The Grand Prix des Frontiers | Beyond Borders

Trials and tribulations at the Grand Prix des Frontiers

By Ari Henning, Photography by Catherine Brennan, Etienne Photography, Patrick Bodden, Thierry Dricot

I nurse the bike off the track for what must be the fifth time. In two days of practice every session has been cut short due to mechanical troubles, and this time it’s terminal. Lionel and Patrick run up, exasperated, and ask what’s gone wrong this time. I hang my head in despair and point a gloved finger at the belly pan, where the bike’s muffler disgorged a smoldering pumice of expensive alloys. After 6000 miles of travel and the efforts of a half-dozen people, this is how it’s going to end?

It all started two years ago, when I threw a leg over my father Todd’s Honda CB350 for the AHRMA vintage roadraces at Willow Springs (“Legacy Racing,” MC, November 2009). The success of that outing opened the door to further opportunities, including a trip to Belgium to pilot an exquisite CB350 owned by Frenchman Lionel Regnat and prepared with many of my father’s performance engine parts. News of the trip spread throughout my dad’s old race team, and before long the list of attendees included my father, my wife Loren, the former mechanic/logistics team of Dave and Cindy Smith, plus Heritage Racing founder (and Motorcyclist contributor) Patrick Bodden. Everyone was eager to join in the excursion, enticed by the prospect of a leisurely trip to the European countryside to participate in some grassroots racing. How were we to know the merde would hit the fan with such force?!

The 17th running of the Motos Classiques was held in Chimay, Belgium, in conjunction with the Grand Prix des Frontiers, so named because of the circuit’s close proximity to the French border. The village of Chimay is internationally renowned for the beer brewed nearby by Trappist monks, but for one weekend in July it’s all about racing—something that’s been taking place on the town’s streets since 1926. The grass and gravel paddock is packed fence to fence with camper vans and motorcycles from every conceivable country of origin.

Spectators’ bikes line the roadways in town and their tents dot the hillsides overlooking the front straight. The bucolic setting, the large number of families with children in tow, the friendly locals and the profusion of local beer give the event a county-fair atmosphere.

Gathered together in the pits, we’re all in awe of the machine Lionel has constructed. It’s a meticulously prepared work of art featuring all the best parts: handmade frame and swingarm by Terry Baker, Works Performance shocks, magnesium Fontana front brake, aluminum gas tank, billet bits from Italy and engine parts from Todd Henning Racing. Finished off with titanium fasteners, it’s easily the most magnificent machine present.

Drama begins as soon as I sign in. According to the schedule, I’ll have just one 15-minute practice session to familiarize myself with the bike and the track. Lionel talks the race director into letting me run in one or two of the other practice groups, but I’m still dismayed by the limited amount of track time. Eager to get on course, I head out on foot to survey the track in the warm evening light.

The Circuit de Chimay is one of the oldest venues in Europe, and still comprises public roads normally travelled by the area’s farm tractors and dairy trucks. Although it never gained the FIM sanction that would have put it on the world championship calendar, the course has played host to battles between legends such as Barry Sheene, Giacomo Agostini, Johnny Cecotto, Gary Nixon and Phil Read.

Safety concerns saw the original 6.5-mile track shortened in 1996, resulting in the current 2.8-mile rectangular configuration. There are two chicanes thrown into the 1.1-mile left leg and three long bends break up the downhill, 1.2-mile right leg. There is no rhythm to speak of; it’s all about horsepower, bravery and pinpoint braking. The majority of the course is lined with hip-high Armco guard rails, but hay bales and brightly painted tire barriers serve to shield telephone poles and mailboxes near town. During the races people lean over the walls as you speed past, and between heats run across the track. Corner workers stand smoking and sipping coffee in the grass.

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