Time Warp

by

Jeff Hughes

 

We’re gone just after dawn, while the cool morning air still lingers over the landscape.  We’ve got a long way to go and need to make as much time as we can before the inevitable summer thunderstorms emerge later in the day.

The ride up the day before yesterday already seems like a lifetime ago.

George, having already done this ride countless times, takes the lead.  Matt, Parks, and I fall in behind him.  Pointing our bikes south and west, we begin the 500-mile trek back to the Virginia’s.

For the first hour the roads lay straight across the flat land.  Good roads for making time.  Fine roads for gazing in idle wonder at the agricultural heartland here in central Ohio.  But boring otherwise.

I’m still lit by yesterday’s experience.  Enervated by my return to the racetrack, after fourteen long years.  It was the most extraordinary ten hours I can ever remember.

And so in a way the flat landscape with its minimal demands on my attention is welcome.  It allows me to replay in my mind the circuit there at Mid-Ohio.  To remember the rush that rolled over me as I swept through its storied turns.  To consider the unleavened joy of commanding The Keyhole; or the disbelief that came with flying unscathed again and again through the off-camber, decreasing-radius turn eight; or the exhilaration that accompanied each flying lap through turn one.  And to remember, too, the difficult turn seven at the end of the long back straight.  I never did really get that sorted.

I’m already thinking of when I can return. 

By mid-morning the topography begins to harden.  The flat farmland gives way to rolling hills.  Trees grow closer to the road.  The distance from one turn to the next begins to shorten. 

As if by unspoken assent, the lilt in the air – that unconscious rhythm grasped by us four riders - rises by a note.  A tinge of aggression emerges, evidence of it held aloft by the subtly changed note of our exhausts.  It hangs there, as if asking a question.

At our fuel stop everything is paused.  We go through the simple mechanics of pumping gas and relieving ourselves and quaffing a cold bottle of fresh water.  Nothing is said.  Nothing need be.  We all feel it.

Back on the road, crossing the river, the mountains loom.  Even as the road narrows, turns crooked and abrupt, our pace rises.  The air turns cooler from the shadows and from the rising elevation.  But I hardly notice.  I am captured, floating in the moment, marveling at the utter delight of flying up this road.

With its airy elevation, its shadowed, blind corners, and its rocky escarpments, our route here has little in common with the 2.4 mile circuit we spent all day yesterday riding.  And yet there is something akin here.  Some connection.

When I rolled into the pits after my last session yesterday I was saddened to see the end of a glorious day.  But I was also charged with an incredible high, the endorphins coursing through my bloodstream like small bolts of lightning.  They had hardly dissipated overnight. 

Now, I fly on their wings.  Upward, the serpentine road throws feints and jabs, illusions and puzzles.  Obstacles to the unwary.  But they matter not.  My wheels seem to hardly touch the pavement, my bike to have shed half its weight.  There is an otherworldly certainty to all this.

Past the crest and now carving swiftly into the descent, George has set a blazing fast pace.  A glance at my speedo confirms what I already know – we are running far faster than on our trip up this same road two days prior.  And, yet, even as somewhere in the distant reaches of my mind I recognize that this ride is at the very outer limits of what is possible on the street - and ought to be extraordinarily hard – it’s not.  It is, instead, effortless.

Something quite amazing has happened.

 

 

Waiting to step into the on-deck circle, you pick up a plastic-covered iron donut and slide it over the knob at the handle end of the bat.  With a light tap of the fat end on the ground, you lift the now-much-heavier bat and cleave it through the air a few times.  The laden bat aggravates you.  But you persist through a half-dozen swings.  The muscle memory comes quickly.  

Now, dropping the weight and stepping to the plate, the bat seems child-like in its lightness.   You’ve gained a little bit of extra bat speed and you know it.  If the pitcher chooses, through accident or will, to serve one up across the fat part of plate, there might just be something worth seeing.

Something like that is what I experienced – what all of us experienced – on that ride home from Mid-Ohio many years ago.  I have relived it enough times since, returning from a track day at some distant racetrack, to know it isn’t a fluke; or some sort of once-in-a-lifetime metaphysical gift.

Its reality is based upon our perception of life around us.  As we move through the world we absorb the pace of things.  We become habituated to the speed at which events occur.  They establish our internal clock, the rhythm via which we interact with everything.

That clock speed, that rhythm, isn’t the same for everybody.  I remember being startled the first time I watched a self-made video of Reg Pridmore circulating a racetrack at speed, commenting on each corner as he traversed it.  Even deep into triple-digit speeds, even while piloting his sportbike through incredible lean angles, his voice coming through the speaker was as subdued and relaxed as if he were sitting in an office chair.

Then I realized why – the seat of a sportbike, circulating a racetrack, was Reg Pridmore’s office.  A closed-circuit road course - what to me, what to most of us, was a special, unusual environment – was to him anything but.  After thousands of hours and uncounted miles upon them he was as used to that environment as I was to that office of mine back at work.

Here’s what happens:  our first time on a racetrack is filled with trepidation, our first laps at speed overwhelming in their sensory inputs.  There’s a reason we end up floating in a sea of endorphins and adrenalin.

But as the laps add up we very quickly begin to become accustomed to the much higher raw speeds on the straights and the faster pace through the corners.  That initial trepidation is soon replaced by crooked grins and a swiftly growing confidence.  After awhile a buck fifty no longer seems like the fearsome, extraordinary thing we once imagined it to be.

That’s the conscious effect.  Subconsciously, our brains are busy rewiring our neural pathways.  They are recalibrating that internal clock of ours - the speed at which we mentally process all those motorcycling-specific inputs that we have to deal with.

And at the end of the day, what we end up with - in addition to a desire to come back and do this again as soon as possible – is a very different clock speed. 

Back out on the street, everything suddenly seems different.  Our new-found ability to process road inputs faster has the effect of slowing things down.  Whereas before a 75mph freeway clip might have seemed fast, all of a sudden it feels remarkably sedate.  And that set of esses near home that we previously felt challenged by… now seems like child’s play.

Alas, this amped up mental clock speed is not permanent.  As the days and weeks and months pass, a rider’s mental clock will slowly revert back to his previous street-based rhythm.  He’ll still retain the cornering, braking, and general bike-handling skills he earned from his time on the racetrack.  But his mental perception of events will no longer hold that magical edge.

Which is why an occasional track day is a benefit for nearly all street riders, regardless of how many years of experience they might have, or how advanced their skills.  Beyond being simply fun, and a great tune-up for those bike handling skills we all depend on, a track day is an opportunity to re-juice that mental clock speed.

The racetrack has long been recognized for its ability to teach us.  It is an environment of such purity, a place capable of such dramatically accelerated learning, that it is no surprise that it comes so highly recommended by those who have experienced it.  There is no better or faster place to learn advanced riding skills. 

But its hidden secret is in what it does to our minds.  The strange time warp that it fashions, and then places at our feet.  That may be its greatest gift of all

 

© 2010 Jeff Hughes