- MY 24 HOURS WITH A MAGIC MOTORCYCLE -
by Claudio de Ceola - © 2003 – CdeC – all rights reserved
He was amongst the chosen to represent the legendary Italian motorcycle marque Laverda in it's motorcycle endurance sport debut. For Claudio de Ceola, aka Dieter Reimann, it was an unforgettable experience which was to decisively influence his further life. (From KLASSIK MOTORRAD – Germany – No. 3 – July 2003)
Text: Claudio de Ceola (dedicated to Hans Hutten) – Pictures: van der Schalk, de Ceola, factory. Translation: Christiane Weissbach with kind permission of the Author.
Melville – Moby Dick
The sound of the engines now changed minute by minute as the fog became thicker.
Massimo Laverda took leave with the words: “You must understand this, I have wife and children.”
So the C-team made “Siesta at midnight”. They were right, but we, Hans Hutten and myself wanted to qualify here as official factory pilots and a race break didn’t really fit in this plan.
I only incidentally heard Massimo’s words as I was thinking about what I had to put up against these unrideable conditions. Like through the veil of a Fay we were already for quite some time separated from the real world.
Sight went towards zero and this at almost 200 kph on the start-finish-straight. Hans had taken over and I again was able to take a break of an hour which wasn’t a real one as the mechanics wanted to know all kinds of everything. Then I had to eat Müsli (cereal) and oranges. – “You know, this is good for your brain”, then I “had to” (pee), then check the watch. 15 minutes of “break” were already lost. Go to the caravan, have the leathers pulled off your shoulders, lie down – 20 minutes gone!
In fact it usually was the case that the respective rider came back to the pits after about 45 minutes.
Either the tank was empty, the clutch and brakes were adjusted, the chain tensioned or the taillight bulb had gone off again (and the organizers after two to three laps then showed the black flag), or the clutch hand suffered cramps and didn’t work for minutes. Or something else. Or everything at the same time.
The fog was cruel! Never before I had been on a bike with visibility of two meters – not even on the Autobahn. And this here was “De 24 Uur Van Oss”, on the only 3,1 km long race track and here it was to be decided whether we got a contract as factory racers for the following year.
The track consisted of a straight of approximately 1,2 km and the rest was eleven corners with beautiful but massive trees. Some trunks at the exit of the corners warmed themselves with bales of straw, as it had turned cold.
Till this day I never had to ride with my hearing and even less had I been counting while riding: “One, two, three – I bet – is the corner over yet?”
No, it wasn’t really like that, but while remembering and writing it down I well and truly have to grin. It wasn’t the case then!
The track had an unconventional layout. Next to the long start-finish-straight there were no trees but lantern poles. The following right-kink – a true bitch! The narrow corner closed up, then followed trees extremely close to the road and thereafter three queer squiggles. Again to the right, almost as bad, but after this arch it went on in snake lines, with real Laverda-acceleration up to the fifth gear in three or four outstretched wavy swings in a real alley up the right corner, which I had been riding through with drifting front and rear wheel before the fog came in. I had taken up this riding-style only within the past hours but now it didn’t work anymore.
It is incredible how close you can became friends with a corner if you meet her for the hundredth time.
Other tricks I had found in a surprise packet I had opened somewhere on the way. Between the trees – so to speak in the “alley” at the back of the track – the engine sounded different. When the “echo” there faded away these were the treeless last meters. Then I quickly counted to three and braked hard to catch the following right-hander. Corrections were possible in bright daylight according to the drift angle. But now, at “sight zero” I had to come up with something new: I simply inclined the bike and wobbled out of the corner until I transversally had a presentiment of the straw bales of the start-finish-straight. It is incredible how close you can become friends with a corner if you have met her for the hundredth time.
Then again flat out up to fifth gear. Check tacho and at 7000 start to count – now slower – one, two, three, four, and full braking. This was the normal right kink after the straight, and how such a thing was possible I don’t know anymore, but so or more or less like this I did it and it always worked in a way, because every corner, every tree, the waves and patches of the road, the sound of the echo of the trees and masts, the position of the straw bales, the sound of the generators, every braking, shifting gear, every angle of the wrist on the throttle – everything had been saved to my neural pathways. Clearly carved in, like pressed into a record, the groove of which I over and over again was listening to.
