The best trips are often the ones that result from a snap decision. A fortnight or so ago, the training provisionally booked for the weekend was cancelled. It happened to coincide with the Bikers Classic at Spa, a mix of a 4 hour endurance race for pre-80s bikes, a classic 350 GP, a series of parade laps by GP stars of the past, and parades of classic motorcycles of all ages, all on the historic and spectacular circuit of Spa-Francorchamps in the Ardennes.
With nothing else to do, and knowing some buddies I used to go watching endurance there with in the 80s and 90s would be there, the tunnel was booked and Euros exchanged.
With the car packed, I dozed off in front of TV at 10.30pm, and slept till the alarm went off at 3. We were in the car at 3:30, just as dawn was lighting the sky to the east and were at the tunnel by 4. By this time it was daylight. Had 20 mins to kill before loading… checked out the whisky offer price as I’m out of Grants… ho ho ho, more expensive than Tesco…
Out onto the roads on the other side of the channel and the motorway up the coast is clear so we make good time, before heading down towards Gent and Brussels. Just short of Brussels, we stop for a quick coffee and a walk to give Chrissie’s bad leg a break from sitting in the same place, before moving on again.
Around the Brussels ringroad is where we meet the only traffic, and as usual it’s aggressive, even at 9am. Fortunately, after the M25, the ring is so short, it seems more like the Oxford ring road, we’re round it so quickly.
The sun stays out all the way down to Liege, where we take a wrong turn, and end up going straight through the city. No big deal as it allows us to put some fuel in, sufficient to get back to Blighty – petrol’s cheaper here in the UK than in Europe once again – and to buy a crate of beer for the circuit, where it’s always been expensive.
We get to the circuit about 10:30 or 11am, and find our way to the camping area… we decide on the field under the pine trees, and have to get the car up a bit of hill on the dirt road, but find a reasonably flat spot. We put the tent up, brew up some tea and then head off to find Andy and the others.
A couple of CBX1000s (black one at the back behind the Kawa), a Z1300 and a Goudier-Genoud Kawasaki
Slight technical hitch – it turns out my spare phone doesn’t work abroad. No matter, Chrissie texts him and we find him half an hour or so later, and go wandering round the pits looking at the bikes, then off to a bar to get a beer. It’s €3 for a 25cl plastic glass so after just one at that price, we enter negotiations with the bar people for a bulk purchase. However, we decline to pay €60 for 24 cans, so I produce 4 tinnies from my bumbag and we drink those instead!
Yamaha generation gap. A TZ750 in the background
Geoff, Chrissie and I wander off to another part of the circuit and sit in the sun, watching the bikes go by from a bank. Panning to follow the riders, I get some good photos, as well as the obligatory unidentifiable blurs and shots of empty track. I spread some suntan cream on my arms which are starting to turn red in the sun.
Who said Guzzis don’t handle?
After an hour or so, we walk back to meet Andy and the others (he has been off to get more beer from outside the circuit), and we watch the rest of the events, before racing for the day winds up with a 2.5 hour endurance race.
A famous number – an ex-Barry Sheene RG500
About 30 mins before it’s due to start, the heavens open, the temperature plummets and I wish I’d packed the fleece – a tee shirt and body warmer doesn’t keep my arms warm. We’d seen the clouds and decided to opt for the covered stand. Just in time, we take cover – good choice, the waterproofs are back in the tent!! Torrential downpour.
The endurance event gets under way
The rain soon stops but the race gets underway on a wet track under grey skies and almost immediately the pace car comes out as there is a crash at the top of Eau Rouge, when two bikes clip each other. One rider is certainly OK but the medical car seems to be there for a while.
No sooner has the race restarted than there is another incident on the far side of the circuit – we can see the plume of smoke from the stand on the old start/finish straight. Out comes the pace car again.
With an hour or so to go, the track is drying and the cloud breaks up to the west, allowing rich evening sunlight to flood the track. The contrast between the dark grey cloud hanging over Eau Rouge away to the east and the sunlight grass below is stunning. The spectacle of these classic endurance bikes of the 70s as they power up the hill is just as stunning.
Spa at its most beautiful – bathed in evening sun
The sun sets and the last hour of the race is run in the gathering twilight, the race coming to a halt just as the bikes’ lights are actually starting to light up the track. Given our early start, Chrissie and I forego the evening concert and head back to the tent for some sleep.
