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May 23, 2011

MotoGP Blog: A Saturday At Le Mans

The Yamaha riders getting mobbed by autograph seekers. Photo by Mixo/Klaus&Hammer.

By Joshua Steinberg

Saturday At Le Mans

Everyone has a talent. It may not be some exotic skill that only a few people on Earth can master like solving the Rubik's Cube with your tongue while blindfolded and standing on one foot in a bucket of ice water. No, I'm talking about the more useful, everyday variety of talent. Talents that often go unnoticed and unappreciated.

French people, it turns out, make a very, very good cup of coffee. But if you should find yourself, one day, in France needing a nice cup of wake-up juice don't expect to sidle on down to the nearest ubiquitous Starbucks and order up your favorite half-gallon jug of flavored caffeine-water. There aren't any Starbucks. There aren't any drive-thru windows, either. At least not in the charming little town of Laval, where we stayed, so for our morning cup 'o joe and breakfast we had to stop at a gas station on our way to the track. Gas station coffee and food in the U.S. is usually a greasy vending machine type affair, which is just good enough to keep a person from starving to death so we weren't exactly overjoyed with the prospect. At this gas station, however, we were shocked to find a lovely sit-down café complete with an old hand-operated espresso machine and fresh croissants. How did I know they were fresh? Easy, they were just coming out of the oven right then and there. In a gas station!

In most of Europe they don't serve the typical bucket of coffee that is common in the U.S. Here when you ask for a coffee you get an espresso. Espresso is a lot stronger than regular coffee and is served in tiny, child sized cups. The handle is so small that a normal adult can only grip it with a thumb and forefinger leaving the other three little piggies with nothing to do but stick up, hoity-toityishly, in the air. The only way to drink it is to pucker up like a blowfish and take small, slurping sips because there isn't enough in the cup for an actual gulp. Watching a group of dirty, road-weary bikers in full leathers at a gas station drink their coffee as though they were at some high-society garden party was an oddly wonderful sight.

Eating a freshly baked croissant and sipping what was, quite possibly, the greatest cup of coffee in the world while watching the sun come up on a chilly morning in the rolling French country side on the way to a MotoGP race, was, well, it was, uh, you know, nice.

We still had some distance to cover and no idea what the traffic would be like at the track so we cut short our caffeine-croissant-scenery inspired poetic ramblings and got back in the car.

Our thinking was that everyone who planned on attending the races had camped out the night before and the traffic would, therefore, be less than on Friday. We were only partially right. Yes, every single square inch of real estate surrounding the Le Mans circuit, no matter if it was the side of the road, a gravel parking lot, a drainage ditch, or some thorny-looking bushes they had all been staked, claimed, and covered by tents, vans, and bikes the night before. Yet more traffic still streamed in from every direction.

The scene approaching the track resembled some post-apocalyptic zombie movie. White smoke from grills wafted across the road in clouds and mixed with the smell of burn-outs, spilled alcohol, food, and massive smoldering bonfires as an army of race fans crawled out from wherever they had slept and tried to shake off the morning cold and the effects of the previous night's festivities. It looked a little like the bad guys' camp in The Road Warrior except there were children playing, people walking dogs, and at least one guy was brushing his teeth. Oh, and nobody wanted to kill us for our gasoline.

The Le Mans circuit and facility is massive and there are some excellent views available for general admission, but you will need a good pair of shoes as walking long distances on, sometimes, rough terrain will be required. We found some places where we could get close enough to the racing surface to feel the shock wave from MotoGP bike exhausts, hear the Moto2 bikes' tires squeal as they clawed for traction and smell the distinct, delicious, and unfortunately endangered smoke from the 125s (see them before they're gone). It's the kind of sensory inclusion that can only come from being there in person, trackside.

Unfortunately, the Le Mans circuit also hosts some silly 24-hour car race, so there is a high catch fence almost all the way around it. In a lot of places this makes seeing the action from trackside difficult and taking clean pictures almost impossible. We saw one clever fan standing on an eight-foot, A-frame ladder that he brought from home. If you go to Le Mans, I suggest getting tickets for one of the many grandstands. One that overlooks the Dunlop section at the end of the front straight would be my choice.

There were a ton more vendors here than at Jerez and they were all located in one central area. All the OEMs were represented and had displays featuring their newest models. There were also stalls selling a variety of riding gear, but if you were looking for a nice pair of chaps with extra fringe or a "novelty" fiberglass yarmulke of a helmet you were out of luck. There were only quality leathers, helmets, boots, and gloves available here. Not surprising, as that's all everyone around us was wearing.

There was a Motul tent with one of Kevin Schwantz's old RGV500 Suzukis on display, a camera, and a green screen set up. I thought maybe they were taking pictures of people and photo-shopping them onto the number 34 bike so we ventured just close enough to get the sales pitch. I have no idea what the nice Motul man was selling because he was selling it in French, but when he said the magic words, "it's free" we stepped right up. What we got was a flippy picture of Colin Edwards at speed or Mixo and I standing with Colin, Alvaro, and Cal. Nice little keepsake and worth every penny.

Monster, being the title sponsor of the event, had a huge presence including a massive hospitality compound as well as a smaller booth featuring really loud music, a large flat screen, drinks and lounge chairs that made people sitting in them look as though they may have a serious spinal injury. Or no spine at all.

Tool manufacturers Stanley and DeWalt both also had large displays in the vendor area. It was great to see two big companies that have nothing to do with the motorcycle industry willing to spend money on advertising to motorcycle people and supporting motorcycle racing. DeWalt stickers can be seen on the Yamaha Tech 3 bikes.