Massimo Laverda had thus truly earned his siesta. Especially even due to the fact that before the start on Saturday he had told me this silly nonsense in his staccato-spoken Italian-English:
"I have to tell you something! Can I speak from man to man?"
"You have never been racing long distance before, have you?"
"Listen and don't you forget! ‑ Well, this is probably going to be a tough race and listen ‑ you sure know how it feels good when you go to bed with your girl! "
I felt uncomfortable – what was this going to be?
"You know, in the night all alone on the motorcycle, you will feel like worn out to your bones ‑ and you want to stop it. You don't like it anymore at all, and when you really wish to give up and you are only thinking about a way to end all this and you have the desire to crash the motorcycle into something ‑ remember my words! And remember that it will be only a few hours more to be with your girl again and then you go to bed with her. You know? You must think this all the time then and not give up! -Will you really remember this?"
- - "Yes!" ??
For hours I now had been riding like a robot. At some stage "another me" had taken over and I was somehow remote-controlled by somebody. This would have been quite comfortable without the headaches.
Nonsense headaches! My brain was in pulsating movement. First it contracted and my vision did not even suffice to see the one or two meters – every now and then I even closed my eyes, because then the pain seemed to cease for a moment then it pressed against the front bones and the eyes wanted to protrude.
That was probably put down to the boundless exhaustion, the constant hard accelerating and braking and the crushing vibrations of the epicentre.
But I didn't reflect about this now. I just wistfully looked at the trees which at the end of every straight were my points of reference in the very last second. I would have to ride on like this eternally, for ever and ever, my whole life it would go on like this, and – I didn't want it anymore!
To stop and forsake Hans was unthinkable, but if I crashed this would not be a shame. How should they ever get to know that I had "given up"? No, I wouldn't have to be ashamed, they even would mourn over me….
Then I remembered Massimo's words.
Everything had started less dramatic, well, even with some scurrile interludes.
About a year before this race I had gone to Holland, looking for more race start opportunities. The tip I had received from Walter Sommer - at the time a renowned racer from Cologne. From him I had also learned to immediately, after hearing it in the news, run to the crash location of our wonderful "Starfighter" (a US combat-jet of the German army). Because if they again, not too far from Cologne, were stuck into some farmer's field, we could find pieces of Titanium and shreds of Dural, a high tensile-strength aluminium alloy, shattered in the fields. Most of the times the village kids would show us the way.
Fantastic materials to get wheel axles made on a lathe or make engine mounting plates. Everything stronger and lighter than serial parts.
Walter Sommer had also suggested I send his regards to Hans Hutten, a friend of his.
So one day I introduced myself to Hans. That was before the race in Rosmalen (near s'Hertogenbosch) which was to become my first race in the Netherlands and my first victory there.
Maybe this was not an overly lucky experience for Hans Hutten, the Dutch champion of the 500 cc class on his Norton. He, who was used to winning, finished second behind something like a "newcomer". He could have gained this impression after all my questions regarding spark-plug-values, gearing(front/rear sprocket), tyre pressures and so on.
But how big a heart he showed later, choosing me, against the explicit wish of the Dutch Laverda-importer Raymakers Import, as his team mate for the 24 hours! Raymakers would have very much preferred to have another Dutchman as co-rider. "I will only ride with Dieter" Hans had said to Jan Raymakers. "With him we will win, and that is more important than two Dutch names perhaps finishing amongst the backmarkers."
Unfortunately I never told Hans how grateful I was, but I think he knew. Even later I often realized his manly generosity. After "Rosmalen" I won the odd 500 race in Holland, and every time he congratulated me heartily.
So Raymakers had given me a call and invited me to the "24 Hours of Oss". We were lodging in an enchanting hotel. For me it felt this way, it was lying behind hedges of roses. I had built my own race bike, a Honda CB 490 RS – my own description, she had bigger pistons from Mahle but in fact measured only 485 ccm - in a long and cold winter out of a production CB 450. Luckily I had secured my own workshop. But it was practically impossible to heat.
If the "Bollerofen ", (tiny coal heater) after hours of running, had brought the room to minus five degrees Celsius I considered this warm and worked almost every night some hours on my Honda.
