Gorging to Excess (if not FF)
An everyday story of motorcycling folk.....images under 'touring'
After Florence in 2007, this year we kept our Euro-tour to France. Not so far, lots of space, variety and character, as well as excellent roads and food.
The overnight boat from Portsmouth to Le Havre is my favourite cross-channel tool, regardless of who runs it. We had the usual crowd of bikes at the ferry: immaculate cruisers, laden sports and seasoned travellers. For some reason you never see them after the ferry.
My new entry level Beemer GS had the panniers and top box filled but not stuffed and was very manageable, but I did still hanker for the Voyager, which keeps it all tidy and in-board. Why do entry level bikes get bigger every year? Are beginners getting more expert? 70+hp and 200kgs are not in my book entry level
Mark had become a little critical of his Multistrada Ducati, - beautiful but lacking on the practical side. However, as I learned later, that did not mean I could criticise it.
Docking Saturday morning, we were soon out of the port. After Rouen, we changed to N-roads towards Orleans and then up the Loire valley. We were well ahead of the northern contingent, coming via Zeebrugge, who had docked later and had further to travel; so we stopped for lunch at a smart village restaurant for an immaculate Menu-du-jour. Without batting an eyelid, they ushered us to a table well out of view, despite the place being empty. Shortly after, most of the smart-set of the village arrived to have their 3-hour Saturday lunch, but they did not seem to mind us. Revitalised, we continued south, across the Loire and past Mangy Cours, which was preparing for it's big F1 day the following weekend.
In the UK, we seem to spend all our road money on motorways, and have seriously neglected the lesser, but more interesting roads. Not so in France. Almost wherever you go in France, you will find well surfaced N-roads waiting for you (one exception: see later). Partly traffic volumes I expect
Water of life
Our goal for the first stop was Volvic, where the water comes from; and not surprisingly it does rain a lot!
The rest of the party arrived at the hotel some 2 hours later and the reunion was complete. Mike, whose old Varadero had blown up, one month previously, had replaced it with a spanking new one. In fact a matching pair with Steve's 3-month old mount. So with 3 new bikes in the team, we were a lot smarter than in previous years. Tom still had his older Varadero, and Tony his VFR, but I used to be the scruffy one.
Next day was spent touring this volcanic region, with its coned peaks, ancient calderas and wet rain. Heading south on the third day, keeping on the country roads, we were further tested with, streaming wet roads and tricky navigation. Tony, the least experienced in Euro-tours, might have given up here, but our encouragement that it would improve seemed to help. Occasionally the rain would ease and we began to realise why we had come, but it was hard work.
All was forgiven when we arrived at the gorge du Tarn; itself magnificent but the Auberge, with its own spectacular waterfall and bridge was breathtaking. The hotel garage doubled as the workshop, into which we gladly (but foolishly) wheeled the bikes. We normally choose hotels with pools, so we can cool off from the day's riding, but this year, nobody seemed to want further immersion. The workshop nature of the garage rewarded us with the ability to adjust the Ducati's chain; needing a decent socket set for the job. .
French for Puncture
There was some weather respite, as the next day was just showers, so we took in the terroir. The folly of the workshop/garage was however revealed at the top of a remote wooded mountain, when inspection of two rear tyres revealed screws embedded in the tread. Mark is a tyre man, so temporary plugs were expertly inserted and enough compressed air found to get us down to the nearest town. There, our French was enough to find the local bike shop, who inserted more permanent champignons with the tyres removed, while we found some food (not easy at 3.00 pm as lunch was definitely over).
We just had time to visit the amazing Millau viaduct, at the bottom of the gorge. The French are justifiably proud of this edifice, soaring across the valley nearly 1000ft below. Designer, Sir Norman Foster, is of course British; a fact that the French don't mention much; but face it, we would never have had the gall to build it.
The evening run back up the gorge was memorable, with roads beginning to dry out, and the GS ,now pannier-free, finding its ideal type of road.
Next day's escape from the Tarn brought us to the only road-complaint of the trip. As part of the renewal of the road further up the gorge, they had covered it in 6-inches of sand for 1km; firm in places, but loose in others. Not fun for big, laden bikes. I led through it and counted the bikes out at the other end. Two short. After what seemed like an age, a mobile call told us the bad news: Steve was down. We went back into the sand and found Steve trying to refix his panniers to rather bent brackets on a scratched Varadero. No real harm done, so after a bit of moral support and metal bending, we were back on track.
Now the sun came out and as each pass led to another beautiful valley, morale improved dramatically. Good, twisty and car-free roads, spectacular mountain scenery. Whenever you stop, there will be good food and a biker-friendly atmosphere. Getting a taste for gorges, we took in the Ardeche: busy with tourists this one, but you can see why, as the narrow gorge opens out into a magnificent canyon. Lots of signs warning bikes not to overdo it and, given the tourist traffic, one can understand. One ear-oler coming the other way however was relaxed enough to wave, despite being horizontal at the time.
Two wheels good?
Now we were in Provence and it was living up to expectations. Hotel was in a village in the shadow of Mont Ventoux , a popular biker's blast with a white limestone top at 1900m.
More terroir-investigation the next day and of course a trip up the mountain. Most of the locals did not seem to realise they had reached the top as they were still going hell-for-leather as they entered the car-park - Mark and Tom nearly being wiped out by an extravagant move from a lethally-driven modern-looking sidecar combo on the last bend. The descent also had novelty - we discovered the cyclists' view that speed won on a descent is not to given up under any circumstances. We might have been waiting for a safe place to pass, but not the Tour-de-France brigade!
History will tell you that it was the 1967 Tour on this mountain, which claimed the life of British cyclist Tommy Simpson and that was going up!.
No Sheep for the wicked
Leaving Provence, we threaded our way properly into the Alps, touching that wonderful route de Napoleon south of Grenoble and ending by going up the fast hairpins to Alpe d'Huez another classic Tour climb. Here our map showed a white road down the other side, to where our hotel awaited. In reality it was more of a track. Not like our some years earlier, but certainly rough, rising to 2000m at the Col de Sarenne before narrow hairpins brought it back down. Not even sheep for company at the top.
Two Gentlemen of Verona
We were initially unsure about this next hotel; run by two young men. Reality dawned in the restaurant that night - most of the couples were exclusively male! Still, a hotel is a hotel and we did not complain, nor get any offers. Not their type perhaps.
Frogs and frogs
Next morning Mike left for Brussels to restart his work; a long ride but he who rides alone...... and so it proved, as he was home before our last hotel stop on the shores of the lake near Langres. Here the frogs in the lake (amphibian) serenaded us to sleep while the larger frogs (drunken mammalian) woke us up with a noisy early morning swim after the disco closed.
Now the party was over, as Mark and my direct route to Le Havre was straight through Paris, whilst Steve, Tom and Tony were heading due north to Zeebrugge. This was Sunday again, and I suppose there is no good time on the Peripherique but it was a bit of an eye-opener for Mark as we fought off the close attention of the Parisians. I nearly lost him completely by being signed into the wrong lane for the A13, just before the junction. The Gods were with us however as a gap just opened at the critical moment. In retrospect, probably a standard local move.
Evening return ferry and back home the same day. No real chance of a sleep (high wind and waves notwithstanding), so we arrived back late and weary but ready for next year!
By-the-way Bobbe, the petrol consumption of the GS is remarkable. Mid to high 60s being quite achievable without any trouble. Now with proper aerodynamics, who knows what could be achieved ?