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Common Tread

Flogging Groms and racing friends in the Bol d'Oregon

Aug 23, 2019

The Bol d’Or is one of the great motorcycle races of the world. A 24-hour test of motorcycle mechanicals and rider endurance, it has been held annually in France since 1922, albeit with a couple of interruptions for world wars and such.

The race allowed only one rider from its inception until 1953. Yes, that’s right, a day and night motorcycle endurance road race with one and only one throttle jockey. Gustave Lefévre, a Frenchman, won five of his seven Bol d'Or titles riding 24 solo hours at race pace. Iron Buttsters, rise up and salute your king!

In what perhaps may be considered further evidence of the decline of Western Civilization, in 1954 two riders per team were allowed and, since 1978, three riders have been allowed per entry. What must Gustave think?

The race is part of the Endurance FIM World Championship and will run on the Circuit Paul Ricard track near Marseilles, France on September 15 and 16 in front of tens of thousands for an entire spin of the planet.

Alas, this article is not about that race at all.

Bol d'Oregon mascot
The Bol d'Oregon mascot is an inflatable orca. We don't know why. Photo by Ty Feague.
Instead, Common Tread hereby brings you firsthand coverage of the not as famous Bol d'Oregon. Conceived in 2015 by very likely inebriated members of the Sang Froid Riding Club, the Bol d'Oregon is quite possibly the biggest motorcycle endurance race in the greater McMinnville municipal area. Almost certainly, in fact.

Like the somewhat better known Bol d'Or, the Oregon version is an endurance race. (Six hours.) It, too, is a road race. (On a go-kart track.) In both directions. (Not at the same time.) For small-displacement bikes. (We entered Groms.) It looks like a crap-ton of fun. (It is.)

I came across the race last winter while surfing motorcycle sites. (Which has gotten me into trouble before; I'd be better advised to click on porn.) Anyway, I tell my buddy AJ, who has a Grom, and with our usual combination of questionable judgment and infantile enthusiasm we get all fired up about it.

Beloved Wife immediately points out that neither of us have ever raced a motorcycle, that our age bracket (50s) suggests that now would not be a good time to start, it is very likely that we will crash, equally unlikely that we will heal easily, and that this is, bottom line, a Very Bad Idea.

prepping the Grom
The Grom skunkworks. Prepping the #14 bike for the big endurance race. Photo by Loren DeShon.

We nod solemnly, agree with all her points, and promptly sign up for the race. Furthermore, I buy a Grom so we can race each other. Cool! Now, because we have absolutely no experience racing or building race bikes, we decide that our first priority is to come up with a bitchin' team name.

AJ’s Air Force callsign was Angry, my Navy callsign was Alien, and Angry Alien Racing is unleashed upon the motorcycle racing world. No one notices. Ah, yes, we need a logo. Beloved Wife designs one, it is approved, a press release is issued, Dorna ignores it, and there is much rejoicing.

Angry Aliens logo
Team Angry Alien put a lot of effort into the logo (designed by Beloved Wife) and stickers. Photo by Loren DeShon.

Now an entirely predictable arms race begins. Mutually assured destruction is the likely result.

Building the race Groms

My Grom, as bought, has 7,000 miles on it and an aftermarket header, pipe, and tuner. AJ’s is nearly new and stock, but he quickly orders and installs Öhlins front and rear suspension. No problem, I’m thinking, he has me on handling but I have him on power. He makes the same assessment — evenly matched bikes — and promptly orders a header, pipe, and tuner.

Oh, now I see how things are, you former friend.

parts for the 21 Grom
Upgrade parts assembled for Grom #21. Photo by AJ Gaston.

Over the course of the next couple of months, I see his Öhlins and raise with ceramic wheel bearings and a bronze rear swingarm bushing. He matches the swingarm bushing and re-raises with sticky aftermarket tires. I re-re-raise with even stickier, race-dedicated tires. (Having the choice of soft, medium or hard for these skins makes me feel like a real MotoGP racer, which is fun.)

Ohlins suspension for the 14 Grom
Ohlins suspension, because if the other guy has it... Photo by Loren DeShon.

AJ installs an aftermarket clutch pack to handle the mad power he will now be making. I match him, of course, because we both may well break past the mind-bending 10 horsepower at the crank barrier.

