Saturday, May 10, 2014

The Last Day(s) in France: A fast ride to Cherbourg, new friends, and a broken ferry...

When I used to think of riding on the continent rain used never enter the picture. Whereas images of Ireland always came attached with rain of the misty and sticky kind (and the kind that makes roads lethal), images of the continent consisted of perfectly smooth roads, kindly car drivers, and a sun that was permanently shining. In fact the purpose of clouds, in these images, was to protect the paintwork from TOO MUCH sunshine! In a dreamy state said clouds also doubled as nice cloths to polish the bike with. Whenever I wash the VFR in Ireland it immediately rains, to the point where Met √Čireann, the national weather service, call me on a weekly basis to ask if I am going to wash my bike. I digress...The point I was getting to was that the weather for my day of riding to Cherbourg was not looking at all like the images painted above. No guaranteed sunshine, no buffing of paintwork with clouds. The weather was looking grim. Some showers, some thunderstorms. General grimness. Examining the weather on the morning of my departure things looked in good shape, it was cooler than on previous days and, while cloudy, no hurricane was approaching. The internet was also telling me some good news. When I went out to the VFR, now loaded with its luggage, the sky looked a little different than I had hoped. Denise warned me that it would rain but she didn't warn me that the skies would whip out a few powerhoses. As we said goodbye those powerhoses were set to "thunderstorm", loud booms of thunder echoed, lightning lit the sky up and rain poured down. Cowering under a tree for shelter I wondered just how waterproof my gear was...

The rain was so heavy I was afraid of holding my phone up for long thus the shaky pic but you can see how bleak it looked.

Standing in the Carrefour, aghast at the rain.
A brief interlude in the rain allowed me to head off, my plan being to go to nearest Carrefour to fill the tank and grab some Banania (greatest hot chocolate mix of all time, the French use this for breakfast), some Speculoos paste (up there with Nutella in terms of greatness, this is made from those lovely biscuits that sometimes come with espresso and you can spread it on toast), some nice jam and biscuits for the folks at home. Carrefour is like Tesco or Walmart or Dunnes but I needed to wrap everything into one easy package because I was now running a little behind my planned time. Rain wasn't going to make it any easier. And of course once I reached Carrefour the powerhoses started again. My clothes were wrapped in plastic bags inside the panniers but the stuff in my tankbag was not. I had sprayed all of this with waterproofing spray a long time ago so I was hoping they would hold out for the length of the powerhose shower while I nipped into the Carrefour. As I filled up at the pump, thankfully, the shower stopped and I set on my way, properly this time. It was maybe 2:30 at this point and I hoped to reach Cherbourg for sometime between 6 and 7 for the 8pm sailing. This was to be a non-stop express service!
A Carrefour petrol pump with credit/debit card reader. Gazole is diesel, try not to use in your bike!
 I had considered taking a new route to Cherbourg in order to see new places and new roads but as I was just about keeping time on my side I thought better of this. Not to mention I had not planned another route so sticking with my old route I passed through Mamers, Alencon, Vire, Flers, Saint Lo, and then finally, Cherbourg. Funnily enough the one place I wanted to stop at along this route was a McDonalds, or McDough (this is how the French say it colloquially). This was not to put two fingers up at French culture but rather a simple desire to use some free wifi to backup some photos I had taken on my phone and to check in with home before I boarded the ferry. There was one in Vire or Flers which would split the journey in two, as I did on the way, but as I passed through both towns I elected to find one in Cherbourg. At least that way, if time was tight, I was not far from the ferry. The good thing about following the same route home was that I was able to get a better sense of places that I had only glanced at on the way down. I was also able to make better progress on the roads, knowing their surface and layout a little better. Indeed on one run a BMW 5 series appeared, almost, out of nowhere in my mirrors and seemed about inches from my rear tyre. Was I making too much progress? Were the Gendarmarie unhappy? I don't think they do doughnuts like other police forces, maybe they do croissants, but whatever it was they weren't happy. But was it them? I indicated to pull in to find out. As I checked my mirrors the 5 series peeled off into a garage. A strange situation but I was just happy not to deal with the Gendarmarie. It's funny how one makes up these scenes in ones mind. I had no evidence that it was the police but there I was already pinning the blame on myself for doing something, anything, wrong. Is there an Irish guilt complex? We do say "sorry" instead of "excuse me" a lot. For example if you don't hear someone clearly you say "sorry" with a question at the end instead of "excuse me". "I'm so sorry I didn't hear you please forgive me". It's a bit much isn't it? Sorry, I better get back to the story (see what I did there?)...

