Backmarker: The Naked Frenchman, or Bastille Day Blues, Part deux

Mark Gardiner | July 23, 2015

If you didn’t read the first installment of this story, start with Part 1

The Frenchman said, “Bien sur.”

Of course. The decision was made to at least pull the RS head. If there was a serviceable piston left in cylinder #1, the next step would be to pull the CB900 head, and see if it would swap onto the RS1000 barrels. The Bimota was pushed around into Heritage Racing’s garage, where underpants man quietly went about prepping the machine as a donor.

2:00 A.M., and the last lights burning anywhere in the pit lane were in garage #39. A few moths fluttered and clunked around the neon tubes. Bikers were drawn in, too; walking from paddock parties back to wherever they planned to sleep. Mostly, they stayed a few minutes and kept a respectful distance, but if there was heavy lifting to be done, or oil to wipe up, they helped, then slipped away in the next lull with a quiet “Bon courage.”

The underpants guy was in the background, not wanting to get in the way, but ready to help if he could. “Ca, c’est la passion,” he said, smiling to himself in a way that conveyed there was nowhere else in the world that he’d rather be. Later he said (I’m translating for you here, because he spoke no English at all) “No matter what happens, there’s already enough to make a beautiful memory.”

Maybe, but the cylinder head was ugly. One of the original Ti exhaust valves broke and slammed into the roof of the combustion chamber. Luckily, it sliced into the aluminum head and stuck there; while the piston crown was scarred, it looked (barely) serviceable.

Backmarker Naked Frenchman
Denis Malterre and his son lived out a dream, and told me a story that I’ll remember every Bastille Day, until I die.

The kid with the dreadlocks turned out to be underpants man’s son. He came in shyly, too. “Le carter est magnesium?” he asked. Brian got the gist of his question, which was “Are the cases magnesium?” He gestured towards the pan from the RS dry sump, which was sitting on the work bench, “Pick it up.” The kid did. “Putain!” he said, raising his eyebrows and grinning at his father. He had to ride the next day, so he went off looking for sleep, but his dad stayed, watching.

At 2:54, the first wrench was thrown. The cam chain slipped down just far enough for a few links to kink and jam under the lower sprocket. They jerked and cursed like Tourette’s patients for five minutes before it came free.

3:33 A.M.. Patrick, who speaks fluent French, turned to the guy in his underpants (whose name we’d learned was Denis Malterre) and asked him “So, where are you from?”

He was from Ault, a little town near Dieppe which is in the upper left hand corner of a map of France. It’s a tough port town, down on its luck now that there’s a tunnel under the English Channel.

Denis Malterre was a ‘cantonnier’. We didn’t recognize the word, but he mimed his job, and we recognized it; he swept the local streets. Lest you think that he drove a street sweeper, I’ll point out that he did it with a broom. These guys, who wear orange high-visibility coveralls, are fixtures in every French town. You can imagine that it’s not exactly a high-paying job. It’s about the lowest-paying job in France.

Denis Malterre attended every Bol d’Or from 1970 to 1986.“All my life,” he told us “I dreamed of being on this side of the straightaway” (meaning part of the event, not part of the crowd.) As a street sweeper, with no background in racing, he may as well have aspired to ride an Apollo moon rocket. In 1986, he was injured in a terrible accident; his wife was killed. Then he knew: the dream wasn’t going to come true.

The street sweeper raised his son, alone. The dreadlocked kid became a biology prof in Switzerland.

Denis Malterre’s pair of Bimotas were both bought as wrecks, out of junkyards, for less than a thousand francs each. (Call that about $150 a piece; i.e., they were total writeoffs.) It took 15 years of street sweeping to save enough money to restore and race prep them. This event (for which a full race license was not required) was the little family’s once in a lifetime shot. “For me,” Denis said “racing is impossible. But now I hand the baton to my son.”

Backmarker Naked Frenchman
O’Shea and two German volunteer helpers worked deep into the night to graft a Honda 900 head onto his 1000cc cylinders. O’Shea later told me that before he returned the head, he completely rebuilt and ported it. Karma, eh? You can’t be too careful.

When I translated this story for Brian, a tear literally rolled down his cheek. While he himself had – more than once – drained his bank account to save some aging superbike from the crusher, he was rich by the standards of the hamlet of Ault’s street sweeper. And Patrick was spending money he didn’t really have, running up his credit card, to field the Heritage Racing team, too. Again, no comparison; he had credit cards. Yet it was the French street sweeper – his Bimotas had stickers supporting the French communist party – who, without a second thought, volunteered to lend ‘Les Americains’ his cylinder head.

After all that, the CB900 head did – to mild surprise – drop right on the RS1000 barrels. At 5:00 A.M., Denis ran over to his pit, returning with a beautiful torque wrench, and we heard the “crea-ak, click” of the head being tightened down. It was too late, and everyone was too tired, to reinstall the motor. Heritage Racing needed a few hours sleep. Denis slipped away, and the sun came up as Patrick and Brian drove their rented van back to the hotel. They were giddy with fatigue. Everything they said or saw along the way was #ü¢&ing hilarious.

