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Feature: Harley-Davidson Flat Track
An anti-clockwise track in an analogue world with the minutes hand broken. That’s how Debabrata sarkar saw a flat track. Now to try and make sense of it at school
There’s still a bit of a nip in the morning air. At the John Singh Speedway, out in the countryside, it is crispy fresh, as the golden rays from the sun drapes one hill at a time in the surrounding scenery, drawing closer to the bit that has me interested for the weekend. A small oval patch some quarter of a kilometre, roughly twelve metres wide, wrapped in a fine layer of dirt, which has been watered in the wee hours this morning and continues to be damp. Below it lies a base layer, laced with 30,000 litres of oil, to create a firm footing for all the mucking about.
Traditionally, at a motor ranch, motor oil would’ve been used, but here close to Sariska, in the middle of a fully functional farm, a far less potent load of soya oil has been soaked into the soil. This is what a flat track is all about and parked alongside is a clutch of Harley-Davidson Street Rod 750s that have been given the flat tracker treatment by Rajputana Customs, who also happen to own this track.
But then, the playground and the motorcycles account for only half the battle. There needs to be a master to show us the ropes, and the good folks at Harley have roped in the best to whip us into shape. Marco Belli, from Di Traverso, which literally translates to sideways, has made his way down from Italy to run us through some basic flat track training.
Marco, with his slight frame, looks rather unassuming and goes about nursing his cup of coffee away from the crowd. However, roll a motorcycle up to him and hand him a whiteboard marker and the passion comes flowing through, as his typically Italian way of gesticulating takes over and his eyes open wide. His enthusiasm is infectious enough to make me forget about the bad viral attack I’m going through and kit up with the first batch of riders. This multiple championship-winning, Valentino Rossi’s ‘Ranch’ designing professor of going sideways set us up through various exercises through a series of cones to get the basics right.
Unlike a high grip situation like a race track, riding on the loose stuff requires a diametrically opposed approach. You sit on the tank and put your weight forward with elbows pointing up, lean out while the bike leans into the corner and stick with the throttle when the rear wheel breaks traction and point the front in the opposite direction while adjusting your body position to sort it out. And, most importantly, don’t be shy about sticking your leg out for that extra bit of balance when the bike is leaned over on a flat track.
To make matters more interesting, there isn’t the safety of a front brake to grab every time you overcook it and the rear brake pedal isn’t particularly easy to find.
This is an incredibly fine balance of man, machine and the laws of physics, and, as Marco puts it – in dust we must trust. While the way you sit on the motorcycle can be remembered with a slight bit of consciousness, looking at the correct spot turned out to be quite a bit more challenging. With my sight focusing on spots that marked the edge of the track rather than further up, I found myself in the gravel a few times with the throttle shut and my upper half frozen in place. It took a bit of persuasion from Marco and a steady chant of ‘look at me’ to get my helmet facing the correct way.And rather magically, the motorcycle would follow, regardless of the sliding rear tyre and the opposite lock on the handlebar, with the left foot feeling the track and ensuring the laws of physics stayed on my side. Stringing together this bit of choreographed movement may have been little more than just a baby step in the world of flat tracking, but it proved infinitely more thrilling than anything else I’ve got the hang of on a motorcycle.
In the space of two days, the Street Rod flat trackers were being leaned over appreciably and the rear wheel was sliding noticeably. Old habits of trying to follow a corner instead of cutting it kept filtering back, but then that was but natural. The idea of cutting an oval into a sort of rhombus seemed completely alien in the first half-hour session with a pale Italian furiously drawing lines on the whiteboard facing us, but two days later, I found myself looking for that exact line and figuring that the throttle was easier to use that way.
Sure, there were moments when I thought I would get thrown over the bike, under it and indeed once over the bales of hay that sheltered the track from the surrounding trees. But, with no traction control to fall back on, no ABS or even front brakes for a helping hand and with an ever changing texture and grade along the oval, this has to be the purest form of man-machine connection that you can come across. The Americans sure figured out a cheery way of spending a weekend. Flat track racing is superbly entertaining, while being exceptionally educating. This is one hit sure worth chasing.