Along the road the most fascinating bits to me were the faded painted advertisements on the sides of houses or buildings. The weather slowly tearing them apart, they are a testament to a by-gone age. They don't light up, they don't change colour, they don't have scannable QR-codes. What they do have is character, a window into history, and a certain lasting quality. Not permanence as they are fading, but some are decades old. Try and think of an electronic billboard or a paper and paste one that has lasted that long with the same picture! The "D" roads permitted this sort of sightseeing but after Flers I would be hitting some proper dual-carriageway where the signage advertised the cultural treats of the regions I was passing through. One such billboard, a steel one I think, showed a picture of a guy milking a cow. Bretagne is a dairy region I suppose so it makes sense. There was also a tank museum and some images of the beach landings for D-Day which occurred nearby as I went further north toward Cherbourg. This road was not in the least bit interesting but I was making good time now, keeping the VFR a little bit above the official speed limit and doing a fair bit of passing in the overtaking lane. The VFR seems most comfy at 80mph where the wind takes the weight off of my wrists. Handy for miles like this. Unfortunately it does little for your bum, mine was now going numb. The front part of that region of the body was, however, making itself felt. Let me explain. I had coffee that morning and had some water along the way and now it needed to come out. But where to stop? In the back of my mind I had wanted to complete the 4 hour journey to Cherbourg without stopping, just as a form of test. The VFR certainly had the tank range, but did I? The answer in the end was no, I did not. It had crossed my mind to pull into a McDonalds to use the wifi, go to the loo, and maybe even buy a milkshake and fries (try this, you need to dip the fries into the milkshake...) but I hope food in my tankbag and didn't really want to stop until Cherbourg. On many of the D roads there had been nice parking spots with picnic benches which seemed a nice idea but what if a family was sitting to lunch and I went into the bushes to pee? I couldn't even explain myself if asked what I was doing! The N13 dual carriageway that I was now on also had parking spots but these were small and none had a convenient place to pee. They were, however, frequent, being marked every kilometre or so. Eventually I spotted one with an embankment and pulled in. There's not a lot of space to get in and slow from 80mph but once in I found a good spot to relieve myself before sitting down to eat a piece of baguette that Denise had kindly put together for me. It was nice to just get off of the bike as well and allow my arse to regain some feeling, the hard saddle on the 17 year old VFR providing little comfort after almost 3 hours in the saddle. I wasn't disappointed by my stop, I had made it as far as Valognes which is a stone's throw from Cherbourg. To be honest I doubt I would held up well if I had decided to wait until getting into Cherbourg proper anyway what with having to deal with traffic as well.

On my approach to Cherbourg I decided to go through the city itself rather than take the ring road and I was glad I did, the view as you drop in through the valley was pretty astounding as you can see here on Google Maps:  Following this road down through the valley I just kept aiming for the sea but traffic was beginning to get heavy. Imagine if the regulator/rectifier gave up the ghost in the heat here? So near and yet, it would be, so far too. Could I push the bike to the ferry? I didn't need to worry, it was nowhere as bad as Le Mans and I was soon changing lanes to get myself into the McDonalds near the port. Parking the bike I grabbed my tankbag and went inside to use the wifi and grab a coffee. It was nice, once again, to sit on a soft seat. It was also nice to eat some ice-cream, something I have given up for Lent. French McDonalds have an ordering system whereby you can order on a computer terminal in the middle of the restaurant with a card and then collect at the counter. It's handy and, because we don't have it in Ireland, I used it for the novelty value. One cafe noissant (spl?) and one Dime McFlurry (recommended by Denise). I have to say, it was bloody good. Sitting alone and hooking up to the wifi I looked out of the window into the valley I had come down through. Then our eyes met for a moment before recognition set in. Out here, far away from anyone I knew, was someone who had known me since I was in a baby buggy. Derek Lynch and his family were going through the drive-through and spotted me and there was waving through the window. Half guessing he'd be on the same ferry as I, I looked forward to catching up with them and having a laugh about this very random episode! Of course it was at the ferry that things became very interesting indeed...

Waiting,and wondering, by the ferry...
After entering Cherbourg port I just said "merci" to the guy directing me where to go, not having understood a word of his French. Instead I followed the ER-6 with French registration ahead of me. The sound of the thumping parallel twin was addictive anyway and later I saw that it had an Akropovic silencer on it. Fantastic. Pulling into, what turned out to be, lane 6, a couple of other bikes were there and ready. A BMW and a Silverwing. Ah but that Silverwing had made it to Scotland from Cork and then all the way into Spain before coming north to lane 6 in Cherbourg port. What a journey. The most amazing aspect of it was that the American man riding it, Rick, wasn't all that experienced, declaring that a Honda 80 (Cub 80?) was the largest thing he had ridden back home. A Silverwing 650 was a big jump in this case but I had no reason to disbelieve him. The rickety scooter was a bit of a contrast next to a Touratech-kitted GS. Indeed the GS made me think of the MZ Mastiff that I had encountered on the way out a week or so earlier. The GS looked so big and heavy but comfortable and ready for battle. My memory of the MZ conjured up a picture of a bike much lighter, less user-friendly, but somehow more charismatic too. The GS is the most popular bike in Europe these days, outstripping even scooter sales in some countries. In contrast the MZ is a rarity, an object which can start conversation in the middle of nowhere and for no particular reason apart from the fact that the many motorcyclists would have no idea what kind of bike they were glancing at. A GS then, is just another GS. The only thing I remember from it is that it was the older air-cooled version. Still, the owner, a quiet guy from Wicklow, seemed content with it and, I suppose, that is all that matters. Rick, the Silverwing guy, also seemed pretty happy, calling the Silverwing his flying couch. One problem with the flying couch was that it had a cracked, yes cracked, rear brake disc. Rick had no idea how this had happened, and I'd never seen one before, but there it was, a squiggly line running across the brake disc. 

Having chatted a bit and also having admired the ER-6 and exchanged pleasantries with the French rider on it, talk turned to the large ferry in the background. It was supposed to sail at 8:00pm but 8pm was drawing ever closer with no sign of any doors opening or staff lining us up to embark. Thinking that a small delay at the start of a 19 hour journey was no big deal I relaxed and soaked up the scenery. Not that there was all that much of it, a port is, well, a port. The ship was in the background and people were walking around. In some ways it was like a scene from The Walking Dead with a whole ton of people wandering about not having any real idea of what was happening. Eventually we were told to get our stuff and get on to the ferry where we would be fed and slept for the night. At this point the rumour filtering through the large crowd was that a radar problem was holding the ship in port and that it was very likely that a problem such as that would mean no sailing tomorrow either. This seemed to be confirmed when it was later announced that we would have to leave the ship the next morning at 8am. Walking through the huge doors on to the car deck beside Aurelion, my new French friend on the ER-6 (the other lads seemed to disappear which was surprising), it seemed like we were escaping a war zone and taking our most precious possessions with us in preparation for a new life elsewhere. The funny thing in this case was that our most precious possessions consisted of our helmets and tankbags, certainly very different from the things bundled into other people's arms. Blankets, toys for agitated kids, pillows, whole mattresses almost. On the subject of young people there were a number of coaches parked up near the bikes, all full of French schoolchildren going a trip to Ireland. Now knowing that the ferry was pretty much cancelled I felt properly sorry for the teachers in charge. Talking with Aurelion we discussed how safe our bikes would be, but such worries probably paled into significance in comparison with the phone calls the teachers had to make to parents and hotels.

