When David Railton, boss of the British Endurance Racing Team, gave me a call to ask if I’d step in as their third rider for the 2020 24 Hours of Le Mans race, my answer didn’t take much thinking about. The fact that I was far from being physical fit, hadn’t raced a bike all year and had never even done a lap round the Bugatti circuit at Le Mans probably should have been major concerns but, at that point in time, they weren’t. “Sign me up!” I said. I was going to Le Mans.
The British Endurance Racing Team, or BERT as it’s affectionally known, has been competing in the Endurance World Championship for a few years now. And when I got to Le Mans it was clear to see that all of the BERT lads knew what they were doing. My teammates on the track were Johnny Blackshaw, one of my oldest mates, and Jon Railton, son of Team Boss David, but there was another fifteen or so faces in the team to get to know, all with a variety of important jobs.
We’d be racing a Suzuki GSX-R1000 which would have to do the entire 24 hour race, but when I got to the teams pit garage, I noticed there were two identical Gixxers parked up. I soon learnt that one was the bike we’d be using for all of the practice and qualifying sessions and the other was to be saved for the race. Good idea, I thought; especially with the likes of me riding it!
After umpteen laps round Le Mans on YouTube, it was time for me to get my leathers on, chuck my leg over the Gixxer and see how far off the pace I was. And after half an hour or so, I was a long way off it; about 10 seconds a lap. As I wobbled round, getting passed by all and sundry, it got to the point were it was almost embarrassing, and it would have been if there weren’t so many shit-hot riders in there. I’m talking about proper, professional world-class riders like Randy de Puniet, Mike Di Meglio, Robbie Rolfo, Niccolo Canepa, Freddy Foray, Kenny Foray, Xavier Simeon, Josh Hook, David Checa, Gino Rea, Broc Parkes and Luca Scassa, to name but a few.
Although I’d learnt where the circuit went left and right from the countless YouTube and PlayStation laps I’d completed, it wasn’t until the end of my third practice session that I started to get the hang of how to get round the track quickly. Where to brake, turn-in, apex, get on the gas and all those bits that you’ve got to get perfect if you want to stand half a chance of doing a decent lap time. And at that point, I thought a decent (for me) lap time would be anything sub 1:44, so that was my aim, come qualifying.
When they eventually handed me the bike for my qualifying session, I got my head down, concentrated on braking late, accelerating early and getting all my lines bang-on. On the penultimate lap I managed a 1:43.295, so I came back into the pits with my head held reasonably high. Jon and Johnny were still a bit quicker than me, and the proper fast lads were around the 1:37 mark, but the main thing was that we’d qualified, and we’d be starting the Le Mans 24hr race from 34th on the grid. I couldn’t fucking wait!
We all had an early night and I got as good a night’s sleep as you can when you are about to start your first 24 hour bike race (which was unsurprisingly fairly restless) but I got up in the morning feeling good. It was Jon’s job to start the race, he’d give the bike to Johnny, then it would be time for me to shine. After the big pre-race ceremony (where all the riders had to go and stand on the start/finish straight for the benefit of the TV cameras), it was time for things to kick off in earnest.
I don’t think I’d ever been so nervous. There are always a few pre-race butterflies, but when you find yourself at such a massive event, about to start a race that involves so many people and that’s going to last so long, the butterflies turn into golden eagles – and they flap around in there like nobody’s business.
Anyway, Jon got a decent start and more than held his own until he handed the bike over to Johnny for the first time. When I got the bike, it was dry so I got the hammer down and went for it, but after 20-odd laps the heavens opened and the tarmac was way too wet for the Gixxer’s slick tyres. I gave it a couple of laps to make sure the lads had some tyres ready before coming in for some wets. By that time my stint was nearly over, so not only did they have a pair of wet tyres to throw at the bike, Jon was waiting to jump on and relieve me.
Over the next few hours, the weather continued to be a real pain in the arse; small rain showers would soak the track, and then the sun would dry it again within 20 minutes. It meant choosing tyres was a real gamble, and when my second stint came, the wets that I’d gone out with soon destroyed themselves on the dry patches. I had to come in for a fresh set.
