The road to Paradise runs through the Valley of the Shadow of Breakdown. Even the owners of the newest and most reliable bikes know this, and those who run older machines often know it only too well. So, for our long-distance journeys we all take out cover in fear of this whimsical strander, this wrecker of dreams. It’s not unheard of for the cautious to buy cover from two different companies, just to be on the safe side: will a single recovery per trip be enough? For this year’s 1600-mile round trip from the north of England to the south of France, I coughed up the premium just like everyone else – though my W650 has run faultlessly for the four years I’ve had it – and I packed a good toolkit to boot (more on the wisdom of such precautions in due course).
I’ve written elsewhere about Wheels and Waves 2015: an account of cool bikes and friendly people, of hanging out in the laid-back, beach-side atmosphere of the show, framed by a sky woven with clouds, exhaust fumes and the bark of open pipes. But there is always much more to a journey like this – a six-day ride on a naked bike, scattered with rain and assailed by mind-bending fatigue – a sleepless tale of coffee, hunger and the scarcity of petrol and beds. And, indeed, of breakdown, which is how I met André Linais. I was spared the gut-wrenching dread of a thwarted adventure, but not the inconvenience of it: it wasn’t my bike that broke down. I t was the immaculate 1977 Honda 400/4 café racer belonging to my companion, Lincoln, who came along for the ride down to Biarritz.
At 8 a.m., on the Wednesday before Wheels and Waves, we rolled sleepily off the ferry at Caen on the northern coast of France and made for the Caen Périphérique, a dual-lane ring road filled with trucks and morning traffic. Not at all ready for the French motorway network so early in the day, we took the first rural-looking exit in search of a place to grab a traditional French breakfast of coffee, pastry and cigarettes. We found Eterville. It was 9 a.m. and the sun was shining. The first café, like us, was just waking up. We ordered: drank, ate, smoked and checked the map on Lincoln’s phone. All good to go.
Almost. His Honda wouldn’t turn over. No power to anything. Out came the toolkit.
Assuming that such a wide-reaching problem had to have a single solution, I went straight to the most obvious thing – the battery – and found the earth cable barely connected. Easy enough. I tightened it and tried the bike on its kickstarter to get some power back into the battery – it fired, so I ran it for a couple of minutes then switched it off and tried it again on the electric start. It fired. 9.15 a.m.
Meandering south along tiny country lanes for a few miles set us en route to Flers, via the D562. We flew down this beautiful, tree-lined, river-following stretch and made it to our next stop in no time, which was just as well: even through a helmet and earplugs, I could hear the unsilenced 400/4 running badly as we rode into town. It gasped its last as we entered a café-encircled square in the centre of Flers, freewheeled untriumphantly onto a shaded terrace and ordered our second breakfast at 10.30 a.m.
It was a charming spot; I’ve always liked the French for living this way. Having another look at the 400/4 was just part of the holiday, no real concern. It sounded like ignition trouble – “weak or erratic firing”, a workshop manual would say. You develop an ear for the difference between carburation and ignition faults over time, and it’s especially noticeable with a loud exhaust ridden between tall buildings. The headlight and idiot lights were dim, too, so again I went straight to the obvious stuff: the battery earth on the engine, frame earths, the fusebox and the 38-year old connectors around the charging system. Having a kickstarter will save a dead battery if you can fix the fault. If. Honda’s trademark three yellow wires from the stator to the rectifier – though showing the three-way continuity that should be present – were tinged the colour of well-cooked sausages. Worrying. My W650 stood quietly by, plinking as it cooled down, while I ‘hmm-ed’ and smoked and gazed at the loom, and Lincoln frowned. He generally works on his own bikes but has a blind spot concerning electrics, whereas I find them fascinating – especially on older japanese bikes with their elegant, ingenious wiring systems that need no microprocessors. Pondering on burnt-out stator wires and the possibilty of transplanting a modern reg-rect unit onto the bike, I found a hardware place just a quarter-mile away, where I picked up a multimeter and five metres of spare wire, and asked if there were any bike shops around. I got the vaguest directions but knew at least to head back uphill.
I got back to the square and ordered more coffee, rolled another cigarette and got stuck in. The battery read 11.3 volts even when the bike would fire (usually after a few minutes rest) with occasional flickers on the meter’s screen to indicate momentary flashes of current, so it looked like the charging system was failing. Lincoln reported that switching on the headlight – which is mandatory in France – seemed to cut the ignition, suggesting that the switch was faulty and shorting the battery’s current to earth. This was possible, but with no consistent charge coming in and given that a weak battery will still provide a spark but not five amps for a headlight as well, I suspected that it was the extra current drawn by the headlight that was killing the ignition. I checked the switch for a short but found none, so I turned my attention to the regulator: again, it passed the continuity tests, but the physical state of its internals were pretty dire. Corrosion everywhere, and that over-cooked breakfast look.
12.15 p.m.; more coffee.