The race gets closer and we watch each other out of the corners of our eyes, wondering what upgrades or speed secrets the other may have that aren’t being shared. I research gear ratios and order different size sprockets for front and rear. After wrestling with my conscience I tell him about it. (Why am I so noble?) He thanks me for the info, orders sprockets for himself, and then installs rearsets.

Rat bastard!

grandson as mechanic
Highly experienced mechanics were brought in to help build the Angry Alien racing Grom. Photo by Teri DeShon.

I haven’t ordered rearsets because I want to keep passenger pegs so I can still give rides to my grandson. He knows this and gets them for himself anyway! Boy, just when you think you know a guy...

By the way, I hope the folks at RevZilla and various other aftermarket parts suppliers are properly appreciative of us when their Christmas bonuses turn out to be much bigger than expected this year. AJ, lamenting his ruined checking account, remarks that he could have seriously upgraded his Daytona with what he's put into his Grom.

We recruit teammates to join us because we're too wussy to try to emulate the 24-hour Bol d'Or solo race winner Gustave on our upcoming little six-hour race. I bestow my lucky number 14 on my Grom and invite Aaron, a friend with no racing experience, to join me. AJ gets Joe, a veteran racer, to join him on his rival 21 bike. Joe is dubbed Joe the Ringer.

Pre-race practice

The Angry Alien Racing team rendezvous at the McMinnville track entrance the day before the race and, by arriving before the gates open, avoids the paparazzi who are doubtless stalking us. We make camp, set up our pits, and pose our race Groms on stands so they look really cool.

alleged sabotage due to Cheetoh dust
Long before the race, there were accusations of attempted sabotage. Photo by AJ Gaston.
The Mac Track, as it is affectionately known, is a marvelous 12-turn, 0.7-mile layout located at the county fairgrounds. It has technical turns, sweepers, front and back straights, and can be run in either direction.

We all take turns on #14 and #21, learning the track, chasing each other, and getting blitzed by faster bikes, which is pretty much everyone else. Joe the Ringer offers a few tips, helps adjust suspensions and tire pressures, and we get somewhat less slow. This our own personal FP1, FP2, Q1 and Q2, just like MotoGP, and I can hear the announcers in my head ("Ooh, a bit of a moment there for DeShon.") as I tick a curb with my stock peg and make a mental note to never do that again.

The track goes cold and we break out restorative beverages and fire up the barbecue. After dinner, in the dusk, we walk the track, in both directions, because that's what real racers do.

The race

Race day dawns clear and warm. Life stirs in the tents and campers. Organizers and more riders arrive. The swimming pool is inflated and filled from a hose because this is a first-class operation. A large plastic orca, which appears to be the race mascot, is also blown up. This reporter has no idea why.

Race Director Courtney Olive arrives and we draw cards to determine start positions. His sartorial splendor has it all over any MotoGP official I have ever seen. I draw the first starting spot in the Flyweight class for the AAR #14 Grom. AJ draws third in class for the 21 bike. Yes! I'm already ahead of him!

Courtney Olive, Race Director
Race Director Courtney Olive reads an adaptation of "The Cat in the Hat" during the pre-race riders meeting. Photo by Loren DeShon.

At the conclusion of the riders meeting, Courtney reads an adaptation of "The Cat in the Hat" by Dr. Seuss, and it features Grom 1 and Grom 2. We are honored, and reflect that MotoGP might well be enhanced by literature readings as part of the pre-race ceremonies. Yes, let's stuff some culture into people even as they're watching the umbrella girls and wondering about Ducati's holeshot device.

Anyway, it's finally time to race.

Bol d'Oregon field
The Bol d'Oregon field includes a diversity of motorcycles, new and old. Photo by Krista Youngblood.

Seventeen bikes are entered, which is the biggest grid in Bol d'Oregon history. It's a strange mix of nice old two-strokes, shit cans, Ohvales, a couple of Kymco K-pipes, and some odds and ends that I'm not sure what they started life as. Rumor has it that one bike, an old Ninja 250, was purchased for $50 just prior to the race. And, of course, our two Groms.

