From deep in the archives..
Found some old scooter stuff in a box under the bed, including a bunch of photos and write up of a trip to Italy in a copy of a scooter club ‘zine. Twenty five years ago and bits still ring true from bikes tours since. Transcription below – how handy is text recognition software on phone cameras!? Verbatim (and a bit sweary, apologies) apart from some tidying up and added notes.
In a pub with a couple of mates in the summer of 1995 I came up with a plan to save up some dosh, buy a scooter, jack in my job, and then doss round Europe on the scooter. The only problem with this plan was I knew sod all about scooters, having never owned one, or ridden one let alone had a licence (back then you could ride up to 125cc with L plates on a car licence, however you needed a motorcycle licence to ride in Europe). Minor problems. Anyway by October that year I had purchased my very own Vespa T5, which turned out to be a time and money sucking heap of shite. A month after I bought it the rear wheel bearings went. Oh joy, first engine strip (and not the fucking last I might add) and whilst stripping it down I also discovered the fourth gear had been chewed badly whilst the wheel wobbled about on the axle. Getting the wheel bearing out involved a blow torch, a big hammer, and a lot of swearing. Then followed months of grief when stuff broke or fell off on a regular basis, including the exhaust pipe. The final thing being the need to replace the cylinder and barrel the weekend before my ferry ticket was booked for! So the week before I left I had to do 500 miles round the block running in a Polini 152 piston kit. However this did have the benefit that it would now happily sit at 75mph on a motorway (foreign motorways obviously, not condoning speeding. Also the cable would drop out the back of the speedo on a regular basis so often I had to judge speed by the gear I was in and the engine tone).
Originally I was planning to get to my parents holiday home down near the Dordogne and use it as a base for trundling around, but had since found out about the Eurovespa 50th Anniversary Rally in San Remo in June 1996. Mmm I thought, that sounds like quite a smart rally for a beginner. Whether a 2000 mile round trip to Italy on a ropey Vespa was a good idea is an entirely different question. Miraculously on the Saturday 8th June I semi-sped (taking it easy on the new piston) down the A3 to Portsmouth to catch the overnight ferry . I got off the ferry about 7 the next morning after a cup of tea and a cigarette for breakfast.
Down long straight main roads through Le Mans (including a section of the race circuit) and Tours stopping for the night at Chateauroux. Had a four course meal with wine for less than a tenner after I had the most welcome bath of my life! Slept like a log after having got sod all sleep on the ferry the night before, and having ridden for about 8 hours.
After brekkie the next morning I set off for my parents gaff. The scenery on this part of the journey was far better than the day before which had been a bit flat. Loads of rolling hills, lush pine forests, rivers and valleys. Around 2pm I arrived in the tiny village of Gagnac-sur-Cere. Bloody hell I had got this far, 460 miles from home in a foreign land on a shit scooter – roughly 459 miles further than most people thought I would get. Could I push my luck and try to get to Italy for Eurovespa?
11th to 18th June
Spent the week eating loads of fresh food, drinking exceedingly cheap plonk, and watching Euro ’96. Visited a couple of nearby towns; Argentat, a medieval town on the Dordogne, which is beautiful with some nice cafes down on the quay side. The other town was Rocamadour that has grown up around a monastery built into the side of a cliff. Absolutely stunning as you ride towards it but really touristy when you get there. The rides to both places hard work but fun, because in this area there are a lot of hills and valleys, rivers everywhere. You can’t ride anywhere without winding your way up a hill the size of Dartmoor, and more often more than one. I’d also decided I would have a go at getting to Italy making the scoot promise to get me home if I took it back to it’s homeland for a visit.
(I seem to have written this with the scooter club in mind who wouldn’t have been concerned with the intricacies of French village life. I also played petanque with the neighbours on the street outside the house. Now tarmaced that street used to be gravel. Auguste, the old fella who lived opposite and used to ride his ancient bike to his field every morning to tend his veg, and his wife Simone used to leave me fresh lettuces and veg on the doorstep in the mornings. Very drinkable red wine in plastic bottles was about 90p in the local supermarket and you got 10p back when you returned the bottle. My French improved no end seeing as no one spoke any English and I only had French TV. Euro ’96 was watched with French commentary. There was the Arte channel, a co-French German channel that showed lots of arts programming and the occasional film in English with subtitles. I remember watching some of Leonard Bernstein’s music lectures from the 1960s on Arte.)
Got up early, packed and pointed the scooter south west. Rode 220 miles to Montpellier through the best scenery I had seen so far, and over some of the biggest hills – probably classed as hills in France, but as far as me and my gearbox were concerned mountains. First sight of the Med and it’s misty and grey. Found a campsite a few miles east of Montpellier which was only 4 quid and had showers. As I was pitching the tent a couple of Welsh hitch-hikers came over and had a chat about scooters because they fancied getting one when they got home.
