I’ve rented cars and driven in France quite a few times, where I often rapped my knuckles against the window as my left hand automatically sought the gear lever which of course was on the, er, wrong side… but I’ve never taken my own vehicle abroad, and certainly not a motorbike – at least with the bike there’s none of the issues that car drivers have, like now being on the wrong side of the car to get views for overtaking…
This was also my first full tour with a large group – I’ve done short tours, just a couple of nights with large groups, and longer tours at home just me and my gorgeous girlfriend, but never a big group for a long trip. Given that besides me and my girlfriend there were 10 other bikers going, only two of whom we knew… for an anti-sociable b*st*rd like me that’s a lot of new people to have to put up with for 12 days!
The tour started nicely – just 3 bikes heading down from Edinburgh to Telford where we met up with a few more, were put up overnight in one couple’s house, then a long run the next day to meet up with the final two at Watford, and finally round the M25 and on to Dover. We’d left Edinburgh in around 12c, and Dover was in the low 20’s, so it was already feeling warm – little did we know what awaited us, temperature wise!
The ferry crossing was a doddle, even for a total land lubber like myself. An hour and a bit later we were in Calais, and only a very short run to the hotel – the only issue being that nobody had clocked that we’d lost one bike at the port – our tour organiser zoomed off to find him and shepherded him back to the hotel in very short order indeed. That first night in France I was knackered – the ride down from Edinburgh as far as Carlisle was pleasant enough, but thereafter was pretty much all motorway. Dull, dull, dull. When the hotel bar said they stopped serving at 10pm I was quite happy to head off for some kip as we had yet more motorway ahead the following day. Apparently 3 of the group thought otherwise and arranged a taxi to a local pub where they drank far too much, came back too late… the following morning Ali didn’t look too chuffed with her husband Stuart – he’d spent the night calling Huey on the porcelain telephone… not a happy lady!
The ride to Le Mans was totally uneventful, and the scenery was utterly boring. Yet more motorways, and some péage – toll – roads – empty, fast, but seemingly random toll amounts… In a group of bikes, given you all have to wait for everyone to get through each péage area, both to collect the ticket at the start, and to pay at the end, you do wonder just how much time the péage can actually save you?
The Le Mans hotel was lovely, although the city traffic was a bit of a nightmare trying to keep all 8 bikes together.
Now, French drivers on the motorway… well, they aren’t nearly as guilty of outer/middle lane hogging as UK drivers are, on the other hand, they think nothing of whizzing up the outside lane, then cutting up everything on the inside lanes in order to make the exit they MUST have known was coming up. No point trying to stop them doing it – it’s gonna happen whatever you do, so may as well hang back and let them get on with trying to kill themselves.
On the route from Le Mans to our main Destination, Riders Rest, we had arranged to meet another member at her pal’s café. That was all very well, but firstly somehow wires had got crossed so this person had thought we’d be there the previous day. Er, no, that was never the plan… But her pal had arranged to lay on a big spread for us, so not wanting to let her down, off we went, even though the person we were going there to meet up with now couldn’t make it along.
Although there was some info for the satnav it turned out it only got us to an industrial estate, and not the restaurant… the directions also turned out to be totally useless – ‘opposite the big armadillo like building’ – well in which of the 360 degrees around this building could you be said to be opposite it??? The restaurant actually turned out to be tucked along at the end of a big Carrefour supermarket – in fact actually in the same building – so ‘go to the Careffour and it’s along at the far right end’ would have been a perfect and easy to follow direction… as it was we wasted almost an hour riding around every blasted road in this huge expanse of industrial and retail estates in blazing heat…. Lesson learnt, stick to your own plan, and stuff all this nonsense. Oh, and never, ever, ask a woman for directions! To be fair to the lady running the restaurant, she DID put on a lovely, and seemingly never ending spread for us – although nobody was very partial to the seemingly only partially cooked black pudding…
Anyway, we could then finally head on to Rider’s Rest, Thule, Treignac. – Tony met us on the road outside the house and with the bikes parked up the introductions were made. Tony is a striking chap, well built, ex Royal Marines Commando with piercing eyes… His lovely wife Wendy was our cook – cooked breakfast every day, and 3 course meal every evening – bring it on!
