Saturday morning. A rag-tag bunch of middle-aged motorcyclists ride up the ramp of the cross channel ferry at Dover. The bikes range from a 26 year-old Honda Pan European to a brand new 2018 Gold Wing including a Fireblade, Triumph Sprint ST and Trophy SE, Suzuki Bandit 1250, Kawasaki ZZ-R1400 and Z1000 and BMW R1200R.
To the school kids sat next to us it must looks like the Bowls Club fancy dress weekend as we shuffle round in one piece leathers, textiles, riding jeans and whatever else will be comfortable for seven days riding some of the best undiscovered roads in Europe.
Truth is, if these ultra-cool school kids could see just how darn-flipping quickly, smoothly and beautifully this bunch of ageing reprobates will be demolishing some taxing stretches of Le Tarmac on noisy motorcycles in the next few days, they’d be a lot more respectful.
Real Roads, who organise this Dordogne tour is an offshoot of ART training, based in Essex. And the tour is designed to be informal, low-key and more like a bunch of mates enjoying a ride out than an ‘everything organised to an inch of its life, road book supplied, you will be at this petrol stop by this time’ kind of thing.
There’s room for both of course and sometimes, it’s good to be told what to do. This trip is a nice blend of the important things - ferries, accommodation, some great company and basic routes - being organised, but once at the Gite, you can do as much or little riding as you like, with or without the others, with no pressure.
First up, we’ve got 700 miles to our base, a beautiful Gite complex owned by a laid back, GSX-R1000-riding ex-pat and his partner. From Calais, we head to Arras - 70 miles of motorway just to break the back of northern France. A quick coffee and piddle stop in the cobbled market square and then deserted, twisting back roads for a long and winding route to our overnight stop at Tonnerre.
None of these roads will feature in a ‘Million greatest riding roads’ feature. They’re not some kind of messianic biking experience, but they are encouraging some middle-aged gents to become moderately naughty boys.
I love this kind of riding; brisk, but not dangerous, challenging, but the roads are predictable, open enough to see which way they go and deserted, like only France is.
Keeping nine bikes with riders still getting to know each other on the same route is simple. We use the ‘marker’ system where whoever is immediately behind the leader, waits at a junction so the others can see where to go. When the marker sees Andy, our designated tail end Charlie, he sets off and either stays at the back of the group or works back up to the front. This way, everyone takes turn being the marker, no one gets lost and, managing the challenge of towns, villages and French traffic lights (which stay red for minutes and green for seconds) with zero hassle.
It’s a long day. Losing an hour arriving in France doesn’t help and, after 350 twisty miles we roll into Tonnerre at 9.15. Obviously the hotel restaurant has closed - it’s France, but we all got stuffed on the ferry, didn’t have lunch till 4pm and everyone seems happy enough to just fill up on beer. There’s always breakfast tomorrow.
The thing about touring is to not get hung up on the time. Especially in a group, where everything takes longer. Petrol stops, lunch, toilet breaks, photo stops all take much longer. Today we’ll do nine and a half hours on the bike and cover 325 miles. We’ve also split into two groups; one for the guys who want to go a more widdly way and just stare at tarmac and apexes and the other for those wanting a slightly more scenic ride at a more gentle pace.
It works too. We opt for scenic, because I’m on the Gold Wing, which, although surprisingly good in the corners (make that very bloody good) I don’t fancy keeping up with ex and current racers on Fireblades, ZZ-R1400s and Super Dukes for 300 miles - it’d be like entering a nine-hour greyhound race with an over-enthusiastic St Bernard carrying a ghetto blaster.
And here’s the thing. Riding such lovely roads a little slower gives you time to practice all that stuff that you know you should but rarely do. At this pace, I’m taking the time to look further ahead than I normally would, think about and try different lines and work on relaxing my grip on the bars once the bike is leaning. And, on the Wing, of course, all this is happening to the bizarre soundtrack of an iPod library on shuffle that should never be allowed out in the open.
