AN IDIOT ABROAD

With just a few days’ notice Team RUST were invited to race the Gotland Grand National. Two of us knew what lay in store. One did not. Guess who pulled the short straw..?

Here’s a question for you. What is the biggest enduro in the world? Erzberg? Weston? Le Touquet? Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. It’s actually the Gotland Grand National. Never heard of it? No, me neither until I received a text from the Ed on the last day of October. ‘Hello JK. Don’t suppose you wanna ride the Gotland Grand National? It’s a one-day Swedish enduro in the forests and on the beach. The mad Swedes have invited us to ride. 2500 riders. Thought you might be dumb enough to give it a shot!’

As a veteran of the ‘trench-warfare’ that was the soggy six-hour Chiltern Hills race that featured in last month’s KTM 250XC-F test, I thought to myself ‘how hard can it be?’ and sent an instant reply. ‘Plenty dumb enough! Count me in, dude!’ And so began one of the most extraordinary racing adventures of my life…

Start minus four days

The following evening (nothing like short notice, eh?) I opened a bunch of emails from KTM Sweden’s Hanna Knutsson and started on the paperwork. No, I don’t have an International Race Licence. No, I’m not a Swedish national - so I couldn’t get a day licence. I didn’t even have a current ACU licence! Still, Hanna confirmed that my flights, accommodation and ferry to Gotland were booked. Ferry, what ferry? Tippity-tap ‘Gotland’ into Google Maps. Ah, okay, there it is, off the east coast in the middle of the Baltic Sea. Then thoughts of the race itself filled my mind. So I turned to YouTube for some reassurance. Oh my god! The mass of riders! The whoops! The ruts! The mudholes! The carnage!

Start minus three days

A frantic email arrived from Hanna. No dice. The organisers were insisting that I had an International ACU race licence. Rats. I grabbed the phone and rang the ACU. Now very occasionally people that I meet in everyday life reassure me that this country hasn’t gone to the dogs. Step forward Mary Kerr and Alison Devine at the ACU licensing department. These ladies are a shining example of the aforementioned people. With just hours to go before the race entry deadline they dropped everything to contact the race organisers and get things moving. What a pair of superstars! The only potential stumbling block was that I needed to take a medical the next day and the forms had to be back to the ACU before 6pm that day. I called my doctor’s surgery. No, I couldn’t speak with my doctor, or with any other doctor in fact. No, they wouldn’t do a medical at such short notice and I should know better than to ask the receptionist for such an outrageous request while there were people waiting days for even a routine appointment. Did I think that the NHS was here to cater to my every personal whim and trivial request? ‘Er, okay. Can I see my doctor for an emergency appointment about something else then, please?’

‘What exactly?’ Snapped the receptionist.

‘My er, chest pains and numb left arm…’

‘My god! Certainly, come in tomorrow…’

Start minus two days

I sat down in front of my doctor at 15:40. ‘So, Mr Kingwell, tell me about your chest pains. If you are feeling unwell, you should really have called an ambulance.’

‘Thanks doctor, I’m actually feeling much better today. Can you fill out these forms for me please?’

After congratulating me on my success at circumventing Attila the Receptionist, she confirmed that I still had the heart of an ox and eagle-like eyesight. She re-measured my 46in chest three times just to be sure and squeezed my anvil-like biceps with some lame excuse about testing my blood pressure (which came out as low, of course). She then signed me off as Royal Marine fit. I ran from the building and after a frantic drive to the RUST bunker, we scanned the completed medical forms and hit send at two minutes before the 18:00 cut-off!

Start minus one day

I jumped out of bed at 04:30 after a restful three hours of sleep and headed off to work. My flight was at 20:25 from Gatwick and as luck would have it I was working near Crawley, so I arrived at the airport in plenty of time, parked my truck and jumped on the plane. Perfect!