And now hopefully, I was on the way to become a factory pilot, including many mechanics who would take care of the motorbike.
Before, I had been talking about scurrile interludes. There were several.
When for example, with a completely serious face, Hans - who spoke to me in Dutch - was telling jokes. Of this the "Laverdas", Massimo and Piero, conversing only in English, didn't understand a word.
Or the first contact with the bikes – it must have been on Wednesday or Thursday before the "Monsterrace" – which went like this: "Okay, we can't practise on the racetrack but we would like to know how you get along with the engines."
Hans and I were thus brought to the fields outside Oss on a truck with two race bikes. There, on the sealed farm roads with mud and sand remains, we were to ride some laps under race conditions.
Hans looked slightly pale, however he only briefly swallowed and then beamed just as much as Massimo: "A great machine, fantastic, no problems!"
It turned out horribly! The paths were much too narrow and with the, for me completely unfamiliar, long wheelbase, high centre of gravity (full tank), poisonous brakes (Ceriani) and stretched riding position, I did not at all get on well.
Maybe I would have become used to some things with time, but after four or five laps Massimo Laverda already stopped us.
Certain of victory and beaming with pride he asked, luckily first Hans as I had truly feared to crash in this "suitability test" and sweat covered my brow: "Tell me, what is your first impression?"
At that time I didn't know that Hans was a real professional. He also looked a little pale, but just swallowed once and then replied, beaming just as much as Massimo: "A great machine, fantastic, no problems!"
So I recited this, however being very concerned about my inability (my Honda for sure weighed 60 kilograms less) I almost couldn't wait to talk to Hans. Confidentially I then asked him, terrified: "You can really ride that thing?" He slightly set me at ease – "If the others can ride it, we will also learn it. Believe me it's a question of habit. These things are simply too heavy and the riding position also isn't right. They should just bring the handlebars a little backwards, what do you think?"
The mechanics didn't speak any English and differences in mentality led to extremely grotesque situations
The next day it got to the point! Laverda had somehow managed to rent the track. This wasn't unfair as all the other 42 teams knew the track as well as they did their bikes. We didn't!
During the race we were to grow into a fantastic team. But at present it wasn't the case. Misunderstandings arose due to language problems – the mechanics didn't speak any English – but most of all differences in mentality lead to grotesque situations.
First of all we were introduced to the racing strategy of the House of Laverda, of course in English, which per se was awkward enough, because the "Italian English" is not without wit: "Well (because), we have of course the best and fastest engines. It is not necessary that you ride too risky. This is useless, the bikes suffer, and if you fall off, we lose too much time.
Very important is that you make your laps clean and consistent and don't push the Motorcycles too hard.
If during the race we always have a lead of several laps, this is enough! – Okay?
We have brought lights and will use them today. Especially for the new team! – Okay, first we all warm up a little and get used to the track. Then you come for a fuel stop and afterwards you try to race fast but smooth until you see green on the lights.
Of course we take the time of all riders. If we notice you are fast enough we show you green!
Once more: If you have found your rhythm and the lap times are in order, we hold up the team-marking (we had "A") on a board under the lights and show green. You can ride on for some laps like this and then come to the pits. – Okay?” – “Okay!”
“But listen! – Watch out! – If we show you red on the light, it means that you are pushing too hard! – You will break the engines! – You have to immediately ride more smooth again, until you see green. – Understand?” “Okay – understand!”
Of course I understood and had listened well, because this obviously was very important if it was repeated that often. I just had the bad luck to be sent on the journey as the first. The reputation of Hans was out of question, it was just me who had to show I was worthy of riding a Laverda. At least I perceived it as such.
In fact Hans had been right! After maybe twenty laps, probably due to the handlebars brought backwards, the world looked much rosier and I began to leer at the lights while my 750 S roared past start and finish.
"Nothing? – Well it will come." I rode a bit faster and slight doubts were stalking upon me: "I'm not riding that bad! Exactly how they told me, fast and smooth."
No green! And I stepped up the pace! In three consecutive phases and every time for several laps and in every lap faster and faster.
