Retro Race to the Bol d'Or

Back in the day the Bol d'Or was THE end-of-summer ride out. Using retro-repros Visordown recreates the experience: twins and twin-shocks to the Bol. Let the slipstreaming begin!

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The two Frenchies nipped by, 'whoosh, whoosh,' and tucked into the upcoming right in a choreographed sweep. A pair of R1s, they looked trick, fast and efficient.

It took maybe 10 seconds to realise that for all their pizzazz they actually weren't travelling so fast. At which point the light over the head went on (or was it off?), the Griso was kicked down a ratio and the pursuit began - that'll be a collective pursuit, as Evil Jim on the CB13 and Diddy on the Ducati GT tucked into the slipstream. Army John, wisely, could smell trouble and so held back to protect the rear.

It took a few corners, but eventually the Griso was tucked right onto the back wheel of the second R1. Frenchie Two was riding in the wheel tracks of Frenchie One and the pair were using all the road. Without the horsepower to storm past, the only tactic was intimidation. None of us can bear deranged strangers big in our mirrors for too long and, sure enough, despite his horsepower advantage, Frenchie Two, probably reluctant to become pack leader, succumbed.

Frenchie One was made of sterner stuff; the thrash continued. But a fast sweeping left-right-left section through the bottom of a wooded valley, all Armco lined, (much like Spa's Eau Rouge, in fact) was an intimidating sight and clearly not one Frenchie relished at speed - unlike the deranged Johnnies on his tail. Sure enough, midway through the most committing right-hander the Guzzi surged alongside the R1, bringing with it a cacophony of valve-bounce, gear clatter and impending mechanical meltdown. In Frenchie's mirrors would be the hellish visage of Evil's and Diddy's mugs, in all their teeth-gritting, bare-faced glory (thanks to their jet helmets). Frenchie held sway by barely half a wheel but as we straightened up he held up his hand in surrender. He offered a big smile and thumbs up all the same as the TWO Bol Team swept past - only to stop at the very next cafŽ to regale themselves in their mastery of the road.

Yes, TWO were in Magny-Cours, for the Bol d'Or, on a clutch of repro-retros. Doing it classic stylee. Daft idiots.

It was Army John's fault. Middle of an editorial meeting he mentions he did the Le Mans 24 Hours once. Knackered bike, slept in the open, got pissed, ran out of money, ran out of underwear. And so on. That sparked the collective remembering of the glory days of arguably the bigger event - the Bol d'Or, the end of the year run-for-the-sun as it was then, back when it was held at Circuit Paul Ricard close to France's opulent Med' coast. Back when racing partnerships like Godier and Genoud, Leon and Chemarin, even our own Rymer and Morrison were elevated to god-like status. Back when you strapped a tent and sleeping bag to pillion of your ace-barred Z1 or CB750 or Jota and let rip for a long weekend. Then we admitted none of us had actually ever been there, nor done that. Except Diddy - but Diddy wasn't in the room. So spawned the idea of a Bol run, in a manner befitting the classic race - on classic bikes. Only not real classic bikes, of course (we wanted to get there after all) but reproductions of the beasts of old.

The arrival of Ducati's GT1000 (in British showrooms) coincided with the trip. Just as well, as none of us could see ourselves lasting a full 900 miles on the existing SportClassics - the 1000 Sport and Paul Smart - both of which are noted for their excruciating riding positions. The GT1000, however, offered all the retro-chic of the former, only matched to what looked like a real-world riding position. But demand has been high so the only example we could cadge was Ducati UK's MD's own. So we were to look after it, like.We wanted to take a Guzzi V11 too. Only we found they're no longer being made. Pah, that's Euro 3 for you. Instead we got a Griso. Not exactly retro-repro. But not exactly anything actually. A twin though, and air-cooled, like Guzzis of old. And real funky. So we took it.

Kawasaki's ZRX1200 was in from the start. We all call them Eddie Lawson replicas because they're greenish and high-barred, just like Eddie's tweaked KZ1000J AMA Superbike back in 1981. Yet the ZRX replica is almost a classic in its own right, having been around since 1997 when it was 'just' an 1100.

Honda's CB1300 meanwhile is a replica, or thereabouts, of the CB1100R production racers that we saw 'Rocket' Ron Haslam and Wayne Gardner race here in the UK back in '81 and '82. Back when punk rockers wore flowers in their hair, eh? (Stupid, stupid woman).So that was the plan. Four retro-repros (nearly), four guys, two tents and one camo bivvy bag (Army John's). And a loose plan to jump the ditch and head south.

