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Keith Salway fell in love with the idea of an original Le Mans. How did the reality of the first ride live up to his fantasy?...
I parked on Scarborough sea front on a sunny July Sunday and strolled along the row of colour co-ordinated pocket rockets, sounding crinkly as the motors cooled from the ride in. Their middle-aged riders were stretching the kinks out of their aching limbs and holding ‘Did you see that partially sighted elderly gentleman in the Mondeo just outside Whitby? I had to take radical action to avoid a collision there…’ type conversations.
The frenzy of race-reps all looked the same. Nice bikes, all very fast and great handling no doubt but there was nothing in the herd that said ‘Look at me!’, barring a couple of TL1000s tastefully sorted into mean streetfighters and sounding like an earthquake. I was just thinking about some proper fish and chips when a time-warp occurred… and I was instantly back in the mid 1970s.1976 Moto Guzzi Le Mans MkI
In the middle of all the plastic and carbon fibre was the Guzzi. It was gleaming red, long as a limo and lower than a snake’s stomach in a wheel rut. It was more beautiful than any machine deserved to be - a Moto Guzzi Le Mans Mk1 and of course, it was attracting a lot of attention from bikers and comforts (come for t’ days – for non-northern readers) alike.
The rest of the Scarborough day was great, really good fish and chips. I kept an eye (and ear) out for the Lemon, and was again stopped in my tracks as the beautiful racing tractor itself appeared, rumbling along the front. It sounded like armageddon and stopped people in their tracks to turn and look at what the racket was about. No pocket rocket like the others, much more individual , a good looking, fast dinosaur. A velociraptor. ‘Er indoors made the classic ‘how much would one of those cost then?’ mistake and the rest as they say… is history.
For weeks I was a man possessed - poring over the ‘net, local and national adverts ‘til I finally tracked down what sounded a good ‘un, in my price bracket, 150 miles away in Gloucester.
So I took a Saturday morning trip to look it over, expecting the worst – a raddled ‘classic’ heap of close formation rust spots with an owner spouting; ‘they all do that’ - but not this time. This one was, clean(ish), shiny, red, low and mean as a pitbull. Not perfect, but then that wouldn’t have been much fun, would it?Moto Guzzi Le Mans MkII
I did the checks recommended on the owners club site. I established that the UJ wasn’t shot, engine and frame numbers matched and started with VE so it really was a Le Mans not a cobbled up T3, etc, etc. OK purists, so it turned out to be a MK2 made to look a bit like a MK1 (lots of giveaways if you look, like the nose fairing). And I know the Mk1 is TOTH (The One To Have) but I wasn’t that disappointed and it did look good. Front tyre was a bit on the bald but still legal side, the tank was a bit rusty inside – but sealed, fork legs had a couple of stone chips, but it had got a sump extension, stainless steel exhausts, Tarrozzi rearsets, and it sounded awesome.
Gentle reader, after an enjoyable haggling session, I bought it. Complete with new MOT and battery. The following Sunday ’Er indoors drove me from Nottingham to Gloucester to collect it .Moto Guzzi Le Mans MkII
It had been a long time since I last rode a Guzzi and negotiating it out of the narrow entry was a bit of a problem. The torque reaction seemed to flick the bike about when I blipped the throttle on the gravel, and the very-direct-no-cushion shaft drive made it all rather interesting.
The clutch, didn’t seem too heavy compared with my Dharma, and the throttle wasn’t too heavy either. What, I thought, was all of the fuss in the write ups all about? Mind you, the reach to the clip-ons did seem a wee bit of a stretch.
After following me for five miles or so on the home run, ’Er indoors flashed me over to the roadside to complain that she couldn’t tell which way I was indicating. I actually didn’t know which way I was indicating either... The indicator switch movement left to right was no more than 2mm, with 1mm back to centre. A surgeon would have had difficulties with the precision required to operate that switch.
More importantly though I was a tad worried about matching revs and gears and speed because…
DIRE WARNING 1 gleaned from road tests
DIRE WARNING 2 gleaned from road tests
So, I didn’t want to look down too long to check the operation of the surgically accurate indicators and miss a corner planning session. Imagine the embarrassment of falling off on the first ride out! Not me sir. No way!
‘Er indoors didn’t want to do the round-the-houses A38 non-motorway route I’d planned. She decided that I had probably got the measure of the beast by now so she would shimmy off up the motorway and see me at home later. Off she goes, and I’m 145 miles from home on an unfamiliar bike that’s only done 30 miles or so in the last five years. Bit optimistic of me do you think? Read on.
Would the object of my heart’s desire start then? No. I couldn’t get the motor to turn over at all but then I found that the starter switch likes to be pressed in a certain Italian way – top left corner only. OK, so it turns over but will it fire. NO. Kill switch? No that is OK. So I risk flooding it and try choke, bearing in mind it had been running for five miles and should be warm surely….. Choke on, press starter switch corner in the prescribed Italian way and -- wahay!
Exciting exit from the gravel at the roadside: the clutch, which, to my puny left forearm was getting a bit on/off, had the rear wheel trying to get past me. Onto the carriageway sideways, got massive traction and shot off toward home revelling in the encompassing torque of the mighty, rumbling V-twin. Feeling really good, well pleased with myself and sensing the tarmac rippling up behind me like carpet. The bike felt great – but just a bit agricultural in the gearchange department – like a racing tractor.Moto Guzzi Le Mans MkII clocks and switchgear.
