March 1981 was a pivotal month for me, I had just sold a way fast Honda 900 and bought a more sedate 1975 BMW R90/6 900 (too sedate as it turned out, but live and learn).
My buddy Steve and I had decided it was time to finally do the European tour we had talked about for years. We were going to ride the length of France, follow the Mediterranean to Spain and Monaco, dip into Italy, and then come back up through Switzerland and Germany on our way home. The maps were purchased, the ferry information acquired, the day set! March in England is not exactly ideal riding weather.
At 4am, as we set off from Portsmouth on our way to Dover, it was a typical cold, drizzly day, but the thoughts of Mediterranean sunshine warmed us inwardly as we headed East. Within an hour or two, however, the warm thoughts just weren't doing the job. I had a set of electrically heated gloves which, of course, had decided to give up the ghost that very day. We rode until my fingers were totally numb, then foolishly stopped to try and get feeling back into them. The pain was excruciating as feeling returned with a vengeance, but as soon as it subsided to a dull throbbing, we were back on the road. I had purchased a helmet-to-helmet communicator so Steve and I could chitchat the miles away; I had installed a tape player in the fairing with the intention to hook it to the helmet speakers in the near future. The Windjammer fairing kept most of the weather from us, but after a few stoplights the relentless drizzle was beginning to soak through my leather. Water would well up from my gloves whenever I squeezed a lever, all in all, a pretty depressing start to the adventure.
After what seemed like a full day's riding in the rain, we finally approached the continental ferry port in Dover and the trip was almost aborted right there! There was a long downhill right hander toward the docks, the wet drilled disc on the BMW was not even close to what I was used to with the Honda. We picked up speed down the hill and I grabbed a handful of front brake ... Nothing! In fact, it seemed to speed up a little more!
Luckily, the combination of the wet back brake and the slowly drying disc up front barely allowed me to avoid disaster at the bottom of the hill. Loaded up as we were, plastic saddlebags, tents and sleeping bags on the rack, a big tank bag and the fairing stuffed full in every crevice (Not to mention riding two up) the Beemer was a tad unwieldy in tricky situations.
At Dover, at the time, there was quite a choice as to how you could travel to France. There was the huge Hovercraft, cars and trucks could just drive on, and they would rise up and sweep across the beach and out to sea, very impressive looking and sounding machines. There was the Hydroplane service; it looked very boat-like until they fired it up, and it would rise out of the sea on a pair of skis and take off at a high rate of speed. We were opting for the cheapest method (of course), which was the car ferry.
These ferries are huge, twin decks for cars and trucks and spacious accommodations for passengers. After buying the ticket to Calais, we waited in line until they waved us to ride onto the boat.
The Steward inside directed us to the motorcycle area, and we lashed the bike to a padded post as per his instructions, and went upstairs to watch the departure. It was a calm day and the crossing went without incident, we sat in the cushy seats and watched England disappear on the horizon, relaxing in the to and fro motion of the ship.
Somewhere between arriving at the docks and strapping the Beemer down in the bowels of the ferry, we had misplaced the cord that connected the helmet communicators. Disaster had struck already! There were no such items available on the boat, so we resolved to get one on the other side. It was a simple four-wire connector, how hard could it be to find?
We looked with excitement, as the French coastline loomed ever closer; it was our first time out of the country and we really didn't know what to expect. Finally, the ferry docked and we went down the stairs and unbound the Beemer in anticipation of driving out onto French soil. We had our passports at the ready, but disappointingly, they didn't even ask for them, nor did we have to go through customs, just all of a sudden, there we were, in a foreign country!
It seemed very strange to be riding on the right side of the road, made for a few scary moments as cars and trucks hurtled toward us. The houses and other buildings looked a little different, but not to the point where anything looked really "alien." I suppose we had expected instant sidewalk cafe's and French guys wearing berets with onions strung over the handlebars everywhere. Within a couple of miles we spotted a small electrical store and pulled in. I don't know if we just expected the girl behind the counter to naturally speak English or what, but she didn't! Well, sign language was called for then huh?
