For one weekend of the year, the tranquil streets of old world La Bañeza are converted into the center of the Spanish motorcycle racing universe.
Spain is changing – and fast. Gone are the wobbly old gents pedaling ancient bicycles, replaced by fit, tanned baby boomers with fluorescent shirts and safety helmets. Donkeys no longer pull carts on farms, where computer-controlled irrigation and massive four-wheel-drive tractors now rule. Cigarette-free McDonald’s now invade towns where tobacco stained tapas bars once stood.
Yet, as we roll across the arid Castillan plain to La Bañeza, tumbleweeds careen across the road and dust hangs heavy in the air as it has done for centuries. La Bañeza is still very much old Spain – and the one place in the world where time has stood still in terms of motorcycle racing. After the Second World War, there were no racetracks as we know them today. Races took place wherever the towns, villages – or even complete islands in the case of the TT – wanted them. The circuits were no more than town or city streets, country roads or park lanes.
Logically and sensibly, they were horrendously, terrifyingly dangerous – for both riders and spectators. Death was an enthusiastic fan of every single race – and was rarely disappointed. Looking back from our health and safety conscious 21st-century perspective, the racing seems insane and the risk to life unacceptable. But what the old black and white photographs don’t show is the sheer intensity of the experience of street racing. Imagine a race where you can feel the heat of a bike’s engine as it roars past you – where the smell of racing oil permeates the very dust you breathe.
This is La Bañeza. This is the living museum of racing as it was in the 1950s. This is the one biking experience in the world which is truly unique.
The Spanish town of La Beñeza practically rolls up the streets for the invasion of motorcycle racers and fans. This thoroughfare doubles as a paddock.
To state the extremely obvious, La Bañeza could never happen in the USA or Britain. Probably, it could never happen anywhere else in the world either but La Bañeza is Spain and thank goodness, the Spanish still have their freedom – if only just.
The La Bañeza races began in 1954 as demonstrations, and from then on they have transformed this proud, rural town into the center of the universe for Spanish bike racers. Not for nothing did Angel Nieto, Spain’s greatest world champion say: “You can’t call yourself a real champion until you have won at La Bañeza.”
The races take place each August during the feast of the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary. Most Spanish towns throw a bit of a party to celebrate this important Catholic festival, but the good citizens of La Bañeza go the whole hog with a week of fun which includes bands, a medieval market – and the Gran Premio de La Bañeza.
To run the races demands an incredible degree of tolerance from the local population because not only does the circuit take up a large lump of the town, but the paddock literally locks in the local population. Imagine parking up your race transporter outside someone’s house in downtown USA for two days and then have them be delighted with the inconvenience. Somehow, I think not.
But tolerance of bike racing does not do justice to the attitude of the good folk of La Bañeza. One year, the town’s incumbent mayor tried to cancel the races and was faced with a lynch mob outside the town hall. He wasn’t re-elected and all other mayors since have taken the gypsies’ warning and backed the event to the hilt.
There are two reasons for this fanatical support of the races. First, and overwhelmingly so, is civic pride. La Bañeza is a long way from everywhere and although a pretty little town, without the races it would be just another rural town out in the country – and there are a lot of these in Spain. Unquestionably, the races are La Bañeza. On our first night in Spain, we stayed at a hotel in Santander – 220 miles away from La Bañeza – and the staff knew all about the races, even though they had never been to watch and weren’t motorcyclists.
Melling was able to land a spot in the otherwise all-Spanish race courtesy of the man in the middle, Pepin San Millan, his best mate in Southern Europe who is also the Spanish Classic Champion.
The second reason is economics. La Bañeza exists to provide services to the local farming community and there’s no doubt that 30,000 spectators flocking into the town to watch the races is a tremendous boost for the local economy.
However, income isn’t the primary reason for the races: civic pride is. The local community makes no serious attempt to market the event and there is no Public Relations effort. What motivates La Bañeza to tolerate the imposition the bikes make on the community is the sense that this little town owns something really big. And in Spanish road racing, there is nothing bigger than this meeting.
It is impossible to get a ride at La Bañeza as a non-Spanish rider – unless your best mate in Southern Europe is Spanish Classic Champion Pepin San Millan, whose sponsor Agustin Fernandez is a serious player in the Moto Club Bañezano. Thanks to Pepin, we find ourselves in one of the top spots in La Bañeza’s paddock – outside Gonzales de Blas’ agricultural machinery repair workshop. True luxury!
There are four classes at La Bañeza. Two for modern bikes – pre-GP 125s and current GP 125s. You won’t find the Repsol Honda team at La Bañeza, but there is an excellent entry of young Spanish riders on the latest machinery.
