THE REAL FREDDIE SPENCER
The last man to win two world GP titles in the same year joins MCN for a ride and reveals all...
Freddie Spencerõs tucked in on the three-cylinder Honda NS, working the motor hard, intent on keeping the bike in its tiny powerband. His footõs a blur as he slots another whip-crack gearchange, momentum never wavering as he drives forward.
Moulded around the tank, eyes piercing his Arai with a 1000-yard stare, the operation of every operation control is butter-smooth, accurate and effective. Thereõs an aura, an easy confidence that only comes from the truly talented.
But this isnõt 1985 and some faraway racetrack, this is 2017 and Freddie has popped into the MCN office and is now out to play on some of our favourite local roads. Weõre all a little starstruck.
A legend in Peterborough
Itõs been a funny old day. It all started when we picked Freddie up from Peterborough train station and brought him back to our business park office. The sight of a three-time GP champion, the only man to ever win the 250 and 500GP title in the same year hanging out by our mouldy coffee machine or chatting to the girls at reception is bizarre. But it felt important enough that we even had a tidy before he came.
Ònice office youõve got here,ó says Freddie, politely nodding at our sea of creaking desks and tired computers. Despite now living in London, his Louisiana drawl is as strong as ever and his modest, softly-spoken nature is a world away from many racers. He seems like a genuinely nice man.
We spend the next hour or so going through MCNÕS archive, digging out great pictures of his great career. But the most exciting part of the day is is to come Ð the ride.
A meeting of icons
We go outside as the van rolls up containing two other Honda icons Ð an NS400R and a RC30. Both are in stunning condition, beautifully prepared and begging to be ridden. Freddieõs noticeably excited. Òyou couldnõt have picked two more interesting bikes, and both of them have real meaning
‘He won 500cc and 250cc titles in the same year and has come to visit MCN ’
with my career. The NS feels really does have a good flavour of my three cylinder NS500 that I raced in GPS. It’s the engine feel, the smoothness, the geometry.
“The same goes for the RC30 – in many ways the chassis here has always reminded me of my NSR500 – by the late 80s stuff was filtering down from HRC.” Freddie’s familiar with the RC30 too – he rode one to pole at Daytona in 1991 and even won in AMA superbike on Two Brothers Racing version.
Starting both machines is an event. The NS400R NC19 crackles into life with a hearty, satisfying kick (no electric start of course) and settles into a smooth, offbeat idle from its V3 motor.
It’s in time-warp condition and a study of 1980s acronyms, from the TRAC (Torque Reactive Anti- dive Control) forks to the ATAC (Auto Torque Amplification Chamber) powervalves.
Freddie sympathetically blips the throttle, blowing fragrant smoke rings from the NS’S triple pipes as he does. His affinity with two-strokes is obvious. He then kicks up the faired-in sidestand and rides off.
I take the RC30. That V4 booms and rumbles below me harmonising with the whine of those gear-driven cams and pulling smoothly and strongly through the tall, 82mph first gear.
Following Freddie is surreal. I’m a fan of the blood, guts and skill shown by 80s GP racers and for the last few years I’ve worn a Spencer-rep Arai. For me he was always the ultimate racer – smoother, more economical than anyone else. He never looked flustered.
And on the road he’s the same. When Freddie arrived in jeans, jacket and trainers I assumed we’d cruising and while the pace is only brisk, it’s enough to glimpse into greatness.
His road position is perfect and every now and again he’ll do something that reminds you he’s not quite like the rest of us.
Insight into genius
We’re having a good ride, repeating the same set of corners, backward and forward for the photographer. It is this repetition that allows you the odd glimpse of something otherworldly. I know the road, Freddie doesn’t, yet even on the first pass I can barely keep up. He’s so smooth, so efficient in direction changes that everything looks easy. He’s not even leaning over.
Watching his genius through a cloud of two-stroke smoke, it’s hard not to get a bit giddy. He’s on the power earlier and uses far less road than me, too. It’s the difference between a man who used to smoke tyres for a living and another for whom every slide makes him want to take up smoking.
Freddie loves the NS. “It’s the best one that I’ve ridden since I rode in the promotional video for the bike in 1984. The way it handles reminds me of my old race bikes. What’s interesting is that at the time they didn’t know any better when it came to chassis design, so the bike was very flat in its attitude but had steep rake and trail – and that’s why it feels so agile and happy on the road. My NS500 racebike felt the same. Like this bike, the NS was really good at changing direction, but was set in the corner.
“But it’s the engine that makes this bike so special. There is nothing like mastering a two-stroke and its response, of learning the throttle control, of the promise of what’s to come. It’s the anticipation that makes it so beautiful. It’s poetry.”
It’s time to move on and we swap bikes. Summer’s come early, the sun’s out and there’s enough warmth in the air to propagate grip. Freddie’s right about the NS, but I’m interested in what he thinks about the RC. In my opinion, 29 years on it’s still the perfect motorcycle. They exude an integrity, a sense of rightness that very few other bikes can match – and this one fuels better than any 2017 bike. It’s creamy.
“That bike had a lot of influences from HRC. The power delivery is stunning – the transition between the
‘Watching his skill through a cloud of two-stroke smoke is an amazing thing’
midrange and the top-end and the midrange is lovely. It’s the kind of bike that is easy for your head to stay ahead of. I remember the first time I rode a factory V4 with the Interceptor and I loved the smooth, linear power. I won at Daytona 1983 on a V4.”
The joy of riding
This time Freddie follows me. Being tailed by one of the most talented riders that ever lived is a nerve-racking experience and you feel constantly judged. After ten miles I’m sweating from the concentration. Anything less than the perfection I’ve witnessed won’t do. Every gearchange has to be perfectly executed, every line perfectly carved. Of course I fail.
But if he thinks I’m rubbish he’s far too polite to say – 55-year-old Freddie is modest and well meaning and has witnessed a lifetime of less-than-perfect riding as a superstar track instructor. We stop off at a local pub for a chat. One thing that shines through is his love of bikes and riding.
“Racing was about riding the bike, the anticipation, the control. When I was a kid there was so much joy with just riding my bike and feeling what it was going to do and being ahead of it. At night I used to lie on my bed and think about riding and what my reactions did to the bike and then the next day, the things I thought of would work out for real. Riding bikes has always been a beautiful thing to me.”
‘ There’s nothing like mastering a two-stroke. It’s poetry’ FREDDIE SPENCER
Both our Hondas bring memories back to Freddie
Thanks to Rob at Classic Trackdays and Andy at the VJMC for the amazing RC30 and NS400R. Spencer loved both equally Freddie tops the French GP podium, with Marco Lucchinelli and Ron Haslam
Spencer shows MCN’S Tim and Matt his career highlights
Freddie sifts through MCN’S picture archive. We had a tidy-up in his honour
‘R for Roberts, S for Spencer.’ Spencer sorts our filing
‘It’s all about throttle control’ Freddie talks, MCN listens
‘Not exactly Gardner is he?’ Freddie on his new riding partner
‘What’s your favourite colour?’ Freddie gets grilled on the sofa