May 28 2011
Matt Reynolds hated the idea that people thought his brand-new £6,000-plus Triumph Bonneville motorcycle was the physical manifestation of a midlife crisis. It was quite simply, he believed, a practical form of transport on which to go on holiday after his divorce. It would, he thought, be good to have a vacation with something he loved rather than with a profligate wife on a dripfeed of white wine or teenage kids whose only occupations were sleeping and clubbing.
He had always fantasised about cruising to the South of France in Easy Rider fashion: roaring down tree-lined avenues in Provence, eating well in local bistros and crashing out at small but characterful pensions. And now he was going to live the dream.
The fact that he had never ridden a motorbike before did not deter him. At 16, many of his friends had strapped on L-plates and buzzed about on two wheels and there was no reason to think that he should not be able to do just that in middle age. Annoyingly, life had moved on since his teenage years and nowadays, in order to ride his bike on the public highway, he had to take the government’s Direct Access test, which he did over a week at a rider training centre in a small town in south Wales. After that it was merely a question of when, not if, he took the “Bonnie” to France.
The 865cc Triumph Bonneville is the British equivalent of a Harley-Davidson. It is “a smooth, no hurries, no worries motorcycle”, according to respected organ Motorcycle News, with “sweet” handling, a low seat and easy-to-reach handlebars. Although it isn’t the speediest of bikes – in fact, it’s more Alfred Wainwright than Usain Bolt – it is universally deemed to be as cool as Jack Nicholson.
Be that as it may, Matt sensibly decided not to fit the noisier exhaust pipe that increased the bike’s performance by 10 per cent, which was recommended by the factory, as he intended to tour La Belle France, not Le Mans. He also bought a pair of earplugs to dull the relentless noise it already produced.
In addition, as it was more important to be comfortable than cool, he fitted a pair of large leather panniers on either side of the rear wheel, a “gas tank bag” on top of the petrol tank and an aluminium box on the luggage rack, all of which enabled him to stow several changes of clothes and his crash helmet.
Finally, a rucksack holding his iPad, mobile charger and a bottle of water was slung across the back of his £900 Gore-Tex Pro touring leather jacket. The end result was that he looked more elephantine mule than easy rider.
It was this lumbering beast that wobbled towards Dover on the inside lane of the M2 in late June. To date, Matt’s motorcycling history in readiness for this grand tour had been his week in Wales and a few weekends riding around the lanes of Hampshire, which was akin to practising in the donkey derby for a ride in the Grand National.
However, to his credit, he managed to reach Dover safely, if slowly. And on the cross-Channel ferry he met many other motorcyclists who were surprisingly friendly, despite the fact that most of them looked like Hägar the Horrible. They told him that on the Continent, as in many parts of Britain, motorcyclists tended to acknowledge each other. And they did this with a subtle wave of the hand, keeping it flat and static and slightly to the front, as if you were about to pat a small boy.
Matt was delighted by this Masonic-style greeting among the fraternity of bikers and, as soon as he left Calais, he put it to the test. When a metallic grey Yamaha R6 raced towards him he lifted his right hand as instructed in recognition of a fellow biker. This had the unforeseen result of his handlebar throttle returning to its idling speed, the bike slowing down dramatically and the whole edifice slowly keeling over like a shot stag.
Matt stood up, no longer a knight of the road but an ageing nitwit in leathers who, because he was slightly bruised and rather shocked, was unable to lift the machine back onto its two wheels. He was therefore forced to call for roadside assistance from the French equivalent of the AA. The much-longed-for leisurely Kir Royale in St Tropez was, he reluctantly realised, still a very long, long way away.