I landed in Stockholm at midnight and took the free bus to my hotel, where I was due to set off from at 08.30 the next morning with my mystery travelling partner - Italian journalist Bruno Salina. I checked in and hit my bed. Okay, I hit the bar first…

The breakfast lounge of the Radisson was full of smart business suits tucking into tiny bowls of Swedish muesli and dried fruit, with tiny cups of vile de-caffeinated coffee on the side. Bruno was easy to spot. Hooded top, fashionable jeans, expensive trainers, and designer sunglasses perched atop a shiny chrome-dome. I ambled over and mentioned that he wasn’t hard to spot, that he looked tired and clearly wasn’t going to do well in the race on a small bowl of nuts and bird feed. He then mentioned that I too was easy to spot, as I was the only fat man (Italian’s like to exaggerate…) in the room with a mountain of eggs and bacon, eight slices of toast (to be fair, they were very small…), that he was tired as he had been in the hotel gym before breakfast, was an ex-works CR500 rider - racing GPs in the early nineties - and is was chief off-road scribe at Motosprint Magazine in Italy, so would probably be okay, thankyouverymuch! And, by the way, why in the name of the Madonna was I drinking strong coffee out of the unused breakfast table flower vase? I mentioned that it looked to me like some type of large Swedish handle-less coffee mug, and at that moment I knew we were going to get on famously!

Everything you hear about Italian driving is true. We set off in our Hyundai hire car at ‘full gas’, as Bruno put it. Now I’m not saying we were speeding, but at one point I could swear that we overtook the Ghostrider. Bruno was also definitely in touch with his feminine side as he multi-tasked by bracing the steering wheel with his knees whilst he waved his hands about in expansive Italian-style gestures and shouted continuous high-speed Italian into his mobile for the whole two hour journey, breaking off only to hurl abuse if other road users’ driving skills weren’t up to scratch as we hurtled past on the wrong side of the road.

By some type of divine intervention, we arrived approximately two hours later at the unpronounceable ferry port - drifted sideways through a ‘no-entry’ signed carpark exit (narrowly missing a startled Swede in a Volvo coming the other way) and abandoned the hire car at a jaunty angle in the clearly-marked no-parking zone right outside the ferry terminal front doors. Bruno swapped mobile batteries like Arnie changing clips on an Uzi 9mm and continued his calls. Bruno and JK had entered the building. It was a miracle!

Party Boat

If you’ve ever been on a Steam Packet ferry on the way to the TT you know what a boat-load of bikes and team transporters look like. Well times that by ten! We boarded the biggest multi-decked ferry I had ever seen, literally filled to bursting with burly Swedish dirtbikers, race trucks and thousands of spectators - many in the national blue and yellow fluoro wigs and mankinis worn over their trousers (well it was pretty cold). Oh, and large herds of utterly gorgeous Swedish girls, drifting to and fro across the plains of gaudy wall-to-wall carpet. Lovely!

Bruno’s English was way better than my Italian [and probably better than your ENGLISH too – the ed], but still made for comedy moments every time he spoke as the Swedes really struggled to understand his accent. I then re-assured him by acting as his unofficial interpreter. This basically involved me telling everybody that he was ‘a very famous international MX superstar and I was his manager!’ Thus we talked our way into upgraded Pullman seats, entry to some type of exclusive on-board eatery and a free giant bag of peanut M&Ms. Quality!

The crossing was uneventful as Bruno ran out of signal coverage, so fell instantly asleep. This enabled me to sneak a couple of (well three) Swedish beers, whilst checking out the, er, view without the continual tutting sounds from Bruno, that seemed to now accompany my every move.

Fresh off the Boat

The super-ferry docked at Visby, capital of Gotland, and disgorged its cargo. I was visualising a nice hotel and a shower, but was rudely bought to my senses by the arrival of a KTM van to collect us and take us straight to the track. Really? Apparently so.

