Torrential downpours, 15-foot flames, this story reads like some sort of Biblical end-of-days prophecy.
By Melissa Paris
Photography by David Reygondeau
The 2019 Bol d’Or was set to be my fifth 24 Hour endurance race and my fourth in the FIM Endurance World Championship (EWC). I’ve been with the same outfit, The Girls Racing Team, for all five events, yet this one in 2019, I felt, had a chance to be something special for us.
Most of our race goals in the past had simply been to qualify and finish the event. Finally, this year’s team—consisting of myself, France’s Melodie Coignard and Holland’s Jolanda Van Westrenen—had a chance to aim for something more than just surviving and seeing where attrition got us. We were all closely matched in testing and constantly pushing one another to improve. So, with a hopeful heart, I left my husband, child and dog behind and headed off to the south of France.
Tuesday | Open Testing
We get a total of four hours of testing today; two hours in the morning and two in the afternoon. Melodie is first out. She’s getting close to her times from our test here a few weeks back when, on what should be her last lap of the morning session, she tucks the front in the last turn.
The team works hard to get the bike repaired and instructs me to just do an out and in lap to be sure everything is in order. Once they’ve given it another once over, they set me free, but a few laps later my fun is interrupted by a red flag. After the officials cleaned up the track, Jolanda finishes out the session.
During the break before the afternoon session, I’m talking to Melodie about her crash. She’s taking it really hard. I try to explain that, in my opinion, the front end is really soft and that these things happen. I explain I’m just happy it’s happened now and not in the race. I reassure her it’s fine and that no one is angry. It’s one of those moments where I’m really aware of the unique things (read: out-of-control emotions) about being on a team of all girls.
In my afternoon session, I’m getting super frustrated with traffic. I’m trying to hit my marks but I’m having terrible luck and am semi-convinced some teams have their mechanics out on track. I finally get a clear lap and try to put my head down, only to crash in the exact same place Melodie did a few hours earlier.
“Can you give me a ride to the airport?” I ask the guy driving the safety car that is picking me up after I have unceremoniously flung our motorcycle down the track. The thought of walking into my team’s garage with the now slightly second-hand Yamaha R1 is cringe-worthy at best. I suddenly empathize with Melodie’s feelings from a few hours earlier. I’m annoyed with myself for falling, but I know it further proves my point that the bike is too soft—something I feel I complain about every time I ride it.
As a result of my mistake, Jolanda never gets her second go at practice, but she’s attempting to be cool about it. Thank God for the stoicism of the Dutch.
That night, we are visited by Ludo, the former data guy from YART (Yamaha Austria Racing Team) and current Yamaha (YEC) race service manager. I show him on the Y-TRAC data from the R1 that something is up because traction control is cutting power to our bike even when there is 0 degrees of lean. He pulls all traction control out of gears four, five and six, and I go to sleep dreaming of big trap speeds.
Wednesday | Technical Checks and Rider Briefings
I experience the same anxiety I do every time I bring my gear through tech in France. The Snell tag in an American Arai is in a different place than a European version, and every time it seems to create confusion and a flurry of French words.
But in the end, I get my sticker and us girls take the rest of the day to hang out at a nearby beach and try to relax before the race week gets truly crazy.
Thursday | Things get real
Thursday morning starts out with a two-hour free practice session. Jolanda leads off and manages her best time yet around Paul Ricard, finally getting under the 2:01 mark. She is suddenly in agreement with me that the front end of our R1 is soft—a huge relief for me. Melodie is still struggling to get out of her head and ride, but I know she will be fine when the pressure is on. I better my times from the test a few weeks back and get down to a 2:00.4. I can’t understand why I’m having such a hard time on track with traffic when truthfully, we are closer to the bottom of the time sheets than the top.
After the free practice, all the girls agree that something isn’t right with the front end. Our team owner generally wants to keep things very standard and is reluctant to change, but we manage to get him over to the Ӧhlins truck to talk to a technician.
