Sunday, 3 July 2011

What happened in the Pyrenees? Read on...


What sort of fool stops a motorbike in the middle of the road on the sharpest, steepest bit of a Pyrenean hairpin bend?

Erm…the one on the Enfield!

It wasn’t just the knockout view that stopped me in my tracks. I was missing gears. Enfields often have neutral in between gears but this was different. I suspect it was more to do with my new boots being a different distance to the gear-change lever than anything untoward in the gearbox or clutch. But there I was, with an eyeful of tarmac seemingly inches before me, facing steeply uphill on a right-handed bend desperately pulling in on the front brake lever and trying to stay upright. The rider behind me had nimbly avoided crashing into me when I had been unable to locate first gear. Gingerly letting out the clutch, I’d engaged it, thus avoiding a backwards hurtle down the mountain.

It’s been a while since the bike and I were travelling in the Karakorams, Himalayas or Andes and I’d lost the knack of mountain riding. But soon we were in that glorious rhythm of swinging round the turns and doing the sort of riding you just don’t get in the UK.

More used to solo travel, I thought it would be a different experience to go ‘on a tour’. I didn’t know what to expect but imagined it would be regimented with early starts, prearranged routes and organised stops; I’m more used stopping on a whim and having lazy mornings and late departures after exploring where I ended up the evening before. I took a friend with me, allowing ten days to enjoy meandering southwards through France to join the other guests at Pyrenees Motorcycle Tours for a week.

Neil bought his smart 2000 Bullet 500cc for a song on EBay. My Bullet, also a 2000 model is scruffy and dented, has been through Indian and Australian rivers, up and down deep Pakistani valleys, across rickety Cambodian bridges and has a variety of botched repairs. He’d had his for just ten weeks. I’d had mine for ten years and had ridden 50,000 miles since buying it new in India and riding it home to Bristol. With only 9000 miles on the clock, his looked new but had obviously not had such an exciting life. Of the two, mine looked like a prospective heap of trouble and I wondered what would snap, wear out or fall off this time. Every journey has a generous sprinkling of mechanical mishaps with which to enhance the experience.

Whether it was because it didn’t like the name Neil had chosen for it or because he’d added an ugly fairing, is unknown but ‘Sheila’ was not happy about something.

She made a fuss about starting and stalled at every drop in revs. I was sympathetic as I knew that at any moment it might be my turn to be exasperated at the roadside with the toolkit spread out before me.

As long as we didn’t miss the ferry, it didn’t matter. We had plenty of time to get it sorted whilst meandering through France in the soft September sun. We just about made it to Portsmouth and I heaved a sigh of relief as the bikes were tied down on the car deck.

“Jac! The carburettor’s fallen off!” Neil cried outside a restaurant in Cherbourg where our antics at trying to get Sheila started were entertaining the diners, meals abandoned and necks craning. My nail scissors and sellotape enabled a temporary repair to the crumbling manifold to get us back to the campsite. At least now there was an explanation for the stalling and difficult starting.

Cherbourg is a nice town. We got to know it very well over three days whilst searching firstly for any sort of manifold which could be adapted to fit, then when that led nowhere, for car radiator hose which I’d used when my manifold perished in Colombia to good effect and is there even until this day. On the third day we returned to the original car-parts shop where the assistant had previously said “Non”. This time he said “Oui”. So with no air-leak into the engine and many enjoyable plates of seafood later, we fought our way through the throngs of strikers who had turned out to protest about the proposed increased retirement age. We rode down one-way cobbled streets and along pavements to get out of Cherbourg.

Confident the problem was now solved, after a while I noticed Sheila was not behind me and turned back. There was Neil, helmet off and sweating, jumping up and down on the kick start, surrounded by his tools amid a sea of demonstrators. Eventually she got going and we made it twenty kms down the road when we decided to stop for lunch. Sheila decided to stop for good.

