Almeria circuit trackday report (part one)

UKBike regulars may remember a competition we launched in August in association with Track Sense, offering the biking trip of a lifetime to one lucky winner and a mate - three days of riding at the Almeria circuit in southern Spain, along with accommodation and plenty of extras thrown in.

Brendan Kelly (a.k.a. bbstrikesagain) was the lucky winner of this fantastic prize, and we are delighted to bring to you his report from four special days in sunny EspaƱa. Part two to follow tomorrow...




It could've been you, but no, it was me! (part one)

Back in August I submitted a follow-up review of my GSX-R1000 K8. I'd seen one or two quite detailed and informative reviews on UKBike, not to mention a few short and to the point one-liners, so I tried harder this time to be informative and entertaining. After all, even the runner-up prizes of off-road days, riding and days, dirtying someone else's bike and someone else's kit, sounded great, and there were five of them up for grabs. The closing date came and went, and just four days later there was a PM in my inbox with the subject: "How’s your Spanish?!"

Unbelievable, top step of the podium! The prize: three days on track at "Circuito de Velocidad de Almeria", in southern Spain's spaghetti western dessert, for me and a mate, on our own bikes, fully inclusive of bike transport, four nights in a four star hotel, hire car, etc., all complements of UKBike and TrackSense. Brilliant! All I had to do was buy the plane ticket! Oh yes, and tell the wife...

Tell the wife... This whole thing was down to her really. She'd recently arranged to go with a couple of friends to... Almeria. Now those friends were my friends too, and I love the Sergio Leone movies as much as any of them, so, why couldn't I come along? Apparently theirs was to be a "girly" trip: entirely burp, fart and testicle free! Doh! Prior to their departure though, the UKBike competition was announced. "Hah!" says I, "I'll win me a boys' trip!" Imagine the girls' faces when I announced that I'd done just that! Priceless, and the trip hadn't even got underway yet.

Ready for the off?

For some people, track days are their bread and butter. Somehow, they were one of those never-quite-got-around-to-it things, for my biking friend and me: probably on both of our bucket-lists, but there never seemed to be a right time. So, last April, when I plumped for the white gixxer as my daily transport, it had been for its impeccable road manners (see the reviews) as much as anything. The idea of taking it out on a track full of other lunatics was slightly disturbing, as was the idea that if I, or anyone else, broke it I'd have to fork out for any repairs. In September my bike and I were rear ended by a Galaxy, so I was painfully aware how repair bills can mount up!

There were plenty of butterflies fluttering daily during the countdown, peaking when we trailered the bikes to the depot for their long journey south. My mate's Fazer FZ6S was much loved and had to be the tidiest and sparkliest specimen on the planet, so I suspect he too may have had a few nagging first-track-day doubts.

The day after before tomorrow

It'd been a couple of hours drive from San Javier Airport (near Murcia) to check in to the Gran Hotel, Almeria late on Saturday night. On Sunday morning, seeking distraction to calm those butterflies, we drove to Fort Bravo a.k.a. Texas Hollywood. One of three spaghetti western studio theme parks in the area, and reputedly the best, it was good for two or three hours taking in the vibe, delving into the saloons, banks and jails, remembering the great Sergio Leone masterpieces, and finding shade. Yes, southern Spain is still pretty hot and sunny in October.

Driving a few km down the road we located the circuit. Seeing and hearing other bikes screaming past wasn't too good for the nerves, so rather than hang around we took a drive up the nearest mountain pass. In twenty kilometres we rounded countless dozens of hairpins and attained an altitude of 1,860 meters. Sadly we were about 200 metres into the cloud: I'm sure on a clear day the view would be quite something.

The white graffiti on the tarmac on the way up was testament to the local enthusiasm for cycle races. Making it to the top of that pass on pedal power would be astounding enough, but racing up it? At the summit we took leave of the car for the cooler, cleaner air, but after a few minutes we retreated as the distant gunfire seemed to be getting closer – we didn't want to be mistaken for vermin before getting on track.

On the way down, a wondrous Mordillo style image of the impossibly twisted road below peeked though the clouds.



Day one

Breakfast was great. It included a cheese platter with an amazing range of fine, presumably local, goat's cheeses, coffee as strong as the goat's cheese, and plenty of other stuff for normal folk.

Apparently, in Almeria it rains just four days a month at this time of year. This was looking like one of them, with a steady morning drizzle, but by the time we'd driven up to the circuit it was beginning to lift.