Monday morning. The trickle of curious bikers from the previous night picked up at garage 39. They whispered and pointed into an oily cardboard box shoved out of the way in a corner. The factory cylinder head had been ported by the legendary Jerry Branch, who had once tuned Kenny Roberts’ Yamaha flat trackers. Now, it looked as forlorn as some hunted deer, dangling off the tailgate of a cowboy’s pickup truck with its dead tongue lolling.

When the time came to wrestle the motor into the frame, with maybe an hour to go before the final session, there was no shortage of hands to lift it into place. Then there was a lull; a weird feeling that was hard to place until you realized there was no noise, no bikes running, no one even seemed to be talking up or down the pit lane. Brian looked at Patrick and gathered his nerve and pushed the Honda’s starter button and it roared back into life as though nothing had ever been wrong. There was cheering and applause from all ‘round.

“Wow,” said Brian under his breath “that’s never happened to me before.” He didn’t mean that motors he’d reassembled never started right off the button; he meant that a crowd of spectators had never burst into spontaneous applause when one of his engines had fired. The loudest cheer had come from over at Forza Bimota. Denis came over to shake hands.

In the Hollywood version of this story, Heritage Racing would win the race. But even a cursory examination of the compiled results from the night session made it obvious that was impossible now. Pridmore and Williams were in 31st place, 25 laps behind the Guzzi. (Ironically, TZ750 had lost its gearbox and would not come back out; had the Honda remained intact, a podium would’ve been on the cards.)

The new plan was to baby the motor, and circulate. Just get to the checkered flag. That, everyone repeated trying to believe it, would constitute a victory of sorts.

That was the plan. On the third and final drop of the green flag, Charlie stalled the bike. Somehow, it’d been gridded in second gear. The entire field streamed past him. You don’t win nine TTs without being a racer; the plan exploded in a red mist.

Charlie passed 12 riders on the opening lap. Then eight more, in the next four corners. The track announcer went hyperbolic. Then, we heard a fateful “Williams has pulled off!” This time, he’d rolled to a stop at a spot where Patrick and Brian could see him, though it would be a two-mile run around the track perimeter to reach him. There was no point anyway; even at that range, Charlie’s body language made it clear the problem was terminal. Pridmore wriggled out of his leathers without turning a wheel. Again.

Backmarker Naked Frenchman
Reg Pridmore waits for Charlie Williams to finish his stint on Brian O’Shea’s ultra-rare factory endurance racer.

The race? The win went to the Guzzi, despite a late-session stop-and-go penalty for making their rider change outside the prescribed window. Forza Bimota, Denis Malterre’s private dream, with his son and his son’s childhood friend as riders, finished eighth in their only motorcycle race. Every team ahead of them had a real racing pedigree, as did most of the 30-plus teams that finished behind them.

“This has been,” the biology prof told me, “the weekend of my life.”

The Honda? Charlie finally arrived back in the garage with the bike, after baking in one of the circuit’s vans for well over an hour. He’d stripped his leathers down to his waist to avoid heatstroke. “It just tightened up,” he said. To emphasize it, he struck a little pose like a bodybuilder’s “crab” and made a sound, “Cr-r-ck”. Then he repeated, “It just tightened up.” Even his voice was tight, which is not at all like him.

As usual, people started loading up right away. Since taking off the borrowed CB900 head would involve removing the motor again, Patrick asked Denis (who was back in underpants, though not technically just underpants – he was also wearing a pair of white latex gloves) if it would be alright if they took it back to Connecticut on the bike, and returned it later. “Bien sur,” was the answer again, of course. After all, he’d only worked half his adult life to buy it. Of course he’d let a group of complete strangers fly away to America with it.

Heritage Racing pretty much shut down the beer concession before even starting to pack. “Next year, I’m coming back with a cheater motor from hell,” Brian vowed. Finally, the RS was rolled into its shipping crate. Charlie headed back to his home in Cheshire, Pridmore and his girlfriend went off to do a little sightseeing, Patrick and Brian drove back to the freight terminal at Charles de Gaulle.

In a final Freudian slip, Patrick and Brian left their little Bol d’Or Classic ‘participants’ trophy on the rental van’s dashboard when it was returned. After having traveled the longest distance, fielded the rarest of machines; after having their hopes raised and dashed, raised and dashed; after working through the night; after all that, no one deserved to see the checkered flag more.

Except for Denis Malterre.

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Mark Gardiner

Contributing Editor| Articles | In 2001, Mark Gardiner gave up his career in advertising, and moved to the Isle of Man to live out his childhood dream of racing in the TT. After returning to the U.S., he wrote a memoir of that experience, Riding Man, which is now in development as a feature film. His column, Backmarker, looks at everything from the motorcycle industry as a whole to intensely personal 'inside stories.'

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