Coupes Moto Legende

The French may be weak allies, but they sure know how to put on a classic bike event

Photography by Moto Legende, Patrick Bodden

Il n'est de nouveau que ce qui a ete oublie. (French saying: "Only that which has been forgotten is new.")

Editor Boehm and I must have forgotten the 1969 Jawa 350 racer, alright, because standing there mesmerized by the machine, it appears to be not just a new motorcycle but an astonishingly contemporary-looking Grand Prix racer. Two items in particular convey an undeniable impression of a modern racebike: the beautifully proportioned, wedge-shaped aluminum fuel tank finished in intense Jawa racing red and the still high-tech engine--an all-aluminum water-cooled V-four rotary-valve two-stroke, each cylinder with its own carburetor. Two expansion chambers sweeping beneath the engine, and two more emerging from under the seat add their own drama, and the dry clutch--with its exquisite gold-colored housing--represents a signature "racing-only" component.

Only two of these roadracing Jawas were built by the Czechoslovakian firm. This one is an ex-Bill Ivy machine, painstakingly restored over a period of 10 years by French GP and endurance racing ace Jean-Francois Balde. Actually, "fanatically restored" might be a better description of Balde's dedication to bringing this racer back to life; it's rumored he contacted a Jawa racing mechanic of the period to determine the exact type of crankcase sealant utilized at the time, and the equally exact method of application, which Balde practiced repeatedly until he was satisfied he had the technique mastered. To say that the restoration has been flawlessly executed is an understatement.

In period, all-black leathers, Balde effortlessly lights the Jawa racer in the time-honored bump-start fashion. The engine sounds sharp as Balde warms things up. He has the experience of a 20-year racing career: 200 GP starts, 20 podium finishes, including five wins, and a host of endurance-racing accomplishments. Retired since '89, Balde remains fit and still rides like a 20-something tiger. But he's not. He's 53, and one can't help but wonder if Balde ever reflects on the sinister side of Jawa history: Bill Ivy met his demise on this very machine, referred to by some as "Whispering Death" when it seized without notice and catapulted him into the hereafter during practice for the '69 East German GP. The development of these exceptional and promising Jawa GP machines came to an equally abrupt halt.

Balde guides the Jawa onto the racetrack and in no time comes back around, hurtling off the banking and, after dispatching the chicane, ripping down the front straight, the Jawa's four unsilenced expansion chambers shrieking. If there's any historically valid cause for concern, Balde has clearly left it between the pages of the history books. It's May, the skies of northern France are perfect, the venerable '24 Autodrome de Montlhery and the '69 Jawa 350 GP racer are fantastic together, and one Jean-Francois Balde is clearly having great fun.

The Coupes Moto Legende, the vintage motorcycle event in which Balde and the Jawa are taking part, is simply great fun for everyone involved.

In fact, that is the most notable aspect of this spectacular world-class celebration of motorcycle history: It was conceived by the organizers, French vintage motorcycle magazine Moto Legende, as an all-inclusive affair. There is literally something for every motorcyclist, young or old, street rider or racer. If a motorcyclist can't find something enjoyable or interesting at the "Coupes," he or she should seek counseling. Even the nonmotorcyclist can have a good time, as the Coupes represents what could be considered a live-action counterpart to the Guggenheim's extraordinarily popular Art of the Motorcycle exhibition.

The range of machines demonstrated at Montlhery is vast. There are 14 categories for motorcycles made before '76. These categories showcase everything form the lowliest Velosolex to spectacular collections of authentic GP machines. There's a place for every motorcycle type--production bikes, those modified for competition, pure racing machines, street-legal and racing sidecars, and utilitarian two-wheelers such as mopeds and scooters. In the spirit of inclusiveness, a place is even made for machines that fall outside category norms; one might see an MV Agusta F4 circulating alongside a '60s MV GP racer, or, as was the case in '02, a demonstration of the Mondial Piega--mainly because super-enthusiast Roberto Ziletti attended, brought a Piega to ride and indeed rode it.

The most fantastic aspect of the Coupes may well be the fact that all motorcycles in attendance are allowed time on the track. All participants have to do is register, show up in proper order and off they can go on what has to be an exceptional ride on an exceptional racetrack.

Built in '24, Montlhery remains an impressive circuit, if a bit shop-worn, which actually adds to the atmosphere of the Coupes. The track is configured as follows. The "ring" is a 2.55-kilometer oval made up of two 180-degree bankings with a 250-meter radius and a cubic parabolic cross section (a bowl nearly vertical at its top edge) connected by two 500-meter straights that transition with the bankings in the form of a logarithmic spiral. This is the part of the circuit that for decades made Montlhery synonymous with world speed records for automobiles and motorcycles. A road course was added outside the oval to create a circuit of up to 12.5 kilometers, with connections across the course to create a number of shorter versions down to the 3.33 kilometers currently used. Its creation in '24 was a remarkable feat of engineering and construction, employing some 2000 laborers, masons, steelworkers and carpenters who worked for six months to place 1000 tons of steel and 9000 cubic yards of concrete. Much of the latter was in precast form--quite innovative at the time.

For 10 years, Montlhery and the Coupes have represented something of a mecca, as 1200 participants and 35,000 spectators converge to celebrate the history of the sport of motorcycling in most of its tarmac-related versions. A comprehensive array of programs caters to both the most discriminating marque loyalist to the more eclectic enthusiast--or even just the casual voyeur.