The classics weren’t the only motorcycles racing on the streets of La Bañeza, as young Spanish riders showed up with their 125cc GP bikes as well.
The two classic classes are for two-strokes and four-strokes. The regulations are Byzantine in their complexity and they effectively prevent everything but Spanish two-stroke singles from taking part in the two-stroke class. This is good news and bad news. If you want to overdose on the classic Spanish single cylinder race machines from the 1960s, La Bañeza is the place to be. Bultacos, Montesas and Ossas are knee deep and inevitably, being classic two-strokes, the pavements are just as thick with engines being repaired.
Then there is the Big Daddy: the classic four-stroke class. This is the class where the mechanics wear team overalls; the class where the bikes are like exhibits in concours displays; the class where the serious, heavy duty racing goes on.
Sadly, for a very ordinary racer like me, it’s the class in which I am entered. Everything, and everywhere, at La Bañeza is open – completely open – to the public and spectators pour into the town by the tens of thousands. This is an interesting experience for us. Our team consists of wife Carol – who is taking the pics for MCUSA – daughter Elizabeth and Chris Spicer, a hardcore La Bañeza fan from London. We are not exactly James Toseland’s Tech 3 Yamaha team!
But our bike most definitely is a star. We are blessed with our Walmsley G.50 Matchless, a modern reproduction of one of the great Grand Prix bikes of the 1960s. The Walmsley G.50 is stunningly beautiful and comfortably capable of winning at La Bañeza – given a decent rider. This means that it attracts huge attention in the paddock.
Fuelling the G.50 is a ten minute job because every time I pick up the can of race fuel another beautiful young lady wants her picture taken with me – and the bike. Or is it the bike and me? At first this is flattering. After all, there is not normally a queue of slim, tanned, shiny-toothed ladies wanting to cuddle up to a fat, bald, wrinkly, old bike racer. But eventually I begin to understand why modern teams close off their working areas. Our class is being called for practice and still the dolly birds line up. Then I come up with a fix. I get changed in our trailer and one glimpse of my ample belly soon thins out the crowd!
Part of the allure of the Gran Premio de La Bañeza is the intimacy between the crowd and racers. Here, Mauro Abbadini gives the kids a close up look at his very fast Seeley Metisse.
Riding the La Bañeza track is an incredible experience – and like nothing else in the world. The circuit weaves its way in and around the narrow streets of the town over manhole covers and humps in the road as big as speed bumps.
The proximity of the spectators is both terrifying and exhilarating. Peel into a corner and a sea of hands reaches out to touch you and the noise of the cheering and screaming fills every inch of the circuit.
I was a baby in the glory days of post-war racing but it must have been an utterly intoxicating experience for riders and spectators. Race day at La Bañeza is not a re-enactment of 1950s Grand Prix racing – it is a street Grand Prix. The dust hangs thick in the streets and the pavements are packed with spectators who are protected from the bikes by a single line of plastic tape. Speeds are low – maybe 110 mph maximum on the quickest bikes – but this, and the plethora of first-gear corners, allows the spectators to be even more intimately involved than they would be at a road race like the TT.
For a rider, the experience is intoxicating. The very air you breathe is redolent with the incense of dust, castor oil and race fuel. The noise from the unsilenced Singles slams through your body exceeded only by the roars of the spectators. Nothing, but nothing, compares with La Bañeza. Pepin is imperious in the race. Not merely brilliant – but gifted. His Agustin Fernandez-tuned BSA B.50 is the definitively perfect bike for the tight streets, hairpin corners and ruts of La Bañeza, but no amount of superb machinery can produce a rider of Pepin’s skill and determination. In classic racing terms, Pepin is the Rossi of his generation.
Pepin showers champagne over the crowd as he exults in his victory in the classic four-stroke class.
Pepin wins, the track is invaded and suddenly a MotoGP looks like a pale imitation of real racing.
The good news is that although La Bañeza is planning to build a brand new state-of-the-art circuit outside the town for modern bikes, organizer Jose Luis Falagan insists that the classics will remain on the streets of the town forever. For anyone with a love of bike racing, that has to be good news.
Melling at La Bañeza
For a not very amateur racer, La Bañeza is one heck of an experience. From nubile young ladies wanting a cuddle whilst they have their pictures taken – it’s a tough job but someone has to do it – to being pursued by hoards of Spanish fans busily recording the G.50’s unsilenced braaahh, braaahh, braaahh exhaust note for their Nokia’s ringtone, everything was different from a normal race.
