SEIZE THE DAY!
A TALE OF SPONTANEOUS MOTORCYCLING IN FRANCE
A window of a week appeared in what had been a very hectic period at work. The summer was looking to be similar so I took the opportunity. I quickly changed the oil, filters and tyres on me bike. Spent some time pondering maps and ferry timetables. Rashly booked some crossings, packed my panniers and headed from work in south east London to Newhaven.
The plan, such as it was, was to get to Dieppe late on Thursday night, stay in a Formula 1, get up early and go south on a scenic route towards the Spanish Pyrenees. Seek out some trails on the way then do some serious trail riding for a few days in the mountains before heading to Bilbao for the looonnng ferry back to UK.
I knew it was important for me not to start my days on big roads because the temptation is to bang out the miles and miss the whole point of a relaxing road trip. With this in mind I headed along the coast a while before turning left and tacking my way to the town of Duclair, south of Rouen, which boasts a small ferry across the Seine, followed by a scenic ride along the riverbank then up a steep valley to where I knew some farm track/trails were waiting for me.
After slipping along the damp grassy tracks for a time I turned in the direction of the familiar route towards Le Mans. I had planned to stop in the café at Beaumont-Sur-Sarthe that used to be our congregational point for a few glasses prior to getting into the campsite at the 24 hour bike race. To my dismay the weather became inclement so I cancelled the sentimental beer and I carried onto the city itself. I had not realised that it was the weekend that the cars would be playing for 24 hours so the town was heaving with traffic and rain. There were some pretty fancy motors about and I thought of stopping a while but the persistent precipitation only encouraged me onwards.
The rain stopped by Poitiers so I did too, well shortly after, in a small town called Couhe. The Hotel Restaurant la Promenade is great. BnB plus a splendid three courses with beer, wine and coffee came to €75. And of course they insisted I park my bike in one of their out buildings. A good place to put in the GPS if you are ever in the area.
Oils well that ends well
In the morning I noticed that there was a little oil under my bike and on closer inspection found that it was coming out of the filler plug at the top of the frame downtube. It could only mean there was too much from when I did the change. The filler plug is a bit of a bugger to get to and there was no 17 mm socket in the tools I brought with me. Pootling round the tiny roads and villages I stopped at a little car garage and borrowed a 17 and was not surprised when oil attempted to jump out the hole. Not wanting to mess up the nice man's forecourt I returned his socket and travelled on to Angouleme where I found a Daffy Moto next to a quad and KTM dealer. Did they sell sockets? Did they hell! Were their workshops open? Were they hell! At least one helpful sales guy directed me to a commercial area where I found a car spares place that sold me a 17 & 19. After finding a suitable receptacle I drained the excess oil, there wasn’t too much excess, but better out than in!
Hopping, limping and cursing
Onward to the trails that awaited not so far away. It was a bit hit and miss with some only going a short distance whilst others going on for several kilometres. They were damp and loamy which was perfect until the front wheel suddenly slid out and dumped me unceremoniously on the ground. Immediately a severe pain shot up from my right ankle that had been under the bike. I knew it couldn’t be broken coz I didn’t cry, only nearly. Also I didn’t want it to be. However it bloody hurt and it took a huge effort to pick the bike up. As ever the stupidness of the situation was that I had been doing about 10 mph and almost back to the road.
After hopping, limping and cursing for five minutes I decided to get going and see how things went. Distraction from the ankle would make everything alright. Indeed after about half an hour I thought it was time to stand on the pegs. If I couldn’t do that I might as well go home as one needs to get up on the pegs on the trails. It was OK so that was that, a lot of fuss over nothing. That was until a short while later when I went to walk towards some trees for a wee. Riding OK, walking more than a few steps was definitely off the agenda.
A hot bath followed by one and a half litres of French beer whist watching Albania beat France in the Euro qualifiers then a couple of painkillers ensured I slept well.
Had a leisurely start to the morning, not only to give the ankle a chance to warm up but it had rained in the night and the clouds were still threatening more. But after a lazy breakfast the sky started to break up so I zigged and then zagged towards the town of Oloron Sainte Marie. The last time I had been there was in 2007, it was the first night's stop during the Heroes Legend rally to Dakar. We spent a day doing the first off-road stage in the surrounding forest before heading over the mountains to Spain and then Morocco.
This time I only rode through but it was with fond memories of the previous visit.
