Le Mans 24hr Motorcycle race and Northern France, '94

Sitting in the stands at three pm on a Saturday in March, looking at the track, riders on one side, bikes on the other. Flag drops, riders run, jump on the bikes and ride off, trying to avoid those not so quick in crossing.

[Photo of Le Mans start] [Photo of the riders running across the track]

Sit for a while in the stands, waiting for the bikes to come round again. Watch the (light) planes taking off from the airfield across the road. All the roads you can see outside the circuit are solid with bikes.

After the bikes come round again, get up walk to the top of the stands and look back over the circuit. Just outside the circuit proper, all you can see is trees, with the occasional glimpse of colour from the tents between, and the pall of smoke hanging over it all. Just then the leaders come screaming round the last of the multiple hairpins (down from the Virage du Garage Vert) at the back of the circuit. They race down the more gentle curves (Chemin aux Boeufs, Les Esses bleus) towards the, squared off, hairpin at the bottom of the pit straight, where the much longer car circuit rejoins the 'club' circuit the bikes use. Then round they go again for another lap.

Join the throng of humanity (some I'm not so sure of to :)) leaving the stands. Walk past the paddock, that you crossed on the steps off the grandstand, and up the through the Village. Past all the shops selling clothing and every kind of accessory for every kind of bike/lifestyle.

At the top, just before the road dips down to cross under the circuit by the fun fair grab a 'hot-dog' French style. Sit and eat that watching the bikes swinging round the bend at the top of the pit straight (Courbe Dunlop) into the 'new' cicane (well I think its new, built in 1986 after some idjut in a Porshe hit the wall >200mph). After the excellent sausage, walk under the tunnel. Now on the outside of the circuit, still heading clockwise (same as the bikes) walk along the sandy terraces past the Rock Band, past the cicane, to the Dunlop bridge.

Cross the bridge, back inside the circuit, and walk down towards the first hairpin (Virage de la Chapelle). This is where the short circuit separates from the 'car' circuit; which goes on down the Moulsan straight (I think). The time is now about four pm, they have been racing for one hour now and the bikes are pulling stoppies braking down for the bend!

This bit of the circuit consists of three bends, in a sort of M shape. the outer two are very sharp hairpins and very close together, the inner much wider and quite deep into the circuit. Walk down the hill and cross the bridge and walk up the tongue to the inner bend. Sit on the sandy bank at the centre of the bend watching the bikes sweep by. They are starting to get spread out a bit now. The roar of the Ducati's is something else.

After a while, follow the circuit once again, past the bridge (back inside, although you are currently 'outside' the circuit, it surrounds you), to the last hairpin in the series (Virage du Garage Vert). This is a tight bend, and someone has spilt oil on the track here. Watch as a few of the riders (not together) go straight on into the run off. They mostly fall off in the sand, pick the bike up again, and ride off at full speed. At this point you remember a French riders reply when asked why the bikes carry the extra weight of starter motors; "Because when you fall at the back of the circuit and break your collarbone, you can still ride it back to the pits for the next rider!" Absolutely mad.

Walk back to the next bridge and cross back inside the circuit. Join the queue walking down the back straight, cross the bridge at Chemin aux Boeufs, back outside the circuit. Walk past several hundred yards of concrete fence, on the left, with every few yards, someone pissing against it. On the right is the first of a series of sand banks over looking the back straight and Les Essess bleus. You marvel at those who have pitched their tents on the top. Lazy bastards can lay in bed and still watch. Back into the camping area and crash for a while.

[Photo of a field of tents]

You wake up to the sound of revving engines, and the smell of wood smoke. It is dark, there is a large bonfire every few yards and the noise is incredible. Suddenly it is quite for a (short) while. Then at one end of the field (some field, its really a bloody wood) a bike fires up. It sounds like its owner has taken the pipes off. The bike is revved until it starts a series of backfires. After which everyone around it (so it seems) cheers, and another bike somewhere else in the field does the same.. After a while it dawns on you there is a competition going on for who can make the most backfires... It goes on all weekend!

"Sod this" you think, how's the racing going. Wander off through the campsite to the other exit to the track. This takes you along the banking next to Les Esses bleus. Decide that those camping on top of the banking are more sensible than you thought, it is much quieter next to the track!

You join the track outside the double (or squared off) hairpin at the bottom of the main straight. Walk round, across the car track, just by where it joins the circuit. All the while power full headlights from the bikes are sweeping round over you, and then out of the dark and into the brightly lit main straight pit area. You walk on up to the light and onto the terraces below the grandstands.

The bikes are almost totally spread out now, with only the occasional pair scratching it out together. Sitting there you watch a bike come screaming up the pit lane. It stops outside a pit, someone grabs the bike, someone grabs the rider, almost pulling him( or her!) off it. It's onto the paddock stands before you can blink; wheels off, fuel in, pads changed, new wheels on, next rider on, and the bike roars off into the night. Looking into the pit, you can see the rider collapsed in the corner while someone tries to take his helmet off and give him a drink.

Drink, now that's a good idea. Walk down between two stands. The area behind the stand is awash with life, coloured lights and the smell of food. The variety of food is amazing; the French interpretation of Hamburgers, all kinds of sausages, kebabs and other things on sticks, whole roasting chickens/pigs, ....

No Booze! Not for some years now, since a load of deaths due to drinking and riding. No alcohol to be sold to bikers within a ten kilometre radius of the circuit. Oh, well. Still this is France, you can have wine with your meal in the restaurants, even those in circuit.

