Riding Mettet with Walker and Whitham
Whitham walks into the packed hospitality tent and flops into a plastic chair. In front of him, on his placemat, he plonks down a small grey tub.
He’s looking pretty knackered, but it doesn’t stop Walker asking the obvious question:
" What the bloody hell’s that? "
" It’s skin cream for me arse-crack, " whispers James, his version of a whisper echoing off nearby buildings, " These supermotos are rubbing me arse up a treat – that’s got real zinc in. Should do the job. "
The table falls silent, as does most of the tent.
This is hardly normal dinner conversation – but this is hardly a normal race meeting. Within seconds the drone of voices resumes and everything’s back to normal. As normal as it gets here.
Welcome to the village of Mettet. Most of the year it masquerades as a small country village in the heart of rural Belgium, but for a few weekends a month the tiny settlement shows its true colours. Racing colours.
The closest comparison is the Isle of Man on TT weekend. But the atmosphere on the island – although huge – is spread out over a 37mile course. Here, the track is barely a mile long and it’s lined by over 25,000 inebriated Euro-trash wannabes. It’s so different that comparing it to any other race is a grave injustice.
Mettet has got a flavour all of its own. Where else do you find a racetrack that includes a jump and a dirt section? This is what Supermoto is all about. Bikes that can race just about anywhere. Here in Mettet, that means down the local high street, around the Esso station and through the park. And around a building site too.
And when MCN got offered the chance to race in such a crazy event, just how could we refuse?
So with hours to spare we set about getting our test rider Kev Smith an international race licence and the necessary insurance. With some international level jiggery-pokery, Kev’s CV now reads as thus: MCN Road tester, National Motorcycle Racer and International All-Terrain-Vehicle/ Quad Driver.
Thanks to some interesting ambiguities and interpretations, we find to our surprise that an effectively over-the-counter International Quad licence allows our man to race an international Supermoto event.
Austin Clews – the ‘C’ in CCM – had offered us a bike and a place in the CCM Factory Squad as a Factory Rider, so all the pieces were in place. We were to meet them in the pits on Saturday morning for qualifying and be the fourth man in their team. This already included British Supermoto racer Warren Steele, French Supermoto Champion Stephane Mezard and Ex-BSB and GP rider Chris Walker.
Walker had been more than happy to step into Foggy’s shoes when the inimitable Lancastrian spanked himself up practising for Mettet at Anglesey.
Walker wasn’t the only big name in attendance though.
Fellow road-racers Stephane Chambon and James Whitham had made the trip amongst a few others. Chambon, who has already won the event five times and is a former European Supermoto champion, looks the firm favourite. He might not be setting the world alight aboard his World Superbike Alstare Gixxer, but the tiny Frenchman is not to be underestimated here. Not only is he bringing years of experience and bucket-loads of talent, he also has a seriously trick, 470cc, titanium-laden Suzuki DRZ400. Whitham has been given a 455cc Yamaha YZ426 by his employers as well as what appears to be half the Belgarda Supersport mechanics. Other famous names include Motocross world champions Stefan Everts, Fred Bolley and Joel Smets.
The entire weekend is led on the Starbiker Challenge. This is the sole domain of the celebrities and is a team event, Team Vitesse vs. Team Cross. The two teams compete for points in their race on Sunday – at least that’s the plan. But the truth be known, these international superstars are here for fun. Team tactics are a distant memory and when the flag drops… it’s a race. Pure and simple.
Now we love Kev quite a lot – it’s hard not to respect a bloke who can powerslide an R1 with enough pizzazz to make Haga worry – but unfortunately he’s not quite an international superstar yet.
As such, we were introduced to the dirtier, earthier side of things at Mettet. The real racing.
Those who arrive here bereft of a works contract and lacking a factory machine enter in the Superbiker race proper. Here, you attempt to qualify throughout the weekend into the final grid of 18 who line-up in the final race of the weekend against the celebrity Starbikers. With 160+ Supermoto nutters to compete against, Kev would have his work cut out to line-up with his pal Walker in the final race.
We arrive at signing on bright and early, there are only a couple of people in the queue. The signing-on office is based rather amusingly in Le Bar Paradise – the village pub. We look on, horrified, as some of the locals order their first round of the day.
One of them catches my staring eye, and apparently exhausts his entire knowledge of the English language in one sentence: " Bier blonde, is good! You want a little? "
Err… no, thanks!