First the Laverda upon accelerating out of the corners slid on the back wheel. This went so for several laps. – "No green!" Then she almost stood crosswise in the corners. – "Again nothing!"
Then my girlfriend – meanwhile we knew each other and I rode her like a good friend, fast and hard-tender - started to drift with both wheels.
"No green!" now I unintentionally started an orgy: "I'm too slow!" – "They are not going to take me!" – "Everything or nothing!"
The fact that I had passed Brettoni and Ritzitelli several times I didn't even notice at all, really! Even in later races and other challenging situations I noticed: Something is polarised inside my head in a way that it switches to "Emergency" when I have big fear or am under high tension. I focus all my senses and energies in order to cope with the situation and don't see anything else but my task.
The whole Laverda-team, the mechanics and the "bosses" pulled me off the bike and threw me high in the air
The Laverda was truly a magical motorbike. In the following laps she slid – and in the meantime I basically found this to be completely normal – both wheels. I quickly learned to apply this in a controlled way, but now I was completely desperate! – "Again no green!"
Suddenly I really felt sick! In races most of the times I did ten to twenty percent above the limit! This however now were fifty percent above the limit. I couldn't squeeze out more, more wasn't possible! The trees at the exits of the corners in several laps I only just missed and I built up a holy rage. "You can all kiss my arse… I'm riding well!"
If I had had a club I would have slain them. Instead I put on the Janis Joplin record – "Me and Bobby McGee" – and began to sing.
I was now riding in the final stage of my tantrum and was just about to start with "Piece Of My Heart". For a moment I thought about simply slamming HER together with myself and the heart of Janis at the end of the straight.
“Fast and smooth? – Idiots!” – I was riding like a maniac. “Show me red! – Please, show me red!”
Luckily the engine right away started to run just on one cylinder. "Engine over-revved" I thought. But it was only an empty tank. When I reached the pits, there was still no green there, but also no red for me, because the whole Laverda-team, the mechanics and the "bosses", pulled me off the bike, lifted me up and in fact threw me in the air. Ever so pleased they were!
I had been riding the best times and nobody could understand why I wasn't happy as well and didn't celebrate with them. I came back like from another world and repeatedly asked them why they had not been showing me green. They didn't know! And seemed not to understand the meaning of my question. "You have been riding so fantastic and ever faster and so neat ("ha-ha"), what should we have been showing you?"
That’s how it was with the Italians – today I consider this as lovable!
Back now to our race. We were the fastest and led from the first lap. Basically this is the idea behind, but we were also caught in a trap. This however we only realized later.
The race was started on Saturday afternoon. After we had been rolling for quite some time with full stake and had reached a respectable advantage, the first small problems came up. Cables broke, the chain had to be changed, the brake- and clutch-lever to be adjusted and greased and so on and so on. Thus we lost some time and a little Honda 350 (Henk Rekers/Jan van der Wal) slowly sneaked up, because she ran just steady on with only tank stops and without other "breaks".
The problem intensified and at some stage became threatening when it started to get dark.
We had to become faster in order to ward off the Hondas. Then at midnight this diabolic fog started to come up
It was Laverda's first long distance competition and there was a lot to learn. Especially the tail light didn't behave in a cooperative way. It had just one bulb and this was very often murdered by the vibrations. In later races they built in three bulbs, I learned. Also the throttle cable was only single laid and when it broke it took much too long to repair it. I can't clearly remember other failures but there were some more minor things. Of course every now and then the wheels had to be changed with new tyres and brakes.
We therefore at half time of the competition (and already slightly used up) had to become ever faster to ward off the Honda. Then shortly before midnight this diabolic fog started to creep up.
The radio station "KRO-Radio" broadcasted the "Monster-Race" live into all of The Netherlands and they had bestowed me – picked up by the track-reporter – the beautiful name "The German Devil" ("De Duitse Duivel").
But this was not quite suitable because as a devil I would have asked THE BOSS to somewhat clear up the fog.
Some people are surprised if they all of a sudden and without prior warning step across the border of the metaphysical. I was also surprised that night, as I had my first experiences in this direction, and some of it even today feels transcendental.
