GP08 Le Mans, Race 5 "un temps foncé, mon soleil brille ailleurs"
France. A difficult time for everyone; the teams, the riders, and the people. I could leave it at that, but that's not the whole story, and while my overall and general feeling is one of darkness at this moment, there are always rays of light and hope that beam down from the heavens and part the clouds - I hold fast to this idea, this dream, that things will be better. Life, its evolution so mysterious and beautiful, lifts me up, crashes me down, raises my spirits, constricts my chest until I can't breathe, and then release, the cycle continues. It's the old story. And it's a good one.
Like the bikes that are constantly evolving, three steps forward, two steps back, evolution is not always painless.
Just days before I had to leave for Le Mans, I took in the MotohBCN motorcycle exhibition at the massive complex surrounding Plaza Espana. I had been indoors for much of the previous week, venturing out only twice to go running along Diagonal and sometimes for the occasional meal late at night. My friends from Reus, Nachito and Rafa, picked me up at Starbucks on a Sunday afternoon and once we'd squirreled our way in past the entrance (via a little finagling of some appropriated vendor passes), it was time to check out the latest and greatest from most of the major manufacturers.
There's the National Museum building in the background, where I've spent some time looking at the classic works, but I much prefer the MACBA and MoMa, and heck, I get a charge just staring at old Vespas on the street, haha. For me, life is constantly in motion. These photos capture only the moments, and in this particular moment I am chowing down on a pork and cheese sandwich, which can only mean I'm in Spain.
Seconds after that photo was taken, Ramon Forcada walked in with his young daughter and came over to say hello and talk a little about the races and how things were going with JL48 and the Yamaha (he's Lorenzo's chief mechanic this year). To my surprise, he moved through the crowds without a second glance from everyone, completely normal and at ease. "It's nice to see the new bikes." I have no doubt he would have been mobbed if people really knew who he was and the stories he could tell. Myself? I was hobbling about fighting for space as I was bumped and pushed around by the crush of people, baby strollers finding some kind of magnetic connection to the foot I had sprained while running the previous day.
Along with the standard production bikes were a series of custom machines showcasing Spanish builders from around the country. This is a pretty clean little GSXR, but why is there no rear brake?
There was a nice Motocard booth, which would be similar to a Cycle Gear stores in the states. Motocard is one of our sponsors this season, and they had a display D16/999 hybrid so I took a photo with it. Actually, it's an iPhone photo from Nacho because my camera was running low on batteries at this point.
Thankfully, I had charge for one last shot! Gorgeous 70's Ironhead with exterior oilers and copper finish. This looks like a blast to ride, but I'd probably have to change the foot controls, and dangit, why haven't more people come up with a way to add a kickstart to XL engines! Gotta love the mini-brakes on this one, with a 3" drum up front and that kooky set-up for the rear brake out back. Lack of brakes . . . which may point to why the spaniards are currently kicking so much butt in GP's this year, hahahaha.
Just before we left the show in the evening, I managed to jump on the new KTM LC8 roadbike. *MAN*, all I can say is that this here is one trick machine, and while I was goofing off and moving around all over it I really got the impression that body transitions on this bike have got to be some of the easiest I've ever seen. The way my legs locked into the tank and how planted my calves were against the sides was great. I simply cannot wait to try one out, because I think this bike is going to be spectacular on the street, especially with an "ass-off" style of riding.