We collected our bikes from their pallets and found a garage. The garages had just been extended to double their original depth, so there was plenty of room. We shared with a nice couple from Stuttgart with a wicked Ducati 999 SuperBike and a beautiful little Bimota DB1; a couple of guys supported by respective family and partners with their track honed '08 blade and trick gixxer 600; and a pair of adventurous chaps who'd ridden all the way down on their Ninja and CBR sixes (and were planning to ride away on them too, all being well). There was also a gorgeous tricked-up Ducati 749. A mixed bag of abilities, experience, and nerves...

Track Sense's Alan was to prove an excellent host, doing his rounds of the garages, making everyone feel at home and making sure we knew what was on the agenda – like the compulsory first day briefing, and the optional extra classes on the following days.

After a short briefing the red (advanced) group were sent off to fuel their bikes. There was a little more briefing for the green (intermediate) group and yet more for the green-behind-the-ears blue (novice) group. How many flags?!

Having waited for the rain to stop, the start was an hour late, but an extra session was added at the end to make up. Finally the sound of thunder erupted all around and the advanced group took to the drying track. Sighting laps at warp speed it seemed – luckily each garage was thoughtfully equipped with two khazis, just enough...

A fistful of dollars...

Or, more particularly, euros, buys the first can of fuel, pretty much at pump prices, which is lucky, as there'll be a few of these needed. Ten litres straight in and we're finally ready to go.

First laps

Each day for each group would begin the same, with three single-file sighting laps behind the instructor. To a complete novice these felt brisk enough on day one. I'd studied the track plans and watched a few videos, but the sighting laps filled in a lot of gaps, especially where the track rises and falls, and the blind turns.

After the sighting laps I gradually lifted my pace, but I was constantly aware (and photographer Ryan's photos prove this point) that one finger of my right hand was always hovering over the brake lever. Not good.


Copyright © www.BritishSportPhotography.com

I was mostly using mid-range revs, emulating the many videos I'd seen on t'internet, sticking to third gear through all but the tightest turns. I was just trying to be smooth, trying to ride the line we'd been shown on the sighting laps. All too soon, the chequered flag was out and the first twenty minute session was over.

The second session was more of the same, trying to be smooth, and trying not to be phased. The mantra of "if you think you're not going to make it round a corner, tip it in anyway, the bike will do it" ringing in my head, striving to prise that finger off the brakes...


Copyright © www.BritishSportPhotography.com

On the long back straight I found time to experiment with the A/B/C throttle mappings. Just like on the road, C was non-linear and slow: the bike pulled like a 600 but why would you want it to? B was smoother and stronger but still reluctant to give its all. The default A (full power) setting was the only way to go, so much more linear and instinctive that I never touched the switch thereafter.

Sussing the suspension and tyre pressures

After just two sessions the rear tyre was looking seriously scraggy on the shoulders but largely untouched in the centre. Meanwhile the front was showing no obvious signs of use. I'd also noted some judder on the brakes into the chicane. Word in the garage was that my suspension and tyre pressures badly needed sorting.



For a few dollars more...

I visited Almeria's resident suspension expert. I explained that I was out of my depth but wasn't at all sure things were working right. He only had to bounce the bike around a bit to know it needed work. Everything was way too stiff and he found it difficult to believe these were the standard factory settings. For a small fee he set to work, and would look after me for the duration. He dropped the front preload and reset the front and rear compression and rebound damping, high and low speed. The bike was radically softer, and as I rode out across the paddock I wondered how I'd ever adjust.

Through the rest of the sessions I started to appreciate his work. Now I could feel things happening when I accelerated and braked, and with it came a little more confidence. The chicane judder was gone, and better still, in the middle of the long turns the bike felt much more adjustable in response to the pegs. I hadn't seemed reluctant to turn before, but now it was eager to drop in whenever I was ready.

The suspension changes, together with finding the right pressures for the BT015s (31/35psi front/rear when cold), meant that now my tyres were looked to be working much better, both wearing nicely as far round the profiles as I dared to push.

A lesson with Ian Cobby

My last session was a lesson with the patient and obviously talented Ian Cobby. As I drove back to the hotel his words were still ringing in my ears: "more revs, less gears, more brakes". I didn't dwell on the positives (body position and lines) but on the fact that I supposedly had to hustle this 1000cc monster, the message being that you can be in charge of a 600 but when you're on a 1000 it's in charge, so you have to use what it's got where you can, ride it like a superbike and nail it hard between all the turns.

It had been a long day. Did he realise I wasn't planning to be a racer, and that my bike wasn't some sacrificial track hack but was pristine, new and much loved? How could he expect a novice to do this thing justice? I was resigned to quietly forget what he'd told me and go out tomorrow trying to be smooth and safe.

Back in Almeria, goat's cheese pizza, ice cream and San Miguel topped off the day.

Brendan Kelly (bbstrikesagain)
Read part two here...

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