The English have many virtues, but being able to deal with anything other than definitively mild weather isn’t one of them. When the mercury reaches 70 degrees, our media goes hysterical at the thought of heat stroke, dust storms, dehydration, tribes of Bedouin riding their camels through town centers and everything else which is associated with Death Valley in August.We are currently at the other end of the scale with, wait for it, temperatures as low as 30 degrees. That’s actually sub-zero. This means dire warnings of severe weather, death through freezing, herds of polar bears replacing the Bedouin and penguins infesting every patch of open water. In this Arctic blast, parts of the country have had to endure as much as two inches of snow. I really need to repeat this. A couple of inches of mildly frozen water has brought the country to a halt.
Since I am clearly incapable of battling through the 10 yards of two-flake deep snow covering the path from our cottage to the office, I am manfully typing this story on our dining room table – in front of a blazing log fire while sipping a late bottled Port wine – and very pleasant it is too.
The bleak mid-winter always gets me thinking about 1978 and the time when, through a touching mixture of poor French and an infant’s naivety, I rode in what was arguably the most dangerous motorcycle race in the world.
L’Enduro des Sables, or as it is known in English the Le Touquet Beach race, was truly an event to die for – and in. The year I rode, the race was still in all its manic, pristine glory with 1300 entrants in a mass start, a five mile-long straight and five fatalities. A Sunday afternoon club race it was not! I was the first British rider to compete in the event and enjoyed one of the best results of my racing career – while coming very close to being killed several times. Yes, it was a memorable event.
Le Touquet is in northern France, just a few beaches away from the D-Day invasion sites. It is comprised of an ultra-swish and sophisticated town, some utterly enormous sand dunes and, when the tide is out, a wet, concrete-hard beach stretching for something in the region of seven miles.
The reason that I ended up at Le Touquet in February was that I should have paid more attention to Miss Pillar’s French lessons instead of spending my time surreptitiously reading motorcycling magazines under my desk.
The story begins in August 1977. The weather at the Belgian round of the 500cc World Motocross championship was blistering and inside the Citadel of Namur the dust had hovered like dense clouds of light brown talcum powder for the whole of practice.
Whatever you think of the GP motocross riders in the 1970s no-one can doubt their courage. Truly, they had cojones like fit rodeo bulls. However, on that August Sunday they just refused to ride, so dangerous were the conditions.
The track at Namur was laid out in a huge park and threaded its way one bike wide through the trees and around the houses of the old Belgian city and visibility was zero – as in you couldn’t see the bike three feet in front of you. Someone was going to get killed and so there was a strike until the organizers watered the whole circuit.
I was working as journalist and photographer, and to fill the time until the GP was on again I gossiped to a French journalist. Ahhh, Miss Pillar was sitting in heaven smiting me for my inattention.
The Gallic journo explained that every January, there was a light-hearted mess-about at Le Touquet where a few of the off-road boys got together for a sort of track day on the beach, glugged a lot of wine and ate some rather fine food. At the time, I was pretty handy as a British Championship enduro rider and there was nothing much happening in Britain in January so why not have a trip over to La France, show off with a few donuts on the beach and then get stuck into le menu Gastronomique. At least, this is what I thought I had translated.
The first problem was that, at the time, I was riding a semi-works Suzuki for the legendary Eddie Crooks motorcycles. My 1977 Suz had been sold and the 1978 model had yet to arrive. Still, with Ed’s permission I was allowed to ask Arthur Arnold, the owner of Knott Mill Kawasaki in Manchester, if I could borrow his Kawasaki KE 175 trail bike demonstrator.
It is important to put the little Kwack into perspective. The bike was an utterly non-competition spec, road-biased trailie aimed at commuting and light recreational use. However, there was a smattering of these inoffensive little bikes being used by beginners in club enduros and they had gained a reputation for being bombproof reliable – not to say surprisingly competent off-road.
I explained to Arthur that Le Touquet was a bit of light-hearted fun, but he was concerned. What if it wasn’t such a play event as I thought? What if it was actually a race? I dismissed his worries but Arthur still insisted on putting a break resistant, enduro light kit on the bike and a set of race knobblies.
So now we had a cute little street trail bike which looked as if it might manage some light trail riding. How cool would that be when I was doing my demo donuts?
The first hint of suspicion came when I received what looked an awfully lot like race entry forms. The man behind L’Enduro des Sables was Thierry Sabine – the father of the Paris-Dakar races – and the man who invented extreme off-road events. At this point I should not so much have smelled a rat but a whole flock of malodorous rodents. Thierry never, ever did easy.
