15 years ago, Martin Gelder decided to ride his Guzzi Le Mans to French Le Mans to watch a bit of Easter endurance racing. Judging by the length of this story, he’s never really recovered from the experience…
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Some things are destined not to happen. No matter what you do, no matter how carefully you prepare or how far ahead you plan, fate will kick down your sandcastle. But if you’ve got a Moto Guzzi Le Mans, at some time or other you have to take it to its spiritual home. If there happen to be a few obstacles along the way, then it’s just part of life’s rich tapestry – to be savoured and cherished.
I’d bought the Guzzi in a moment of irrational lust, to replace a written-off BMW as my pride and joy. The Mark One Le Mans was launched at the same time as I started riding (ok, mopedding) and clichÃ©d though it may sound, seemed to encapsulate all of my two wheeled desires. Well, it did if you ignore the paper-girl on her Moulton bicycle.
The first few months of Guzzi ownership were a bit turbulent, mainly due to the bike having been stood for a couple of years in an Italian barn. Nothing that a substantial amount of tinkering over the winter and a few trips back to the dealer couldn’t fix, though, and by the spring of ’88 I was all set for a quick blast into Europe.
The Le Mans 24 hour race was taking place over Easter weekend, so there was no need to book any time off work, particularly convenient as this was due to be a very busy time. I did take the precaution of booking my ferry tickets well in advance though, to be sure of getting the right crossing at the right time. Portsmouth to Le Havre, night crossings, sleep on the boat, short hop to the circuit; perfect. European breakdown and recovery insurance seemed a wise bet for a twelve year old Italian ‘thoroughbred’, so that was sorted out well in advance, too. I was so organised that I’d even got round to sending off for a ‘proper’ ten year passport. What could possibly go wrong?
Let’s start with a ferry strike. In between me posting the booking form and the tickets being issued, industrial relations had broken down. My Portsmouth – Le Havre two way crossing had turned into a Dover – Zeebrugge then Cherbourg – Southampton European oddyssey. No problem though; a few hundred more miles to travel, but at least I’d got a crossing booked. Anyway, the whole point of the journey was to ride the bike, so having further to travel was better. Things were still going smoothly.
The girlfriend was persuaded that however pleasant a long weekend in France might sound, she really didn’t want to spend two whole days perched on the guzzi’s pillion seat. Plans were made for her to spend Easter in Swindon with her sister, which was probably the lesser of two evils. Probably. However, it was one less thing for me to worry about.
Even the strike in the passport office didn’t concern me too much; after all I could always get a one-year temporary passport if the real one didn’t show up in time. No need to worry. Except that my birth certificate was stuck in the passport office with my application… Luckily I was too busy at work to worry about that complication, and sure enough the full passport turned up in the post with three days to spare. I’d spent the previous weekend fettling the bike; timing checked, tappets checked, new plugs, fresh oil, and a lot of polish followed by a Sunday evening spin to make sure nothing was going to fall off. Set up right, a Le Mans has an irresistible surge of grunt that builds from about four thousand rpm accompanied by that unmistakable Lanfranconi thunder. This trip was going to be fun; barnstorming through Belgian villages, sunset outside French cafes, hazy smoke over the campsite, cold beer and hot sausages, swapping tales with other Guzzi owners while the racers howl through the night; heaven.
Wednesday night was spent cutting down my luggage to the bare minimum. Well, the bare minimum for me, at least. Straight home from work on Thursday evening, strap the tank bag, tent and enormous kit bag onto the Le Mans, and I was off down the A2. I stopped at a Little Chef for a bite to eat, and then spent a while trying to get the headlight to point down at the road rather than up at the stars before filling up with petrol. It was one of those crisp spring evenings with a hint of frost, so I wasn’t too concerned when the starter motor was a bit sluggish turning the engine over when I was finally ready to set off again. Obviously a combination of the cold and me faffing about with the lights had drained the battery slightly, but the fifty mile run in to Dover should charge it up nicely.