The lady behind the desk tells us in broken English that our paperwork is wrong and that she doesn’t have Kev in her list of riders. In England, this would be Game Over. But before I even start to argue, she smiles and hands us press passes and tells us to get over to the pit lane. These Belgians like bureaucracy as much as I do!
We make our way through Paddock B – the privateer’s paddock – in search of the posher Paddock A and the CCM race transporters. As we make our way down the start-finish straight, only one-word manages to make the difficult journey from my tired brain to my dehydrated mouth.
" Wheelie! " I blurt.
For one moment, I realise that the only person not wheelying is me! Kids on bicycles, blokes on scooters, even the competitors riding between Paddock B and the Scrutineering block are all firmly on the back wheel.
The CCM enclosure sticks out like a sore-thumb and we park up behind it. Within seconds we’re chatting to Austin Clews. But before we can get a word in edgeways, one of Chris Walker’s crew is trying to sell us the front tyre on Kev’s sparkling silver R30.
" Before you ask, " he quickly interjects, " these Goldspeeds are brilliant tyres, we use them on trackday bikes all the time – they’re excellent. "
As quick as he appeared, he’s gone again to fuss over Walker’s custom-painted ‘Stalker’ R30.
Without a word, Kev and I crouch and look at the front tyre. ‘Goldspeed by Maxxis’ proclaims the sidewall.
" Maxxis? " questions Kev.
" Sorry mate, " I say, " That’s Cheng Shin "
Now, I’m not knocking Cheng Shin. I had a pair on my 125cc learner bike. They were great, they lasted nearly 12,000 miles and cost less than twenty quid each – but these aren’t the qualities I normally associate with race tyres.
A quick glance into the CCM tent reveals everyone else is running expensive wets or cut-slicks. Not a great start.
Signing-on was the same insult to bureaucracy that we experienced in Le Bar Paradis. It was a mere formality and within seconds we were chatting with the Circuit Director Freddy Tachyner. As we were speaking, I saw the sign above the main straight. Circuit Tachyner.
Turns out, Freddy’s dad was the founder of the track all the way back in 1925. It’s been a family love ever since, he tells us…
But we don’t have time to for a sepia-toned vision of the past. A trip down memory lane is the last thing on Kev’s mind. He’s got his numbered vest, we saw CCM-shirts leading bikes into scrutineering on the way to the race-office, and we’ve less than twenty minutes ‘til free practice. We make our polite excuses and almost run back to the pits.
Kev’s bike is parked all on it’s own outside the team pits. The gathering crowd has begun to mill around it and Kev goes to check the situation inside.
" Is it ready then? " he asks one of the many mechanics.
" Nah, you’d better get your mechanic to take it over to scrutineering… "
Hold on a minute, I’m a journo, not a mechanic. But the words are never said, I pocket my pen and pad and start pushing.
As I join the queue of brightly coloured machines with Kev stood silent next to me, only four words spring to mind.
" Factory rider, my arse. "
Kev’s stood next to Walker chatting. I’m stood a couple of feet away, trying not to be rude whilst still listening to the conversation. Amazingly, neither of the pair seems to be able to make much sense of the machines. Kev’s free and timed practice sessions passed in a whirl of smoke, dust and much faster riders overtaking regularly.
" I was stalling and missing gears, " says Kev, " I spent half of my time waiting for the rest of the pack to run me over. Everything I’ve learnt about riding road bikes is out of the window "
Walker just nods in agreement. " I was just riding it like a ‘crosser, " he admits, " I was stood up on the pegs for most of the lap I reckon, that motocross section’s hilarious though! "
The look on Kev’s face shows it to be less than hilarious for him.
" I was overtaken by one bloke still in the air, " He mutters.
If Kev had managed to qualify in the top 50 lap times, we’d be guaranteed a place in the semi-finals tomorrow. Both Warren and Stephane have qualified this way, but no such luck for Team MCN.
The competition is intense, and Kev might be good, but he’s never raced Supermoto before and only saw the bike for the first time today. He’d have to scrap for his place in tomorrow’s races this afternoon alongside another hundred or so desperate nutters.
By this time, we realise that Kev’s never going to make the big final. Sure, on tarmac he drifts it like a pro. In the last-lap wheelie competition he styles it up like a god – but he’s losing it all on the dirt.
I confirm this when a couple of enthusiastic readers nudge me in the back on lap-timing duties.
" Is that Kevin Smith out there? " asks one.
