To see classic race bikes in action on an authentic Grand Prix race track, the Bikers Classic festival held at the Spa circuit in Belgium is one of the premier events of the year.
The European classic scene is changing rapidly. There will always be a thousand friendly little club meetings held in farmers' fields and these remain as the classic movement's heartbeat. But at the other end of the scale, the biggest classic events are now extremely professional affairs, a million miles away from the barbecues `n' beers of the traditional old bike meet.
In terms of glitz and glamour, the Thundersprint event is top of the tree, with over 100,000 spectators packing into Northwich, England, for a Hollywood-style spectacular. But if you want to see classic race bikes in action on an authentic Grand Prix race track, then one event is light years ahead of every other festival, the Bikers Classics held at the Spa circuit in Belgium.
The idea of Bikers Classics is almost uniquely Belgian. Riders pay an entry fee, (or in the case of the old Grand Prix stars, get paid), your bike is given a quick safety check, the gates are thrown open and off you go on to what must be the best Grand Prix circuit in the world.
There's no eligibility, no race license, no training school exam to pass and no noise meter. Pay your fee and away you go.
The track is breathtaking. Originally, Spa was a natural road circuit almost nine miles in length and in its day was the fastest track in the world. Barry Sheene's lap record for the old road circuit still stands at 137.15 mph - not exactly slow for a ride through bumpy, wooded country lanes.
In this photo, there's about 20 World Championships between the riders waiting to go out on the Spa track.
Now Spa has been modernized so that it is suitable for Formula 1 car racing and has been reduced in length to 4.3 miles. The clever thing is that instead of turning it into a clone of every other sanitized circuit in the world, Spa remains very much a road racing circuit. There are long straights, fast sweeping corners, steep off-cambered downhill drops and a true road race-type blast along a tree lined curve. Best of all, there is still a section of the old course, just as it was orginally.
Trickling round the old La Source hairpin and then heading downhill to Eau Rouge brings prickles to the back of your neck. Hitting 100 mph through a sharp downhill chicane immediately followed by a blind left hand climb is a big thrill for anyone who remembers Hailwood, Agostini and Redman battling it out on exactly the same bit of track.
The range of bikes at Bikers Classics is truly eclectic, from pre-war thumpers to some very, very trick late classics. The Belgians have a very relaxed attitude to bike eligibility, so some of the bikes on the track were extremely young - infant might be more appropriate - mid-1990s "classics", from road machines to serious racing motorcycles.
Riders get a lot of prime track time and this is the biggest attraction. Around $400 buys you nine track sessions of around 20 minutes each. That needs repeating. That's three hours of track time on a Grand Prix circuit. A classic race in Britain will cost a whopping $250, and for that the rider gets one five lap practice and two five lap races.
Classic racing is less expensive in other parts of the world. AHRMA does a particularly good job in the U.S., but compared with Bikers Classics, the cost per lap is still horrendous.
The final issue is one of safety. Racing - true, competitive racing - is still dangerous on a classic. By the very nature of the exercise, anyone who enters a race is serious. The danger lies in the final five percent of the rider/bike's performance envelope: the bit where races are won and lost.
Revving up the classics like they were young again means that a little wrenching and TLC is needed by the end of the day.
This struck me very strongly on the long, downhill left-hander at Spa. On the marginally damp track, the front end of my Seeley-Suzuki was just pattering a little as it hinted at breaking away. If I had been racing I would have just pressed on and taken a chance.
Riding purely for pleasure, I eased off five percent and the bike and I were instantly back into the safety zone.
The same goes for the wear and tear on the motor. Normally, I change gear at 8500 rpm but the motor pulls really well at 7500 rpm and those extra 1000 revs are the expensive ones. So, seven and a half is where the next gear went in and I didn't lay a spanner on the bike in three days.
A lot more of the classic racers I know were thinking the same way. As the average age of riders racing classic bikes gets ever older, maybe slick, professional events like Bikers Classics are the way forward.
I am less sure about Bikers Classics as an event for the non-enthusiast spectator. For sure, if you are a hard core classic Grand Prix junkie, then Bikers Classics is the one place in the world to be. There are so many exotic bikes and Grand Prix stars that overload sets in. Want a genuine factory MV Agusta? Take your pick. Three-, four- or six-cylinder? There's the whole set on display. Factory 50s and 1000cc endurance racing bikes from the `70s are literally everywhere. Most of the bikes are open to spectators and the riders are ready and willing to answer fans' questions.
A few teams are now beginning to lose the plot by roping off their areas and trying to mimic MotoGP or WSB teams. This is rather sad. My view is that they ought to be glad that anyone at all wants to look at their old bikes. They have no reason to be precious about letting fans stroke the gas tanks as they try to imagine that they are lining up with Phil Read or Luigi Taveri forty years earlier.
One of the best parts of Bikes Classics is that fans are able to approach icons like Italian multi-time World Champion Giacomo Agostini for a meet-and-greet.
The riders are just as accessible. Seven-time World Champion Phil Read will sign anything. The quietly spoken and completely courteous American World Champion Steve Baker is endlessly patient, whilst the galactic megastar of the classic racing scene, Giacomo Agostini, holds court like the deity he was, and still is, with fans desperate to buy his memorabilia. It is this accessibility which brings fans into Spa, not putting out signs and rope barriers.
Next year's Bikers Classics will be held in the first weekend of July. Full information is availabe at www.bikersdays.com
. It is one of the world's "must do" events if you have any interest at all in old race bikes.
Many thanks to P&O Ferries for their help in getting Team Melling effortlessly to Belgium and back. P&O are nice people and very keen on bikes. Contact P&O at www.poferries.com
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