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17th November 2014

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The Last Ride of Summer

There's a lot to be said for riding old bikes at any time of year. But summer rides, for Roger Hicks, are something really special...

There’s something extra-special about riding on a sunny summer's day without a jacket. As a rule of thumb for me, that means 24°C or over: 75°F in old money. The last T-shirt ride of the year is the last real ride of summer.

In 2014 that last ride was in early October.

A little over 32 years before, in June 1982, I married Frances Schultz. A month after that I bought a 1978 BMW R100RS. I still have both the wife and the bike. The ride in October 2014, over 125,000 miles later, was as good as any we've ever had. And for 2014 it was pure bonus. We thought we'd already had the last ride of summer a week earlier, but then we had another glorious day. We didn't ride far – just 24 miles – but it was marvellous.

Of course I've done 500-mile days – still do them occasionally – but nowadays that's normally only at either end of a tour. When I arrive, I settle down to days where even 100 miles is plenty; where I can ride slowly, and feel the sun on my skin and the wind in my face, and smell the bakeries and the café-bars as I ride through the villages or the sea at the coast or the pine in the forests; and stop, and take pictures, and explore a bit...

This last ride of summer 2014 was like a mini-tour. I've had the bike so long that riding is almost as natural as walking, and although she was a super-sports bike when she was young, she is now (as my French mechanic put it in his slow, careful English) ‘a very old lady’ (pronounced ‘leddy’). She's as willing to potter through country lanes and villages at 2000rpm in third as she is to devour the autoroute in at 5500rpm in fifth: with an 80mph speed limit, I still have to watch the speedo on the autoroute. But most of the time, on this last ride of summer, I was doing thirty or forty miles an hour.

The great thing about a ride like this, on near-deserted rural roads, is that you have time to think as well as to feel. When you've finished the ride, you can think some more; ideally in a hot bath with a glass of whisky. Then you go through the pictures and think about where you've just been, and where you've been before, and where you'll go in the future. You think about all the things you've learned over the last 125,000 miles, and the things you take for granted. People say that motorcycles don't have souls, but they do. Very forgiving souls. Look after them, and love them, and they'll make it much harder for you to fall off.

The Last Ride of Summer Priorité à Droite. It's useful to know what this means

But here's always something new to learn. For example, just outside one nearby village, there's a sign that says ATTENTION – PRIORITE A DROITE DANS L'AGGLOMERATION. Not exactly a standard road sign. Failing to understand it could however kill you. Priorité à droite is ‘priority to the right’; dans is ‘in’; and the best translation of agglomération is probably ‘built up area’. It means that the road on the right has priority. Absolute priority. It doesn't matter if you are going along the high street, and the road on your right is a miserable little alley: if it is on your right, traffic issuing from it has priority.

This is not, however, quite as dangerous as it might seem. Strict priorité à droite is rare now: even the French have mostly abandoned it as being more suitable for horses and carts than for motor traffic. As a result, everyone is slightly uncertain and drives a bit more slowly and carefully.

The Last Ride of Summer Cassis: blackcurrant liqueur, or bump in road

On the way there, though, I came across a temporary sign I'd never seen before: CASSIS. As far as I knew, this is a blackcurrant liqueur that you mix about 1+5 with white wine to make a kir, the great French aperitif. However, I knew that there was a really vicious hump in the road just ahead, so when I got home I looked in the dictionary and there, sure enough, was a subsidiary meaning: hump or bump.

Our destination was a Chapelle Ruinée (ruined chapel) marked on a very detailed (1:25000) IGN map. Some people prefer to have a destination in mind. Others just explore, to see what can be seen. Years ago I realised that the big disadvantage of the former is that it's always tempting to try to do too much, to add on another destination. Frances and I call it ‘Can't we just...?’ The latter, on the other hand, can seem pointless to the point of paralysing: where do you go? So now we aim for a destination, but don't worry too much about actually getting there. When we went to Estonia, we'd intended to get to Tallin, but for a collection of reasons (including going swimming in the Baltic) we actually stopped and turned around at Paarnu. No matter. We enjoyed ourselves. That was the point.