Unfortunately, that’s around the time that things started getting even more difficult for me. As I left the pits with a fresh set of tyres on the bike (literally within meters of entering the track) I cracked the throttle a little bit too enthusiastically for the new, cold tyres and high-sided myself over the handlebars. Bollocks.
The bike didn’t look too damaged, so I picked it up as quickly as I could and managed to finish the stint. It wasn’t until I handed a slightly second hand looking bike to Jon that I realised I had a bit of a sore left wrist. I took my glove off and the bastard thing looked like a balloon. I’m not a doctor but I’ve broken enough bones over the years to have a good idea what it feels (and looks) like, and I’d have bet my house on my wrist being broken. So when the boss told me I’d ought to go and get it x-rayed at the circuit medical centre, I respectfully declined. I knew that if the doctors saw any sign of a break, they’d probably put a stop to me riding in the rest of the race. And I wasn’t having that.
I necked a handful of paracetamol and ibuprofen and got one of the lads to strap it up really tight with duct tape and bandages so that I could try and put it to the back of my mind when I got back on the bike. My strategy worked fairly well and my next stint went smoothly, without too much pain. Luckily, the injury was to my left hand which, apart from holding on for dear life, is fairly redundant once you’ve set off on a modern superbike (with quickshifters and blippers, you only ever need to use the clutch to set off and stop). If it had been my right hand (the throttle, front brake, and everything important hand), riding would have been really hard. In fact it would have probably been impossible. But it wasn’t my right hand.
By nightfall, we’d settled into a fairly good rhythm, each doing roughly hour-long stints. My first experience racing in the dark was at about 11pm, and fuck me, it’s weird. Despite hardly being able to see where you’re going, the boys at the front barely let up, so I found myself having to push just as hard in the dark as I was doing during the day. You have to completely recalibrate the circuit in your brain. All your braking markers and reference points are either invisible or look completely different. You have shadows coming from every direction, sometimes your own shadow, sometimes not, and it’s almost impossible to see if there are any damp patches in the sections that aren’t floodlit. I struggled with it at first, but after a while, I loved it, and found myself going quicker and quicker every lap (well, nearly every lap), despite the gammy wrist.
Overnight we had a few little dramas with the front brakes, which cost us valuable time in the pitstops meaning we dropped a few places, but we kept plugging away and banging the laps in. I was on the bike when the sun came up, which was an experience I’ll never forget. That said, when I jumped off it and the clock said 6am, the realisation that there was another six hours of racing to go was a tough pill to swallow. By this point, we were all completely fucked, and the last quarter of the race looked as though it was going to be the hardest.
And it was. With the changeable conditions fucking tyre choice up for everyone and sudden rain showers causing last minute pitstops, the whole team had to be fully switched on and on the ball. As we approached midday, the conditions didn’t get any easier and we were in a close battle with another team for 25th position. Johnny got on the bike for the final stint and rode his cock off, managing to keep our closest rivals behind us before crossing the line and passing the chequered flag, after 24 hours of racing.
I don’t know whether finishing the Le Mans 24hr was the biggest achievement of my life (after all, I only did a third of it), but at that moment, it definitely felt like it was. As Johnny rode the bike up the pitlane after his slow-down lap, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, but it was one of the best experiences of my life. It’s easily up there with the Isle of Man TT, and it’s something that I’ll never forget. And something that I’ll never get tired of telling people about, either.
When I got home, I took a trip to A&E to get the wrist x-rayed and my suspicions of a fracture were confirmed. I’d chipped off the end of my ulna and snapped my scaphoid clean in two. The ulna wasn’t a problem but the scaphoid needed screwing back together. That meant an operation and then five weeks with a cast on. I didn’t tell the doc that I’d just finished a 24 hour motorcycle race with a bust wrist. I think he’d have been a bit upset with me.
It was my first ever round of the Endurance World Championship and I’m keeping my fingers crossed it wont be my last. I probably ought to think about getting a gym membership if I’m going to do any more, though.