It’s a quirk of biker psyche that we imagine we can ride with equal skill the bikes of the fast and furious, men who can do things on two wheels that seem not only impossible but at times miraculous.
I can still remember – yes, I’m that old – when Giacomo Agostini raced his MV Agusta at Oran Park in the 1970s and it made a sound like a badger screwing a mongoose. Giacomo took one hand off the ‘bars in the corners to wave to his fans, something you might expect from the son of a wealthy industrialist and a man who won the Isle of Man TT 10 times before withdrawing when it got too hairy, even for him. I would have loved to have ridden that ripping MV of his, or the Hondas of Mike Hailwood or anything at all touched by Joey Dunlop – if only to discover how difficult they were to angle park.
But road racers aren’t the only machines coveted for their historical and hormonal value. A healthy global interest exists in dirt bikes of all types, from two- and four-stroke motocrossers to trials bikes, flattrackers and even big-bore desert racers like this one, a replica of Steve Chapman’s 1985 Wynns Safariwinning Honda XR600.
As a dirt bike scribbler back in the day, I remember the big XR fondly. I can’t say I covet one, though, for this machine could be difficult to start and would crush your cashews if it fell on you. But the XR600, and even the colossal XR650 that followed, went on to win many endurance races here and in the US, including the famous Baja 1000, as fast as the Americans say it is but nowhere near as dangerous as our Australasian Safari or the maniacal Finke Desert Race.
The XR600 was reliable and tough but could never claim to have been cutting edge. It was a big dumb thumper with a single-cylinder engine and the curious anomaly of two carburettors. It was uncomplicated, easy to work on and so reliable that it sold here in vast numbers for a long time.
That Victorian bike mechanic David ‘Beak’ Murray would go to the trouble of replicating the bike that Steve Chapman used to win the inaugural Wynns Safari says a lot for the regard in which these bikes are held among those who ponder such things. And to be honest, it didn’t take a lot of work to restore the XR to its former glory, which wasn’t very glorious. Beak started with nothing but the original seat and tank, because no more of theoriginal bike remained, and a week later he was done.
IT AIN’T SLICK
As a race bike, Chapman’s original XR600 wasn’t stock but so close to it that it didn’t matter. It was built by the rider who came third in the ’85 Safari, Peter McDonald, now a power equipment retailer in the Victorian alpine town of Mansfield. Back then the bike was owned by Honda. It didn’t really believe Chapman had much chance of winning against the likes of Phil Lovett’s KTM 600 or Gaston Rahier’s fancy-pants BMW R80 GS, but nonetheless it wanted a piece of Safari action. As for Chapman himself, all he wanted from the Wynns experience, he says, “was to see a bit of the Outback”.
Fortunately for the McDonald-Chapman team, reliability not outright speed was the design objective. There were times across the Tanami Desert where Chapman would hold the Honda’s throttle pinned for three hours. Imagine that! “I thought she’d blow up eventually,” he recalls, “but she just kept on going. To be honest, I couldn’t believe it.” Neither could Phil Lovett.
As I say, very little was done to race prep this Honda. The engine and exhaust were stock. So were the brakes and tyres. The standard fork was replaced by a front-end from a Honda CR250 motocrosser. The 28lt tank came from a European Honda XL600, while the instruments, alloy bashplate, and the all-but-useless halogen headlight were borrowed from another XL. A large rack in which to carry parts was secured behind the shortened seat – “We simply sawed a bit off the old one,” says McDonald, and with that splendid if understated machine did McDonald and Chapman tackle one of the world’s toughest longdistance races – and win it.
There’s a wonderful story – and true, it turns out – that connects this bike with exemplary sportsmanship, high drama, and no doubt a major corporate dummy spit. On the last day of the Safari, Chapman discovered at 5.00am before the first special test that he had no headlight. His XR looked a bit ordinary after two big crashes by then, and the XL headlight, as well as God knows what else on that hard-working Honda, had totally karked it.
But what happened next is hard to believe in the context of sport as we know it today. Seeing Chapman’s plight, Gaston Rahier, three-time World Motocross Champion, winner of the 1985 Paris-Dakar Rally and BMW factory rider, offered to guide Chapman with his BMW’s headlight until the sun came up. They would ride together in the dark.
“So that’s what we did,” says Chapman. “I followed Gaston until it was light enough to ride at race speed and then we were back into it.”
What BMW thought of the gesture we have no idea (well, we actually do, don’t we) but the act was apparently typical of Rahier and yet another reason to inscribe the man’s name in the ledger of all-time dirt-bike heroes.
Because of Rahier’s gesture, and a few mechanical problems with his Beemer, the Australian went on to win his first desert race by several minutes. Chapman and Rahier enjoyed a casual friendship after that, built on mutual respect. Steve is now a 54-year-old cherry and berry farmer in Victoria. Gaston Rahier, the tough little Belgian, died of cancer in Paris in 2005. He was 58.