At this point, my good friend Phillipe from Beringer Brakes arrives, and I am beyond grateful to have a good translator. After much discussion, we pick a direction to head in, and Pierre agrees to revalve our shock and make some more changes to the front end. I’m cautiously optimistic for qualifying.
I’m up first in the blue group for qualifying—20 minutes to do my very best. Once again, I’m struggling with traffic when I finally realize the problem: everyone is simply looking for a tow. With the backstraight over a mile long, the draft is key. Still, it’s super annoying to have a really fast rider stuff the sh*t out of you and then sit up two corners later. Finally, I get a semi-clear go and can tuck in behind someone down the long back straight (where I get up to 202 mph!), and I come up with a 1:59.7. My next lap is looking even better when, naturally, a red flag comes out.
Melodie heads out next and posts a 2:02.223 when another team blows an engine in front of her, and she crashes in the oil at high speed. Luckily, she is uninjured but the bike and her confidence are bashed up. The team works hard to make repairs but there is no way Jolanda is going to make it out in time for her session. In any case, it starts to rain so she doesn’t actually miss anything.
The team manages to get the bike back together in time for us to make a couple laps of night practice on a half wet and half dry track. You know when you’re racing on a drying track and you’re straining to see what’s wet and what’s not? Try doing that in the dark. It’s super fun.
Friday | Just get on the grid
It’s Friday morning, and we have a second round of qualifying. Pierre comes to us with a worried look on his face. One of our bikes has been on its side three times. The engine is now starting to make a noise that is “tres etrange” (very strange). So, we are down to only one engine, a few spares, and very little time or room for mistakes. At this point, all he wants is for us to be sure that Jolanda is able to post a qualifying time. Translation: Don’t crash the bike, Melissa.
I’m under clear instructions to just go make sure the bike is okay so that Jolanda can do her thing. I’m disappointed because I know I can go faster, and I feel like we are right back to where we were before with “just getting on the grid” being the goal. But this is where we are.
Jolanda gets into the 2:01’s and the grid is set for race day. We are starting 52nd of 56 teams. I’m bummed because without the drama I know we could’ve been 10 positions higher.
Saturday | Race Day
After weeks of gorgeous weather, France has decided that winter starts today. It’s absolutely pissing rain. As the fastest qualifier on the team, it’ll be me that takes the start. Like all EWC events, the Bol d’Or kicks off with a Le Mans-style start.
As I do my parade lap, I see standing water at nearly every turn on the track, and I can see spray coming off the ground itself with every gust of wind. I’m standing across the track from my motorcycle, rain pouring on me, chuckling at the version of myself who used to lay in bed and dream of racing on the world stage. This suddenly seems very foolish.
Somehow, I survive the start and settle in. I’ll be honest with you, I’m not great in the rain. But I’m staying on two wheels and that feels like a small victory with the conditions. In the dry at Paul Ricard, you can expect to run out the 24-liter (6.3-gallon) fuel tank in about 50 minutes. I know with the rain and not being able to get the throttle open it’s going to be a long time before that orange fuel light pops on.
About 45 minutes in, I’m headed into turn one when I see waving yellow flags. Suddenly I see the guy in front of me nearly fall and I see what looks like a liquid rainbow spread from one side of the track to another. Someone has crashed and spilled fuel. And the river of water crossing the track has spread it. And it-is-slippery! I make it through and a safety car comes out. We all ride laps behind the safety car for about 30 minutes before my fuel light finally comes on. I head in and hand off the bike to Melodie.
Melodie rolls out on the track and soon the safety car pulls off. I head into the van where our physio tries to help unclench my shoulder muscles. Laying on the massage table I can hear the rain picking up. Melodie has been on track for nearly an hour at this point. I hear the announcers shouting excitedly in French, and the physio explains they are saying there have been several crashes and the safety car is back out. I am walking back into the garage, when a red flag comes out, bringing a pause to the race.
This hasn’t happened in 17 years.