We showed her the two ends that the cord connected and tried to tell her it was a four-wire connector. She didn't understand "four." Ok, we realized we could only count to three in French at this time. So we were playing charades, counting un, deux, trois ... and then holding up four fingers. She gave us the deer in the headlights look. We tried again "Un, Deux, trois" ..... "quatre?" she offered. Ah yes, we nodded vigorously and she disappeared into the back room and reappeared with the correct component.
Back on the road we ran into another slight problem. For some reason all the directional signs were written in French! The plan was to head to Boulogne and camp out for the night. It had seemed like a long day and the weather was only marginally better than that we had left behind. At least it wasn't raining. We spotted the sign that we assumed we were going in the right direction, and I cranked the Beemer up to about 60, hoping to make some time. Almost immediately, the engine faltered. My heart skipped a beat... engine trouble already? The engine died and we began slowing.
I reached down and turned the petcock to "reserve" and the engine jumped, then caught, and we were back up to speed. I had not even thought to fill up before getting on the boat. I guess it was time to try and figure out how to buy petrol over here! Everything looked foreign but I spotted what looked like petrol pumps off on the service road, so I took the "sortie" and cruised into some kind of odd-looking self-service gas station. There seemed to be two main types there, "essence" and "supercarborant." The "essence" was considerably cheaper, so I decided to risk it first. I didn't like the smell of it as it was going in. Sure hoped it wasn't diesel! Neither term was covered in our handy little phrase book so I didn't fill the tank all the way just in case. Soon we were back on the road; the bike ran but not well. I resolved to use the more expensive fuel in the future!
Back on the road we were amused by the road signs that made no sense to us "risque de verglas" and such, the curves had speed limitations of 90 on them, had to remind myself that it was kilometers and not miles. The weather had warmed to the point where it was no longer painfully cold and we were able to enjoy the picturesque countryside of Northern France. Steve spotted a Mirage jet, apparently parked in someone's back yard. There were these large mushroom looking constructions that we could not determine the use for. (Looking back, I guess they were water towers.) The landscape did look different in comparison to England (to be expected I suppose), the churches looked older and more ornate, some of the country houses looked very fancy, while others seemed overly simple. There were fields of what we presumed to be vineyards, and the grazing cattle appeared to be a very yellow-looking breed we had never seen before. We pulled into Boulogne about five o'clock and discussed finding somewhere to camp. My stomach reminded me that we had better eat first. We had kind of been putting that off, as we were totally useless with French, so we knew ordering food was going to be an adventure. The town looked really old, with ancient cathedrals and cobblestone streets (fun on an overloaded BMW I can tell you). We spotted a restaurant on a back street and parked outside. Almost immediately a small group of children were attracted to the bike. I had seen very few big-bore motorcycles on the road, although there were hundreds of kids on mopeds zinging in and out of the side streets. They seemed to keep a respectful distance, especially when they discovered we were foreign.
We pulled our multiple layers of outer clothing off and strolled into the restaurant. It seemed fairly familiar inside. We sat at a table and attempted to make sense of the menu. This Les cuisses de la grenouille sounded good; luckily the waiter had a smattering of English at his disposal. "Those are the Frogs Legs M'sieu." Ahh, well, we were there for the entire French experience so we went for it, a good excuse to leave the escargot until the next time. There was a rather large dog wandering around in the restaurant, evidently he lived there. It was odd because no one paid any attention to him. Steve and I just stared at each other and shrugged our shoulders.
The frog legs were good (tasted like chicken haha). The waiter later brought the fromage (cheese) tray around for dessert. By now we were suffering from alien landscape overload, and so we asked the waiter where the nearest hotel was and he directed us to a nice little inn/cafe a few hundred yards away. After a few minutes of talking with our hands, we got the message across that we needed a room for the night. That evening we went downstairs and mingled with the locals, drank a few beers and attempted to communicate with varying degrees of success. We seemed to be well received once
we got the message across that we weren't undesirables. We went up to the room to discuss the day's events. It took a few minutes for us to stop using our hands when we were talking to each other. We had gotten so used to playing charades with the locals it was difficult to stop.
