Rennie heads back to bury his demons and confront one of the biggest challenges in racing at the 2017 Pikes Peak International Hill Climb.
Pink Floyd’s seminal track “Wish You Were Here” was written as an ode from Roger Waters and David Gilmour to former band member Syd Barrett, a man whose life was ruined by the schizophrenic effects of LSD.
It’s a song about detachment from reality, that no man’s land Barrett found himself in after years of substance abuse. Yet for me personally, the song has a different meaning, thanks to its appearance in the MotoGP film, “Hitting The Apex.”
The 1975 Wish You Were Here album cover was the theme for Valentino Rossi’s helmet at the 2013 San Marino MotoGP, the scene where he pays tribute to fallen comrade and close friend, Marco Simoncelli.
Click here to read this in the Cycle News Digital Edition Magazine.
Photography by Larry Chen
In the film, the iconic song accompanies footage of Rossi and Simoncelli racing, laughing and playing around together—memories of a distant time. And as I enter the toll gates at the beginning of the Pikes Peak Mountain on the pre-race set-up day, the radio DJ drops “Wish You Were Here,” it plays out from the KTM Mercedes Sprinter van’s speakers, and I think of the fateful Mr. Simoncelli.
I’m not a sentimental person. I’m not religious. I don’t believe fate is a path mapped out by a higher power. What I believe in is work, preparation and my own abilities. And for my second year at the world’s biggest and most dangerous hill climb event, I knew I was ready for the job at hand.
As Roland Sands says, “F— Luck. Be Prepared. Ride Hard.”
I know when I’m taking risks. And make no mistake: racing at the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb represents the taking of a substantial risk. Pikes Peak is an event totally unique to world motorsports. Its cliffs and boulders and trees and bumps are totally removed from the sanitized reality of MotoAmerica or MotoGP.
Perhaps “Wish You Were Here” was more relevant than I gave it credit for.
A new year
I had wrongs to right after the 2016 Pikes Peak International Hill Climb. That year I choked, plain and simple, and I wanted to do this event properly so I could sleep at night and look myself in the mirror of a morning without getting anxiety chills down my spine.
The second I crossed the finish line in 2016 I began planning a return to America’s Mountain. Thankfully, KTM North America was on board with the idea of racing again but this time, I’d have a teammate. Call it extra insurance for a dearly wanted victory for Austria.
My teammate would be Chris Fillmore, a gentleman if ever there was once but an absolute beast when the visor is clipped down. Fillmore and I are no stranger to each other, having become firm friends thanks to not just our love of the Super Duke but also our close geographical location to each other in Southern California. He helped me tremendously with the 2016 project, and fancied a crack at the mountain himself.
This year, we had two brand new, 2017 KTM 1290 Super Duke R machines at our disposal. The best machine you can buy for the mountain, the Super Duke has bucket loads of torque and a chassis that does what you want, when you want. And when combined with the new electronics package for 2017, I knew the only people who were going to beat us were ourselves.
The three months prior to our first session on the mountain had us hunting down sponsors—an almost embarrassing yet essential task for anyone wishing to compete. With Cycle News and KTM North America sharing the brunt of the expense, Pirelli Moto USA came on board as our official tire supplier and sent their rep Oscar Solis to help us all week. The man would be worth his weight in gold by week’s end.
WP in Murrieta, California, gave us the aftermarket suspension kits that transformed the Super Duke from a street bike to a full-blown racer; Rottweiler Performance fitted a new intake system and Power Commander 5; Airtech Streamlining supplied the belly pans; Super B Batteries would give us a lithium ion battery each; Drive Systems in Huntington Beach supplied chains and sprockets to lower the gearing and Arai, Alpinestars and Tagger Designs all pitched in to make sure I was safe heading up the hill.
The right time to race?
This year was a rushed affair compared to the efforts of 2016. We didn’t even see the new bikes in the country until mid-April, stripping them down and converting them to racers with the scent of sea salt still in the plastics after the ocean trip from Austria. One test day and a couple of weeks sorting suspension specs with WP later, the bikes were crated up and driven to Colorado by Fillmore himself, while I stayed in California and watched my wife give birth to my first-born son, Harvey.
