Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Franco Files: 1987 Yamaha New Model Intro

In November of 1986 Cycle Guide editor Jim Miller tapped me to go to France in early December to cover Yamaha’s 1987 new-model into. I’d never been out of the country up until then, nor had I ever been on the cover of CG. I’d be doing both very soon.

Some parts of that trip stand out in my memory more than others. Here are some of them, along with the story as it ran in the March 1987 issue of Cycle Guide.

* * * *

Our flight began in Los Angeles and ended in Marseilles after about 20 hours in the air and in various airports. When we got to the hotel in the seaside town of Bandol, it was early morning local time, and who-the-hell-knows internal-clock time. Several of us wandered around the wakening town in a daze looking for something to eat, and found a vendor selling roast-beef sandwiches out of a cart by the waterfront.

As I ate my sandwich I noticed an odd scent on the breeze. It was warm, heavy, totally unfamiliar and familiar at the same time. It seemed to be coming from the south. I looked that way and realized where it was coming from. Africa.

Africa. Right over there, across that short stretch of water. I was so struck with how far from home I was that I wouldn't be surprised if my jaw actually dropped.

I scrambled down a rocky slope to the beach and dipped my hand in the water of the Mediterranean and thought about all the history that had taken place on the shores of that sea. Greece. Egypt. Rome. I’d never been out of the U.S. before, and look where I was.

Suddenly there was a huge splash next to me. My jet-lagged colleagues were pitching rocks at me, and laughing like madmen.

And just like that, I was home again.

* * * *

We were sitting around a table at an outdoor café in some small town, talking about the old stone houses that lined the narrow cobbled street. Someone asked the French Sonauto rep how old they were, and he said, “Oh, many of them are very old.” One of the U.S. journos said he was from back east, where some of the house were 400 years old. The Sonauto rep laughed and said, “Here, the new houses are 400 years old.”

* * * *

We had dinner one night in a restaurant in Bandol. While we ate, a guitar player, maybe 17 years old, strummed away on a stool by the door. One of the journos thought it would be funny to get the kid drunk, and sent glass after glass of wine over to him. The kid had probably started drinking wine with his meals when he was seven, and just smiled and thanked the journo with each glass. By the time we left, the kid’s playing was still flawless, which was more than could be said for the journo’s walking.

* * * *

There was a sign on the wall of the Paris airport where we changed planes. It said, “Luggage left unattended will be instantly destroyed by the police.” As if to hammer the point home, there was no lost and found in the airport terminal.

* * * *

At a lunch stop lunch in Cannes, I was seated next to one of the French National Police officers assigned to escort us. He was wearing a stainless-steel revolver in a white leather holster. I asked him what type of gun it was, and to my surprise he pulled it out of the holster, popped open the cylinder, dumped the rounds on the table, and handed it to me. If I’d had any doubt that I was no longer in America, that dispelled it.

* * * *

The Mistral straight at Circuit Paul Ricard was about a mile long. I was about two-thirds of the way to the end of it when I glanced down at the speedo of the FZR1000 I was riding and saw the needle swing past the 165mph mark. Corrected for speedometer error, that was close to 160 actual. That’s the fastest I’ve ever gone on a motorcycle, and the fastest I ever care to. Since it had been only five months since I’d had a big crash at Willow Springs that took me several months to recover from, I decided it was also as fast as I needed to go for the rest of the trip. I came into the pits and handed the FZR over to someone else.

* * * *

Near the end of a banzai street ride from Bandol to Monaco, we stopped at a turnout overlooking the harbor of Monte Carlo. We could see almost the entire country from up there. I tried to pick out the streets that made up the track the Formula 1 cars ran on. Clem Salvadori was standing nearby, and since he spoke French I asked him to ask our French National Police escort to point it out.

They did better than that. After we crossed the border into Monaco, they led us on a couple of laps of the course, motioning slow cars out of the way so we could wick it up some on the straight bits. Do they have jurisdiction here? I wondered. I still don’t know. But I wasn't complaining.

* * * *

During an off-day in Monte Carlo a few of us went to Le Roche de Monaco (the Rock of Monaco), site of the palace of Prince Albert. We found a small restaurant nearby and went inside for lunch. One of us spoke a bit of high-school French and tried to order for everyone. The waitress waited patiently while he savaged her native tongue without managing to put together a coherent sentence. Finally she said, “Pizza for four and a pitcher of beer, is that right?” in near-perfect English. We would run into this phenomenon—French speakers who were reluctant or too embarrassed or contrary to speak English—several times during the trip.

* * * *

On our last night in Monaco we had a huge dinner in the hotel restaurant and later walked to the fabled Casino Royale. James Bond wouldn’t have recognized the place. I’ve since been in Indian casinos that would have shamed it. We handed over our passports at the door and were directed to a cavernous room that was half empty. At the far end were some gaming tables and slot machines.

I’m not a gambler, but I have no objection to watching other people gamble. A few of the journos sat down at a baccarat table and lost quite a lot of what they would later realize was not expense money, but their own money, since the casino didn’t give receipts for gambling losses, and their magazines’ accounting departments weren’t about to reimburse them for doubling down on a bad hand.

We were doing just fine there for a while, enriching the local economy, when somebody spilled a drink. On the felt baccarat table. In the middle of a hand. We were asked to remove ourselves, given back our passports, and shown the door.

* * * *

Before the trip we had all been sent an information sheet by Yamaha outlining the itinerary, the travel schedules, and what to bring, including attire suitable for formal occasions, which is to say a suit and a tie, not just an spare clean T-shirt.

I bought a suit, but I ran out of time and money before I found a pair of dress shoes. Which is how I ended up as the only guest in a luxurious five-star hotel to be seated at a lavish six-course dinner wearing new, shiny black Bates roadracing boots.

* * * *

A week after I got back to the office I filled out my expense report and turned it in. The next day the money guy walked up to my desk and tossed a small piece of paper on it. It was a 30-franc receipt from the Oceanographical Museum of Monaco, where I had spent a few hours looking at bizarre sea creatures in jars of formaldehyde.

“Your souvenir receipt got mixed up with the real ones,” he said, and went back to his office.

Hey, you can’t blame a guy for trying.

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