Ryder Notes: Ars longa, vita brevis --Hippocrates
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There is a drawing of a Ducati pit garage in the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art. This is how it got there. It involves getting drunk with Hakan Carlqvist, and also features Fred Merkel

Sometime in 1993, my successor as editor of MotorCycle International magazine, Tom Isitt, got a phone call from someone called John Berger offering him a ‘short essay’ about motorcycling. Now Tom was a voracious reader and not unfamiliar with art and culture—hell, he’s the only motorcycle journalist I know who regularly went to the opera. He knew Berger’s name but couldn’t quite work out why, so he took him for lunch in a cheap pub near the office and it was decided that as John lived in the south of France he would write something about the Bol d’Or. Later, someone wondered aloud if this was the same John Berger who’d won the Booker Prize, the UK’s top award for fiction. It was.

Bloody hell. We’re going to need to find something special to go with his words.

Back in January an old friend had died, we’d worked together when I first moved to London in the late ‘70s and later she’d designed Road Racer magazine for me. Her son, Andrew Gadd, was a very promising young artist, and by promising I mean he’d just won the Royal Academy Gold Medal for Painting. Americans need to know that the RA has been going since 1768 and if you get in there as a student you’re good by definition. If you win the gold medal… The RA awards that medal 50 times a century by the way. He seemed a good fit. I neglected to mention to Andrew whose words he’d be illustrating.

So early one morning Andrew and I piled into photographer and old racing fellow traveler Kel Edge’s BMW and prepared to head south. Just as we were about to get rolling Andrew asked who’d be writing the feature: ‘John Berger.’

‘What, the John Berger who writes about art?’

‘I think so, likes bikes, got a Honda, rides it around the Pyrenees and lives in the mountains somewhere in France, that John Berger.’

I was then acquainted with the fact that Mr Berger wasn’t just a novelist, he was a pre-eminent art critic, the writer of the first warts-and-all biography of Picasso, his ‘Ways of Seeing’ formed the basis of a landmark series on the BBC, and he’d also founded an avant-garde theatre company. That’s beside winning the Booker Prize.

Bloody hell.

By the time Andrew had explained this, we’d gone too far to go back and fetch his portfolio. He’d have to face the great man with an empty sketch book. He was polite enough not to complain, and had only one more tense moment when we passed Cezanne’s family home on the Autoroute du Soleil too quickly for him to sketch Mont San Victoire.

Kel and I had a long-standing agreement never to start a 24-hour race with a hangover, a rule we broke with 100% efficiency. Friday night before the race, said Kel, he always took Ulla, the Ohlins truck driver, down to Bandol for a meal. He’d been stuck up at Ricard for days so needed a break. And he wanted to bring a friend. No problem. As we pulled up by the truck Ulla emerged with his friend. ‘Bloody hell, that’s Hakan Carlqvist!’ As in the double world motocross champion, tamer of the Yamaha ‘motor of death,’ and one of the fastest, toughest competitors anyone had seen—a Wayne Gardner on knobblies. And he just looked like a stocky, shortish Swede with a surprisingly gentle voice and a lisp. Slightly disconcerting when you’d expect the Viking God of War.

Turned out Ulla had mechaniced for Carla and known him for decades. Unsurprisingly, he was great company. Turned out the story about him throwing the factory Yamaha at his mechanic (Ulla) and telling him to bury it wasn’t quite right. ‘I threw him a shovel and told him to bury that piece of shit.’ Carla’s presence in a sidewalk cafe had a startling effect on some usually very cool acquaintances of mine. One screeched to a halt and blurted out ‘Bloody hell! Last time I saw you, you were leading the Hants Grand National!’

‘Ah,’ came the wistful reply, ‘I lose so many races because I crash my brains out while in front…’

The motocross establishment lost track of Carla about this time, no-one really knew where he was. Well, I can tell them where he was: Bandol. he liked the place so much he bought a house there. He also paid for the meal. ‘I am Hakan Carlqvist. Don’t argue.’ We were allowed to buy the first drink at the next bar. ‘Now you’re talking my language.’