I was looking for the D26 several miles west of Oloron. It is a lovely little road that wends it’s way up and up, a marvellous route if ever you are in the region. Once on the Spanish side my only plan was to look for a place to base myself for a couple of days to explore trails so I wandered in a westerly direction on a number of tiny roads till I came to the town Jaca about 60 miles east of Pamplona. It has a large army barracks but more importantly a campsite on the edge of town. The bar/restaurant next to the site was fantastic and catered for the campers as well as the many locals that made their home in the bar. The first evening was very entertaining, once again there was football on the TV. Spain were playing Belarus and the locals made it very clear they were either routing for Belarus or ignoring the game altogether. It seems that Jaca is in the Basque region. I only know very little Spanish but I could barely understand a single word when the waitresses were telling me what food was on offer. Didn’t matter though as it all tasted great, whatever it was, cheap too. Alcoreaventura camping, Jaca
A sound thrashing
After a reasonable night in my little tent I was up-n-atom early. The ankle was still bloody sore and swollen but I figured that providing I could get my boot on everything would be OK as long as I didn’t have to walk very far or fall off.
One of those I had some degree of control over.
A main road took me about 40 miles east, then heading south I turned on the trusty Garmin so I could follow the route I had painstakingly entered via long boring coordinates the evening before. The damn thing farted about and eventually froze before I got to call up the route. No problem, we all know how to fix dodgy technology but blow me down, turning it off and on again made no difference. Nor did swearing or giving it a sound thrashing. Back to looking at the map and guess work, it’s worked well in the past so what could possibly go wrong?
Well not much did, apart from going up and down the same trails because they either turned into paths that I wasn’t going to risk getting stuck on, or they became complete dead ends. At the other end of the scale I followed some tracks for mile after mile through forests and over mountains. There was some rain which made the tracks a little more challenging but I only succumbed the once and I made sure I placed the KTM gently down on the left, just like I meant to do it. No really.
And this was how I spent the next few days, exploring trails, crossing streams, looking for shops in deserted villages half way up a mountain. There were very few people about and those that were about either ignored me or waved in a friendly way.
I did come across a “Ranger” in his 4x4. He informed me that I should not have been on that particular piste but he was very pleasant and we had a chat about where I come from and how absolutely bloody marvellous his mountains are and what a brilliant job he has. At least that’s what I thought we were saying. Either way we parted on good terms.
All good things etc, etc.
So I had to pack up my little tent and set off for Bilbao and the boat back to Portsmouth. It isn’t a long ride, about 100 miles or so but missing the ferry would be a bit of a disaster so I gave myself plenty of time and as the weather was looking a bit crap, spent some time on the motorway. As I got to Vitoria-Gastiez the sun finally came out to play and with several hours in hand I headed north on smaller more scenic roads to the town of Guernica. It was a little personal homage to the place that had been bombed during the Spanish Civil War in 1937. The Nazis were helping Franco to overcome the Basque Government and it gave the Luftwaffe the opportunity to try out their new tactics. The town was devastated and of course there were no air raid warnings as this was the first real air raid.
I wandered round the market a while, bought some provisions for the boat trip and then continued north to the coast. Trying to keep the sea in view I followed the coast till Bilbao appeared. I went into the city to have a look around. There wasn’t a lot of time so I couldn’t spend long but it is definitely somewhere I will go back to.
If ever you are going to get the ferry from Bilbao, be warned the port is a fair way outside the city. There are several small stretches of motorway that all require irritating stops to pay a euro or two. At one point I thought I was gonna be going to Santander but there was no need to panic and the terminal came into sight. On the dockside were many, many wind turbines waiting to be either exported or taken inland and assembled. The blades are enormous when seen close up lying on their sides.
A foot and a half!
It was lovely to get in my cabin and have a hot, powerful shower. Sheer luxury. I had booked the 28 hour sea voyage as I anticipated that the preceding week would involve much riding. I needed to be in work on the Friday and the boat journey would ensure that I had a break before getting back. I could read a book, listen to the ipod, drink some drink, eat some eat and sleep some sleep.
For once the plan worked perfectly. It also gave my ankle an opportunity to shrink a little as there ain’t a lot else to do.
Even after I got home I wasn’t certain that significant damage hadn’t occurred to the ankle as walking was not getting much easier. However after work on Friday afternoon I took myself to Lewisham A&E and was mighty relieved when the good doctor found no break. He warned it will take a while before it is back to normal but that is more than OK.
All in all a great week away. Shortly before the trip I had bought a Road Book of an off-road route along the length of the Pyrenees. I have now done a small section and have an overwhelming desire to go back to do the rest. Gotta sort out a decent GPS first though.
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