As a British bike racing fan, my first overseas Grand Prix was always going to be Assen. The Harwich to the Hook-of-Holland ferry and then a few hours up the motorwayshow difficult could it be? Anyway, there was always safety in the vast numbers of British bikers who block-booked the boats in the run up to the race.
However, this was 1980 and I was riding a Moto Guzzi, which my friends saw as upping the risk factor considerably. This being 1980, there was another complication: the (British) ferry company was on strike. Instead of arriving at the Hook around lunchtime, we arrived at tea time. Riding on the wrong side of the road wasn't a problem, I just followed all the other bikes. Eating was a bit more difficult. As I'm English I don't speak many foreign languagesa bit of French but certainly no Dutch. How do you say: 'No mayonnaise on my chips, please'? And what the hell were those things the lorry drivers taking out of those cauldrons in the petrol stations, putting on paper trays andyes slapping mayonnaise on?
Time to fuel up. A Dutch biker on a Honda CB900 spotted my numberplate and wandered across to tell me that Barry Sheene wasn't on pole and that a Dutch guy wasand it isn't the one you think it is. That would have been Wil Hartog who, in 1977, had become the first Dutch rider to win the 500cc class at the TT. It took the authorities a long time to clear the track after the chequered flag as strong men burst into tears, tore down the fences and dug up bits of the tarmac to take home. This time, though, it was Jack Middelburg who was on pole. I was impressedespecially by the fact that the Dutch guy appeared to be wearing his old army boots sprayed silver.
Us British fans knew the mighty triumvirate of Hartog, Middelburg and Van Dulman well. There used to be room in the calendar for a lot of big-money international meetings in between GPs and the Dutch trio regularly raced at Brands Hatch, Silverstone and Mallory Park. None of them would turn up just for the start money. The best GP ever seen in the UK was the '79 Silverstone epic between Kenny Roberts and Sheene, decided on the final run through the old Woodcote corner. That was when it was a real cornerthe quickest corner on the quickest circuit. What a lot of people forget is that Hartog was a close third in that race and on the rostrum told the crowd, in near perfect English, 'The best man won, I could not have any faster gone.' Honest as well as quick.
Naively, I had thought that it would be difficult to get a spot on a campsite or anything to eat late at night at Assen. How wrong can you be? I ended up on a campsite with fellow bikers from countries I couldn't have found with an atlas. You could tell the English, they were the ones with mayonnaise on the back of their hands... (you got your frites then tried to stop the old lady in the van pouring mayo all over them). So that's why the guy with the silver boots had laughed when I asked him if anything would be open when we got to Assen.
Race day was special. So many people and so many races: 50, 125, 250, 350, 500cc and sidecar in those days, but just like today we were really all there for the big class. Middelburg was on pole but another feature of the good old days was push starts. No problem unless, like Middelburg, you were known as 'Jumping Jack' because of an unpleasant habit of picking up leg injuries. Sure enough, Jack was limping heavily when he lined up on pole position and couldn't get away with the leaders. He came through the field though and during the last half of the race I saw my first Mexican wave (before the term was invented). From my seat in the grandstand I could see the crowd reaction following Middelburg round the lap. Incidentally, the guy who finished second that day was called Graziano Rossi.
Assen 1980 was Jack's first win but not his last. Next year he won at Silverstone, a privateer out-racing the great Kenny Roberts and I was there to see that win as well. I also said hello to him in the carpark as he was drilling the boot lock out of his Mercedes; I didn't think I should ask why.
Sadly, Jack died not long after and the other two-thirds of that great generation of Dutch racers are long retired.
I've been to a lot more TTs since 1980 but I still look forward to going there more than just about anywhere else on the calendar, it's an event any race fan should get to sometime in their life. You don't have to be Dutch to love Assen (and it's not compulsory to like mayonnaise).