Sunday, July 15, 2018

The Naked Frenchman, aka Bastille Day Blues

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.

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.

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

Brian O’Shea (left) watches as Charlie Williams’ long-time mechanic Emyr Roberts helps fit the RS1000’s controls to suit the TT star.
Denis Malterre and his son lived out a dream, and told me a story that I’ll remember every Bastille Day, until I die.
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.

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.

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!)

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.

“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.

“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.”

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.

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.”

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.

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.


  1. A great read. Would you mind if I use it as a text for my Motoring Journalism module, as an example of multi-layered storytelling?

    1. Please feel free to do so, Tim. I think I could get my hands on a MS Word version if that's easier for you to work with. Email me if so.

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  4. That's a fantastic story, very well told. Glad I've discovered your writing. Simon.

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