It all boiled down to a single moment, as so many things in my life have. I sat there cooking in leathers at the start line on the five mile long course on the Salt Flats at Bonneville, ready to pull back the throttle hand and put fear aside for just a minute or so. I was willing and ready to risk my life for this moment in a distant land, on unfamiliar ground. I would have done whatever it took to do what I had to do. I imagine a similar feeling of total conviction probably descends upon a mother or father when they see a car on fire and their child inside.
I would not let anything get in my way that day - so woe betide anything that tried to stop me! All the events that had led to this, the life changing moments, the pain, the doubt, the chance meetings, all the people I'd met, all the twists and turns of my recent life meant me to be at that start line. At that point in time. It was a certainty I still feel in my very core.
The bike was an unknown quantity, yet in the 100 mile dash back from purchasing the snow-white Hayabusa at Salt Lake City the day before we melded. I'd first seen it from a few feet away, on the phone of one of the new friends I met who, with others, was trying desperately to find me something to ride on the Salts after coming so many miles from the UK to do this challenge. As soon as I saw it I knew this was the bike I would ride, the bike that would get me my rookie licence. The bike that would signal to others the triumph of the human spirit over adversity. That dream seemed improbable considering the day before I was all set up to ride a completely different bike, a red, LPG partially-streamlined 1000cc affair called Christine. How the hell did I get here? It's been extraordinary.
The road to Bonneville
The story how I got to Bonneville has been covered in another blog, but in short it came about through me offering to do a good deed and subsequently having an important meeting with an Italian lady rider called Rosaria. I'd met Rosaria in Italy when taking part in the Women Rider's World Relay in March. WRWR is a world-wide baton-passing project between ladies, designed to encourage more girls to get out and ride to gain confidence as well as heighten the profile of women riders in the industry. I liked that idea so I offered to help via the messenger. The administrators replied quickly and explained that they needed someone to take the baton across Italy for them as their current Ambassador had just fallen ill. Ambassadors are there to help get more ladies on board, to publicise the event and plan the route including stops for photoshoots etc. Well it sounded like they needed help so I said count me in. It didn't matter that I didn't know Italy, or that I didn't speak Italian or have any contacts. That would all come in time, I was sure. A common feature in my life these days is the willingness to say 'Yes' without a plan. I rather like how things turn out that way.
Three weeks later and with just three weeks to go I'd managed to sort out a route but was still no closer to getting more girls on board. Language was a big barrier. Then Rosaria appeared through a friend of a friend and that eased things no end. She's a minor celeb in Italy, organising her own bike tours and events. She knew people and she knew how to court the dealers into giving us time and publicity. We managed to nail down events to attend, girls to join us and things were finally on the up and up with just days to spare.
It was an almighty dash from Menton, France to Gorizia in Slovenia. It wasn't so much the kilometres, about 1100 in two days, but that we had at least three publicity stops on each day to attend. That led to late night riding and eating, but it was during one of these late night sessions that Rosaria told me of an exciting project she was involved in to go to Bonneville in the summer with a bike that her boyfriend, Dino, a big bike customiser in Italy, had built specially to break a land speed record. Having recently seen 'The World's Fastest Indian' and found it thrilling and inspiring I was immediately interested. I asked her about how you get to ride (pilot) a bike there, what qualifications do you need?
Rosaria explained over a beer and wine one evening that at Bonneville it was about the machine, not the rider, and that each bike was allowed up to five pilots. I casually asked how many they had for their entry and she said four. Well, you can pretty much work out what was going through my mind! It took just a little while for me to ask her if I could join the dream as a pilot. The team name was aptly, Open Eyes Dream Team. Rosaria was taken aback, I don't think she was expecting quite such a reaction. She needed to digest the request and talk to her man Dino and the rest of the team. But a couple of weeks later I had my answer, the team was down to three and they wanted a fourth. Full steam ahead! Welcome aboard.
After the initial shock it dawned on me that I hadn't a clue about racing and hadn't got any of the gear or even a race bike, for that matter. But whatever, I like to say 'Yes' to things and work out the 'How's' later. From that point on it was all about skilling up. Who do I speak to?