And then I was in France. I waited in the wrong line at the airport in BCN, wasting about a half hour, before someone told me that my Air Europa flight was some kind of combo affair with Air France (fucking great!), so I rushed across the terminal to get in the right line. Then I was forcefully told by some check-in assistant that I had to get out of said line and get into another one to print out a boarding card before coming back to check in my luggage. Hahaha, it was a comedy of disasters, as I hopped from one line to the next, and eventually when I checked in through the business line (thanks to Felix' gold travel card), I got chewed out by that same check-in lady. Seriously, I was about ready to say something extremely rude, but one of the tricks you learn when traveling so much is to let the stupid things go, because I've got somewhere to be and I need to get there. Besides, it was just a taste of what things are like in France, and I expected the worst. The early forecast predicted three days of heavy rain at the circuit, so I wasn't really looking forward to that aspect despite Guintoli's preference for riding in the wet. We touched down at Charles de Gaulle airport in the early afternoon, but were held up by some rentacar snafu that had us waiting for over an hour before we got our little transporter. After standing around for 20 minutes, the desk agent told us our "van" would be arriving in 5 minutes. 35 minutes later when we inquired again about the car, she told us, "cinco minutos frances". Greeeeaaaaaattttt. We loaded up and headed out, trusting in our GPS to find our way through the hellish rush hour traffic surrounding Paris. Two hours later, we passed ORLY (oh really?) airport, wishing we had flown into that one instead, as it's much closer to Le Mans than CDG. I suspect the cost of staying at Hotel Mister Bed City is pretty affordable.
Ahhhhhh, the roadways around Paris are thick and congested. It boggles my mind how guys like the Ghost Rider can ride these streets, even in the middle of the night.
We pulled into our hotel just after 8PM, making for a full day of travel. This isn't the best photo, but it's here for comparison's sake and you'll see why later. France is full of lush greenery (it's a different green than the other European countries I've visited), and the skies are full of clouds. I think this is related to the amount of rainfall this place gets, and why the people can be so drippy, haha.
This is the last sunset we would see, because starting on Wednesday we were at the track until late every night.
We ate at a strange "American-style" restaurant called Buffalo Grill. It was something like a TGI Friday's, but emphasis was placed on the bison burger, so I had one. The service was unbelievably slow, and I had to send my burger back because it had been sitting under the heat lamp for so long the bun had turned into a solid block of wood (this is something I NEVER do). All this with virtually no customers in the store. We'd give them another chance to wow us on Sunday night after the race, because by then our hospitality unit would be closed up.
Our special chef from Napoli, Vincenzo, has a fine collection of watches, one of which is pictured here on the Buffalo Grill's menu. Speaking of buffalo's, Vincenzo and his crew brought one of my favorite foods to the track for this race, Mozzarella di Buffala (buffalo cheese). It's served wet, and the taste and texture always make me happy.
You reach in and grab one of them, then cut it up into large chunks to pass around to your team mates.
This is probably the my most Euro of diets, haha, salad and cheese. It was great!
As this was an Alice sponsored race, "The Alice Gran Prix de France", lunches and dinners were tasty and there was a lot of different dishes to choose from. We spent our nights working on the alternate colors we'd be running on Sunday's race, the flag of Guintoli carrying him in his home race. One thing about the paddock in Le Mans . . . there aren't built in air compressors hardwired into the infrastructure, so we had to run our onboard compressors from the race trucks. One of our pumps broke in the middle of the day, so being the crafty and innovative mechanics that we are, we quickly tore it down to the piston and repaired it onsite.
The secret . . . . is in the flap valve system, which while not being desmodromic or pneumatic, is designed to work at high RPM and consume a minimum of oil. Bwahahahaha, yeah right! Stuck piston!
Martin got it all back together in record time, which was unfortunate for me because the compressor is mounted underneath my office area and throughout the week the constant noise from the generator and pump buzzing and rattling drove me crazy. What's that? You noticed our new shoes?
BOOOOOYYYAAAAAAHHHH!!!!!! Puma stepped up this year to supply us with shoes, and just like the Factories use the races to prove their technologies, we spent the early part of this season testing the black shoes shown on the right. Ultimately, they proved more durable than I expected, but because we're working so much this year, it seemed like we needed more than all-day comfort. We needed all-day and all-night comfort! Enter the red racers on the left. Huge thank you goes out to Alex from Puma, for helping us to work in a better way, and I'm extremely proud to show these babies off! My first pair of really custom shoes!