Still what could go wrong? If it was a bit of a demo race so what? I was riding nationals, and the occasional international enduro, so no problemo.
Sometimes racers just can’t take a hint. As we drove down to the docks at Dover to catch the ferry across the English Channel to Boulogne, the rain attacked the van like 20mm cannon fire while the wind tried to roll us off the approach road and into the sea. In all the many times I had made the Channel crossing I had never, ever seen a ferry rocking so violently – and that was while it was still tied up in Dover Harbor!
Still, we had got a brilliantly cheap deal on the trip to Boulogne and a 35-mile ferry crossing isn’t like being properly at sea is it? England and France were both in sight at the same time but the masses of green water breaking over the upper deck lounge window gave a good imitation of the perfect storm. I was sick, my unpaid pit crew were utterly sick, the ship’s crew were sick and I guess that down below the little Kawasaki threw up too.
We staggered off at Boulogne and I had to almost immediately stop the van – to be sick again. Thank goodness we weren’t riding in a serious race the following day.
Ten miles out from Le Touquet the rats started to need deodorant again. The roads were absolutely jammed with bikes large and small. Full-on enduro bikes screamed past on the grass verges, mopeds pushed through on either side whenever we stopped and passengers in Wehrmacht replica, BMW sidecar outfits swung their machine guns round on the cheering crowds. This didn’t feel at all right.
Scrutineering confirmed my worst nightmares. This was a race – and a proper one too. We unloaded the little Kwack and joined the end of the queue. An hour later, a snowdrop appeared. It blossomed and died. In front, a bored French couple made love. She became pregnant and gave birth. The lined moved again. Continents were formed quicker than our progress to the scrutineering team.
What made things worse was that everything which obsessed British scrutineers held no interest for the French. Brakes: don’t care. Self-closing throttle: it’s up to you. Race numbers: oui, parfait. But the lights: goodness me, the lights! Did they work? Being a road bike they actually functioned quite well. Now main beam, now dip, now main beam again. I was beginning to think that this was a night race.
Cold, tired and feeling as if I had just spent three hours throwing up on a channel ferry, I slunk off to the hotel. The mussels in white wine, garlic and parsley looked delicious. And indeed, they proved to be so – until the first one hit my stomach and it was off to les toilettes again.
It was a long night and an interesting one. I lay on the bed, doubled up in agony while outside the hotel the final of the all-France unsilenced moped race was in full swing. As the last mopeders exited at 5 a.m., I crashed into a tortured sleep – until the alarm went off 20 minutes later.
One look at the croissants convinced me that food was not a good option, so we set off to retrieve the little Kwack and discover what the day held.
The first problem was that the bike was in Parc Fermé, while the work area was two miles away on the beach. Of the three of us only I would drive in France. Still, with much arm waving, horn honking and “Allez! Allez! Je suis un pilote!” I forced the borrowed van to the sea front – and what a shock.
Next to us was the factory SWM team who had travelled all the way from Italy. Spare wheels, quick filler fuel cans, three factory mechanics and a team Manager. I looked at our single jerry can of pump fuel, one tin of chain lube and the Kwack’s tool roll and finally accepted that this was not a play about on the beach but something vastly more serious.
The first problem was to recover the bike from the Parc Fermé outside the Town Hall. This was not as difficult as it seems. I had paid a little bit of attention to Miss Pillar so it was merely a case of standing in the middle of a stream of traffic doing 60 mph, flagging down the first bike to make eye contact and demanding a lift to the Town Hall. Simple if you have no sense of danger and you’re desperate!
When I arrived there it was like the Super Bowl half an hour before kick-off. Bikes were everywhere and a dense fog of two-stroke fumes hung over the Parc Fermé as riders battled with their bikes, arm waving officials, increasingly tense police dogs and each other for a slot through the one bike wide, exit gate.
Once out into Le Touquet’s elegant town center things became even worse. You’ve never seen true danger until an amateur tries to pull his first ever wheelie surrounded by 1000 over-hyped racers – and then crashes into a lamp post bringing down five of his fellow competitors.
Girlfriends rush out to plant kisses on the cheeks of their heroes, Grandad is wheeled out into the center of the road to shake his son’s hand and Mum stuffs a baguette sandwich down the riding jacket of her little boy. This is the amateur racer’s life revealed in living color.
