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May 14, 2011

MotoGP Blog: Friday At Le Mans

It can be lonely at the Repsol trucks in the Le Mans paddock. Photo by Mixo/Klaus&Hammer.

By Joshua Steinburg

My family had an Oldsmobile when I was growing up. It was big, heavy, had a gigantic engine, and handled like a bag of snot. It was also as reliable as an anvil. That car went through two teenaged boys learning how to drive, was subjected to countless hours of teen-angst-fueled high-speed highway chess, lived outside its entire life, and never to my knowledge got so much as an oil change. And it never broke down. Not once. Ok, technically that's not true. It did break one time. But in fairness the fire probably wasn't the car's fault and it never ran again so, yeah, it only ever broke one time. Not too shabby.

Later I dated a girl whose family also had an Oldsmobile. It had the same engine, same chassis, and it was even the same color. But if the wind blew slightly too hard the doors would fall off, the windshield would shatter and the wheels would come loose. To say that car was unreliable is to say that snow is cold and white.

So if someone wanted to know if an Oldsmobile is a solid, reliable car the answer would depend on whom they ask; me or her. As with most things it is a matter of perspective. Perspective is not always based on direct knowledge or personal experience, however. Sometimes a person's opinion is based solely on what they hear from someone else. It's called a bad reputation. Sometimes it's earned and sometimes it's not, but in any case a bad reputation can be a hard thing to get out from underneath.

The French suffer some pretty serious stereotyping in some circles. Everyone has heard stories of obnoxious waiters who snub all who dare speak less-than-perfect French. Or that they have dubious personal hygiene standards such as women who are somewhat averse to shaving and men who are similarly reluctant to, um, bathe. After too any Saturday mornings spent watching cartoons while growing up in America, I have long believed that all Frenchmen resemble Pepe Le Pew. Convinced of their superior skills in the romantic department, they chase after unwitting women while leaving a trail of stench across the landscape and insult everyone who has had the unfortunate curse of not being born French. All while guzzling wine and being generally unpleasant. And saying things like, "pffft" in response to any problem.

After Spain we were a bit worried about the language barrier, but I did take a little French in school. However, my grade in the class was the only black mark on my otherwise slightly-below-average record--I remember my brother remarking when he saw my report card, "wow, I've never actually seen an F before." So my confidence that I could pass as a native French speaker was not particularly high. I do, however, have a remarkably excellent French accent, assuming everyone sounds like Pepe Le Pew with a head cold.

They do not.

Our fears proved to be unfounded as the French are, surprisingly, some of the most friendly and helpful people I have met so far in Europe. The stereotypical rude Frenchman is nothing more than a myth. Unless maybe if you're in Paris, but they say even the regular French don't particularly like Parisians.

We landed in Paris and picked up our rental car, a Renault Twingo with a diesel engine. It's a small, two-door hatchback with a nice interior, four seats and a tiny trunk. Being a diesel it gets stupid high miles per gallon (somewhere north of 50), but I was expecting it to be as fast as a fat guy passing a Cinnebon shop at the mall, but to my surprise it had some get-up-and-go. This turned out to be important as French people drive like complete lunatics (a complement in my book) and the speed limits are nice and high unlike, say, Finland where a bicycle rider can get a ticket on some highways.

The French scenery is gorgeous. Rolling green hills, old moss-covered farmhouses, and cows, lots and lots of cows. By the time we reached our hotel in the tiny town of Laval it was late and we were tired, but we had not gotten lost (much) thanks to the arrival of our friend Tom Tom the sat-nav.

Friday morning dawned cold, but dry. We wanted to cover the 70 kilometers to Le Mans quickly so we hopped in the car and headed out. The speed limit on the highway is 130 kph, but that seems like only a polite suggestion as most people were passing us like we were parked on the side of the road. I like it in France.

Once we got to Le Mans things slowed down quite a lot as we had to wend our way through tiny, ancient streets.

In Jerez we had the track to ourselves on Friday. In France the place was already packed when we got there and more cars and bikes were steadily streaming in from every direction. The town is not really suited for this kind of traffic overload and most streets were as hopelessly clogged as my plumbing after a night spent at the Thai Buffet. To make matters worse most of the streets our Tom Tom wanted us to take were closed. I thought its little head was going to explode when we routinely did not do what it directed us to. We had chosen the female voice and it was getting more frantic and pissed off with every missed turn. I fully expected it to just say, "Well, fine if you're not going to listen to me I'm going to find someone who will," then unplug itself and jump out the window.