Taking cues from the Marlboro Ducati team's gear, we modified the design a bit to match with our Alice Team colors . . . creating a beautiful "Satellite Ducati Puma"! Shown here is my counterpart's sneaker from the factory team, and my new bling. Instead of the grey foam, we're running tight and white, with matching black race stripes and custom logos throughout. My feet feel great, and when your feet feel great, you feel great! I'll probably spin up a special post about my small but select shoe collection at some point, but it'll have to wait until I can get some decent lighting and my big camera out. About the only thing I feel bad about is that these shoes are for work usage only . . . or are they?!?Stay tuned to see if I manage to wear them out to some big shindig :) Honestly, these shoes were one of the three highlights of my week. THANK YOU ALEX!
Just thought this photo deserved some attention, because I think it's like 9 something at night and the grandstands are still full of French fans! These guys are hardcore and committed to seeing as much as they can. They sit through pouring rain, through the night, it's like they never stop. Like we will never stop. We'd just finished changing engines after Qualifying, and were making some small changes to the bike in preparation for Sunday's warm-up (which is something of an additional practice to get ready for the race!).
Raceday! We started extra early from the hotel, leaving at 7AM, to beat out the traffic that was sure to snarl up the inroads to the circuit. Heavy fog covered everything with a thick layer of water. Almost as ominous as it gets.
The circuit waited patiently, but everyone was thinking about the race and wondering nervously if it was going to rain, or if we'd have another "switch" race, with both wet and dry conditions. It's the same anticipation everyone in the paddock gets before a race, there's such a build-up of tension and excitement before the main event. It's funny, but even in my first races, I'd be so pumped for the start of the race but then I'd notice myself drifting off and falling asleep while watching the opening laps of the race, even while standing! I haven't figured out why this is, but it's probably related to the adrenaline before the start, and the relief of knowing my rider's made it through the first corner. I always have to walk around a little bit and get some fresh air outside of the box before I can go back in and watch the race unfold.
Warm-up was the first showing of the "French" bike, and it was still overcast.
Unfortunately, TE24 crashed his racebike in the morning session, and even though it didn't look that bad on tv, once we got the bike back inside the garage and stripped down, it was more serious than we had thought. I really have to commend the team and the mechanics for getting as much done as they did between the warm-up and the race, working straight through our normal lunchbreak right up until the wire. More impressive was seeing members of SG50's crew going over to the other side of the garage and lending a hand to make sure everything would be repaired and replaced in time. I was really proud at that time, but still hungry, haha.
All of us were working feverishly on the bike, hardly noticing when the Alice girls came in to take pictures with our special livery. More interesting were the three guys in the background carrying the monitors. They had molded backpacks and shoulder braces, and instead of just showing video footage, the screens were hooked up to Playstations! You could use the wireless controllers to race with a friend, all with the guy carrying the screen staring right in your face, haha. Actually, staring is something of a problem in France, in that it's quite common (and unsettling!) and everyone seems to do it without a thought. They just stare at you. For a long time. Everybody. It's pretty weird.
The race started, the bikes were good, and I was happy to be on the grid with SG50 for his home race. This shot comes as the rain had started to pick up, as the boys wonder whether or not they should drop the tire-warmers and get the second bike fired up in case the rider came in to swap. The worst luck hit the Ducati Factory team, with both their riders experiencing technical problems and each one coming in to change to a rainbike for a race where the rain never really materialized. It was heartbreaking to watch Casey Stoner pushing his bike along pitlane, trying to get to the Marlboro garage (the furthest from the pit lane entrance). You could just see in his face he was giving it everything he had and his #1 mechanic, Gino, ran down the lane to help push him back to the garage. I think the #1 is far heavier than any of you can imagine, and it only reinforces my respect for all the Champions out there, NH69 in particular, but also in the way that Ducati and Casey are working and doing everything they can to get a handle on things and get back into the thick of things. All of us were quite sad and feeling pretty down about Casey's race, and it only helped to color this event in a negative way for me. I know I'm here to support my Team in every way I can, but I hate it whenever any rider is forced out of a race because of a technical or another rider's mistake. It was also quite shitty to see the chain flying off of JH21's Kawasaki, but it is a fact of racing that sometimes pieces will fail.