The mountain of luggage on the pillion seat only really affected the handling at low speed, and that fifty miles passed in less than fifty minutes. Approaching Dover, I followed the diversion signs round the queues of lorries, and followed the police directions round the picketing dockers (I wouldn’t normally cross a picket line, you understand, but we’re talking about taking the Le Mans to Le Mans here…). The ferry terminal I eventually arrived at didn’t look very familiar. Or very open, for that matter, but undeterred, I got off the bike and went exploring. Wrong ferry terminal, apparently. This was Dover East, and I wanted Dover West, or vice versa. No one was very sure, but this was definitely the wrong terminal. Plenty of time though, as I’d made allowances for getting lost when working out what time to leave.
Back to the bike, only to discover that the last fifty miles hadn’t charged the battery up after all. The engine turned over sluggishly a couple of times but wouldn’t fire. Rather than risking completely draining the battery, I decided to bump start it in true cafÃ© racer style. Ignition on, into gear, five swift paces, drop onto the seat side-saddle and pop the clutch out. Success! The Guzzi fired up first time and settled into its lumpy but reliable tickover. It wasn’t until I was swinging my leg over to sit on the seat properly that I remembered the kit bag and tent strapped to the pillion. That lumpy tickover certainly was reliable, because it was still thudding away as I pulled myself out from under the right side of the bike. I got the damn thing halfway upright, engine still running, before I realised that there was no way I could lift it all the way with the luggage still on board. With one hand blipping the throttle, I painstakingly unhooked all the bunjies with the other until I could get the machine upright and onto it’s centre stand. Once it was upright it sat there ticking over happily while I re-bunjied the luggage back on. Not taking any chances, I gingerly got back on the bike before rolling it off the centre stand and clicking into first gear.
As I pulled away in search of Dover West (or East) I noticed a uniformed figure running after me, trying to flag me down. Police? Customs? No, but he seemed to be carrying a Tarozzi rear-set brake pedal for a Moto Guzzi Le Mans. Just like the one connected to my right foot peg. Beautifully cast in lightweight aluminuim alloy, but very brittle. Liable, in fact, to snap off if the bike toppled onto its side because of a leg tangled in a tent.
Bugger. Moto Guzzis are ‘graced’ with a linked braking system which operates one front caliper from the handlebar lever, and the other front caliper (along with the rear caliper) from the foot pedal. Once you get used to it works surprisingly well, but it does rely on the foot pedal being connected to the bike, and not grasped in a ferry steward’s right hand. Bugger again. Having negotiated office deadlines, ferry strikes, passport office strikes, grumpy girlfriends and flat batteries I wasn’t going to let a bit of snapped aluminium stand between me and my weekend of endurance racing. Figuring that someone at the circuit would be able to sell me a replacement if I couldn’t find one en-route, and that I still had a perfectly serviceable front brake anyway, I decided to carry on.
Remember me mentioning that the linked brakes worked surprisingly well? Well, they must have worked so well that I’d been doing all my braking with the foot pedal and completely ignoring the hand lever. I realised this at the first roundabout I came to. The handlebar lever operated front caliper was slightly seized, presumably through lack of regular use. First it was seized off, then with a bit of panicked assistance from me, it was seized on. Totally. At least I stopped, though. As did the engine.
I was now faced with unpacking the luggage, bump starting the bike, repacking the luggage, and riding very carefully and slowly to the other terminal, then repeating this procedure across Belgium and France. I started calculating how many fuel stops I’d have to make and how much traffic I could avoid before reality hit home. Time to make use of that breakdown cover.
Back at home on Good Friday morning, the Easter weekend stretched emptily away in front of me. I could have gone to Swindon to stay with the girlfriend’s sister, but instead I decided that this was the perfect opportunity to sort out the bike once and for all. The stump of the brake pedal was stripped off and put to one side for attention on Saturday, and I set too with a wiring diagram and multi-meter in search of the charging problem. At some point in its life the bike had had its frame re-sprayed. To avoid any electrical problems during reassembly, the wiring harness had been left in situ while the paint was applied, resulting in a wiring harness made up entirely of black wires. Couple this with the standard Moto Guzzi ‘one size fits all’ wiring harness with more unconnected connectors than connected ones, and a complex task became horrendous.
By Friday evening though, everything seemed to be in order. All the multiblock connectors had been stripped and cleaned, all the dodgy terminals had been re-crimped and all the spare spaghetti had been tidied up. I’d even got all the idiot lights coming on and going off when they were supposed to. Saturday morning saw me up with the larks and straight down to Spares and Repairs in Colliers Wood for a new brake pedal. They had every spare part for Tarozzi rear-sets that you could ever need; except a brake pedal casting with the correct bend in it. They even offered to split a new kit for me, but those were out of stock as well. Time for plan B.
