of obstacles in the fastest time. You can take part on any kind of motorbike and learn some great techniques to help you speed up your slalom get a rapid rotation and accelerate your X-box! Want to have a go? – take a look at our Events page and come along to an Experience or check out your Regional Club at one of their monthly practice sessions.
“The Moto Gymkhana Association was founded in 2011 following our visit to Japan – we are now working hard to establish Moto Gymkhana as a worldwide phenomenon. MGA is your first point of call for everything to do with the sport in the UK & Europe. Moto Gymkhana combines ‘Moto’ – shorthand for motorbike, with ‘Gymkhana’ an event consisting of speed pattern racing and timed games for riders, traditionally on horseback.
“Moto Gymkhana began in Japan over 40 years ago, with motorcyclists getting together to enjoy informal and fun competitions between themselves. Motorcycle dealers and manufacturers caught on to the idea, holding competitions to advertise and promote their products and have fun with their clients. Moto Gymkhana competitions have changed dramatically since their outset, moving from manufacturer/dealer led, to rider led events open to any make of motorcycle.
“Along with the fun of the competition, Moto Gymkhana also is also a sport built on friendship and camaraderie. It’s a relatively safe sport – bumps and bruises are usually the worst injury and even these are rare due to the low speeds. The Editor of Performance Bikes called it “the most insane, non-lethal motorcycle sport” – what more could you want?”
Given my experience as an unknown stranger who just rocked up and joined an already well-established group, I can vouch for both the friendship and the camaraderie that were displayed towards me, even – if not more so – after my pathetic attempt at trying to emulate their expertise.
As a self-confessed aquaphobe, I watched in absolute awe as riders rode up and down accelerating hard and then braking even harder to establish how much grip they had, and then threw their bikes around the sodden warm-up course without a trace of the timidity that has always marred my wet weather riding.
Undistracted because I didn’t have to prepare myself for another attack, I was free to watch the others perform and, having struggled so much myself, to admire anew the combination of nimbleness and aggression that saw the really fast riders covering the ground at an incredible rate.
When you look at track or road racing you tend to find that certain bikes dominate but Moto Gymkhana would appear to be very much about the rider rather than the ride, and the motorcycles taking part looked more like a racetrack’s car park than its paddock. It was the same sort of mix that you’re likely to see on your daily commute, with a predominance of Japanese multis of the Hornet, Bandit, Fazer variety. And I’m not just talking about ‘the rest of the field’ here; the fastest times were returned on a Kawasaki Z750R, a Suzuki Wolf 250, a Sherco (Bultaco) trials bike, an MT03, a KTM 690 and a teeny Peugeot twist-and-go!
Although not necessarily in that order and with sincere apologies to any riders (or anyone’s bike to be more precise) who finished ahead of anyone on that list who I failed to mention. To be honest I was loading my bike when the results were being announced and the winner’s award was presented. I don’t recall exactly what the prize was either but it was basically the equivalent of a Jackanory pencil, which just served to underline that nobody had turned up for the booty.
So why had they all travelled to Kempton Park – some of them considerable distances – to ride around a car park in ‘variable’ weather? A few of them were there to do serious battle (of the non contact variety) against the other front runners in the championship; others appeared to be happy to compete with riders around their mark, while others again seemed to be perfectly content simply to have an opportunity to hone their skills.
Sincere thanks to Duncan MacKillop for the invitation and to everyone else involved – organisers and competitors – for being so welcoming, friendly and supportive.
If you felt this feature was a little short on detail and historic perspective, fear not; Duncan has agreed to write something for the next issue that will fill you in on the history, the ethos, the future and, most significantly, why Moto Gymkhana is such a fantastic way of training riders ‘by stealth’.
This article first appeared in issue 183 of The Rider’s Digest in October 2013