After a light meal of sea-bass and rhubarb tart we decided there was nothing else for it. We needed help. Some local bikers phoned a mechanic who fetched Neil and his bike whilst I followed. After some Gallic head scratching, Neil rang Hitchcock’s, (the answer to all Enfield-owners’ prayers) for advice. An instant diagnosis and sale were made and we, with a new town to explore, left Sheila and went to find a campsite. The French certainly know how to camp. Towns usually have a charming municipal campsite and Valogne’s was in a beautiful walled garden at the end of an avenue of trees. Three days, a circus, two museums, a tour round an 18th century townhouse which was for sale and lots of Calvados later, the ‘power pack’ to replace the regulator and rectifier was sent and fitted. I was beginning to worry that we wouldn’t get to the Pyrenees in time as there was no margin of error left for either bike. The rest of the journey was at a more jaunty speed but we still managed to enjoy French life at Enfield pace and frankly, I wondered as we rode on south, what could be better. The country roads were practically empty. The fresh yellow sunflowers which I had seen earlier in the year lifting their yellow faces upwards to the sun, now brownly peered down at their feet, as if looking for their fallen petals on the ground. The rush of spring and summer had settled into a long deep green sigh. And then there’s the food! If the aroma wafting in the open-face helmet doesn’t tempt you, there’s no better appetiser than seeing people sitting outside at tables in pretty town squares with waiters laden with plates and bottles manoeuvring amongst the diners. Not a traffic warden or double yellow line in sight.

Swimming at the end of the day’s ride in a river or lake in the late afternoon sun was delicious and it seemed summer was slowing to a standstill and would stay like this forever. We ate fresh mackerel cooked by the fisherman in a seaside beach-hut. We camped amongst the ruins of a chateau at spectacular medieval Vitres. Near Bordeaux we were just about to unload the tent when a man who’d followed us into the campsite asked if we would like to dine and stay with him and his family at their nearby house. Pastis and beer were served in the garden whilst we talked with Bernard who had travelled extensively, and Nadine who told us about her job as a cockerel castrator! This, we learned, is what makes them fatten up to become capons! There’s more to being on the road than getting from A to B!

Our last campsite before joining the tour had a pool and a view of the beckoning Pyrenees. Despite Sheila’s capricious ways, we’d made it.

It was easy to find Phil and Belinda’s lovely home in picturesque Vielle Adour. Making an initial good impression by delivering the 240 teabags I’d been asked to bring, I started to relax in the spacious modern kitchen with them and Harry the retriever. Belinda explained that they’d come to France three years ago for a change of lifestyle and to run motorcycle tours. They chose this location after much poring over the map; near the mountains but not so buried in them that riding routes are restricted to a few local rides. Rather than spending time getting out of a tight valley or remote mountain-top first, you can set off in any direction from here. Spain and Andorra, through the National Pyrenees Park to the south is an exciting day’s ride and the French coast and Basque region are to the west. It wouldn’t take long going eastwards to get on a ferry for Morocco from the Mediterranean coast either and Bordeaux is to the north. The charming town of Bagneres-de-Bigorre is 15 minutes away and for city requirements there is Tarbes.

Meanwhile, the little L’Alaric stream runs right outside their courtyarded home. They have restored this 180 year-old house themselves even learning to do the roofing and flooring. The décor, whilst completely up to date blends sympathetically with the age of the house. The garage expands into the outbuildings as more motorbikes arrive and my Enfield must have been pleasantly surprised to be under cover for the first time since it was kept in a hotel kitchen in Morocco earlier in the year. Phil has always been an enthusiastic mechanic and he couldn’t keep his hands or spanners off it. After its first wash since last year’s Bristol Bike Show, it was wheeled onto a hydraulic bike lift to raise it to eye level. Phil wanted to solve the missing gear enigma and I wanted to change the oil in my clutch case. I told Phil how wary I still am of over-tightening instead of loosening nuts since ruining the oil-plug thread on someone else’s Enfield. “Aha!” he said. “Just remember ‘Righty-tighty, lefty loosey’ and you’ll never go wrong!” He adjusted the front twin leading drum brake so it worked better than it ever had done. The workshop is immaculate and there is a bike wash area, drying room for wet m/c gear as well as a laundry and storage area for helmets and bulky clothing.

The farm yard opposite with chickens, rabbits, pigs, quacking ducks and occasional passing tractors remind you that you are in rural France. The bread-lady brings fresh croissants each morning and the village postman shouts a cheery “Bonjour” as he delivers the post. If you are not a motorcyclist, a holiday walking, cycling, skiing, painting or reading in the garden would be just as ideal. There is even a separate private little house in the garden.

