Stella Alpina Rally
STELLA ALPINA 1974
In French rallyist circles of the 1970s, those motorcyclists who were also keen amateur photographers could be counted on the fingers of one hand. A good professional camera, whilst definitely a desirable asset to document these rallies, was very expensive and a total liability to carry around. Most of the younger riders couldn't afford to buy a good quality camera and more often than not weren't interested anyway.
Back then of course, the objectives for most young riders was the thrill and excitement of riding their motorcycles from their home town to a rally. Along the way there was the prospect of a good time and lots of fun on the road and at the rally itself. They enjoyed good company and discovered new friends whilst meeting up with old acquaintances. Having a real blast partying and getting hammered with the usual drinking sessions was par for the course. These activities proved to be the main ingredients for a successful an enjoyable motorcycle rally.
A view of some of the rallyists camping by the Dora river.
That said, giving it all and playing hard was de rigueur. We didn't think about tomorrow; there was only one life to live, and tomorrow was another day. At the time documenting these early days wasn't a priority, so photos unlike today, are rare.
Back then, of course, we had no idea then that in later life, we would appreciate the memories a bunch of old black and white photos could recapture. Such photos that do exist recall scenes of adventures in foreign countries, visiting along the way, close biker mates we loved to hang with, former club members or simply images of our younger selves. Everyone sported either a Barbour or a Belstaff suit, or perhaps a Lewis Leathers jacket, topped off with a Cromwell or an Aviakit pudding basin helmet and a pair of Octopus or Climax goggles.
Yours truly (on the right), in his younger 'rocker' days, wearing my beloved 'full metal' Lewis Leathers jacket with fringes. No need to say how much my life then completely revolved around motorcycle rallies and speed races, classic British bikes, and of course good old rock'n'roll.
I never had a camera of my own during my rallying years until I think around 1974. Of course I didn't buy it! Some generous soul gave it to me. That second hand, low-quality simple plastic camera, (seen above in my right hand) was what we call in French slang a "soap box" camera.
With a bit of luck, and decent daylight, (the flash was totally useless), and depending on the photographer's consumption of alcohol at the time, the shutter would click…. but the results were unpredictable. A standard 36 exposure black and white roll would maybe produce a few good shots! Sometimes we'd squeeze some 'already rejected' pictures back 'into-the-pile', but often, most ended up in the bin.
Nowadays, the digital era has revolutionised photography, making it easy for everyone. You don't need a sophisticated camera to get high quality pictures. A mobile phone does it all.
At the camp site; a bearded rallyist carrying a big box of groceries for a good outdoor summertime meal .
It's frustrating today not having a single photo in my collection of the various mopeds and motorcycles I started to ride in my first years rallying. But chronologically I recall 49.9cc Motobecane AV88, a 49.9cc Itom Astor, a 175cc Motobecane Z2C from 1954, and a 350cc Jawa from 1956.
From around the twenty bikes and sidecars I rode between 1970 and 1986, (the year I left France to travel to Southeast Asia where I've been living ever since), except for the many images I have of my 1975 850 Norton Commando Interstate, I have very few of any of the others. It's a real shame.
I would love to have some shots of some of the unforgettable classics I had the pleasure to own. A 1955 BSA B31, a 1954 Norton 88 Dominator, a 1971 Triumph TR25 and even a 1976 1000cc Sportster Harley-Davidson Bicentennial Edition, which was the last bike I ever owned.
The usual Sunday morning climb on the Sommeiller rocky track to reach the location where the annual commemorative rally badge awaits every rider.
Some of you may wonder at this point why I'm talking so much about photography rather than the 1974 and 1975 Stella Alpina meetings. There's good reason for this which I'll explain!
I have an extensive personal photo library chronicling motorcycle events. Mainly rallies of course, since they have taken up so large a part of my life, but also motorcycle gatherings, shows and speed races. Another of my related hobbies is the documenting of motorcycle badges and medals. My photo collection of commemorative rallies and club badges worldwide numbers thousands.
Amongst this impressive photo library, some of which I shot myself whilst attending events during my 'die hard' motorcycle years, are images given to me by good friends from time to time. And it's obvious that some fifty years later, my memory, not being as sharp as it used to be, it may be that the name of the photographer or the donor escapes me.
For those who could not ride any further, the only option was to park their motorcycle at the roadside, and finish the climb on foot so they could claim the rally badge.
