Burt Munro Challenge
After buying his first motorbike and planning to attend his first Burt Munro Challenge, Neil Ratley was voted most qualified in the office to spend a day learning how to race with Superbike legend Aaron Slight.
The metallic grey surface of the racetrack is a blur as it rushes past my nose.
It is an unusual but thrilling sensation to be so close to the ground, yet still travelling at nearly 200kmh.
The Honda Fireblade rights itself out of the corner and my helmeted head is nearly blown off my shoulders as the 1000cc machine roars into the straight, before rearing its head and rocking on to its back wheel.
I'm holding on, more tightly than I probably should, riding pillion with former world Superbike star Aaron Slight and reaching a top speed of 230kmh around Teretonga Raceway, in Invercargill.
"We were going pretty slowly," Slight smiles when we pull into pit lane after three laps.
As my legs slowly stop shaking, Slight, who hails from near Masterton and finished runner-up twice in the world Superbike series during his successful career, explains that, without someone hitching a ride, he can reach speeds up to 270kmh.
Earlier in the morning, when I roll into the pits at Teretonga, my 225cc L-plated Yamaha Scorpio motorcycle is dwarfed by powerful Suzukis, Ducatis, KTMs and Triumphs and I feel a little motorbike envy.
With just a few months riding experience behind me, and a shiny yellow letter fluttering in the breeze on the tail of my bike, I am joining a rider-training day run by Southland Honda.
Jeremy Holmes, of Southland Honda, who is also a team member of the Castrol Honda New Zealand Supersport Championship team, invited me to join the beginners' riding class.
The thought of refreshing my motorbike-riding skills - learning to switch on the indicators, weaving between strategically placed road cones and shifting from first to second gear - was too good to turn down.
"Aaron will lead you around the circuit, showing you the correct lines to take into the corners and I will follow behind," Holmes says when the training day starts.
It appears I won't be needing my indicators and there will be no road cones to smoothly weave through.
As I join the single-file line of bikes behind Slight, it's hard not to notice that there are no other L-plates attached to the rear of the 600cc, 1000cc and 1200cc "beginners' bikes".
Sensing my slight trepidation, Holmes idles his Honda next to me and reassures me this was an exercise geared to improving riders' skills and I will be fine.
Before we hit the circuit, Slight emphasises to the riders at training day that the skills we learn will serve us equally well on the open road as on the racetrack.
Owning a motorbike is a recent development in my life. Some might say it's a classic case of a midlife crisis. I can counter that - I'm not quite at midlife.
Several factors finally got me to experience life on two wheels.
A few years ago, a friend and I bought a Volkswagen Golf in Cape Town and drove it to Nairobi, Kenya. It was an incredible journey, but along the way we met people - not Ewan and Charlie and their entourage - traversing Africa on motorbikes and a seed was planted.
Second, my father owns a couple of motorbikes and it would be no good inheriting them if I couldn't ride one.
Finally, the camel's back was broken when my brother got his bike licence. I didn't want to be left behind while they rode off into the sunset.
In the short time I've owned my bike, I've had a few self-taught lessons in the basics.
I will always remember to turn on the fuel tap. It's a tough way to learn the purpose of a fuel tap when you end up pushing your bike around the dark streets of Invercargill in the rain because it won't start after spluttering to a stop.
It also helps to lift the foot peg out of the way when trying to kick-start a bike after its battery has died, having put my bike in storage because of inclement Southland weather.
But on my few longer rides along the south coast, I have begun to taste the addiction so many riders talk about.
Holmes says it's the freedom and vulnerability that come with having nothing between you and the road or track.
"It's just you, the bike and an up-close experience with your surroundings," he says. "It is also a place where your mind can leave behind other distractions, because riding a bike requires your full concentration."
I understand what he means as I concentrate on flowing through the corners of Teretonga in the slipstream of Slight and under the watchful eye of Holmes.
After the first session, Holmes lets me know how I performed.
"You went in a bit hot around the hairpin and looked a bit stiff."
After the second session, the review is much better.
Following in the wake of Slight, who makes riding look effortless, I may not be ready to scrape my knees on the tarmac while taking a corner, but am much more confident about how to enter and exit one.
After lunch, the road cones come out, finally, down the home straight. It seems as if I will get to show off my mastery of slow turning.
"Get your bike up to 50kmh and, at the first set of cones, clamp on your brake," he says.
This is not how I remember approaching slow-turning manoeuvres.
Learning how to stop in an emergency, from someone who has had to go from 270kmh to zero in a hurry, is a valuable addition to my growing set of bike-handling skills.
Motorbike riders need to be vigilant and have the ability to get out of a tricky situation without much time, Slight says.
"The best advice I can give anyone on a motorbike is to ride like you are a ghost.
"Unfortunately motorists don't always see a rider, so it's best to ride like they can't see you."
The other piece of advice Slight gives is to always have an escape route.
"Anticipate where you and your bike can go if you are faced with a collision situation. Have a way out."
When the shaking from my backseat ride with Slight and the friendly jibes about changing pants from the other riders at the training day subside, it's time to head home.
"Don't try to replicate those speeds," someone laughs as I straighten the lopsided L-plate and fire up my 225cc engine.
The stretch of road from Teretonga back into Invercargill won't allow that and, in any case, I'm ready for a slower pace.
While I may leave the racing to the likes of Slight and Holmes and some of the other riders at the training day, I feel confident that following in the fumes of a Superbike legend will make me a better rider.
It's not every day that an L-plater gets a chance to learn from the best.
- © Fairfax NZ News