This could be a very short story indeed. Here’s the punch line. Fifteen times World Champion Giacomo Agostini looked up from signing books on his merchandise stall and said “Hi Frank.”
Just to make this 101% pellucidly clear, the immortal Ago remembered my name and said hello. For a clubman racer of no great merit, the world had come to a beautiful, wonderful and complete end.
And yet this is the great joy of Bikers’ Classics at the legendary Spa circuit in Belgium – you can, and will, meet Ago in the paddock, open and unprotected, and to do so is a wonderful experience.
Agostini remains the classiest of class acts – charming, patient and ever smiling. I was particularly impressed with his attitude towards children and younger fans who didn’t know much about his illustrious riding career. I spent half an hour with Giacomo in the Yamaha caravan and his humility was quite touching. He said: “I feel honored that the fans want to share my memories and so it is easy to give them a little bit of me – signing a book, a poster or having a photograph taken. I feel very lucky that people still want to talk to me after 50 years and I know that I am a lucky man.”
I wonder how the current crop of MotoGP superstars, cocooned in their motorhomes with no interest in anything but racing and training, will be viewed fifty years from now?
Giacomo represents what I consider to be the truly classic end of the Bikers’ Classics festival because, under the direction of Florian Jupsin, the event is being subtly but relentlessly shifted from what, at its inception, was a gathering of old bikes and old riders to far more of a celebration of much later, post classic machines. There have been some moans and grumbles about this but, speaking as a fat, bald, old wrinkly I agree with what Florian has done.
The bottom line is if you were a new born baby when the last Manx Norton was made in 1961 you are now 55 years old. No person, or bike, is immortal and everything has to move on. In a way, what’s even more scary is that the 20-year-old, lustfully reading the story of the all-new 1987 Honda RC30 during his College lunch-break, is now a 49-year-old with grand kids on the way! Truly, tempus fugit!
So, instead of a paddock full of classic race bikes from the 1950s and 1960s, truly the Golden Era of racing, every corner is crammed with air-cooled Japanese Superbikes from the 1980s and 1990s. If you love Honda CBXs and Kawasaki “4s” you will overdose with joy at Bikers’ Classics.
Not that all the older classics are absent because Florian still welcomes a sprinkling of the old British GP bikes as well as BMW Boxer racers and some lovely Italian bikes. I brought our Ecurie Sportive Manx Norton and had a queue of fans wanting to sit on the bike or be photographed on it so there was no way that the old bikes, and riders, were not made welcome.
This year’s novelty act were the sidecars and they ranged from the early 1960s “sitter” rigs all the way to the hub center steering modern outfits which are siblings of race cars. Really, a good attempt at bridging the gaps between the generations.
Florian has also pushed the Classic Endurance race at Spa and this is truly spectacular to watch, at least for a short time. The speed of these early Superbikes is breath taking, as is the commitment of their riders – even in wet conditions or the dark. The top end teams are very serious, right down to team catering, and there is no doubt that they put on a good show. Endurance racing is not something I would go out of my way to see but it was good entertainment for half an hour and added another dimension to the weekend.
Twenty-three times TT winner John McGuiness was the headline act in the Endurance race and John is every bit as charming and spectator friendly as Ago – but with a very different style. As John’s serious riding career is slowly progressing towards a conclusion, then perhaps he will be taking a similar role to Giacomo in future decades.
Of course, the highlight for me was the honor of taking part in the GP Parade – sharing the same bit of track as Giacomo Agostini, albeit several miles behind because Ago, quite rightly, will not have another rider near to him.
Florian has an eclectic view of the parade and the event is all the better for it. So, the Norton and I found ourselves sharing the track with an ex-Rossi Ducati Desmosedici, one of Marc Marquez’s World Championship winning Suter Moto 2 bikes and more GP Yamahas than you could have imagined existed in the world.
I am always reluctant to say that something, anything, is the absolute best but I will make an exception for Spa. Without any question, debate or doubt this is the best race track in the world – at least from the riders’ point of view. A lap is immensely long at 4.35 miles and has a height difference of slightly over 100 feet. Everywhere it is extremely wide, clearly with Formula One car racing in mind, but the circuit still gives a feeling of natural road racing more than the sterility of a modern track.
There are also sections which still use the old, road circuit – albeit modernized. I would defy anyone with race fuel in their veins to plummet through Eau Rouge, with their head buried in the fuel tank, and then force the bike left on to the Kemmel straight – and not have the hairs prickle on the back of their neck at the thought of the GP greats having battled it out on the same section of track.
Florian had somehow persuaded the local Police to let riders do a lap of the original 8.7-mile-long circuit on Saturday evening and what an experience that was! The track is comprised of country lanes with one bottom clenching sweep after another. Doing 130mph on a Manx would have blown my mind but in 1977, the last occasion this track was used for a GP, Barry Sheene averaged 130mph for the 10-lap race with a best lap of 137.1mph. In real terms, Sheene was running at 175mph along public roads which are challenging at 60mph – now that’s evidence of a serious set of racing cojones!
Bikers’ Classics takes place at the beginning of July every year and a three-day ticket costs around $33 – a price which may increase, or decrease, following the results of the recent Presidential election and the subsequent value of the US dollar!
It is very possible to enter a pre-1990 bike into the track sessions, without a race license, and the cost is around $600.
Spa is about 90 miles from central Brussels and attracts a good sprinkling of American visitors every year, and a few riders, and so it is well worth thinking about if you are in the area.
For up to date information, visit: http://www.bikersclassics.be