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Inman Column: Running a Marathon in Clogs

Regular blog readers will know I've been a columnist for magazines including Café Racer, GQ Italia, Rolling Stone Italy and Bike over the years. Some I packed in, others dried up with editors changed. I still contribute to Café Racer in France as I have for over ten years. Every now and then I repost the columns here. This one is from 2019. Type Inman Column into the search bar to see the others. GI

Three years ago I was at the first Dirt Track Riders Association race of the 2016 season. The venue was Rye House in Hertfordshire, north of London, a speedway track, rundown like so many are now. Peeling paint, piles of tyres in the corner, dingy toilets straight out of Dickens’ London complete with a hint of cholera… Right next door, sharing a narrow entrance road, is Rye House Kart Track, the very circuit a young Lewis Hamilton cut his teeth at. It has a smart, modern clubhouse with a glass façade and carpet. Carpet! But I had come to Rye House for the dirt, not the reflected glamour.

Unloading my bike, checking the tyre pressures (18psi for the Maxxis DTR-1s on a dry track), oiling the chain, a shy gent in heavy corduroys, V-neck jumper and checked Tattersall shirt walked up and introduced himself. John Harrison told me had joined the Dirt Track Riders Association (DTRA) and decided to race because of the magazine I make, Sideburn. He asked if I had any of the patches left that Death Spray Custom had designed for us. They looked like the kind of patch Cold War US fighter pilots sewed onto their flight suits, and featured the magazine’s broken, limping mascot, Dwayne, and underneath the Latin, Velocitas Sinistro – our translation of Go Fast, Turn Left. John had tooled the phrase onto the leather strap he fastened his homemade steel shoe to his left boot with.

I didn’t know it at the time, but John Harrison was 56 years old, with three grown-up children. He looked like it too. He dressed his age in a way my father’s generation did, and he’s in his mid-80s. I’d later find out John has very strict dress rules. He hasn’t worn a roundneck T-shirt since 1995 or even a collared Polo shirt since 2000. He turned his back on jeans in 1993. Witness John racing and it’s not unusual to spot one unruly collar of his beige shirt escaping from the top of his leathers. Moisture-wicking, Lycra-infused undershirt? He’s more likely to arrive at the track on a magic carpet.

John’s rules extend way beyond casual clothing. His style made an instant impact on many of his fellow racers. The UK dirt track scene was growing and could now support a vintage class. John set the tone with a Bell Star Classic, a limited remake of the Bell Star he bought in 1975, and period-style black and orange leathers that matched his 1972 oil-in-frame Triumph TR6R. He races in lace-up work boots, because they remind him of Red Wing boots that flat track racers of the 1960s raced in. They don’t really look like them, but John is not a follower of fashion or a slavish recreationist and would rather spend the money on race entry fees and diesel for his old Transit van than fashionably expensive work boots.

I learned he’s a welder-fabricator and resourceful, a throwback to earlier generations. He looks like he could exist on a diet of potato peelings and rain water and not lose weight. I bet he could catch a rabbit, skin it and cook it quicker than you or I could order a Chickpea Vindaloo and have it delivered by Uber Eats. I wouldn’t be surprised if he hasn’t visited a doctor since Mitterrand was in office.

I didn’t talk to John for long on the first day we met, but I watched his races when I could that day, and every race since. Right from day one he wasn’t afraid to twist the throttle, but I could see him making the odd avoidable mistake, the kind many rookie racers make, ones I’d finally stopped making a few seasons before. Stuff like: Don’t look over your shoulder; Going around the outside of the bike in front a very cool move, but you weren’t going fast enough and the rider you were trying to pass left so much room up the inside you should have changed your line. I pointed them out in a friendly way and only told him because it seemed like he wanted to hear it.

His TR6R’s bars are, by modern standards, huge cowhorns, with a radical pullback, the kind of thing Dick Mann raced with in 1965. No one uses bars like this now. No one. John also runs period Firestone S3 cross-ply tyres despite nearly everyone else running modern Maxxis or Dunlops. When it comes to motorsport there are few things more important than tyres, but his adherence to what Aldana and Romero had to use when this bike was new is unwavering. This decision, to me at least, is like choosing to run a marathon in clogs, but he hasn’t considered changing them for a second. He’s not a period correct bore, someone trying to show how clever and sophisticated they are by using old stuff, he just wants his bike to look ‘right’, and he’s paying more for the Firestones than modern Dunlops cost. I have told him he is an idiot and he needs better tyres if he wants to progress on numerous occasions. I know him well enough now to be abrupt when I give him my opinions. He doesn’t get angry or laugh when I tell him. His expression changes slightly. The four-speed cogs in his head spin up a recurring thought, ‘I’ll show him’.

We now keep in touch away from the races. John said if I went on any foreign road trips and needed a co-driver he’d be interested. A few month later we went to Snow Quake in the Italian Alps and talked for pretty much ten hours straight, there and another ten hours back. We’re friends now, not just acquaintances who meet at the track.

This June John was 60 and started drawing the pension he’d been paying into for 30 years. As I’m writing this it sounds like an obituary, or at least there’s some kind of twist in the tale. And there isn’t but it’s a good one.

We both just attended the first race since he turned 60th, a DTRA two-day meeting at a horse track in South Wales. The oval is the longest the UK series visits, and rough, the roughest we visit too. 24 vintage bikes entered, a mixture of two- and four-strokes who race together but are scored in their own championships. Saturday was wet and horrible, the track like concrete just tipped from a mixer, but Sunday was better. I watched as John’s converted road bike, with its stock forks, frame, skinny shocks and road tyres blasted past the opposition looking exactly like a scene from On Any Sunday, the very film that had introduced him and me to flat track racing. For so long I thought I could beat John if I were on a comparable vintage bike (with decent tyres), but on that Sunday I wasn’t so sure.

By the end of weekend John was on the top step of a Dirt Track Riders Association Podium for the first time ever. He’d not only run a marathon in clogs, he’d bloody won it.


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