Zund Hard & Lev
To the niche world of French motorcycle touring Jean-Marie Debonneville is synonymous with Pele in international football circles, or Muhammad Ali in the world of boxing.
In this respect, his undoubted humility would most likely dispute my assertion, but it's certainly held to be true among the older bikers of this select community.
The legendary reputation Jean-Marie Debonneville holds amongst bikers who began rallying in the 1960s onwards, is firmly established, and will undoubtedly last until their generation disappear.
Jean-Marie Debonneville seen here at the Perces-Neige rally 1969
An extraordinary motorcycle traveller, and French pioneer of the biggest international rallies, (which are legendary today); he was the elder statesman, role model and hero of Kiki Blanchot and Michel Perdrix in their youth.
Later of course, these two disciples would, in their turn, became seigneurs in the history of French motorcycle touring.
Kiki Blanchot (left) and Michel Perdrix (right), initiators in the early 1970s of the 'mouvement pirate' and founders with Debonneville of the 'Confrerie des Chevaliers Motocyclistes'
This all took place at a time when the great 'elders', (one or two generations before), were 'Popaul Talbot', 'Popaul Carrier', Maurice Luault, 'Chacha' Chavagneux, Richard Artman, Maurice Slobodjanski, 'Jojo' Juan and Simon 'Zorro' Moulon.
Chamois 1965 - Debonneville's superb Ariel Square Four seen here at the rally. It was on this machine that he took part in the very first meeting. He is one of the very few rallyists to have attended this rally at least 5 times, thus obtaining the prestigious special year bar 'Chamois de Bronze'
To my great delight, I recently received an email from Jean-Marie Debonneville which came as a total surprise. The last time we ran into each other was 40 years ago at a sidecar rally in Mars, a commune in the Loire department in central France.
Debonneville (left) and yours truly, (right with the hat). This is the last time I saw him, at this gathering of combos in March 1982, organised in Mars, Loire region
Little did I suspect for a single second that the one person I've always considered to be one of my motorcycling heroes would chance to read my reports and memories on LPMCC.net. In fact, it transpires that Jean-Marie, (as a connoisseur himself), seems to have especially appreciated my piece on bitzas.
Jean-Marie's BMW-Volkswagen bitza seen here at an early 70s rally
His very welcome email also contained information and anecdotes relating to some of the photos used to illustrate my reports. These additional insights are fascinating and it would be remiss of me not to share them with you in this addendum.
Machine after machine, rally after rally, a life totally dedicated to motorcycling
That said, I'd like to share Jean-Marie's email with you in its entirety. I haven't left anything out of it, only adding photos to illustrate it, and put faces to names :
- Jean-Francois Helias
Half a century since we've seen each other. Was the last time during Kiki Blanchot's funeral?
The photo of Kiki and I together I've forwarded to you is framed and hanging in my 'motorcycle memories' room, so I've seen it every single day for decades.
To bring you up to date, I am presently 85 years old. Having travelled more than 2,000,000 km between 1953, (my first motorcycle being a DKW 250 NZ), and 2011; I stopped riding motorcycles following a domestic accident resulting in me being not fit enough to ride safely.
So, in 2011 I sold the 28 motorcycles that I variously used every year. 26 of them were bought by friends in Germany, Spain and Italy and 2 remain here in France.
Jean-Marie Debonneville riding his Louis Clement, a superb machine from his collection
I have around 6000 photos from my motorcycling life that I have now put together in an album style scrapbook, a gift to me from the USA.
For about 20 years, each September I organised a rally called 'the Cols of the Alps' attended by around 30 to 50 people, (mainly Brits, Germans, Spaniards, Swiss, Dutch, Belgians and French), on vintage motorcycles, all over 50 years old. However, it all ended last year due to COVID-19.
41 years separate these two photos taken of Debonneville and his trusty Nimbus. (left): 1969 at the Ancetres rally; (right): 2010 at a 'veteranen' rally in Germany
I would like to give you some further information concerning your very interesting article on Bitzas:
The Guzzi / Messerschmitt side was built by a friend from Isere named 'Babad', a Moto Guzzi dealer, in the town of Beaurepaire. When I met him, he must have been at least 20 years older than me and was already retired. His motorcycle shop was managed by his son. He rode as the passenger in the sidecar, his son riding the combo.
Also, for the Millevaches 1969, my friend Paul Mullis, (engineer at Borg & Berk clutches), that you quote, was accompanied by my other friend Tim Stevens (engineer at Norton in Andover), and his wife Mary on their Vincent.
The late Paul Mullis, a big name of the rallying scene in Great Britain and friend of Jean Marie Debonneville
For the record, my BMW/VW bitza was just finished and not yet tested in extreme cold. The long intake pipes froze completely and I had to remove some ice to be able to carry on riding.
On Sunday, needing to return home to Pas de Calais because I was working on Monday morning, I was towed behind Tim's Vincent outfit.
Debonneville (left) and his British pal Tim Stevens, (right), pictured here at the Alpenstrassenfahrt 1971. A famous international alpine competition organised in Austria
Imagine the epic return journey of 800 km at the end of a rope, crossing Paris at night, and arriving at dawn at my home in Auchel!
Learning from that experience, I fitted the intake pipes with a heated wire. That allowed me to participate the following winter, in February 1970, in the first meeting of the Norwegian Kristall Rally, (-25 °), organised by Morten Maager.
That's where I won the Zielfahrt ahead of Norwegians including Aanon Aannunsen.
Aanon Aanonsen was a Norwegian who lived in Scotland at the time and rode a Nimbus. He made a great raid across the Sahara in the 70s riding that vintage Danish machine
The Zielfahrt was 36 hours, (departure Friday midnight - arrival before Saturday 12 noon), and the route was left to the choice of the competitor. The destination was Fenmundsenden in central Norway.
Beard covered in ice, facial skin frozen, Debonneville in -25C at the Krystall 1970. It was riding 'the old fashioned way', the hard way; an era, without heated grips or saddle, or heated clothing, without thermostat or regulator, or chemical or electric heaters.
My passenger, Maurice Bafcop, was a pharmacist in a psychiatric hospital and he had with him a set of 'serious' hypodermics to revive us in case the cold proved near fatal… at least to one of us.
Aanon Aanonsen in the snows of Norway
I didn't realise that in Norway no one drove at night during the winter months. We however rode continuously all night and that's probably why we covered 500km more than the second placed guy!
All my friendship, Fanfan.
Be well and live long!
aka 'Le Druide'
Thanks very much for these pages of motorcycle touring history; very much a recollection of our time.
It is a real pleasure to discover or indeed revisit some of the real characters who have undoubtedly earned their places in the annals of motorcycling.
A big thank you too, to all the advocates in the sport of motorcycle touring; a discipline that I have always loved.
Looking forward to your next article my friend.
- Christophe 'Charlot' Charletoux
Thanks very much for the interesting and entertaining articles on this period of our 'yesteryear youth' and the enigmatic characters of that time!
- Olivier 'Momo' Morin