The man had told me that there was enough unleaded in the tank for ‘a hundred miles or so’, so naturally after about 25 miles I thought ‘I’ll top it up and be sure to have enough to get home’. Bit of a lame excuse to stop really as I was beginning to lose the use of my hands and arms due to the increasingly heavy controls, the looooong reach to the clip-on bars and the resultant painful neck and shoulder strain. My left knee was inexplicably starting to hurt too. So I pulled into a petrol station.
Well, the forks on my new Lemon were non-standard, slightly overlength Marzocchis and were fixed just a little too low in the yokes - making the bike slightly tall. The centre stand just reached the floor, but didn’t actually support the bike upright as I discovered when it fell over onto a petrol pump and trashed it. The clip-ons even pulled the hose off the pump nozzle, broken plastic and bits of mirror everywhere. What did I say about embarrassing? Some big lads ran over and helped to get it upright.
The pump guy came over and was really cool about it.
Then I opened the tank and discovered that I couldn’t get more than a half a pint of petrol in it – it was still nearly full! I had to go into the shop, apologise again and buy some crisps I didn’t want really. Face hotter than cylinder head now.
Chokey start involving Italian style button pressing soon had me pogoing back onto the main road (I WILL get the hang of this recalcitrant clutch).
I found out, by getting a first degree burn over the next couple of miles, that the cause of my knee pain was clonking contact with the left cylinder head when I sat far enough forward to not break my back and arms reaching for the clip ons…
A bit of a misfire seemed to develop over the next 20 miles or so and I had to pull over again to investigate it in a lay-by in the sticks (and to rest my arms and wrists again, administer first aid to my knee plus by now I had lost the ability to look over my shoulder and what with the smashed mirror and the misfire and all, overtaking was starting to feel like Russian roulette). Well, the falling over incident in the garage had exposed the right spark plug cap to something hard, and it had cracked. Some bits of plug cap had subsequently fallen off and the rest was breaking contact with the plug top every now and again.
Pocket rummages produced no instant fixes (couldn’t bend arms enough to get hand in pockets) so a few minutes of aerobics were in order. Just as I was getting some use back into my limbs, and could actually look over my right shoulder again, a large unsilenced four-stroke belched into life, in a barn, in a field, just behind me. Late on a Sunday afternoon, miles from nowhere, I had stumbled across some vintage motor enthusiasts firing up their latest project. Jammy or what! Ten minutes chat later and they kindly gave me two plug caps (just in case…) Thanks lads.
Italian touch with the starter button, juggle choke and pogo-pogo off we go again. A few miles further on my lovely torture machine starts to misfire at small throttle openings and will not tick over at traffic lights. So, at a stop I needed to blip the throttle constantly – in gear with the clutch pulled in - because it’s a Guzzi and you can’t get it into neutral when standing still.
By now, it would not pull away on a small throttle opening and needed quite a fistful if it was not to bog down and stall embarrassingly in front of whole streets of tourists (the noise, beautiful as it was to me, made everyone turn and look – just what I didn’t need right then). Fistfuls of throttle, combined with the on/off clutch made traffic starts a bit hairy. I didn’t want to filter to the front of a queue of traffic in case I stalled it (as happened every couple of starts) so I had to stay where I was in the queue. I’d wait till the car in front was at least five metres away before roaring off to a GP start or I would be parked in the car boot in front in a flash. I swear to goodness it wheelied once... honest.
I’m sure I need not describe the fun I had when tightly turning right or left from a standstill at traffic lights or roundabouts. How I laughed.
’Er indoors beat me home by an hour and a half and, after her arduous car journey was still able to look over her shoulder, comb her hair and pick up coins etc. Unlike me. I had given up hope of ever being able to perform those simple functions ever again. I had trouble getting my gloves off.
When I manhandled the brute onto its side stand in the garage I just stood and looked at it for half an hour. It was SO beautiful. As soon as I regained the use of my limbs I patted it fondly, burning my hand on the still-hot head.
So there were a few teething troubles. It had character. The handling was precise and really stable and, if you counter-steered it turned quickly enough. The engine had more grunt than a monster truck. The direct shaft drive (pogoing apart) caused me no problems, gear and speed matching were a doddle – couldn’t see what the fuss was about. Torque reaction? By the time I’d got home I didn’t even notice it anymore. The sound and feel of the thing on the open road? Priceless.
The low throttle thing turned out to be rust clogging the carb jets. Lowering the yokes down the forks by an inch fixed the stand problem and didn’t seem to affect handling at all. The clutch and indicators I got used to – surgical precision and a grip like Ogri required. I developed a left forearm like Popeye.
However, I wasn’t the right size and shape (or age) to be able to ride the racing tractor the distances I like to do without RealPain™ so she’s gone now to live with another middle-aged dreamer. I think she’ll see out her days being polished and not ridden, shame really. But I lived the dream and had an original Le Mans! Nowadays I’ve got a ’77 Bonnie! Much more practical.
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