Notes from Ryder: Assen – SuperbikePlanet

Julien Ryder

A Tweet from Dutch journalist Frank Weeink reminded me that it’s been over 40 years since I first traveled to a Grand Prix outside the shores of this scepter island (as we used to call, pre-Boris). Frank remembered Jack Middelburg, one of the three Dutch riders who lit up racing in the late 70s and early 80s, and who won my first overseas race, the 1980 Dutch TT. He was not the first home hero to win the 500cc class at Assen, it was Will Hartog, The White Giant, two years earlier whose victory had sparked national rejoicing. The third man in the triumvirate, Boet van Dulmen, did not win his home race but he took the top step of the podium in Finland.

Riding a motorcycle outside your home country is a big deal. Experiencing the wonder of Assen was an even bigger deal, it fixed ideas in my mind about what racing should be like. These ideas are still there, as are the indelible memories. Here are some snapshots.

This being the UK in 1980, the ferry was delayed for a few hours. A Norton Commando rider rode the queue, watching the masses of motorcycles waiting to board: “Good job, I brought a real motorcycle.”

Dutch highway cafes were a new experience. Unidentified fried items, all served with mayonnaise. Most Brits had a spoonful on the back of their hand, delivered as they tried to protect their fries from that strange condiment: “No thanks.. oh..”

As I was refueling my Guzzi, a Dutch motorcyclist spotted the license plate and approached to tell us that Barry Sheene was not on pole, but a Dutchman was: “And not the one that you think !” It was Middelburg, not Hartog. I was seriously impressed that he was wearing his old silver painted army boots. I said I was worried nothing was open by the time we got to Assen. He laughed at me.

Camped by the track, kept awake by a German club whose beer and sound supplies arrived in a VW Combi. Ate fries with mayonnaise and walked in on race morning among what seemed like a biblical crowd. Baffled by the sight of locals eating whole pickled herring for breakfast.

After Hartog’s victory, there had been an invasion of crowds, first to greet Wil and then to remove pieces of track as a souvenir. This time, the organizers had hired a load of scruffy-looking security guards with even scruffier German Shepherd dogs to line the track. The Dutch threw sandwich pieces exactly halfway between the pooches: the result was a lot of dogfighting.

We saw Ricardo Tormo win the 50, Angel Nieto the 125, Carlos Lavado the 250 and Jon Ekerold the 350. Then the 500. Roberts led the first two laps before Middelburg took over and took a 14-second lead. In the last laps, you could follow his progress by the Mexican wave (this term had not been invented, but good) which preceded him. I don’t think anyone noticed that Graziano Rossi took second place ahead of Franco Uncini on the last lap. It was Jack’s first win and last for a four in the 500 through the frame. It was a Yamaha and the only time it won in the hands of a privateer. The following season, Jumping Jack – so called because of his lameness caused by the push from private machines to stay with the factory bikes – won Silverstone on a Suzuki RG500. It was the last real victory for a privateer in the top category.

I see in my history books that I also witnessed Carlos Lavado’s first GP win, the only time Yamaha beat the Kawasakis all year. Assen was the kind of track that rewarded agility, speed and skill rather than outright speed or raw power. Ago’s last victory on an MV was in the 350s at Assen in 1976. In the only time the bike came to the flag all year, Ago bombed the TZs of Ceccotto and Katayama and the HDs of Villa and Bonera of 24 seconds on a scorching hot day. It was a bigger achievement than the 500m win in Germany later that year. Assen is special.

The story takes place and is or was made in Assen. This mid-season date meant this was where deals were finalized and the geography ensured you saw license plates from more countries than at any other event. I lost count of the nationalities I spotted on the way back to the ferry and was seriously surprised by the crowds that lined every overpass and wave point. You don’t get this when you leave Brands Hatch.
It’s no exaggeration to say that this weekend opened my eyes and changed the way I look at racing. I have a small piece of South Loop tarmac that was dug up during the 2005 Assen modification hanging in my office. I watch it often.

Julien Ryder
Julien Ryder

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Wiley C. Thompson