How a French Barber Saved Team USA

The Motocross of Nations happens this weekend, and as Jonnum Media’s own Mandie Fonteyn sets up in England to support Cole Seely and Team USA, I’m reminded of the one time I attended the event, covering the 2000 edition in St. Jean D’Angely for Cycle News.

Those were still the glory years of print moto-journalism, when we would publish exhaustive race reports in the newspaper every week. With AMA Nationals on Sundays and deadlines early Monday mornings, there was never enough writing time. In an effort to get in a couple hours' sleep on Sunday nights, I would typically complete chunks of the article during race day, before the motos were even finished, then add a lead and conclusion that evening before going back through the piece one last time, making any necessary changes, and sending it all back to the office in Southern California. The internet was still relatively young, and not much of my valuable time was devoted to web posts, which were usually limited to brief recaps that I banged out in a few minutes after the checkered flag fell.

This time though, then-editor Paul Carruthers had asked me to post some good website content during the course of the weekend, which would mean delaying most of the work on the print story until the race was actually completed. Fortunately, the time difference between France and California bought me nine extra hours, and I intended to capitalize by getting some quality sleep and then waking up fresh on Monday to write the bulk of that article in the hotel.

Back then you couldn't count on having an internet connection in your room, particularly in rural France, but after confirming that the MC Motocross Circuit pressroom would be open on Monday, I confidently put my plan into action. On Saturday I scored interviews with Team USA riders Ricky Carmichael, Travis Pastrana, and Ryan Hughes, as well as team manager Roger DeCoster, and my web content did justice to the squad’s dominating performance in qualifying. I even earned a compliment from my photographer, the late, great Steve Bruhn (an internet pioneer in the moto world).

The 2000 MXdN  Cycle News  cover story that very nearly wasn't.  Steve Bruhn photo

The 2000 MXdN Cycle News cover story that very nearly wasn't. Steve Bruhn photo

The friendly banter wasn't limited to fellow countrymen; while journalists clearly pulled for their respective countries, they willingly worked alongside reporters from other nations, even helping each other out by providing background on their teams. Similarly, because riders based out of their sponsoring manufacturers’ trucks, mechanics for the PAMO Honda squad, for example, spun wrenches on the CR500s of both Hughes and Frederic Bolley, arguably Team USA’s most formidable rival.

In fact, when Team USA posted a convincing victory the next day, it was thanks not only to Hughes’ and Carmichael’s outright moto wins, but to Bolley having his nose broken by an errant rock in the early laps of the first moto, yet while DeCoster accepted the Chamberlain trophy on the podium, press officer Pascal Haudiquert—a proud Frenchie—graciously offered me his congratulations.

Pleased that my country had snapped what at that time was an unheard-off three-year winless streak, and proud with having populated with a steady stream of stories, perspectives, and images, I fired out a last web post before celebrating with a belly-full of oysters and Muscadet wine, then drifting off to a luxurious (and rare) Sunday-night slumber.

As planned, I awoke before dawn and spent the morning knocking out nearly 5,000 words for the print edition, including ample quotes, three sidebars, half a page of news notes, and another half-page of agate. Finished with an hour to spare, I checked out of the hotel and headed to the track. Entering the now-abandoned pressroom, I plugged my laptop into the Ethernet port that had served me so well for the previous two days (Wi-Fi wasn't an option back then), only to discover that internet service had been disconnected the night before—a detail I had neglected to confirm earlier when making my plan. Sacrébleu!

If internet service was rare in French hotels at the turn of the millennium, it was even scarcer outside of them, and I knew immediately that my options were very limited. A janitor cleaning the pressroom told me of an internet café about 10 kilometers away, and I hightailed it in my rental car, heart racing as I made dangerous passes of tractors on narrow country roads. Not yet having even heard of GPS, I nonetheless managed to find the village using just the janitor’s sketchy directions, but I needed another 20 minutes to locate the internet café. When I did, I was horrified to learn that it was closed for a French holiday. Putain!

Imagining Carruthers sitting down at his desk to find an empty email inbox, I desperately began running down the village’s deserted sidewalks, tugging on doors of random businesses, not even sure what I would do should one of them open. When I spotted a man unlocking a hair salon, I hailed him and stuttered out my predicament in broken French, and despite my frantic appearance, he invited me in. Introducing himself as Hugo, he explained that he had stopped by his parlor to pick up a forgotten book to read on his day off, but he kindly invited me upstairs to his office. There, I saved my story onto a floppy disc and handed it over with trembling fingers, whereupon Hugo dutifully connected his PC via dial-up modem and emailed the story off to California from his personal account.

That week, as American race fans eagerly absorbed the details of Team USA valiantly vanquishing the home team, they had no way of knowing that the fact they weren’t looking at six blank pages was thanks only to the heroics of a French hair stylist named Hugo.