Getting race ready
I got on the phone to a friend of mine, Talan Skeels-Piggins of Talan Racing. A veteran of the track, a Paralympian skier and founder of the charity The Bike Experience, whose aim is to get paraplegics back on bikes, he was sure to provide me with some good advice. I'd been volunteering with Talan for a year or so and it has been an amazing experience, I just love watching the riders change over the course of a day when they realise they can do something they never thought they ever could. They are remarkable people.
He told me to practice by riding on something that was as close to the feeling of salt as possible in the UK: sand. There was an event run by the racing club Straightliners in Pendine, South Wales every year on a beach the MoD own. "Race there", he said, "and it'll help you come to terms with what the salt might throw at you".
Fast forward and I did manage to get to Pendine Sands and race on the MoD land, even though I effectively only had ten days to do so. That includes getting the bike, the leathers, the helmet, the boots.. everything. Plus I had to ride there on the bike I was racing. You can see a film on my Films and Interviews tab of my 127mph run.
I made some amazing friends in the meantime, friends whose encouragement and support helped me at that crucial moment on the start line on the long course. Helped me more than they will ever know. But no-one could have predicted what would happen when we got to Bonneville the Wednesday before Speed Week started properly.
I had decided that this being such an amazing event it needed to be documented so I asked the son of friends of mine who is a talented cameraman if he was free. Josh worked on such epic BBC series as the Blue Planet and Springwatch. He was. So we hatched a plan for him to join me out on the Salts and properly film the events unfold. I knew that the week would be emotional and thought the best way to capture that would be with pictures as well as words.
We arrived at Salt Lake City in the afternoon of 7th August 2019 and waited for the Italians to pick us up in their motorhome. Just prior to this experience I'd been co-leading a tour from the UK to Romania with my new tour company, Magellan Motorcycle Tours, who were training me up. That's another story, but an important one because I didn't realise it but that week I was watching and learning, thinking and riding my way to the salt flats. Being with other bikers who were all right behind me was amazing mental preparation and I owe them all a debt of gratitude. They probably don't realise how much.
At the flats
Rosaria, Dino and the rest of the team turned up later that afternoon to a fanfare of whooping and excitement and loads of fast talking. It was a crazy, happy atmosphere, lots of tunes playing in the motorhome and the air full of adrenaline. They drove us the 100 or so miles along highway I-80 to Wendover, the closest town to the Salt flats and on the border between Utah and Nevada. Wendover is a casino town, that's pretty much it. It's not glamorous like Las Vegas either, it's not a destination for fun times… just casino lifestyle. There's a doctor's surgery and a shop and not much else apart from a lot of people throwing money into metal machines and on to green felt tables. I bet a lot of dreams go there to die. It was then I realised just how out of the way the Salt Flats were to civilisation. It looked like there may be some agribusiness from the quarries around but otherwise the casinos were Wendover's lifeblood. As such, they made sure all obstacles were removed for the punters - you could smoke freely inside and the place reeked of stale smoke.
When we arrived at the flats it was hot - but not oppressively so. I had expected 40 degrees C or more but it turned out to be low 30s. This suited me fine. I knew I would need to get into tight leathers so not being all blown up and bloated with heat would be a bonus. What I didn't realise was that this signalled the end to the heat and the beginning of some extreme weather in the form of a storm that would hit us the next day. Our bed for the night was the Wendover Nugget Hotel, Rosaria had arranged for us to sleep 4 to a room and the rest of the gang in the motorhome. That meant we would share the one shower because unfortunately the motorhome was a bit pants - the plumbing had broken so there was no shower or washing facility in there. I must admit, I found it somewhat odd that I was going to immediately to share a double bed with one of the boys, after all we'd only just met. It seemed an extreme way to save money but I was tired and I can sleep anywhere, I'm not particularly fussy. Josh ended up sacrificing a mattress and we made a comfy little den for him in one corner of the basic, 2-star hotel room.
The rest of the team camped out in the motorhome in a car park just round the back of the hotel. Fortunately this car park was fairly well serviced with a laundrette, coffee shop and showers which meant that only the four of us in the room had to share the bathroom and shower there. All the guys were brilliant, they were perfect gents and by a couple of days it felt like I was sharing with family. That meant they had to listen to me signing every morning in the shower. Poor sods.
TO BE CONTINUED... including the one and only run of Christine and then the amazing story behind how I got hold of a Hayabusa and with the help of new friends got it ready to race within 24 hours....