At 5.30 the next morning I discovered why the site was cheap, there was a train line right behind it and freight trains are not quiet. I couldn’t get back to sleep so went and showered about 6.30. Left about 8.30 and head east for Cannes. I reckoned if I could get that far it only left about 50 miles the next day to San Remo. Pretty flat all day until about 15 miles from Cannes when I hit the Maritime-Alpes. Right, these were deffo mountains, hairpin bends and 2nd gear all the way. The theme to The Italian Job played in my head and I prayed the brakes worked on the descents. Cannes didn’t look all that and I couldn’t find a campsite (I didn’t exactly look hard) so I kept going. Through Nice, also looking fairly dump like from the main roads, so on to Monte Carlo, most definitely not a dump! Parked the Vespa next to a Ferrari outside a Spar and bought food for dinner. Ended up on a campsite about 2 miles from the Italian border. An English couple spot the number plate and ask where I’ve ridden from. The showers were freezing when your warm water token ran out.
Woke up to a thunder storm. Oh marvellous. Rained for a couple of hours and then the sun made an effort to come out. Hurrah! Packed up my damp tent and got to the border within 5 minutes and then it was cliff top roads and tunnels to Ventimiglia and the first taste of Italian town driving. Lunatics the lot of them! Not one sane driver amongst them. Hundreds of scooters though and not just battered P range and PX’s, but pristine GSs, Sprints, Rally 200s, V90s, all sorts. Arrived in San Remo by 11am. As I hadn’t been sure if I was going to make it to Italy I hadn’t actually booked into Eurovespa and had absolutely no info (remember these were the days before Googling things on phones). Time for the fun to begin! First find the campsite. This wasn’t too hard, after I had been passed by the umpteenth Vespa I guessed it was in the opposite direction, quick U-turn and followed the blue cloud of two-stroke.
Got myself pitched and unpacked. There were quite a lot of German and Austrian riders already but they seemed to have created their own enclave up the other end of the site. I decided to go for a wander and bumped into Les and Dallas, Peter and Jan (from my club, Farnborough Vepsa Club. I knew before I left the UK that they would be on the main campsite so it was just a case of locating them once I got there) just around the corner, which was quite handy as I then discovered everything was going on the other side of San Remo, which I was obviously unaware of as I had no official info. After midday shitloads more scooters arrived, more Germans and Austrians, as well as Vespas from Denmark, Holland, France, Greece, Portugal, Spain, Switzerland, Italy, from all over, the smell of two stroke everywhere. The campsite was a holiday village with caravans, chalets and bungalows as well as tents, swimming pool and pizzeria, and there were many families on their annual hols. They must have been well chuffed with us lot! Late afternoon I went with the others down to the registration site, but it’s wouldn’t be open until the following day.
I rode back up through town to get some food. Fucking bedlam, Italian traffic ignoring all lights, pedestrians, rozzers, everything. The only way to survive was to follow the local scoots in and out of traffic and scream up the middle of the road. Seemed skid lids were optional. Later in the evening I met up with the others back at the rally site for a drink with some of the other British here. So far I was the only one who had ridden to Italy. Lightweights the lot of ’em.
EUROVESPA 22-23 JUNE
Saturday, the official start, and it’s off down town to register first thing. It’s completely booked and I couldn’t get in, which meant I wouldn’t get a goody bag, the lunches or the evening dinner. There was a rumour that one of the Bats (South East London scooter club) had booked but wasn’t coming. I could have his place but I would need to wait until 5 in case he turned up. Oh well, a 9 hour wait to see if I’d ridden all the way for nowt. So I buggered off back up to the campsite for a while. There appeared to be about three times as many scooters as the day before, chrome, flags, banners and smoke everywhere. The holiday makers must be ecstatic, there’s French teenagers racing around on screaming small frames and people jumping over the speed ramps. So much for the “All motorcycles must be pushed around the campsite” rule, oh yeah and the “Keep quiet from 1 till 3, and after 9 in the evening.”
At 1pm I rode back to the rally site and found the others. Peter has now decided that I will get in regardless (“You’ve bloody ridden here unlike the rest of us”) and we go off to find Norrie Kerr (I’m assuming he was the president of the Vespa Club of Britain or something like that) who told us that the registration people know that two Brits aren’t turning up for definite. So by 2pm I’m officially at Eurovespa ‘96. Time to go Vespa watching and badge swapping. It was getting busier by the minute, there must have been over a thousand Vespas and twice as many people. The only Lambretta was having it’s clutch fixed up at the site! There are riders here from all over the world, I spoke to some from Japan and America. At 5pm it was time for the ride out around San Remo. The town band played us off. A cloud of two-stroke smoke and horns going, locals out on their doorsteps and balconies waving and smiling. Up into the mountains overlooking the town and back down again. It was utter chaos back at the campsite as everyone returned, people and noise all along the front as the cloud of exhaust smoke descended upon San Remo. So far pretty ace for a first rally.