When Tony heard that the very tall me and my also rather tall girlfriend were to be in the attic double room he insisted we take the other double room – the one the tour organiser, Chris, had reserved for himself… erm…. Felt rather bad about that, although I wasn’t going to argue with Tony, he just doesn’t have a demeanour that invites easy disagreement… and the room he wanted us to have was ever so nice, so who was I to argue??
We had 6 full days there, 7 nights. Wine was supplied with the evening meal, plenty of it, and the rate we’d paid meant the beer was included, as much as you wanted… You’d think that would mean a mega piss-up every night, but the novelty of free beer wears off very quickly, and the wee stubbies supplied are ideal for the climate – i.e. small enough to be drunk before they warm up – but it does mean a lot of runs to the fridge…
This area of France is just dripping with history from the Crusades, and WWII. The castles and châteaus are stunning, the myriad back roads are twisty and usually devoid of traffic, and, for our stay anyway, the weather was amazing.
French petrol stations took a bit of getting used to – during normal hours all pumps are open and you can’t pay at the pump at all, you have to pay the kiosk. Out of hours only some pumps had pay at pump facilities, severely restricting available pumps. As Tony was guiding us, that was 9 bikes to fill, sometimes with only one pump…. The other hazard is the grades of petrol… Sans Plomb 95 or 98 are fine – 95 is the cheaper one and fine for bikes, but AVOID any petrol with E10 tagged onto the end of the name – it means 10% ethanol, and it dissolves stuff it shouldn’t, especially on bikes – avoid at all costs!
With the warmer and drier climate it’s little wonder there are plenty more bikes out on the roads there, and driving on the right is great for bikes as it means you’re passing left side to left side, leaving the rider’s left hand free to give a lazy wave out to the side – try doing that in the UK and you have to let go of the throttle… not so clever.
One many of the runs the speeds were high, and therefore the wind noise too much for our Scala to cope, so I ended up listening to music streamed to the Scala from my phone – I will now associate lots of Vangelis tunes with zooming around the French roads!
A massive advantage of having such a knowledgeable guide as Tony is that not only does he know the best roads, he also knows where the fuel stops are, where the best cafés are, and where the best stops are for photo opportunities. All of this makes the whole experience so much less stressful – and no pressure to keep up – running the ‘drop off’ system means that you don’t need to worry about missing a junction as a rider will be dropped off at the next junction to show the way, and will then re-join the group at the back, this also cycles through the group so everyone gets a chance to ride behind Tony. It all worked very well indeed – top tip though – if you’re the next to be ‘dropped off’, expect it, and look for a SAFE place to stop where you will still be visible to the riders behind you, but that also doesn’t obstruct traffic or put you in danger – the other may be minutes away, stuck behind traffic they couldn’t get by…
We had 6 days of ride-outs :
Day 1 – Brantome
Brantome sits on the River Dordogne and is just gorgeous, although a nippy sensation on my shoulder turned out to be a bee sting – riding with you jacket partially unzipped to get more air in also lets the blasted bees in…
The run back took us to some amazing places
Day 2 – Puy Mary Volcano Parc
First stop was on a dam, which the French resistance had defended from the retreating Nazi attempts to blow it up, flooding the towns below it, and cutting an important route. They obviously succeeded, but not without many of them being killed.
Day 3 –
On our way there we stopped in at a huge Motorbike superstore – I got mesh gloves, so did most people, and a few bought vented jackets – the heat was getting to us! We also nipped over the road to the Decathlon store to buy wicking tops etc.
