This motorcycling adventure would certainly never have taken place had it not been for the chance meeting of Maurice Paul Strawson and Rodney Taylor at the Italian Madonnina dei Centauri gathering, in July 1974.
Maurice had been chosen that year to represent Great Britain as the 'first centaur', and I to represent France.
We both rode our bikes - he on his water-cooled Suzuki GT750 three-cylinder two-stroke and I on my customized café racer Honda CB 125 S - into the Cathedral of Castellazo Bormida, accompanied by our Italian godmothers, as was the custom at the time.
On the road to the Madonnina dei Centauri 1974,
yours truly riding his one-of-a-kind customized
single-cylinder Honda CB 125 S
As Maurice was waiting right next to me for the religious ceremony to begin before entering the holy place, I had the opportunity, in my limited English at the time, to strike up a conversation and make his acquaintance. I learned from him that he worked in the Guernsey area; and if my memory serves me right, I believe that his job was to transport ship captains from the port to their ships when they changed shifts.
A member of Coventry's Antelope MCC, he had travelled to the legendary Italian rally with other British rallyists including Rodney Taylor and his best French friend Thierry Garnier.
Rallye Neiges 1975 – Standing behind the Triumph outfit, Rodney Taylor; and Thierry Garnier's customised Honda Dunstall
Thierry, riding his faithful Paul Dunstall customised Honda 500, and intrigued by my single-cylinder Honda CB 125 S in cafe racer mode, joined Rodney in our conversation.
I learned a bit more about Rodney himself, their Antelope MCC club, and their annual rally, which emblem I'd noticed hanging on rally jackets at other gatherings, having its superb triangular medal from the early 70s commemorating it.
After that, I had the opportunity on several occasions to meet Rodney again at other rallies, in France and abroad, and that's how our friendship developed and grew over the years.
(left): Rodney posing next to his trusty BMW flat twin (right): Rod at the Bouc Treffen 1975, an invitational French summer rally organised at Massay by the Vierzon Eighteen Club.
So much so that if I had to take part in a rally in Great Britain (which he had often recommended), I would make a detour to visit him at his home in Rugby, where I would often spend the night so that we could ride there together the next day.
Good manners demanded it
Rodney was one of our most loyal foreign participants in the annual invitational rallies that our club, the MC Dragons of Clermont-Ferrand, organised between 1975 and 1977 in the Auvergne: the Vercingetorix rally in the summer; and the Rallye Neiges in the winter.
Vercingetorix rally 1970 – Prize-giving ceremony at the summit of Puy de Dome for the MC Dragons' very first summer meeting
So, it was only logical that, out of politeness and good manners, we should reciprocate by taking part in Rodney's Antelope Rally in Coventry.
Personally, I'd been thinking about taking part for a long time. But because every year, on the same weekend in October, there was usually a French rally by invitation, which I was kind of obliged to take part in, I kept putting off my plans to take part in the English meeting in Coventry.
Vercingetorix rally 1971 – Kiki Blanchot, president of the MC Dragons, and to its right club member Patrice 'Pat de Nevers' Deslignière, pictured here in the middle of organising the 2nd meeting, which took place on 16 and 17 January 1971 at Le Puy de Sancy, 5 kilometres from Le Mont-Dore.
When the autumn of 1978 arrived, I thought it was time to finally keep the promise I had made both to myself and to my friend Rodney: to take part in the Antelope rally once and for all.
Without a motorcycle
As I write this, I can't remember the exact reason why I couldn't use my faithful 850 Norton Commando Interstate MK2A to get there. I can't remember for sure whether it was because of an insurance problem or a mechanical one.
One thing is certain: I didn't have a machine at my disposal at the time to make the round trip to the 1978 Antelope rally.
Yours truly and his trusty 850 Commando Interstate MK2A photographed here at the TT 1978. Having it stolen from me, in broad daylight when it was parked very close to the flat where I was living at the time in the centre of Clermont-Ferrand, was a sentimentally painful loss.
