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2nd September 2008

Touring Abroad, Part One
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We've all seen the Long Way Round. How about the short hop over? Jim Patten, who has done more than his share of riding in foreign climes, looks at riding in Europe...

I blame Ted Simon. If he'd decided to hitchhike around the world instead of riding his fabled Triumph, many of us of an impressionable age would not feel this constant tug to kick the old P & J into action, point it to Dover and then disappear over some exotic horizon. But it's a confidence thing too. If the old Beeza stutters to halt on the way to a local meeting, what are the chances of making foreign soil in one piece? To ease into it, why not try an organised tour? Later, we can talk about that first independent trip.

There are more obstacles in selecting the right company than getting through a pre-65 trial. In October '06, I along with three mates gave Classic Bike Provence a try. RC's own Emm was there a while back and I'd already met Neil Thomas and figured him an okay bloke. I'd wobbled around on more so-called tour old rattlers than I care to remember, all supposedly run by reputable companies with tip top bikes. Some, we had to find a toolbox before daring to sling a leg over. Would CBP be any different?

A Norton, a Velo, an Aqueduct...

So at the end of last year's September, Sarah Thomas scooped us up at Marseille airport and after depositing our gear in the very impressive accommodation in Ventabren (I could get at least four in my bath - and sadly no, I didn't get the chance) we went to check out the bikes. BSA, Matchless, Norton, Royal Enfield, Sunbeam, Triumph and Velocette were all represented along with a Honda 750/4 K2 and Kawasaki Z650 for the moderns wishing to ease in slowly. We hatched a plan - four bikes today, four more tomorrow and by switching around, we should ride eight bikes in two days - ten if we counted Neil's mount. That evening, we enjoyed a superb meal at chez Thomas drinking as much wine (or beer for Andy) as we could handle. All prepared by Sarah.

Plans rarely work out the way you expect but our first day went like this. Paul Roach, Sunbeam S7; Andy Nixon BSA Firebird Scrambler; Lee Henderson Honda 750/4; while I had the 850 Norton Commando. Neil was on his Enfield Bullet. There was a chance to acclimatise to the bikes before setting off but we just wanted to go.

Downhill all the way for Jim... Jim Patten on the Norton Commando

Neil has a discipline that you ride at the speed you feel comfortable at. So what if you drift to the back - the roads he chooses twist and turn but without any confusing junctions, we all head in the same direction. If there is a turn, the group will wait. He keeps a keen eye out to judge his groups riding skills and is always ready to scoop up any strays. There's absolutely no pressure at all. So our motley crew wobbled out to join the French minimalist view of traffic, probably the most we would see all trip.

Soon we were on the rural roads we had come to ride, shown up on the map with those thick green lines alongside as being picturesque, our British thoroughbreds throwing up a sound that ricocheted back from the steep banks. My Commando proved a gentle beast and being somewhat isolated from the engine's good vibrations, I relaxed into a contented mood. The D543 took us through Eguilles, Rognes and Cadenet before taking an excursion for morning coffee at to Cucuron.

Here, we had our first and only problem. The S7 had dropped to one cylinder, which was a great shame as Paul Roach was having a tremendous time. This particular bike has been a real traveller in its time and as a member of the Sunbeam Owners Fellowship (we have an S8) I remember reading about LRU's many trips to Europe.

Grimace When You're Winning Paul Roach on the Sunbeam S7

But while we sipped coffee at a typical Provence café, Sarah arrived with a 1967 BSA A65 Lightning on a trailer. Neil soon had the bikes swapped over and Paul was Beeza mounted.

Sunbeam stuff on

The rest of us changed steeds too and I had the BSA Firebird scrambler. I have a private admission to make, D14/7 apart, I've never owned a BSA before. It probably goes back to childhood visions of long-coat gauntlet clad riders with old Beezas asthmatically lugging a double adult chair around. Somehow they were never as stylish as a Triumph. But then I clapped eyes on this Firebird. Of course I've seen others, countless times but I've never really seen them if you get my drift. This is a seriously good-looking machine and with the twin leading shoe front end, looks capable too.

I was not disappointed, this bike impressed. With a decent turn of speed it almost rode itself. The many tight turns through picture postcard pretty countryside were taken almost through telepathy. I just thought turn and Firebird turned. Perhaps I was having too much fun, as gorgeous as the surroundings were, my mind was elsewhere.

He could ride that bike with his eyes closed... Andy Nixon on the BSA Firebird

We were in The Luberon where much of the district has been preserved as the Parc Regional du Luberon. To quote one of the guide-books. "The real Luberon is a land of hunters stalking wild boar over Appalachian-like ridges and weather-beaten farmers in ancient Renaults full of rabbit cages and power tools." Well, we did see a few R4s but quite what their drivers had on board or how they passed their time was lost to us.

I was getting into the Beeza and loving it as we crossed the Combe de Lourmarin, a spectacular gorge whose road runs across the spine of the Luberon. We paused at Bonnieux, a beautiful village overlooking the Petit Luberon. Over lunch we had a chance to exchange views. Andy was now on the Honda and found it an exceptionally civilised machine. Paul had a love affair going with Black Bess the A65 while Lee was on the Commando, his first ever ride on a British bike. He was eased in gently though as this Brit had a right foot brake. Our swapping over plans went right out of the window as everybody seemed happy with their mounts and so we left things as they were.

Rush hour...

Pushing on we rode to Lacoste and through Menerbes, home to the author of A Year in Provence, Peter Mayle. Ironically, he now lives in California, possibly as hoards of dreamers shipped in to his beloved French town. But out of season, it is very pretty. The roads were small and some of the turns quite tight but these old bikes just absorbed the miles. Passing Oppede le Vieux I was reminded that we had seen very little traffic on the whole trip.

The afternoon was passing too quickly but before our final leg back, Neil took us to a tea-house in Vernegues at the foot of a ruined town, destroyed by an earthquake. Feeling very relaxed, four contented riders and their guide rode back to base. That night, Sarah would drop us into Aix-en-Provence, a great town where it appears that ugly people have been deported.


Do It Yourself!

Classic Bike Provence hold tours throughout the autumn, and are booking for 2009, if you'd like to escape the UK climate and live you own classic biking dream

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