In the morning we were served giant croissants and soup bowl sized cups of coffee for breakfast. It was hard to shake the surreal feeling of waking up in a foreign land and it was still a surprise to hear nobody speaking English in the cafe. We loaded up the Beemer and headed south toward sunnier climes. At first I was more concerned about not dumping the bike on the cobblestones of the back streets to notice I was riding on the left side of the road; old habits die hard. The approaching gaggle of Renaults and VW's soon reminded me and I gingerly moved to the right lane.
The road south took us through Paris. There was a bypass of sorts there, but we decided to go through the city, check out the Eiffel tower, Arc De Triomph etc. The road to Paris was pretty pleasant. I managed to keep up a cruising speed of about 75, stopping at the first petrol station to fill up with the superior supercarborant; the bike ran much better on that. I was beginning to become concerned about finances. Steve had brought very little money with him and I had put enough for the return ferry trip away, but we had already went through a lot more than I had planned. I resolved to find a campground at our next overnight stop to save resources. It seemed like we got to the outskirts of Paris in next to no time. There was a bewildering array of directional road signs all, of course, written in French! I suddenly had a new appreciation for dyslexics in the city. We took "La prehipherique" to be the circular road around the city so we headed for "Toutes directions" (whatever that meant).
Soon we were in the city; it's quite the adventure on a motorcycle I can tell you. Every traffic light seemed to be six lanes of traffic all sitting at the start line, revving their engines waiting for the green light. When the light changed, the race was on to the next light (and there were a lot of them). The majority of the cars were small commuter types, many with dents and dings from the daily combat of driving in this place. Of course there was the ever-present hordes of children racing around on mopeds. The architecture in the city was magnificent, although it was hard to take my eyes off the road to appreciate it.
There was always another red light approaching; the car drivers apparently oblivious of our presence. Steve saw the tower first and alerted me to the direction we should take (naturally I had to cross about six lanes of traffic to turn left) and it seemed we were on our way. A few miles later (we kept losing sight of it behind the buildings) it was evident we had gone too far. Steve saw it again and told me which way we should be heading, once again I turned and rode for another mile or two. This was getting frustrating. I saw the tower off to the right just before Steve told me I had to go in that direction; I about bit his head off. This damn tower had better be good! Finally we came to an intersection and looking to the right, we could see the tower straddling the road in that direction! Well, at least it had at one time. We pulled up to the parking area around the tower. The road we were on had been blocked off some· time ago to make a plaza for tourists to mill about on and buy souvenirs.
The first thing to strike me about the tower was that, unlike the pictures I had seen where it appears to be painted gray, was actually just bare metal, wearing a thick coat of rust! It was early in the season, so there were not that many people milling around there. The odd elevators that travel diagonally up the leg of the tower were creaking up and down. We decided to forgo the tour and hit the road. Getting out of the city was nearly as hard as getting in; we followed the river for a while. I told Steve that you'd have to be crazy to swim in that river. He fell for it, "Why?" he asked. "Coz you'd be "In-Seine."
We saw the original Statue of Liberty standing on a podium in the river (it's way smaller than the one they sent to New York). We gave up on seeing the "Arc De Triomph" but the road we were on just happened to lead us right to it. It's a long road and you can see it from some distance. The road evidently went right under it, but as we approached the structure, the two lanes to the left of us (and our lane of course) suddenly swept to the right; in a minute, we were underground! I was not comfortable at all riding at the breakneck speed preferred by Paris traffic in such close quarters, but I managed to keep up for what seemed like an eternity. Suddenly we were outside again, the Arch in my mirrors!
Oh well, to hell with it. Time to get out of this place! The sun was already getting low in the sky. It had taken much longer than I anticipated to get though the city. At least I knew which way south was and we spotted a sign telling us that Marsellies was this-a-way so with a smile I banked the Beemer hard and gunned the engine onto the highway out of town.
The sun was getting lower in the sky, but I was determined to put some serious miles between us and the city. The air had warmed to where it was pleasant to ride, but not so that we could shed any layers of clothing yet. The BMW was comfortable at 75, while the windjammer fairing kept most of the air off us (from the front anyway) and we settled down into a kilometer eating state of mind. That is until the motor hiccupped. I could not believe we'd be on reserve so soon, but I turned the lever to the "reserve" position anyway. It did it again, more of a miss this time, we began to slow down. Of course Steve was asking me what was wrong and it was one of the times I'd like to have pulled the plug on that device. We were heading through a small-ish city called Fontainebleau so I exited the highway; the crippled Beemer backfiring occasionally. This was scary. I had no real idea how to go about fixing any problems on this bike. Hell, I'd only had it a couple of weeks and it had never shown any inclination to do anything but run flawlessly.
