Stella Alpina Rally


1976 produced far too many memories to recount in the space this piece allows, so I'm going to focus principally on the adventures of two of my fellow rallyists that year.

Some of you, familiar with my stories so far will be 'old hands' and may even have met or heard of the legendary French rallyist Serge Vollard, aka 'Raspoutine' or 'Raspoute", as his close friends called him. In the old days he used to attend many international rallies and was a keen traveller within Europe, attending Continental Circus Grand Prix.

Raspoutine - A dedicated lifelong motorcyclist, especially keen on international motorcycle rallies and races.

He was without a doubt a 'die hard' motorcyclist and still rides today, though nowadays he spends most of his time enjoying a bit of rallying, (mostly at Vincent Owners Club international meetings), as well as racing his beautiful Vincent Egli at classic bikes meeting.

Raspoutine - His current superb Vincent Egli prepared by the late Patrick Godet.

Raspoutine and his accomplices Charlie, Beru and Pepito were the four founding members of the Motobylette Club of Rouen, and in the 1970s they organised the legendary Bois-Renard rally, (by invitation only), at Heudreville-sur-Eure , in the Eure region in Normandy.

Bois-Renard rally mid 1970s - Well known rallyist, Rodney Taylor, from the Antelope MCC from Coventry, was a regular attendee.

Normandy, being relatively close to the UK was well within travelling distance and attracted the renowned Rodney Taylor of Coventry Antelope MCC, a close friend of Raspoute's 'gang', together with other members of the Motobylette Club of Rouen. Rod and several other British 'die hard' rallyists used to attend that rally every year.

Raspoute's long journey from his hometown of Evreux to Bardonnechia for the 1976 Stella was not without its trials and tribulations. He left late on Saturday afternoon on his faithful BMW R75/5 and as a result of this late departure he would inevitably miss the big party we were all having at Luigi's pizzeria that evening. But Raspoutine was fine with that. His main objective above all for the 1976 meeting was to be part of the group attending the 3 days Alpine Safari.

Taking advantage of the long summer daylight hours, his initial goal was to ride as fast as he could to reach Tournus. Once there, his plan was to rest a bit at the home of a friendly couple he had met the previous year at the Swedish Grand Prix, before continuing the journey to his final destination. However things didn't work out as planned…

His lights unexpectedly failed and although he tried his best to fix the problem it was no use, and he's never been ashamed to admit that his mechanical skills are pretty basic. His talents lies in the saddle, not in the garage.

By pure chance, around 30k from Tournus, another motorcyclist, on a classic BMW R50, riding in front of him, turned out to be a close friend and well known rallyist; Patrice Bailly 'Stanley', from Provins. He was a member of the PAVECK section of the MC Dragons, coincidentally also heading south to the Stella.

Patrice Bailly 'Stanley' (helmet) - a member of the MC Dragons (Section PAVECK) with his Ducati mono at the 1977 Bois-Renard rally.

Raspoutine explained his situation, his failed lights forcing him to stop when daylight eventually faded. Stan suggested that he could perhaps ride in front, enabling Raspoutine to follow his R50/2 big rear red light. That meant that they could still ride as many miles as possible before catching some sleep for a couple of hours by the roadside before resuming the trip. Hopefully, this way they could still make it to the Sommeiller before noon on Sunday, allowing them to meet us there, and collect their all important rally badge.

Raspoutine agreed to Stan's idea and many miles later, they begin to see the mountains of Mont Cenis on the horizon. Everything was going well, when suddenly, around 9.00am Stan's R50/2 engine starts making ominous noises. It sounded like one of the connecting rods.

Breakdowns could happen anytime in the old days of rallying...

There was only around 100k left via the Mont Cenis to reach Bardonnechia but to avoid damaging the engine any further Stan decided to stop.

At this point Raspoutine suggests he takes Stan's pillion rider and some of his luggage on his own bike in order to reach the Sommeiller. He's confident that there will be someone there amongst the French rallying contigent willing to help. However this will mean crossing the Italian border one more time, riding all the way back to France, to pick Stan up who is now all alone with his broken down BMW waiting at a cafe in the town of Lons-le-Bourg.

Despite the handicap of all the extra weight on his motorcycle, Raspoutine somehow manages the climb up the 30k track to the Sommelier, coping all the way with the ubiquitous dirt, ruts, ravines, rocks and creek beds. Arriving at the summit, he quickly found the seasoned French rally guys he was looking for. Once he'd explained the situation with Stan and the urgent need to go back to France to rescue him and of course bring him back to Bardonnechia and our 'Chez Luigi" headquarters, he can finally enjoy the usual Sunday's evening party.

Stella 1976 - The rallyist 'Toulouse' from the south of France on his Moto-Guzzi

At the time Stan was a very dear friend of mine. I knew his family and had stayed at their home in Provins on a couple of occasions. Though we lived in different cities, we were both members of the same club, and kind of 'brothers' who had shared many special moments and adventures together on the road. As such, I didn't hesitate to make the sacrifice of returning unexpectedly to France for an additional 200k ride, to bring Stan back so he could be with us for the 1976 Stella meeting.

It was a time in my life when the true meaning of friendship among our band of brothers meant one would not hesitate to help a friend. We didn't spare a thought for the extra expense, the additional hours spent in the saddle rather than partying with your mates at Luigi's, or even the fatigue that would result at the end of the day after such a tough ride through the curvy mountain roads of the Mont Cenis.

Stella 1976 - Yours truly having fun, playing in the snow of the Sommeiller.

I was feeling pretty exhausted the next morning, waking up early to start Day 1 of Mario Artusio's three day Alpine Safari. This exhaustion was as a result of both the accumulated fatigue of the previous days travelling and the hangover from a Sunday's night of partying and hard drinking at Luigi's.