6 p.m. | All action, no action
It’s a strange atmosphere in the garages. The hallmark of endurance racing is you just keep going, no matter what. No one knows what to do. All the bikes are sitting in a line on pit lane while we wait to hear what will happen. The first thing we hear from race direction is there will be no racing until at least 8:30 p.m. I can’t help but think of the fuel spill in turn one. Had that happened in the dark, no one would have seen it and it would’ve been absolute carnage.
Fast German Lucky Glockner, who gave Rennie such a hard time at Pikes Peak this year, heads over to our garage and she huddles with me and Melodie while we watch MotoGP on my laptop. Suddenly this 24-hour endurance race has turned into some sort of strange moto girl slumber party.
At 8:30 p.m., an announcement is made. Racing is suspended until 6 a.m., unheard of. I grab a blanket and try to sleep on the garage floor. As you can imagine, I don’t have a lot of success.
6 a.m. | Okay, let’s do this
At 6 a.m. Jolanda heads out to restart the race on a still very wet track. They deem it safer to do the restart behind the safety car. Judging by the lap times the track must be starting to dry. When she comes in, I am suited up and ready to go, but when she tells Pierre it’s time to change from rains to intermediates, he opts to have her do a double stint. His thought is that she knows the track conditions best. I’m not really seeing the logic, but at this point, I don’t mind waiting for things to dry out a bit more.
When she hands the bike to me, I head out to try to figure out the conditions the best I can. We’ve been steadily climbing the standings thanks to a lot of people falling off. I want to ride well, but at this point, I also want to finish. The track is starting to get dry. If you’ve never had the joy of running a rain tire on a dry circuit, I can tell you it’s nearly as sketchy as being on slicks on a wet track. But I figured the smartest thing to do is just suffer through it, so we don’t make an extra stop. Then Melodie will start her session on slicks.
About 45 minutes in, I’m exiting the fast right-hander off the backstraight and accelerating toward the next turn when I see a bike up ahead suddenly emit a big puff of smoke and go straight off the track. I thought to myself “be careful, there might be oil,” and I watch as the bike behind him crashes.
The problem with racing in the rain is that the plug in the belly pan has to be removed, so an engine failure almost guarantees oil on the racing surface. I can see the rainbow line of oil as I tip-toe through and wonder what will happen next.
The safety car comes out, and by the time I make it back around the track, two more bikes have fallen and are engulfed in flames. The wall of fire is also consuming the tire wall, and I can’t stop myself from laughing at the corner workers spraying at it with handheld fire extinguishers. It’s like trying to stop a wildfire with a squirt gun.
I spend another 20 minutes or so behind a safety car as 1500 more fire extinguishers are sacrificed until a fire truck rolls in and eventually puts the flames out. I can’t help but notice that cleaning up the actual oil seems like an afterthought at this point. Once again, my fuel light comes on while we’re still under caution, and I hand the bike off to Melodie.
Bringing it home
The rest of our race is uneventful. It’s also somewhat depressing. It turns out that all the most horrible things about endurance racing—the crippling fatigue, the screaming muscles, the stress on the equipment, the self-doubt—is actually what makes it fun. This just feels like doing a never-ending track day in crappy conditions.
Our team owner, Pierre, usually has a plan on who he wants to finish our races since it’s a pretty special feeling after such a crazy event. I figured that for sure he would want Melodie to do it, since she never has crossed the finish line in a 24 hour, although I think he’s feeling guilty about Jolanda missing some riding earlier in the week, so he wants to make it up for her. But the comedy of it is that, once again, she will pull a double stint to finish the race. I’m scratching my head a bit on that decision, but I don’t care much one way or the other.
Sitting in the airport headed home after a long week, I can’t help but laugh a bit at such a strange event. Have you ever watched previews for a movie that had you so excited to get to the theater, only to find out that all the best parts were in the previews? I feel like that’s a bit how my Bol d’Or went. We had so much promise going into it and a ton of drama in the early parts, but in the end, it wasn’t really a 24-hour race, and so I’m left feeling very unsatisfied. On the bright side, even though it seemed something out of the book of Revelations, the earth is still turning and I’ll get another go at it next year. CN