But this major handicap was certainly not going to stop me from keeping my promise to Rod. Especially as, by nature, it takes a lot more than that to stop me when I've decided to do something I really want to do.
Kiki Blanchot's brother-in-law's Kreidler
The brother-in-law of the late Kiki Blanchot, founder and president of our club the MC Dragons, owned a 49.9cc Kreidler Florett moped that he no longer used at all.
Apart from a few cosmetic details, here's the Kreidler moped that Kiki's brother-in-law was kind enough to lend me for the adventure.
He had bought it new, on Kiki's advice, so that he could get to work. A psychiatric nurse by profession, he had subsequently fallen sadly ill, sinking into a deep depression from which he never really recovered.
He kindly agreed to lend it to me so that I could complete this long solo journey from Clermont-Ferrand to Coventry and back, a distance of over 2200 kilometres (1368 miles).
Stage 1: Clermont-Ferrand to Boulogne/Mer
The little I remember today of this adventure, which took place 45 years ago, is that the first part of the itinerary was to take me from my starting point in Auvergne to the town of Boulogne/Mer.
There, I would then board a ferry to cross the Channel and reach Dover, a town that evokes in me, every time I hear its name mentioned, memories of its legendary local club: the 69 MCC and their Anniversary rally of yesteryear; not forgetting another meeting from the 70s that was equally appreciated by French rallyist: the White Cliff Rally.
The late Revd Bill 'Farv' Shergold (left on his Triumph) with 3 members of 69 MCC. Father Bill held membership number one of the legendary Dover club
This solo ride from Clermont-Fd to Boulogne/Mer, on the national roads of the time, was around 700 kilometres (435 miles) long.
Don't let your average speed drop
Anyone who, like me, has ridden a lot on a moped under 50cc, whose speed is limited by the low power of the engine, knows full well that over such long distances, it's imperative to limit stops to the strict minimum, otherwise your average speed will drop considerably.
As time is precious, only necessary stops, such as the urgent need to go to the toilet or to refuel the machine, are allowed.
When you've got all the time in the world, rallying in France and abroad on small-displacement machines is a fun challenge. As demonstrated here by Dominique Giraudet (aka Mob' Kid), a die-hard rallyist and moped fanatic from the early 70s, photographed here at the 1971 Sarcelles rally on an unusual VeloSolex combo coupled to a Louis Vannod articulated sidecar
It is therefore necessary for the rider to have some form of personal discipline so as not to linger en route. So it's obviously preferable not to be a heavy smoker addicted to having to stop frequently to indulge in the pleasure of a cigarette...
On a moped, over very long distances, you stretch your arms and legs as best you can, while continuing to ride; you do the same with your rear end which, after many hours in the saddle, is generally the most sensitive part of the body, and often the first to feel the pain.
The notion of a challenge can be taken even further: a motorcycle club travelling to a rally by bicycle. As the infamous members of the 'Secte Motarde des Huns, from the Bordeaux region, did in the mid 70s, when they took part as neighbours in the Langon Rally. Posing in front of a picturesque tandem bike with windscreen: Jojo (bearded on the extreme left) and his girlfriend (red hair), Yann Ber Favennec (jacket full of rally badges) and Asma (motorbike glasses on his hat).
Going on strike, the national sport of the French
If I remember correctly, my initial plan was to arrive at Rodney's home in Rugby no later than early Friday evening. So I'd planned accordingly and left a few days before. What I hadn't anticipated, however, was a totally unexpected problem that would complicate the workings of my plans: a strike by the ferry company staff.
The bad tongues will say - and they won't be wrong - that going on strike is almost the favourite national 'sport' of the French. So there I was, trapped in Boulogne/Mer. There's only one way out of this impasse: get back in the saddle despite the fatigue I've already accumulated and continue my journey northwards.