I think there was also a class of up to 250 ccm. Anyway during daylight we overtook several bikes on the straight with a remarkable difference in speed. During the night and especially in the night-and-mist-period the difference in speed became distinctively bigger. We certainly were not overly weary of life but we had been leading the race for such a long time that it would have seemed like a double defeat, to be beaten now, (To our taillight bulb it seemed to make no difference how fast we rode. One time it felt like working only for five laps and then it beamed for fifty laps.)
Hans and I in fact nearly flew extraterrestrial through the night. In front of me for example constantly appeared some flickering red candles, but we weren't in Amsterdam in "this district", were we? Still today I sometimes think about how we about a hundred times or more have been passing these almost "standing" motorcycles.
For just the bat of an eyelash on my right shoulder in the fog shadows appeared. They were overlapped riders.
To help I have offered myself some "logical" explanations. How Hans did it I don't know, but in this fog on the straight I kept hard to the left, probably in the hope that slower colleagues remained right, and with the thought to perhaps hobble just alongside the track on the narrow stretch of grass.
But this never happened. However it happened several times, even though for just a bat of an eyelash, that at my right shoulder a massive shadow appeared.
The guys who took the times and counted the laps have as well been quite obfuscated in this fog-night. One time at the pits I heard something about 13 laps of lead, then all of a sudden it was only 7 laps which was little on this short track.
Anyway, shortly before the end of the competition and in bright sunlight again, a valve ripped off in our engine. I remember it all too well! It happened while Hans was riding but it could just as well have happened to me. The truly extraterrestrial chief-mechanic Nino Caretta had only just opened the engine, but too much was destroyed.
This guy was the personification of calm, however he worked like an especially quick squirrel.
Somewhere I've read that all three Laverdas failed around 8:30 in the morning. – This is not true!
It was Massimo's bike that gave up at this time. On his engine however they managed to fix the motor and so they made fourth place.
At what time the second Laverda failed I can't remember, but ours ran till around ten or eleven.
In fact Hans had snapped the chain at 8:30 and he had to push our girlfriend almost around the whole circuit.
This maybe cost us the victory. I mean, the Honda had come in front of us due to this massive time-loss and during the chase eventually the tacho needle hit the red line. As it was so close to the end of the race, Caretta couldn't carry out the repair. I seem to remember him having tears in his eyes.
We were standing there, Hans and I, both hopelessly depressed. And again it was Hans who after a while tried to cheer me up: "You know what, we'll fix it next year!"
And I, who had given away my soul for Laverda and who would have almost given more for a career as factory pilot answered: "Hans, I can't make it a second time!"
Still to this day I'm grateful to Laverda for this race full of fantastic experiences and events. And I may say: These 24 hours have influenced my future life. I have little respect for the "impossible" and have later encountered other miracles.
I may say: These 24 hours have influenced my life, and since then I have little respect for the "impossible"
One year later Laverda took all three podiums in Oss a prelude to countless Laverda race sports successes. With Brettoni/Dossena in first place, Hutten/van der Wal finished second and Somers/de Laat third to cross the finishing line.
Hans Hutten/Piet van der Wal had been leading by four laps until close to the end of the race. Due to a broken chain they lost six laps but managed to almost catch up to the winners with a difference of one lap.
“Steal the light out of the snake’s jaws!”
“Raube das Licht aus dem Rachen der Schlange!”
CONTACT Claudio de Ceola:
Factory-Teams: Team “A“: Hans Hutten (NL)/Dieter Reimann (D) number 29
Motorcycle: LAVERDA 750 S race version (predecessor of the 750SFC)
Chiefengeneer: Luciano Zen
Chiefmechanic: Nino Caretta
Race track: OSS/Netherlands, Length 3.1 km, straight 1.2 km the rest corners
Average speed: about 125 kph, fastest laps about 145kph
Tatal number of laps: about 1.000.
Total distance: about 2.900 km
Spectators: about 64.000
Should anybody have access to additional information concerning this race and the following endurance races in Oss, or know about pictures and movies or interviews, radio or press reports, I would kindly ask for the respective piece of advice.
I also search for posters, programmes or the like.
At the time of the race I did not yet have an international racing-license. In order not to be banned from competitions in Germany, most of the times in the Netherlands and Belgium I raced under the name of Dieter Reimann.