Time for a shower and get changed for the evening do (packed a Ben Sherman for the occasion). It turned out to be a bit of a let down, we’re hidden away in a corner and our food, the courses that actually turned up, are late and cold. By midnight we’d had enough and head back to the campsite. Riding back through town (sans helmet and probably having had one too many glasses of wine. It’s not big and it’s not clever) we pass a fire engine and police outside one of the parks that overlooks the Med. At the entrance to the park the steps that led to a fountain were covered in foamy water. We thought there must have been a fire or something. It turned out to be something: Someone had filled the fountain with washing powder! I could only assume that the person in question may have owned a Vespa…
Sunday morning I packed ready for the ride back into France because I had to be off my pitch by ten. I paid up and park under Peter’s treehouse bungalow. There was another ride out, this time along the coast to a sports field where lunch is handed out and everyone mills around eyeing up shiny vintage scooters. There was supposed to be a further ride to a church (looking at the event brochure it seems this was at the top of the Poggio) but people started to disperse after lunch so I said my goodbyes and headed back towards France. The weather was really good and little traffic once past Nice and Cannes, I was in Aix-en-Provence by six and found a cheap hotel. Yet another welcome bath followed by a four course meal with wine.
After breakfast I replaced the speedo cable which snapped about 30 miles from Aix the day before and set off. (Like cycle touring I carried a bunch of spare cables and basic tools. Unlike cycle touring I also had a plastic petrol can bungied to the running boards. It was used more than once. French petrol stations can be quite spaced out, further than the range of a Vespa petrol tank, or rather I kept pushing my luck and much like the speedo the fuel gauge was open to interpretation). It was 310 miles back to the house and I was knackered by the time I got there. The wind in the morning was ridiculous. I had to steer towards the verge to keep in a straight line and I got blown all over the place by the mistral. Getting overtaken by lorries was not much fun. Then followed a 60 mile stretch through the Cervenne hills in the afternoon which were stunning. Thirty miles up and then thrashing the engine thirty miles down the other side to make up the time I lost stopping to take photos on the way up. Eventually got back at seven and fell asleep never wanting to sit on a scooter again.
27th June – 4th August
Drunk plonk and lazed about until I ran out of money basically. Managed to have my first crash a few days after getting back from Italy. Bloody stupid, rode 1500 miles no problem and then stack it on the way home from the shops. Learnt my lesson, don’t ride too fast on narrow country roads or you end up doing a bit of impromptu grass tracking on your arse across fields, and it hurts. (What actually happened was I decided to ride back from a garage a few miles away – I was running out of two-stroke oil – the scenic route, and got chased by a couple of farm dogs. So I opened the throttle and then realised there was a tight corner ahead and gravel all over the track and thought “It’s OK I can run off into that field” not realising that the field was a few feet lower than the road… and there was an electric fence. Never trusted a farm dog since.) Had to phone Dad to ask him to order a replacement brake lever from Blackpool. Scoot didn’t look too hot and the front end didn’t handle properly but it was rideable. As long as it got me home… (flogged it to a mate for spares when I got home and bought a 1969 Vespa 90) Next time I do something like this I might be organised enough to get breakdown and health insurance.
(Again, written with scooter club in mind. Absolutely no mention of the Tour de France which I not only watched on telly but two stages on the side of the road. One day there as a cat 4 climb near Carrenac up the road on the banks of the Dordogne river. I rode out with a picnic and plonked myself on the raised edge of field looking over the road. There was a semi-coherent conversation with a large family group when they arrived a little later and it transpired that I was trespassing on their field but they let me stay. They had a barbecue and wine, the works and were still going strong when everyone else drifted off after the race passed. There are a load of photographs somewhere I hope, or the negatives at least. I’ve cycled up that hill many times since. It’s also a lovely sweeping descent. The next day the stage finished in Tulle, about 25 miles up the road in the other direction. I found myself some space on the barriers on the outskirts of town about 5km from the finish to watch a blur of riders fly past. Actually I’ve just wikipedia’d that and the stages were the other way around.)
Down to my last 60 quid and time to head back to Blighty. I packed up what appeared to be twice as much as I left home with. Got as far as Tours by 4pm and gave up for the day, ridden about 240 miles and I couldn’t feel my legs or butt. Scoot seemed to be holding up, forks hadn’t dropped out or anything. Booked into cheap motel and bought dinner from the local supermarket – I didn’t have enough cash for hotels and four course meals on the return leg. Watched the weather on the telly to find it’s going to piss down the next day. Great.
Woke up and it’s overcast. Its only 170 miles to the port and my ferry isn’t until later tonight. Either I needed to ride very slowly or hang around for ages in Caen. I remembered there was an afternoon ferry at 4-ish so if I could get there by 3 I might be able change my ticket. Leave the hotel at 10 and head north. Get caught in a huge downpour just north of Le Mans. Can’t see anything, down to about 30, and risking my life with very large lorries. No fun but the sun eventually comes back and I arrive in time to change my ticket. All’s well that ends well. Back in Portsmouth and off the ferry by 10. Home by 11. The end.
photo taken by mum the day I left Gagnac. It was the school holidays by the time I left so my parents had arrived the last week I was in France.
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