Drip drip drip. Surely that isn’t rain coming into the tent? I think to myself as the rain continues to lash down very heavily outside. I thought this was supposed to be a two season tent anyway? We are now in June. I know what you’re probably thinking that will teach him to go camping in the British summer. However, I’m not in Britain I’m in France, in a camp site, in a small town that I can’t pronounce just outside Reims. Well, I say I’m in a camp site, I’m actually on a patch of grass outside the camp site as I didn’t arrive until 2am and the camp site gates were locked shut when I did arrive. A few hours later I’m up and putting my tent away but I’m feeling extremely sleep deprived and hungry. Whilst I’m putting my tent away to the bemused look of some of the people staying on the actual camp site, the wire inside my tent pole splits. S*** s*** s**** I grumble to myself. I now can’t put up my tent and that’s a very big problem when it is my main accommodation for my eight day tour of France. At this point I seriously give thought to just getting back on the bike and heading back to Calais. This is supposed to be my summer holiday after all.
However, lets briefly re-wind twenty-four hours and it’s a wonder this trip ever got started in the first place. It’s Thursday morning and my Triumph Tiger 800 is on its centre stand inside my garage with no swing arm attached and most of the back end lying around in bits on the floor. The week before, an attempt to service the bike by my brother went a little wrong when a seized nut snapped whilst changing the chain and sprockets. I now had to get a mobile mechanic in to fix the problem. However, even he couldn’t drill the remainder of the snapped nut fully out and the swing arm, and he had to take it away instead. Nevertheless, whilst I was waiting for my swing arm to be returned I planned my trip to France, but in the back of my mind I was slightly worried if the bike would actually be back on the road in time. On the Wednesday night, the night before my departure, I suddenly realised the bike didn’t actually have an up to date MOT! The bike had been laid up in the garage over winter and it had slipped my mind. That now meant my bike was being fixed on the Thursday afternoon at 3pm, at 4:30pm it was due for a MOT and my channel tunnel departure was booked for 8:50pm that night. Who needs last minute.com!
Luckily Mark at M-Tech motorcycles came around earlier and put the triumph back together. The bike sailed through its MOT with just two minor advisories. I was a relieved man. I now had only a few hours to pack, but an accident had meant the fastest route back home from the bike shop was blocked by heavy traffic. Eventually I did get home but time was now against me. Then, just as I thought the dramas were over for the day, I couldn’t get the pannier, which straddles the exhaust pipe, to clip on correctly. I spent most of the journey to Folkestone praying the pannier was secure enough and wouldn’t fall off.
During the crossing I just couldn’t figure out what I was doing wrong and despite looking on the web for a solution I just couldn’t find one. Once across the channel I pulled over into a petrol station and continued my attempt to secure it. After about twenty minutes of taking it on and off again, I came to the conclusion that it was secure enough, or at least I really hoped it was, and I headed off into the night in an attempt to make it as far as I could with a rough plan to get to Dijon. The actual plan was to be in Saint Etienne by Friday night, where I had a ticket for Croatia v Czech Republic in the European Football Championships being played out in France. The city of Dijon was about 250 miles away and the estimated arrival time on my Garmin was about 2:45am. Instead, I decided to pull over in a town just outside Reims at around 1am local time. Unfortunately, the nearest camp site was closed, what places aren’t at 2am in all honesty, and I was left to pitch my tent on a field outside instead. As I was putting up my tent the rain started to come down and became progressively heavier as the night wore on. By about 4am it was a full on storm with thunder and lightning. Camping in France suddenly wasn’t looking like such a great idea.
The lack of a proper night’s sleep was seriously affecting my decision making process on the Friday morning, hence the thoughts about buggering off back home. However, I’m made of stronger stuff than that and I suddenly remembered seeing an outdoor shop not too far from the camp site the night before. I packed the rest of my gear away and headed off to the shop. Despite my very basic grasp of the French language – I didn’t pay enough attention during GCSE French lessons you see – I managed to get across my dilemma. The shop assistants kindly fixed the tent pole and the trip wasn’t ruined before it had even really begun. However, when explaining I was English and out here for the football they did jokingly ask me in broken French if I was out here to fight like some fans had been in Marseille days earlier!