It’s impossible to fret on a beautiful day. In this charming spot, especially, what might otherwise seem a problem became just a thing to do in order to get moving. The trees lining the square moved gently under a warm breeze, casting fluctuating patterns of sunlight around us adding to the dreamlike quality of the scene. The high buildings reached optimistically towards a scattered flock of rounded white clouds, ambling across a blue sky. Lincoln – a stonemason – studied the architecture and pointed out that these were actually perfect reproductions of 19th century french townhouses, not the originals. This region of France was the bombed-out, blood-soaked setting for some of the most horrendous conflicts of both World Wars. In September 1916, Flers was on the receiving end of the first ever deployment of tanks in warfare, when the town was subjected to massive artillery attacks during the Battle of Flers-Courcelette. Twenty-eight years later, in June 1944, 80% of this unfortunate place was destroyed again during the bombing of Normandy, before being liberated in August that year. Now, seventy years later, the town has not only dusted itself off and dressed itself well, it’s carried on like all that never happened.
We ate and contrived a plan. A competent bike mechanic could take a single regulator-rectifier unit from a more modern bike and splice it into the Honda’s loom quite easily. It might take an hour or so to figure it out and make durable, soldered connections but that would be a negligible delay and, besides, it would actually constitute an upgrade. I gave the Honda a current transfusion from the W and off we went.
Turning off a busy street into a narrow alley, and following the walls of an immense, flat-sided white church brought us to the first shop. It had that dealership look – matching livery, signage and window displays – that usually indicates a commercial approach to bikes and a preference for straightforward, quantifiable transactions. A servicing and sales place. Inside, the guy frowned before I’d even asked him anything. I explained what was needed, but he wouldn’t even consider working on an older bike that his training had not explicitly covered. Requesting an hour’s use of his workshop and access to his parts stash was not going to slide here, so instead we accepted his directions to another place a few streets away. This turned out to be an anonymous old industrial unit, which was stuffed like a goose with beautiful old bikes and was, of course…
The workshop of André Linais. Now here was a find. Parked at the door was a Suzuki S40, originally a hideous 650cc single cylinder factory custom, here – mercifully – carved into a minimal café racer. A promising start, given that specials builders pride themselves on their ability to cross-fit any component to wherever it may be needed. We walked in past a line of BMW boxer twins, a gang of BSAs, and assorted older Japanese bikes.
A quick look in the workshop at the back confirmed that this was the type of old-fashioned bike shop where you’d find a horde of reusable components salvaged from expired donors. It’s a good mechanic who never throws useable parts away – you can hang onto something for years, almost forget you had it, then mid-work one day you realise you need a fusebox, a spring, a twistgrip, starter solenoid, brake switch… and you have one.
Peacefully aiming a stroboscope into the flywheel of a beautiful, bright orange BMW café racer, amid oddly-matched shelves piled with boxes of spares, we found the proprietor.
Monsieur Linais – known also as ‘Dédé’ – paused in his work, walked over to us and listened calmly to my report of the breakdown and subsequent investigations. He said little, but had a tranquil, intelligent manner – just the type of technician I would want to entrust a bike to – and he was friendly enough, offering us coffee as he sent his younger assistant to check out the 400/4 and giving me permission to photograph his place. I followed the assistant out to the bike, telling him about the state I’d found the electrics in, but received no response. He pulled off the right sidepanel, kicked the bike into life and put a multimeter across the terminals: 14.1 volts. High-ish, perhaps, but certainly healthy. I silently cursed intermittent faults for behaving one way when inspected by me and another when taken to an official mechanic, and for making me look foolish. “Tell him about the headlight”, Lincoln prompted me. “Quand on allume le phare, ça fait couper le moteur” – I translated – “Il me paraît qu’il tire trop de courant, que le système de chargement ne supporte pas”. “Non”, he replied decisively, “c’est le bouton”, whereupon he switched on the headlight, immediately killing the engine and potentially proving either of us correct.
It’s not the switch – I’ve checked it, I thought, and besides, the charging system looks pretty well cooked.
He then checked for a short in the switch, found none, and concluded that it was after all the battery, which was brand new. This seemed a pretty dubious diagnosis, and was far from the proper fix I was hoping we’d find, but Lincoln raised no objections and our friend jumped on the enviable chopped S40 and ripped noisily up the street in search of a new battery. We smoked and hung around; time passed. The fatigue ensuing from three hours of vibrating sleep on the ferry floor began to overtake me, so I made sure I’d photographed the place well and, clearing a pile of junk from a dusty leather sofa in a corner, laid down on it and went to sleep. The last impressions I absorbed when drifting off were the height of the corrugated roof above me, the old timber framework supporting it, and the arrival of a couple of people on bikes who came in and chatted to Andre.
4 p.m. Lincoln woke me up. The new battery was fitted, with a hefty charge both electrically and financially, and we were good to go. My nap had refreshed me, but we were only a short way into France, meaning another 200 miles or so had to be covered before we could sleep. We had no choice but to hope that the new battery would save the afflicted Honda and that all would be well. The miles would prove to be long and end in exhausted collapse, in a breathtaking location many, many hours later. Any concerns on departure from Andre’s were soothed by the charm of travel, of moving on from a place, and you may as well be in a good mood if things do go wrong. The familiar whiff of adrenalin shimmering through your perception as you fire up the engine and accelerate off to another place you’ve never seen, up another hill you didn’t even know existed and will probably never see again – these are the sensations that intoxicate me every time and validate the good sense of making trips like this one. The immediacy of life takes precedence; there’s just you, your bike and the mood.