One last parting shot at the French bike. After the race we began to pack up the garage, and the mood was somber and quieter than normal. I think the Team as a whole was feeling pretty empty, despite watching history being made as VR46 matched Angel Nieto's record of 90 GP wins. These are the times when it's most important to stay united and focused. These are the moments that can make or break a Team, and I think we're good. The boys worked hard, they stayed strong, and I hope our riders can really feel that. We're the ones behind them, every step of the way. Without a strong foundation, there's no point in going for it.
As we were packing, the rain started to really come down. It was cold and dark, and we had a ton of boxes to ship back to Madrid for paint. I was starting to feel a bit depressed about things, when I looked up and saw the Moon shining alongside a huge rainbow. It gave me a little extra kick to get things hammered out into in the evening, and once everything was packed up we said our goodbyes to the team mates who would be driving the trucks out later that night. Four members rolled out towards Italy, and the rest of us crammed into our little rentacars. I stopped to pick up a very, very special souvenir, a gift for California (which will be shown at that time, Laguna, baby!).
The third highlight of my week came later that night, as we once again hit the Buffalo Grill. I dropped some money into one of those hook and claw games just to test my luck and see how I was doing. I think I've only ever tried this kind of machine 2 or 3 times before in my life, but this time I WON! The guys couldn't believe it, and I'm happy to report that while I was in France, I won a Frog! Woot! I'd been kind of sick the entire time I was in France, with a constantly runny nose and something was wrong with my eyes. I chalk it up to hayfever, and I was taking antihistamines, airborne, auline, anything and everything I could get my hands on!
After dinner it was an early night for us. Tired, exhausted, and looking directly ahead into the storm of three double-headers in a row. Check out was early the next morning, and by 7AM we were rolling towards Paris for our afternoon flights (traffic was projected to take us about 5 hours to get through the maze to Charles de Gaulle). It was freezing, and I had a lot on my mind. Flipping through the radio brought nothing but endless talking and talking, not a single station was playing music. And then BAM, in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by green fields and flowers, a song struck, straight out of my childhood and absolutely perfect for this moment. My father always used to play the Double Fantasy album by John Lennon, and each song is genetically ingrained in me. Parallels, Apophenia, it's all right here.
I was feeling pretty in pink by the time we got to the airport.
We spent some time checking in the cars, getting all our stuff to our respective gates, and then it was flight time. We stopped for a coffee (5 Euros!!!!!) and luckily we noticed something wrong with Sergio's new Suunto Core watch (same chassis as their Vector line). One week old and one of the strap screws had come apart and was lost forever. Sergio gives the build quality a big thumbs down. Suunto . . . . it's not a Casio, haha
Check-in wasn't a problem, but the flight turned out to be pretty strange. I boarded the flight like I normally do, flipping open my travel wallet to show my ticket stub with seat number (also revealing my US passport) to the three Air France workers at the door, and as I was walking down the rows to 7C, one of them ran up behind me and was saying something pretty loud. I turned around to find the captain of the flight telling me to stop and listen to him, saying that it's necessary to check everyone's seat number because sometimes people get lost on the plane. I was like WTF?!?!? He was totally irate and over the limit, and my team mate in front of me and my team mate behind me were also like WTF?!?!? Who the fuck is this guy and what is his deal?!? I have no idea what it was all about, but it sure soured my trip. Anyway, Air France - you suck.
I got back into BCN late in the afternoon, and I've been listening to my favorite song non-stop since then. It is amazing to me that the most impactful song in my life comes from a French artist. Here are two different videos, both of them special.
MP3 versions are available: