Sometimes life can feel like one big mechanical fault. I’d been readying my 26-year-old Honda VT400SP for months for this overseas adventure with my dad, Mick, who would be riding his bike – a 1996 Harley-Davidson Sportster. But his was the first machine to blip. Our father/son convoy left for the Eurotunnel at Folkestone with the sky a smudge of cloud and our unprofessional touring baggage – a few holdalls bungeed to our bikes – wrapped in bin bags, to protect from rain. Our return train was booked for seven days’ time, and our only itinerary loosely involved meeting my girlfriend’s dad and fellow biker, Andy, at his farm cottage in Gorron, around 75 miles south of port town Caen, seeing the D-Day beaches, and joining up the dots in between.
The first stop we’d also planned. Leaving Calais we cruised to Ypres, riding long, straight roads with gentle bends, striking out across vast, flat farmers’ fields, punctuated by church spires and scarecrows, and through the cobbled streets of the French town of Cassel, with streets which go on forever and are a test for my ancient suspension. An hour or so from Calais, Ypres, the beautiful Belgian town significant in World War One, is a must for any biker looking for a first stop. A campsite, Camping Jeugdstadion, can be found a 15-minute walk from the moving Menin Gate memorial, where we heard the Last Post at 8pm, alongside thousands of other people paying their respects. I’d planned the next day to head south, skirt the French and Belgian border and stay the second night in a national park close to the town of Charleville-Mézières, in the Ardennes region. But after riding for much of the day and seemingly getting no closer to our destination, my dad and I changed tack.
We had no map of France (admittedly an oversight on my part, looking back), just a few pages ripped out of a 2011 Europe road atlas, whose detail was somewhat lacking. Rather than continue south to Charleville-Mézières we headed west towards Amiens, and stayed the night at a campsite 20 miles northeast of there, in Albert, a town in the Somme department devastated in World War One. That day we rode around 130 miles across landscape much the same – vast flat fields and wind turbines and farmland marked with many war memorials. That night we bought food to cook on our gas stove – hot dogs for a starter and a steak and salad main – and, crucially, two maps, and beer. The next day things got a little harder. We decided to head north to the D-Day beaches, but along the way my dad lost one of our new maps. The highly detailed one. And then his Harley failed. Such was our – or perhaps, more accurately, my – lax approach to navigation and planning, I cannot remember exactly where it happened, but after stopping to check the map, dad’s bike wouldn’t start. We bump started it with me pushing, which wasn’t a problem, as I’ve had to single-handedly push a VW campervan from a standstill to bump start it, fully loaded with gear in Croatia, but that’s another story.
My dad and I then headed to the closest campsite that accepted our ACSI discount card (recommended to anyone camping on the Continent), purchased before our trip. This was the beautiful Castel Camping Le Brévedent, centred around an old hunting lodge, where tame ducks confidently patrolled the pitches. We gorged on the best food the Calvados region had to offer: I ate snails (earthy), chicken (creamy), cheese (cheesy), and an apple dessert (crunchy), all washed down with cider from a local farm. In the morning the Harley still wouldn’t start. Wild charades with the campsite caretaker allowed us to borrow tools and dad to check the wiring, though he couldn’t find anything amiss. More gesticulating got us jump leads, and my Honda fired up the Harley. At this point I remember thinking ‘bloody American piece of rubbish’, or something along those lines. How wrong I’d be. The Harley had leapt into life but its pistons drunkenly lurched as the engine misfired.
As if to illustrate our sense of improvisation, we decided to head for the safe haven of the cottage in Gorron, where we could hole up and scratch our chins over the bike while awaiting Andy’s arrival on his Suzuki V-Strom. We got a minute up the road before my dad had to pull over. The Harley was punch-drunk and stumbling. With true British grit, dad and I kept on for Gorron, at an average speed of 20mph, with peeved French people and lorry drivers overtaking us, before the Sportster finally gave up. I thought the trip was over.
Thankfully though, dad had breakdown cover (I didn’t for the Honda). Within 45 minutes a Frenchman in a Peugeot 306 turned up with a trailer onto which we proceeded to heave the Harley. I almost dropped my bike after he appeared, needing most of my strength to keep hold of it and hurting my back. The Frenchman ran through our options, which centred largely on him taking us to a Harley-Davidson dealer in Caen. On the way using my meagre mechanical knowledge I tried to fathom what was wrong. I wondered if, as well as the electrical fault that had caused it to die initially, my dad had knocked a wire or HT lead when doing his exploratory investigations, causing the bike to misfire.
I was wrong. Firstly Harley-Davidson’s mechanics told my dad off for using sans plomb 95 and not 98. They went off to do their checks and I called Andy, who was yet to leave England. He suggested the problem could be the battery, which we hadn’t considered, not realising a faulty battery could make the bike misfire. Thank the Lord he was right. After being told off again for buying a cheap battery off the internet, which my dad had fitted only a month before, he paid 300 Euros for a new battery – a Harley- Davidson one, no less. Off to Gorron we went, then up to the D-Day beaches. Once again we could actually enjoy the riding. Before the bottom of my world dropped out.
Or rather, I dropped a valve. That morning our riding had been relaxed and competent, and as we got used to travelling together, confidence grew. Then, Andy and my dad were out in front, and overtook a lorry and car in one manoeuvre. I followed, trying to keep my 400cc engine competing with theirs twice the size, revving it right round to the red line. But as I went to change I missed a gear. This has happened on a handful of occasions before, with the bike normally finding the gear within milliseconds. That didn’t happen. I pulled the gear lever up. Nothing. I kicked down. Nothing, and all the while the engine revved like some hive of Herculean bees.
Finally, that noise, that death knell, then heat, smoke, and later the words, ‘It’s terminal,’ as Andy removed a spark plug. That’s how to kill a Honda. The three of us were stuck in Joué-du- Bois with two working motorbikes and two loads of gear, my dad and I having one bike between us. We made a tower of tents and bags on Andy’s V Strom, and he took all of our gear back to the cottage. He would return to Joué-du-Bois the next day to get my bike, in a rented van.
My dad and I then made the approximately 275-mile journey to Calais on the Harley, both wearing backpacks – my dad wore his on his front. We left Joué-du-Bois at around 3pm and didn’t get to the Eurotunnel until 11pm. I was pretty much crippled from perching
on the tiny seat for hours on end. I must have sat in every possible position on that seat. At one point we were in such discomfort we had to pull over for a break, and were so tired we nearly dropped the Harley. Despite this, I was still grateful to be on a motorbike, however uncomfortable, and able to get home, enjoying the ride, as waterfalls of wind noise crashed all around, and torrents of air looped into my helmet. The Harley, even though I had criticised it, had saved the day.
And then we were back in the UK. To top all this off, when I got home at 2am, I couldn’t wake my girlfriend up. She’d been out for a few drinks and had ear plugs in, because of noisy neighbours. I tried for half an hour to wake her up – banging on the front door and bedroom window, calling her and shining a light through the letterbox, and phoning her. Eleven times. And I tried to call her mum and brother, who live nearby. No answer. So I gave up and, unable to let go, I wrapped myself in my Honda’s bike cover, lay down wearing my biking trousers and snood, and went to sleep on the grass in my back garden. The Honda is still in France to this day.