The city was quite picturesque, apparently Napoleon had a palace there, but I found a cheap-looking hotel there and pulled in. Steve checked us in while I broke out the few tools I had brought with us. I pulled the spark plugs and replaced them with a set I had brought just in case. I started the bike; no difference! Ok, I pulled a fuel line off one of the carbs and turned the petcock. Petrol was flowing with no problem. By now it was getting dark and I was more than a little concerned about being stuck in the middle of a foreign country with a dead bike! Last thing I could think of checking in the waning light were the points. Where the hell were they on this bike? The only removable panels on the engine were the one for the air filter on the top rear, and the whole front of the engine appeared to be held on with allen bolts. I set about removing it and I was gratified to see the alternator and auto-advance sitting on top of the points. I called Steve down to crank over the bike while I stared at the point gap. Hmmm, what point gap?
The points had almost completely closed up. It seemed hard to adjust the points with the auto-advance in the way, so I unbolted it and removed it. Duh! The cam for opening and shutting the points was parts of it, so I replaced it. We were working by flashlight at this stage. I pulled the spark plugs out and put the bike in gear. Steve was working the rear wheel to move the breaker cam around as I tried to gap the points successfully. I resolved right then to never own another bike that didn't have a kickstart. With the points now correctly gapped I hopped on the bike, remembered to put it into neutral (this bike would run down the road on the starter motor, found that out when the clutch cable snapped once) and hit the starter. Wheee, the motor turned over way too fast. Oops, put the plugs back in first I guess. After the re-installation of the plugs the Beemer fired right up and idled nicely. I was SO relieved! We were hungry so we walked down to a Chinese restaurant that was close by. Seemed a little odd, here we were in a country that is famed the world over for its cuisine and we were in a Chinese restaurant! The waiter spoke English, which was nice, although it was a little tough understanding a Chinese-French accent; reminded me of Tattoo on Fantasy Island. It's odd, but we had the best food there of the whole trip. They brought us these little cups with a glass bubble set in the bottom. They looked pleasant enough, but when they filled it with a rice liqueur, the glass bubble revealed a picture of a naked Chinese girl! Of course we had to buy one of those each. Except for a few Francs, I was about out of French money. I had some English money yet, but we'd have to find a Bureau de Change the next day.
The next morning, the sun was out, it was getting warm already as we loaded the bike up once more. I turned the choke on and hit the starter, she fired up nicely and within a few minutes we were back on the road. I was able to leave my jacket unzipped it was so nice out. It was still about 300 KM to Marseilles and for me that was an incredible distance. A trip to London for me seemed a long way (72 miles) and it always seemed to take a couple of days to get to the North of England, even though the whole country is only about 300 miles long.
We cruised at our customary 75, stopping once for petrol and about three hours later arrived in Lyon. This was a good-sized city and seemed like a good place to try and change the remainder of the money. We cruised downtown and parked on a commercial-looking street. There were no obvious money-changing spots around, so we asked a local Gendarme (cop). Luckily, he knew a little English and directed us to a local bank that suited our needs.
