Flat-tracking on a Harley-Davidson

You cannot force yourself to be brave.

You should not force yourself to be brave.

There is probably a reason you are not feeling brave.

It might be because the quarter-tonne Harley-Davidson underneath you has no front brakes. It might be because the quarter-tonne motorcycle is doing about 80 km/h, on loose dirt, and that tree in front of you marks the spot you’re supposed to try to turn it around.

Just to be clear, this is NOT Jacob. This is a rider who knows what he’s doing on a flat track.

So on all those other laps, when you cursed your lack of courage and shook your head in disgust, you might have actually had a point.

This entire conversation is happening in my brain as I realize the “send it” ethos I thought would increase my skill, speed, and heroism might just land me in hospital.

It doesn’t, and I’m lucky to lose nothing but my pride, and about a half-lap to the other bike on the track.

And this IS Jacob. Note the differences with the photo above, which are, well, pretty much everything.

One thing that motorcycles will teach you, time and time again, is that there are gaps between understanding something, having the gall to actually apply that knowledge, and having the actual skill needed to do those two things successfully. In short, a motorcycle will teach you that you’re not as good as you hope you are.

When Harley-Davidson told us we’d be racing against each other in the Ride-Ride-Slide event, I honestly thought they were kidding. At best, I assumed they meant we’d do a small, simple skills course against a stop watch. Not a series of head-to-head, full-out flat-track races on flat-track-modified Harley-Davidsons.

Hey, where are the front fenders? And hang on – what happened to the front brakes?

H-D’s relationship with flat-track racing goes back a fair way, as it does with drag racing. They’re really the only motorsports to which the Motor Company has applied itself in a meaningful way, and it’s enjoyed success in North America with both. A recent resurgence in Flat Track’s popularity means Harley-Davidson is once again on the motorsport map. And here, where the lumpy V-twin’s prodigious engine-braking ability outshines any lack of comparative horsepower, the bikes do quite well.

On hand, to teach us enough to keep us alive, were former MotoGP and World SBK ace Ruben Xaus, and current UK Hooligan Championship leader Grant Martin. Martin races a 2016 Harley-Davidson Street Rod modified for flat-track racing. In the Hooligan championship, Indians and Harley-Davidsons compete for top-class honours.

Ruben Xaus tries to help keep Jacob alive. We’re not sure just how well he succeeded.

They taught us body position, and they taught us the need to transfer weight by changing down one gear and rolling off, and that you need the right amount of momentum to actually make the bike turn the corner so you can drive out and down the straight with speed.

For all the practice sessions, I rode smoothly and half decently – slow, but smooth and consistent. More important, I didn’t crash. When practice time ended and race time began, the 12 riders who started the day dwindled to six. Sometimes, discretion is the better part of valour.

A rare photograph of Jacob on a race track, slow, smooth and consistent and not actually crashing. Yet.

That left us in a series of head-to-head race-offs. My competitor, Teerawat Durongkwin, was a rider from Thailand who’d shown strong speed and smoothness all day. He chose the outside, and I lined up alongside him on the inside.

Ruben Xaus pointed to the two of us and gave a thumbs up. “These two, together, it’s perfect,” he said. We were well matched. This should be fun to watch.

Ruben dropped the flag, and I took off. I’m proud to say I got the holeshot, and led comfortably toward Turn One. That is the last thing I’m proud of.

An equally rare photograph of Jacob on a racetrack, closest to the camera, in the lead. Just.

Eager to go faster, eager to look good in some photos, eager to be better than I really am, I barrelled into Turn One faster than any other point yet in the day. In my head, I believed the added momentum would help me rotate, and I would make the turn. But as I threw the bars to the left, the front skittered and slid straight; I picked up the bike in a panic, and ran well, well wide.

And he’s still in the lead against Teerawat. One of the most glorious moments of Jacob’s life.

Teerawat took me on the inside and bolted. On the next two laps I made steady ground, but as he started to reel in, red mist clouded my judgement again and I had another big moment and ran wide. I rolled across the line a very distant second: frustrated, disconsolate, and trying hard to force a smile. Teerawat and I hugged, I congratulated him on his decisive win, and then I went to sit under a tree to have a think.

Just like the Leafs versus the Bruins, I’d choked. I let pride, pressure, and lack of self-awareness get the better of me.

I’m lucky. My brain fade happened on a track, in a controlled environment, at relatively low speed. I didn’t crash, I didn’t hit anything, I just ran wide a few times.

And it all comes down to this. Jacob tries to distract himself from his miserable racing failure by watching a cat video.

But here’s the thing: Those attempts to push your limit, the desire to edge past your boundaries for the thrill of it, or even those moments of emotion-fuelled distraction – they can happen anywhere. If they happen in public, on a road with curbs and bus stops and other drivers and rough shoulders, it can get really untidy.

It’s okay to take risks. It’s fun to take risks. You should take risks in the right time and place.

The track was a good place.

The practice session before the race might have been a better time.


  1. A “quarter-tonne motorcycle” would weigh 55i lbs. I didn’t see any full-size, big twin Harleys in the photis …were they ftal-tracking the big bikes too??

    • Canada has been using the metric system for a few decades now. This bike weighs 240 kg wet. That’s a quarter of a tonne.

    • Fair point, well made.
      This was a media event at the end of a three-day launch event that also included the Sportster Iron 1200, 48 Special, plus the Road Glide and Street Glide. It’s not open to the public. We were in Croatia.

  2. I too pushed my skills boundaries this past weekend; however I did it in a much less harrowing manner, doing a basic trials course. It was fantastic. I took the FAST course years ago with no intention of even doing a track day let alone racing; it was well worth it for the skills development. Ditto for the trials.

    I’m signed up for sailing lessons in July. Took a surfing lesson in England 2 years ago that managed to succeed where lessons in L.A., New Hampshire and South Carolina had failed. You’re never too old to learn, and you should never be too proud to struggle and fail – as my karate instructor said, there’s no shame in failing or losing, unless you don’t learn anything from it.

    Just find a course that interests you, of any kind, and sign up.

    • I agree wholeheartedly, and as TK4 mentioned already, Flat Track Canada has a very, very good flat track school

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