ELYSIAN FIELDS

I love Paris. It's the only city where I feel instinctively at home on a motorcycle. In London, you can't move. In Los Angeles, the only safe vehicle on the freeway is a Centurion tank. In Zurich, there's something in the air that makes you ride like a bicyclist. In New York... I don't even want to think about New York. But Paris: each time I go back, there's a ritual about riding there.

The fast-moving traffic on the Peripherique was just beginning to thicken as I eased the Vincent onto the Avenue de la Grande Armee at Port Maillot, but it wasn't the rush hour yet. I love that last kilometre: the other side of the Arc de Triomphe, the knowledge that you are really back in Paris again.

I slowed for the Place Charles de Gaulle: second gear, then first. Into the Etoile, the 'star' at the head of the Champs Elysees. I accelerated hard -- the rush hour was really under way here -- then braked as I joined the revolving circus. Things weren't helped by a guy in a 2CV who was driving radially inwards from the Avenue Hoche, boring straight towards the Arc de Triomphe itself. There were at least six lanes of traffic, maybe eight. Then: the Champs Elysees.

There was a gap. I twisted open the throttle and the old Shadow surged forward. The lights of Le Drugstore came on just as I passed. Air France was already closing up shop. After that, it was cut and thrust all the way, weaving through the traffic, feeling the adrenalin going: between two cars, cut around a truck on the wrong side of the road, full throttle, hit the brakes.

Then, around the Place de la Concorde, the complete opposite of the Etoile: the huge area of paving, the Obelisque du Luqsor in the middle, cars everywhere. Around gently: I was just getting used to France again, after a week in London on the civilized side of the road. Past the Automobile Club de France, back up the Champs Elysees.

If you've never been there, the Avenue des Champs Elysees is a wide, cobbled road with four lanes in each direction. It's about a mile and a half long; it's a racetrack. Of course, there are a few drawbacks to holding a race there. The gendarmes are one. The road surface is another. But the real killer is traffic. It's the ultimate urban drag-strip, a wild melee of cars and trucks and motorcycles and everything else you can imagine, and nobody slows for anybody.

I pulled the Shadow in beside the rest of the bikes outside McDonald's. Of all the cafes and sidewalk establishments on the Champs Elysees, McDonald's is the place to hang out. Don't ask me why, but there it is. Mercifully, it's not dry like an American McDonald's, and in any case, there's a cafe next door where they have no truck with Big Macs. Where that cafe and the McDonald's meet is where I sit.

I went to my usual table. The acned teenage waiter gave it a casual wipe as I sat down, then asked me what I wanted. I just nodded. He had seen me often enough to know it would be Pernod.

There are always a lot of motorcycles parked on the sidewalk here: serious motorcycles. I know most of them by their owners' names: Jean-Marc's V-Max, Alain's bored-out Softail, Heinie's Hailwood Replica Ducati, Kurt's Bimota, Julio's Laverda, Jan's Hesketh, Suzette's little Guzzi with the nitrous oxide bottle.

They know I'm not in their financial class, but they also know that they're not in my riding class. My stiff leg makes it hard to get off the Vincent, but twenty years ago, they would never have held me at the Ring, or Imola, or the Island. Mind you, twenty years ago, they would have been too young to ride. I don't have to grow old gracefully. The last time you fall off at a hundred plus is you when realize you'll be lucky to grow old at all.

As well as the people I recognized, there were others that I didn't know by name. There was an American -- Ted? Red? -- with a BMW Paris-Dakar replica; an Italian with a Guzzi Lemon; and a Frenchman who was being rather cruelly ignored because he had turned up on a full-dress Goldwing with stereo and CB rig.

As usual, they were arguing about the merits of their bikes, in a frenzied mixture of French, German and English, with English predominating. "Hands like a bloddy gorille to work ze clutch" -- that was Jean-Marc talking about the Laverda. "Zer cast-eisen arse auch, ja," said Heinie, "but at least the frame has no hinges." Then they both turned on Alain and the Softail: "Perhaps we should all ride ze pimpmobiles, hein?" That was Heine. Kurt added "Ja. Mit trailer."

