You don’t have to ride to Timbuktu to have an epic adventure – You could just head to Biarritz with some mates for one of the coolest biking parties of the year
Having never been to Wheels and Waves, when my friend Ben of London Cafe Custom asked if I fancied a leisurely ride from London to Biarritz to do some photography and soak up the vibe, I didn’t hesitate. Exploring the W&W village extravaganza, photographing beautiful bikes raced by headcases, watching babes surfing and cool kids skating, laying in the sun and making new friends… what’s not to like? But deep down I knew the real highlight would be the 1500-mile journey – as the wise old dope fiends often tell you, “it’s about the journey, man, not the destination’.” And so it turned out…
Everybody knows that going on a motorcycle trip on an old bike is a lottery. You can’t get European recovery, and you never know which tools and spare parts you’ll need, making packing an entertaining game of ‘Predict-the-Disaster’.
After my previous year’s solo trip to Barcelona on my BMW GS850G, where I broke down every 300 miles, I was glad to be sharing this trip with some bike-loving nutbags who, hopefully, would have some mechanical skills.
Let’s introduce the crew: Will and Rachel are shooting film and stills for a project with Hedon helmets; Zubin and Steff are looking damn cool and keeping everybody’s spirit up, Ben is leading the crew in his chilled Ozzie way and Rich, a bit like Mr T, is in charge of a big-ass van full of camera gear, Hedon helmets and the odd motorcycle…
Our bikes are a custom Sportster 883, a beautiful Triumph Thruxton, a new Tiger, a Mutt 125 and in the van is a super-erratic XS750 chopper which Ben is going to race at Punk’s Peak (more on that later). And of course my dysfunctional GS.
I’ve got to admit I thought riding with a van was cheating on a motorcycle trip, but the joy of not having piles of gear on the bikes quickly drowns any guilt. Thanks to Ben we have all sorts of useful things in there – battery packs, LED strip lights, spanner kits, metric and imperial sockets, arrays of bolts and cable ties. I never thought we’d use them – but hey was I wrong about that!
We pack up and leave for Portsmouth where the van gets strip-searched. Good luck with that mate – we all head for the bar. The overnight ferry to St Malo is a beer-swilling, Prosecco-guzzling blur.
Strangely, none of us feel too keen to rack up the miles the next morning, so we have a little rest in St Malo before setting off for Biarritz. Taking to the open road without a definite route gives me a buzz and a powerful sense of freedom – jobs and overdue credit cards vanish from my mind and we all ride off with massive grins on our faces. Cruising the Brittany lanes we experience a surreal landscape that will return time and time again on this trip. It’s Sunday, and the cute little towns are deserted, making it feel like riding through a David Lynch movie. I love it – I’ve always been a big Lynch fan.
It’s not long until we’re all starving and we stop in Gaél where the only food joint open is a self-service BBQ run by a British expat. I stuff down a pile of meat and while the others catch up I start with the first repair of the trip. The GS’s clutch cable has been getting worn between the frame and forks and I decide to route it differently before the inevitable happens.
Fiddling done, we set off for a campsite by the sea in Pornic, but at the first petrol stop I realise I’ve lost a bolt to my side stand and the van is nowhere to be seen. Lesson number one: keep a few tools on the bikes, not all in the van. We tie the dangling stand with a plastic bag and make it to the campsite. It’s sunny and warm, and the campsite has a bar with plentiful quantities of Stella.
There’s a beautiful sandy beach where we watch the sun set, listen to music, eat questionable French pizzas and play frisbee for a whole five minutes until I lose the damn thing in the sea.
Camping: just say no
Camping with borrowed gear saves money, but can provide surprises: my tent, for example, turns out to be for children. It’s tiny – I can’t fit in without curling up. So it is with a sore back that I head off to visit JC at L’atelier Cafe Racer in Nantes. This is the legend who without speaking a word of English (I speak no French) rescued me on my trip back from Barcelona. L’atelier is an authentic biker’s spot and there was no way we were going to miss this visit to JC, even if I never know what he’s saying.
His place is the real thing: a garage for customising, a small open-air stage for gigs, an outdoor bar and benches where you can make new friends and order simple but delicious French snacks. There’s a lovely vibe... a true biker’s community. JC and his crew are so happy to see me again and we get treated like family – they only let us leave on the condition we return for their Cafe Racer Tombola in October (www.lateliercaferacer.com/actus).
By now it’s getting late and we need to ride a couple of hundred miles to make the last ferry for our next campsite in Soulac-Sur-Mer. At every other junction we get stuck behind big trucks that seem oblivious to us, but there’s no time to waste so we deal with the big fuckers Mad Max-style by slowing in front of them to let Rachel overtake on the 125 Mutt. No man or woman shall be left behind.