Fred Walmsley provided a truly superb bike in the G.50 – fast, easy to ride and rock-solid handling. What Fred didn’t supply was a decent rider with local knowledge. The first mistake was not to charge out with the experts, like Pepin, for qualifying. The local aces rode together and got a clear run at an empty track. Being English, I waited politely – and got caught up with a mass of slower riders. Still, eighth place was good enough for a second row place on the grid.
This definitely was not demonstration racing, as Melling was rubbing elbows with the Spanish riders.
So far, so good. In fact, it was better than just good. The La Bañeza grid is fairly wide and this left a space to my left for a quick blast through as soon as the flag was dropped – providing the spectators stepped back smartly. La Bañeza specialist Martin Martin qualified fourth and also wanted a flyer. Club President Jose Luis Falagan breathed in, twitched the flag – and Martin shot off the line with me in hot pursuit! Unfortunately for us both, Falagan was having none of that nonsense so we were hauled back to our places on the grid. Doubly unfortunate, Falagan decided to start the race as I was still reversing: not good!
Lap one saw me in 16th place with every molecule on the La Bañeza track full of very determined Spanish classic racers! Fred’s G.50 was just superb as I slapped it around the streets in a style more akin to motocross than road racing. The big Matchless engine pulled superbly and the handling was rock solid as the G.50 skated and skittered over the ruts and potholes. A frisky, nervous bike was not what I needed.
Pretty soon, Elizabeth and Chris were signaling 10th place – and then things got harder as I got into faster traffic.
Any idea of re-enactments or cavalcade was well out of the door. This was full blown, handlebar banging racing – and the crowd loved it!
When the flag went out I had worked my way up to seventh – which was an excellent result for a rider of my (lack of) ability – and a huge credit to Fred’s Matchless. For further information on Matchless G.50s contact Fred on 00 44 1772 786752.
And a special thanks to Chris Spicer for sacrificing a weekend’s holiday and replacing it with a grueling two days of pushing, fetching, checking, lap scoring and generally acting as a one man support team.
La Bañeza 2008
As part of a European tour, or if you are based on this side of the pond, a visit to La Bañeza is one of the must-do biking events. In fact, it ranks right alongside MotoGP or one of the big classic bike festivals.
But, being a Spanish event there is good news and bad news. The big difficulty is actually finding out when the races are held, since the Spanish organizers only decided the exact date very late in the season. The first, second, or third weekends in August are the strong bets. Racing takes place over two days and entry to everything for spectators is completely free. Because of Spanish regulations, the race is open only to Spanish riders. There are no race entries for non-Spanish riders so please don’t ask!
For further details of attending as a spectator check the club’s website which is www.motoclubbanezano.es. Please remember that this is real, old Spain and there are marked cultural differences between what you might expect from a U.S. organizer and the good folk in La Bañeza. It’s no use getting uptight about this either, you just have go with the flow and accept the weekend for what it is – not what you think it should, or could, be.
The best way to travel to La Bañeza directly from the U.S. is to fly into Madrid and then hire a car and drive the couple of hours north.
A stay at the Parador de Segovia includes a gourmet breakfast and breathtaking views of the 2,000-year-old Roman aqueduct.
Travelling from England, the hot set up is by Brittany Ferries from Plymouth to Santander. Brittany Ferries is very pro-bike (their Commercial Manager rides a Laverda) and the Pont Aven, Brittany Ferries’ flagship, takes long haul ferry travel to new heights. The 20-hour trip is cost effective and fast compared with road travel. La Bañeza is about 220 miles from Santander heading southwest towards Leon and Portugal. There is a reasonable campsite in La Bañeza which is next to the sports stadium and is free. The stadium has ample clean toilets and good, separate, shower facilities for both male and female campers.
Hotels in La Bañeza tend to get full, but there is a huge amount of accommodation in Leon, about 30 miles north of La Bañeza. Expect to pay around $80 bed and breakfast for a good hotel. For a cultural diversion, Segovia is an incredible experience with its castle, which was the model for the fiberglass replica in Disney World, and incredible Roman aqueduct. Stay in the Parador de Segovia, which is a spectacular hotel and costs a very affordable $200 for two people sharing a room – including a gourmet breakfast. Your room in the Parador will overlook the old city and you can watch the sun set over the 2,000 year old aqueduct from your balcony. Truly, something very special.
My thanks to the Spanish Classic Motorcycling Champion, Pepin San Millan, for getting me a ride at La Bañeza and Jose Luis Falagan, President of the Moto Club Bañezano who stage the event, for his kindness and hospitality.
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