By lunchtime I was back at home, down in the cellar, and armed with a hacksaw, a drill, anything aluminium that I could find, and four cans of Italian lager. When I finally emerged many hours later, I had successfully reconnected the two ends of the Tarozzi pedal using a combination of various strips cut from an old street sign and half a dozen M4x10 allen bolts. With the new, and in my eyes, improved brake pedal fitted, and the battery left to charge up over night, I was all set for the local MAG egg run on Easter Sunday.
Well almost. My carefully crafted repair looked the part, but using it in anger for the first time at the end of my street on Sunday morning revealed that it wasn’t quite stiff enough for the rigours of a linked braking system. A quick bit of lateral thinking saw me swapping the (bodged) brake pedal for the (robust and untouched) gear pedal casting. I now had a solid brake pedal which was capable of surviving an emergency stop, and a gear pedal which although slightly bendy still got the job done. As long as I remembered to change gear slowly and gently, that is.
I made it to the pub before the egg-run set off for the local children’s hospital, and I rode to the hospital in convoy with about fifty other bikes without any further unexpected mishaps. As a result of all the attention it had received over the last couple of days, the bike was running extremely well, and rumbling along in the early spring sunshine I remembered why I had bought the thing in the first place. After distributing chocolate to bewildered children and being photographed with bewildered nurses, the obvious way to finish a perfect the day was a quick blast out to Box Hill.
Pulling into a filling station on the A24, I thought back to that petrol stop on Thursday evening when everything had started to unravel. At least now I knew that the engine would re-start. After all, it had fired up okay that morning, and done so again outside the pub at lunchtime, and then again when I left the hospital. Even the ten miles of slow riding during the actual egg-run hadn’t flattened the battery. Those hours spent poring over the circuit diagram had been time well spent.
Pride comes before a fall, they say, and I was feeling pretty proud right up to the moment when I pressed the starter button after filling up with petrol. The engine barely managed half a turn before grinding to a halt with the starter relay clattering angrily in and out. There was only one thing I could think of to remedy the situation, and so that is what I did. I went back into the garage and bought myself an Easter egg.
An hour later, the guzzi was heading home on the back of a breakdown truck for the second time in seventy two hours; I’d sold my ferry ticket to a bloke on a Z1000J before being ‘recovered’ from Dover on Thursday night, but the breakdown cover was still valid. Luckily.
Easter Monday. It wasn’t the charging system, and it wasn’t the battery, so therefore it must be the starter. Thirty seconds work with a couple of thirteen millimeter spanners revealed the problem; about a pint of oil poured out of the starter motor as I removed it. Starter motors aren’t meant to have oil in them.
A bit of forensic investigation filled in the rest of the picture. The crankshaft oil seal was weeping slightly (they all do that sir), dribbling oil onto the flywheel. Centrifugal force was driving this oil outwards towards the circumference of the flywheel, from where a significant amount was being flung into the innards of the starter motor. The further I rode the bike, the more oil ended up in there. Once it was parked up, the oil would slowly dribble out of the starter into the clutch housing, and eventually out onto the road. If I tried to restart the bike before enough oil had seeped out, the starter motor would give up the fight and grind sluggishly to a halt. If I left it for an hour so, everything appeared to work fine again, but twelve years of living in an oil bath had finally taken it’s toll.
A new crankshaft oil seal (those five words hide another nightmare job) and a reconditioned starter motor bought with the proceeds of the ferry ticket sale cured the problem once and for all. I made it to the Bol D’Or later that year, and Le Mans the year after, but I never really trusted the Guzzi again after that Easter weekend.
Digging out the photographs to accompany this article had me wistfully recalling the good times I had on my Le Mans, and pondering the purchase of another Italian sportster. Then I remembered all the other weekends that went the same way as Easter 1988; the entire contents of the sump blown out through the breather, the burnt-out coils, the self adjusting points at the Bol D’Or, the gear change linkage that slowly tightened itself up, the self servo-ing clutch, the ‘sealed’ front damper units, the throttle cables that unhooked themselves if you shut off too violently…
Italian bikes. Why do we do it?