Taking on the best with your own design is something simply not possible now. It’s lucky men like Alain Chevallier that did.
Photography by Kel Edge
To defeat the Japanese factory teams by winning GPs with bikes you built yourself in a workshop attached to your house, fueled by your wife’s home cooking and cups of coffee freshly brewed in the kitchen next door, is a quixotic achievement that’d be impossible today. But in the early 1980s, that’s exactly what French engineer Alain Chevallier succeeded in doing, and his death from cancer in October 2016 aged 68 saw us losing one of the great chassis designers of modern-day GP history.
When as influential a figure as HRC boss Youichi Oguma lent factory engines to Alain Chevallier’s small team, it was a mark of respect for what his bikes had achieved against all the odds, on a limited budget. While the Japanese were following Antonio Cobas in building aluminum chassis, Chevallier maintained his allegiance to tubular steel frames – but using cold-drawn steel, which, being 20% stronger than hot-rolled, offers an increased stiffness to weight ratio, plus improved rider feedback. Ducati would follow in his tire tracks later that decade en route to successive World Superbike titles with its tube-framed racers, and eventually, of course, to the 2007 MotoGP World title.
Alain Chevallier—a Later Starter
But Alain Chevallier didn’t stop there. As part of his drive to save weight to compensate for the less powerful customer engines in his bikes, he was the first to fit carbon disc brakes to a 500GP motorcycle and the first to feature ram-air induction and a still air box on his GP bikes. He was a pioneer in developing fully adjustable suspension, too, making his own forks and shocks, as well as in telemetry. The Chevallier workshop was a hotbed of innovation.
Alain Chevallier’s younger brother Olivier had become a top bike racer, winning the 1976 350cc Yugoslavian GP with a bike prepared by Alain as chief mechanic for the Pernod-funded team. By 1980 he’d started making his own Yamaha TZ250/350-powered bikes for Olivier to race – but that April he was tragically killed at Paul Ricard. The distraught Alain was set to turn his back on racing before his friend Eric Saul persuaded him otherwise. Just six weeks after Olivier’s passing, Saul put a Chevallier Yamaha on the rostrum for the first time in the 350cc French GP at Ricard, repeating that third-place finish at Silverstone later that year to finish sixth in the final points table.
1983 Marks the Turning Point
Despite his brother’s death, Alain Chevallier continued to build and race motorcycles. In 1982, Belgium’s Didier de Radiguès rode a Chevallier Yamaha to victory in the 350cc Yugoslavian GP, to wind up second in the World Championship. Teammate Eric Saul won the Austrian GP and finished the championship in fourth. For 1983, now with ELF sponsorship, Didier was joined in the 250GP Chevallier team by Jean-François Baldé, and the dream result of the first race at Kyalami saw victory on his Chevallier debut for the Frenchman, with de Radiguès second. But Baldé broke his leg at Assen, and despite pleasing his local Johnson cigarette sponsors with victory in the Belgian GP at Spa, Didier could only finish third in the World Championship, behind Yamaha factory riders Carlos Lavado and Christian Sarron. “We had an excellent season with lots of pole positions and fewer crashes, but we just didn’t quite have enough to win the title,” Alain once told me. “But for 1984, we started a new adventure.”
Indeed so – for with the demise of the 350cc class, and already accustomed to racing in two grueling GP races in a single day, alongside his 250GP ride in 1983 Didier de Radiguès had begun a 500GP career with a stock Honda RS500, one of 32 customer replicas of the NS500 triple Freddie Spencer had turned into a 1982 GP winner. But the Honda’s flawed handling was a disappointment, so for 1984, Didier convinced Alain Chevallier to move up to the 500cc class with an all-new bike using the Honda RS500 V3 engine, with sponsorship from ELF and Johnson, and a backup bike for Christian Le Liard.
Into the Big Leagues in ’85
The tube-frame Chevallier Honda RS500 was tested at a wintry Paul Ricard by Didier, who declared it to be ‘right first time’! He then proved that by leading the first four laps of the bike’s very first race a month later in the opening South African GP, before finishing fourth with teammate Le Liard eighth. With three other top-10 finishes, the Belgian finished ninth in the World Championship, a satisfying result for him and Chevallier. But strangely, though, not for ELF, which for 1985 supported Serge Rosset’s team instead. Politics!
The Bakker Remix
Redesigning Pernod’s own 250GP bike gave the four full-time Chevallier employees something to do in 1985, while the de Radiguès 500 was lent to French privateer Thierry Espié, who scored points on it twice before returning it to Alain. Meantime, the other ex-Le Liard bike was twice tested by Randy Mamola, anxious to redress the handling issues he was experiencing with his factory NS500 triple. While expressing satisfaction with the French bike, he never raced it in the end, though Oguma-san let teammate Takazumi Katayama race a Bakker-framed such bike—after which Honda replicated the Dutch chassis design for their 1985 Mark 2 version! It might have been a Chevalier ripoff, instead.