Grab something hot and spicy, and walk up the back of the grandstands to the tunnel at Courbe Dunlop. Under the tunnel and into the circuit. The press of people here is incredible, the Village is alive, and the atmosphere is wonderful. Down to the back of the pits, and look and the TV screens giving out the current results. In the paddock you can glimpse the most amazing feasts in the team marquees. Got to keep the riders energy up :).

Spend the rest of the evening, and quite a bit of the night walking round the circuit. Outside the main straight/pit area it is pitch dark (other than the light of the camp fires all around the outside of the circuit - now I know how Custer felt :)). On the hairpins at the back, the lights sweeping round the bends is hypnotic. You wonder how the riders cope, sweeping round that last bend into a brilliantly lit area, through that flat out, and then back into the dark. As soon as you hit the dark, back down through the gears an round the first bend. Small wonder there are a lot of accidents at that point through the night.

At some point in the morning, it is time to go to bed. The best bit is yet to come and you need to be in the grandstand by at least ten am to get a good view. If you are lucky you will not have to rush of straight after the finish to catch the ferry and to make it to work on Monday. Go to the stall in the camp site and get your free 'sandwich' and hot drink. Take your cold drink back to the tent with you. Remembering to put your ear plugs in (how could you forget) you sleep the sleep of the dead.

In the morning you queue for the showers (an improvement from a few years ago). Every thing you own smells of wood smoke and is covered in sand. Grab all the food you have left and stuff it into the tank bag. Pack everything else onto the bike. Follow the crowd walking back into the circuit. It's nine o'clock in the morning and the place is even more crowded than yesterday! Finally you push your way to a couple of free seats in the grandstand opposite the pits. Now just sit, watch and wait.

A cry goes up from somewhere round the back of the circuit, several of the pit crews are looking nervous. Pit crew are running back and forth between their pit and the pit wall. A tannoy announcement (in French and English) says that one of the riders has fallen round the back of the circuit and is coming in through the centre. A crew from one of the pits runs off down the pit lane. Meanwhile you spot another bike outside a bit. Most of the bike is on the floor, one of the mechanics is attacking the frame with a sledge hammer!

All this time there is a constant stream of bikes coming round the bend at the bottom of the straight. They are accelerating so hard the front wheels are up. Then with a roar they're off up round the bend at the top.

Suddenly the pit crew that ran off come running back up the pit lane pushing a bike. Outside their pits the bike is onto the paddock stands while the rider collapses into a heap in the garage. One of the crew runs down the pit lane and into another garage, only to reappear a few seconds later, running back with a fairing! Bits are flying round that bike, some on, some off. Within a few minutes though, the bike is back together and the next rider is on. He sits there for what seems like minutes, but must only be seconds. The pit crew gather round and push, it catches and stops again. They push it back and try again. Finally it starts and roars off, the pit crew join the previous rider in a heap in the garage, chests heaving. This continues until about an hour before the finish.

An hour to go, the tannoy announces that it is a 100,000 Franc fine and one year in jail for anyone who crosses the barriers before the end of the race :0. I remember the first time here, at quarter to three (finish time) there were photographers laying all over the track, with the three foot gap for the bikes to race through =:0.

Further down the field, most of the places are now fixed (barring accidents). After a while you notice that most of the Ducati's are going round together. Then the one in front does a wheelie up the straight. Next time round several of them do it. This continues until all the bikes that are not still 'racing' are doing formation wheelies down the main straight :)

Last few laps now, and some idiot crosses the two fences, and barbed wire between, to try and invade the track. A kind marshal holds him off the track (by his throat) so he doesn't go to goal (US jail). Race over, the winner has taken the flag (don't ask who, although it was probably Honda one, two again :(), the crowd invade the track.

That's it for another year, now you and ~70,000 other bikers are trying to leave! Back to the bike. As you walk away, you realise that there are street bikes out on the track already. On the bike and join the queue to leave. Out of the secure camping area, they check the stickers on your bike and helmet and occasionally on the ticket too.

Out on the roads it is fantastic cars are pulled to the side of the road, people are everywhere, lining the roadside, by their cars on the bridges. EVERYBODY WAVES! Big smiles, from tots being held up to see all the bikes to little old grannies in black. As you ride through a village hands are held out to slap, kids run along side, everyone loves you :) :)

In '94, (we've been to busy since :() we camped just up the road from Le Mans in Fresnay su Sarthe. This is a small Medieval town just off the main road between Le Mans and Alencon. The camp site is on the banks of the river Sarthe. There was one other occupant is, a car and caravan (US trailer). Just as we had finished pitching the tent, a large van pulled up with a few bike stickers on it. The occupants climbed out waving a bloody great trophy! It turned out that they were the Suzuki France team, and had come fourth. We left them to celebrate in true French tradition (with good food and more than a few bottles of red wine) and walked up past the castle into the town for an excellent meal and bottle of red ourselves :)

See you there next year? :)

Kate and I usualy take the week after the race off as well and go see some of France. It saves on the mad dash for the ferry and work on Monday. Here are a couple of photos from one of the trips.

[Photo of the bike in Sees town square]
Stopping for lunch in Sees.

[Photo of Kate and our old tent]
Kate and the tent at the campsite in Pont L'Eveque.

While we were staying in Pont L'Eveque, we took a day trip to HonFleur, a very pretty (if a bit Touristy) old fishing village.

[Photo of the bike and a ferry]
Waiting to board the ferry for the return home.