The bikes waiting patiently as we boarded to sleep for the night on a radarless ferry.
The drama started the next morning. Having had breakfast with Aurelion, his conversational English proving much more useful than my complete and utter lack of French, we chatted about what to do when off the ship. Having secured a cabin for him to sleep in the night before (he hadn't booked one but seeing as the ferry wasn't sailing I thought they really should sort him out) I felt slightly responsible for him. I had helped a group of other riders on the other BMW GSs in the picture above but having helped them deal with the Irish Ferries staff they disappeared and were never seen again. Aurelion, however, stuck around and seemed to genuinely appreciate the bit of help I could give. So, it was a slight bit of hesitation, that I dragged him into an epic battle of angry travelers versus angry ferry crew the next morning. A man let me, and the family of Derek Lynch whom I had saluted in the McDonald's the day before, that EU law stated we did not have to leave the ship. Without any alternative arrangements solidly in place this was great advice because once we were off the ship it would be much more difficult to assert those rights. Conspiracy theories spun around that Irish Ferries simply wanted rid of us in order to have a clean ferry for a scheduled sailing on Thursday. While hoards of people were guided down the main stairways and out to the port, I stayed behind, the flow of people rushing around me, like a river diverting around a large rock. 

The 40 or so of us who remained on the boat had our options outlined later on, much as the people on the port were having done in the Terminal Building where, according to reports, the queues and conditions were unbearable. One option was to go home through the UK on two ferries, another was to get on a smaller ferry leaving that night, and another was to remain on the Oscar Wilde and sail whenever the radar was sorted. The UK option was out of the question for many reasons, cost being among them, while the alternative sailing that night seemed tempting. However, it was soon full and there was no chance of me getting a place on it. It was time to become familiar with the Oscar Wilde.

A capacity of about 1600 but with only 40 on board, the Oscar Wilde was a ghost town.

A section of the bridge
Myself and the First Officer after him giving me a tour of the impressive bridge. And no I did not break the radar.
This is not a ferry blog so there's not much point in me going into too much detail on the ferry itself apart from emphasizing that, if you travel on an overnight ferry, bring a change of clothes! Maybe two. I was glad I did during this unplanned stop. While we were allowed to get off of the ship, times were tight as the ship was going to be moved to a restricted part of the port, and no one knew where to get cheap socks and jocks in Cherbourg. I was glad not to need them but it is something to bear in mind. My main bike related thoughts at this particular time centred around the GS riders, both the French group, and the lone Wicklow man, and Rick on his Silverwing. Having swapped email addresses with Rick on portside the day before, he was able to keep in touch. Upon hooking up to the wifi on the ship I received an email from him stating that himself and the Irish GS rider were now after being booked on to the Stena Line sailing that was leaving that night. They had to forego the cabins they had paid for on their original Irish Ferries ticket but they were going home. It turned out they had been some of the first people off and were, thus, at the top of the queue for alternative sailings. It must have been a similar case with the French GS riders who were looking to begin their holiday in Ireland. What surprised me however, was that they had not really looked out for Aurelion. French bikers, from my reading, seem to stick together and look out for one another, but they seemed to leave him on his own. Was it a symptom of the bikes they rode? Or am I being too romantic about it all and need to wake up and see that, bikers or not, we are out for ourselves only? Perhaps there is a middle ground...

