The ferry may had left TanMed five hours late, but it eased into the small port of Sete a few hours early. The skies were clear and a cold wind was howling down from the north.
I rode out of the hold and joined a mass of cars where a casually dressed guy who looked like a stowaway was nipping about snapping our vax certificates on his mobile. Was that it? I was expecting a harder time from French immigration but there is something to be said for these small ports.
Once clear of the docks I pulled over to wrap up and plug in, returning waves from the couple of other bikers on the boat. My Montana was playing up and not routing, but the free download map still worked so I could wing it.
Years ago when I used to transit France to Marseille for Algeria, I calculated the shortest, fastest, toll-minimising and big-city-avoiding route from the Channel to the Med. The key to this 900km route was the toll-free A75 La Méridienne motorway which snaked over the Massif Central between Clermont Ferrand and Beziers, close to Sete. Usually deserted, the A75 was a scenic way of ticking off big miles for free.
Now, buffeted by icy gusts, I worked my way out of Sete following signs for Clermont-l’Hérault and the A75. If it was freezing down here what would be be like up on the 3000-foot Massif plateau?
I’ve not ridden in France for years and, providing it didn’t snow, I was really looking forward to this ride. I had the gear to keep warm and dry and for me, an unusually fast bike to bat away the miles. Plus I love France and French living, for all the well known reasons.
Helped by the fact I once thad no permanent base in the UK, over the decades I’ve spent many happy months relocating in southern of France during the cheaper off-season. In the winter of 1995 I parked up in a little village called St Guiraud, not far off the A75 just north of Clermont-l’Hérault where, in between hiking and MTB excursions, I wrote Desert Travels. Now 25 years later with the wonder of Google StreetView, I was able to see the house I rented. It’s nice to know it’s still recognisable, but I’ve learned that the thought of revisiting old haunts is usually more satisfying than actually following through.
But I wanted an excuse to linger down in the familiar south for a bit. Ted ‘Jupiter’s Travels‘ Simon’s town of Aspiran was also right on my route to the A75, and as he’s contributed to AMH (below) and I’d met him at various shows and events over the years, it didn’t seem inappropriate to propose I swing by for a cafe au. Before the great plague swept the land, he generously offered his spare rooms as a writers’ retreat, and has a new book out about his pre-Jupiter years.
I pulled up in Aspiran main square but realised I’d not saved Ted’s number like I thought I had (smart phone / dumb user). Other means of retrieving this information failed.
No matter, I had an image of his place (left) in my mind’s eye and it’s a small place. I’ll wander round the old town and use my desert-honed routing-finding ability to nose it out.
Probing promising lanes and cul-de-sac was fun to try but it didn’t work out. In the meantime I learned that Aspiran had some unusual street names: Rue d’Enfer (Hell Road), and the equally jaunty Old Slaughterhouse Road where I take it property values are also a little more moderate.
The streets were deserted, as they always are in these places, so back in the square I popped into the bakery for some hot savouries to see me over the bone-chilling Massif. Even Greggs couldn’t have beaten the prices. She handed me my warmed-up nosh.
‘Merci. Do you know an old Anglais who lives in the town? He is called Ted Simon.’
‘I think I know who you mean but I don’t know where he lives‘ she said. But for all I know she could just as well have been saying ‘That’ll be 4 euros, now bugger off back to your sunlit uplands!’
On a bench opposite the town hall I tucked into my steaming pizza slice while a cat peered up for a hand-out. Then I zipped up, strapped down and braced myself to hit the road.
Soon I was pushing into the headwind barrelling down the A75 as it climbed and curved into the Massif, while the fuel and temperature gauges raced each other to the bottom. The AT’s mpg read-out on the dash got so subterranean I stopped trying to work it out (probably < 50mpg).
Bags either side of the tank may not have been helping the range, but they sure helped keep the wind off my Aerostich AD1s, while the Palmer screen was adjusted out front offering all the aerodynamics of a Landrover. Still, this was a recovery mission so I accepted it would cost what it cost to to get the job done.
Within an hour I was past the snowline at around 1500 feet with the temperature reading a couple of degrees above freezing. I was trying to resist putting my heated jacket on full blast so I’d have something left after dark, but was surprised how tolerable I felt, even without heated grips.
I’d been planning this chilly ride for weeks if not months, and knew my outfit would be crucial. My setup was an thick Icebreaker merino top, the humming Powerlet jacket over that, then a down Mountain Hardwear puffa jacket to fill out the space under my heavy canvas Carhartt jacket.
As usual with heated gear on a bike, it’s not exactly like sitting by a crackling fire on a balmy evening but, recalling my crossing of the Spanish Picos on my XSR a couple of years ago in similar conditions, I was suffering a lot less than expected while not feeling like a sack stuffed with potatoes. Something made a difference, though it may have been no more than low humidity.
I watched the signboard elevations climb: 770m, 888m. Somewhere I was sure the A75 peaked at over 1100m metres. There was a roadhouse there where I recall snowballing with the Mrs one time. [Oh dear, as I feared even that innocent pastime has now become repurposed as vulgar urban slang].
Clouds rolled in and the read-out dropped to 0°C. I knew I had to pitch my stages so that when I stopped I wouldn’t just fall over and shatter into glass, like the Terminator getting drenched with liquid nitrogen.
Hasta la vista. Baby.
Other graphs are available, but according to this one left, freezing point at 120 clicks feels like minus 12°C or 10 Fahrenheits. The elevation was now hovering around 1000m (3300′) and I had to hug myself with my left arm to press the heated wires against my body.