I smiled into my Pernod. I had seem Mick Broome ride an original rubber-frame GT380 around the island, and still put up the best time in his class. But fast bikes are like sex: the next best thing is talking about it. Julio turned to me and said, "Which you think is best?"

I don't know why he asked me. He knew that I would give a different answer each night of the week, just to keep them on their toes. This time, I hit them with the real answer. "Well, it's not hard to find out."

They were all looking at me. I explained. A race, two laps. Le Mans start, up to the Etoile, around the Arc de Triomphe, down to the Place de la Concorde and back up past McDonald's. Then do it all over again. I'd have a Big Mac waiting. The first person to pick it up would be the winner.

There was a long silence, then a roar of approval. If anyone else had suggested it, I don't think they would even have listened. Basically, they were all too proud of their bikes to want to scratch them up. They were also a bit fond of their own skins. Looking back on it, the whole idea was damnably irresponsible. But then, I never was all that responsible. I put my feet up on another chair, ostentatiously displaying the chamfered soles of my boots. They knew that the Shadow was ground down the same way. Anything that could touch the ground was bright metal.

Jean-Marc was the first to speak. He voice was rather quiet. I think he may have been the first to hoist on board what I was suggesting. "And the prize?"

"Glory. But for a side-bet, let's say a thousand-franc entry. Winner takes all. To make it more interesting, anyone who doesn't finish, a thousand-franc penalty."

"You vill ride also?" That was Heinie.

I did my best to look hurt. "What? A poor old man like me? After all you've said about the Vinnie being a great bike in its day, but past it now? No, no; I'll be the timekeeper."

The American boy had pushed his way to the front. He said only one word. "When?"

At that point, I hadn't actually thought about it. Now I did. "Twenty-four hours from now. No, a bit less. We'll start at five o'clock, because there'll be more light. We'll make it an open race. Tell your friends."

* * * * *

I hadn't realized there were so many maniacs in Paris. At twenty to five, there were twenty-three bikes outside the cafe: at a conservative estimate, two million francs' worth, maybe a third of a million bucks. To my amazement, the guy with the full-dress Leadwing was there; there was someone on a Slippery Sam replica; there were a couple of Brits, one on a double-knocker Norton, and the other on a Thruxton with a Brooklands silencer; and there was a weird-looking FZ1100 chop with an even weirder-looking rider and Danish plates.

Then I tuned in to the conversation. They were all convinced that they were going to win, or at least, that they couldn't lose. Power on the straight; cornering; braking; light weight; acceleration; personal experience; they all had their secret formulae.

"A quarter of an hour to go, messieurs!" The buzz of conversation stopped. They all looked at me. "I shall call your attention again at five minutes, then at three, two and one. From one minute, I shall count down in seconds. Are your machines ready?"

Several of then went to line their bikes up for a more advantageous start. I stared into my Pernod. That was before they started making absinthe again.

Then came the kicker. The teenage waiter cane up to me. "Excusez-moi, monsieur," he said, "but is it truly an open race?" He pronounced the word as if it had a double p: oppen.

"Yes."

"Then I may enter?"

I nodded. His worried expression did not change at all. He wiped his hands with the same rag he had used to wipe the tables, then he walked away. I did not see him again until I was making the next call: "Messieurs, five minutes. Cinq minutes."

He was pushing a Velo Solex up to the start line. You don't see many Velo Solexes outside France, and it's not much wonder. They look like a very heavy black bicycle, with a large dead snail sitting on the front mudguard. The large dead snail is the motor, a tiny putt-putt, and the drive is transmitted to the front wheel by a sort of grindstone, a revolving roller coated with sandpaper. The thing has virtually no brakes, but it doesn't matter: with a top speed of less than twenty miles an hour, you can supplement the feeble stoppers by putting your feet down.