To say this was a rather hectic time to start racing America’s Mountain would be somewhat of an understatement.
Pikes Peak feels a bit like drag racing in that there’s a lot of standing around for not much riding. Spread over two weeks, it’s months and months of preparation, very early mornings and finish times that would normally just have you heading out on the warm up lap at your local track.
The official tire test went well with first and second place on the second day in, for me, the correct order. But taking the fastest time in a tire test is a bit like winning a dating competition with a mannequin—it means nothing, but it’s still kind of nice. Fillmore was sick as a dog; the poor bastard had picked up a viral infection at the KTM dealer meeting and looked like Lurch from the Adam’s Family by the end of the test, a factor that no doubt hindered his speed.
The good news was everything went as it should at the test. No crashes, not even near misses, meant we were in great shape. I spent the two days flicking between Pirelli and Metzeler tires, a theme that would be reoccurring over the race week. I set my fastest time on the DOT Metzelers, but I still felt more confident on the Pirellis. By race day I’d finally made a choice and stuck with the yellow-branded Pirellis SC1 slicks—which in the end was the right one.
Practice week was over in a blur of 1 a.m. wake up calls and shitty 7 Eleven coffees, and it quickly became apparent my recommendation to Fillmore that he should try this event was going to backfire badly. He was on a mission, learning the course in his own way while making sure everyone knew who the man to beat was.
Fillmore was fastest at Glen Cove to the Summit, Glen Cove to Devil’s Playground, and Devil’s Playground to the Summit. By the end of practice week, we’d qualified Fillmore first, me second, thanks to one single run in the dreary fog of a Friday morning from the Start to Glen Cove.
The Race Run
Here’s a POV-style video from the GoPro Hero Session 5 camera mounted at the front of Rennie’s Arai Corsair-X helmet!
We were hounded all week by the Kawasaki Z900 of 2016 winner, Bruno Langlois. This was a personal battle for me. I wanted to beat the likeable Frenchman bad this year after he benefitted from my 2016 screw up, so while Fillmore may have been a touch out of reach, Bruno was not, even if the times were dramatically close all week long. His little 900 Kawasaki was unlike any I’d ever seen before. A 200-horsepower beat built by French tuning maestro Akira (the man who used to build the Kawasaki WorldSBK engines), the green machine sounded like a banshee with fire in its heart. It fair screamed up the mountain, but I still knew I had the best possible machine in the KTM for when it counted, race day.
What put me in a greater frame of mind was the fact myself and my KTM mechanic Nate Abila hardly touched the bike all week, save for changing tires, bleeding the clutch and giving it a general once over each day. From the first day to the last, the bike was surprisingly close to what I wanted to race on in terms of suspension settings—only a change to the high speed compression and rebound circuits in the shock on Thursday to make it handle the last three miles of track were needed. It made the bike a little loose on the bottom section of the course but it was a fair compromise for overall speed.
Once the qualifying session was over, we headed into downtown Colorado Springs for the Fan Fest, a smorgasbord of racing all served on a plate for the public. Every walk of life comes out at the Fan Fest, all wanting a poster, autograph and a picture. This truly is a great initiative by the race organizers and one many race committees around the United States could take lesson from. We exposed more people to the KTM brand than we could have imagined in a short space of time, and I’ll admit to being a tad chuffed that a few kids came up to me and said they still had my poster on their walls from the 2016 race.
The only day that matters
The feeling on race day morning was a good one. Thanks to Colorado’s own Michael Brown of Exit Tours, we had ourselves a camper trailer at the back of the paddock and for the first time in seven days, Fillmore and I woke at 5:30 a.m. with more than four hours sleep in our systems, while the rest of the paddock trudged in at 1 a.m. Fillmore also had his good friend Anneke Beerten make us some meals. That may not sound like much, but Anneke is a three-time world mountain bike champion, so she knew a thing or two about race day nutrition. I didn’t open my Pringles after she arrived.