We just make it and board the slow boat and enjoy the lazy sunset together. Pizza seems to be the norm in French seaside towns – they just love it – and we embrace the vibe while recounting the adventures of the day over one, two, three beers…
the mutt shines
To combat the hangovers we decide to have some fun with the Mutt on the beach. It feels like my SR500’s little brother. Alas the fun doesn’t last long after I do a couple of jumps off rocks and we get asked to leave s’il vous plaît’! We shower the Mutt, pack our stuff, and with all the campsite kids waving us goodbye we head on for the last stretch to Biarritz. It’s a couple of hundred miles of beautiful lanes through a thick national park full of giant trees and small houses. We have a good time riding, and arrive at our rental villa just outside Biarritz too soon. I could do that again. The crew now swells to 20, with more from Hedon, girlfriends flying in, and others joining from different journeys. We set up a few tents in the garden and gather on the balcony to share travel stories, listen to music and drink our way through the warm French night. I take it steady; Wheels and Waves kicks off tomorrow with the flat-track race.
Flat-track is go
The atmosphere at the Hippodromo de San Sebastian is electric. Riders are prepping and checking each other’s bikes while catching up with old friends arriving from all over the globe. It’s amazing to see how many different bikes and personalities appear at a flat track race, and I catch up with a few familiar faces from DTRA (the UK dirt-track series) and Snow Quake. It’s pretty clear that this is the way of life for people like Bon Zorro, who came from England for just two days racing. The official races start under the blazing Spanish sunshine and it’s hilarious to see how some people ride for pure fun, while others are super competitive and determined to win. Finally, with everybody covered in dust and sweat, we head off to the Indian Motorcycles party back at the Village in Biarritz.
The sprint race
The next day’s wet and I have an easy morning – later I’ll be riding to Artride in San Sebastian. This is a superb exhibition of bikes, films, photographs, surfboards, books and cars – and there’s live music by Brian Bent. Meeting people, taking photographs and checking out the show is fantastic, and after the press slot is over the place gets flooded with visitors – time for me to take the rainy roads back to Biarritz to rest for the next day’s sprint race. I heard late arrivals have to walk up the hill. Ben, Will and Myk are some of the first to make it to Punk’s Peak on San Sebastian’s famous hill the next day, but all sorts of bikes soon start arriving. It’s 9.30am and there’s a sense of anticipation. Roaming the bikes are hoards of photographers, filmmakers, mechanics, friends, visitors and riders in all sorts of outfits. In fact, with the race divided into five categories, the first set of bikes you encounter coming up to the pits form the Copita class, where any two-wheeled machine up to 50cc can be ridden – but only in a superhero outfit. It’s gonna be a good day.
The next category is for Yamahas, followed by pre-’75, post-’75 and Superbikes. The bikes being prepared are truly amazing – from beautifully-maintained old BSAs, to loud Triumphs, all the way to top-of-the-range modern engineering by BMW and Ducati. There’s even an electric bike. Finishing a hysterical day of burnouts and slides on wet patches, it’s a joy to see first place go to blonde speed demon and ex-250 GP rider Katja Poensgen, riding a custom Indian Scout by Young Guns from Switzerland.
With both El Rollo and Punk’s Peak races done, Saturday is the surfing and skating day. Competitions have been going on all week and today it’s the finals. The atmosphere is friendly and chilled, with people riding waves and flipping decks casually. I decide this is the perfect opportunity to try the famous Biarritz waves and while I don’t take part in the surfing competition I feel I’m finally absorbing the Biarritz spirit. Back up at the Village the skating is at a stratospheric level with riders from ten to 60 years old. Everything you want is nearby: tattoo artists, barbers, apparel and boots stores, vintage clothing, artists customising surfboards and helmets, plus live music.
Yamaha, Indian, Royal Enfield and a few other manufacturers have their customs on show, but it doesn’t feel like either a trade show or an exclusive event. Everybody involved is friendly and seems to be genuinely enjoying the different scenes. Skating, surfing, riding and customising motorcycles all seem to blend seamlessly in the same world. It dawns on me that Wheels and Waves combines scenes that are often loved by the same people, and the key to its popularity stems from this amazing feeling of inclusiveness.
On Sunday I say goodbye to everyone before we take off for two days of riding and wild-camping through the Pyrenees. But not long into the mountains I realise I am running low on oil (my bike likes a drink as much as we do), and of course every shop is closed. So after a little search and struggle we decide to suck some oil out of the Harley that’s now in the van. With the GS replenished I really want to lean the heavy beast into the twisty climb, but immediately we start seeing cows crossing randomly, while beautiful lakes appear between snowy peaks. We slow and take in the high-altitude karma. Amazing roads and landscapes roll by and we decide to pitch camp near a stream hidden between the road and an empty field. It’s a perfect spot to spend the night and relax, make a fire and tell stories. In the morning we have a wash in the stream and go airbed rafting. Idyllic? Definitely.
The fiends were right
For our last riding day, the roads keep getting more and more insane. Peak after peak and bend after bend go by as we test our bikes’ abilities (and our own inabilities) to keep us alive. We eventually make it to Bilbao where, with a five-litre plastic bottle of red wine, we check into our last campsite before the ferry home.
It’s been an intoxicating experience – in all senses – going to Wheels and Waves, meeting likeminded people, seeing crazy bikes and riding insane roads in sun and rain. The whole trip and the amazing new friends I have made will stay with me forever. Those dope fiends were right: it’s about the journey, man, not the destination.
By the way, the GS clutch cable snapped three hours after getting back to London...