The GGN, as its known to seasoned finishers, or ‘survivors’ as I now like to describe them, takes over a huge military training and live-firing area for the race. It also sets up what can only be described as a medium-sized tented city, rivalled only by Camp Bastion. We were met by a team of KTM staff and taken directly to the factory pits area, consisting of several huge KTM artics and KTM double-decker coaches complete with a fully-equipped, heated workshop under a giant white marquee, big enough to park one of said vehicles inside with room to spare. We were showed to our bikes and told to go to scrutineering ASAP, before it closed at 22:00.

My fresh-out-of-the-box 250EXC-F naturally passed muster and I rode back to the paddock. By 10pm we had transponders fitted and race-numbers applied. The whole team of works riders, management, mechanics and PR girls headed off to supper together and by midnight I was out for the count.

Start minus five hours

Up at 04:30 (again) and breakfast at five. We hurtled to the track and kitted-up. Peter Johansson (ex-world championship MXer and favourite for the old git class that I was riding in) explained that we had to get to the start line a few kilometres away super-quick to be at the front of the massed start of our class at 09:20. I asked why. He laughed and said ‘because you must be at zee front or you vill get ridden over, of course!’ Of course… He and Bruno hi-fived and did a continental-style man-hug, as the thought entered my head that they might be over-estimating my abilities. Without further ado, we mounted up and shot off. Pete and Bruno literally left me standing and I got in with a group of slightly slower lunatics drifting their bikes through the foggy, wet darkness towards the starting area.

When we arrived at the start Peter and Bruno were waiting and we made our way through the considerable number of bikes and riders already sat in a broad sweep across 300 metres of flat, smooth rocky ground to our designated class start area. Blimey. What a lot of bikes! With over two hours to wait, I sipped KTM coffee from the KTM flask brought up to the start on a KTM team quad, munched KTM biscuits and watched with increasing amazement as the dawn lifted and the rest of the 2500 entrants arrived at the line, spread out like a scene from Braveheart. Pete ran through the starting procedure. ‘When the flag goes up, we run and push our bikes 150 metres with dead engines to the actual start line’. What? Yes, dear readers, you read that right. ‘Then everybody starts their engines when the race marshals [who are spread across the wide start straight, hiding behind wooden barricades] raise their “Motor On” boards. This lasts for maybe one or two minutes. Then they raise their “Motor Off boards”. Then maybe one or maybe two minutes after that - we start. Got that?’ Not really.

‘How will I know when to go?’ I asked. ‘You funny guy!’ laughed Pete again. Confusing!

I like to think that I am pretty calm under pressure, but the minutes before the start were very stressful as the class in front of us stormed off the line. I’ve never heard such a noise! When the mud settled and the smoke cleared, I stared aghast at the sea of downed bikes and riders, like fallen Tommies in no-mans land. No sooner had these been scooped up, it was time to go. I neither saw nor heard any type of signal, but all of a sudden, everybody around me started running and pushing their bikes. With my goggles already misting up, I stopped about eight or ten riders back when everybody else did and was instantly deafened by hundreds of closely-packed bikes starting up. I pressed the button and felt the vibration from the engine, as I had no other way to tell if it was running. Now, I’m no professor of physics, but I’m damn sure nothing like one or two minutes passed before all the engines turned off. I snatched off my goggles, wiped them with my well-remembered bit of KTM workshop paper roll from my pocket and only just got them back on as the whole giant mass of riders around me erupted in a wall of noise and two-stroke smoke, and hammered off the line en-masse. Within seconds, I had been side-swiped by two bikes and had run over what I can only presume was a fallen rider, but I had no way of knowing, or of taking any type of evasive action. There was total sensory deprivation as I maxed the 250 through the gears, whilst all around, chaos erupted and a fire-storm of mud and stones rained into my chest and down onto my head. Full gas!