At one point I must have fiddled with the dial or something because turn a jacket off at these temps and you soon feel the difference. Big chill panic set in fast. WTF’s up! Has the fuse blown? Nooooooooo… I felt like a diver whose air supply had been cut off.
I fumbled with the dial and turned it back to ‘6 o’clock’. Ahhhh that’s better, like having warm ketchup poured down your crotch.
I needed fuel but the next aire was that one at the A75’s summit at over 1100m. The thought of all those unheated minutes filling up the bike and paying for it were unbearable. So I set the display to ‘remaining range’, vowed to keep below 120 true, and take decisive action before the range dropped to 50 clicks.
The elevation fell, the temperature inched up to a balmy 5°C and just in time, the lights of a roadhouse lit up the dusk. A few minutes later by the bike, as I was warming my hands around a coffee, a passing motorist chipped in with something like:
‘Bonne courage mon ami. My AT is safely locked up in my heated garage till March at the earliest!’
By Clermont Ferrand I was over the Massif and well below the snowline, but now the setting sun would take the warmth with it. The A71 toll road began here too but still, this was metropolitan France, not Tajikistan. I’d stick at it till 7pm or creeping hypothermia, whichever comes first, then look for a hotel.
When that time came I was getting quite chilled and at another fill-up in the Centre de la France roadhouse, I asked where the nearest hotel was.
‘Bourges chum, around 50km.’
I can manage fifty – 25 minutes on an AT with a refreshed tank.
I pulled off for Bourges and brushed the toll booth pad with my credit card. Who knows what that cost but 550 darn-chilly clicks knocked off, less than 400 to Dieppe, tomorrow.
Another great thing with riding in France are welcoming gas, food & lodging enclaves right by the toll-gate turn-offs, avoiding the need to trudge into the city if you don’t want to. All lit up with shiny neon, the budget hotels shout out their prices and offer discount vouchers for cozy restos within walking distance.
After a good feed still wearing all my gear, back in the room it took hours online to book the ferry needed to fill out the UK Passenger Locator Form needed to book the newly required Day 2 PCR test needed to get let on the boat.
At one point the online data trail dried up: FFS, why is my test booking number not being accepted for the PLF? I emailed the test booking place (there are so many scammy looking ones to choose from) and got an auto FAQ reply explaining where to find the magic number so as to regain entry into the kingdom.
And this was just one European border. Imagine trying to cross Africa or Asia? Welcome to post-Covid Travel World.
Next day’s ride to Dieppe was as easy and dreary as expected. In winter, northern France can look as grim as southern France is pretty. Murky, mist-bound prairies (actually a French word) span the drab horizon broken by skeletal woodlands and villages splattered by the mud and grime of passing HGVs.
It was fun to try an AT but it’s not a keeper. Mulling away the miles, I’ve been wondering what next, and a CRF 300 Rally was near the top of the list. It would be great for effortlessly exploring more tracks in Morocco and general European TET-ery, but imagine banging out this ride on one? Let’s not kid ourselves; it’s still a 286cc, despite the snazzy Dakar livery. Loath though I am to admit it, a less flashy CB500X, especially the post 2019 with a 19-inch front wheel, ticks the boxes. And in the UK the latest 2022 CB-X costs just £250 more than a 300 Rally. A test ride should reveal all.
On my optimised Channel-to-Med route, Rouen on the Seine is the only big city to ride through, but the transit is well signed. Just north of here is Dieppe, a minor port, miles from the surge of desperate migrants trying to reach the UK in inflatables. This has its benefits with immigration; a little more amateur and flirty. It was a wet and windy Tuesday evening and I’m the only bike among a handful of second-home SUVers and campervans.
‘You have come from Morocco, you say?’
‘Did you buy anything there?’ Aye, aye, she’s onto me.
‘Not really; some cheese, some chocolate.’ I pass her that one for free.
‘Chocolate, eh? You know they make hashish in Morocco?’
‘You have some hashish with you?’
‘Course not. Have a look.’ I open my arms in invitation. I hold back from telling her that in the UK these days, most weed comes from hydroponic suburban hothouses.
‘Do you smoke le hashish?’ she said with a cheeky grin. Jeez, this interrogation is getting intense!
‘What sort of question is that?!’ I smiled back with mock indignation.
‘OK. Allez-y. Bonne route.’
Even in my most delirious sinsemilla reveries, I’d never pull off such a playful encounter with a lumpen UK immigration plod. When I first started travelling I used to think Customs people were secret agents trained by MI6. Maybe I’d seen too many Bond movies.
In the remnants of Storm Arden, the first Arctic blow of the winter, the half empty ferry tosses and turns across the Channel. Newhaven immigration is a piece of cake and leaving town, I manage to blunder onto one of the few main roads in the Southeast I didn’t recognise; the A275. Unused to the windy, wet backroads in the dark, I can’t get a handle on the big AT and ride like a lemon. Eventually I pop out at Forest Row on the Sussex border, back on terra cognita.
As sixteen year-old, probably my very first motorcycle adventure out of my neighbourhood was gunning my Honda SS50 the 32.3 miles overland from South London to Harrison’s Rocks, the Southeast’s lame excuse for rock climbing near Groombridge, east of Forest Row.
And coming over the Caterham bypass into the edge of built-up London, I always fondly recall bombing down to the roundabout on my new 900SS just two years after the moped, the Conti pipes crackling away on the over-run like fireworks. Over forty years and fifty bikes later the big question is: what next and where next?