Friend and fan of 250LONDON, Leonie Watkins, is a London based Writer, Editor and Producer. She can usually be found messing about on wheels or water, or in pursuit of good bourbon! Two decades of riding motorcycles and countless machines later, she maintains a super sports heart but has recently developed a curiosity for off road biking. She’s cool, she’s creative and when we asked her to write about her recent experience at Days on the Dirt, she was on it like a Scotch Bonnet! Here is her story…
THE DAY IT DAWNED
Standing firm-footed, surrounded by anxious spectators, cemented by the sharp and deafening noise of engines firing, I gawped in bewildered awe at the riders drifting with conviction - elbows up - around the left turns of the Arena Essex Raceway. Since that afternoon, I’ve frequently imagined what it would be like to ride a flat track speedway. I’ve dreamt of the pantomime of kitting up to sit in formation on the grid, preparing to race.
It’s true to say that flat track racing is about camaraderie, good sportsmanship and above all, good times. The festival of colour that is the DTRA is something to behold. A short minute observing these riders fills you with elation and confusion, in equal amounts. How is it that human sense and physics dissolve, allowing for these heroes to throw 250 pound motorcycles into corners, rears sliding out at 120 plus miles per hour, without breaking bike or body? Naturally, right there, in the dirt amid the dusty pits clogged with fumes, the yelling and the lunatic grins of the racers as they prepared to set off, I fell in lust. Clear as the audible exhaust splatter-coughs it was apparent that every one of these riders was gearing up to have, quite literally, a total blast. I was hooked. I wanted a taste. But how?
QUEEN OF THE DIRT
Enter Leah Tokelove. I have long admired this all-round fierce competitor, knowledgeable speed wizard, excellent human, and famously modest soul. Equally, and of great importance, Leah is rigorously attuned in all things flat track, competing at the highest level. In the UK in 2018, she is the only female pro class racer and, as a dedicated rider, this woman represents herself with intelligence and grace at every turn, if you’ll pardon the pun. Flat track riding is generally not a graceful sport but Leah makes it look effortless. As a full-tilt committed Sportswoman and advocate of her discipline, she is the poster girl for hard work and furthermore, taking pleasure in what you do. It’s somewhat unsurprising, then, that Leah is keen to introduce more women to flat track racing. So keen, in fact, that she has taken her love of the sport several steps beyond simply riding. Who better to lead the charge of making my dreams come true, than Leah herself?
Fortuitously, she has somehow found the time between training and competing (and working a day job) to set up a school for riders. ‘Days on the Dirt’ is fully functioning at Leah’s beloved Greenfield track in rural Lincolnshire. The training is expertly designed for both seasoned riders and those fresh out of the box, with programs tailored to suit students old and new to learn all there is to know about flat tracking – from the very basics, right through to the finer points and the more detailed tuning. For anyone motorcycle obsessed, who wouldn’t want to spend a day in the company of great people under expert tuition? I packed my spanking new 250LONDON kit and headed up the A1. Hi ho.
GREENFIELD OF DREAMS
Greenfield race track is a haven tucked behind a pretty farmhouse, nestled between surrounding woods, lush grassy fields, apathetic sunbathing sheep and swathes of farmland. We were greeted with smiles from our hosts and the faces of the other students there to learn. Pensive? Excited? It was impossible to tell. One thing was certain, however, we were all earnest to begin and as keen as mustard.
Most of us had opted to borrow kit, at least in part. Everything for the sessions was provided and there to be utilised. I scrounged a chest protector and a lid, deeming my own road helmet not quite fitting for our assignment. The all-important steel ‘shoe’ was made available to each of us. In this case, a slip on sole shaped to fit and secured around the left boot. Crucial for the planting action specific to flat track riding. The very first one slotted onto my size 8 like a dream. Jog on, Cinderella. I was ready for the ball. I took this extraneous incident to mean fate promised a great day ahead.
The threat of incremental showers - ranging from the barely-there-wafty variety to full-tilt washout - had Leah already prepared with forethought and associated wet weather planning. Leah clarified how she expected our day might play out. This attention to time management, according to the classically British weather meant that should the skies select to hamper our training and open up, we would be catered for. All bases covered.
Lined up like red stallions eager to be let off the reigns, Leah offered a summary of the rudiment functions of the Honda 125s we’d be using that day and began to talk us through the diagnostics she would use to subtly assess our personal abilities. These included a chance to release any nerves with turns around tyres and a figure of 8 – initiation drills designed to inject some confidence into our foray to minibike wrangling. We were shown, too, where and how to sit on the bike and best-practiced posture. Even for a seasoned rider like me, there was the trepidation that comes with ego and not wishing to embarrass myself like Bambi approaching the ice. But Leah was having none of it. Who cared if we made friends with the hay-bales expertly positioned and stacked to absorb any wild miscalculations? Go for it! Was the encouragement from the sidelines. I was liking this woman a lot already.
Morale boosted, we moved on to the mini oval. A smaller version of the larger and imposing track, sitting neatly inside. Riding a few turns of the loop in pairs would hone focus and have us turning succinctly and cleanly, requiring precision and care. Effectively, this demanding ‘warm up’ would order us to think about our next turn every few seconds. Time to engage brains. Yes, the circuit was smaller, but it was no less mighty than its big sister and not to be underestimated. Leah demonstrated adroitly and with impeccable class, how to lean left comfortably, putting weight on the same side, turning the left leg out from the hip whilst simultaneously pressing into the bike from the other side with the right thigh. There was much to concurrently scrutinise, yet Leah explained with exactitude and reassurance that a few rounds of the oval would validate our primary bike riding skills.