And yes, we asked him about his last race, that moment everyone remembers when, leading by around a minute he stopped for a beer. ‘My brother gave me the beer, it was warm. I was nearly sick on the last lap…’

We arrived at the circuit on Saturday lunchtime hungover.

This was the year of a record crowd, over 100,000, boosted, no doubt, by Ducati fielding surprise late entries, two bikes in the hands of Polen, Picotte and Mertens, and Merkel, Crafar and Ferracci. They were up against the usual factory efforts of Honda, Suzuki and Kawasaki—the title favorites—plus some very useful privateer teams still in with a mathematical chance of the title.

Andrew started his race acting as Kel’s camera assistant and I was on English language circuit commentary. We went our separate ways. I found John Berger a few hours into the race, having a loud argument with the security guard on the press office door. One of us, obviously. He was utterly charming but frighteningly intense to talk to in that I was terrified of saying something stupid.

Andrew Gadd
Bol d’Or lap-scorer/signaller by Andrew Gadd, a painting that resides on Ryder’s living-room wall. He thought the row of them on pit wall looked like a classical Roman frieze

Andrew spent a lot of time in pit lane, and made a lot of sketches of the lap scorers on their perches. Like most of us, he was developing an obsession with the Ducatis, which were fast on track but dreadful in the pits. he was sketching opposite their pit around 2am when panic broke out. Fred Merkel was waiting to take over but it became apparent there was a problem. Much arm waving and eventually the bike appeared being pushed up pit lane. Out of gas. Neither Ducati made it through the night. Neither did British privateers Phase One, who were in with a chance, albeit a slim one, of the title. A two-bike crash in the fast kink after the pits ended Simon Buckmaster’s riding career, he was helicoptered to Marseille hospital but lost his left leg below the knee.
Back in London, Andrew spent a few sleepless nights trying to get an illustration of that Ducati pitstop to work the way he wanted. He did, and the magazine article was duly published. Reaction was evenly split between ‘best thing I’ve ever read’ and ‘waste of paper.’

For the record, Suzuki won the Bol and the American Doug Toland became champion—he’d ridden for two privateer teams and competed in every round, unlike the factory teams.

The homeward journey was made under the cloud of Simon Buckmaster’s accident.

Back in London, Andrew spent a few sleepless nights trying to get an illustration of that Ducati pitstop to work the way he wanted. He did, and the magazine article was duly published. Reaction was evenly split between ‘best thing I’ve ever read’ and ‘waste of paper.’

Andrew subsequently put some of the Bol d’Or work in a group exhibition in yet to be trendy East London, which was visited by another titan of the arts world Bill Liebermann. He was looking to buy a different artist’s work but purchased a working drawing of the Ducati pitstop for the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Not bad for an artist just out of college. And the crouching figure at the front is indeed Fred Merkel, one of a couple of riders who really made an impression on the artist. The other was the Swedish part-time racer and full-time airforce fighter pilot Peter Linden.

By some cosmic chance a lovely little oil painting of a pitstop turned out to be of a Phase One rider swap, and that picture found its way to Simon Buckmaster. Andrew gave me one of lap-scorer pictures. I’d told him the numbers on the board were wrong. When I got it, there was a timing sheet stuck to the back with Andrew’s original sketch on it. The numbers were right.
Dramatis personae
Andrew Gadd was taken on by one of London’s oldest galleries, Agnew’s, where Andrew was the youngest artist ever to have one-man show. John Berger wrote the introduction to the catalogue. Find Andrew on Insta @andrewgadd_art and at andrewgaddart.co.uk

Harken Carlqvist and John Berger both passed away in 2017

Simon Buckmaster became a sharp and combative team manager, currently running the Triumph team in World Supersport

Tom Isitt is now an authority on World War One history, specifically the fighting on the mountains of the Italian front and author of a well received book on a mad cycle race around the battlefields of France and Belgium ‘Riding in the Zone Rouge.’ He is @masaccio60 on Twitter

Kel and I are still friends and still adhere to the advice Kel gave Andrew on this trip—A whiskey before bed kills the germs
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