An additional and unanticipated stage of around 130 kms (80 miles) along the coast towards Calais, then Dunkirk, to finally reach the Belgian port of Oostende where I would take the first available ferry to cross the Channel separating me from British soil.
Almost no memories except a few images on a video
I finally arrived in Dover.
Looking back toward the port and the city of Dover from the White Cliffs
All I had to do then was head for Rugby (a distance of around 166 miles) where I could finally enjoy a full night's rest in a really comfortable bed at my friend Rod's place.
On the big day, we rode together the twenty miles or so to Coventry to take part in the rally.
I have to confess that to this day I have no particular memory of that 1978 Antelope meeting, apart from a few vague snatches of images here and there of that distant event.
Apart from a stroke 16 years ago, which certainly doesn't help my memory today, I dare to think that excesses of various alcoholic beverages, from Friday evening throughout the weekend, are certainly one of the main reasons for my amnesia about the rally itself.
I seem to remember vaguely that Friday evening was spent in good company with a bunch of English rallyists, Rod's friends and acquaintances, and of course drinking a lot of local beer in one of the local pubs.
The only vivid images I have left are those captured in this video below, filmed by Hugues 'Gueguette' Spriet, a keen rallyist from Amiens, and member of the Samara club.
At 1.57 minutes into the video, we see Rodney on his BMW followed by yours truly on his Kreidler Florett arriving at the rally on Saturday afternoon; after stopping his bike and putting on his helmet, a cool 'Fanfan' (who wasn't yet bald at the time) starts greeting friends and acquaintances.
French in large numbers
The participation of French motorcyclists at the Antelope meetings every year in the 70s had practically become a custom over the years; and as this video shows, for the 1978 meeting, once again a large number of 'Frenchie' rallyists had made the trip to take part.
The images in this video reveal, among others, the presence of Jacky Roger, Chantal Lebeau and Serge Deniau from the Cercle Motocycliste Raboliots, who had come from Sologne; the northerners from the Amiens region : Jean-Paul 'Popaul' Richant and Hughes 'Gueguette' Spriet; and our Belgian friend Alain 'Pompe a Graisse' Durigneux.
Almost 50 years of friendship: Jacky Roger (left), leader of the CM Raboliots and yours truly, pictured here at the Raboliots rally 2013. One of France's oldest 'pirate' clubs, the CM Raboliots organised the 50th meeting of their legendary rally in April 2023.
In the thick haze of images that I'm trying to extract from the drawers of my memory without really being able to, I seem to remember - but without any absolute certainty - that there was a bus service available to take participants from the campsite to the clubhouse where the Saturday evening festivities were held.
A view of the bar in the Antelope MCC clubhouse in the early 70s
Blurred images lead me to believe that this clubhouse was also the venue for the prize-giving ceremony, where I had the privilege of winning the trophy for the rallyist who had covered the greatest distance travelled to get to the 1978 Antelope rally.
I'm sure it was a rude awakening on Sunday morning, following the copious intake of alcoholic beverages the night before; and despite the likely painful hangover, I had to take the road back to my home in Auvergne, riding the German moped whose brand was founded by Anton Kreidler in 1903; originally a metal and wire factory that started building two-wheelers in 1951.
Warming up for the next one
The thousand kilometres in the opposite direction were completed without a hitch. I could almost say, despite the pain in the bum that comes with such a distance in the saddle, that this moped adventure to English territory was something of a warm-up.
Because 5 years later, in 1982, I did the same thing again, still on the same 49.9cc Kreidler Florett, this time to reach the village of Sixpenny Handley in Dorset to join Rodney at the Old Timer rally. An exclusive invitation-only event, open only to riders with at least 10 years' rallying experience to which Rod had invited and registered me, and at which I once again received a trophy rewarding the rallyist who had come the furthest.
But that's another story. There are so many in my rallying life that I'm in danger of being dead before I get the chance to tell you all about them...
- Jean-Francois Helias