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8th July 2005

Five Days In Provence, Part 1

Feel the urge to escape to the sun? Can't be bothered to haul your classic across the Channel? Steve White took the easy route to ride classic bikes in Provence...

My 50th birthday was in October 2004. Earlier in the year, My wife Ruth suggested that I might like to do a biking holiday. I've often wondered how long a nano-second was, and I think that was one, just while I thought about my answer! So the bike magazines were studied, and Google was pressed into useful service.

My choice was Classic Bike Provence. I had seen a short article in a magazine, extolling the virtues of Provence as a great biking destination, with its almost empty roads; sunshine for 300 days of the year; great food and wine; and wonderful scenery; and a choice of British (and one Japanese) bikes. I have to admit that it was the Mk3 Norton Commando in Candy Apple Red that first caught my eye though.

In no particular order; 1964 BSA A65 Thunderbolt, 1967 BSA A65 Lightning, 1976 Norton Commando 850, 1973 Honda 750-4 K2, 2001 Royal Enfield Bullet, 1951 Sunbeam S7 Deluxe, 1974 Triumph Tiger TR6, 1960 Velocette Venom, 1971 BSA A65 Thunderbolt OIF

So I phoned Neil Thomas (the boss) for a chat about how the tours are run; what gear would I need to take; what bikes could I ride, etc. He was very helpful and we sorted out the best dates, he suggested using Thompson Fly, out of Coventry to Marseilles for a little under £50 return and he would meet me at the airport. We could change the bike for any that are taken out on the day, and the tours are run very much the same as my old club, the Leicester Phoenix MCC ( ), ran their club runs 'when I were a lad'. Done, decision made and deposit sent.

At Coventry Airport the departures 'building' turned out to be little more than a glorified portacabin! The same staff did the check-in; the coffee bar; the enquiries and then the gate out to the aircraft for the 18:00 flight!

Coventry, Terminal 1

The plane was only half full, so not only did I have a choice of seat, I also had a choice of which complete row to take up! On arrival in Marseilles, I recognised Neil from his photo on the CBP website, and half an hour later, after dumping my stuff in my room, I was having supper and wine on the terrace. Also staying there, was a guy called Dave Broderick who was working on the CBP website. He had ridden down from Ireland, finishing off with an 800 mile stint down through France on his Kawasaki 900 Ninja, I think aching wrists might have been only one of his pains!

I wanted to see the bikes that I would be choosing from, for the next day's ride to the Camargue. So we went down to the garage… some garage! All the bikes were in there, and there was still possibly room for a car as well. All of the bikes were available, apart from the Velo Venom, which had sucked a nut in through the carburrettor, after it had become detached from the petrol tank rear mounting, and it had jammed the inlet valve open. Apparently the bolt should have been put through the mounting the other way, so that the nut wasn't above the carb mouth. So it was unlikely that it would be back together during my stay.

That was a shame as I did particularly want to try the Velo, to see why they had such a loyal following, but there were plenty of other bikes to choose from. It was going to be me on 'Olive' the red BSA, Neil on 'Nora' the Commando, and the CB750 was for a couple from Enfield, who were staying in a local Chambre d'Hote, and coming over in the morning. I finally got my head down around 00:30 and slept very well.

You are feeling sleepy....

I was up at 08:00 and, when I got outside, Neil was already checking over the bikes for the day's ride. Bill and Rachel Lee arrived for coffee and croissants. We set off to fill up at the local garage, and also leave the Velo cylinder head with them to check the alignment of the inlet valve, etc. They are very enthusiastic about the old British bikes, and are keen to help with the occasional engineering job.

After that, we set off at a steady pace to get used to the bikes, especially the brakes on Olive! We had been well briefed about traffic roundabout etiquette in France, which basically meant 'trust no-one!' and 'indicators mean nothing!' But otherwise good common sense and awareness of what's going on was all that was required. Pretty much the same as anywhere else I suppose. We covered about 10km and then stopped near to Istres, by the Etang de Berre which is a large body of water near Marseilles.