I now had about seven hours to make it down to Saint Etienne 350 miles away. The weather was bright and sunny on the journey south but I was extremely tired and I had to make several stops along the péage to get fizzy drinks, energy drinks and a latte down my neck to keep me awake after each petrol refill. As I approached the outskirts of Lyon it was about 6pm and to my left I had seen a sign for a campsite just off the motorway. On arrival at the camp site there was a sign on the gate saying the camp site was full. Bugger. I still enquired though and luckily they still had one pitch available. I and my numb backside were relieved to finally get off the bike and get sorted. It had been a long day on the saddle on dull péage’s and motorways and I was in much need of a rest.
Time waits for no-one though, and an hour after my arrival I was back on the bike again and heading a further forty-five miles south to Saint Etienne. The traffic was dreadful and progress was painfully slow despite my filtering. I missed kick-off after trying to find somewhere to park. It was a feisty encounter between the two Baltic neighbours, and fighting at the end of the match between protesting Croatian fans was a bit of a shock to witness. After the game the traffic was a lot lighter heading back to the camp site as I took it steady in my still sleep deprived state. Once back on the camp site I got into my sleeping bag after a warm cuppa and some meatballs cooked on my mini stove. The glamour of life on the road eh?
After spending the Saturday in Lyon, the plan on Sunday was to pack up my gear and follow a pre-loaded Tour de France route up to the top of Mont-Ventoux some 1,900 metres high. I would then camp the night somewhere near the town of Gap. Then suddenly I had a new problem. As I pulled away from my camping pitch I broke part of the pannier assembly trying to the squeeze the bike through a gap that wasn’t quite big enough. My heart sunk as I heard a loud bang and saw my fellow campers throw their arms up in the air to alert me to what I had just done. In an ironic twist of fate, the part of the assembly that had been damaged was part of the pannier which I couldn’t get to secure properly on the journey down to Lyon. Again, I had a stroke of luck as one of the lads who came over to help also had a Triumph tiger and was able to finally get the pannier on correctly but now It was missing the broken assembly part. I made a mental note to get it looked at ASAP. Then just as I was leaving the campsite a bigger disaster struck. The bike cut out and just wouldn’t restart. “WHAT NOW?” I screamed out loud inside my Arai helmet. How can a bike that is just three years old and just had a service and MOT just cut out like that? I just about pushed the very heavy loaded bike back to the camp site and attempted to get it stated again but now it wouldn’t go into neutral. I was getting more and more frustrated and decided the only thing I could do was call my insurance company for which I had breakdown cover. However, given I that fact I was about 600 miles from home and still had a whole five days left of my trip, I wasn’t exactly looking for a simple tow back home. The insurance company arranged for my bike to be towed to the nearest Triumph dealer, which was a few miles down the road from the camp site. Great I thought, that was until the chap driving the low loader told me in very broken English that motorbike dealers don’t open on Sundays or Mondays. Damn the French and their long weekends!
I was extremely frustrated and hacked off by this point, as the thought of just sticking the bike in the back of a transit van and driving it back home was a recurring one even if I didn’t exactly have a transit van to hand nor the funds to buy one. As it turned out, the bike failing to start turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as I stayed two more nights at the same campsite and met some great lads who looked after me and let me stay with them, as the campsite had no further room on the Sunday and Monday to let me pitch my tent. The lads who looked after me turned out to be bikers themselves and after much head scratching and fault finding we came to the conclusion that the bike’s alarm had probably somehow put the bike into limp mode and cut power to the engine, as it certainly didn’t seem electrical or mechanical. How it actually did that I’ll never know.
The two day lay over in Lyon, however, meant I was able to get hold of a spare ticket for the England match against Slovakia in Saint Etienne being played on the Monday night, result! On the Tuesday morning the bike was towed to the Triumph shop as planned. The mechanics disabled the alarm and the bike started first time. When I heard the bike start up again I finally had a smile back on my face. Who wants to drive a transit anyway!
