Retro Moto is one of the best kept secrets on the international classic motorcycling circuit – and is all the better for this. There is no glitz, glamour or even much of a trade presence. Instead, there’s the chance to ride one of the world’s greatest strips of tarmac in the company of 300 hard core classic enthusiasts, wander round a completely unrestricted paddock and finish off the day with a celebratory meal. Now tell me, what’s better in life than that?
Retro Moto is based in St-Cergue – a tiny village, sitting high up in the Vaud mountains of Switzerland, 22 miles from Geneva. It’s worth going to St-Cergue just for the view looking over Lac Leman across to the French Haute-Savoie. However, although the village is picture postcard pretty, the key attraction for motorcyclists is that St-Cergue is at the end of the Route de Nyon which snakes up from the valley below.
At one time, St-Cergue was the finish of a full-on racing hill climb dating back to 1901 when four bikes and 28 cars battled their way up a 10km (6.21 miles) course. Races were held on and off for many years, until 1934 when this historic hill went into retirement. Then in 2001, over a glass of wine or 10, a group of bike enthusiasts had the idea of running a retrospective event using the same, spectacular stretch of Nyon – St-Cergue road.
The elephant in the, no doubt immaculate, bathroom is that the Swiss have a very schizophrenic attitude towards racing.
As a nation, the Swiss are speed mad and have produced some super-star bike racers over the years. Unfortunately, following a horrendous accident at the 1953 Swiss Grand Prix in which three spectators were killed, the Swiss government banned all road racing – but through some bureaucratic quirk allowed hill climbing to continue.
Not that hill climbs don’t bite – as Amazon TV’s “Grand Tour” presenter Richard Hammond recently found out when he launched an electric car down a lovely Swiss Alp. You need a clear head, and a brain engaged directly to the throttle, for hill climbing.
Re-launching the event was helped immensely by the fact that Retro Moto is run as a not for profit event and any surplus funds go to charity. This year, Zoe4Life, who support families where a child has had cancer, were the worthy beneficiaries. Spectator admission to Retro Moto is free of charge but the understanding is that you will chip in a few francs to the charity – which is more than very reasonable.
However, the critical factor in Retro Moto’s existence is that it is not a timed, speed hill climb. Rather, it is a demonstration of what a timed hill climb might look like if it ever took place at St-Cergue – which clearly it couldn’t, and wouldn’t, because this would involve going a bit more than rather fast, using all the road and sliding up the inside of slower riders on hairpin bends which clearly never happened and never would Officer, cross-my-heart-and-hope-to-die-poke-a-needle-in-my-eye-if-I-ever-tell-a-lie.
There is immense goodwill at the event and a wonderful welcome from the village. The organization is smooth and efficient but very light touch and riders join in the idea that fast is fun – but reckless is silly and should be avoided.
The organizers understand, on a very fundamental level, what makes the event successful. Here’s one small, but perfectly formed, example. This year it was more than a bit hot with the mercury whizzing happily past 34 degrees – that’s a whopping 90 Fahrenheit in real money. The sun hammered down as we waited in the collecting box by the start line, and race leathers looked like something worth avoiding at all costs. Then, along came some smiling officials with gallons of chilled water and an endless supply of disposable glasses. What a lovely, thoughtful, intimate touch.
The descent down the hill is busy, with 300 excited little racers all wanting to get down to the start line, but it’s also a wonderful experience to ride through the Alpine forest and then come out looking down over Lac Leman and across to the mountains of the northern French Alps in the far distance – even at this time of year still wearing caps of snow. This is what makes Retro Moto so special and it is important not to forget just what a privilege we were all enjoying thanks to the organizers and the goodwill of the local community. Riding our wonderful Suzuki, surrounded by the boom and crackle of hundreds of classic race bikes, in a place so idyllic that it would be beyond anyone’s imagination to conceive, certainly made me feel like one very lucky boy.
Then there is the ride up. Oooooohhhhhhh – la montée! I always have difficulty describing just how good this 7km (4.3 miles) of tarmac is to ride. There are something like 46 corners, depending how pedantic you want to be about what is a curve and what is a true bend, ranging from 20mph hairpins to bottom clenching fast sweeps where the penalties for getting things wrong are severe.
Here’s what the trip looks like from the saddle of our Suzuki:
I have been fortunate to ride racing motorcycles all over the world and the Route de Nyon rates right at the very top of the tree for riding pleasure.
The range of motorcycles has shifted over the years. Now, the event is dominated by late classics – some very late indeed – and the riders too are getting ever younger. This is right and proper if the classic motorcycle movement is to stay alive and healthy – and the organizers of Retro Moto are to be commended for allowing the event to drift towards younger bikes and riders who still have a full head of hair and eat with their own teeth.
What I can’t understand is so called star riders who have no empathy with classics. The real motorcycling icons like Jim Redman, Jean Claude-Castella, Alain Genoud and the rest of these international stars were very evident and wholly accessible to fans.
By contrast, the organizers had brought in some younger riders, on modern bikes, who might just as well have not been there for all the public saw of them. Maybe it’s the difference between the kindness and, dare I say it, humility of the classic stars and the way these younger riders view themselves. As six times World Champion, and six times TT winner, Jim Redman said: “Chatting to fans isn’t a job I avoid – it’s a privilege. Without them, I wouldn’t be here.”
And that attitude is what makes not only a great motorcycle racer but a great man too. Maybe Jim should be leading seminars on greatness…
At the end of the day I was dead on my feet. Five descents, and clearly ascents too, of the hill was a lot of riding and added to this was a compulsory, and lengthy, tour of what was a truly fascinating paddock. But there was still one more challenge left: the celebratory dinner held in St-Cergue’s palatial village hall.
Post race parties can, to put things in the most discreet and modest terms, become more than a little boisterous. Put a couple of hundred racers, still with a lot of post event adrenaline running through their veins, in the company of a generous supply of alcohol and the results are not edifying.
At Retro Moto, things are very different. Maybe it is because the public can join in the fun so the ratio of racers to normal human beings is diluted. Perhaps the reason lies in the large number of females present but, most probably, the answer lies in the blanket of goodwill and harmony which pervades every molecule of the event. In short, the Retro Moto organizers are just really, really nice people.
We sat with Jim Redman and things were going more than very well as he told us stories from great times with Honda – and then some deity with a sense of humor decided to ruin my evening. Georges Chatelain, the President of Retro Moto’s Comité de Direction and a leading contender for the Nicest Person in Switzerland award, asked would I please say a few words in French to what appeared to be the 10 million people attending the party.
From this experience I learned three things. First, I should have paid more attention in Miss Pilar’s French lessons instead of surreptitiously reading bike mags under my desk. Second, if you think that speaking in public, in English, is hard then you should try it using only paddock French and a smile. Finally, not getting booed, or having lumps of bread thrown at me at the end of two minutes, was better than winning MotoGP!
Our thanks to the whole Retro Moto team for yet another brilliant event