Moto Pilots

by bj max

Sugar Booger and I subscribe to Netflix, you know, the online DVD rental service. It’s really a neat way to rent movies. The advantage of Netflix is the ability to sift through eighty five thousand titles while sitting comfortably at your computer. One of my favorite genres is documentaries. Netflix catalogs a whole slough of ‘em and while browsing their list the other day I stumbled across “The Magnificent Seven”, a six-disc TV broadcast that covered the 2005 Tour de France bicycle race. I held no previous curiosity for bicycle racing, but the Netflix synopsis piqued my interest and I decided to check it out. A couple of days later, the first two-hour installment arrived in our mailbox.

That night, as the temperature dropped and a rare snow fell, we curled up with a cup of hot chocolate and turned on the video machine. At first we didn’t understand what was going on. The Tour seemed extremely complicated. But after a while, its similarity to the NASCAR circuit became evident and, once we understood this, we were hooked.

The Tour consists of twenty-one races. These races, or stages as the organizers like to call them, take place on public roads all over France and they vary in distance, the longest being 232 kilometers. There is a race every day for twenty-two days with only one day of rest thrown in at about mid-Tour. And, again, like NASCAR, the competitors accumulate points according to their finishing position in each stage/race and whoever racks up the most points when the Tour ends in Paris is the winner. Not so complicated after all.

The grit and energy of the competitors is astounding. For four solid hours their legs never stop pumping. Nary a break and they pedal at speeds that sometimes exceed 40-mph and log upwards of a hundred and fifty miles. That’s like pedaling non-stop from St. Cloud to Duluth. Incredible. I doubt if I could pedal to the grocery store non-stop.

There are those that claim bicycle racing is not a true sport. I beg to disagree. I think these guys may very well be the best athletes in the world. The Tour de France is quite possibly the most demanding sport and the fans that clutter the roads are without a doubt the most fanatic. In the closing miles of a race, these fans crowd in on the riders creating a claustrophobic crush that leaves competitors and Tour officials alike very little room to maneuver. Most of the fans are there simply to get a glimpse of their hero but, as always, there are the spoilers. You can’t miss ‘em. They make a public nuisance out of themselves by dressing in nutty costumes and running alongside the riders, hindering their progress and, like the infield fans at Talladega, all appear to be as drunk as the proverbial skunk. They are extreme to a fault, threatening the safety of not only the competitors, but the more civilized spectators as well.

Nearing the end of one race, Lance Armstrong’s patience ran out and he physically shoved one of these jerks off the road and happily another one was accidentally run down by a BMW press bike.

For Sugar Booger, the most interesting aspect of the race was not the race itself, but the quaint European scenery. There were no Wal-Marts, no super slab, no Walgreens on every corner; just miles and miles of narrow, twisting two lane blacktops with picturesque little farms and villages, neat little gardens, majestic mountain ranges and beautiful patch work valleys. Viewed in Hi-Definition, it was spectacular. While she took in the beautiful scenery, I couldn’t help but notice that it was also perfect motorcycling country.

Speaking of motorcycles, Amaury Sports, organizers of the Dakar Rally, also organize the Tour de France and it is a huge undertaking. To control all the myriad aspects of this spectacle requires a lot of vehicles; agile vehicles, and the natural choice is, of course, motorcycles, referred to from here on out as motorbikes in deference to the Europeans.

Kawasaki, the official motorbike of the Tour, furnishes Amuary Sports no fewer than twenty-seven motorcycles with a couple of spares thrown in for good measure. These bikes are piloted (their term not mine) by regulators, judges, stewards, official photographers, and medical teams; all of whom zip up and down the peloton, performing related tasks accordingly. Throw in a couple dozen BMW R1150RTs to haul around the accredited press, and you end up with a lot of motorcycles. My personal favorite was the BMW. Being somewhat of a gear head, there was something about its decal-plastered, utilitarian look that struck my fancy.

At one point, I paused the video and counted seven motorbikes in a single frame, and only one bicycle and from this point on, without realizing it, my attention shifted from bicycles to motorbikes and would remain there for the rest of the series.

Some of the motorbike chases were thrilling, even from the safety of my armchair. One film sequence that I will forever remember was that of a camera bike in pursuit of a bicyclist down a crooked Alpine mountain road at 60-mph. Keep in mind that there was no shoulder to speak of, no guard rails and the pavement was damp from an early morning shower. The bicyclist, of course, was hugging the inside. He did, after all, have the right of way. But this didn’t seem to intimidate the moto-pilot (my term, not theirs) in the least. He raced right up on the outside of that bicyclist in the center of the turn while a photographer, seemingly oblivious to the danger, stood on the rear pegs twisting, leaning and turning, trying to get that perfect, award-winning shot. Don’t forget, the moto-pilot and cameraman you’re riding with are taking the same chances and getting some incredible footage. And the Hi-Def pictures made it all the more vivid, giving a sense of realism that has to be seen to be believed. Talk about your stimulus package!

Cut to another section of the course. The camera puts you, the viewer, aboard a motorbike on the road above a hairpin turn, looking down on the scene below. Three vehicles curl into the turn at the same time. On the inside, a bicycle at full speed leans in deep. Right next to him, within arms reach, a three-thousand pound team car turns with him and, on the outside, again with no guard rails, no shoulder and a thousand-foot drop to a vast and sprawling valley below is a camera bike, its pilot leaning in daringly close to the car to keep from roaring off the side of the mountain. I startled Sugar Booger by sitting upright in my chair and screaming, “He ain’t gonna’ make it!” But to my surprise, he did and he made it look easy.

The challenge these moto-pilots face, in my opinion, stacks them right up there with motor officers as some of the best riders in the world. You can learn the finer points of handling a motorbike by reading, taking a safety course or just getting out and practicing. But without the level of confidence those riders working the Tour have, you will never be as good as they are. They are a special breed, like fighter pilots or MotoGP racers. They seemingly enter those scary turns without a care. Fear is an after thought like breathing or blinking their eyes. I can only watch and dream of control like that. For me “no fear” are just words on a tee shirt.


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