French Leave

It’s 6am on a Friday in June, and some sort of semi-conscious recollection tells me that this is D-Day for the annual club invasion of France and that I really should be heading for the nearest ferry terminal. After managing a state of denial about my increasingly frantic alarm, I finally give in to its electronic persistence and fall out of bed at 6:30. But by 7:20 I’m sitting on the loading ramp of the ferry in Portsmouth harbour.

Call me an antisocial git (form an orderly queue, please), but a 5am hack across 120miles of Southern England to reach the Chunnel with the main group is not my idea of wakeful fun. The fast SeaCat had been full (a P&O claim later denied by others) so I took the slow boat, arrived in Le Havre at 3pm and I was sitting in the bar in the Hotel Dauphin in L’Aigle by 4:30pm.

Which was probably a mistake, as I was cheerfully beered-up by the time everyone else arrived and great concentration was required to maintain conversation. Which of course explained my headache the next day – too much concentration, clearly. As before, the Hotel Dauphin was welcoming, hospitable and thoroughly pleasant. Pity then that I wasn’t there – along with the rest of the ‘disreputable bachelor’ contingent, I’d been booked into the only other nearby alternative, the Hotel Artus. L’Aigle is a small town and, it being national Musique week, everywhere was booked solid, so t’was Hobson’s choice. And I have stayed in worse: a flophouse in The Congo being about all that springs readily to mind. One night there was quite enough, after which bribery, corruption, luck and pathetic whimperings found me a place in Le Dauphin.

First Aside: when does a habit become a tradition? In each of the last two years a certain member of the club has entirely failed to finish the French trip on the same motorcycle he started on. That looks like a habit. Now it might be pushing it to claim that two years of expiring Ducati, BMW-hurling and deer attack can be called a tradition. Three I’d suggest lays a good claim. So, while sitting contemplating the joys of Biere pression, I heard motorcycles approaching. Particularly, I heard the sound of a v-twin exhaust playing continuo to the rattle of a Ducati clutch. “Aha”, thought I, “that’ll be either Malcolm or John, then”, just as a group of machines hove into view, led by Mr C’s Ducati. I’d just got as far as thinking, “Coo, he’s made it this ti…”, when I saw the state of the fairing. So let’s call it a tradition, shall we?


Saturday brought sunshine (a little), dampness (rather more) and hailstones like the foretaste of the Apocalypse. At 90kph, pea-sized hail hurts. A lot. I have little idea of where we went that day, other than vaguely Westish to Suisse Normande and to thank Mike Bradbury for picking a splendid series of winding, twisting, rising, falling and, quite often, dry roads and then setting off down them in determinedly fast and smooth fashion. We did pass through, and stop for coffee in, one small town called Carrouges. I am convinced that this is a town which moves to intercept lost travelers and comfort them with cheap bars and damp grey architecture – every single day bar Sunday we ended up in the bloody place at least twice, regardless of which direction we’d set off in. Dinner was brown and edible, the wine was red and drinkable and a tiredly good time was seen and heard to be had.

Sunday was a little more sedate and a lot more cultured – a sizeable group of us headed for Chartres, despite both my attempt to win the all-comer’s “Faffing Around” award and the best efforts of French “Rues Barré” and “Deviations” to send us en masse down random goat tracks sans turning places.

Fortunately, the day was also distinguished by the best use of marking I’ve ever seen (I’d stopped, with backmarker, to ‘inspect’ a local cornfield, in search of improved concentration, and had huge fun playing catch-up through junctions and roundabouts, each with its own clearly positioned and patiently waiting bike). We parked up in the shadow of the wonderful mediaeval Gothic cathedral (try that at Westminster Abbey…), had lunch in bright sunshine in the square, with entertainment laid on as the waiter attempted to test the waterproofing on my new camera with the contents of a bottle of Coke. “Bother”, I said, or words to that effect. The Coke having failed to do anything other than make life sticky, I vanished into the depths of the Cathedral on a photographic quest which lead to more sarcasm directed my way as I returned late to the bikes and then once more faffed around in grand style as, in my haste, I bungeed bits of photo gear to my seat, my helmet to the photo gear and my glove to the helmet. Then something went Sproing! and I had to start from the beginning again.

