D-Day and Saint-Mère-Église.

A visit to the Cotentin Peninsula and the D-Day celebrations as my tour of Europe is drawing close to an end.

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D-Day and the Normandy landings are commemorated every year on 6th June.

From Le Mont-Saint-Michel I rode my Suzuki V-Strom 1000 Adventure up the Cotentin Pennisula to Saint-Mère-Église. Saint-Mère-Église was one of the first villages in Normandy to be liberated from the German forces, by the U.S. Army 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions, on the 6th June 1944, as a result of the Normany landings. I got there in the late afternoon and met friends from home who go to Normandy, specifically Saint-Mère-Église, every year for what proved to be one of the biggest pageants I have ever witnessed, the D-Day Commemorations. I unloaded the tent from Suzie and started to get it set up as quickly as possible in a stiff breeze. I had experienced some showers on the road North from Le Mont and it was clear that rain and stormy conditions were not too far away. I got it up quickly with some help, and sure enough the rain and strong wind arrived right on cue, as I and my friends walked towards the Place du 6 Jun, in the centre of Saint-Mère-Église. You can see from this image, that I took moments after getting the tent set, that the wind was starting to whip up. The bushes are sideways and the tent is under pressure already.

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Saint-Mère-Église is well known because of an incident that occurred during the airborne attack, involving a paratrooper known as John Steele. The paratroopers from the 82nd Division had been dropped over the village while the local population were tackling fires caused by incendiaries dropped before the attack. The Germans were present, supervising the bucket brigade, trying to put out the fires.

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The descending paratroopers were clearly visibly, and easily picked off by the Germans. John Steele’s parachute got caught on one of the church pinnacles and he was a sitting target. I’m told that a burst of machine gun fire was directed at him. He was hit in the foot and feigned death. The wound in his foot caused him to bleed heavily and this convinced the Germans below that he was dead. He survived and was captured but later escaped from captivity and rejoined the fighting. He regularly visited the village after the war until his death in 1969, and was made an honorary citizen of Saint-Mère-Église. An effigy of John Steele hangs from the pinnacle of the church in his memory.

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The Normandy landings and the men that liberated Normandy is the theme of the commemorations and it is just extraordinary how many exceptionally well preserved, genuinely original vehicles turn up here in immaculate condition, exactly as they would have been in 1944.

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The whole peninsula is the stomping ground for a massive variety of military vehicles and the roads and narrow streets of the small villages nearby are chock-a-block with the usual holiday traffic as well as these military vehicles.

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Enthusiasts in precisely accurate battledress uniforms come every year in every type of vehicle you could think of from the era, to commemorate and celebrate the beginning of the liberation of Europe from the Nazi regime. That beginning was the landings at beaches such as Utah and Omaha that are just a few kilometres away and well worth visiting.

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There are museums in Saint-Mère-Église and Utah Beach, and many more that are worth visiting in the greater area of the invasion. I visited the ones in Saint-Mère-Église and Utah but because it was so stormy and wet, I didn’t much feel like going further from base. The museums I did visit were very well worth it.

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The exhibits included original aircraft, realistic battlefield scenes and examples of trench defences.

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There are also a huge number of memorials to the people that lost their lives in the landings and the ensuing battles.

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And as you travel around the immediate area, within 10 or 15 kilometres of Saint-Mère-Église, little villages like Carenten, a village that the Americans hoped to, but failed to take that first day, you meet more vintage and military vehicles.

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When the rain became heavy, it’s not hard to understand why some stopped and sheltered until the latest burst of rain eased off.

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Others braved it even during the heavy downpours whether they were on vintage Harleys or open-top troop carriers.

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One of my favourite bikes on tour in the area was this 1943 Harley that the owner drove around on, and I managed to catch up with him in Saint-Mère-Église. He was kind enough to take a picture of me with his bike. That picture, which he took with my phone, is the featured image. I took an image of him driving through the square in Saint-Mère-Église.

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I wasn’t the only biker that was impressed with this Harley because every time he parked the bike, a crowd of admirers began to gather.

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As well as the pageantry and fun that this annual event creates, there is a serious side to the proceedings. The brave warriors involved in the landings are honoured and remembered by the French civil and military authorities.

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Wreathes are placed at the memorials to those who lost their lives in the endeavour to bring liberty in 1944. While the speeches were in French, it was obvious they were delivered with passion and admiration for fallen heroes.

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The crowds watching were a mixture of locals and interested spectators like my friends and I, as well as many that were dressed up in very realistic WWII uniforms. It also appeared to me that many that attended were currently serving military personnel, intent on paying their respects to their veteran predecessors.

All too quickly my couple of days in Saint-Mère-Église came to an end. It was time to head to Cherbourg for a return ferry trip to Ireland.

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I really enjoyed my trip around Europe and there are too many highlights to pick a favourite. Visiting friends in Austria and experiencing their party atmosphere again was really great. The beautiful Italian Alps and Lake Bled in Slovenia, Gmunden in Austria and Namur in Belgium. Too many great experiences to crown any as number 1.

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An overnight trip on the ferry and before I knew it, Suzie and I were preparing to disembark in Rosslare. A short spin home and time to reflect on a great adventure and of course, time to think about what’s next!

 

Adventure Biking to Laconia Bike Week.

Adventurous bikers travel to Laconia on every type of bike from just about every where.

Adventurous bikers come in many different guises.

Someone recently put up this post on a Facebook page I follow called “Adventure Bike Riders”:

This page is exactly what Facebook should be about!
I’m taken by how many people are on here from every walk of life and from every corner of the globe, all joined by one thing with 2 wheels.
No negativeness (usually) and all the nice comments and mutual respect, regardless of who we are or what we choose to ride.
It’s bloody marvellous isn’t it!
Keep it going folks, life is too short X

It’s fair comment in my opinion and it’s what motorcycling is all about. I am really looking forward to this year’s big trip in Europe. I will be taking the ferry from Ireland to Cherbourg in Northern France in about six weeks time and travelling down to the Alps, but enjoying everything in between. Last year I went to Boston and travelled up to Laconia Bike week in New Hampshire and the most important impression I took from it was how overwhelmingly friendly everyone was and how everyone respected their fellow bikers. It didn’t matter if you were into adventure style bikes or cruisers, everyone we met wanted to talk to us and ask where we came from. I saw KTMs and Africa Twins and 250cc scramblers on Weirs Beach Boulevard as well as lots of custom bikes and of course the big cruisers like Harley Davidson and Indians. We met people there from every State in America and from other countries as  well. One guy had ridden his big cruiser from Alaska to New Hampshire. The first part of his journey had been all snow and ice and poor driving conditions. It took him three weeks to get to Bike Week. He may not have been on a BMW GS1200, but that is adventure biking at it’s finest.

I was travelling with Matt, a friend of mine, riding a 2013 Harley Electra Glide I had hired at MOMS Motorcycles in Foxboro, and initially I had found it very heavy and unwieldy, especially as we were hitting some seriously challenging roads. I am not normally a cruiser rider and the roads we had been riding on would be really great for enduro or adventure style bikes, but not for the Lincoln Town Car, as I had christened the Harley. I have to acknowledge though that this bike was definitely growing on me. In fact it didn’t put a foot wrong, and even when the conditions became demanding, I was getting a kick out of leaning it into the corners and it behaved absolutely impeccably no matter what I or the roads threw at it. It had great weather protection and even when it rained, hardly a drop got by the big fairing.

One of the “must do” activities when you are at Laconia Bike Week is to visit Mount Washington and the Mount Washington State Park. It is the highest mountain in the North Eastern U.S. at 6,288 feet (1917 m.) and has a very erratic and dangerous climate. The highest wind speed ever recorded, other than in a cyclone, at 231 mph (372 km/h) makes this a place to be taken seriously if you want to make a bike trip. In fact there is a visitors centre on the way up on the Mount Washington Auto Road and when conditions are bad you are not permitted to go beyond the visitors centre. When we arrived up there we were disappointed to learn that the road to the summit was closed. It had snowed about three inches earlier with wind speed recorded at over 100 mph. The snow ploughs were out even though it was June, and it wasn’t going to be possible to ride to the top. The parking lot would usually be packed at this time but because the road was closed with temperatures at the summit between 15 and 34 Fahrenheit ( -9 to +1 Celsius), taking the wind chill into consideration, and winds too high, there were just a few visitors in the souvenir shop and the restaurant. Mount Washington would have to wait for my next visit. So we went and rode the “Kanc” which is another of the famous attractions for bikers in the Laconia area. The two major highways in the area go North/South and the Kancamagus highway, or Kancamagus Scenic Byway, connects these roads East to West. It is open most of the year, except for during really heavy snow, unlike some other roads in the area. It is a 32 mile or 52 km stretch through the White Mountains, connecting the towns of Lincoln and Conway, that is a favourite with bikers because it is a winding mountain road, that seems to go from one left hand to right hand sweeping bend, interspersed with hairpins and continuous inclines or declines. It you travel east from Lincoln, you enter the White Mountain National Forest following a branch of the Pemigewasset River, ascending until you reach the summit at Kancamagus Pass where there is a viewing point. bridgeThen you start down by the Swift river, all the while enjoying some great riding because of the sweeping bends which sometimes tighten into hairpins. Eventually the terrain begins to flatten until you find yourself on the Main Street in Conway. I cannot emphasise enough how beautiful this whole area is with fantastic viewing points to pull over, rest the weary bodies and enjoy the spectacular forest, mountain and valley views. Quaint small towns, river crossings with covered bridges and many other quintessentially American attractions abound.

