Friday, May 22, 2009


The Southsiders M.C. and friends (myself and Yves) converged on Biarritz for a ride into Basque countryside on their immaculate Nortons and Triumphs. I had thought to ride along the coast on Yves' '34 Velocette MAC, but as the other riders had 'big guns' (ie, hot Commandos and new Bonnevilles), it seemed prudent to accept Vincent Prat's offer of his everyday-ride '72 750 Roadster, which is basically box-stock, barring electronic ignition and a single-carb conversion (Mikuni, for you purists... it works).

Our meeting point was the Pop Racing workshop outside of town (above, with Ford Transit truck), where I got to sample a 1923 Monet Goyon two-stroke of 175cc; a two-speeder with a clutch and belt drive which went about the same as Keith Hamilton's Ladies' Model Velocette of the same vintage, ie burbled and bobbled along at moped speeds, sans brakes - the rear drive-rim brake is made of wood!

After much milling around and photographing each other, we set off south on a grey day towards Spain, and the surf-friendly coastline... the biggest wave in France is found near the town of St. Jean de Luz, at a spot called 'Belharra'. There is a narrow canyon underwater with a sudden rise towards shore, which creates a 50' tall monster wave in the right conditions, just like my local Maverick's... no way would you catch me in the water near either.

But, it was a calm day and the surfers were paddlers, so we pressed onwards, the coastline road looking for all the world like Big Sur and Highway 1 for about 5 miles, at which point I let the Norton have its head, and it felt like home... except the tarmac was in perfect condition. A perfect road for a fast Commando.

As we were riding during a big 3-day weekend, we had to contend with a LOT of traffic... and let me say it here; Vincent Prat is a hooligan, so I naturally followed his rear wheel closely as we passed traffic on the left, right, middle, wherever was more open than sitting at idle behind the endless queue of cars and trucks. I learned how deal with London traffic in the 80's by following the moto-couriers, so it all felt familiar, although it required razor sharp concentration certainly (above, Franck Charriaut and his wife Faizath).

A welcome lunch stop at St. Jean de Luz produced the news that Louis XIV had a small chateau here, and married Marie Therese in the local church, where they knocked a hole in the wall for a once-only entrance for the royal couple, then promptly bricked it back up. Louis' pad is a nice example of 17th century French construction in miniature, with nice overhanging lookouts on the corners. The town was famous for whale hunting until 1990, when the last baleine was harpooned; now the tuna is gone too from overfishing, so it's all anchovies and sardines... which I happen to like when fresh...

As the town has such interesting history and is a well-preserved town, there are hordes of tourists on a nice day like ours... the video below shows what happens when your filming with one hand and riding straight into a crowded pedestrian zone; drop camera, grab clutch! (better movies tomorrow, I promise..)

At the Spanish border, we were welcomed by unsmiling Guardia with Uzis, M16s, and shotguns, who were stopping small trucks, looking for weapon and drug smugglers. Although the Basque separatist movement, ETA, has been quietish for a few years (although they did assassinate a local several weeks ago), I have heard they've morphed into a typical bloated post-terrorist mafia, demanding payments from local merchants and smuggling drugs...

Hondarribia is a 16th-century town which is highly cultured, as evidenced by a great preponderance of bars and restaurants. During the evening, around 7pm, the entire town turns out for the passeo, in which whole families stroll through the central district, stopping at various eating or watering holes, noshing on tapas and drinking tinta rojo, catching up with the neighbors or a gaggle of hungry bikers who invaded the central square, leaking out oil and cash, but taking in delicious black cured ham (jamon iberico) and some of the local extra-dry cider (seriously acid - an acquired taste, but really good with manchego cheese and.. ham!).

We were joined at 8pm by Daniel Delfour (below), builder of the Norton Ala'Verde, an artisan of the olde schoole, as he makes violins as well. Daniel's green Fastback Commando has been tastefully modified, and is very far from standard, which is to be expected. What has he built since the infamous green Laverda-Norton hybrid? Let's just say it's a very special machine, and is 'branded' by a famous French name, down to the details... all will be revealed in good time, in an ad campaign near you.


YJH said...

Paul, make France your second home_we love you here

Anonymous said...

Hi Paul. Let me know if you'll make it to Madrid. A friend there has a large collection.

PS, those wood brakes should be ok. Wood shoes are still used today, VMCC sells lots of them.