The digital read-out in from of me says that the outside temperature is pushing 32-degrees. The air conditioning system is working overtime to keep the inside of this Volkswagen Transporter cool.
But as I look over to my left, I notice that the rolls of black electrical tape holding the wing mirror together is starting to melt. The big plastic unit is drooping towards the Tarmac like a thirsty houseplant.
To make matters worse, the heavily modified Honda CX500 that’s crammed into the back of this sporty short wheelbase van is leaking fuel onto the luggage, camera bags and multitude of surfboards packed tightly around it.
“Six hours of monotonous French toll roads. Six hours of snoring from snoozing boys in the back”
It stinks and the sat-nav says we still have around six hours to run until we reach Cherbourg, where our big, comfortable and decidedly less pungent Brittany Ferry awaits to sail us home to our own beds.
Six hours of monotonous French toll roads. Six hours of snoring from snoozing boys in the back. Six hours for that limp wing mirror to potentially fall off.
Why do we do this to ourselves?
Blitz to Biarritz
Rewind 96 hours and I was excitedly packing a pristine black Volkswagen Transporter Sportline Komb on my driveway, the wing mirror intact (more on that later).
So heavy was the pre-emptive buzz from knowing that Biarritz and the brilliant Wheels & Waves festival was only a ten-hour journey away, I somehow managed to load my custom Honda CX500 onto the back of this small van without any assistance.
Luckily that wouldn’t be the case once in France, as my cohorts for this trip were friend of Flat-Out and photographer extraordinaire Lewis Harrison-Pinder, fellow WaveLength Magazine snapper Luke Gartside and the exceptionally talented Mirek Lucan, a local artist who wanted to document the trip and add his trademark creative touch to an old surfboard along the way.
“Everywhere you looked there were staggeringly beautiful custom motorcycles parked together”
We all came with a ridiculous amount of baggage, meaning it was like a game of Jenga attempting to pack the van in any logical order, but as long as there was room for our Jimmy’s Ice Coffee cool box, we would all survive.
The journey began with a stupidly early schlep across to Poole, where a Brittany Ferry was due to transport the crew across to Cherbourg and on to our final destination in Biarrtiz.
Thankfully, the crossing was super smooth and we reached the French port as the midday sun blazed down on to the jet-black Volks van.
A staggering 554 miles stood between Wheels & Waves, a festival that has gained notoriety in its six years of existence for being one of the coolest, most hip motorcycle festivals on the planet, and us.
Irritatingly, the run down towards La Rochelle, Bordeaux and the Basque Country was slow and tiring, even with all four of us sharing the driving duties, meaning we didn’t arrive until much of Wednesday’s festival activities were done and dusted.
What is Wheels & Waves?
Founded in 2009 by a French motorcycle contingent dubbed The Southsiders, Wheels & Waves started life as a small group of friends and family riding together and enjoying some food and music.
It is now in its sixth year and it has morphed into fully-fledged festival that attracts tens of thousands of motorcyclists from across Europe and the world.
Granted, the onus is very much on the custom motorcycle scene and those turning up in full Power Ranger gear with the latest sports bike will be frowned upon and/or turned away from the main sites.
But on top of ogling the fine array of vintage and custom machinery, there’s live music, a cinema, art, surf and skate contests, Flat Track racing and the awesome Punk’s Peak drag race.
Advanced tickets are just €30 for a five-day pass to the main Cité de l’Océan site, El Rollo, the Punk’s Peak race and Artride exhibition, although it is possible to simply arrive in Biarritz on a suitable bike and soak up the atmosphere.
Camping, hotels, hostels and B&Bs are plentiful in the surrounding area, which stretches all the way from Bidart down into San Sebastián.
Embrace the lay day
Personal experience, as well as anecdotal evidence from friends, suggests that Wheels & Waves experiences at least one lay day every year.
It’s the day when the heavens open and all of the motorcycle-based tomfoolery grinds to a halt. This day just so happened to be the day we arrived.
A quick trip down to the Cité de l’Océan, which acts as the central arena for all Wheels & Waves activities in Biarritz, revealed almost ghost town-esque scenes.
The rows of tents peddling fashionable motorcycle gear, expensive coffee and tasty food from the local area were empty or abandoned, while a primitive wooden wall with information about the day’s events revealed that everything was ‘off’.
Those brave and hardy souls who didn’t let a bit of precipitation get in the way of a good time had saddled up and ridden to the various coffee shops that line the route from Bidart to central Biarrtiz.
Everywhere you looked there were staggeringly beautiful custom motorcycles parked together, their owners busy sharing a strong espresso and cigarette beneath waterproof shelters, plotting the next few days and discussing all things bike-related.
