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. We 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. I 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 we 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, when 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. Down 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. The 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.