Backmarker: The Naked Frenchman, or Bastille Day Blues (Part ‘un’)

MotorcycleUSA Staff | July 14, 2015

Author’s note: Today is Bastille Day—a French national holiday that is sort of the equivalent of our Fourth of July. And although I’m now going to tell you a story that I watched unfold over a decade ago, I think of it every year.

The French have a penchant for endurance. Witness the Tour de France bicycle race or the Paris-Dakar. It’s no surprise the 24-hour Bol d’Or, held in September, is the country’s highest-profile motorcycle race .

As big as the ‘Bol’ is now, its heyday was 40 years ago. Kevin Cameron called endurance racing in the ‘70s “the privateer’s last stand” meaning that it was the last time truly independent teams competed for an FIM world road racing title.

To recapture that glory, the Bol’s organizers created the Bol d’Or Classic in 2003. Since a full 24 hours would be too much to expect from motorcycles from that period (to say nothing of vintage riders) the format of the race was three one-hour sessions spread over 24 hours. Two-rider teams were mandatory; the winner was determined on cumulative mileage. As a bonus, the format offered spectators not one, but three Le Mans-style starts.

Patrick Bodden, was the child of a French mother and an American GI, raised in France, he vividly remembered seeing his first Bol in 1975. So when he heard about the inaugural Bol d’Or Classic, he was determined to provide an American presence.

He already had a bike in mind. Through his Heritage Racing AHRMA team, he’d met Connecticut-based superbike collector Brian O’Shea. O’Shea’s collection is focused on historic AMA superbikes, but he’d acquired a 1979 Honda factory RS1000. Only three of these were ever built in endurance specs; Honda sent one each to France, Britain, and Australia. O’Shea’s bike was raced by Ron Haslam and Alex George at the Bol d’Or, amongst other races. It was later shipped to the US, where it was used at one Daytona test, then left to languish. So a return trip would be something of a homecoming for the bike, as well as Heritage Racing. Once O’Shea had agreed to the loan of his RS1000, only three things were missing: the two riders, and a budget.

1979 Honda RS1000
Brian O’Shea’s 1979 Honda RS1000 was one of three built by Honda’s Racing Services Corporation—the predecessor of HRC. The machine was raced in the original Bol d’Or before returning for the inaugural Bol d’Or Classic almost 25 years later.

Reg Pridmore’s definitely a Californian now, though he was born in London. He was the first-ever AMA Superbike champion, riding a BMW R90S. He also rode an R100 for the French BMW importer in the 1975 Bol d’Or. Charlie Williams is known as one of the best-ever TT riders, but he also rode Honda RCBs (the predecessor of O’Shea’s RS1000) for Honda in several Bols. After Bodden persuaded those two to give the Classic a go, the rider corps seemed qualified.

Sponsorship came from the American Honda Rider’s Club, and Champion Honda of Charleston, North Carolina; Shell UK provided fuel. Thanks to them, Heritage Racing’s team came together at the Circuit de Nevers-Magny Cours, in the Burgundy region of central France, on the Bastille Day weekend in mid-July, 2003. I helped only a little; since I was living in Paris at the time, I handled some logistics at the French end. Mainly, I rented a van from over in the 15th arrondissement and drove to Charles de Gaulle airport to pick them, and the bike, up.

The first practice sessions on Friday took place in blazing heat (the summer broke all French temperature records.) Charlie Williams was first out for Heritage Racing, and brought the bike in noting that the brakes felt soft, and the motor seemed rich. While Williams slumped in the cool of the garage, with a towel soaked in icewater around his neck, it was Pridmore’s turn in the leather sauna.

In the next-but-one garage, a guy fettling a pair of Bimota HB-9s had stripped to his underpants. Not shorts, or a bathing suit, but actual Y-front briefs, on a body as pallid as a frog’s belly, except where it had already been sunburned. (He’d been outside in the line up to register for the event, in the same utterly unselfconscious state, at high noon.) His ‘team’, which was on the entry list as Forza Bimota, seemed to be sponsored by a lap-dancing club, that had sent along a few girls, dressed for their part Bimota T-shirts the size of Barbie clothes.

“Why don’t we have any hookers?” O’Shea asked, in a tone suggesting that by comparison, Bodden had already failed as a team manager. A pretty-but-world-weary blonde tanned in the doorway of their garage, near a hand-scrawled sign that read “T-Shirts – 15 Euro – Aidez-nous!” (Help us!)

Backmarker Frenchman
The team in the garage next door was sponsored, in, part, by their local strip club which kindly allowed a number of their employees to come hang out with the team.

All in all, they made quite an impression.

“Is that a French thing? Wearing nothing but your underpants in public?” Pridmore wondered out loud. Bodden (who, if truth be told had become downright defensive about post-Iraq Franco-American relations) was quick to say “No!!”

(I’d already noticed, in the check-in line, Patrick positioning himself to block his team’s view of the near-naked Frenchman. When we got installed and discovered that the garage walls were see-through wire fencing and the underpants crew was in plain site from our space, Bodden scowled in their general direction.)

Although Patrick had been visibly proud when others came over to admire the RS1000, when underpants man and his rider, a kid in his 20s with dreadlocks down his back walked over to look at the it, poking and marveling, Bodden bristled. For a moment, it seemed he was about to snap, “Get away from there!” but instead he muttered something to himself, in an ‘Inspector Clouseau’ accent.

After another session, with the riders complaining of a dreadful flat spot in the middle of the rev range, Bodden and O’Shea set about removing the carburetors to see why – despite running the smallest jets O’Shea had on hand – the motor was still rich.