I exchanged the last ofmy English money, excluding that which I figured I'd need for the ferry back to England and petrol to get home once there. I looked at how much was left, clearly we weren't going to make the ambitious route we had originally planned, and we weren't even half way! We were hungry again so we looked around for a restaurant. There was a nice looking one not far away so we left the bike where it was by the bank and walked across the street. Once again, we lucked out by having a waiter that knew some English (I wonder if it's part of French-waiter training?) and we perused the menu. We had stopped at a few places a eat on this journey and we had always been impressed how cheap steak was at most of these places. However this menu listed steak and Beef steak! The beef steak was pretty darn expensive, but the steak was the same low price we had been finding it for all over the country. We asked the waiter and were horrified when he explained that "steak" meant horse meat! Steve and I looked at each other with our mouths open for a few seconds, then I said "What the hell, we might as well have the horse!" I didn't think we'd have any trouble eating it, as we had been all along, but it wasn't the same (plus it was underdone). We ate way too much however, so when we got back on the bike and continued our quest south, it wasn't long before my body kicked into "I want a nap" mode. By now, I was a little despondent about not being able to complete the entire trip I had originally planned out, so we threw any pretense of camping with the tents out of the figurative window, and decided to find a nice Hotel for the night and turn around the next day. We pulled into a nice little town that had only one hotel in it so at least we didn't have to expend any mental energy on the choice! It was a three-star hotel, however, and the price was a bit of a shock, I wasn't in any mood to go load up and go to the next town, so we checked in. The room was incredible, oak-paneled and spacious, lovely view and everything. After taking the much needed nap we relaxed in the luxurious surroundings, sampling the local brews in the bar close by.
Examining my finances, I determined that we would make it back as far as petrol and ferry fare went, but there would be very little left to eat on. We went to bed early that night in preparation for the upcoming marathon ride home.
In the morning, we skipped breakfast and loaded up the bike before dawn. It fired up effortlessly and we rode a few blocks to the petrol station. A tank full of supercarborant later, we were on our way back north. The weather was still warm, the sun began to peek over the horizon, illuminating the French countryside in an eerie red glow, the ever-present scent of garlic in the air. I had finally got the hang of relaxing on the Beemer while cruising, earlier I would always find myself tensing my legs or arms for some inexplicable reason. No doubt the cause for the earlier fatigue I felt when riding even short distances. There was little to no conversation from Steve as we soaked in the views of the still alien-looking landscape.
I planned two more fuel stops, one on the south side of Paris, then one more in England. We should make it on that. We made pretty good time; there was no longer any point in stopping to eat because we couldn't afford to. By the time we pulled into a petrol station at the southern entry to the Paris by-pass, our stomachs were grumbling their discontent. We scratched together a few coins for a couple of candy bars and continued.
The traffic wasn't too bad around the by-pass (certainly less than going through the city) and we were soon on the road north to Calias. Fortunately, the way to the ferries was well signposted and I had no problems finding the way to the Dover ferry. I bought the ticket and we waited for the man to wave us on. When it came to our turn he came up to us and told us where he wanted us to go. Steve and I were astounded. "Hey, I understood him" Steve exclaimed, it was the first real English we had heard for days (besides ourselves of course). I rode on and we repeated the lashing down of the Beemer. We went up the stairs to the lounge, feeling very hungry by now and found a seat by the window. The weather was looking very grim; it had begun to rain and the wind had picked up quite a bit since we had arrived. I sure hoped that the weather would be less wild and woolly when we got back to England.
There were a lot of teenagers on the ferry, all of them seemed to be eating something (funny how you notice that when you're hungry). They seemed to insist on looking out of the window where we were sitting as they munched on bread rolls etc. and generally pigged out on the assorted goodies on sale there. As it turned out, it's probably a good thing we had nothing in our stomachs. The sea was rough, very rough. Soon the waves were so tall, we were literally in free fall for a second on the way down, and felt like we were pulling a couple of G's on the way up. Just about every one of the teenagers that had tortured us by eating in front of us proceeded to regurgitate their munchies into brown bags all around us! This was a source of great amusement for Steve and me, our hunger forgotten in the wake of the floorshow they were putting on for us.
The light was fading as we docked at Dover, the English customs service insisted on making us wait in line and asking questions before letting us through. It was not raining, however, and the temperature was above freezing. It felt a little odd at first to be riding on the left again, but within a few miles it was like we'd never left. I rode non-stop until we reached Portsmouth, dropped Steve off at his house and went home to my own bed, where I slept like a dead brick.
In retrospect, it's just as well we didn't try and follow the original route, it would have taken us over the Swiss Alps in late winter. I don't think we would have been very well prepared for that. I don't know if it comes across here, but it was fun. A lot of fun as a matter of fact. I highly recommend the experience, especially if you're young and looking for adventure. I haven't talked to Steve in ten years, and soon after this occurred, the ad I placed in Easyriders came out and changed my life forever.