Of course that general idea of jumping the ditch and heading south was not the best to have for a chap organising his first group test for the well-developed wants and mores of a TWO test team.There we were on Calais docks.
"Which way then, JB?"
"I dunno. Daryll, you've been there... "
"Some time ago, JB."

Scornful looks all round. Diddy produces his map of Europe (scale one-inch to 20 miles, circa 1991) and points vaguely west, throws a look of disgust in my general direction and sets off on the Honda, at some lick.So starts a breakneck 100mph run down the national highways of middle France, complete with inadvertent detour near Orleans when himself, Pathfinder, miss-times a truck and an off-ramp.

We should qualify that 'breakneck'. On the Honda, Diddy is sitting in a bubble of tranquility. Being a touch shorter than the rest of us Daryll has by natural selection evolved into a more effective, streamlined rider. Nonetheless the CB13's fairing, which is in fact a far more modest rendition of the CB1100R's quite blocky job, offers what approximates (at least in this company) to full-body protection.

The ZRX should be good for this too, but very early on in the piece the wee handlebar fairing is labelled 'comedy' for it is as useful as a chocolate spanner. So the rider is forced to crouch to maintain any speed with any comfort.Of the Ducati's and Guzzi's weather protection there's little to say - as there is none. Evil Jim noted this early on and thereafter made a beeline for the Honda every time a motorway loomed.

"On the completely nakeds at anything over 100mph I had to give up holding the handlebars and put my left hand on the forkleg," explained Evil. "I was getting worn out. But as much as it was a hassle it was hilarious. It took me back to when 105-110mph was top end on anything. The grin factor goes up when you're working this hard, hanging on for grim death."Which was, after all, what we were trying to recreate. That feeling of 'the way we were', and to see if it was still fun, now having the context and experience of 180mph rocket ships.Well, motorways are motorways, then and now. By which we mean they are bloody useful, but as a biking experience bloody awful. The miles droned by, jeans flapping in the breeze, noses smeared across clocksets, left hands - as Evil said - grasping forklegs. All at 105mph.

We noticed too the Honda did all this with one hand tied behind its back, that one hand actually being relatively low gearing. It's easy but it's also a bit of a buzzy experience on the CB13, the fairing also making an annoying vibration that we couldn't isolate. The Kawasaki, aside from offering little wind protection, carried on in typically muscular fashion.

Meanwhile the Ducati was loping along, quite literally, on way too high gearing. So high that you never knew quite what gear you were in. Evil explained he'd been touring along for a good 20 minutes before he thought maybe he wasn't in top. So he up-shifted. Then up-shifted again. This high gearing meant that if you rolled off for a second, or hit an incline, the motor would bog, calling for a down shift. After speed testing Diddy explained the GT never revved out in top - and he had a full two miles to get there. Yes, it needs a tooth off the countershaft sprocket, does the GT.The Guzzi was at the other end of the spectrum. Doing the ton in top on the Griso showed 6000rpm, with only another 1500rpm to the redline. Admittedly it felt like it could do that all day, but there's not much left - and it feels just plain wrong to stress a bike like that for so long.

Two hours short of Magny-Cours it started to rain. And then an hour out it started to rain some more, like torrential, like 100 per cent wetness. Waterproofs were given a thorough testing as a result, and ultimately they all failed, only some more than others. There was a slight concern the Guzzi would be a liability in the conditions, as it wore Metzeler Rennsports which only feature about 12 more grooves than a full-on slick (so 12 then... ), yet surprisingly it felt good all the way - that good old lazy-power motor obviously helping the cause.So instead of camping it was a hotel for the night, whereupon hairdryers were put to good use.

Next morning revealed just how secure the hotel's secure parking actually was. Diddy was minus a brand new pair of Davida super-cool goggles while Evil had lost his trainers and a bottle of Finilec. Quite why anyone would want a pair of Evil's stinky stained trainers beats us, but clearly one man's security pound is another man's spares cupboard.

