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Hairpins by the dozen – a training success story

One of the things that makes this job worth doing (I certainly don’t do it for the erratic work and reliable income!) is the feedback I get every now and again from trainees.

One such text arrived over the weekend from a trainee, a woman for whom I ran first a one day ‘Confidence Builder’… well, I think it must have been 2008. (More info on the Confidence Builder here)

At the time of that first course, Sarah would be the first to admit she was feeling defeated by the bike – she’d passed her test but the experience really hadn’t given her either the confidence or the ability to take her bike (a Moto Guzzi V7)out on the roads. In fact I had to meet her at her home address up in Oxfordshire a few miles away from my normal start point because she wasn’t feeling capable of riding that far.

So we went out on a carefully planned route (fortunately I know the roads up there in the Thames Valley pretty much as well as I know the local routes!) to see just what the problems were. Well, she was right – she was struggling. To cut a long story short, I put her through a series of exercises over the next few hours that changed her depressed look after struggling through the first 30 minutes whilst I assessed her riding to a nervous smile by the end of the day that said “maybe I CAN do this after all”.

A couple of weeks later I bumped into her at the Cassington Bike Night, with a big smile on her face, because she’d ridden there with her friend, something she explained to both of us she would never have dared to do if she hadn’t taken the ‘Confidence Builder’.

Over the next couple of years, I got occasional emails and texts detailing increasingly more adventurous trips, as well as promises to come back and do the full advanced course at some point. Then Sarah contacted me again to book a course, asking which one to take and mentioning she had a new bike (a BMW F650GS) and she wanted to take it abroad to the mountains.

I promptly recommended two day Performance:SPORT course, because this course spends two days working on cornering. Day One covers advanced cornering technique, working on the machine control we need to place the bike accurately in corners and covers the benefits of late turn/late apex “Point and Squirt” cornering, as well as a systematic way reading corners and putting it all together on bendy roads. The second day is (as far as I know) unique to Survival Skills – I don’t know any training school offering anything like it. Whether the course runs in Kent or Oxford, we get to visit even more demanding roads to practice the basics from Day One, plus we learn how to trail brake in corners and deal with uphill and downhill hairpins, techniques to reduce skid/wheelspin risk when cornering on wet roads and finally we get to try out body-shifting and discover the benefits and potential problems.

When I met her for the course, it was clear the Beemer suited her perfectly, and the skills she’d learned two years earlier had given her boost she needed to ride it pretty well by this point, and that was a perfect place to start learning to deal with hairpins. So we went out on day one and laid the foundations for her upcoming tour with advanced cornering technique. On day two, we bashed some serious twisty and hilly roads including my ‘secret’ very tough hairpin not five miles from Oxford city centre. This time she went home with a big grin on her face.

Last year went by with occasional texts telling me she was out riding, and planning a big European trip and that we’d meet up when she got back but then things went quiet – it was a pretty awful end to the riding season and I didn’t get up to Oxford quite as much as usual.

Then a new text arrived a couple of days ago:

“Hope you are well. I’m still enjoying life on two wheels. Did my trip to Europe last summer, made it to Sardinia and even did Stelvio pass.”

Sardinia AND the Stelvio – now that’s what I call a tour! I’ve not been to Sardinia (I did think about it when I was riding in Corsica years ago, but the ferry from Corsica was quite expensive and we were running out of funds and time anyway) but if it’s anything like the more northerly of the two islands, it will be a fantastic place to ride.

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The Passo dello Stelvio (or Stilfser Joch) is something special. At at 2757 m (over 9000 feet) it’s the second highest pass in Europe and the eastern ramp is a real challenge. The road itself rises up 1871m from the valley bottom (which is more than the outright altitude of most European passes) and most riders climb up that side.

The last time I rode it, I approached it from the north via the Umbrail Pass in Switzerland, which joins the western ramp a short distance from the summit then went down. Personally, I think it’s actually tougher going down the east ramp – it’s like riding off the edge of the world as many of the 48 hairpins on that side are banked up and jut out into space because the drop is so steep. Partway down, I had to stop and stare at the rock wall for a couple of minutes because I was getting vertigo staring at nothing as I went round the hairpins.

Whichever way it’s approached, it’s without a doubt one of the classic biking roads in Europe.

I’m hoping to catch up with Sarah sometime over the summer (maybe at this year’s Cassington Bike Night!) and hopefully she’s got a few snaps of her climbing to the top of Europe!

And if you’re reading this and thinking “I could never attempt to ride a road like that”, then just remember anything’s possible with the right training and some time and commitment to practice. Looking back, I’m picturing the nervous and depressed rider who couldn’t turn out of the end of her residential street without pausing to grit her teeth before wobbling round the junction, and comparing it with a rider with the level of skill and confidence necessary to tackle a monster like the Stelvio. I’m sure Sarah would agree that spending a few hundred pounds on training is a cheap investment if it releases you to travel where you want to go!

I don’t often blow my own trumpet but Sarah’s story is most definitely one of my training success stories!

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