I wasn't sure what to expect from the Baja GB weekend, I'd only just got the bike back from ET James after the mechanical issues I had at Brechfa, in fact I hadn't even ridden the bike since the Brechfa! I also planned to fit a larger tank so the bike would handle differently. All of these things meant that realistically I wasn't expecting a top result, but was hoping to be competitive.
I took the day off work on Friday and started off by looking over the bike and doing my usual checks. I decided to take the time to fit some new throttle grips and fitted the new 15L Acerbis tank. When I'd put the bike back together and checked everything, I wheeled it out and started it up - it's running beautifully now! What a difference a decent service has made, thanks again to the mechanics at ET James for that. I poured around 12L of fuel in and had a very quick test ride around the yard. At that point I realised the bike felt very different, there was a lot more weight over the front and I wasn't confident in the front end - the front brake was far too spongy. I got the tools out and bled the front brake just to make sure everything was spot on, then I took it out for a quick test ride.
It actually felt pretty good in the technical bits, the front wasn't deflecting so easily, but I could feel the extra weight in some areas and the additional width when trying to get up to the front of the bike. Then I took it out on some fire roads and tested the grip levels, again it felt different, the front being more firmly planted but pushing me further into the corner, and the back being a little snappier. I adjusted my riding style to be smoother and I started to get it to work for me. I wasn't fully confident for the weekend but at least I knew the bike was good to race.
A 5:30am start on Saturday morning and off we went to the Sweet Lamb rally complex near Llangurig (my home town)! Now...being early May you'd have been forgiven for thinking the weather would be half decent. When we got there, the micro-climate that encompasses Sweet Lamb gave us some very cold weather, so cold in fact that it was snowing! I unloaded the bike and signed on, then had my bike scrutineered and left it in the Parc Ferme next to all the Hill Rally Cars.
This was something I'd never seen before, let alone raced with - there were a few quads there too, but the cars were amazing! Some of these pedigree racing machines were worth upwards of £100K, they looked great, sounded great and we couldn't wait to give them a run for their money on our bikes.
We were to be competing on some very long timed special stages in both the Hafren and Myherin forests. The Hafren special was 18 miles in length, and the Myherin was 20 miles. On day one we were to complete two special tests in each forest, and on day 2 would be 3 tests in total.
I was bike number 2 for the weekend, so I had a start time of 09:02 behind the number 1 bike of Lee "Stretch" Green on his RallyMoto KTM EXC 450, riding in the Rally Class. In contrast to our usual All Terrain Rally Challenge (ATRC) events, the opening lap was timed and the marking and timing was different. The marking was much sparser, with only major directional changes marked, which made some parts of the test very interesting indeed! There was also a "flying finish" at the end of the specials.
Anyway, back to the race - we set off into the wind and snow, straight to the Hafren special test. It was really cold, so we struggled to keep our hands warm by revving our bikes and holding our hands near the exhaust. Once the timing equipment was ready, off we went. I kept it steady and made sure I stayed on, pushing hard where I knew it was safe to do so. I was still getting used to the new tank but I seemed to cope fairly well and actually quite enjoyed the feel of the front end, even though I was reminded a couple of times of the extra weight and the need to be smooth! A couple of times I overshot corners and had to throw the bike into a small berm on the outside edge of the track to get around them. Towards the end of the special test, the snow was sticking and it was foggy, the track got slick and it was tricky to get the power down but I kept it upright and finished strongly.
We then went back to the paddock as it was a figure-8 type setup in terms of track layout. I filled up with fuel and a hot drink, then we set off for Myherin. We were freezing cold by the time we got there - the weather was pretty unforgiving and the wind didn't help. When we got to the start of the special, we were held back for a while because some cars had either gone off the track or got lost by taking wrong turns. It was a bit of a struggle to stay warm in that time but we made the best we could of the situation at hand and waited for the green light from the marshalls.
Off we went on the special stage and it was a long one! There were a couple of technical hill climbs which were proving difficult for some - it was tricky to get the power down and gain momentum as they were either very rough or the ground was loose shale. I felt like I had another good test, so I was fairly happy when I got back to the paddock after the first lap.
Goggles were proving to be a bit of a problem for everybody, with them misting up and getting covered in snow/rain/mud. Luckily though, I'd done a decent job of cleaning and anti-fogging mine so I didn't suffer too badly. There's little more frustrating than having to slow down on a test because you can't see!