We then progressed to the track itself and, being that the sun was now shining, erected out tents. Your man here had procured a cool backpackers kit from Blacks which afforded a neat two-man tunnel tent, a mat, sleeping bag and a rucksack. Quality kit all the way and all for just £60. I'd also managed to source a tent for Diddy and Evil, curiously not to the same standard. Just £19.99 from Millets, it was a St George's Cross dome tent. Diddy was less than impressed, clearly envisaging himself trapped as the tent was torched by mad drunken Frenchmen some time in the depths of the night. If nothing else he figured the contents would definitely be plundered. So he set about creating 'sleeping man' - his sleeping bag stuffed with all manner of things that took the form of a man sleeping, foetal like - set to deter the furtive thief. In any case he needn't have worried for Army John bivvied outside their tent for the night, like a faithful guard dog.

Having experienced the build-up, then the start of the Bol d'Or itself, then seen that things were settling down, it was time to get some more riding in, some quality stuff in the hills. So we set off for Chateau Chinon and its environs for a bit of old-time scratching. And sure enough the hills were alive to the sound of other bikers doing just the same.

What was a surprise, for the whole tour, was just how much the twins kept up with the fours. We thought we'd have two pairs going two different paces for this test, but the twins held grimly onto the fours' shirttails the whole time. And when it came to being at the Bol it was twins the team wanted most, as Army John explained: "For the ride down I think we'd all take the Honda every time, but once there I wanted something a bit more cool, like the Ducati. Funnily enough though, it was the Guzzi that the French really loved, much more so than the Ducati, which was my pick."The Ducati held an ace when it came to play riding: wheelies. Absolutely absurd humungous wheelies that even a pre-CBT learner could pull. Consequently Army John fell deeply and hopelessly in love. "Evil Jim said he must have been looking the other way and Diddyman claimed he wasn't even in France at the time, but I know I got that bike into second on the back wheel, and I am useless at wheelies." And given that the Duke is so fabulously retro-styled (Evil: "It's the only one that's the real deal, that takes you back in time, genuinely"), it made the wheelies doubly cool. Trebly so when you added the jet helmet and goggles. Fortunately for the competition the Duke's weakness is its suspension. It's not bad, certainly fit for the envisaged purpose, but for the kind of thrashing most Brits entertain, well, the non-adjustable forks lacked precision and the shocks too were a mite vague. So the GT wobbles and weaves and isn't quite settled. And is arguably all the more authentic for that.

Meanwhile the Guzzi really starts coming alive through the fast stuff. Quality USD Marzocchi forks and a decent monoshock rear give the Griso a real secure feel, probably helped by those Metzelers as even Diddy reluctantly confirmed: "The ride was very positive on the twisting roads and the wide bars allow a very aggressive style." Certainly enough to chase the odd R1. Only beware that when the road gets too tight then the Griso starts tripping over itself. That's not on account of the razor-sharp handling, no, simply the engine-transmission struggle to keep up. Racing gear changes aren't on the menu and such frenetic action leaves the fuel injection gasping.

The Kawasaki fears no such evils, although it may fear Evil himself. As Daryll explained, the ZRX is the one in the group that could be taken to a track day and you'd be assured it would do more than just cope; it'll embarrass a few. That's because it's not that big. It's about three-quarters the scale of the Honda, but with as much, if not more, motor. "Quick, nimble and fast," said Evil. But alas the Kawasaki also suffered for having a transmission glitch. Fast gear changes were interrupted by a nasty transmission lash accompanied by a graunch. Made all the worse when wheelying - and as Daryll said, you really want to wheelie this bike. Oh yes, and watch out for those tyres when cold, as Army John will attest.Only one rider professed to liking the Honda in the twisties: me. Perhaps that's because I'm maybe a bit bigger, certainly heavier, than the rest of the team. While the others thought the way the Honda demanded muscling into the turns was a drag, for me it was a bonus. Despite, or maybe because of its girth, it settles well on its brakes, stays settled when the brakes come off and then hooks nicely into its sumptuous midrange to make the most of the exit. Slow steering it may be, but it's predictable and so exploitable.

It was clear, though, that none of the bikes really disappointed when it came to scratching. Yes, you had to employ various tactics to get the most out of each, but you had fun all the same. Evil said he actually had more fun on these than modern bikes, on account he was riding closer to the bikes' limits rather than his own, which was fun as against scary.The ride back from the Bol was as reflective as a ride can be taken at 105mph with one hand on the forkleg, still. A series of roundabouts again showed that for all the utility of the fours that damn Guzzi could still flick through a chicane faster than any of them - as long as you didn't hurry the gearbox. A long stretch of motorway showed that the Honda was still the inter-city coach of choice, helped by its superior tank range. Conversely, despite having the best fuel consumption the Ducati had the least range. Barely five miles short of Calais its luck - and tank - ran out, necessitating an appallingly haphazard attempt at towing that nearly saw not only the Duke but the Guzzi spread across the road. The Honda saved the day, sent off on one of those fill-the-soda-bottle-and-return rescues.Three out of four testers said out of the group they'd buy the Ducati first. The fourth tester said he would too, but could never ever see the day he'd have the money to buy a new bike and besides, he'd really want the suspension sorted if he was to splash out that much dough.