Oradour sur Glane is ‘the Martyred Village’ – where 624 men, women and children were massacred by the Nazi’s. They were rounded up and machine gunned, from babies through to grandparents. The town has been left almost completely untouched since that terrible day and now stands as a very moving reminder of the horror of war.
Sadly, this occurred in Vichy France – an area that wanted independence from Paris, and figured the enemy of my enemy is my friend, so the cooperated with the Nazis, even supplying troops, officers as well as supplies. When the Nazi command demanded action be taken against the ‘terrorist’ French resistance, it was French General in a Nazi uniform who decided to make an example of a village thought to be assisting the Resistance. Not only was it a French man who decided what to do, it was also a French man that decided which village, and it was French troops in Nazi uniforms who took part in the massacre.
For the people of Oradour Sur Glan, they had never had any bad dealing with Nazi troups up until now, so when they were told the troops were looking for an arms cache, they weren’t worried as they knew there wasn’t one there, so they went willingly – women and children to the church, and the men were taken to 4 different barns within the village. Only when they heard machine gun fire did they realise what was happening, and then it was too late. Only 4 people, 3 men and 1 woman from the entire village survived. The inside church still shows the bullet strikes where women and children, some only months old, were machine gunned.
It’s a haunting, and very sad place.
It was also very, very hot!
Day 4 – Rocamadour
More amazing scenery? Oh, OK then!
Day 5 – Millau Viaduct
Riding over it was really nothing special – panels at the side prevent you seeing anything much, so you have no point of reference to understand how high you are.
Unfortunately on the ride back, one of our group crashed. He was lucky really – he crossed the opposing carriageway on a corner and ended up in a ditch, but luckily nothing was coming the other way. He was taken off to hospital with a suspected fractured sternum. We continued on and got back to Riders Rest at 9pm that night – God bless Wendy for making sure dinner was ready for us when we got back! What a total star!
Day 6 – Collonges La Rouge
A ‘Day off’ – so Sharon and I set off alone to Collonges La Rouge via Argentat.
Argentat is just gorgeous
Collonges La Rouge was very pretty and quaint, but it was also a total tourist trap, full of wildly overpriced restaurants. Even the Pizza place was only willing to provide a ‘Plate du Jour’ at an exorbitant price.
Decided that sod that, we rode off and instead found a nice hotel that provided a lovely lunch for half the price, and in a lovely setting too
Heading back to Riders Rest we got thoroughly lost in Tulle, which apparently is to be expected, but got back despite that to enjoy the last night there, and some lovely cold beers.
Then, finally it was time to head home.
It was roughly 1,000 miles from Rider’s Rest back to home for us. Leaving Rider’s Rest was sad – Tony and Wendy are fantastic hosts, and it was them that really made this trip, but Rider’s Rest is up for sale, so will they still be there when I return??
The run up to Calais was thoroughly boring and uneventful. A lot of motorways. We did end up on the Peripherique around Paris, and I’m told the Eifell Tower was visible, but I was too busy filtering, while chanting internally ‘remember the panniers’ …
The ferry crossing back was a bit rougher than the initial crossing, but happily not enough to give me issues.
It was the ride up the A1 that was interesting! After saying our goodbyes to the guys and gals heading west, 3 bikes headed north. A puncture was a minor issue really, it was the thunderstorms that hit us that did the damage – well, not damage, but we hadn’t had time or warning to get the waterproofs on, and we got hammered by torrential rain and hail (in July!). As we passed a sign saying that Scotch Corner was 40 miles away I pointed it out to my girlfriend who then pointed at the Services sign immediately after it. We pulled into the services thinking we’d get a bit of a heat and maybe dry off a bit, but then realised just how wet we were, and one of us, Colin, was totally soaked through and shivering away – not in any state to ride the remaining 200+ miles home – he decided he was going to the Travel Lodge to get a room for the night. That put the idea in our heads, and soon we were all agreed that was the best thing to do.