And of course, we got lost in France (again). This became something of a theme, and riding with someone with a GPS became a thing of joy and wonder, even if the damn things did determinedly try to send us the wrong way around the Chartres one-way system. A godsend though, and I’ve gone out and bought one since i got back. Now if only the GPS systems could remind the occasional BMW owner to check their oil level, we’d be getting somewhere other than looking for semi-synthetic motorcycle oil in places more used to dealing with tractors (and far be it from me to draw any parallel between a BMW and a John Deere). I now have a far more comprehensive knowledge of French rural forecourts than I ever either needed or desired.
Second Aside: Here’s a classic scenario: the back road from Chartres to L’Aigle is twisty and generally well-sighted; the pace is, ah, brisk and the group is in flow. Then the road throws a decreasing radius tightener at us, lead bike has a minor moment of uncertainty and momentarily dabs his brake. Bike 2 (me, in this case) goes, “Urk!” and brakes rather more heavily: the bike of course sits up and widens its line, thus causing bike 3 to consider all the possibilities that a rapid transit of the adjacent hayfield has to offer. But as it was an 1150GS, it would have coped with the experience better than most. And he’d have been able to find his way back out of the shrubbery with his GPS system…
Now for Something to Remember (Part I): 99% of non-Autoroute petrol stations in France close on Sundays. The only ones available are the automated stations which take “Chip & PIN” credit cards. But not British ones – that would be far too easy. It turns out that nearly all British credit cards are made a French company and use exactly the same technology as the French ones, and I’m informed by those who know these things that it’s the British banks who are preventing the automated French systems working with their cards. Gee thanks, guys. Salvation came from the foresight of our wonderful organisers in persuading the local Total station to open on the Sunday evening. Thanks, guys (really).

Something to remember (Part II): France is closed on Mondays nearly as thoroughly as it is on Sundays. I really should know this by now. A small but select group of us had headed off to the Chateau de Carrouges, had gotten well rained-on, tripped over the town itself at least twice and got back from our little adventure to discover the Giverny group muttering darkly – Monet’s garden had been entirely closed, unlike the Chateau, which merely kept us waiting over lunch.

Tuesday, after most folks had headed off to warmer climes, such as Finland, the last local remnants of the group went back to Suisse Normande for a play, after which I split off to make a run for the fast ferry back from Caen, while the others went to stay at Bike Normandy with John and Jeanette Eggleton at Bike Normandy.
Third aside: the ferry port at Ouistreham is well signposted from the main road approaching Caen. I was well early, so chose to detour into central Caen to try and find Pegasus bridge (which of course I’d have seen if I’d just stayed on the main road). The Caen inner ring road appears to have many ways onto it but no way off – at least none that are signposted. Following much more faffing around, I did eventually catch the ferry, with all of three minutes to spare.
Now here’s a little something for debate: This trip was not entirely incident free — I’m currently aware of five mishaps, of which two were the ego-bruising variety only – slipping in car parks or putting a foot down and finding an absence of ground. This sort of thing probably goes largely unreported in the statistics. So that leaves us with three on-the-road accidents which could result in reported insurance claims. If we assume that the average mileage for the trip was (say) 2000km, with 70 bikes taking part, then that gives us an accident rate of one every 46,700km ridden. Doesn’t seem too bad, does it? Until we look at the official statistics: in 1999, the last year for which I’ve got official accident/distance figures, the UK had a recorded motorcycle accident rate of one every 176,000km. That means that we’ve just managed an accident rate approximately 3.75 times the average for ALL motorcyclists. And yes, I know it’s statistically too small a sample size to be significant, but here’s what’s sitting in the back of my head, nagging at me: this is supposed to be the Wey Valley ADVANCED Motorcyclists, yes? Now something somewhere in that tells me that we should have an accident rate that’s well below that of the general motorcycling populace. Discuss.
However, just before the cabbages and rusty header pipes start flying, I’m not being smugly virtuous here – firstly it would merely earn me much and well-deserved sarcasm at any and every opportunity and, secondly, it was mere happenstance that prevented me from joining the statistical ranks when a roundabout south of Le Havre changed half-way round to new-laid tarmac. VERY new-laid and greasy tarmac: recovery from a front-end slide at some speed has little to do with skill and more to do with (just) having sufficient awareness to leave the bike to sort itself out. Or not – adopting a certain level of Zen fatalism probably helps at times like that.
There was however very little “misbehaviour not becoming”. A little hooligan behaviour was seen, along with occasional gratuitous use of the racing line on public roads and the odd dodgy overtake. Tsk. But enough about my riding, how was it for you? Although a couple of members of the club were seen to get their knees down in a public place…

And finally, a footnote: If asked to list the top million places not to drop a bike key, I’d say that in a chemical Portaloo in the middle of rural France would probably come pretty high up the list. So I did, didn’t I? Which is as much information as you could possibly want, but I was nearly very glad of carrying a spare in my tankbag – it took me nearly ten minutes of not-daring-to-breathe movement-by-the-millimetre to retrieve the thing from where it teetered, on the edge of, ah, oblivion. The others thought I’d been abducted by aliens. They still do.
And it only remains to give a huge thanks to everyone who put effort into organising the trip for the rest of us freeloaders, and especially to Ian Nayler for sorting out hotels, ferries, quantum uncertainty and all the rest of the joys of organising 85 people into having fun in the same place at the same time.

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