A stunned silence fell over the crowd. There they were in their race-replica leathers, their Kevlar-reinforced helmets: some of them had even pulled on Nomex gloves and balaclavas. He wore the same black trousers he had worn to wipe down the tables, though he had taken off his apron and put on an old English tweed jacket over his white shirt. He was not even wearing a helmet: on a moped, you are not legally obliged to. His machine and all the clothes that he wore could have been bought for less than the price of a single rear tyre on some of those Japanese race replicas.

He walked over to my table. I couldn't see why. Then I saw that he had a wad of dirty banknotes in his hand, a mixture of fifties and hundreds. I said, "What's this?"

"It is my entry fee." Slowly, he began counting the notes onto the table, weighting them down with a coffee cup. I had not taken entry fees from any of the others: to them, a thousand francs would not be important. The winner could collect after the race. But to him, a thousand francs meant something.

"And if you do not finish? The penalty?"

He looked me straight in the eye. "Then my moto will be forfait."

I looked at the others. They nodded, smiling at his gravity. "That will be acceptable. Messieurs, trois minutes."

The others pushed forward to hand over their money. A couple of them had to give me I.O.U.s I put the money in my helmet. The American boy threw in two one-hundred dollar bills, a good bit more than the basic stake. Heinie caught the gesture and tossed in four hundred Deutschmarks. A blizzard of money fluttered into the helmet: lire, guilders, a couple of fifty-pound notes. Until the little waiter had put his money on the table, it had been unreal, a fantasy. Now it was a real race, with real prize money.

"Deux minutes! Two minutes! You may start with the electric starter, with the kick start, by pushing, or... " I looked at the Velo Solex "by pedalling."

Everyone was standing now. "I shall drop this glass to signal the start of the race." I drained the Pernod and raised the glass high. Every eye was on it. The countdown was about to begin. I raised my other hand and looked at my watch. "Fifty-nine... fifty-eight... "

There was a gendarme standing about a hundred metres away, looking suspicious, as if he knew what was going to happen but could not quite believe it. Once the race started, he would not have time to stop it: I calculated it would be over in twenty minutes at the outside. "Thirty-two... thirty-one... thirty..."

My arms were beginning to get tired, but everyone was still staring at me, hypnotized. Some were smiling with their lips. No-one was smiling with his eyes. "Sixteen... fifteen... fourteen... "

The gendarme seemed to have come to some sort of decision. Slowly, ponderously, he turned and started to walk towards me. Each pace lasted almost a second: I had to be careful not to count them. "Three... two... one... " I dropped the glass. It burst with a surprisingly loud bang. But before it had even hit the ground, the riders were running. So was the gendarme.

The first bike to fire up, by the smallest fraction of a second, was the big Honda tourer, but its sound was soon lost as a cacophony of singles, twins, triples and fours joined in. The Thruxton was the first down the road, the rider vaulting elegantly into the saddle as the engine fired; the cammy Norton was only a couple of feet behind. The waiter was pedalling the Velo-Solex furiously; the Paris-Dakar replica was having trouble with the electric start.

Before the gendarme was within twenty metres of the nearest rider, every one of the bikes was gone. The Bimota side-slipped on a squashed orange, then recovered like the thoroughbred it was. Kurt fishtailed for the first hundred yards, accelerating all the way, finally pulling it into line at the Etoile: the pack was complete.

I turned towards the gendarme, waiting for the torrent of French. But he was too fascinated. Like me, he was just watching the race.

The sound was indescribable, and you could hear it even as they hit the Etoile. Modern racing bikes scream, but these weren't all modern racing bikes. The howl of the Laverda triple mingled with the flat bark of the Harley twin, the bang-bang-bang cadence of the cammy Norton and the Thruxton, the buzzing purr of the six-cylinder Honda, the whistling whine of a hard-pressed K100RS. There was a thick, rich smell of burnt rubber and half-burnt gasoline, mixed with oil.

As the bikes chewed into the permanent traffic jam around the Arc de Triomphe, the volume doubled as the motorists joined in with their horns: there were some very angry commuters. Amazingly, as far as I could see, no-one lost it.