The Last Ride of Summer The Prime or Greenwich Meridian. I'm not sure if the bike is in the eastern or western hemisphere

We stopped at the Greenwich Meridian for a picture before going on to the hamlet where the ruined chapel was supposed to be. There, we parked on a grass verge. Then we walked maybe fifty yards down a farm track; another fifty or sixty yards along the edge of a ploughed field; and through an overgrown plum orchard. The plums were ripe: the fruit on each tree tasted slightly different. The doorless chapel still had its bell-tower, with bell; the interior, damp, dark and musty, appeared to be lightly used as a store-room for heavy, not very valuable building materials. It was well worth seeing, but to be honest, it didn't engage us for long; so we moved on.

The Last Ride of Summer There was no door to the ruined chapel R100RS BMWs on Now...

If you like old motorcycles – and 36 is a fair age for a motorcycle, even though I was 28 when she was built – then you probably appreciate other aspects of the past, too; and you may perhaps be slightly unhappy when too much modernity intrudes. Walking back along the farm track, we passed what appeared to be abandoned cow-byres, in ugly modern sheet metal, probably newer than my BMW: this in an area where there are almost certainly more buildings over 100 years old than under 50. Overhead on a post was a concatenation of electrical wires and a transformer. It's all very well to complain about ugly modernisation, but what are people supposed to live on?

The Last Ride of Summer Tumbledown mansions are astonishingly common in rural France

We decided to go home the long way round. If we had a choice between a road we knew, and one we didn't, we took the one we didn't. Some soon gave out and we had to turn around. Quite a few were gravelly or potholed or both; a few had grass growing in the middle. But we weren't going fast, and the old BMW is very sure-footed and very comfortable.

The Last Ride of Summer A bijou chateau-ette: more likely, the gatehouse to a long-vanished chateau. The house was for sale

At a T-junction we came across an extraordinary sort of bijou chateau-ette with most of its doors and windows blocked up and a much newer house behind it in the garden. This sort of thing is quite normal around here. A few miles later we came across a mansion that appeared to be abandoned, with another one next door that wasn't. Mansions don't cost much in rural France, especially if they need a lot of building work and are in the grounds of a bigger, better, more modern house.

The Last Ride of Summer That's what trains are supposed to look like. And motorcycles

We rode on. Countless disused branch lines criss-cross the region, so level crossings abound: another form of transport that is not what it was. Each village has its tiny station-house, often still occupied. One still has the station clock on the wall. For most people nowadays, motorcycles are toys, not an everyday way to get to work. It is hard not to draw the parallel with steam-train preservation societies.

The Last Ride of Summer The Donjon or castle, begun in about 1110. The English took it twice during the Hundred Years' War

The longer we rode – it was only a couple of hours, three at the outside – the more parallels I saw between the passage of the seasons and the passage of the decades, centuries and even millennia. The donjon (casle) above our village is 1000 years old, but the crucifixes you find in so many French villages are a 2000 year old symbol of a religion brought to France over 1000 years ago. Christianity was one of the causes (via the corruption of the church) of the French revolution in 1789. It was resurgent in the 19th century but declined in the 20th; and today it is a minority interest.

The Last Ride of Summer Crucifix in St Laon

We stopped on the broad gravelly pavement beside the crucifix in St Laon: I find it hard to remember when I come back to Britain that it is illegal to park on the pavement. Across the road from the church, grapes were shrivelling on an arbour outside a house. We gave the escargoterie (snail farm) a miss, though, as we have done for the last 14 years.

The Last Ride of Summer The communal fig tree

But nearer home the figs on the huge old tree below the castle were ripening. We stopped to pick some, parking in the grassy courtyard beside it. The castle and the fig tree are on the edge of the village, five minutes or less from my garage down by the river. The village is famous for its many lavoirs or covered laundry-steps beside the river. The one in the picture below is opposite my garage at the foot of a tiny unsurfaced lane.

And so: the last ride of summer 2014. Yes, I've ridden since. But I needed a jacket. It's not the same. It will be spring before I can ride in a T-shirt again. Sooner or later, too, the time will come when I am too old to ride; or when my wife, just five feet tall, will find it too painful to swing her short legs over the saddle. There will come a time when it is not just the last ride of summer, but our last ride together: Frances, the BMW and me. When it comes, I hope I will be able to remember some of the best advice I have ever read.

Do not mourn what you have lost. Rather, rejoice in what you have had.

The Last Ride of Summer Roger’s garage is opposite this lavoir, and nothing like as pretty

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