That evening we had a superb dinner of roast peppers and anchovies followed by beef in wine with cinnamon and cloves, and lots of local wine and cheese. Over a glass of Armagnac, the enthusiasm of other guests who, arriving before us, had already had some days of riding in the area was catching. The local mountains had been treated to the sounds of a Triumph T120 Bonneville, a 1956 Norton model 19, a BSA B44, and a BSA A10 Road Rocket. They had opted to do unaccompanied daily trips out and I was pleasantly surprised to find that I wouldn’t have rise at the crack of dawn after all. My initial concept of this bike tour was completely wrong, although should I want an all-day tour led by Phil, I could have just that. Flexibility is the word here and if you find yourself in the area, all Phil needs is an hour’s notice and he’ll arrange a ride for you. Everyone is catered for… couples; solo riders; and groups of lads who want to go as fast and as far as possible, roaring round the traffic-free bends on sports bikes. There are riders who want to make their own routes or ask Phil for recommendations. Some want just to ride the roads and aren’t concerned with the views. Others want to stop frequently to admire the mountains. Some want a bit of off-road riding and others don’t but end up having a go unexpectedly! But Phil is proud that he’s not lost anyone yet! For those who come with non-riding friends, buses stop frequently nearby with all the local towns within easy reach. All sorts of bikes and their riders come for a holiday. Girls on Harleys; Suzuki Gladius and BMW GSs (of course), classics and sports bikes. Many photos of happy customers are pinned up in the workshop. Just make your own package. If you come at the right time of year, you may even be invited to take your shoes and socks off to tread the grapes at the local vineyard as Belinda did last year.

I fell immediately for Harry, the bilingual golden retriever so after my first night in my elegant room awoken by the soft cooing of collar doves in the garden, I took him out for a walk alongside the little river. This joyous dog needed no lead even if he did taunt the dogs behind gates with his freedom. Then, with Phil and Belinda leading the way on a Triumph Tiger 955i, we set off in the sunshine. I’d asked for a short tootle to start with and spent a lovely day going not very fast through sweet French villages with markets and mountain roads with lovely views. We stopped for a picnic at a viewpoint with a 360 degree vista and further on watched a hilarious sheepdog demonstration in a park where the sheepdog (a scruffy, brown, yappy thing) managed to scatter the sheep all over the flowerbeds instead of herding them neatly into a pen. It was a wonderful day and my fears about being led at breakneck speed all day disappeared.

The next morning it was miserable and wet with no mountain views so I went to nearby Lourdes instead. It was like Las Vegas with wheelchairs. Brightly lit shops with flashing neon Jesus signs sell religious trinkets to hopeful people. Expecting to see cast-aside walking frames, the only evidence of a cure I saw was a discarded sticking plaster. On leaving, I still had the tinnitus I’d arrived with despite being prayed for by a man in a tourist information kiosk from whom I’d only asked directions.

The mountains beckoned on the third day so with a variety of bikes ranging from a Yamaha TDM 900 to my Enfield Bullet off we went for the day. Belinda has a Honda CB200 and she came with us. Phil led us on his Triumph, leaving the Honda VFR in the garage. It was a day of spectacular views, blue sky, stops for coffee, lunch and afternoon pancakes, lovely winding roads and very little traffic. In fact Phil noted that we rode 70 of the 150 miles round trip with no other traffic on our side of the road. At the top of one peak, we watched griffon vultures circling. Perhaps they were attracted by my sudden stop on the hairpin and thought dinner was ready.

At the end of the run, some of the group had to make emergency repairs before heading off for home the following day. A tyre on the KTM 990 SMT was down to the canvas and another KTM’s clutch slave cylinder failed and he just limped home. Phil to the rescue with spares and spanners! My bike performed magnificently although I’ve been warned it’s on borrowed time regarding the big end.

Neil had to go home and I later heard that he and Sheila went back on a breakdown truck. The engine had exploded when the con rod snapped. The EBay ‘snip’ was not such a bargain after all. My rather smug Enfield didn’t miss any gears or even a beat for the rest of the trip.

I did enjoy being able to choose my own pace, destination and departure time. It seemed strange to have a day out riding and end up where I started 150 miles and eight hours before. Some days I chose to stay and explore the local towns. So it wasn’t the regimented expedition, nose to tail procession I thought it might be. It was a real break for me to have someone else decide where to go and find the way whilst I enjoyed the view and the ride. I was impressed.

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