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 have a spare motor if you like.”

I’m totally stunned by his statement, and have to replay it in my head before I can respond.

“Seriously? For a CB350? That I can use?”

“Yes.”

Within an hour we’ve yanked the grenaded engine and Ron the Dutchman’s spare motor is being hung in Lionel’s frame. It’s lightly modified with a standard five-speed trans-mission, but at least it will have a tachometer! Ron offered the engine without condition or stipulation, and without even knowing my name. His benevolence humbles us all. Lionel’s engine is loaded with specialty parts, and nothing is a direct swap. Everyone on the team pitches in where they can. One person affixes the ignition coils and another fits clutch plates as someone on the other side of the bike sets timing while someone else bolts up the headers. It’s a beautiful melee. Passersby stop to observe our activities in amazement. Every so often someone steps out of the fray to wipe the oil from his hands and the sweat from his brow, and another person kneels down to take his place.

Evening rolls around and we’re still working on the bike, grateful of summer’s 16-hour days. It’s Saturday night, and the smell of a hundred barbeques fills the air as a Police cover band begins to rock and the kegs of Chimay are tapped in the circus tent at the other end of the paddock. It sounds like a proper party, but we ignore hunger and exhaustion; our goal is singular.

We put the bike on the rollers at 9:30 p.m. and the donor engine barks to life. I throw on my leathers and head out onto the road to do a jetting run. The patrons at the local pub cheer and pump their fists as I roar by at wide-open throttle in the twilight; some of them had no doubt seen us toiling away in the pits hours earlier. We work on the bike until after dark, and by 11:00 p.m. it’s ready.

Sunday morning I’m gridded behind pole in the second row. I get a good launch, but it’s a quarter-mile sprint to Turn 1 and three riders motor by me on the way there. The donor motor is way down on power compared to Lionel’s and the final gearing is several teeth off.

The one thing I still have going for me is that massive Fontana front brake. It’s as powerful as a modern single-disc setup, and I use it to late-brake my way through the ranks. I overtake one rider in the first chicane, and set to work closing the gap to the pack in front. At this point I’ve stopped hanging off the bike because the aerodynamic penalty is too high. By the time we enter the downhill back straight my prey has pulled too far ahead for me to catch his slipstream, and I’m stuck in fifth gear turning 8000 rpm—way below the engine’s 10,500-rpm power peak. I late-brake into the final turn and halve the 10-bike-length gap between us, and then slip by the rider on the inside heading into Turn 1.

There are two laps remaining when the clutch lets go. I release the lever after a downshift and it remains at the bar. Clutchless upshifts are the norm in racing, but downshifting requires deliberate throttle blips and a forceful foot, and my corner entries suffer as a consequence.

One more rider comes into view. I gain on him at every turn, but his power prevails on the straights in between. I stay hard on the gas through a bumpy bend that apexes at a storm drain, and the shocks pack up and the back tire chatters across the tarmac. This time down the back bends I hold fourth gear, and the bike inhales the stretch noticeably faster. I arc the machine through the turns using every inch of the road, hugging so close to the Armco that the spectators pull their arms in as I fly by. Later, my dad tells me he noticed a 3-second improvement on that lap, although my best race time was still 3 seconds slower than my qualifying lap.

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