Portrait of the Classic Racer as a Young Man at Heart. Our man Melling resurrects some of the Matchless G.50’s former GP glory on the roads of Belgium.
Coalescence: Noun – the union of diverse things into one body or form or group; the growing together of parts.
Scudding, grey clouds scream past flat out. Fat, overfed raindrops bounce off the car’s windshield. Drop the windows and breathe in the sweet, near narcotic perfume of the Ardennes forest.
Le Garage de Circuit on our left. Chest tightens. The sweet flicker of tension, the tingle of fear and the metallic taste of excitement. Drive slowly, slowly, very slowly down the rough, stoned paddock road. In the trailer is a 1962 Matchless G.50. A motorcycling prince riding in an aluminum clad palanquin.
Kids shriek. Dogs call out in anticipation of the weekend to come.
Curses and bruised fingers in five different languages as awnings are erected; bikes unloaded and tools laid out.
Every team is both simultaneously utterly the same and completely different – acolytes all, worshipping at the one shrine of classic road racing – but each with their own set of prayers.
Is not the mandatory safety check a fundamental contradiction in terms? What can be safe about riding a 50-year-old motorcycle along country lanes at 120 mph?
A smile. The same in any language. Yes, the bike is safe to compete. Yes, my riding gear will provide adequate protection as I…
Cartwheel into a tree
Ride headlong into a stone wall
Slide into a sparkling, tumbling, cheerful – and deadly – Ardennes’ river
Racing on public roads. The supreme challenge. The ultimate danger. The most intense, cerebral, satisfaction.
Night rich mist resists the dawn sun, fighting a desperate rear guard action until scorched into oblivion. Tent flaps open revealing distracted lovers; grey faced mechanics with too little sleep; excited kids and riders retreating ever deeper into their own world.
The old, stained, scarred t-shirt goes on first. Baggy, familiar. The companion of many a battle. Back protector. Modern. Complex. A huge step forward in racing safety. No room for nostalgia. 100 mph is just as fast on a classic GP bike as the latest MotoGP machine.
Racing on public roads like the old breed. The allure of the roads intense danger and the ultimate consequences.
I slide into my exoskeleton. Race leathers are tight – comforting. Stiff, hard, loyal armor on shoulders and elbows. Take a deep breath and push hard with my right arm. The shoulder is mended but the still active pain reminds me of:
a nurse’s concerned smile
the death rattle from the bed next to mine
the liquorice sweet smell of stale bed pans
counting the days until I leave hospital
Now into the left arm. More pain. Collar bone broken in three places. Dislocated shoulder. Five ribs smashed. A punctured lung – and a question: “Tell me Mr. Melling, why do you do this?”
The clever, sensitive, kind doctor really does want to know. Why put yourself in so much danger? Why so much self-inflicted pain?
They are my dues. The price I pay to lie on the fuel tank of the most anthropomorphic of mechanical creations and feel at one with the engine, the chassis, the road and myself. This, kind, clever and sensitive doctor, is why I am willing to pay the price. Hook up the gear lever stiff with precision accuracy in the racing gearbox. Clunk. First gear. Pull the bike back and the 90mm piston climbs the cylinder bore until it meets the resistance of two closed valves. Clutch in. Pull back once more and the rear wheel of the Matchless sits on the starter rollers.
Breathe life into the Matchless and it responds with the performance of its original Grand Prix racing pedigree.
The high pitched whine of the truck starter motor. Drop the clutch. Keep the throttle absolutely closed. Feel the fuel flow from the tank through the cavernous, gaping, willing maw of the Amal GP carburetor. Ride with it down the magnificent, royal road of the inlet track. Swirl round the polished inlet valve and over the crested piston.
Then, without knowing how or when or why, open the throttle with the precision of a surgeon and be greeted with the braaahhhhh, braaahhhhh, braaahhhhh battle cry of a Matchless G.50 preparing for war. Now, the world recedes. Slowly, steadily but inexorably every extraneous influence fades.
