Motorcycles have been my life now for many years. I grew up watching my uncle race; tracing the logos of the great British marques onto my school bag along with the rest of my peers; and gawping in awe and wonder at the first of the new generation of race-inspired street bikes that appeared at the end of the 1970s, and evolved to become the stunning machines which now grace our highways. I truly love motorcycles, with a passion.
Except when they break down. Then, understandably, the ardor cools and frustration rears its ugly head, as hours and days of useful time starts to disappear down a drain of phone calls to family, friends, colleagues, insurance companies and breakdown services, in an attempt to salvage what you can of a weekend.
Readers of MotoMatters.com may have noticed a distinct and sudden dearth of updates on rider debriefs and news on the website, from Saturday evening onwards. What would be the point, you may have asked yourselves, of going all the way to Le Mans, and then not bothering to use that opportunity wisely? The explanation for that mystery is simple: my trusty steed, the BMW R1150GS that has served me so faithfully, decided to quit on me. That breakdown quickly turned into something of a disaster.
It happened as I left the circuit on Saturday night. I had collected plenty of material from the rider debriefs, and was heading back to my hotel - 80 kilometers away, as I booked it far too late to find something nearer - and as I entered the roundabout to get onto the route nationale which leads onto the autoroute, the bike died. After waiting a while for the bike to cool off, and the bike failing once again to fire into life, I started evaluating my options. Debating the issue with my wife - the blessings of relatively affordable international mobile phone calls, and a wonderful, efficient and helpful spouse - I decided the best course of action was to park the bike at the circuit, and head back to the media center to try and arrange a rental vehicle instead. I wheeled the bike from the roundabout to the gate at the bottom of La Chapelle, where the guards were kind enough to help me, and to find a spot where the bike could be parked safely.
It was by now around 10, and the atmosphere at the track had turned a little wild. The effects of a long, hot day and very large quantities of alcohol was starting to work its black magic on the crowds, and the dark side of human nature was coming into effect. I headed through the paddock to the media center, and started searching online for vehicle rental.
My first call, however, was to my good friend Gordon Howell of Pole Position Travel, who arrange tours, accommodation and VIP trips to MotoGP events. Gordon was to be my backup plan if I couldn't find a vehicle to get back to my own hotel. A quick scouring of the internet turned up that there were plenty of car hire places to be found in Le Mans, but that they were all closed due to the fact that it was Saturday night. One rental agency offered 24 hour car pickups, but only if you booked 48 hours in advance. It would not be the last time this weekend that I would wish for a time machine.
I was just about finished, when the staff operating the media center came through, telling everyone still left there (i.e. myself and photographer Martin Heath, the only other person still working) that we had to go. My pleas for two more minutes fell on deaf ears, as had earlier requests for information and assistance. They were met instead with a certain amount of mumbling, and that typical Gallic shrug. You may believe that phrases expressing indifference such as "whatever" are a neologism, an invention of American teenagers of the past few years. But their origins clearly lie elsewhere, in that simple shoulder shrug, a trademark of the Parisians who staff the Le Mans circuit.
Plan A having failed, I turned to plan B. I called Gordon Howell once again, and he immediately offered an extra bed in his own room. After having been rebuffed by the circuit staff, Gordon's kindness was touching and restored my faith in humanity.
This lasted until I left the paddock and started heading out to the gate. An extra ninety minutes of alcohol consumption had turned the atmosphere grim. There was some pushing and shoving going on, though frankly, people were far too drunk to actually be capable of fighting, and anyone in a vehicle was being harassed. One car, carrying 5 members of the Forward Racing Moto2 team, who had probably been working all evening to get the bikes ready for the race the next day, came off worst. Some people thought it would be hilarious to lie down in front of the car, and prevent them from leaving. Honking the car horn merely made the situation worse, more drunken loons joining the "fun". One of the team members got out of the car and went to fetch some of the security staff manning the gate, but he, too, was met with a Gallic shrug. As one or two of the security guards started heading cautiously towards the melee, I went off in search of a taxi.
The last taxi had gone, I was told. But if I hurried, I might get the last tram. I rushed along to the tram which runs from the circuit into the center of town, and arrived at the stop just in time to leap aboard what I thought was the last ride into town. Looking around, I could see no conductor, nowhere to pay, the driver separated from the passengers by an impenetrable glass screen. I asked one of my fellow passengers where to get a ticket from, in my faltering French, and he pointed to the tram stop, where a machine stood, just as the doors closed.
After a terrifying 20 minute journey, in which I expected to be hauled off the tram and into a French jail by transport police at any second, I alighted with some relief in the center of town, and rendezvoused with Gordon and a number of his guests from Pole Position Travel. Gordon immediately handed over his freshly arrived beer, and I passed a very pleasant half an hour chatting to his guests, all hardcore and highly knowledgeable people. Gordon asked two of his guests - Gillian and Scott Neal, who I had met previously at the Sachsenring and a couple of other races - if we could take the mattress from their room and drag it into Gordon's, but they insisted that was not necessary, offering to put me up for the night in their room. Once again, I was struck by the kindness of people, and we fell asleep chatting about qualifying, about the teams, and about the 2012 regulations.