Back at Weirs Bridge the highlight for me was Keith Sayers freestyle motocross show. There was a crowd of people watching the show of top class motorbike aerial acrobatics, where Keith Sayers, with Todd Potter and James Carter wowed the crowd, jumping from very steep ramps and doing amazing somersaults and other aerobatics. The show started off with one bike in the air, and culminated with all three bikes spinning through the air at the same time. Before we left we had a look at the fantastic custom bikes at the Infocus Mobile Audio Stand and let me tell you they were so impressive. These custom bikes have massive speakers built in behind the fairing and in the side boxes. The sound systems are integrated so seamlessly that they enhance the appearance of the bikes. I have included some images at the end so you can admire their work.

That was my visit to Laconia Bike Week and hopefully I will visit there again, maybe for the 100th Bike Week. Warmth and friendliness was a common theme throughout the whole visit. Everyone we met on the trip was so friendly and just a note to demonstrate that: on one occasion that we pulled over to enjoy the view of the White Mountains I had parked the Lincoln Town Car in a depression of the ground on a hill. Matt said he would give me a hand to push it backwards out of the depression (as I couldn’t go forward because of a big rock just in front of the front wheel). As he was just about to push, a guy stopped his truck, jumped out, and asked were we in trouble and did we need help. He was probably a biker as that is “the biker code”, but he may have been just a random passer-by. Either way it is indicative of the easy, friendly and helpful attitude we met as a constant on this trip. A great trip and I am looking forward to this year’s adventure in Europe.

Summer is Coming…

A look back on a fantastic bike trip to Laconia Bike Week 2016.

Laconia Bike Week in New Hampshire.

This year my big bike trip will involve taking the ferry from Ireland to Cherbourg in France and travelling through France, Germany, Italy, Slovenia and Austria. Nothing is set in stone and I generally don’t book accommodation until the day I need it so I can ramble wherever I fancy. I have to admit though, I am thinking back to the great trip I had to Laconia Bike Week in 2016. I won’t be there this year for the 94th bike week. Last year my friend Matt from Blackstone, Massachusetts, invited me to go over to his home so we could ride up to Laconia Bike Week in New Hampshire. 2016 was theDSC04774 93rd year of this iconic festival of biking. It’s the oldest national motorcycle rally in the U.S.  It began when a group of less than 200 motorcycling enthusiasts toured the lake and mountain region in New Hampshire in 1916. It has evolved over time into an institution of motorcycling that attracts hundreds of thousands every year. I booked the flight to Boston and when I landed in Logan airport, Matt and his two beautiful daughters, Marissa and Hannah, were there to pick me up.

On the way from the airport to Blackstone we stopped near Gillette stadium in Foxborough, home of the New England Patriots. It was Thursday night and every second Thursday night there is a “cruise night”, organised by Mass Cruisers atPatriot Place Car Show Patriot Place, a shopping Mall, adjacent to the stadium. Wow! Thousands of beautiful examples of American metal. A guy we spoke to told us that on a good night there could be well in excess of two thousand cars there. Every era of car manufacturing in America, back to the 1930s was on display and we couldn’t get enough of it.

When we arrived at the family home, I met Matt’s wife Cheryl, who was a gracious host for a beautiful dinner. The family’s home is a fabulous house set in a lovely residential, wooded area on the outskirts of Blackstone. The house is very much in keeping with the setting, as it is made of stone and cedar wood. In the garage there were four motorbikes and a 1968 Camaro. One of Matt’s project cars. Two motorcross bikes and two Harleys’ of an older era. The absolute star of the show was Matt’s pride and joy, a 1977 Harley Davidson, customised to give it the appearance of being from an even older era. Matt’s priority was to have sleek lines and perfect paintwork and he certainly has achieved that in this bike. It is a thing of beauty. Cheryl told me stories of the many long journeys they travelled on this bike when they were together first. It is possible to bolt on a seat over the back mudguard on the bike but it must have been hell to travel on for any distance. Both Matt and Cheryl agree that they need a modern tourer to get back into the bike adventures they used to have before house, mortgage, responsiDSC04746bility and their much loved girls entered the frame. I was glad to have met Matt again and to be introduced to his beautiful family. I was also glad to head upstairs and sleep. I was looking forward to the next few days. A trip to Boston to experience the city and a trip to MOMs Motorcycles in Foxboro also, to see the bike I would have for the road trip to Laconia.

My Riceburners

We boarded the Stena ferry in Cherbourg for the overnight sailing back to Rosslare. Declan, my brother in law and I had met up in France, in the Loire Valley area, and did some touring around together. img_0207We stayed with Alan and Sophie, friends of Declan’s, in  a lovely village close to Amboise, on the bank of the river Loire. Beautifully wined and dined by our hosts,  we had ridden up to within an hour of the ferry the evening before we were due to get the sailing. The next morning we had intended a quick stop at Mont Saint-Michel, but as luck would have it, there was a marathon taking place, so we could only see Mont in the distance. We headed for Cherbourg, and after a short wait, boarded the ferry. There were a lot of bikes there, and Declan’s Triumph America, 2005, was met with a murmur of approval, and some of the French guys came a little closer to inspect it. We met Pierre and Pascal, who were both particularly animated in their praise and interest in the Triumph. Pierre was a burly Frenchman with a big grey  moustache. He told us that he had a vintage Triumph that he had done a lot of touring on, but his current bike was a Harley, as was Pascal’s.  After a short conversation we agreed to meet in the bar, as soon as we were settled.

A short time later we joined the ancient order of froth blowers in the ship’s lounge and soon our new French acquaintances arrived. Pierre was sporting a very colourful waistcoat, not of the type normally worn by bikers and also had a very fetching, red leather handbag, with a strap, worn across his shoulder. “Declan, Pierre has a red handbag”, I said before he came within hearing distance. “He’s French” was the reply. Pascal and Pierre joined us and the conversation continued on a motorcycle theme. Declan’s Triumph America was, once again, the main topic, or at least Triumphs in general. I was beginning to wonder if all French bikers have a fetish for Triumph, or Steve McQueen, or was I missing something? What about my Yamaha? Quite an accomplished machine with a lot more of the continent under it’s belt than the Triumph. I have to admit that I am a fan of Japanese motor cycles, or to use the pejorative term: Riceburners, which is an insult to a group of motorcycle manufacturers, that grabbed a fairly dull industry in the 60s and 70s, and successfully produced the first superbikes, and have caused a revolution in every aspect of two wheel travel ever since.

When I was a young teenager, back when the earth was covered in snow and ice at both ends, forest in the middle bit, and the dinosaurs had only just faded into the annals of history, my method of transport was by means of a bicycle. When I came of age to become a motorcyclist, I visited a local shop that dealt in bicycles, and small motorbikes, to see what might be available. I always worked weekend and summer jobs so I had some cash saved. I had bought my first racing bike in this shop and now it was time to graduate to a bike with the added attraction of a motor. rd125I spotted the Yamaha RD125, a two stroke little beauty, in nice condition, with not too many miles. This was circa 1981 or 1982, I believe, and I made my purchase for the princely sum of £800 Irish pounds. The bike was probably a mid to late seventies model but it was perfect for my teenage needs. I bought a full face helmet and a leather jacket, a lá Marlon Brando style, and became a biker. Or so I thought at least. I went all over the country on this little bike and it always got me where I was going. The only problem I remember having, was on a return trip from Tralee, in the south west of the country, a distance of 125 miles (200km). I checked the two-stroke level, in the little bottle under the side cover, and discovered it was just empty. I was stranded for a little while, afraid to drive any further in case of causing engine damage. I found a little fuel station in the small town where I had stopped, called Cappoquin. There was a young guy, not much older than myself working there. He told me that he had heard that engine oil could be used, in place of two stroke oil, in the case of emergency. Not having a lot of choice, as it was Sunday evening and nowhere else was open, I took his advice and used some. It got me home the last 50 miles of my journey without any problem.