" Yeah, he’s doing well isn’t he? " I offer…
" Aye, he’s OK here, but you go and watch him on the dirt, man. He’s riding like a pansy. See you later! "
Kev and I go for a walk before lunch to try and figure it all out. We end up at the end of the main straight watching the Starbikers larging it up in one of their 25-minute practice sessions.
Stephane Chambon sweeps past, skimming our barrier with his stepped-out back wheel at over 70mph, one foot on the deck. Little kids are leaning over the barrier desperately trying to touch their hero – a touch that would doubtless see them taking their socks off to count to ten. Fred Bolley is next past, and he’s caning the tits off his tiny CR250, before drifting it sideways with even more flair than Chambon. Both these guys look calm and relaxed as they squeal past. They’re braking normally, to the limit of the tyres, before pulling the clutch in and shifting from top gear down to second in one shot. They then force the slide by slipping the clutch. The extra engine braking makes the wheel slide over the tarmac, but doesn’t stop it spinning – it’s effectively spinning just a few mph less than the ground rushing past. This allows the gyroscopic force of the wheel to keep the bike upright and the tyre stays flat against the floor at all times. By the time they’re at the apex, the gear and wheel speed is matching the tarmac’s speed – and it’s all in line again. It’s Beautiful.
When Walker comes past though, the crowd cheers that little louder. He’s stood on the bike, sliding it into the corner by dint of sheer effort. Both tyres hop and squeal in protest, but he’s having none of it and just forces the bike around before grabbing a handful of throttle and exiting the corner sideways.
Kev and me just stand awestruck.
If Kev’s going to make the cut in the afternoons races we need some serious help. Maybe if we sit next to Walker and Whitham at lunch, Kev might pick up some of their off-road skill?
Unfortunately, world-class skill and experience can’t be caught like the common cold. And the Walker/Whitham duo are having a bit too much of a laugh to offer any serious advice.
" It’s bloody hilarious this, " chortles Walker through a mouthful of water, " It’s so much fun I nearly wet myself "
" You’re telling me! " shouts Whitham
How’s the bike, James?
" Like me! Bloody shite! " he laughs, " Nah, you should see these little bastards go in the Italian championship! They bloody motor for such small things. Mind you, I can’t stop my crew from cleaning it! The moment I come in they pull out the rags. ‘Oi!’ I shout, ‘It’s a bloody dirt bike – it’s meant to be bloody dirty!’ Do they listen? Do they f***! "
By this time, James’ wild arm movements and super-loud Yorkshire voice have reduced the table to tears and I realise we shouldn’t take it so seriously. I say as much to Walker and Kev.
Walker nods, but points out: " When the flag drops – it’s still a race. And I’m a racer. "
Sat in the hotel bar, Kev’s still happy. He didn’t qualify for tomorrow’s shoot-out, but he still gets to race in the Consolation Challenge – a race for those still dreaming of the big-time.
While we’re sipping Hoegaarden, 20-miles from the track, the action in Paddock B has hardly started. Last year, the English and Irish racers liberated a moose’s head from the local bar’s wall, which they then ‘rode’ around the track.
Determined to upstage any attempts by the locals, one of the privateer Brits – who shall remain nameless – rides his scooter straight into the bar and proceeds to do a big, smoky burnout indoors. By the time he leaves, the scooter has three extra passengers. Quite how they stay on remains a mystery, but the nightmare ride around the circuit culminates in them approaching the jump flat-out, the belly scraping on the floor. The stowaways manage to bail out before the scooter hits the ramp proper, but the pilot still crashes hard enough to rule himself out of Sunday’s race…
Meanwhile, Kev and I have retired to our room. Only to find we’re neighbours with Whitham and his partner-in-crime ‘Schuey’. We barricade the doors and check the locks on the shared veranda before slipping nervously to sleep.
KEV’S left the pits, after performing some last minute maintenance on the slightly dusty CCM. It’s his one race of the day, and his only chance to prove to himself that his journey wasn’t wasted.
After a great start, he finds himself punted headfirst into the tyre wall. He stays on, but the delay sees him back to nearly 30th on the next lap. But he plugs away and finishes 13th, raising a cheer every lap as he backs it in to the first corner. Only Kev and the race-winner are looking so stylish. But the winner – British lad Dean Hemmings – combines style with speed and it shows.
When Kev sits down in the CCM tent at lunchtime, it’s all over for him. But for Chris and James it’s all starting to heat up.