All-clear for Artride
We may have missed the superb El Rollo Flat Track races that Wednesday had to offer but a damp Thursday wasn’t going to stop us getting in the festival spirit.
With the trusty Honda loaded off the van and a quick – if a little sloppy – surf enjoyed by all at la Cote des Basques, we decided to take on some baguette-based carbs and head for the evening’s Artride.
Now set in a gigantic disused warehouse in a trendy district of San Sebastián, the annual Artride sees an eclectic collection of photography, artwork, instillations, sculptures and custom machinery fill up three floors of achingly cool, exposed brickwork trendiness.
Brian Bent, a regular fixture at Wheels & Waves and the guy who surfs in a sweater and a sailor hat, supplies the music, while thousands of bikers and punters mooch around the works, appreciating the custom machines and surf movies playing on the huge screens.
Outside, hundreds of bikes gather in the car park and I spend most of my time admiring the steeds folk have chosen to turn up on. The Honda rubs shoulders with 60s Harley choppers, BMW-based cafe racers and Japanese motocross machines that have been skilfully transformed into beautiful street trackers.
“Thousands of bikers mooch around, appreciating the custom machines”
The place is abuzz with creativity, with revellers swapping customisation stories and opinions on the artworks, while others begin filing out of the warehouse to the nearest eateries and bars. San Sebastián is a dam sight cheaper than neighbouring Biarritz, so it seems a shame not to enjoy some local Pinchos and a Keler lager.
Brittany Ferries runs an extensive fleet of ships from the UK’s south coast to northern France and Spain.
The Poole to Cherbourg crossing that we undertook is one of the easiest and least busy routes, but results in an eight to ten-hour drive or ride down to Biarritz – not ideal of you are on the back of a vintage (read unreliable) machine.
Portsmouth to Bilbao is arguably the best route for the less capable motorcycles, as it is simply a short hop up to Biarritz after a relaxing (and typically boozy) 24-hour cruise down to Spain.
Prices for the latter in late June can err on the expensive side, especially if you are transporting bikes in the back of a large van. However, and after much research, we found the Pool to Cherbourg route one of the quickest and cheapest ways of getting to southern France from the south of the UK.
The ferry crossing came in at around £550 return for four people and a van, while diesel bills and toll road receipts for the entire trip were less than £300.
For more info, click here.
Riders of the storm
The heavens open as soon as we finish off the last of chorizo and apple Pincho dishes, signalling the fact that this is going to be one sodden and slightly scary ride home.
My companions bid farewell with a wry smile, knowing that the van will provide a quiet, comfortable and dry ride home on the easy-to-navigate toll road back to Biarritz. Not so for me.
“The rest of the ride is slow and treacherous, every signpost pored over in great detail”
But as I’m fumbling with the ignition, warming the engine up in preparation for a dank hour or so in the saddle, I receive a tap on the shoulder and a request for guidance in a thick German accent.
The two guys to my right have no idea how to get back to basecamp in Bidart, nor do they have any kind of electronic guidance system to help them out.
Thankfully, I’ve packed a set of headphones for my smartphone, so jam one in an ear, fire up Google Maps and hope the audio prompts and meagre batter life will be enough to see us home.
“The bikes popping and crackling into the night air with every twist of the throttle”
It’s absolutely pissing it down at this point and the spindly headlamp on the Honda isn’t doing much to illuminate the pitch-black road ahead.
The hum of a Ducati and an old Triumph thump away behind me as this band of unlikely chums picks its way across the back roads back towards Biarritz.
We get lost several times, forcing a few stops in petrol stations to check maps, exchange confused shoulder shrugs and attempt to wipe the rain away from rain-saturated eyes.Then the battery dies on my phone.
The rest of the ride is slow and treacherous, every signpost pored over in great detail and the group of three bunching together in order to maximise the power of our weak headlamps. We occasionally give each other the international hand signal for ‘everything ok?’ and it’s clear there is a smile somewhere under the helmet with each exchange.
We begin to pick up signs for Biarritz and, as if it were fate, the rain stops. The inky black roads suddenly feel less daunting.
A digital clock hanging on a provincial pharmacy claims that it’s nearly 1am but we manage to enjoy the remaining few miles, slapping one another on the back and congratulating each other on not dying, the bikes popping and crackling into the night air with every twist of the throttle.
It would be a ridiculous scenario in any other place but here in the misty Basque night, it’s the norm. And that’s why we love it.
Stay tuned for Part Two where art is made, seas are surfed and the sun finally shines on this epic festival.