The first bike out of the melee was Suzette's Guzzi. If I'd been betting, it would have been on one of the small, light bikes, and she was a hell of a rider. The Norton was right behind her, followed amazingly enough by the huge Goldwing. Then, suddenly, the rest of the pack went into slow motion. I knew what had happened. Suzette had pressed the nitro button, and the Goose was running on nitrous oxide. She accelerated like a rocket, but only until she was level with McDonald's: then, she needed the full power of the big, linked Brembo brakes to avoid ploughing into a mobile traffic jam.

A big truck occupied a third of the road, and beside it was the sort of broken-down junk you could only see in Paris: a Nicolas three-wheeler delivering wine, an old Volkswagen with the split rear window, a rusty Peugeot 403. They were very nearly touching, and they were all doing about twenty kilometres an hour. She couldn't cross over to the other side of the road, either: there was a traffic island in the way, and besides, the oncoming traffic was unusually fast.

My attention shifted to the rest of the pack. They were weaving from side to side, looking for a way through. Then the American boy on the Paris-Dakar bike saw his chance. The engine screamed briefly as he pulled the clutch and dropped it again: the front wheel lifted in the air like a horse rearing. He charged forward on one wheel, then rode over the Volkswagen: up the back, across the top, down the front. The car stopped dead, but the big BMW was long gone.

It had the desired effect, though. The others were through the gap as soon as it existed -- and the first through was the waiter on his little Velo-Solex.

Of course, in a matter of seconds he was the last in the pack again as they accelerated on the clear road, but as they jinked around the traffic on the approach to the Place de la Concorde, he began to gain on them again.

Someone must have got it wrong as they made that circuit: the cacophony of horns was even louder this time. But the first one out was the waiter. He must have gone all the way around with the throttle hard against the stop, twenty miles an hour for all he was worth.

I watched, fascinated. He threaded through the cars, some stationary, some crawling, without slacking speed for an instant. Twice I closed both eyes, waiting for the crash, but every time, he made it. He was going so slowly that I had plenty of time to watch the rest of the pack coming out behind him.

Once again, the small, light bikes were at the front: Suzette, the old Norton and the Thruxton. The big, wide bars were hampering the boy on the Paris-Dakar BMW: he just couldn't get through the spaces that the others could. Amazingly, the Goldwing was still doing well, leading a small group that included Heinie's Ducati and Kurt's Bimota. The Hesketh was right on their tails.

As soon as she saw her chance, Suzette hit the nitro button again. I could hear the anguished cry of the little V-twin as it delivered fifty per cent more power than its makers ever intended. But she left it on too long. She was perhaps a quarter of a mile in front of the pack when the howl ended with a bang: she was coasting to a halt in front of the tables.

The Bimota had pushed ahead now, and Kurt was in the lead as he hurtled past Suzette. The huge Honda was right behind him. The pattern was becoming clear. On the straights, where there was room, it was raw power and the cojones to use it. On the corners, and for jinking, it was flickability: the old five-hundred singles with their light weight and perfect geometry had the edge there. But the third factor was quite unlike any other race in the world. It was the ability to guess which pair of cars to try to squeeze through, and to thread the needle between a pair of wildly gesticulating Frenchmen who were, just incidentally, steering from time to time with one hand. To make life more interesting, some of the motorists had entered into the spirit of the thing, whether jockeying for position themselves, or pulling over to let someone through.

As Alain's Softail was level with me, he broadsided a 2CV. Any lesser bike would have been decked, but the sheer mass of the hundred-cube Harley saved it. The 2CV, though, rocked on its suspension; and this badly upset the calculations of the man on the Slippery Sam replica. The big triple skidded onto its side, and slid up the road in a shower of sparks; it ended up in the gutter, half under another 2CV. Long before that, the rider had stepped off as neatly as I have ever seen it done. Holding up his arms in the attitude of a man who has just surrendered, the motorcyclist's universal sign language for 'I'm all right', he began to walk back towards McDonald's.

The pack disappeared into the Etoile for the second time, this time with the waiter and his Velo-Solex two-thirds of the way back. It had to have been the chop that got it wrong at the Place de la Concorde: I didn't see him this time.