I slept deeply and awoke remarkably refreshed despite the early hour, and the fact that I woke up about 5am to lie worrying about what to do next, we arose and headed down to the track, in a clean t-shirt offered by Scott. Gordon was once again kind enough to drop me back at the gate where I left my bike, and I went to check it was still there, and in one piece. Fortunately it was, and I decided on the spur of the moment to see if it would start. Miraculously - and as I was to find to my cost later, treacherously - it did, firing up without hesitation. I rode the bike through the circuit and into the paddock parking, and headed into the media center, ready to do a full day's work.
After a day of fascinating racing - Jorge Lorenzo winning two races in a row, and soundly beating his Fiat Yamaha teammate; Casey Stoner crashing once again, still suffering from the front end suddenly letting go, which neither Stoner nor the team can explain; Andrea Dovizioso and Nicky Hayden beating Dani Pedrosa on the last lap, after Pedrosa's back brake packed up, leaving Pedrosa missing apexes left, right and center - and emboldened by the fact that my own bike had started that morning, helped along by a hearty and delicious lunch in the Ducati hospitality unit, kindly offered by Ducati's friendly PR folks, I headed off to my bike, to try to get back to my hotel for the second night running.
This time, I had a plan B. I had arranged with the STIPA Molenaar team, racing with Randy Krummenacher and Luis Salom in the 125cc class, that they would take my bike back to their base in Holland if it failed to start. Once again, I was touched by kindness, and that strengthened my resolve that I would not make use of their services if I did not have to. I arranged to text Rob, one of their mechanics, who would be driving back to Holland with an almost empty van, if the bike started or not. Once again, it started first time, and I texted him that I would not be needing him, thanking him kindly for the offer. I suited up, and headed off to the nearest gas station, to fill up for my journey.
At the traffic lights just a hundred meters from the service station, the bike died again. Cursing my hubris at thinking I would make it home with no problems, I tried phoning Rob from the STIPA Molenaar team, hoping he had not yet left the circuit, but it was too late, he was already long gone and on his way to Rouen. He apologized, offered commiserations, and offered me a few useful tips to assist my plight. At that moment, I realized I should have seized the opportunity while I had it, put the bike in the van and got a train to my hotel, and then home, instead of chancing it, and hoping the problem would have cured itself.
And so I phoned my insurance company. Thankfully, my wife had prepared the ground, reporting Saturday's breakdown, and the company arranged for the bike to be picked up. Naturally, once the breakdown truck arrived, the bike started first go, suggesting that the problem only exists when the bike is up to temperature (a brief search on the extremely informative Adventure Rider forums turned up a possible diagnosis of a failed oxygen sensor, but it is too early to tell). I explained this to the mechanic, and we loaded up the bike, took it to the depot, where I left it and headed back into Le Mans to try and catch a train to the town my hotel was located in.
Naturally, the last train to Nogent-Le-Rotrou (a rather charming French town in the next département) had departed half an hour earlier, and so I wandered off to find a taxi. I had been warned of the price, and so was not shocked to hear it would be 175 euros for the 80 kilometers to my hotel. The pain of the bill was alleviated by a number of factors: one being that I can probably get it back off my insurance in due course; the other being the charming woman who drove me from Le Mans to Nogent-Le-Rotrou.
Along the way, she explained a little of the history of the region, telling me that Le Mans had basically turned itself into the "City of 24 Hours." Not only was there the 24 hour car and motorcycle races, there was also a 24 hour truck race, a 24 hour kart race, and a 24 hour bicycle race (for mountain bikes, apparently). But there is also a "24 Hours of Books" which sees famous French authors come to the town and do book signings, for example. Perhaps most bizarrely, there's a "24 Hours of Marbles", at which people from around France come and play marbles for 24 hours. This is a little too much of a good thing, even for Le Mans, as it is staged in a village just outside of the French town. Her final act of kindness was to charge me just 150 euros instead of 175, as she had not so far to return to her home, living in a village between Le Mans and Nogent-Le-Rotrou.
Since then, I have checked out of my hotel in Nogent-Le-Rotrou - after a shave and a change of clothes, which was wonderful - and taken a train back to Le Mans, where my bike is due to be examined by the local BMW dealer, to learn whether it can be repaired or will have to be sent back to Holland by rescue truck. Naturally, it being the feast of Pentecost, or Whit Monday as it is known in the UK, the garage is closed today, and the dealer will only be able to look at it on Tuesday. But having seen the collection of bikes the rescue truck had collected earlier, I doubt that my trusty BMW will be seen very early on Tuesday.
So I am still stuck in France, in a hotel where the WiFi is broken, hopping onto the (paid) WiFi from the next hotel along, waiting to hear what comes next. I have had plenty of time to regret some of the choices I have made, but there is little point in dwelling on these things. I can only hope that all of the bad luck I have had over the past weekend is my portion for the next couple of years, and that some good luck will come along to balance it out. I think I might buy myself a lottery ticket ...