The roads and weather were glorious in equal measure as the Triumph started to sing again as I pointed the bike towards Mont-Ventoux. The Triumph never missed a beat for the rest of the trip. The organisers of the World’s biggest cycle race certainly know a good route, and I was constantly challenged on roads that had everything from hairpin bends to long sweeping right and left handers opening up onto long glorious straights. It was some of the best road riding I’ve ever done since I passed my test back in the glorious summer of 2009. The route to Mont-Ventoux was about 180 miles long and I began the climb to the top very late in the afternoon. The scenery and landscape got more and more spectacular during the thirteen mile climb to the summit as I passed a number of cyclists attempting the lung-busting climb to the top. Once at the top the view was just jaw-dropping and one of the highlights of the trip. It had been an utterly glorious day on the bike and suddenly everything made sense and reminded me what motorcycling does for the soul and spirit. Thank god they have never found a cure for two wheeled addiction.
It was now early Tuesday evening and I needed to be in Lille, 400 miles, away by Wednesday night to watch the final game of my trip between Ireland and Italy. A four hour peage ride late into Tuesday night took me to Dijon where I decided to check into a hotel rather than camp. I was in need of a good night’s sleep before another high mileage day. Wow – did I sleep well that night! I woke up feeling very refreshed and after a shower and shave I was back on the bike and winding my way to Reims via another pre-loaded Tour de France route on my Garmin. The riding was again memorable on open empty roads in splendid summer sunshine. The lack of police and speed cameras made a refreshing change as I was left to concrete on challenging myself and the bike on narrow country roads and the French equivalent of British B roads.
I arrived into Reims just after 3pm on the Wednesday afternoon, and made the pilgrimage to the old GP buildings at Gueux just outside Reims. I stood there taking pictures whilst trying to imagine what it must have been like in the days when old GP bikes were racing along these roads. The sights, sounds and smells of grand prix racing have long since drifted away as the buildings and stands lay dormant decaying away year on year, but god bless the French for leaving this piece of grand prix history in its frozen state. We need stuff like this in a fast moving World where the slightest hint of the past is bulldozed into history.
Again, time wasn’t on my side as I now only had a few hours to make it the final 100 or so miles to Lille for my next match. An hour on some more traffic-free back roads were good for the soul but eventually after about 30 miles I had to get back on the peage to make up the miles. I arrived into Lille with an hour to spare and managed to park the bike only a stone’s throw from the ground, despite the parking being heavily restricted around the stadium. The game itself ended in a memorable victory for Ireland over the Italians, which personally meant a lot to me as my dad was brought up in Southern Ireland, having been born in Carlow.
The next day I headed down towards Paris, which turned into an absolute nightmare. I wanted to find a campsite about 10-15 miles from the centre, but after the Garmin took me to a site that just didn’t exist I suddenly found myself in extremely heavy traffic trying to head back North. Now filtering is hard enough on a bike free of luggage, but fully loaded it was extremely hard work. What made it even more challenging was the weather was baking hot and the Paris bikers were making filtering look very easy indeed, flittering through traffic at nearly 40mph whilst I struggled to get above 20mph. I want to go on a course to learn to filter like that, I thought to myself. I was mentally shattered and sweating quite a lot as I finally got clear of the traffic and into a petrol station to take on fluid. I learnt a huge lesson in that traffic and made a mental note to never ever take a bike near Paris ever again.
Over the next two nights I stayed at a campsite on the outskirts of Chantilly, about 40 miles from Paris. I took a day off the bike on the Friday whilst I took the train into Paris instead. It was definitely the better option. On the Saturday morning it was time to head back to the tunnel and I enjoyed a few hours on the back roads in yet more sunshine. Eventually I got back on the peage again, as I had a mid-afternoon crossing. As I sat on the floor of the train next to my bike I was reflecting on a memorable eight days on the road, even if my trip hadn’t gone exactly to plan.
Once back in England the weather gods weren’t quite finished with me just yet, however, and on the ride back to Rochester from Folkestone a storm broke out and me and the bike were soaked throughout. My trip had begun in heavy rain and now it was coming to a soggy ending too. By the time I was back home in the dry I reflected back on my trip and began to see it as an adventure rather than a holiday. It reminded me of this quote I once read; “If you think adventures are dangerous, try routine, it’s lethal”. I couldn’t agree more. What a blast.