For those who were either unwilling or unable to slog back to their campsites to grill some lunch there were plenty of food vendor options. This being France there was a "Wine and Cheese" vendor as well as the usual burgers and French fries, which in France are simply called "frites." As standard for any sporting event, prices were a bit higher than on the street, but still reasonable and the lines were not horribly long, even at lunchtime, thanks to plenty of food vendors to choose from.

We had access to the grandstands above start/finish so we decided to take advantage of that and actually sit and watch qualifying. To get to the seats we had to go up several flights of stairs that are directly above the paddock garages. As we were walking up one of the flights we noticed a guy near the LCR Honda truck wearing LCR Honda leathers with "Elias" across the butt so I got the camera ready and said, "hey Toni" and snapped a picture when he turned around. To my surprise it was not MotoGP rider Toni Elias who was wearing the Toni Elias leathers, but rather a Toni Elias fan, apparently, impersonating Toni Elias. We played along and Mixo posed for a picture with "Toni" who spoke only French to his awaiting friend. The real Toni Elias is, of course, from Spain.

In Jerez we had somehow managed to be unprepared for, both, sun and rain. So for Le Mans we made sure to bring our floppy hats and sun block, as well as an umbrella and rain gear. This time we thought ahead. This time we were prepared for any type of weather. This time it didn't matter because we were allowed in the grandstands and the grandstands have a large roof.

The roof 's curved shape not only nullified all of our careful preparations, but it also created a sort of parabolic amplifier effect so the already deafening sound of a MotoGP bike became louder still. Even with earplugs in the volume went to 11. It was like being front row center at the loudest heavy metal concert in the world. And then the stage explodes.

For a motorhead this is a good thing.

After the last qualifying session of the day the paddock went into shut-down mode. The guys scurrying about in their matching team uniforms while doing important looking things were busy taking care of the day's last bits of business and preparing for the next day, Sunday, race day. Some of the riders were busy doing interviews and others just hopped on scooters and headed off to their RVs or one of the extremely posh hospitality tents for dinner. Sunburned fans flocked around their favorite team's trucks and posed for pictures while the paddock slowly wound down.

Meanwhile, out in the hinterlands of the camping areas the great unwashed were gearing up for another all-night party. The organizers and sponsors of the French Grand Prix, knowing that most fans camp at the track, have provided a host of extracurricular activities. There was a concert with a live band and DJs on a huge stage set up in the infield vendor area, movie nights in the Village, and a chance to meet and mingle with a couple of MotoGP stars. This being Saturday night there was a Yamaha sponsored track ride for some lucky Yamaha owners followed by a dragster demo, a stunt show, and the Monster Energy Extreme Freestylers (whatever the heck that is). The show was on the front straightaway which is only viewable from the grandstands on either the paddock side where we were or the, um, other side where we were not. So in order to allow general admission ticket holders an opportunity to see the show the organizers opened the grandstands to all comers.
People flooded into the grandstands like looters in a riot. They bounded up the stairs like little kids who have had too much sugar and a shot of espresso on Christmas morning. They ran back and forth with wild abandon, desperately looking for the best vantage point. They marveled at the paddock with its brightly colored array of pristine trucks all in a perfect row. They carried plastic jugs of homemade wine, bottles of Pastis and cases of beer. It was pretty charming, actually and Mixo and I felt even more fortunate that we had been able to watch qualifying from here.

The track ride ended with all the participating bikes parked on the front straight and then all four Yamaha MotoGP riders--Jorge Lorenzo, Ben Spies, Colin Edwards and Cal Crutchlow--were brought out, introduced, sat atop streetbike replicas of their race machines, and presented with some kind of awards. I have no idea what they were presented with because the very long and impassioned speech that was given was entirely in French. I doubt the riders understood either, but they all smiled and nodded and accepted the awards. Then they were mobbed for autographs.

As the Yamaha owners rode away they were egged on by the massive swell of onlookers for, well it was in French, but I'm pretty sure they wanted random acts of moto-stupid. They were rewarded with big, smoky burnouts and rev-limiter bouncing backfires. I love that regular fans got the opportunity to leave big steaming piles of molten rubber on the front straight of an actual MotoGP racetrack. The French don't seem to have too many rules.

The next show was taking an exceedingly long time to get going so the increasingly rowdy crowd stated to amuse themselves. There were several failed attempts at "the wave" before the French pride version of football fight songs started up. There were thousands of drunk people facing each other across the track so it was inevitable that something entertaining would happen. We did not have to wait long. The two sides started hurtling insults back and forth. It was like a gigantic x-rated Miller Lite commercial; "tastes great!" "Your sister's a whore"
I don't speak French so I can't be sure of the exact words, but I was familiar with most of the hand gestures that they were using.

The two sides were united briefly to cheer for a young man on the other side who was attempting to chug a huge plastic tumbler of, let's just assume it was, beer. Upon successfully draining it he celebrated by spiking the tumbler, dropping his pants, and mooning our side, much to the delight of thousands of cheering fans. Bare bottoms on both sides appeared shortly thereafter as apparently the mooning portion of the program had begun. This was of course accompanied by lots of French accented hurled insults. It was very Monty Python.

Eventually, the charm of being surrounded by thousands of drunk Frenchmen who had been camping without running water for a few days wore off so we headed for the exit.

Next up: Race day.

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