I had no choice that morning but to find inner strength and resolve to continue. I had to keep my word, having committed myself to Kiki (Blanchot) to do the safari together, (him on his Honda 750, and me on my Commando 850), plus a bunch of other friends, including of course the bearded Raspoutine.

Safari 1976 - On the right part of the photo, our 'Frenchy' group of safari riders. From left to right: Christian Blanchot ( aka Kiki with sunglasses on his head), yours truly (looking down), Michel Cregut, Andre Massay 'Dede', and Patrice Michelet 'Miche'.

This group, part of the 1976 Safari included many international riders, mainly British, German, Dutch, Belgium and French. As usual, the participants roamed the surrounding mountains along the goat trails for three consecutive days. Everyone was on road bikes, often relieved of their cases or fairings, (kept at the campsite), both to gain maneuverability and lose weight and obviously to avoid smashing them when falling.

Safari 1976 - Your physical strength was tested daily and team efforts were required to overcome extreme obstacles. The rider in the blue tee is Hans, a cool dude from the Netherlands who rode a Benelli Tornado 650 twin. Hans and his spouse Riet, both members of the Confrerie des Chevaliers Motocyclistes 'brotherhood', were true 'die hard' rallyists in the old days.

For many continental motorcyclists of the 1960s and the 1970s, classic British bikes with tens of thousands of miles on the clock had gained a poor reputation when it came to durability and reliability. This was especially true in the large circle of bikers who relied solely on hearsay.

It's certainly true for some models known for their engine weaknesses and fragility. Personal experience tells me that there is no way we can include in that list the 'unbreakable' 850 Norton Commando MK3 Interstate model 1975. Its solidity was proven on numerous rallies, (both international and in France).

I loved that bike, taking it on several extreme 'off-road' climbs such as the Stella Alpina, its 3 days Alpine Safari, and the tough climb, as well of the Mont Canigou rally 1976, organised by invitation through the late Michel Morereau and the members of the MC Roussillon-Perpignan .

Canigou rally 1976 - The 'off-road' climb on my Commando to reach the site of that rally was even harder to me than the Sommeiller climb. Yours truly (in the photo center) at the Canigou 76 rally, with on his right the bearded Francis Maillard of the MC 95 (club organizing the 1970's Millevaches winter rally).

With correct mechanical maintenance and the proper handling, I firmly believe that wonderful product of the legendary British motorcycle industry would be able to take you to the ends of the earth. I'm pretty sure that Nigel Woodthorpe would say the very same thing about his faithful Triumph Trident.

The word 'unbreakable" (that I used above to describe my Norton Commando), did not apply to Raspoutine's BMW during the safari 1976. While climbing the Jaffereau, his front tyre threw up a stone, hitting his oil pan. Less than 500m later, the oil light came on to warn him that there was something definitely wrong. He immediately stopped to check it out. A glance under the engine revealed a neat hole in the bike's oil pan.

Belgium 'die hard' rallyist Pierre Schuykens and I removed the broken oil pan, taking it with us to fix it later in Bardonnechia, abandoning Raspoute's BMW in the mountains against a stone wall. Raspoutine continued the safari that day as a pillion passenger.

Safari 1976 - Yours truly (in jeans and cowboy boots) and Pierre Schuykens (behind me) into the outdoor mechanical session while Raspoutine supervised our work.

The oil pan was fixed later at the camp site using plenty of steel glue and hardener. After a day's drying under the hot Italian summer sun, Raspoute traveled 30k back into the mountains to reinstate the oil pan. For the record, the repair must have been a good one since it lasted many more years, until Raspoutine finally gave it away to a fellow BMW rider who had experienced a similar issue.

Stella 1976 proved not to produce the kindest memories for our friend Stanley. After he abandoned his BMW motorcycle on the way to the rally, bad luck continued to follow him in an even worse way. After I rode back to France on Sunday afternoon to get him, we arrived at Luigi's in the evening just in time to enjoy a good pasta dinner meal and the usual after-party with a full-on drinking session. The pizzeria was crowded with around fifty regular rallyists.

Stella 1976 - The party is on at Luigi's with the MC Dragons in the house!
From left to right: Alain Chaux 'BSA' (MC Dragons jacket), the late Louis Jouannard 'Loulou' (wearing glasses) and Yves Beranger 'Bebert'.

Stanley drank far too much that night, perhaps in an attempt to forget the problems his BMW had suffered that day. At closing time, he left on his own, stepping out into the deserted high street in an attempt to get some fresh air.

No one will ever know, not even the drunken Stan himself, what exactly happened that night.

One version of the story says that he may have found himself face to face with thieves breaking into a local grocery store. They knocked him out and carried him into the shop, thereby incriminating him in the burglary.

Another version is he got into a fight with local lads and they pushed him through the shop window. The 'polizia' found poor Stan sleeping like an angel on the floor of the shop. He was arrested and jailed.

Stan didn't have a single bad bone in his body. He was not a fighter but rather a gentle cool and laid back lad liked by everyone. Luigi and his family went to the police station to vouch for him and to attest his innocence, trying to have him freed, but the law had to be satisfied and he was sentenced and transferred to the old fort prison of Suza. We had a collection between ourselves, raising money for a lawyer to defend him and to pay any fines so he could be released.

After the Safari, I stayed a few more days in Bardonnechia, when everyone was gone. My plan was to ride up into the mountains to the old fort prison of Suza where Stanley was jailed, visiting him to lend moral support. But though the authorities let me in, they didn't allow me to see him. Poor Stanley was finally freed after a hard week of incarceration.

- Jean-Francois Helias