Back to the Future
For 1986 the de Radiguès/Chevallier/Honda RS500 lineup was re-formed with Rollstar sponsorship, resulting in an even more successful season with eight top-10 finishes in the 12 races, en route to seventh place in the World Championship and top Honda triple, two spots ahead of Ron Haslam on the Rosset-run ELF 3! The highlight of the year was a magnificent second place for Didier on the Chevallier Honda triple in the pouring rain at Silverstone, just nine seconds behind winner Wayne Gardner’s NSR500 V4 Honda.
For 1987 de Radiguès was hired by Cagiva with Chevallier as chassis consultant, scoring the best finish yet for the Italian factory with fourth place in Brazil. But tensions within the team saw Alain stop GP racing altogether, despite the offer of Honda NSR500 engines from Oguma-san, which he had to decline, with no team to run the consequent V4 Chevallier Honda.
Enter Rachel Nicotte
Just three Chevallier Honda RS500 triples were built—the first 1984 de Radiguès/Johnson bike, the Le Liard/ELF one copied from it, and the third Rollstar one made new in 1986, with altered chassis geometry and the potential to adjust this via eccentrics. The original 1984 Johnson bike was used as a backup that season, but in 1988 Chevallier sold this to French privateer Rachel Nicotte, who won the French 500cc National title with it that year, taking victory in most rounds. Nicotte also managed to fit in seven 500GP starts between the rounds, finishing in five of these, and in Jerez, he scored three World Championship points with a 13th place. In 1989 he contested the European Championship, finishing second in the series, with just three GPs squeezed in between these rounds. For 1990 money was short, so Nicotte only started three 500GPs, twice finishing in the points. After that, he switched to more affordable 600 Supersport racing, in which he twice became French champion, as well as winning the 1992 Le Mans 24 Hours on a privateer Yamaha, and again on a factory Honda RC45 in 1995. But tragically, his racing days perforce over at the level he was accustomed to competing at, Rachel Nicotte committed suicide in 2005.
Worn Out, or Worn In?
The coordinator of Nicotte’s small Chevallier Honda GP team had been his neighbor in Plaisir – the town Rachel lived in outside Paris – Olivier ‘Gull’ Rietsch. Gull owns the ex-de Radiguès, ex-Espié, ex-Nicotte bike today, still painted in the Ville de Plaisir colors in which Nicotte ran it in 1989-90, sponsored by his hometown, whose Mayor must have been a bike fan! “I gave up my job in property maintenance to go racing with Rachel in 1988,” recalls Gull “I did everything that didn’t involve working on the bike or riding it – so that meant driving the truck, keeping us fed, sourcing fuel, parts, supplies and tires, and especially repairing bodywork – Rachel used to crash a lot. I mean – a lot. We ran it literally on a shoestring because we had no money for parts. We made friends with one of the Honda mechanics, and he’d tell us ‘At exactly 9 p.m. this evening, I’m going to throw our worn out parts in that bin over there,’ so we made sure to be waiting around the corner then. Their idea of worn-out was simply nicely run in for us!”
A New Lease of Life
After Nicotte stopped racing the Chevallier, he entrusted it to Gull for safekeeping, until Gull eventually bought the bike from him. “It had been part of my youth—I’d lived three whole years of my life centered around that bike, so it wasn’t going anywhere else.” Nicotte’s tragic passing in 2004 inspired Gull to have the bike rebuilt to run again in the increasingly numerous historical events like the Bikers Classic at Spa. It was at the 2014 edition of this that we found ourselves sharing a pit and, well – you can guess the rest. However, my promised test ride on the bike had to wait five years more while Gull managed to source some new pistons for the V3 Honda engine. Finally, in 2018, a batch was made, allowing Gull’s mate Emmanuel Laurentz to rebuild the engine, while French classic race guru Yves Kerlo www.kerloclassic.com undertook a frame-up restoration. It was completed just a fortnight before the fabulous 2019 Sunday Ride Classic at Paul Ricard in May of this year www.sundayrideclassic.com There, I found myself running-in the newly rebuilt motor with the likes of Freddie Spencer, Kevin Schwantz, Giacomo Agostini (and his son Giacomino!), and Christian Sarron zapping past me as I bedded in those new pistons. Well, that was my excuse, anyway….