While the float levels were being set, the riders compared Bol d’Or notes. The race had never been lucky for either of them. Pridmore remembered the RS100 as being a bit of an oil-burner. “They were putting some oil in each time we stopped to refuel, but not as much as it was burning,” he recalled the inevitable conclusion “it stopped once and for all somewhere around the sixth hour.”

Williams rode Honda RCBs in World Championship endurance events from 1973 to ‘78, winning at Barcelona and Nurburgring, but scoring only one finish in five attempts at the Bol d’Or. “I remember going around Virage du Musee, one of those years when the Bol was held at Le Mans. The rotor had broken off the end of the crankshaft, and broken through the cases, dumping all the oil onto the bike’s back tire, and that was the end of that,” he said simply.

On Saturday after timed qualifying, it seemed Pridmore’s and Williams’ run of Bol luck had changed. Pridmore’s best lap, at 2:14.8, would have been good enough for tenth on the grid. Williams, though, had put the team into the fourth spot thanks to a 2:06-flat.

In front of the U.S. entry, there was a legendary Godier-Genoud Kawasaki, piloted by Alain Genoud and Gilles Hampe (one of France’s most charming and fastest motorcycle cops.) There was also a brutal but effective Yamaha TZ750; “It won’t go the distance,” Heritage Racing told themselves. Finally, there was a deceptively quick Moto Guzzi Le Mans, which again set Bodden to muttering.

On Sunday afternoon, Charlie Williams lined up on the far side of the track with 40-some other riders. The flag dropped, and there was an eerie moment of silence, but for the patter of feet in racing boots, as the riders ran across to their machines.

O’Shea walked down to turn one, and returned a little shocked after seeing Williams riding his irreplaceable motorcycle in hot pursuit of ex-world champ Jean-Claude Chimaron. “Man!” he said, “those guys are having a duel.”

According to the rules of the race, rider changes had to take place between the 20th and 40th minute of each session. Pridmore brought the first hour to a close without any trouble, and the first official score sheet showed Heritage Racing in a respectable 6th place overall.

Sunday evening, the night session. Again, Williams got off to a good start, but after a few laps, the announcer mentioned that he was off the track at “180”, a hairpin turn about as far from the pit straight as he could get. With no additional information from the loudspeakers, Heritage Racing didn’t know if he’d crashed or broken down. Bodden trotted off to race control, where the entire track (built to Formula One car specs) was covered by a CCTV system. In the cool, dark control booth, facing a bank of video monitors, he watched Williams pushing the big Honda up a long hill. Meanwhile, O’Shea had taken off at a run, back along the track’s service road, hoping to find him – but unable to understand any of the track announcements, or the yells of French corner workers.

Backmarker Frenchman
A shot of the crew next door where the team uniform policy was, um, laissez-faire to say the least.

“Here he comes!” someone yelled. Williams – soaked in sweat but now back on the machine – was pushed the length of the pit lane by Bodden and O’Shea. Hope springs eternal in endurance racing. Could it just be fuel starvation? The fuel tank vent hose seemed kinked. O’Shea ripped it off, and punched the starter. It started all right – it started making loud metal-on-metal banging noises inside the motor. Pridmore pulled off his leathers.

Williams – once he’d cooled off – evaporated into the night air, while Bodden and O’Shea considered an apparently hopeless situation. The team had brought virtually no spare parts, as most were simply unavailable, “As much as this looks like a street bike motor,” bemoaned O’Shea “inside it’s so different.”

Morosely, they performed a rudimentary compression check by jamming wads of tissue into the spark plug holes. When the motor was turned over (the electric starter, which Honda included for dead-engine Le Mans starts, came in handy) three cylinders blew their wads, but #1 generated no compression at all. Peering down the spark plug hole with a microlight was inconclusive. They’d have to pull the head to know what was wrong.

Problem #2: Honda had packed the motor in so tightly that even removing the magnesium valve covers meant dropping the motor onto the lower frame rails. One by one, the garages were falling silent, and dark. Pridmore and Williams wandered back in, staying only long enough to say that they were headed back to their hotel.

Bodden and O’Shea pored over Brian’s copy of the RS manual. The oft-photocopied sheaf included pages of setup notes, handwritten by engine builder Udo Gietl who worked for American Honda at the time of the machine’s one Daytona test.

They took turns: one would find the situation impossible, while the other proposed some solution that was merely improbable. “I’m sitting here, and I can’t think of anything that’s gonna work, and it sucks the wind out of me,” said Brian.

Backmarker Frenchman
Brian O’Shea (left) watches as Charlie Williams’ long-time mechanic Emyr Roberts helps fit the RS1000’s controls to suit the TT star.

“Has anyone walked through the swap meet? Maybe there’s a CB1100F valve set down there.” Patrick countered. “If the valves were the right size, the head might work converted to shim-over-bucket…” then his voice—and optimism—waned in mid-sentence.

That went on ‘till midnight. Through the garage door, somewhere off on the horizon, Bastille Day fireworks went off. From the infield, behind the darkened and empty grandstand, came the sounds of a band covering old American rhythm and blues songs.

If the two of them had ever given up hope at the same moment, the story would have ended right there. But a sentence stuck out at the top of the parts list, “The motor is based on the CB750/CB900F series.”

Brian: “What if we could just take the head off a CB900, and drop it straight on?”

Next door but one garage, the guy in his underpants was still puttering around. Their team’s spare Bimota had just such motor. Patrick went over to ask if they could try it. Underpants man didn’t hesitate before answering, “Bien sur.”

Well, would you look at that word count? I’ll pick up this story in my next column. In the meantime, don’t forget to raise a glass on Bastille Day, and check back here in two weeks for a conclusion that, I promise, is worth the wait…—Mark Gardiner