All the weeks of research, bike buying, parts ordering, wrenching, spouse eye-rolling, etc., have come down to crouching under the Oregon sun with 16 other lunatics in full race leathers, waiting for the green flag to launch a field of little motorcycles onto an unsuspecting county fair kart track via a Le Mans start. The flag drops.

start of the Bol d'Oregon
Riders and crews ready for the LeMans start. That's Teri (Beloved Wife) in the green shirt and Stephie (AJ's wife) in white. Photo by Dan Books.

I sprint, sort of, to the bike, swing a leg over, and thumb the starter as Beloved Wife clips in my airbag vest. I glance left, pull out, and realize that AJ launched at the same time and is right behind me. Perfect.

The mighty Grom howls in fury makes some noise as I weave past a couple of stalled bikes and achieve third gear before the first turn. It has no Ducati holeshot device, but the intense lack of horsepower works great for wheelie control. Traction control is lacking, but that's a spoiler.

It's a silly thrill out of all proportion to the size of the bikes as I reach turn two at max Grom corner speed, get stood up by a faster bike dive bombing the apex, then tip in, hanging off as best my flexibility-challenged old bod will allow. Then its reverse the bike through the not-famous McMinnville Chicane, right-left-right-left, then mad nine-horsepower acceleration into the downhill left-kinked Blue State Back Straight (I just made that up).

Now comes stiff braking to an off-camber lefthand hairpin, accelerate hard as best I can through a slightly uphill chicane, a 90-degree right, and a 90 left onto the front straight and the start/finish line. At this point, the end of lap one in a six-hour race, I'm trailing the entire field but one. Yes, buddy AJ is still somewhere behind me and all is well with the world.

Loren and AJ on the Groms
Loren (14) leading AJ (21) as they're both about to get passed by a faster bike (all of them, basically). Photo by Teri DeShon.

The laps spin on and I'm getting better even as the fast bikes begin to lap me. Better arcing lines, later braking, getting more weight to the inside, trusting the tires. It's remarkable how, while this is shrunk-down motorcycle racing, it is still motorcycle racing, and both the little bike and this neophyte racer are giving it all they've got. I'm hearing the MotoGP announcers in my head more and more. ("Ooh, DeShon had a look there on the 14 bike, I think he may actually have the pace to pass someone.") Soul food.

rider change
Rider change. AJ comes into the pits to hand off the Grom to Joe the Ringer. Photo by Ty Feague.
Even more gratifying is that I'm slowly leaving AJ behind and, towards the end of our session, I've got half a lap on him. Chortle. I lose sight of him for a bit then, as I accelerate out of the tight left hander onto the front straight, the white Grom blows my doors off.

Blows. My. Doors. WTF?

It's Joe the Ringer. He's swapped out with AJ and has also, so far as I can tell, swapped a big-bore kit into the 21 Grom. He's already two lengths ahead of me as we enter turn one and I'm thinking, "Fine, I'll stay close and learn his lines."

Wrong. In less than a lap he's so far ahead I'm not sure he's even running on the same track as me. Maybe he's cutting across the infield? Sigh, probably not. Time to give teammate Aaron his turn.

Joe the Ringer on the Grom
Despite passing a lot of people, Joe the Ringer seems quite casual about his riding position. Photo by Ty Feague.

I tap the top of my helmet going by our camp and, two laps later, get a PIT sign from our board. Aaron is ready as I come to a quick stop, swap my airbag vest onto him, clip him in, and watch him roar putter away.

AJ and I peel half out of our leathers, start hydrating, and compare notes. I'm faster in some sections; he's faster in others. We're on the slowest bikes in the field and each managed to pass one other rider (and that guy was probably still warming up his tires). We're having silly fun.

Our conversation dies away as we watch Joe. The 21 Grom is flying around the track and is, somehow, passing bike after bike. He's silky smooth, is carrying momentum seemingly everywhere, and is outbraking people, block passing, and squirting away. There's a master class going on out there and we do our best to watch and learn.

Forty minutes or so later, both Joe and Aaron pat their helmets going by and it's our turn again. AJ ends up across the track from me, and I set myself the goal of reeling him in and passing by the end of this session.

After watching Joe, I'm trying earlier apex lines, working on being smoother, hanging off more, braking later, and being more aggressive. I actually pass a few other bikes, including two at once. Most importantly, I'm gaining on AJ with every lap. He's now only 50 yards ahead and I wick it up another notch.

AJ on the Grom
AJ on the #21 Grom. Photo by Ty Feague.