Rock Slide

The EXC-F seemed to be spinning up continuously as the huge pack approached the first left-handed turn into the forest. This was my first taste of the dreaded slippery limestone. I drifted wide to avoid a bunch of bikes and riders that were actually cart-wheeling through the air alongside and in front of me, and somehow made the first turn. We were into the course proper now and I was being barged and passed by loads of riders, whilst I was in turn passing and elbowing aside a load more. I cannot stress enough just how many bikes were going down. The ground was like ice.

The 250 delivered me safely through whatever line I was forced to take - there was no choice at all at this stage and it was only by sheer luck that I stayed upright through the deadly first forest section. I dared not even touch the brakes. We fired out of the woods onto a beach of deep sand mixed with football-sized boulders. The bike dug down and surged forward. Bang. A rider clipped by bars and went down right in front of me. That was close. I couldn’t see a bloody thing through the hail of stones, sand and steam. The we entered a lake! A really deep lake, on the beach. I stamped down two gears, leant right back and twisted the throttle hard against the stop, whilst trying to hold on to the wildly slapping bars. The water was actually grey liquid mud, and within two metres I was plastered.

We exited the sandy swamp, I yanked off a tear-off and arrived at a giant slippery rock hill, with half-metre-high steps running diagonally across it. I have absolutely no idea how I made it up, but I did. Then more forest, but at least the bikes around me were thinning out slightly and I could choose a line. The forest rock sections were incredible. You had no chance of putting down power or using brakes, so I coasted across the flat rock and then gunned it through the berms of loose stones on the many corners.

Thanks to a combination of the 250’s supple springs and easy-going power, and good old fashioned luck, I completed the first 22km lap. Welcome to Gotland!

A Good ‘Shoe-ing

Lap two, gave me slightly more time to assess the bike. This is my second time in slippery conditions on a KTM 250 four-stroke and the bikes are absolutely incredible when the conditions are bad. Whilst all around me riders slipped, spun, lost the front, the back, or both ends at once, the 250 kept me upright and heading in the right direction. It’s only when you are forced to ride obstacles like cambers, cross-ruts and big holes that you would normally avoid at all costs, that you can really appreciate how good a bike is.

Despite the track getting even slipperier as the thin layer of pine needles was scrubbed off, I managed to up my pace. The technique was to push hard wherever you had grip (at the edges of the track or in the berms) and then simply maintain a steady throttle everywhere else. I rode almost everywhere a gear too high and the 250 simply shrugged it off, and chugged on through.

The bomb-holes, ruts and the infamous ‘Horseshoe’ (what the locals call the aforementioned ‘lake’ on the beach) were filling up with stranded riders hopelessly gunning their engines, and the bottoms of the hills were also piling up with queues or heaps (delete as appropriate) of bikes and riders. I was trying to conserve tear-offs and was also trying to stay out of trouble. I saw some nasty prangs. I passed under the Red Bull inflatable arch, slithered down the huge rocky descent and started lap three.

At this point I need to amend something that I wrote in last month’s 250XC-F write-up. In it I said that the soaking wet Lane End track was the slipperiest course I had ever ridden. And at the time that was true. But the GGN lap made that look like it had been surfaced with Shell-Grip. As the race went on two thousand bikes scrubbed the dirt away from the rocks, then set about polishing the surface to a lustrous shine.

More and more, I had to simply trust in the capabilities of the EXC-F to get me through. I the best lines through the soft and wet sections mapped-out in my head, though I often had to make immediate diversions from my planned route to get around the ever-increasing mass of now abandoned bikes, sticking upright out of the goo.

I approached the Horseshoe for the third time and hugged the left-hand side of the course, held her straight and stamped down a couple of cogs to build some speed and surf the ruts and liquid mud. Then… Bang!

I came to my senses face-down in the mud, with a searing pain in my lower back. I couldn’t feel my left hand. Some people grabbed my clothing and dragged me to the edge of the track and under the tape. I lay on my back and tried to work out what was going on. A medic leant over me and garbled something in Swedish into my helmet. I spat out a mouthful of mud and asked ‘Do you speak English?’

