Krystall Rally

1977 - Part 2

Stranded by an engine breakdown near Hagen

Everything seemed to be going rather too well since we left France until Patrick Gilbert's Guzzi 'Convert' outfit decided that afternoon to break down on the motorway near Hagen. The cause was obvious: a complete engine seizure and a cracked cylinder. The Guzzi outfit would go no further.

We didn't worry though about not being able to continue the journey together. 'Le Ministre' who is a large guy could take my place in the sidecar and I would ride pillion behind Marc, whilst 'Tonton' would take Patrick Gilbert on his outfit. However we needed to find a place to park the Guzzi outfit which would be safe and secure before resuming our northern expedition.

I had an idea. I knew that Hagen is the sister city of Montlucon, my birth place, so I suggested to Marc that we go to the town hall. Who knows? Nothing ventured, nothing gained! By playing the card of the twinned cities maybe I could get help from the local authorities. So we set off in the direction of Hagen. Not speaking a word of German, we had difficulty getting people to understand us and find our way to the town hall. Finally, in the late afternoon we found it but it proved just a little too late. It had just closed.

We were back to square one. We just needed to find our friends and explain our failure to them. Luckily a young German biker passed by on an old BMW and we flagged him down. He stopped and luckily spoke some English so I explained our situation to him.

Broken down on the motorway near Hagen

Our saviour was kind enough to offer us his hospitality and we towed the Guzzi to his house in the suburbs of Hagen. He had a garage where we left the outfit and he told us that he also knew of a very good mechanic who could probably help us out. The mechanic had a workshop with all the tools and probably also the parts to be able to repair the engine.

The unforgettable hospitality of a German family

Although we were not the tidiest in our motorcycle gear, he welcomed us into his home and introduced us to his mother. These people who we didn't even know an hour ago offered us unequalled hospitality.

He explained that his mother wanted to apologise for not being able to cook dinner for us that evening because she had to go out. But she had given him some money in lieu to invite us to a restaurant. Modesty and good manners meant we initially declined their invitation, but they insisted and we gave in and accepted their kind offer.

In the meantime, the young German biker telephoned all his friends and in no time at all we are joined at his home by around a dozen people and we all end up together at a local restaurant. Not only was the dinner very good, but the atmosphere with all his friends was excellent.

His friends loved to party and so did we. At the restaurant bar, they took us on with their traditional 'Das Boot' drinking challenge, closely related to the English 'yard of ale' and very quickly the evening became totally crazy.

"Das Boot"

The established practice is to pass it around in a large circle of people, each passing the boot from one to the next while taking swigs. It's important not to set the boot down and to drink it until it's finished.

Its novel shape causes a large air bubble to form as the beer is consumed. When the bubble makes its way to the toe with the tilting of the glass, it has sort of a tidal wave effect, causing the remaining beer to surge toward the drinker's open mouth at a faster-than-expected rate. If the drinker is not ready for it, the result is spilled beer down the front of his or her shirt.

Our German hosts knew how to play the game much better than we did. They had a lot of fun and laughs that night, watching us pour beer all over ourselves.

Our stock of 'anti-freeze' never reached Norway

This forced stop in Hagen and great time spent celebrating with this young German crowd were most enjoyable, but partying was not going to get the Guzzi engine repaired. When we asked our young host when we could meet his friend the mechanic, he told us to be patient. He had already phoned him and had been told that the mechanic was away on business and wouldn't be back until very late that night around 1.00am

The engine of the Guzzi was not going to repair itself

Back at our host's house around 11.00pm, with what was left of his friends who had survived the 'Das Boot' drinking session, we still had a couple of hours to wait before going to meet his mechanic friend.

To keep out the northern cold, we had with us in the sidecar trunks several bottles of the best French spirits which are very warming in very cold weather: Cognac, Calvados and home-brew brandy of various fruits.

To thank our hosts for their hospitality and kindness, we decided to give them a pair of these good bottles as a gift. We opened the others on the spot so that everyone in the group had a good drink to finish off the evening. So much so that our stock of 'anti-freeze' was almost depleted by the end of the evening and never actually reached Norway.

Engine preparer of Hans Butenuth's machines

The explosive mix of 'German beer and French digestives' was lethal. When our host, Patrick Gilbert, Marc, and I, serving as interpreter, finally arrived, very late at night, at the mechanic's home, we were all in a bit of a sorry state...

He received us in his lair, a workshop in the basement of his home and the array of machines and tools around spoke volumes about his profession. He was not a common mechanic, but in fact one of the preparation experts for the BMW engines used by the German racer Hans Otto Butenuth, whom I had seen racing in France in the early 70s.

Hans Otto Butenuth

Patrick Gilbert had brought him the Guzzi cylinder and other faulty parts. All I remember is that this guy, after examining the cylinder, took out, from I don't know where, a cylinder sleeve and after he had measured its diameter with calipers, he said that there would be no problem in repairing the engine. Patrick only had to leave his motorbike while we continued our expedition to Norway. He promised that when we returned from the Krystall rally, the Guzzi would be ready so that he could ride it back to Paris.

Trusting you is my decision.
Proving me right is your choice.

Important question... how much would it all cost? Forty-three years later, I no longer remember the exact amount of the repairs but even back then, the sum was substantial. Too large for Patrick to settle on the spot. All the cash he had with him was needed for his expenses for the Krystall. His cash was limited, ours too. Contributing our funds to help him pay the repair bill was not feasible and coming back to Germany later with a truck to fetch the Guzzi outfit would have been a complicated and expensive option.

Life is made up of surprises, of unusual encounters, good or bad. This encounter with this young German biker will remain forever engraved in my memory. I forgot his first name. I don't know his last name. The features of his face, forty years later remain more or less a blur, but if by some miracle he reads these lines, let him know that I have often thought of him, his mother, and all that he did for our little group of strangers briefly touching his life.

He didn't hesitate, even for a moment, to generously offer to advance the money to pay for the repairs. Patrick would later reimburse him on his return to France. He was taking a risk, having no certainty that his loan would be repaid. It was all based on the confidence he had in us and our honesty. People like him deserve a fanfare entry into paradise, if there is one.

Of course Patrick Gilbert upon his return to France reimbursed him in full by bank transfer and our German saviour was invited to attend the Kamacity rally a few months later, organised by the Trappus. He came to France specially for the occasion. He was treated like royalty at the rally and the Trappus reciprocated his generous hospitality.

The next day, yours truly nursing a painful hangover, on the road to Hamburg

The night had been too short, and upon awakening, the effects of the beer and spirits consumed the night before was painfully evident. Despite a terrible hangover it was time to thank and say goodbye to our hosts, and to take the road north, towards Hamburg.

We divided up the luggage previously packed into the Guzzi between the remaining outfits and I gave up my comfortable and warm place in the sidecar to 'Le Ministre' and his imposing size and rode the pillion behind Marc. Albert 'Tonton' Turminel, as expected, took Patrick Gilbert on his combo.

The Nordic adventure was only in its infancy. The following days would prove truly epic!

...continued in Part 3 ...

- Jean-Francois Helias