The closing moments…
Except the temperature has plummeted. For an hour or more I struggle to get to sleep and eventually pull out my waterproof jacket, spread it over the sleeping bag and finally warm up enough to fall asleep. Until it rains again.
Next morning is grey and damp. We make some tea, and get the tent down, and into the car, and decide to drive round to the other side of the circuit for the early part of the morning, where we can hop down to Stavelot and get a coffee at some point.
But the car barely turns over on the battery. Yikes, a 3 year old car with a dead battery. The doors had been open, and interior lights on, but only for about 30 mins before we shut up and went to bed. I give the battery a couple of minutes and try again. It just turns over, and just as I’m thinking we’re going to need the jump leads, it fires up. Phew.
We take a slow drive to give the battery chance to perk up, and park up at the Stavelot end, and turn all the interior lights out before opening doors! I put the waterproof jacket on this time, as it’s still chilly.
We’re watching Agostini and Read, amongst other GP greats when the heavens open again. We’re just in time to dive under the eaves of a circuit bar (closed) and stand there with a couple of Belgians, watching these guys splash past. They’re both well into their 60s and they’re out in conditions where most of us would be sitting under the nearest bus shelter waiting for the storm to abate.
I’ve seen wider tyres on bicycles!
After 2 more laps the session is red flagged – hopefully only because the track was flooding. The waterproof jacket proves not to be. That’s why it was in the charity shop!
Phil Read, still riding strong in the rain… I had a Read replica helmet in the early 80s!
We take the opportunity of a bit of a break in the rain to drive into Stavelot and park next to a bar. Shame it’s closed, so we walk round to the next one that is open. I get soaked again. We drink a coffee, avail ourselves of the other facilities and then take a stroll round the town. We look into the museum foyer and pick up a few leaflets and walk round the abbey ruins.
Strolling down towards the river, I spot a plaque on the bridge. It commemorates the American forces who fought here in the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944 and January 1945. Stavelot was the scene of a massacre of approximately 130 men, women and children.
Just around the corner stand an M3 halftrack WW2 military vehicle. Whilst I’m reading the interesting english translation of the negotiations that went on in the 60s to add the original machine gun to the memorial, some police motorcycles come down the hill, followed by a couple of cars. It’s the Belgian national championship cycle race.
So we stand and watch car after car come down the hill. Meanwhile, we are mildly amused by the showdown between the impatient car driver who hasn’t realised why the car ahead of him is stopped at the main road and tries to go the wrong side of the junction, and the police rider who’s stationed there specifically to keep the cars stopped till the race goes past. He eventually reverses and wheelspins up the hill in the other direction.
Then the riders. A cry of “pave” as the breakaway group spot the still-wet cobbles over the bridge into town and some hasty braking as they slow before they hit the slippery surface. Over the next ten minutes, the chase group, the main bunch and the rag, tag and bobtail of the riders dropped off the back all come through, before the roads re-open.
We wander back up through the village, wondering what the masks on display on the walls of many buildings signify [it’s to commemorate a local carnival which pokes fun at the monks from the Abbey, the Carnaval de la Laetare des Blancs-Moussis, I discover via Wikipedia later]. It starts raining again.
We head back to the car and have a debate. We could go back to the circuit and catch the last hour or so of the endurance race (it’s split over the two days, somewhat bizarrely) or we can head off across country, and avoid a few miles of motorway. We’re both a bit knackered, so we decide on the cross country route.
I’d forgotten just how good some of the roads are for biking. The sun comes out as we head north west towards Huy, then continue north to pick up the motorway back to Brussels north of Liege, in beautiful clear skies, in contrast to the looming grey masses on the horizon behind us.
Along the way, we spot a field gun at the side of the road, with a memorial beside it. It’s to the 82nd Airborne, another American unit that was rushed in to the area in December 1944.
Memorial to the 82 Airborne
I take a snooze in the passenger seat for an hour or so, then resume driving near Bruges, and the last miles to the Chunnel are rapidly despatched. We have five minutes this time, just enough check out the malt whisky prices. Still “ho ho ho” prices, still cheaper in the supermarkets in the UK, so I pass, but we do pick up a couple of cases of cheap lager for summer barbeques and the like, before heading on to the train and back up to Canterbury, arriving back approximately 36 hours after we left.