Michael also left us a yellow-colored dirt bike to ferry us two orange KTM riders into the pits on race morning, cutting any form of spectator line that was in our way. The morning of any race is a little tense, a little nervous, but there’s always a tangible buzz in the air. Yet it’s different at Pikes Peak. It’s like we’re all just motorsport gypsies, some with million dollar machines and others you’d pick up for a grand off Craigslist. We don’t race each other but the mountain. And we all want that cold beer that’s waiting for us at the Summit.
It all happened so fast. Chris’ HMC factory KTM technician Uli, my tech Nate and Tom Moen from KTM North America got the bikes warmed up, Oscar had the Pirelli SC1 slick tires ready and after a quick race morning brief, we were sitting in the Ducati Hot Grid.
Compared to last year, however, I felt great. No nerves, no worries, I was totally calm. A few hits of the oxygen canister every couple of minutes, and any nerves that would rise in my guts were quickly quashed.
The only hint that nerves were getting to me was I had to pee every 10 minutes. But before I knew it, Bruno Langlois had his helmet on and was firing up his Kawasaki. That meant I was next. Bruno and his green weapon roared off into the abyss, and it was time for me to go.
It’s amazing the feeling you get when you know things are working as they should. Within three corners of the green light, the Pirellis had worn in, the bike was warm and I was hitting all my markers. I felt calm, and that’s the best place to be when racing a motorcycle.
By the end of the first section, I was up 1.5 seconds on Fillmore. But I knew he was much stronger than me in the next two parts of the track—Glen Cove to Devil’s Playground and Devil’s Playground to the Summit. Sure enough, the skill of the former AMA Superbike pro shined through and he crushed me across the top, pulling out an 8.07 second gap on at the end of 12.42 miles of racing.
To finish second is not what I signed up for, but I cannot begrudge such an incredible performance from a guy I respect so much. Fillmore threw down harder than anyone in the history of this great race, crushing the lap record by 3.1 seconds to make his mark at 9:49.625, incredibly finishing fifth overall out bikes and cars. I set a personal goal to get into the exclusive nine-minute club and I got there with a 9:57.712, the third fastest time in motorcycle race history for second in the motorcycle division and seventh overall in bikes and cars combined.
The run was smooth, clean and for the most part, uneventful. Just the way I like it. I had one front end lose at the penultimate corner before Devil’s Playground and could hear the roar of the crowd but other than that, the run went as planned—and would have been a winner if it weren’t for my fast as hell teammate!
The mountain behaved itself for the motorcycle crew, everyone getting to the top safely and with no injuries for the first time in years. That made the event extra sweet as myself, Chris and Bruno, the top three for 2017, shared a trio of cold Coors on the top of America’s most famous mountain and watched the clouds roll in.
The Parade of Champions ride back into Victory Lane was one I’ll never forget. If I couldn’t win I’m glad Chris did, and we pulled a quick 1-2 burnout to celebrate. Uli, Nate and Tom were ecstatic, as were Chris’ justifiably proud father and stepmother.
Unsurprisingly, the hangover was strong the next morning.
I hope and pray I’ll be back at America’s Mountain. I still want to win this race and will do everything I can to get my Aussie ass on the grid for 2018. It’s a race so unique and special to world motorsports, one streaked in the red, white and blue of this great nation.
Here’s to you, Chris, yours was a race for the ages. CN
Cycle News would like to thank the following sponsors who helped make this event a reality:
KTM North America, Pirelli Moto America, Oscar Solis, Rottweiler Performance, Super B Batteries, Airtech Streamlining, Alpinestars, Arai Helmets, Tagger Designs, Drive Systems, Superlite Sprockets
Cliff Racer II—The Return to Pikes Peak
Racing Pikes Peak is one thing; going there for revenge is quite another. Cole Kirkpatrick tells the story of this year’s race in this epic short film as Rennie heads back to the mountain to confront some of his demons.
For all our Cycle News diary updates we did each day from the practice and race week, head over to our YouTube channel.