As you can see from the other articles on here, I’m a fan of stripped-down, homemade bikes, so when I came across the website for the Short Track UK race series back in 2008, I was galvanised. The UK was just emerging from its sportsbike inundation; the receding tide was exposing once more the indigenous bike culture that this happy little island has enjoyed for a hundred years. With mud and seaweed in their hair, damp roll-ups held in frowning mouths and brains in a rapture of mechanical computation and petrol-addicted glee, the old guard barely noticed the fresh, warm skies above, nor the silt drying on their chins. They kicked, she fired. They packed up their vans and carried on racing, timeless as the tides.
These obscure sages of bikeworld have met for decades at their sacred sites – Stockton-on-Tees, Scunthorpe, Mablethorpe – on auspicious dates on the racing calendar. A particularly good burger van and a neutral, flat-grey sky are the omens they seek, to beckon victory and banish the ambulance. Among them, we now see the stars of road racing, perhaps playing at being down-home bikers (despite large budgets and occasional corporate sponsorship), perhaps just seeking an escape from the pressures of racing into the joy of racing. Fashionably late to the party are a third cohort: young, fearless enough to race with little experience and hugely enthusiastic at how cool and wild and different DIY racing is. They are soft enough of bone to heal quickly, while merrily instagramming the bold artwork that adorns their potted limbs and reflects the extensive tattoos beneath.
The best thing about being a photographer is getting to stick your lens into anything that grabs you, and an offer of free photos is often the ticket. With characteristic bluntness and stupidity, I emailed the series organisers and boldly stated that the photos on their website weren’t up to much, and offered to have a go myself. Luckily, their regular photographer (and close personal friend) had just become a father, and was having difficulty making it too far north, so they gave me this end of the country to cover.
So far so good. Except that I didn’t yet own a camera.
I scraped together a spare £250 and bought an old Canon EOS 300D, equipped with the rubbish 18-55mm kit lens, and off I went to Stockton for the first of many races. Lacking any real zoom capacity, I’d go on the centre green of the track instead and stick my head out in front of the oncoming racers to get the shots I wanted, then quickly dive back out of the way. This taught me two things: firstly, all kit – no matter how expensive – is sacrificial, and secondly, photographing dirt racing this way is as close as you can get to the mood of it without sitting in the saddle.
This was ten years ago. I still go out and do this now, armed with pro equipment and with a lot more friends in the scene than when I started. My busted knee sometimes won’t let me walk, let alone race, but the intoxication of noise, flying dirt, exhaust fumes and high-end home engineering keeps me going back.