The GP motorcycles and riders are clearly the stars of the event, and rightfully so. Europe is the birthplace of the form--it's embedded in the culture, with many riders recognized as national heroes--and most of the GP machines have remained close to home. If you wish to see historic GP bikes in action you'll have to travel to Europe, as those bikes make rare appearances in the United States.

But road-going motorcycles certainly share the spotlight and, by virtue of their greater numbers, sometimes just as spectacularly. Each year a particular brand is celebrated, which translates into expansive displays of exotic motorcycles. For example, this year more than 200 Vincents and HRDs of every type, celebrating the 50th anniversary of seven world records set at Montlhery, were on the track at once, and gathered in their own enclave off track. Sometimes, even a particular model is recognized with much of the same fanfare. Celebrating the 30th anniversary of the first model off the assembly line, more than 100 Kawasaki H2 three-cylinder two-strokes, in every incarnation from completely stock to factory-built racers, took to the track and created quite a haze of two-stroke aroma.

All this activity on the track plays itself out against an equally excellent background of supporting activities in the Montlhery circuit infield. In the Village Marchand approximately 100 motorcycle-related businesses set up shop, offering all sorts of motorcycle accessories, tools, parts (many repro), supplies, fasteners and gear. Dainese brought a self-contained rolling exhibit of leathers worn by past champions. Well over 100 clubs were present, from the Amicale BMW R12 to the Zundapp Club de France, not to mention the Daft Old Buggers Motorcycle Club, who should receive some sort of recognition for the most poetically named organization. A number of marque-specific clubs showcased entire rows of exemplary motorcycles. And what's a motorcycle gathering of this magnitude and type without a sprinkling of good old motorcycle junk and hopeless project bikes? Not to worry--they were well represented, with even Japanese stuff increasingly coming to the surface and going for prices all over the map by U.S. standards. To the French, it would seem, a classic is a classic, and it and its parts should be priced accordingly.

First-rate motorcycle events, imaginatively conceived and executed with high standards of excellence, have the capacity to draw first-rate industry support. (Are you paying attention, AHRMA?) Honda France provided hospitality to the riders at the Bar des Pilotes, transportation for course marshals and a nice display of Honda four-cylinders for Honda enthusiasts. Kawasaki France hosted a sizable gathering of W650s, Moto Journal magazine sponsored the Dainese exhibit, and French radio station RTL2 broadcast audio throughout the Village. And last but hardly least, Daimler-Chrysler France provided pace cars.

Most importantly, as the Coupes Moto Legende has grown from strength to strength over its 10-year history, so too has grown its ability to attract and involve some of the most illustrious roadracers in the world, including a number of world champions. The Coupes has become something of an annual reunion for 15-time World Champion Giacomo Agostini and eight-time World Champion Phil Read. In previous years they have shared the track and the social scene with racing legends such as Jim Redman, Christian Sarron, Barry Sheene, Luigi Taveri and Walter Villa. Naturally enough, French racing greats from the GP and world endurance racing are also well represented--Balde, Alain Genoud, Rene Guili, Hubert Rigal and Eric Saul, to name just a few. Notable additions in '02 to the racing alumni list were Yvon Duhamel, Jack Findlay, Sammy Miller, Chas Mortimer and--to the delight of absolutely everyone--Kenny Roberts.

I had spoken to Roberts a week earlier at the French GP, where I learned he would be attending the Coupes. He didn't demonstrate undiluted enthusiasm for what he regarded as an unavoidable social obligation. Who could blame him? The GP season was well underway, and the David vs. Goliath contest in which he had engaged himself was serious in the extreme. Time was likely to be the most precious resource of all within his small but dedicated team, so the thought of devoting time to a bunch of old guys, former racing pals or not, fooling around with a bunch of antiquated racebikes could certainly seem like a frivolous use, if not an outright waste, of time. Having attended the event twice previously I tried to allay Roberts's reservations about this affair, going so far as to suggest he would likely be pleasantly surprised.

On the second day of the Coupes, Boehm and I sidled up to Roberts as he was strolling along the pit lane. "So, whadaya think?'" I asked. "Well," Roberts said, cracking a small grin with a twinkle in his eye, "it's not killing me." I'm quite sure The King was having a helluva good time at the Coupes.

That evening at the riders' banquet, Roberts was awarded a prize by Coupes organizers Serge Garcia and Serge Cordey and said a few words. I can't remember his exact words, but I do remember that, after allowing as how he felt there could have been more women in attendance, Roberts delivered a warm, witty and, most of all, respectful speech. His sincerity and graciousness were so evident that I felt proud to be associated with Roberts, if only by country of origin. In these difficult and confusing times, when relations between their respective governments are strained, Monsieur Jean-Francois Balde and Kenny Roberts reminded us all of the importance of friendship and history. That their example was on display at a motorcycle event doesn't in any way diminish its importance.

So forget all this angst between our governments. Plan on attending the Coupes Moto Legende, especially this year, as it will be the last at the legendary Montlhery circuit. Who knows who you might bump into? It wouldn't surprise me to see Roberts come back. Visit www.coupes-moto-legende.com for more information.

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