Judged by any sensible criteria we are living a golden age for humanity. We live longer; are better fed and housed and have more material possessions. The same criteria apply to motorcycle racing. The best-ever bikes, with the most skilled riders, constantly smash lap records. Faster racing; slicker TV coverage; bigger motorhomes; brighter corporate T-shirts: in fact, the best of everything. And yet...
In terms of true road racing, there are no water walls or concrete barriers to protect the spectators from the racing action.
And yet the nagging doubt still exists that despite having the most of everything material we are missing something - and that something is the subtlety of the spirit. This may be religious, meditative, or in the case of motorcycle racing, trying to touch the very roots of our sport when riders first raced on public roads to prove the quality of their motorcycles. Take away the flim flam, the marketing hype and corporate PR and the heart and soul of racing is racing on public roads with all that means in terms of life-threatening danger.
I sometimes look at the old black-and-white pictures of riders racing flat out along barbed wire-lined roads while spectators sat on walls cheering them on and I wonder what it must have been like to compete 40, 50 or 60 years ago. Then, just like the special effects in a movie, the colors slowly change from monochrome to full color and here I am - in Gedinne for the 2009 Belgian TT.
Take the vans back 50 years, and change the gaudy, Chinese fluorescent nylon hues of the tents into dull, green, European canvas and this could be 1959. The smell of the frying bacon and mayonnaise-laden frites; the bikes being dismantled on oil-stained sheets laid out in the grass paddock and the braaaahh, braaaahh, braaaahh of a Manx Norton being warmed up are straight from history. So too are the riders’ infants running giggling from tent to tent half naked and dogs chasing balls on the main track access road. This is racing from a simpler, and cruder, era but one much nearer to the still beating heart of motorcycle sport.
There are two ways of looking at the Gedinne circuit. The first is objectively. It is mind-numbingly, brain-achingly dangerous and something to avoid at all costs. Even if one
The weather is great for racing. Sunny, but not too hot for leathers.
were paid a lot of money, there is absolutely no valid reason to ride here. The track, utilizing ordinary country roads, winds through the Ardennes’ hills for 3.43 miles of twists and turns, drops and descents with a huge range of opportunities to smash headlong into trees or be impaled on one of the rotting fence posts which line the lush green fields.
Then there is what is not mentioned in the Health and Safety Manuals and the Risk Assessments designed by well meaning government officers who feel driven to make sure that we brush our teeth twice a day, drink no more than ten units of alcohol during each week, have eight hours sleep every night - and live long, uncomplicated, well-behaved lives as good, tax-paying citizens.
The weather is wonderful - sunny but cool - and our Matchless is running beautifully. It is for road circuits that the Matchless was first conceived. It is a Grand Prix racing machine at home in its natural environment. The G.50 is a Great White shark feeding alongside a coral reef – an adult male lion in his prime stalking impala on the African savannah.
Racing the G.50 around the circuit is like pure heaven as it growls waiting to be unleashed on the next bend in the road.
I accelerate hard up the hill from the first hairpin. Second, third and fourth gears come in quick succession and then down into third and drive hard away. On the outside of corner, a group of fans sit with their legs dangling on to the track. A little girl waves and cheers and dances with excitement. On the inside, serious students of racing assiduously note the riding numbers.
Accelerate hard again and then flat out towards the tall grass banking which delineates the blind left-hand bend. There is no run-off, no room for error, no tolerance of rash riding. These are the corners which killed riders in what was known as the “Golden Age” of Grand Prix racing. These are the bends which took so many lives that a Grand Prix with only one death was considered to be a good result.
Then we are out into the open countryside and I can give the G.50 its head. The revs climb... 7,200 - press down firmly on the right-hand side gear lever and into fourth. The big, single-cylinder engine treats the climb with disdain and the rev counter needle flicks towards 7,000 again and I engage top.
By modern racing standards, I am virtually stopped. 6,800 rpm equates to maybe 118 mph - the sort of speed Nicky Hayden achieves in first gear on his MotoGP Ducati. But this is a different experience. The pounding drive of the huge 90mm piston hammers inside me - body and soul. G.50 riders learn to live with what critics call “loose handling”. This means that the G.50 chassis flexes over the Gedinne bumps - unlike a Manx Norton which is much more stable. In the final analysis, everything is down to the rider but I love the anthropomorphic feel of the Matchless. The G.50 is alive and it wriggles and fidgets in the same way as a good horse, ready for action, paws the grounds and snorts. This means that I can ease it into the last right-hander of the sequence with utter, complete and total life-trusting confidence. I know that I am safe from the trees. I know that the G.50 will protect me from the barbed wire.
The G.50 explains why racing on public roads is so much a mind game. You cannot - dare not - think of the danger - the consequences of what would happen if something went wrong. So the Grand Prix riders of old sought the protection of the G.50 - the trustworthy battle companion that would never let them down.