‘Of course, I speak perfect English’, he replied. ‘Are you feeling okay? You were hit by a guy at very high-speed, who lost control on the opposite side of the track and smashed into you. It was very impressive. He is lying there, see? He is unconscious and has a broken leg. Have you broken your arm? We would like to evacuate him first if that’s, okay? We will return your bike to the pits, who are you with?’ With that Sven [as I later found he was called] stood up and jogged off.

I’ve broken many bones over the years and I recognise what it feels like. As far as I could tell, only a rib felt dodgy, my arm seemed fine. I stood up and pulled off my torn glove. A simple squashed finger and scraped hand - no great drama. I looked around for my bike, now recovered from the track and propped on its sidestand. Close inspection revealed a missing clutch lever, but an intact hand-guard. That will explain the squashed finger then. I drunk some water and immediately felt better. Someone handed me my goggles. I decided that I hadn’t come to the far end of the Earth to go home without finishing and slung my leg over the seat. Sven appeared again. ‘Good luck, Mr Englishman - I hope you are enjoying your visit to Sweden!’ I tentatively rejoined the action…

It is further testament to the abilities of the 250, that I managed to get round to the pits with no clutch and only lost 20 minutes! I swapped gloves, gulped five beakers of water and jumped back onboard. The mechanics had already replaced the lever, checked the bike over and topped up the fuel. I felt pretty good, despite the pain from my rib.

As I started the fourth lap, I slipped off-line down a stony slope, clouted a sharp rock sticking up out of the ground and immediately heard the hiss of a tyre deflating. Rats!

So my final lap was ridden with a flat front tyre and it almost beggars belief that my time was only six minutes slower than my fastest lap. The KTM held its line and only the horrific sound of the rim crunching into rocks hinted that the tyre was punctured. The field was seriously depleted now and I actually enjoyed this lap the most.

I knew I was close to the finish and as it hove into view I spotted the light that indicated my class’ three hours were up. I peeled off up the exit lane and arrived at the finish barriers, where a line of girls were waiting to cut the transponders from each bike and to push a finisher’s medal down the back of each rider’s glove. As I pulled away to head for the paddock, mine fell out of my destroyed glove and was lost forever in the Gotland mud…

I got back to the pits. Bruno was there and we watched the pros finish the race on the big screen. (They had started at 12:15 and were racing past us on their first, and our last, lap). The winner - factory Husaberg star, Frenchman Pierre Alexandre Renet - completed an incredible seven laps, and in the process beat eight-time GGN winner Mats Nilsson by four minutes! Me? Given the puncture and the big crash (which cost me 20 minutes) I was chuffed to find that I’d finished 384th!

The evening was then spent in Visby A&E department with Bruno, who’d had a big off and managed to split open his left knee even wearing tough knee protection! Despite the injury, he’d still completed five laps.

We finally made it back to the lodgings just in time to catch the transport to the 01:00 ferry. Needless to say, I slept soundly all the way back to the mainland, where the early morning took the edge off Bruno’s driving style and we had an uneventful journey back to Stockholm.

A Grand Day Out

What a race! There’s no doubt that for British riders the GGN is going to be pretty darn expensive but it’s worth every penny. The Swedes were all super-friendly and genuinely glad to see a British rider. I even got recognised by some Swedish RUST readers in the paddock - ‘Hey JK, please to kiss my girlfriend to make picture!’ Well, I couldn’t let my fans down now, could I..?

As I was leaving the paddock, Hanna suggested that I should come back and try again next year. And I might just do that. I’m dumb enough to give it another shot, and at least this time I’ll know what to expect…

Thanks to: Hanna Knutsson and Anders Sarbacken at KTM Sweden, Bjorn Bergstrom at Svemo, Mary and Alison at the ACU, Ross Walker at KTM UK, Tomas Blume and Christer Back

Copyright © 2017 Rust Sports Ltd. All rights reserved.

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