She was right. Momentum, speed and Leah’s instruction saw our technique fall into place fast. Splitting the group into 2 or 3 riders, Leah could accurately breakdown where we might make individual improvements and would aid her in determining any shortcomings. Reminders from Leah that, “the more weight you can apply to the left foot, the easier you’ll find those turns!” rang about my lid and became my adopted mantra. I focused on the steadfast planting of foot into dirt. Observing the dynamic upgrades in our respective riding is a feeling best described as one of sheer joy. In the case of one rider, who, before today had never sat on a motorcycle the progress was quite extraordinary.
Without any time for contemplation, procrastination or nerves to eclipse headspace, we were expedited immediately to the larger oval. Dreaming up big ideas of personal success during the journey from London to Greenfield, this is what I had been waiting for. Leah intuitively tapped into my train of thought and was quick to highlight what lay ahead. Whilst speed would undoubtedly increase on the straights and the trajectory for understanding the application of pressing foot to floor to help lean the bike on those left turns would reform our riding, we would almost certainly find the open circuit less technical. This valuation was of course spot on. Persistence perfecting the body position and lean, when combined with particular attention to consistency on every turn, paid off. By the 8th lap or thereabouts, I found I was rapidly becoming more accomplished and experienced a breakthrough.
MORE PRO TIPS
Next up, George. George’s family runs Greenfield farm and he lives on site. George, who is himself a pro Flat Track and Snowquake racer, motocross champion and master of all his trades, took us around the TT circuit arranged to test our mettle, condensing what we’d learnt previously on the more straightforward layout. There were opportunities for some right turns, a sharp left loop and even a main feature of a jump!
The circuit was reduced as Leah accentuated the need for care at those focal points, as well as the strategic nature of tapping down (and up) through the gears. This was getting intense. The rain turned from a sputter to gutsy horizontal, but even as the track began to slick up nicely, no one was thinking about giving up. The difference in weather wasn’t so much a handicap, Leah explained, but would liberate us with a freedom to explore what the pros frequently face on race days. We adapted, at first with caution. Soon, however, we were leaning with relaxed gusto into turns right, then left, winding up the throttle over the jump (I swear to the bike gods, I achieved some air!) and sliding the back out in a faux drift simulation as the track took on water - absorbing and clogging in some areas - thinning out to a polished shine in other spots. Being flexible in these changeable conditions would test our learning and revolutionise our riding. The transition from dust to damp was glorious!
We broke for lunch and an excuse to stretch legs, shake off the grit and wet and enjoy a general blather out from behind our helmets. By now, this group of women were each other’s champion supporters. Sustenance and thigh engagement comparisons licked, we were back out on the track to review what we had learnt that morning and to ride some more, all in the name of consolidating our schooling.
George constructed a second TT circuit, this time on the mini oval. At this stage in proceedings, the larger track was straightforwardly too heavy with sky liquid for us novices to safely sustain ourselves at speed, without the risk of one of us scaling those hay-bales. As it turned out, the compact nature of George’s smart new architectural structure, laid out on the contours made for a more attentive address. So flat tracking was as much about consideration and tactics as skill and acceleration? Who knew! I was learning moment by moment.
By 4:30pm, we had squeezed in so much I could feel my glute muscles squarely complaining. It was the perfect amount of riding – and on a day in which ominous weather might well have dictated otherwise, potentially ripping apart Leah’s best-laid plans. The risk and eventual appearance of the rain had inadvertently provided our group with, quite probably, more track time than we would have ordinarily earned. We got lucky, but undoubtedly, had it rained heavily, there would have been a place for an introduction to the sheltered adjacent motocross track, merely a skip away. And for that, there was always another weekend of training…
AND THAT WAS THAT!
To close the day, Leah thanked the group for their hard work and dedication. A shower of sincere enthused praise on our individual successes followed, accompanied by welcome cups of hot tea. The respective changes in our riding from first thing that morning to late afternoon was evident. And it was no coincidence that we had developed at such a remarkable rate. Leah’s clear direction, paired with constructive cues and frequent encouragement made for expeditious advancements in each of us. I confess the heartfelt will of our tutors, not just to improve but to derive a balance of satisfaction from our time at Greenfield, invoked a hardworking spirit - characteristic of great teaching. I had made great gains and learnt much beyond any personal objectives. Not only about the style of flat tracking, but also the strategies and methods employed both on the track and beforehand, in the initial preparations off it.
As a bonus, we were presented with a goodie bag of treats, including a t-shirt (complete with the slogan: ‘I rode the Greenfield TT’) plus a free entry pass to race in next year’s DTRA minibike class. This final reward had me quietly consider that which would have been inconceivable just 7 hours prior. A gentle shove into the next stage of my relationship with flat tracking? I wonder if this time next year we might be going steady.
A suitably grubby face as a souvenir, my goggles full of dust, still dizzy with adrenaline and buoyant with euphoria, I peeled my head and limbs off the cabin ceiling from where my entire being was glued. Gradually, I wound down. Mind and body blown, exhausted in the best and purest ways. I vowed to be back at Greenfield as soon as possible. I’m not sure I could keep away, even if I wanted to.
LINKS AND CONTACTS
Check out Leah’s ‘Days on the Dirt’ flat track school A single day of training costs £160 for small groups of 6 people with tuition from Leah and George. Lunch and all kit included.
Click the image above to visit the Facebook page.
The DTRA runs annually from April to September.
https://www.dirttrackriders.co.uk/ for tickets and information.