Because I am using, (now and in the future), some of these images to illustrate my Stella Alpina recollections, I would like to take this opportunity to credit and say thank you to all those fellow rallyists who contributed the pictures you see on this site.
I'd particularly like to thank four French rallyists who were the most dedicated rally photographers of that time: Henry Bry'Frappe'; Hugues Spriet 'Gueguette' (MC Samara); Crotale Rheutal and Momo Geste (MC 95).
The rider of that classic BMW flat twin was skilful enough to reach the refuge at the Colle del Sommeiller.
Let's now return to the 1974 and 1975 Stella Alpina meets.
1974 started badly in France as well as some others parts of the world for motor sports, with the advent of the first oil crisis. So in France, saving precious fuel became a priority and many motorcycle events including rallies were sadly prohibited until the crisis passed.
It made a big impact on the 1974 French rally calendar, although strangely it had less effect on the number of international participants attending the Stella. That number had been steadily growing, even more than in previous years.
STELLA ALPINA 1975
On the Sommeiller track, yours truly on his 850cc Norton Commando. The lad just behind, checking out the ice, is my dear friend Michel Thuiliere 'Pim' (750cc Commando), also a MC Dragons member and a well known 'die hard' rallyist of the time.
Another event that year concerns a local Bardonnechia resident we had the privilege to meet, and who later became a very good friend for years to come. This guy, by the name of Luigi, owned a small hotel-pizzeria-bar in the high street. A place we actually found by pure luck, stopping there one evening for dinner.
There, Luigi was in charge of the bar. His sister looked after the business and its finances and her husband was the chef, creating a wide variety of delicious Italian specialities including antipasti, pizza, lasagna, and pasta. That little pizzeria with its welcoming trio in attendance, radiated hospitality and warmth.
The food was delicious and the prices reasonable. We returned several evenings in a row. Every meal was of course always accompanied by copious bottles of Italian red wine, Barolo, Barbera, and Valpolicella. We were on holiday, so it was time to party!
'Chez Luigi' - Having dinner at Luigi's restaurant . From left to right: Yves Beranger 'Bebert' (MC Dragons), standing up with the black sunglasses; yours truly with my back to the camera and wearing my beloved MC Dragons jacket and on the far right, the late Thibault Feuillade (MC Dragons - section PAVECK)..
These feasts, accompanied by large amounts of wine always had us in the mood to party-on and it became a custom to order a glass or two of the traditional digestif 'Genepi' to finish the meal. This liqueur, related to absinthe and originating from the Alpine plants Artemisia, (commonly called wormwood), creeps up on the drinker and is a real silent killer. The inevitable hangover of the following morning held no fear for us though. It became just another day.
This 'explosive' mix of red wine and Genepi was bad news, but it never stopped us invading the bar afterwards to chat at the counter and enjoy the rest of the evening downing numerous bottles of the local 'birra'.
An old jukebox stood in the corner of Luigis's bar as I recall, stocked with a selection of Italian and British-American pop songs. None of the records appealed to me apart from 'Blues Power' by Eric Clapton; the 1970 version, with the legendary Leon Russell at the piano. I spent a fortune playing that song over and over again. To me it was a classic!
'Chez Luigi' - In front of Luigi's bar, Yves Beranger 'Bebert' (MC Dragons) kneeling, while people walk by on the high street enjoying a sunny July day.
On one particular night, the group was already pretty much hammered and so was Luigi. As the bartender, he had drunk his share. When Kiki Blanchot handed him some money to pay for the latest round Luigi refused the payment. He then started to hold forth on the subject of money being simply paper, (a philosophy we also shared), and that money was not important to him compared to mutual friendships. To underline his thinking, the drinks that followed were on the house.
I'm not sure if Luigi was perhaps a little drunk that night, or maybe he felt he'd already made enough profit with all the money the group had spent at the bar, but it was certainly a generous and sincere gesture that struck a chord with all of us. That night Kiki decided that Luigi's pizzeria-bar would become the exclusive and official 'rendez-vous' of our clan of 'die-hard' French rallyists.
So from the mid 1970s until the beginning of the 1980s, Luigi's pizzeria was transformed in the first week of July, becoming, our 'heaquarters' for the duration of the Stella.
Next time, I'll take you on a journey to the Stella Alpina of 1976. It may be a longer piece than usual as it proved to be an eventful year with some comical tales, but also some more serious stories.
- Jean-Francois Helias