We spent an evening spent hair dryers trying to dry various bits of kit out, pinching newspapers from reception to stuff into boots and gloves, then a pretty rubbish dinner in the services, followed by a few very expensive beers in the hotel.
The following day we had agreed to meet at the bikes at 8am. Colin couldn’t be roused – all that could be heard from his hotel room was loud and contented snoring. Oh well. The last two bikes headed north up the A1. I got only about 30 miles and the bike gave a twitch… had I hit a stone? – then another….. and another…. what the hell was going on? Suddenly it started to shake. Crap.
We were in roadworks, so I slowed until the shaking became more manageable and pulled off as soon as it was safe. I suspected a tyre, but on inspection, both tyres were good and pressures were fine. Hmm. We got back on the bike again and set off carefully, keeping the speed below 40mph, but the shaking returned, and I could hear squeaking too. Still no hardshoulder, so had to drop the speed more, and very soon we were able to pull off into a petrol station.
Further inspection showed the seal from a rear wheel bearing poking out along the rear axle. Not good. I called the RAC – I have a good level of cover, so time to use it. A van showed up just 20 minutes later, the chap couldn’t have been nicer or more helpful. He rang round all his local contacts and identified a bike shop just 10 miles away that had the bearing in stock. Great. Wheel off, and I jumped in the van with him. Arriving in Darlington, the bike shop was closed as the owner had said he’d have to ‘pop out to town’. Dammit. All there was to do was to wait on him.
We were interrupted by a lovely lady from Saragon Custom Paint, located behind the bike shop, so passed some time nattering to her and admiring the paintwork she does for motorbikes – very, very impressive stuff!
Eventually the bike shop chap came back, and he set to work on the bearing – it was totally gone, and the inner race pretty much just fell out, the mashed bearings following, leaving the outer race firmly wedged inside the wheel.
That outer race wasn’t for budging. A slide hammer extractor broke, so they resorted to grinding down a section of the bearing race until it could crack and therefore release, allowing the race to be removed.
That was a long job, it had to be done with great care – a steel bearing race in an alloy wheel – the steel is far tougher than the alloy.
Eventually it was done, and with the knackered bearing replaced, plus the other bearing also replaced for good measure, we drove back to the petrol station where my gorgeous girlfriend had been waiting for what must have felt like an eternity (apparently talking to cows and sheep can only keep you entertained for a fairly short time..).
With the wheel fitted, we said our profuse thanks to Mr RAC man, and we could finally get back on the road, 3 hours after we first pulled into the petrol station.
We rode up the A68, stopping just beyond Jedburgh for the first food of the day – at 3pm! It was oh, SO good to finally get home that night!
I can’t thank the gent, Chris, who organised this whole tour enough – he did a fantastic job, sorting the routes, the accommodation, fuel stops – the lot! Oh, and he didn’t complain, even once, about being kicked out of his planned room in my favour! In fact not only that, but both he and his lovely wife donated me their cooked tomato every morning at breakfast (well, shame to let them go to waste) oh, and I got the mushrooms off my girlfriend’s plate too… and her tomato – so I got the biggest breakfast of everyone, every morning!
Motorbike Touring tips for warmer climes and/or France
Check your credit card can be used – tell your card company you’re going abroad so they don’t suddenly stop the card thinking it’s been nicked. Cash can be used most of the time, but out of hours at petrol stations you NEED a working card.
Invest in vented gear, including jacket, trousers, gloves and boots. No point almost passing out from heat on the bike! The temps got as high as 44c on this trip. Don’t forget the waterproofs too – it won’t all be sun, especially not for the ride to and from the ferry port in the UK! If you have the space in your panniers, the vented kit sold abroad is much better than the stuff sold in the UK.
Carry plenty of water. Got a topbox or panniers? Fill it with water bottles – frozen ones if you can, so they stay colder for longer. If no storage on the bike, then invest in a camel backpack. You MUST stay hydrated or your concentration will suffer.