The crowd is here in force, straining against barriers and darting across the track at the most inopportune of moments. Every Belgian seems to carry a scar on their face and drink incessantly – even the ladies. Spectators keep pulling down CCM’s tape and filling the area behind the race truck. Their lack of respect for paperwork is easily equalled by the lack of respect for barriers. When some odds and sods start disappearing, it starts to turn nasty. The police arrive with dogs and pistols, but the crowd still takes a while to disperse.
We take a seat on top of the hospitality truck – and away from the fights – to watch Warren and Stephane battle to make the final. The racing is spectacular. Only the top-three earn the right to line up with the Stars.
Stephane shows us all why he’s the French factory rider, and leads from start to finish. For scouser and nightclub bouncer Warren, the fight is a tough one. And it nearly ends up in a brawl. Going from 36th on the grid to 6th in just one lap is no mean trick, but Warren manages it thanks to some creative elbow-work worthy of a world championship Thai boxer. One begrudged victim waits an entire lap just for Warren to lap him, before pulling out and trying to punch him off. Warren only finished 6th, with fellow Brit Leighton Haigh trailing, but dodging the marshals he manages to put on a five minute stunt show on the main straight. The crowd goes wild, so the marshals just shrug and let him get on with it.
While the rest of the team congratulated Stephane and commiserated with Warren, I stole a minute to wish Chris good luck with the Starbiker race.
" I’m a bit worried, " he admits, " But I’m so pumped now, I’m just gonna give it everything! It’s too much fun not to. "
I scramble back on to the roof to watch the race and am rewarded for putting up with my precarious position by watching Walker come 6th in the celebrity race. He actually hole-shotted the start, only to run wide and let the pack through again. The only road-racer faster was Chambon – and he won it by a country mile. Ahead of Chris were three motocross world champions, so to do so well was a real result for him. Whitham finished 9th and made up for the result with some superb donuts and stoppies.
Back in the hospitality tent, the two were so pumped you could almost smell the endorphins.
This is it. The big final. In with the celebrities were the European Supermoto regulars and a handful of talented individual – all of whom had made it here on their own credit.
The Whitham and Walker duo were slightly more nervous now.
" This is fookin’ serious now, " moans Whitham, " ’Av you seen’em? All bloody elbows and knees into every corner! Watching them just makes me even more worried. And have you seen them on the dirt? Fookin’ scary… "
He trails off, a worried frown on his face.
Walker fills the silence: " It’s only a bloody race "
Whitham picks up his arse-crack cream and disappears to ready himself, while Walker starts fitting extra tear-offs to his goggles.
Once again, I overcome my fear of heights and perch on top of the truck to watch the grand final. The sun is setting, and the smoke from the grid is pretty thick and it creates a scene like I’ve never witnessed. It strikes me that this is what we’ve got after separating the wheat from the chaff. All these guys are gob-smackingly quick – and they’ve got the guts to back it up in the race. The race is spectacular. But it turns to a nightmare for the CCM team within a few laps. Walker is battling for 13th with one of the ‘regulars’. Stephane Mezard – CCM teammate – is pushing Walker for his position. But with true Walker grit, Chris is really making him work for it. I open my mouth and start to form the words " It’ll all end in tears " , when it does. For Stephane at least. Elbow to elbow, the pair enter a tight right-hander completely locked-up and upright. With a final nudge, Walker stays on and Stephane bites the dust. Big style.
He’s down, hay bales strewn around him, for nearly three laps – one of which Chris actually out-brakes himself and gives both the marshals, and himself a fright.
It was only Stephane’s back that had clicked though, and he was soon up and cheering Walker on from behind the barriers. No hard feelings – crashing’s part of the game when the racing’s this close.
It’s last year’s Superbiker champion and European Championship leader that eventually takes the win, a quick chap called Jurgen Kunzel aboard a beautiful titanium-grey KTM.
But Walker’s still happy.
" To come here, on such a big, heavy bike, with only 20 laps practice back home, and do this well is brilliant. What a weekend! It’s all gone so well – I even got a call off Kawasaki in Germany. The paperwork for my WSB deal is at home in the fax! I’m beaming! "
But what about James?
" I had a bit of argy-bargy with a couple of regulars. Fookin’ lairy it were! Anyway, I came off. Took nearly a lap to restart the bloody bike. When I looked behind me, I saw the leaders about to lap me. I thought, " I’ve had my fun, I’m off home! "
My thoughts exactly as I packed the bike just five minutes later and headed for the ferry.