Lap two soon came around and off we went back to the Hafren. I was fired up again and feeling confident about the layout of the test and the handling of the bike, so I pushed hard. I was going really well, hitting all my lines and feeling good, until half way around the test I came into what looked like a shallow left hand corner, which actually tightened half way around. I was carrying way too much speed, I locked up the back brake to get it to come around, but the momentum caused the front wheel to start sliding too, I held the bike in a slide for a moment, but just when I thought I had it under control, the front wheel lost grip and the bike low-sided. I held on for a bit as I got dragged down the fire road, then I let go and continued to slide down the road, past my bike and further down! I don't know how fast I was going but I would guess around 30-40mph. Luckily, all my gear and the protection on the bike did its job and I got straight back up, ran back to the bike, fired it up, spun it 180 degrees and then shot off down the road again. I think I lost 20-30 seconds but I got straight back into my rhythm and finished the test well.
The final test in the Myherin also went well, it was uneventful as I was determined not to crash, but I rode consistently and was feeling great about day 2.
When we got back to the paddock, we had some times available for the specials, but only two of them, so I wasn't entirely sure how the day had gone as a whole, but I had a 2nd place finish on one test and I had finished 1st on the second Hafren stage - the one I crashed on! I couldn't believe it, but I knew I was going well on that test, so that was a great surprise and an even better feeling.
Going into day 2, I was pretty confident I was close to, if not in the top 3 overall in the bikes category, so I knew I had to ride consistently (and fast), focussing on not making any silly mistakes.
When I got home I unloaded the bike and checked it over (thanks Garry Barnes who pointed out one of my exhaust mounting bolts was missing!). I tightened the chain and greased everything, then set about cleaning all my kit.
On day 2, by the time we started the race at 08:02am after another 5:30am start, we had an opportunity to see the results for day 1 and I was lying in 2nd place overall, 2 minutes behind Gordon Clarke and 3 minutes ahead of Lee Green.
Off we went to the Hafren test and I felt like I rode it really well - I hit all my lines and stayed smooth, but I knew I was fast too. When I got to the end, Lee and I compared our times and we found out he'd beaten me by 8 seconds! What a close stage over what was over 21 minutes of flat out racing. I was reasonably happy with that, having not lost too much time, so when we got back to the paddock ready for the Myherin stage and the double special stage to finish the event (back-to-back), I was feeling good. I took the time in the paddock to replace the split-link clip on the chain as it was wearing dangerously thin, then I greased it up and re-fuelled, ready to attack the tests.
Unfortunately, when we got up to the top of the Myherin stage where the special test was due to start, visibility was incredibly poor, the fog had descended and we couldn't see a thing! The Clerk of the Course made the (sensible) decision to neutralise the stage, so we ended up riding the special test untimed. When we got back around for the second special test, the fog had descended even further, so the organisers had no choice but to neutralise the second test as well. We rode it at trail pace and got back to the paddock for the finish.
I still wasn't entirely confident of my result (you never know until you see it on paper!) but I was pretty sure I had made the top 3 overall in the bikes category so I was really excited. I jumped off the bike when I got to the finish arch and saw the unofficial results after 5 stages posted up on the RallyMoto tent...
There I was, lying in 2nd place! I couldn't believe it, what an amazing result, I never dared to think that I would ride well enough or fast enough to break into the top 3, I was beaming! This also meant that I took home £300 in prize money and 1st place in the ATRC Rally Lite 2-Stroke Over 249cc class.
Thanks very much to everyone involved in putting on the event, the organisers, the marshalls, the timing officials and volunteers, I had a lot of fun and I'm obviously thrilled with my result. Also a huge thanks to Adrian #29 (I think), who very kindly gave me some rip 'n roll films when I ran out on Sunday morning, what a generous guy!
There was a great prize giving ceremony after the event too, and there's a trophy to come in the post. What a great weekend's racing and I can't wait until the next one!
There are some fantastic photos on Garry Barnes' Facebook page, and more will be coming soon. I'm also told that there will be some coverage of the event on Motors TV soon, so keep an eye out for that too.
All photos below are courtesy of Garry Barnes photography. The first photo is the podium - left to right: Ioan Whittick (KTM EXC 300), Gordon Clarke (TM 450RR), Lee Green (KTM EXC 450 Rally).