Go easy on the evening beers – they might be lovely, cold and refreshing, but a sore head and a dehydrated start to the day aren’t going to help you enjoy what you are there for – to play in the twisties!
Wear a wicking layer under the bike gear – standard T shirts do a rubbish job – go to a Decathlon store or similar and stock up on cheap wicking tops and leggings – cycling tops cost a bit more, but they have a sticky or elasticated waist so they don’t ride up so easily when bent over on the bike.
For those of us not used to living in a hot climate, suddenly being sweaty all day can cause skin irritations – talc can help, some nappy rash cream like sudocreme may be useful, and an antihistamine is good for sweat rashes as well as insect bites. If you didn’t bring such things with you, there are pharmacies in just about every town, even the smallest, quietest ones, and if French isn’t your strong point, before you go, download a translator app to your smart phone – ideally one that works offline, so you won’t need expensive data connection.
Shops in rural France close for lunch, for two hours or so, so if you do need to get to them, plan around that. 24/7 convenience shopping has yet to reach the sleepy backyards of France, and that’s where the best roads are.
Are you a smoker? I’m not, but plenty on this trip were – most supermarkets don’t stock cigs – that’s the job of the Tabac shops, and they seem to be precious few and far between when you’re gasping for a fag… invest in a carton or whatever you need for the duration of the trip while you’re on the ferry over to France and save the scrabble for a tabac, who probably doesn’t carry your favourite brand anyway..
Make sure you have all the necessary docs WITH YOU on the bike – if the unthinkable happens and you crash, they will want to see EVERYTHING – Passport, EHIC card, Travel Insurance, V5, MOT, Insurance certificate, Driving licence – unless you’re critical, they WILL delay treatment until they check everything is in order and you are covered. Remember too that if the accident was your fault, even with an EHIC card, you will end up liable for 20% of the costs after the first few days in hospital.
Sadly, if you do crash, most bikes simply aren’t worth enough to make it economic for the insurer to recover the bike back to the UK, so get your mates to strip as much of the accessories etc off that they can, especially satnav mounts etc. You’ll still get a settlement from the insurer, but unfortunately there’s a high chance you won’t see your bike again.
Breakdown cover on long trips is a must, unless you really like living life on the edge! A roadside repair is much more likely during normal business hours, when the recovery guy will stand a much better chance of being able to source parts, otherwise it’s a recovery job.
Carry a good puncture repair kit, a pump or the CO2 inflation kits. Personally I wouldn’t rely on the small 12v electric pumps – they have a habit of expiring just when needed most, and likewise cheap footpumps have a nasty habit of bending out of shape…. CO2 is one use only, and don’t forget to wear your gloves as the sudden decompression makes the cylinders dangerously cold to touch.
A decent first aid kit and high viz might be required for France, or they might not, depending on who you listen to, and also the whim of the French Government, but they make sense to carry and don’t take up much space, so why not carry them?
Péage – toll motorways – don’t lose the ticket you get at the start of the péage! When you get to the pay point, the display will probably say 1, or Class 1 – meaning you’re going to get charged the rate for a car – if it says class 5 great, otherwise press the intercom button and ask for Class 5 – Class Cinq (‘sank’) – which is motorbikes, and often almost half the car rate. Cash for tolls is a faff, especially on a bike – a credit card is much quicker, no pin needed, just whack it in and it’s returned almost straight away. Finally, I have a use for that tiny storage compartment on the bike fairing! Just have to remember not to leave the credit card in there when I’m away from the bike…..
Ferry’s – P&O apparently take the best care of bikes – you’ll be directed to a point so that the bike’s saddle is between two tie-down points, then there will be ratchet straps available that you are expect to fit – put the bike on it’s side stand, not centre stand, and engage 1st gear, hook the strap in place with the pad on the seat and the ratchet on the stand side of the bike, pull the strapping through the ratchet to take up the easy slack, then use the ratchet to tighten it up – just tight – not so tight you leave a furrow in the seat!