On the outward leg of the journey to the continent I had met up with Paddy Ryan on the ferry, and bikewe had travelled together for the first few days, but Paddy was heading towards Prague and I towards The Hague. I stayed with friends, Damir and Alisa, and their lovely daughter Uma, and then I travelled through Germany for a week, turned West into France, eventually meeting up with Declan in Amboise, France. We stayed with Alan and Sophie, as I mentioned earlier, and did some day trips close by. The Loire valley offers lots of treats, fantastic views and attractions to visit. The weather was showery but still very warm, so occasionally the wet gear had to be worn, which is always uncomfortable in the heat. That’s when the trouble began.We were scooting along on the autoroute when a shower started. We pulled in and donned the waterproofs and set off again. We were on the way to visit Chateau de Chambord, a beautiful French Renaissance castle, chambourdwhen I noticed the Triumph starting to slow down. Gradually it slowed to not much more than a crawl, but in the mean time the shower had dissipated. I noticed the Triumph give a few little chucks and then it started to accelerate again. When we stopped I asked what happened but Declan wasn’t sure. The bike had just lost power. I had a sinking feeling about it, but we enjoyed the visit to the Chateau, and forgot the problems with the Triumph. Not for long. After a coffee break at a rest stop, the triumph wouldn’t start. The ignition was fine but the starter button was dead.  I told Declan to hop on and put the bike in first gear. This was the first time I pushed started the bike for him. The first of many. Within a few minutes the Triumph lost power and gradually came to a full stop. Here we go. More pushing. Very little starting.

I had just spent three weeks riding around Europe on my trusty Yamaha. Up through Northern France, through Belgium and Netherlands. When I got to The Hague I had ridden all day in torrential rain. Just a few extra coffee stops to try to get out of the wet, but I had made my friends’ house, in the late evening, sopping wet. My gear had taken two days to dry while I was given the tour of The Hague. europe-2014-200Down through Germany with a stop in Neunkirchen for a few days, where my friend Thomas Schmitt had looked after me while I toured the sights within striking distance of the clubhouse I stayed in. Occasional rain and any other adversity was easily handled by my Yamaha Fazer 1000. But now, without even having had to check the tyre pressure on the Fazer on my European tour, just a spray of chain oil in the evening, I was the one pushing a motorbike. The Triumph had only crossed the channel a day or so ago and had done a few hundred miles at best. Declan said it was his bike’s way of telling him he had no business going out on a motorbike in the rain. I laughed. For a while.

And so it went on. Obviously an electrical problem. Two it seemed. The starter button just refused to work and the issue of losing power was a different problem. And of course the rain became more persistent. Every time the Triumph spluttered and stopped, or when we were setting off again after a break, I had to push. The heat was a killer. Full motorbike gear, waterproofs on top, and then push a heavy motorbike. Because of the need to keep the throttle open on the Triumph when it started, I found I had to run back to the Yamaha and try to catch up. And then, after a few miles, do it all over again. Eventually it happened. No matter how far I pushed it wouldn’t start. I was exhausted anyway and couldn’t push much more. Sweating so much I was wet on the inside as well as the outside. Declan was nice and relaxed, sitting on the bike, never having had to push. At a quiet rest stop, we wheeled the bike into the public toilets to dry out. It sat there for about a half an hour, with some bewildered looking French people doing a double take, when they walked in to the bathrooms. A Triumph Motorcycle there in the foyer area, looking like it couldn’t decide to go left or right, into the ladies or gents.

So now, sitting in the lounge of the Stena ferry, listening to the conversation about the Triumph,  I was a little peeved. Two Frenchmen, with American bikes, talking to an Irishman about the British bike he was riding. And me there, the pusher of said bike, being too polite to mention the escapades of the last three days. meThe conversation turned to the Harleys the French guys were riding, but at no time was there even a mention of a certain Yamaha. Maybe the problem is similar to what I have heard said about car drivers’ perception of bikes. A lot of drivers don’t even see motorbikes or pedal cycles. Maybe cruiser riders don’t see street bikes. Well, a lot of people didn’t see it coming in the 60s or 70s either, when the Japanese manufacturers went from making nice little motorbikes, like the Honda Super Cub (Honda 50) and turned their attentions to bigger machines. Honda’s CB 750 is thought by many to have been the first superbike. Except by Kawasaki fans. They know the first true superbike was the Z1. They might have been thought of as Riceburners in the early days, but when stalwarts like Norton and Royal Enfields, couldn’t compete with their reliability and went to the wall, there was a new found respect for the Japanese bikes. It was not so with my companions on the Stena boat. Just cruisers, Harleys and Triumphs. Ah well, all I could do was sit there benignly, blowing the froth off another one, and listen to the motorbike experts.