I once tried to get into cycling and it all became very serious, very quickly. What turned from cycling to work to stay fit and healthy – despite risking life and limb on the streets of London – to longer rides at the weekend soon strayed into organised sportive rides and then threatened to turn into competitive racing.
Men (and it was mostly men) who spent half their waking lives dressed in lycra, and seemingly more than half their disposable income on uncomfortable bikes, carbon wheel upgrades and shoes that could shave a few grams from their weight (never mind the beer belly) tried to take me under their wing and suggested I should join a cycling club and have a go at a few competitive events.
I sensed this would not be to my liking. On weekend rides they’d try to make me train like some sort of Tour de France wannabe, bursting my lungs for two minute intervals, resting for another two minutes, before going hell for leather again.
What had happened to me? I only got on a bike to clear my head, keep fit, see more of our beautiful country and – the best bit – enjoy the company of mates. Trying to ride like Bradley Wiggins was not any of that.
It’s the company, and the camaraderie that comes with friendship, that I enjoyed most about getting on a bike. It’s the same with cars. I could jump into my Honda Integra Type-R tomorrow and drive the North Coast 500, scale the Furka Pass or scare myself at the Nürburgring, but when I’d finished, and was sat having a meal for one, and half a shandy, with nobody to regale about my experience, it would be something of an anti-climax.
It’s a point that was rammed home on a trip to Le Mans Classic. A group of 16 of us, from all walks of life, somehow managed to get organised enough to book a house near Duneau, less than a half hour’s drive from the circuit. I say house, it affectionately became known as the ‘murder house’ as it gave the Overlook Hotel a run for its money when it came to sending a shiver down your spine.
Our mix of cars was, unsurprisingly, eclectic. Yours truly took his BMW M3 (E46), only to be well and truly relegated to second division once the field of the mill house filled with a Caterham Seven 310R, a Lotus Elise 220 Sport, a pair of McLarens – 570S and 600LT – and, as Jeremy Clarkson would have it, an MFB. For the uninitiated, that’s a Bentley Continental GT W12. Not bad, eh?
It didn’t end there. An owner of an original Alpine A110 brought along his modern A110, his son wheeled out a Porsche 911 Carrera (993) with a charming, laissez-faire patina, my old mate took his 911, this time a 964-era RS model, while the last to arrive were a father and son who’d travelled by Ferrari 328 GTS.
The interest and mutual appreciation of each other’s car was all present and correct, as was the desire to dispatch a forward patrol to the local hypermarché to clear the shelves of barbecue food, cold beer and vin rouge. Needless to say, we talked rubbish long into the night.
Novices and veterans alike of Le Mans Classic and the annual 24 hour race took in the sights and sounds of the classic racing machines at every opportunity, ticking off destinations including the Dunlop Curve, Mulsanne, Arnage, Porsche Curves and of course the Pit Straight. But those of use that have been before also steered the itinerary to include a visit to the historic Hotel de France, in La Chartre-sur-le-Loir and a night eating on the strip in Arnage, with a roadside table affording the best view of all the pleasingly silly antics that go on up and down the high street there.
But the best bit of all was spending time with friends, whether new or old. This is restorative, relaxing stuff – an important and often forgotten or at least underestimated positive that comes with the car hobby. We weren’t there to trade lap times, compete for a concours, buy or sell; we just wanted to unwind, tell bad jokes and pull each other’s leg.
And when one of our party’s car refused to start (clue: it was the Italian one), during a pitstop at the Hotel Arbor, on the Mulsanne straight, our spirit was not broken. Those of a mechanical bent rose to the challenge, a faulty fuel pump relay had been diagnosed, a ridiculously competent French gentleman named Denis Foussard had worked out how to make a repair (he had form in electronics, including designing the ECU for the Pagani Zonda’s Mercedes-AMG V12. Merci, Denis!) and before you knew it it was up and running again. It’s another example of how the people around our hobby are some of the most generous you could hope to meet.
With the increased awareness around mental health, I can say that half way through a busy year, getting together with friends and talking cars (and crap) is one of the best tonics for recharging the batteries. And while this may not be news to those of us who’ve been round the block, the sense of community was a novel – and welcome – experience for the four 20-somethings in our group.
It’s not something that’s easy to get across to those in a position of power who think they know best about determining what the future of driving looks like. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to make sure our hobby, and all the good it brings, isn’t better appreciated.