By this time, I was feeling fine. The threat of real, serious danger, and a lot of racing experience, had combined to kick in the adrenaline and focus my mind. This job had the potential to get me killed if I didn’t start to take it seriously.
The chaos was even worse at the start. I never did find out the exact number of starters but the figure lay between 1200 and 1500 and the idea was that there would be three rows of 500 or so – and that’s a lot of bikes – arranged on the beach with the quickest riders seeded to row one.
I was directed to the third row and I could immediately see the problem of hurtling down the beach with 1000 bikes in front of me. So, with a bit of polite elbowing and convenient mis-understanding of instructions, I soon maneuvered the Kwack to the first row.
Directly facing us was a water-filled ditch which stretched the whole width of the beach and into the sea. In fact, at the far right, 50 or 60 riders were actually in the water. In front, stretching out of sight, was flat empty sand.
I hadn’t a clue where the course lay so I asked the KTM rider next to me how far it was to the first corner. He smiled and said, “Huit kilomètres sur la gauche.”
Eight kilometers – that was five miles and flat out all the way. Suddenly, the cross channel sea-sickness returned.
We were told to watch a Landrover parked in the water and when someone waved something the race would start. It didn’t happen like that. The waves started breaking over the bikes in the sea and, with the wholly reasonable excuse that they were drowning, off they went – and L’Enduro des Sables had begun.
For the first 25 yards, the Kwack was competitive and I was in the leading group. Then we weren’t!
I simply pinned the throttle, lay flat on the tank road racing style – and prayed. Why the sudden affection for God? All around were high-speed crashes as riders with more bike than ability discovered that riding at 90 mph on wet sand demands a considerable degree of skill.
In front of me, a tricked out Yamaha XT500 started to weave. The golden rule in these situations is always to sit back and nail the throttle. The Yam’s pilot shut off and leaned forward.
It’s a fascinating sight to see a rider cartwheel through the air in front of you but not nearly so interesting as observing a white fuel tank, gushing fuel, bounce down the track directly at your bike.
The tank is travelling at 60 mph up the beach and I am travelling at 60 mph down the beach. This is going to hurt. I tuck my left shoulder tight into the Kwack and petrol sprays from the Yam’s tank as it neatly pirouettes over my shoulder. It was that close.
The first corner is a motorcycling version of a medieval cavalry charge. Bikes are everywhere – on their sides, upside down, on fire, bent, broken and no longer of this world.
I came down two gears and blasted through, round and yes, I have to admit it, over bikes and riders. Even so, it was surprising how long you can hear the scream of someone who has just had a knobbly tire spin over his manly parts!
The rest of the 15-mile course was very natural and simply ran up one giant sand dune and down the other. Chaos ruled but the baby Kwack ran to perfection – all the way to within half a mile from the service area. Then it started to cut out. I flicked the fuel tap on to reserve in case sand had got into the tank and pressed on. Clearly, the bike wouldn’t do another lap like this with sand in the tank so I pulled in for a check. The answer was obvious. There was no fuel.
Normally, the KE175 would do a comfortable 40 mpg even off-road. At Le Touquet, I was caning the bike so hard that this had fallen to 10 mpg.
Lap two showed that sometimes the God of racing loves amateurs. The blast down the beach was as bad as ever but the first corner was ten times worse and the hills were blocked solid with dead bikes and nearly dead riders. Then, in racing terms at least, the sun came out.
Factory Yamaha rider Serge Bacou came blasting past and as he reached the base of the first killer hill an army of hitmen from Sonauto – the French Yamaha importer – appeared. Two grabbed the fork legs on Serge’s bike and another four ran in front and hurled bikes and bodies out of the way. I stayed glued to rear wheel of the Yam and suddenly I was rising up the race order – and rapidly too. It must have been the slowest ever slipstreaming but it was effective.
In between hills, I rode with reckless determination to keep Bacou in sight and it worked. Another hill and a further 100 up the order. On the final lap, I actually waited to be lapped by another factory Yamaha rider and off we went again.
I did three laps without getting killed, which I count as one of my best ever rides, but I wasn’t looking forward to the second leg to be held after lunch. I need not have worried. The gale force winds drove the tide up the beach and even the bonkers French had to abandon the job.
So, I can claim – I think – to be the first Englishman ever to compete in L’Enduro des Sables. And with my 135th-place result from an entry of over 1200, probably the happiest Englishman too – thanks of course to being an unofficial member of the works’ Yamaha team while riding a Kawasaki.