Feel the heartbeat of the piston, the rattle of the clutch, the sticky, life reassuring clinging of the handlebar grips.
Practice. Left-hand off the ‘bars. Visor down firmly. Harsh, re-assuring click. Stretch my legs and the exoskeleton becomes me. I am armored, protected – safe but still vulnerable.
5,500 rpm. Stutter, cough. Too long waiting. Too long constrained by regulation, requirements and restrictions. My war horse paws the tarmac in anticipation. More coughs and then, with an imperious shake of its mechanical head, we are away.
Now the rev. counter needle flicks across the black dial. 7000 times the mechanical heart beats – and then the next higher gear. 7000 snarls. 7000 roars of battle hungry defiance.
My normal world of husband, father, son to an elderly, frail mother recedes until my universe is reduced to 20 feet of ill-tempered, twisting, Belgian, rural roads. Beneath me is the closest man-made metal will ever become to life. Steel tubes flex, fuel tank vibrates with the pulse of the single-cylinder heart – motorcycle and man become one.
Farmhouse walls, spectators and haybales. Racing through the Belgian countryside, literally, aboard the Matchless G.50.
Now there is harmony. Now there is tranquility. Now everything is slow, calm and peaceful. Now the world is passing by in slow motion. This is road racing with a Grand Prix thoroughbred. The croupier which is the Ardennaise weather turns over another strange card. Ninety degrees of searing heat and humidity so heavy it could be sliced and served as a dessert.
I cower in the shade of the trailer, empathizing with my panting next door neighbor – Charlie the German, German Shepherd dog. Eventually, we both drift off to sleep.
The sighting lap. Time to see the spectators.
Gnarled experts study the race program with an insight born of a thousand other studied laps. She sits stroking his hand; head against his shoulder; sharing his interest – but not his passion. A fat, jolly, laughing Mum bounces a giggling baby on her knee and shouts in recognition as she sees her rider.
We shuffle to our allotted places on the starting grid. Now there is nothing but the ten-second board. The bike and I are one being. I make no conscious effort to control my machine. It is as one with me – and I with it.
The faded Belgian flag moves and every rider reacts as one, unified body. The skill levels are breathtaking. Wheel to wheel, leg to leg, shoulder to shoulder we roar downhill with manic levels of danger – but utter trust in the skills of the riders around us. Tight on the inside. The mighty Matchless lacks the power and acceleration of the faster bikes but is steady, safe and loyal. I can hear nothing but feel the power curve, sense the frame flexing, caress the brakes to give of their ultimate best. Into the 70mph left bend. There is the straw baled farmhouse wall which brought an end to one rider’s weekend last year.
The optimum path is just inches away from the concrete road drain. My knee and left foot hang over the gutter whilst the Matchless scrabbles for grip as we accelerate down to the woods. This is the utter joy of racing on roads. Mistakes cannot be contemplated – errors are unthinkable.
The climbing left-hand bend. Two rivals on quicker bikes on the inside. Head buried in the fuel tank, urging the Matchless on but to no avail until we brake desperately late for the tight, shaded, house-lined left-hand bend. Fierce battles – but with a chivalry demanded by the dangers of 3.1 miles of twisting Gedinne roads.
Another race complete, with rider and machine still able to get top gear pinned… Racing for fun, and a bit of pride.
Belgian beer and fat rich frites coated with mayonnaise. Post race banter in five different languages.
“La troisième place dans la classe Authentiques – Fraaaaaaaaank Mellingggggg.”
Polite clapping and a few ribald cheers from friends follow. I stand, simultaneously proud and embarrassed, for a phone photo I will never see and then return, satisfied, to my smiling wife clutching my $10 trophy. It’s been a good weekend.
The Belgian Classic TT 2011 – coalescence complete.
Thanks to P&O Ferries for getting us to and from Gedinne safely, comfortably and, as always, with a smile.