The Johnson Chevallier features Alain’s distinctive cold-drawn tubular steel twin-loop frame, with massive strengthening around the steering head, despite which it only weighs just over 11 pounds, minus the fabricated chrome-moly tubular steel swingarm with fully adjustable White Power monoshock and variable-rate link. The fully adjustable 40mm Chevallier upside-down fork—complete with one set of internals stamped “Chevy” (go figure!) and the other “CAG 500!”—is set at a steeper 23° rake than the stock Honda’s 24.5°, whereas at 55.9 inches, the wheelbase is much longer than the RS500’s 54.1 inches—presumably for added stability. However, instead of the single carbon front disc, which de Radiguès raced with in 1984, there’s a pair of 310mm AP-Lockheed steel discs fitted today, with four-piston calipers. That’s because the impecunious Thierry Espié installed these when he borrowed the bike for the 1985 season—he couldn’t afford to replace the carbon discs regularly when they wore out, so they’ve been there ever since! This means that the bike today weighs 255.7 dry, rather than the 244.7 pounds it scaled in 1984, but with a 52/48% forward weight bias even with the forward-facing array of carbs, which resolved the stock RS500’s problems of insufficient weight on the front wheel.
Testing the Chevallier Honda RS500
However, you’re immediately aware of how “reet petite” the Chevallier is when you ride it—as against the dozen-odd NS/RS500 Honda triples, I’ve been fortunate to ride down the years, this is a 350 compared to a 500. In fact, Rachel Nicotte was much shorter than me, so I found the close-coupled riding position much too cramped to feel comfortable on the Chevallier—I couldn’t move around on the bike very easily, and it was impossible to tuck my head behind the screen. That was a pity, as Didier de Radiguès and I are the same height, and it would have been nice to try it as he rode it. But what this meant was that I got a great sense of the bike’s flickability, the way I could swap direction on it so relatively easily in Paul Ricard’s copious chicanes, without hanging off. But the Chevallier was super stable in fast sweepers, like the fourth-gear Signes right-hander at the end of the Mistral Straight, where that longer wheelbase inevitably came into play, compensating for the tight steering geometry. It wasn’t remotely nervous-steering or twitchy, just felt planted with heaps of security.
But it also braked well, with its light weight surely a factor as I found in a fascinating “battle” on the Sunday main event at Ricard with someone else whose name I never did discover on a standard Honda RS500—you know who you are, so please write in! Thanks to the Chevallier’s light weight I could gain many yards on him braking into the chicanes thanks to the ultra-effective AP-Lockheed brake package, or the tight right-hander after Signes, but then he’d get on the gas harder than me exiting the bend and pull those yards back, where I was constrained by the 11,000 rpm ceiling I’d been asked to observe while those new Tech 3 pistons bedded in. Tantalizingly, that was just when the Honda engine wanted to really take off, after coming on strongly from 9,500 rpm upwards quite fiercely, without the absent ATAC power-valves fitted to the works Honda triples and later customer bikes, which helped smooth out power delivery on those so well.
But for my last four laps on the bike, I revved it out to 11,800 rpm in the gears, and it made a massive difference to the Honda’s acceleration, as well as making it much easier to ride. That’s because it was now snicking nicely all through the gears on the one-up race-pattern left-foot gearshift to leave me still in the powerband as I hit each higher ratio, instead of having to work the light-action clutch to coax it back on the pipe. Yet the greater torque this also accessed didn’t upset the sense of balance from the Chevallier frame, and the easy way it steered. What a sweet little motorcycle, well, not so little, with 125 bhp delivered at 11,500 rpm, call it a bike that punched above its weight.
The only pity is that Alain Chevallier is no longer with us, so he can’t admire the wonderful job that Gull & Co. has achieved in restoring the Chevallier Honda 500 mothership. Kudos, Gull, and thank you!CN
Chevallier Honda RS500 Specifications
|Bore x stroke:
||62.6 x 54mm
||125 bhp @ 11,500 rpm
||3 x 34mm Keihin
||6-speed extractable cassette-type
||Multiplate dry (7 friction/7 steel)
||Cold-drawn chrome-moly tubular steel twin-loop frame
||Fully adjustable 40mm Chevallier inverted telescopic fork
||Fabricated chrome-moly tubular steel swingarm with fully adjustable White Power monoshock and variable-rate link
||Dual 310mm steel discs with four-piston AP-Lockheed calipers
||Single 220mm steel disc with two-piston Brembo caliper
||3.50 in. Marvic cast magnesium wheel / 120/70-17 Pirelli Diablo
|Rear-wheel and tire:
||5.00 in. Marvic cast magnesium wheel/ 180/55-17 Pirelli Diablo Superbike
||52 front / 48 rear percent