Notice how carefully they're keeping hold of that Honda?

Neil wanted to hear how we were settling in. All OK so far. Off we went again, with me at the back. Very soon after, I got caught by traffic lights changing to red just as Bill and Rachel went through on the Honda. After what seemed like a long wait I was off again, and of course had to catch them up. That's when I realised how much brakes have improved since the Sixties…

After about an hour, we stopped at an area of the coast near Port St Louis du Rhone, which is used for salt extraction from the sea. They flood hundreds of acres of shallow pools with sea water. The flooding is done by a series of traps that look like small canal locks. Then over time, with the heat of the Mediterranean sun and the Mistral (which was blowing very strongly that day), the water evaporates, leaving the salt which is then collected.

Hope they don't get 'A-salt-ed'. Sorry.

Next came a ride for many miles along a single track road between these ponds, with the mistral blowing directly across us from left to right! That was a challenge, just to stay on the road -- there wasn't much margin for error! We then arrived at the only natural sandy beach on this part of the coast, in the Camargue. It was desolate, and littered with abandoned caravans! These were used by the locals for shelter from the wind I guess. We had a ride on the beach, following Neil's lead, as the sand was hard-packed, but it wasn't much fun on an A65, and Bill and Rachel on the CB750 weren't too keen either.

Where caravans go to die...

After that it was off to find lunch. We retraced our route between the salt ponds again, and motored for a while until we came to a small village called Le Sambuc, with a shaded roadside café -- although the wind was really strong, so was the sun.

As English wasn't on the language menu here, Neil did a bit of translating from the menu, which was of the verbal kind, with a very local accent! Something got lost in the translation, and where I was expecting beef of some description, the bull's tongue that I got (in a distinctive bull's tongue shape!) was a surprise.

Just one more wafffer thin mint...But with a full glass of beer at the ready I tried the first mouthful, and, while it wouldn't be my first choice in the flavour department, it wasn't too bad, and I finished it with a few sips of beer on the way! This was followed by an enormous selection of cheeses, which were delicious. Here Bill is making his mind up which one to have next!

After lunch, we swapped bikes. I went on the Norton, Bill and Rachel chose the BSA, and Neil got the Honda, and off we went. The bikes had been running a treat that morning, but for Olive the A65 BSA, this was not to be her afternoon.

Not far down the road, and unseen, she lost one of the oil level check covers on the primary chaincase; oil got onto the exhaust, and much smoke resulted! So we stopped, in the middle of the Camargue close to the Etang de Vaccares, and Bill and I retraced the few kilometers back to the café, on Nora, in the forlorn hope that the cover would jump up and announce its presence!

Guess what?

It didn't.

But the return ride with a bit more throttle was really enjoyable. The Commando has massive reserves of torque. Neil realised that one of the other inspection covers on the engine would fit, and duct tape from his handy tool and spares bag was used to cover the remaining aperture.

Random BSA A65 Stuff on

Then Olive wouldn't start. We deduced after much investigation that it was a duff ignition coil, and were pondering where to leave her safely while we rode the 70 or so kilometers back home to fetch a trailer. Just then (as in all good stories) a couple on a very modified Suzuki Katana stopped to see if we needed help. They had ridden down to southern France from Finland, and on the way their battery strap broke, and they were using a webbing luggage strap to hold the battery in place. There was about two metres of excess strap, which they cut off and gave to us to tow the BSA back home! Thank you.

So I stayed on the Norton towing Neil on the BSA, with Bill and Rachel back on the Honda. We covered about 20km back to a ferry across the river Rhone at Salin-de-Giraud. Whilst on the ferry, Neil tried to start Olive again, and she did! Recovering from the shock, we kept her going, and she never faltered the rest of the way home.

After another delicious meal, a Provencal beef dish, and plenty of wine or beer, and lots of discussion regarding the breakdown, I got my head down around midnight.

All this, already, and we still had three full riding days to go…

Classic Bike Provence


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