The Kawasaki wanted runner-up to itself but the Guzzi muscled in. The Kawasaki lost marks, ironically, for being old, nearly 10 years too old. The Guzzi made up marks for just being so bloody gloriously different. Not everyone's cup of tea, but for Evil and myself it could create a special kind of pleasure.The Honda scored least because the other three testers consistently marked it down. Not because it couldn't perform but because it failed to engage. Oh yes, and because it was big. But I'm big(ish) and so the Honda does me just fine and shoot me for being contrary but laying a big bike into a big corner is still big fun.

Oddly, test got us thinking about the Bol d'Or itself. Endurance racing used to be cool, used to attract mega crowds. That doesn't seem to be the case today. And maybe that's because it's something like an extended GSX-R Cup now. We were a little lost as to its relevance. But what about a new formula? Say 120bhp max, only so much fuel and so many tyres (say four sets). Wouldn't you just guess that the guys would start entering GT1000s, CB1300s... and Guzzis. Even BMWs. Now that would be a race we'd ride 900 miles to see. Indeed, vive la difference!

JIM'S BOL TIPS

#1 The Racing
The Bol d'Or translates as 'Gold Cup' (actually Gold Bowl - an in-joke by the French) and is both the highlight, and the final round, of the World Endurance Championship. It has an alluring history and, like Suzuka, draws massive 100,000-plus crowds due to the racing and off-circuit carnival merrymaking - and mindless destruction, unlike Suzuka. It was first held in 1922 and remains the jewel in the crown of the French motorcycling calendar.

#2 Bol Checklist
Camping checklist aside, to prepare for and deal with what you will inevitably encounter you'll require edible food (unavailable on site), good earplugs, strong painkillers, one bottle of Tequila (per person) and some weapons. Midnight is a good time to visit the great unwashed as they've been getting steadily hammered on gallons of watery French beer and meths, and are treading a fine line between putting on a great show and completely losing the plot. Both are irresistible.

#3 Armageddon

I've seen some very horrible things over the years but nothing can prepare you for Armageddon (the Bol campsite). What we witnessed was not camping, it was a post-nuclear freedom-fighter refugee settlement hosting a flame and explosion extravaganza.

Absolutely everything is matt black and ablaze, or backfiring, or both. The air is heavy with tyre smoke and everyone is staggering and shouting. Some people just eat meat. Most of it freshly prepared over melting, smouldering former Renaults. The object is clearly to bring a car and wreck it, or a bike, or even just an engine on a trolley. Unrecognisable motorcycles with gramophone horns, canons or whisky distilleries where you might expect an exhaust, cruise around and occasionally stop to put on an impromptu performance. Simply hold the motor on the rev limiter and play with the kill switch to get the crowd baying. Squirt alcohol into the exhaust substitute and howl as your eyebrows become skin. Line up a few contraptions to form a mutant zombie orchestra and the crowds just get bigger. The occasional ambulance or fire engine disappears into the smog to rescue another burning reveller as we head, shell-shocked, back to our nylon sanctuary. The end.

JIM'S SECOND OPINION

HONDA

Big in size and weight, the Honda is the spaceship of the group. Manoeuvre the CB with the engine off and you'll see what I mean. It must be knocking on 260kg with a full tank. But boy is it comfortable. At any speed the Honda wafts along, the only bike here with genuine touring potential (due to the screen and tank). It's by no means slow, but conceals its performance with its bulk. It feels similar to riding a Pan European, which isn't exactly a selling point for an 80s retro. The CB is very smooth and competent, and is scaled well for tall riders, but failed to have the desired effect on my pulse.

MOTO GUZZI

Clearly the odd one out here, as it's not a retro but a modern day boulevard cruiser. I really like the styling. Top marks too for originality, it resembles no other bike currently available. The wide handlebars mean it was nobody's choice for motorways and the most tiring at speed, but it performed better than expected on the bends, rolling sweetly through - ace suspension and brakes paying dividends. The engine provides adequate performance but the gear change is too slow for frantic thrashes and it needed to be revved hard to keep up with the others.