At the end of the front straight is the entry to a long lefthand sweeper that is the fastest on the track. I attack the corner, tip in a fraction early on full throttle and, just before the apex, realize I'm going to clip the inside raised curbing. I try to push the bike further away to stand it up some. Too late.

The left OEM peg smacks the curb and snaps off with a jolt that yanks the front end left-right-left to full-tuck-done and I go down hard on my left side. It's pavement-surfing time with all those horrible helmet scraping and bike crunching sounds that I haven't heard in a long time. Before I come to a stop I'm already thinking, "I can't believe you just did that, you fucking moron."

In the dirt, just inside the fence, all limbs seem to be still working and I stand up. My left forearm, the first impact point, is strenuously objecting to my recent behavior, but my main concern is that my entire upper torso, arms, neck, and head, are strangely rigid.

Oh, my airbag vest. Duh. It deployed as advertised and I'm stiffly locked in. Cool.

The nearby soft fence plastic blocks seem like a good place to sit down and rethink my life, so after a thumbs up to the yellow-flag-waving corner worker, I do so until the vest self-deflates. (MotoGP announcers are in my head again: "What a howler by DeShon!!")

Up again, I go over, pick up the Grom, and realize it's basically OK, notwithstanding some scrapes, missing left peg, and bent clutch lever. On the outside of the turn is no place to linger, even with the yellow flying, so I push it to the infield, get it started, and do a first-gear lap of shame around the track to the pits.

repairing the crash damage to the Grom
Aaron and Teri (aka Beloved Wife) repair the #14 Grom after the crash. Photo by Stephie Gaston.

A reception committee headed by Beloved Wife is waiting for me, and after I give her a thumbs up her searching look of intense concern is replaced by barely tolerant head shaking, so I know all is well there. While Aaron and BW get to work fixing the Grom, the nice medical lady irrigates my scrapes and straps an ice pack to my complaining forearm. After 20 minutes of wrenching, Aaron roars putts out of the pits on the banged-up but again-functional number 14.

Stage two: Limp to the checkered flag

After three hours of counterclockwise racing, the field is brought in for a 10-minute break while organizers change the track direction to clockwise. Joe and Aaron start the second half, and Joe quickly begins working his magic again while Aaron sticks to his somewhat conservative pace, doubtless influenced by my bad example earlier.

Angry Aliens bandage
After the crash. The bandage was the right color. It just needed a logo. Photo by Teri DeShon.

AJ and I get another turn and he gets his groove on in the new direction while I, pumped full of Advil and somewhat gun-shy, can't hang with him. Later, in our second session together clockwise, I get my courage back and push it to 99 percent, trying to catch him, but it's no go. For some reason, he's just plain faster than me going right.

AJ's wife, Stephie, who brought her riding kit just in case, finally can't resist all the fun going on in front of her, so she suits up and heads out on the yellow Grom. She's a relatively new rider with very limited track day experience, and being blitzed on the straights and passed on either side in the corners is a bit much for her. She comes back in after only a few laps, but is nonetheless now a genuine motorcycle racer.

checkered flag at the Bol d'Oregon
Aaron takes the checkered flag. Photo by Loren DeShon.

As the race end draws near, Grom 21 is clearly contending in our class while Grom 14, crashed by yours truly, is a backmarker. Aaron and AJ are on the bikes for the checkered flag.

The Bol d’Oregon awards ceremony is impressive. The podium is a picnic table with the first place team standing on top, second on the bench seat, and third on the tarmac. Micro champagne bottles are awarded and and duly sprayed about. AJ and Joe take second in the Flyweight division and fourth overall. Aaron and I place next to last in the entire field, ahead of the only bike to DNF. Not what we had hoped for, but we are content.

podium celebration at the Bol d'Oregon
The Bol d'Oregon podium is a picnic table. The champagne is real (but small). Photo by Loren DeShon.

Our race is over, the first ever for four out of five of us. We took our silly-fun little bikes and spent stupid amounts of money to make them not quite as excruciatingly slow. We wrenched, sweated, raced, crashed, repaired, and raced some more. We had a grand time and I recommend it highly.

Many thanks to the Sang Froid Riding Club for inventing the Bol d’Oregon and to Courtney Olive for running it. Just wait til next year.