I have my helmet buried tight in the fuel tank and my elbows and knees tucked in to make the best use of the G.50’s 50 hp. My vision blurs with the bumps and vibration and my fingers tingle with the effort this old engine is willingly making. There is nothing else in the world but the narrow strip of tarmac stretching out ahead and my total commitment to riding it as fast as I can.
I have been fortunate enough to compete in many forms of
To the untrained eye, this may appear to be just antiques on display but these beauties, worth $75k each, are raced with the same gusto as less expensive bikes.
motorcycle sport but there is nothing as utterly addictive as going fast on a closed public road. It is not the danger which is attractive because I am utterly risk averse - and particularly so at my age. Rather, it is the purity of the experience. The sweet, intoxicating smell of the pines; spectators so near that one could, quite literally, reach out and touch them and a run off which can be best measured with a pair of vernier calipers: these are some of the ingredients which make road racing so special.
Compare this to MotoGP where riders can, and in fact must, push so hard that they crash. Slide off at 100 mph into the infinite gravel trap, a fit of histrionics for the TV cameras and then back in action for the next session. Racing deities they may be but they are generations removed from their road racing ancestors - and so they should be, too.
Some of the riders at Gedinne are true amateurs with bikes which reflect all the amateur’s enthusiasm - and amateur’s budget - whilst others show the serious intent of the rider and the team. That’s one of the great delights of Gedinne. On one corner sits a 35-year-old $1500 Suzuki road bike race prepared with money saving first in mind. Ten yards away are $150,000 worth of exotic Seeley and Paton racing thoroughbreds all built to professional standards. There is no “Them and Us” attitude; no VIPs; no sense of importance. The bikes are raced with the same commitment and enthusiasm regardless of their price ticket.
The Belgian TT races along county roads lined with barbed wire or no guardrails and steep drop-offs on the other side.
The same can be said for the riders. At one end are what the Belgians lovingly call: “Gentleman Racers.” They compete amongst themselves with all the commitment and enthusiasm of the final lap of a World Championship race. In the middle, is a section of competent racers who know what they are doing but, through a mixture of age and respect for the Gedinne course, ride circumspectly. And then there are the deities.
In qualifying for the second day’s races I feel that I am riding the G.50 really well and certainly as fast as I ever want to go along a country lane lined with barbed wire. I sit up for what is, for me, a 70 mph left-hand bend - with a long, unprotected, drop downhill on the outside.
As I brake, Nigel Palmer comes past me going at least 30 mph faster. He is so closely molded into the bike that he looks as if he is part of it. Head tight against the fuel tank, elbows crushed in; knees almost buried in the engine he appears to be part of some sci-fi game where a rider has been morphed into a motorcycle.
At the last nanosecond, he raises himself ever so slightly from the tank and caresses John Oldfield’s Seeley into an immaculate turn. Then he is pancaked into the tank again and flat out. As a sublime example of timing and motorcycle control, Valentine Rossi could not do better.
At the end of the weekend, we have had a couple of decent results, by my modest standards at least, which are entirely due to the quality of the G.50. But trophies are not what we are here for. What is certain for everyone is that success at Gedinne will not result in a phone call from HRC on Monday morning offering a job alongside Pedrosa: anyone who thinks so is seriously deluded.
No, we have more important things in mind. I have a new fan - a lovely little Belgian girl all smiles and giggles. At the end of my race, she runs across and I get a big kiss on the neck because that’s the only bit of skin available whilst my helmet is still strapped on.
And there is the elderly gentleman who remembers Mike
After a day in the saddle risking life and limb for what you love, it's time for some good food and great conversation.
Hailwood on the MV and Jim Redman’s Honda and Alan Shepherd and his G.50. With the help of his son, we somehow get the octogenarian race fan lifted on to the G.50 and his pale blue eyes, milky with age, light up as he goes back in time to 1962 and the boom and crackle of British racing Singles. To give so much pleasure to this gentleman has been the highlight of the weekend.
The sun is going down and I’m on world class form with the barbecue and gas stove. Three fine cuts of pork and sweet peppers, fennel seeds and olive oil in the pan, an extremely pleasant bottle of Chardonnay opened. Sophisticated? High technology? Commercial? Cutting Edge? No. Touching the soul of motorcycling? I don’t know of anything closer.
The Belgian TT is held at Gedinne every year at the end of August and, if you are in Europe on business or vacation it is one of the must-do events. A two day access wristband is a derisory $10. There are no grandstands, just three food vendors and everything has completely open access. For more information go to the official Belgian TT
Thanks to P&O Ferries for yet another effortless trip across the English Channel exemplified by efficient, friendly service – and a desire to ogle our G.50. True classics! For more information see www.poferries.com