I was only a kid when the Bol d'Or was an almost required pilgrimage for British sportsbike enthusiasts in the 90s. But when my Dad brought it up I was onboard straight away - endurance racing interests me - and I was keen to experience the legendary atmosphere in the campsites surrounding the Paul Ricard circuit.
The only issue was sorting a bike to ferry me and a week’s worth of camping gear to the south coast of France. Enter the Suzuki GSX-R1000. Not the most sensible choice, especially considering I’m generally not a fan of sportsbikes. But I chose the Suzuki for two reasons.
Number one; with a new GSX-R1000 around the corner, loaded with all sorts of electronic rider aids and trickery, the current GSX-R - along with the current Fireblade - is the last of the analogue sportsbikes. It has ABS and rider modes but that’s it. No traction control, no wheelie control. It’s as basic a superbike as you can buy in 2016.
Number two; The Suzuki Endurance Racing Team (SERT) are the reigning Endurance World Champions, and the Bol d’Or is the first round of the 2017 season (the World Endurance Championship now runs over winter).
My only major worry with the GSX-R was balancing my 80 litre rollbag on the Suzuki’s tailpiece. Surprisingly, despite its size, the bag sat on the back well with just four bungees. The GSX-R has bungee hooks on the pillion peg hanger. Try doing that on your ultra-focused R1. Before the trip I adjusted the pegs to their lowest position to help accommodate my lanky 6’1” frame.
Usually I’m uncomfy and fed up with sportsbikes after an hour, but the GSX-R kept aches at bay on day one. That is, until, the satnav took us through the centre of Paris in rush hour. Within minutes my wrists were screaming and my lower left arm was in agony from a clutch lever that was set way too high. I was close to parking up and calling it a day. We soldiered on to Vierzon for the night, and I was pleasantly surprised by how the GSX-R coped with the motorway, and how well my arse coped with the best part of a day in the saddle.
The longest day of 500 miles - from Paul Ricard to Troyes - was also the wettest, but at the end of the day I still felt incredibly fresh. The double bubble screen does a good job of keeping the wind off, minimising fatigue, but it was no match for the torrential rain. The GSX-R is surprisingly good on fuel, too. Averaging 49.8mpg over the course of the trip, with a best of 56mpg. An average tank range of 131 miles. Impressive.
Covering high miles day after day can be dull, but the GSX-R added a little bit of fun and mischief. Pulling out of service stations I’d hang back, keeping the GSX-R in first and then giving it a good fistful of throttle. The front wheel would reach for the clouds as I clicked into second, third. There’s nothing quite like the top end rush an inline four provides.
I’m still wouldn't say I'm a fan of sportsbikes, they’re just not for me. Something I like the idea of rather than the reality. The GSX-R almost converted me to the sportsbike way during the trip, but not quite. There’s no doubt the new GSX-R1000 will be a technological marvel, capable of insane performance on a track. But I somehow doubt it will be as comfy and useable as the outgoing model. And it certainly doesn’t look as good. Put some adjustable bars on the outgoing GSX-R and a slightly comfier seat and I’ll be much happier.
What about the Bol d’Or?
I had no idea what to expect from the Bol. I’d seen Youtube videos from years gone by of bikes with no exhausts being held on the rev limiter until they explode. But that doesn’t happen nowadays, does it? Yes, it does. And only at night when you’re trying to sleep. Take ear plugs.
It's a throwback to the mad days of the '90s and early '00s, when sportsbikes were king, and the faster and louder everything was the better. A time that, until now, I had only vicariously experienced through old VHS tapes and Youtube videos.
The racing itself is equally odd. The Le Mans style start is no doubt exciting, as are the first two laps, but after that it’s hard to know what’s going on. It’s not like a normal race with a set number of laps, and so overtakes may not make any difference to the standings. It might be difficult to watch, but there is a certain romance to watching the bikes circulate in the dead of night. Sitting at the end of the 1.8km long Mistral straight, watching the tiny headlights appear in the distance, slowly growing in size and brightness as they eerily edge towards you like shooting stars is a special sight.
The best way to enjoy the Bol is to turn up with a big group of mates and plenty of drinks, and treat it like a festival. The roads leading up to the Paul Ricard are among the best I’ve ridden. Super smooth with a good mix of second gear hairpins and long sweeping bends.
SERT kicked off the 2017 endurance season where they left off, with a victory, proving there’s certainly life in the old GSX-R yet.
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