Lunch is in one of a seemingly endless collection of small, fortified towns. Small cafe, big sandwich, lots of bikes buzzing around. The sun is shiny, forecast for the whole week is 25 degrees-plus and life feels very, very good.
Our group is going to do some motorway miles this afternoon. In the UK that means nose to tail, trucks, road works and misery. On the French autoroutes it means hundreds of miles of deserted, perfect tarmac, through stunning scenery in total relaxation. There’s a small charge for this privilege but, we soon remember how to sneak two bikes through a peage for the price of one and if you need to get some big miles in quickly and enjoy the experience, it’s well worth it. And the views from the viaducts over the forests are just stunning.
We get to the Gite for 7.30. It’s beautiful, in the middle of nowhere, with top-notch facilities and a friendly pair of hosts. The group has bonded already, it feels like being on holiday with a great bunch of mates. There’s no ego, not bravado, just good-humoured banter. And a need for some cold beer and a good night’s sleep.
Yesterday was an enjoyable and well-deserved rest, chilling by the pool and settling in. Today, we are back in the saddle, enjoying the hundreds of miles of quiet, pretty, twisty tarmac that links a seemingly endless collection of chocolate box villages and unspoilt, ancient towns.
It feels a bit like the Yorkshire Dales...on steroids…with much better weather. The roads are similar- challenging, but not impossible and slightly wider with much better surfaces.
I probably shouldn’t be thinking this but it seems weird how a country with so many castles can have such a reputation for, er, not being very good at wars. ‘How many French soldiers does it take to defend a city? No one knows, they’ve never tried,’ quips one of our riders.
Maybe the invaders simply marched past the castles, waving banners saying ‘nice castle monsieur, we’ll be invading over there if you want us’, who knows? And, being France, the locals probably replied ‘Would you mind coming back in an hour, we’re closed for lunch. Thankfully, the invaders left the structures untouched for us tourists to enjoy all these years later.
I’m no fan of ancient history. But if you love seeing unspoilt architecture, some of it dating back to Roman times, alongside some stirring and very poignant reminders of more recent times, this is an interesting part of the world. The most notorious is the village of Oradour, where German SS troops massacred the entire population in the most horrific manner and then burned it to the ground. The village remains were left as they were found as a horrific memorial of the atrocity. Some of our party went to visit, not for me though – too sad.
Instead we stop at Rocamodour, a bizarre town built into the cliff face, for a walk around, some simple-but tasty lunch and then head off for a bucket of ice cream at Domme, another ancient town, high above the river. All these towns are stunning, but it’s a test of your riding getting through the narrow streets, up the steep gradients, usually followed by a 90-degree right turn, hopefully without hill-starting the good ship Gold Wing because everyone is watching to see exactly where the weird English music is coming from. Having your iPod choose Derek and Clive Live as you enter a busy French tourist hotspot is at best, distracting. At worst the sudden need to mute volume while, manhandling something that weighs as much as two Fireblades around a tight right hander is a challenge I can do without. Thankfully, the view is worth it, the ice cream is worth it and Le Derek and Clive are muted before the first 103db C-bomb explodes.
The corners are challenging without being dangerous, the scenery is stunning and it’s not often you get to ride for mile after mile with barely any traffic on roads this good. I’m enjoying the relaxed pace of our small ‘scenic group’ led by the Andy B on his Pan European. The pace is quick enough to be interesting, but relaxed enough to enjoy watching the wildlife, spotting the details and having some time to practice my riding and enjoy getting 381kg of surprisingly nimble super tourer leant over at the right time and picked back up with ease.
'I know lets build the town in the cliff'
Today, we start off as one group for a quick ride to Monpazier. More amazing tarmac, another collection of wide roads, narrow roads, scenery, challenges and general two-wheeled loveliness. As always it’s the people that make it memorable. This is a great bunch to be with; funny, easygoing and welcoming. One of our party, Mike, won his place on the tour in a competition through Bennett’s Insurance. He turned up on Saturday knowing no one and just fitted in, becoming part of the gang in no time.