In some ways the lack of any contact annoyed me a little, after all I had helped them the day before, and kept an eye out for them. Still, they had a holiday to get started. By the Thursday these thoughts had changed to thoughts about home. Overdosing on food while staying on the ship, because you really just ate out of boredom (another croissant? go on then I've nowhere to be and nothing to do...), was now making me pine for home cooked meals. The random timings of everything made me pine for a routine. Despite making the best with what I had my clothes were less than fresh by Thursday so this led to wishes of grabbing a clean shirt from my wardrobe at home. I just wanted to go home and on Thursday night the wish was granted. The ship set sail for Irelard and, it was time for me to get home and time for Aurelion to start his holiday. As an aside, about 200 people who disembarked the ship on the Wednesday morning, ended up coming back onboard on Thursday night having not found places on the alternative Stena Line sailing. Tales of hotel prices and the process in claiming that money back from Irish Ferries really did justify my decision not to leave but I left sorry for those people with kids who were making it known that they were sick of hanging about. 

Approaching the Irish coast
When we all finally disembarked in Rosslare Aurelion and I had a chat and he rode with me to Cork. Getting used to driving on the left again was, in some ways, harder than my initial switch to driving on the right in France. Although due to the massive line of traffic on the single-carriageway road out of Rosslare, I had enough time to adjust my mind. Aurelion's first destination was Killarney so I agreed to show him on to the road to Killarney before I peeled off to go home. After a quick stop in Burger King (it was a big deal for him, he'd never seen one before!) the heavens opened. Rain was pouring down and it was time for the rain suits to come out. With visibility getting noticeably worse I gave Aurelion my hi-viz vest just in case he needed it for the next leg of his trip and we both set off for the N22 west to Killarney. I peeled off at Ballincollig and saw a day-glo orange figure zoom off into the grey murkiness of low cloud to the west. While he had missed a few days in Ireland I had hoped that the help I was able to give him could make up a little for this. It was reciprocal though for I was glad to have someone to talk with about bikes, MotoGP and anything else involving two-wheels. It also showed that, despite the disappearance of the GS riders, bikers do tend to stick together. Perhaps it was just that we both had Japanese bikes...

Looking back at the trip now from a perspective two weeks ahead, I can see that this was a real adventure. No it was not a round-the-world trip, it was by no means groundbreaking, and I have outlined that in earlier posts. However, for me, it broke down barriers. Not barriers of fear but barriers of apprehension. An apprehensiveness that riding abroad would be very difficult, that it would take too much effort, that I would go a round a roundabout he wrong way. This trip made me see that I could do this, that my bike could do this, and that it was all a lot of fun. And easier than most people make it out to be. There isn't a need to feel as if you have to go all of the way south to Spain or ride through the Alps for great roads. Neither is the idea all about great roads. The overall idea is a proper change of scenery, a change of culture, and ultimately a change of mindset. I am convinced that such a trip improves you as a rider and as a person as well. On a practical level it also makes your travel so much more independent. Except for when your ferry loses its radar. 

Thanks for reading my posts and I hope that each one has been enjoyable for you. My next post will detail what you need for a small trip onto continental Europe but it will be applicable for any small touring trip such as mine. Many of the sites I visited had stories of people packing luggage for weeks and months abroad but I struggled to find assistance for someone going away just for a few days. The upcoming blog post hopes to fill that gap and help people out. If you have been thinking of taking your bike abroad it should be worth a read. More importantly though, do it anyway, and have a ball. 

For those of you who made it this far here is the full set of photos from the trip:

Thanks and bye for now!


  1. A great account of riding in France. I did Le Mans back in the late 90s and remember well the pouring rain. I wondered what it was all for. And then on the return leg it was glorious sunshine and suddenly it all made sense. Much of your blog echoes my own experiences. Now, 16yrs on, I get to do it all again and on the same bike.
    Happy trails Nevin. Keep it between the hedges...


    1. Hi Paul, thanks for comment I appreciate it a lot. Your VFR looks immaculate, it's a credit to you!

  2. Thanks ferry much Nevin for the final chapter of your French trip. As you spent so much time tied up in Cherburg, perhaps you should have called the blog "The long way aground !!"