Through shear luck and lack of options we finally found our parking spot. There is a good reason we had to drive 70km from our hotel. Le Mans is a very old town that actually dates back to the Romans and as such there are very few hotels all of which were booked. That means the vast majority of people who attend the French GP have to camp out at the track. The atmosphere in the campgrounds was unlike anything I've ever experienced. Every inch of the sprawling grounds were covered by all manner of tents and campers. There were random pieces of house furniture scattered around, makeshift bars serving drinks, grills and campfires billowing smoke, and everywhere there were bikes. An endless sea of shimmering sportbikes of all shapes, sizes, and colors. The soundtrack to all of this chaos was drunken laughter punctuated often by the unmistakable sound of a motorcycle engine being bounced off its rev-limiter. They did that in Spain, too, but the French added a flick of the kill switch at just the right moment to create a massive backfire before hitting the limiter again. The result was a cacophony of engine noise and explosions. It was glorious. Did I mention that this was before noon? On day one of three? What would it be like come the actual race day?

We wandered around this endless gypsy camp enjoying the sights and sounds of utter moto-mayhem carrying our camera. In Spain whenever a camera was pointed at them the Spaniards would frolic and pose. In France they had a slightly different response. They were very friendly, but French people apparently make it a habit of taking any occasion to pull down their pants and moon anyone anywhere anytime for any reason. After an hour I had seen more naked, hairy asses than I care to remember. But as we passed one such group of guys for the second time (after they had already mooned us) we were called over and had a long chat with one of them. It was a pretty one-sided conversation as it was entirely in French, but it sounded really interesting and we could tell he was being friendly so when he finally stopped talking I sheepishly told him, "non parlez Francais." He immediately switched to very bad English, which was still better than my French, but we somehow still managed to have a long conversation with him and his buddies about all things MotoGP. We were getting along so well that at one point they offered us each a glass of a French liquor called Pastis. They were all enjoying it and I had seen several bottles of the stuff throughout the campground and, well, it would have been just plain rude to decline so, well let's just say conversing in French became considerably easier shortly thereafter. Then they offered us what could only be referred to as homemade French moonshine. To prove how good it was they poured some on the campfire and it basically exploded into a fireball. Sure, I'll have some of that. As moonshine goes, it wasn't bad, but it probably would have been better to just use it as lighter fuel.

For some strange reason I felt that I needed to sit down for a while so we said au revoir to our new friends and headed back to the paddock.

In Jerez the MotoGP paddock was a world apart. In France it was no different. There were the same trucks parked with precision and lots of people in team uniforms scurrying around doing important looking things.

Another thing that was the same in France as it was in Spain was the constant crush of humanity surrounding the Ducati trucks. Every minute there were tons of people just standing around with cameras waiting for a glimpse of Valentino Rossi or clutching posters, helmets, or shirts in the hopes of an autograph. I wandered past the Repsol Honda trucks, home of Casey Stoner, and was surprised to find them utterly devoid of people. It was like a vendor stall selling non-alcoholic wine and low-fat cheese over there.

I have no idea who is winning the so-called psychological battle or the war of words currently raging between Rossi and Stoner, but it's obvious who's winning the popularity contest. If MotoGP were high school, Rossi would be the quarterback dating the head cheerleader and getting voted prom king while Stoner would be playing tuba in the marching band. And bear in mind Rossi hasn't won a GP in, um, it's been a while.

We had remembered our floppy hats and sunscreen this time, but after a full day of wandering the track we were beat and ready to hit the road for our 70km drive. Thanks to the efficient way that the French police were directing the flow of traffic leaving the track, after only an hour of driving we were inexplicably back inside the track mere meters from where we had started. All our poor sat-nav could say was, "why don't you ever listen to me anymore?" It made exiting Laguna look like a stroll in the daisies. It reminded me of a story I once heard about a monkey who had marital relations with a football. The general attitude of the French people stuck in the mess with us? Basically they seemed to say "pffft." It was kind of refreshing.

After eventually getting to our hotel we had a nice meal on the outside patio of a restaurant on the corner and guess what? The waiter could not have been more nice or friendly. How French.

To be continued...
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