KAWASAKI

The ZRX no longer scores as a head-turner as it's been around a little too long, but it's still a good bike. We're into big bike territory, and the weighty four-cylinder experience lacks the rumbling edge of the twins, but offers smooth, rapid performance, albeit with a perceived dent in the power-to-weight ratio. It's comfortable, quiet and strong at the top end, a performance middle ground between the Honda and the Duke. It offers less resistance to hardcore punishment than the Ducati, remaining settled and predictable, but also offers less in the way of a reward. Oh well.

DUCATI

The Ducati wins the styling shoot-out. It's clean, simple and authentic. To ride, the GT is a peach, thanks largely to its excellent motor. It has inferior suspension and brakes which show when you push it the last 20 per cent of its performance. Despite a 100-mile (motorway) range it's a capable every day machine and commendably sporting. The engine out-classes the chassis. Tall gearing means fifth and sixth are unnecessary unless cruising. The ability to hoist the front end in the first two gears means the GT provides the highest pleasure/performance ratio here.

The two Frenchies nipped by, 'whoosh, whoosh,' and tucked into the upcoming right in a choreographed sweep. A pair of R1s, they looked trick, fast and efficient.

It took maybe 10 seconds to realise that for all their pizzazz they actually weren't travelling so fast. At which point the light over the head went on (or was it off?), the Griso was kicked down a ratio and the pursuit began - that'll be a collective pursuit, as Evil Jim on the CB13 and Diddy on the Ducati GT tucked into the slipstream. Army John, wisely, could smell trouble and so held back to protect the rear.

It took a few corners, but eventually the Griso was tucked right onto the back wheel of the second R1. Frenchie Two was riding in the wheel tracks of Frenchie One and the pair were using all the road.

Without the horsepower to storm past, the only tactic was intimidation. None of us can bear deranged strangers big in our mirrors for too long and, sure enough, despite his horsepower advantage, Frenchie Two, probably reluctant to become pack leader, succumbed.

Frenchie One was made of sterner stuff; the thrash continued. But a fast sweeping left-right-left section through the bottom of a wooded valley, all Armco lined, (much like Spa's Eau Rouge, in fact) was an intimidating sight and clearly not one Frenchie relished at speed - unlike the deranged Johnnies on his tail. Sure enough, midway through the most committing right-hander the Guzzi surged alongside the R1, bringing with it a cacophony of valve-bounce, gear clatter and impending mechanical meltdown. In Frenchie's mirrors would be the hellish visage of Evil's and Diddy's mugs, in all their teeth-gritting, bare-faced glory (thanks to their jet helmets). Frenchie held sway by barely half a wheel but as we straightened up he held up his hand in surrender. He offered a big smile and thumbs up all the same as the TWO Bol Team swept past - only to stop at the very next cafŽ to regale themselves in their mastery of the road.

Yes, TWO were in Magny-Cours, for the Bol d'Or, on a clutch of repro-retros. Doing it classic stylee. Daft idiots.

It was Army John's fault. Middle of an editorial meeting he mentions he did the Le Mans 24 Hours once. Knackered bike, slept in the open, got pissed, ran out of money, ran out of underwear. And so on. That sparked the collective remembering of the glory days of arguably the bigger event - the Bol d'Or, the end of the year run-for-the-sun as it was then, back when it was held at Circuit Paul Ricard close to France's opulent Med' coast. Back when racing partnerships like Godier and Genoud, Leon and Chemarin, even our own Rymer and Morrison were elevated to god-like status. Back when you strapped a tent and sleeping bag to pillion of your ace-barred Z1 or CB750 or Jota and let rip for a long weekend.

Then we admitted none of us had actually ever been there, nor done that. Except Diddy - but Diddy wasn't in the room. So spawned the idea of a Bol run, in a manner befitting the classic race - on classic bikes. Only not real classic bikes, of course (we wanted to get there after all) but reproductions of the beasts of old.

The arrival of Ducati's GT1000 (in British showrooms) coincided with the trip. Just as well, as none of us could see ourselves lasting a full 900 miles on the existing SportClassics - the 1000 Sport and Paul Smart - both of which are noted for their excruciating riding positions. The GT1000, however, offered all the retro-chic of the former, only matched to what looked like a real-world riding position. But demand has been high so the only example we could cadge was Ducati UK's MD's own. So we were to look after it, like.

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