Café Racers en Continent

The 2019 Café Racer Festival at Montlhéry was the seventh iteration of this event and it keeps getting better, says Ian Woolley. It is a magical melange of motorcycles, music, and track rides…

Motorcycles come from many genres, many generations and include modern manufactures who bring fleets of their latest offerings for you to try during accompanied test rides. Brilliant – even if foolish people get lost – ahem. Sorry, Indian. I did bring the bike back as fast as I could.

The festival takes place on the infield of the Autodrome de Linas Montlhéry, a 1920s motor racing circuit that has kept its original concrete banking. This was put to good effect with frequent groups of riders blasting their bikes round the track. This was interspersed with demonstration laps by clubs and manufacturers. There was also the highly entertaining Sultans of Sprint whose party was just getting into its stride as the rest of the festival closed on the Saturday night … and theirs was the most subdued area of the show on Sunday morning.

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How to describe the Sultans of Sprint? Rambunctious? Lively? Loud? Entertaining? All of the above? Definitely! They describe themselves as ‘a story about pure passion, friendship, racing, dedication, custom sprintbikes, smiles, huge parties and positive attitude.’ Their bikes are a curious mixture of ancient and modern, often in the same machine. They take it upon themselves to do circuits of the event several times a day to drum up support for their sprints, much like a mechanised bunch of troubadours. Great fun! Mad as a box of frogs.

This being France, it was good to see that there was a pause-déjeuner between 12:30 and 2pm. Amongst the multitude of snack vans, the ‘donkey burger’ vendors that we endure in the UK were conspicuous by their absence. Bon appétit! For me the Ducati Café was perfect: simple food made with top quality ingredients, and a dash of Italian flair. Bellissimo!

Part of the raison d’etre of the festival is to give bike owners a chance to take their bikes on track. This is VERY enthusiastically supported. There were six categories for the track time and 34 sessions over the two days. This included bikes from the 1950s to the 1990s, modern bikes, what were described as ‘motos de charactère’, race bikes and, my personal favourite, Kiss ’n’ Vroom.

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This was a women-only session, not that women were excluded from any of the other sessions … nor were the women in Kiss ’n’ Vroom sessions touring round gently. At the risk of sounding like Jake Thackaray, ‘I appreciate the fairer sex as much as the next misogynist.’ It was great that so many women took to the track and seemed to have a great time. It was also good that despite the multiple sessions there were very few mechanical problems and no unexpected tarmac interfaces.

One of the themes of this year’s festival was a celebration of the life of Patrick Godet. Patrick was a colossus in the world of Vincent motorcycles and his death in 2018 was keenly felt. As a tribute, the community of Vincent owners gathered as many bikes as possible at the show. The programme suggested that there were more than 70 Vincents there: that probably underestimates the number that turned up. Certainly, there seemed to be a Vincent motorcycle in every corner of the festival. Many were ridden to the event and a significant number were ridden round the track with great gusto. A wonderful memorial to a great man.

There’s a lot of old bikes at the festival… even if you have to take a moment to realise this. For example, there was a collection of Ducatis in front of a stall. Pah! said I. Modern rubbish! Until you think that the early 916 Ducatis are now 25 years old. And they still look stunning.

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There were also lots of specials there which were so well done that you needed to stop and think about the work that had gone into them. The Jap-engined Greeves Hawkstone was a favourite of mine. This being France, smaller bikes were not neglected: the Mobylette usually had a crowd of gentlemen of a certain age around it, recounting tall tales of teenage heroics – always accompanied by big smiles.

If you have ever been to an endurance race in France you know that it IS a feat of endurance … not the race, spectating. To say that the French are enthusiastic about the sport would be like saying that Mike Hailwood was a little bit good at bike racing; a gross understatement.

Thus it is no great surprise that there were some extremely tasty bikes that had either competed in endurance races, or had been built as a replica / homage to the endurance racers. Either way, they were endlessly fascinating as there was a definite development from the barely modified road bike to the highly specialised endurance weapons.

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Kawasaki had a couple of retro bikes to show, the W800 and the Z900 models, so put on a large display at one of the main thoroughfares into and out of the event. They also brought some very early bikes, including the Kawasaki W1 in road and street scrambler trim. Whilst I’m not certain of the exact model designation, they did look mighty fine. And here’s a BSA twin for comparison purposes…

Many of the visitors brought 1970s Kawasakis in various states from concourse to rat, original to (extensively) modified. Once again these were scattered like confetti across the site, apart from the ones on track, being ridden like they were stolen!

I really enjoy the atmosphere of this event and the variety of bikes, especially some of the continental machines that are rarely seen on our little island. I could witter on for ages about all the things that caught my attention, but you do really need to be there. If you get a chance, just go!

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Words and photos by Ian Woolley

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