No matter what time I go to sleep, morning comes too early. I part the curtains and, though I'm excited by the California Superbike School I'll be attending soon, I half hope that it's raining so I can go back to bed. No such luck.
Arriving at the Dubai Autodrome, I check in with the officials and find I'll be part of a group of 18 riders, with two other groups taking part on the day. As a rookie, I immediately start at the bottom: Level 1 of 4. I also speak with Noel Ebdon, the course controller, who has graciously loaned me a leather track suit for the day. You don't want to get on the controller's bad side - if he thinks you don't belong on the track, you go home.
I meet Michael Guy, a glass artisan who rides a BMW K1200S. After a 28-year hiatus, he took up riding again three years ago. Guy has already completed the course, but was returning to hone his skills again. "Just after the first course, I was a different rider. It lets you explore your limits and gives you huge confidence. "I'm doing Level 3 again today just because it was so enjoyable."
I walk out to find the bike that Harley-Davidson UAE has sourced for my day. But instead of a Buell sport bike, it turns out I'll be riding a Harley XR1200. It's the brand's most sporty bike, but with its dual-shock rear suspension and upright stance, it's not as, how shall I say, agile as the sport bikes that most others have brought to the class. But I learn later that that's not the point.
Our first classroom session. Inside, we meet the man behind the school, Andy Ibbott. A former motorcycle racer, Ibbott is very bright and perky for such an early morning. He starts off by telling us his thoughts behind the school. "Practice is good only if you know what to practise. I don't like trial and error because, let's be honest, that can kill you." His words make me feel that we're on the same page. But that feeling is gone when he describes our first on-track lesson.
"You'll be keeping it in third gear, and you can't use the brakes." And I can't help but think that the "no brakes" thing doesn't much sound like he wants to avoid killing anyone. The point of the lesson is throttle control; we have to learn a sense of our speed. Ibbott goes into the dynamics of turning a bike, but he hammers one point home with emphasis: "Keep the bike stable". If that means keeping it on two wheels, then OK.
We're on our bikes and warming up to go out on track for the first time. The Harley is comfortable, but I notice the vibration from the big V-twin is making the front tyre throb up and down on the road. We've also been assigned riding coaches, who will follow our pack and point out problems via hand signals. My coach is Nemo, aka Lee Sibary, a ruddy and smiling Yorkshireman riding a Buell sport bike. After every track session he'll be there to debrief me, ie point out how bad I was.
Finally, our group is waved out, and I bring it to third gear and leave it. No brakes? No problem, but I'm taking it slow at first. I'm impressed with the torque the V-twin delivers, but I'm less impressed with the way the footpegs drag on the ground in some turns, which churns my gut every time. And, on the front straight, my body felt like a parachute in the wind, while guys on sport bikes crouch low and humble me flying past.
Back in the classroom, Ibbott goes into the next lesson: waiting late to turn. His point is the sharper your turn, the less time you'll be leaned over, which improves grip. I also calculate it'll mean more time further away from the tarmac.
Nemo is debriefing me after our track outing, saying my last corner was too wide. That's not great, but it's better than the rider that came off in a corner, leaving a long, black skid mark towards the tyre barriers along the wall. Luckily, he was fine enough to carry on with the course.
Lesson three, adding brakes and dropping your bike into a turn quicker. Oh, and did I mention it was starting to lightly drizzle? You can feel growing apprehension in the classroom.
Back in the pits after the track, where Nemo is telling me how I did well with the turning. He can take the credit, though, after having me follow and showing me exactly how to do it. I also noticed my pegs weren't scraping anymore.
In class, Ibbott talks about a relaxed riding position. Keeping your grip loose on the handlebars means the front tyre can move with the road surface, getting better grip. Meanwhile we're complaining about the rain, normally an odd thing to do in the UAE. But Ibbott says if you can't see a line behind the tyre of a bike, it's not officially classed as wet. As he says this, I look out the window and see a truck bringing in a crashed motorcycle on a trailer.
There's nothing like sheer terror to drill a lesson into your head. As we head out onto the track, the rain is coming down harder, leaving a sheen on the black tarmac. I gulp and lean into the first turn, and find the bike sliding side to side, searching for grip. I put my faith in Ibbott's teachings - and come out safely from the curve.
I survived. Debrief and right back to the classroom.
Our final lesson deals with the eyes - where to look going into a turn. According to Ibbott, it is the glue that holds all of the lessons together.
Waiting for our final track time, I talk with Simon McLean, the COO of Waha Leasing in Abu Dhabi. McLean was excited about attending the top two levels the next day. "I just think, with the improvement I've seen in myself today, imagine what I'll be like after tomorrow."
Debrief and a hearty handshake from Nemo. Good job, he tells me with a broad smile. You just can't help but like this guy!
Final review in the classroom, and Ibbott goes over everything we learned. He asks the class if we consider ourselves better riders, and I have to say yes. Learning the theory of turning and putting it into practice in a controlled setting really raises a rider's confidence.
I also realise that it doesn't matter what type of bike you bring to these classes. Though the XR1200 may not fit in with the Ninjas or GSXs on a race track, if it is your daily ride you'll learn how to ride it properly for the street here. And though four riders came off their bikes in the day, all were OK. On a track, there is no traffic to worry about after a crash.
I'm leaving the Autodrome a full 12 hours after I woke up. But I realise the early morning was worth it. For once.
The next California Superbike School will take place under the lights at Yas Marina Circuit on February 25 and 26. For more information, go to www.superbikeschoolme.com