I sneaked a look at the gendarme, but he seemed to have forgotten about me entirely. He stared blankly at Suzette and the man from the Slippery Sam replica: he didn't even turn around as they came to sit down beside me. They were both smiling.

Incredibly, the huge Honda and the tiny Velo-Solex were neck and neck as they came out of the Etoile, but the moped soon took the lead as heavy traffic baulked the bigger bike. I'd love to know how either of them got around those corners. The double-knocker Norton and the Thruxton were next, almost a private race of their own, re-fighting some battle of forty years before. An LC500 was behind them, snapping at their heels like a lurcher behind Afghans.

Then the great BMW came thundering out, Guderian advancing on Moscow all over again. This time, though, the American boy failed when he tried to repeat his trick and ride over a Renault 4CV 'ugly bug'. He wasn't hurt, but the bike ended up under the car. He walked back towards us.

I could hear the popping and crackling of the Bimota and the Hailwood replica as they came out; in the heavy traffic, their plugs were fouling. The Hesketh roared past them on the wrong side of the road, the eight-valve V-twin singing a battle-song. Then, a huge TIR truck was blocking the road in front of him. His rear tyre yawped as he changed down and slipped back into the mainstream. It was cut and thrust with the traffic again.

As they disappeared into the Place de la Concorde, as far as I could see, the waiter was the fourth bike in the pack. As I waited for them to reappear, I counted the others going in: sixteen, seventeen... That was it. The Bee Emm, Suzi's Goose, the Slippery Sam replica, the chop: there must have been three others down that I didn't know about.

I was still wondering who they were -- had I seen Jean-Marc's V-Max? -- when I realized that the waiter had not just emerged from the Place de la Concorde: he was half-way to McDonald's. Then the others burst around the corner. The sound was awesome.

The waiter looked behind him: he was going slowly enough to have the time. I saw him shake his head. Then, as the Hesketh and the LC500 emerged from the traffic jam at the Rond Point where the Avenue Montaigne and the Avenue Franklin D. Roosevelt intersect, the front wheel of the Hesketh touched the rear wheel of the LC500. I winced as a hundred and fifty thousand francs' worth of motorcycles crashed to the ground.

Fortunately, they weren't going fast enough to hurt themselves too badly, but Alain swerved to avoid one of the riders as he picked himself up. The Softail bounded over the Hesketh, was briefly airborne, then threatened Alain with a tank-slapper as he fought to keep it upright. Miraculously, he succeeded.

The waiter was threading his way through traffic, apparently effortlessly, with the Norton and the Thruxton hot on his tail, slipping through the gaps that he seemed to find by a sixth sense. Incredibly, the Goldwing was still with them when suddenly there was a rending of metal and he was jammed between a Rolls Royce and a big Citroen delivery van. The smaller bikes had squeezed through but he could not, and the huge tourer was wedged between the two immobile vehicles. The rider vaulted up to stand on the saddle, in order to get a better view of the finish.

The Velo-Solex was only ten yards from McDonald's now, and the two old British singles were drawing level. Surely they would have to brake, and he would have to brake first to be sure of stopping at all.

He didn't bother. Slowing only fractionally, he threw the little moped on its side, stepped off, ran straight to the Big Mac. The little bike slid on its side for a few yards, then bounced against a tree. The engine sputtered and died: the smell of spilled gasoline filled the air. The rider scooped up the burger, but instead of stopping, he ran straight to the gendarme. Incredibly, the policeman was laughing; and as he lifted the young waiter high in the air, we could hear him shouting: "Jean, alors mon fils, t'es fou." And the young waiter was shouting, "Oh, papa, papa."

DISCLAIMER

This is a work of fiction and all characters are fictional, bearing no intentional resemblance to anyone alive or dead. In the interests of the narrative, liberties have been taken with the location of McDonald's and the bar at which the principal character sits. Anyone who wants to try organizing a race on the Champs Elysees should not blame me if people get hurt and property is damaged. That's what fiction is about. Click here for the Official Health Warning.

last updated: 13/11/03

© 2003 Roger W. Hicks