As we get to know each other better it turns out we are a couple of retired IT experts, a bass player in a heavy metal band, an asbestos removal specialist, a CNC engineer, accounts executive, a gas fitter, two motorcycle instructors and a former member of the Sweeney, whose job involved tracking and chasing and confronting (with firearms, when needed) armed robbers through London on unmarked sports bikes. An interesting bunch then.
Two hours inside a warm polystyrene hat and you're ready for this
Part of the tour, for those who want it, is a chance to get some training and Julie, who rode here on a BMW R1200R after an 18-month break from motorcycles, has decided she’d like to spend a few hours improving her cornering. So, Andy T, one of the bosses at Real Roads has offered to watch her ride and give some assistance.
Sadly, not even Andy can make up for the mismatched combination of short legs, a heavy bike and footpegs in exactly the place where your shins want to be. Julie’s bike has the low seat kit fitted, but she’s still struggling to get her feet flat on the floor (because of the peg position) and has toppled off it a couple of times at a standstill – once doing a U-turn on a steep camber and the other on gravel stopping on a steep downhill junction. Easily done, but no real damage to her or the bike and she’s not a quitter.
Another beautiful castle untroubled by conflict
As the day progresses Andy chats and advises Julie on cornering confidence and, following behind I can see her lines and lean angles improving, while her comfort braking and nervousness has disappeared completely. ‘Lunch’ is somehow at 4pm – where did the day go? It’s a small caff, next to an impressive chateau, with a friendly owner and simple, but tasty local food.
Some people have ridden every day, taking all the opportunities to rack up the most possible miles on these amazing roads. I spent the last couple of days enjoying the sunshine, catching up on work and writing a few articles for the website. So, by Saturday, our first day of the trek home, I’m looking forward to being back on the bike.
We learned about half a day into this trip that when tour leader Andy says ‘300 miles’ he means ‘up-to 380’, when he says ‘a couple of hours’ he means ‘somewhere between three and six’ and so when he tells us today’s ride to Reims (breaking the back of the long trip home so we can catch a lunchtime ferry tomorrow) will be 450 miles, most of us are wondering what route he can have in mind that will possibly take up-to 900 miles.
It turns out that this time he was actually close (by his standards) and the actual day is a mere 512 miles. Much of it is on motorways, which is bad for most of the gang, but perfect if you’re on a warp-speed sofa, with effective windscreen, all your favourite music and 250 miles to a tank.
Reims is lovely. Our hotel is right on the main street, literally, we have to ride up the pedestrianised precinct to reach the car park. One last night of brilliant company, one last ‘one-glass-too-many’ of cold French bierre and one more day to go.
Tomorrow is a quick blat to Calais and then home.
170 miles from Reims to Calais. Simple motorway riding, broken by a couple of coffee stops and one last chance to jump the peage. Arriving a little early, there was room on the ferry before ours to squeeze us on, meaning an even easier ride home. Saying goodbye was genuinely sad. Andy, Andy, Chris, Mike and Mike, John, Jackie, Alan and Paul…we’ll miss you.
Three hours later, we’ve re-acquainted ourselves with the joys of angry English drivers, filtered through the melee of Dartford’s crazy traffic and waved a final goodbye to Mike on the Z1000.
What a great trip. It costs less than £500 per person, which includes ferry crossings, accommodation and a bit of advice/training if you need it. Fuel is expensive in France, but food and drinks aren’t. Simon, who runs the Gite cooks a couple of evening meals and provides breakfast for a modest extra cost and the whole week cost a whole lot less than a nasty package holiday where all you remember is the sunburn, airport queues and dodgy guts. Given the choice of that or a week in this company, on these roads and these memories, there’s no flipping contest. If you’ve never ridden abroad before and want a helping hand for your first trip, this is ideal. If you’re an old hand and want to find some stunning new roads, ditto.
Realroads are on realroads.co.uk – See you on the next one?