Classic Bike Provence
Have you ever tried explaining to anybody who does not ride a motorcycle why you do? Personally I never bother; I just smile and change the subject. It really is not worth it and the reality is that it is almost impossible, because there are so many reasons why you do.
A few still believe it is due to finances, not appreciating that a modern bike can cost far more than a car. Even classic bikes are worth more that a modern car that is three or four years old!
One of the many reasons we all do revolves around travel of course and the joy of experiencing countries and the various cultures from a vehicle that allows you use all your senses. No metal box with air conditioning can allow you to smell the local flora, fauna, and the sea, the crisp, truly fresh air of the Alps, or even the local cooking smells.
The sun beating down as you sweep round bend after bend, revealing one magnificent vista after another with boots lightly skimming the tarmac has to be experienced to be believed. The ability to stop at random and enjoy the views, the hospitality of the local people, or to leave the beaten highway to explore is just magical!
But, this is already known to readers of this august site who also appreciate that all vehicles old and new are to be appreciated in equal doses. However, if modern bikes have a problem it is that they are too fast, but they fit in with modern life that flies past far too quickly as well.
One way to slow it down and put life back in perspective is to travel back in time. However, despite the silver screen making that seem easy, it is unfortunately just a trick of the cinema. But, there is another way of doing just that and enjoying classic motorcycles in settings appropriate to their age and style!
Located in Provence, one of the many regions of France, Classic Bike Provence is a company entering its sixth year of trading and sells motorcycle trips back in time. A time with a gentler pace of life, when people had time to stand and chat and just enjoy life in a relaxed manner.
The area they are based in has become very popular over the past few years with people looking to escape the congested UK mainland and looking for a better, somewhat slower pace of life in a more temperate climate.
This is not a new phenomena for the area though; it has attracted writers, poets and artists from all over the world for many years, seduced by its weather, scenery and lifestyle.
One such person was the artist Vincent Van Gogh, who remarked on the region in a personal letter "...nature here is extraordinarily beautiful everywhere, and over all the vault of the sky is marble blue. The sun sheds a radiance of pale sulphur that is soft and lovely. What a country!"
Van Gogh was undoubtedly right, as I know from previous trips to the region, the scenery is absolutely stunning and coupled with its magnificent yet quiet roads, there exists all the ingredients for a perfect days motorcycling made even better if it is on classic bikes that blend in with the relaxed lifestyle.
Brit Neil Thomas, the proprietor of Classic Bike Provence was quick to recognise this fact and his personal mid-life crisis consisted of changing careers. With over 30 years experience of riding and maintaining British bikes it seemed natural to him to swap the world of shipping and large containers in Marseille, for guiding people through the French countryside on his collection of classic bikes.
A countryside that is still very much in the time frame from when the BSA’s Triumphs, Norton, Sunbeam. Velocette that help make up Neil’s stable were still rolling off their various production lines in the UK
His company, run with his charming wife Sarah who gave up her dental career to join him in business, is located in the picturesque Provencal village of Ventabren about 10kms southwest of the city of Aix en Provence and about 25km North West of the city of Marseille, in the south of France.
From the UK there are no problems getting there quite cheaply using one of the many budget airlines, or just riding or driving down the 654 miles from Calais. It is also easily accessible from most of Europe by train or plane.
I personally hopped a quick flight to Marseille and took advantage of Neil’s shuttle service from the airport for the twenty minute drive to their HQ. After a nights sleep in their annexe I was ready for a good days riding after inspecting the bikes and talking to Neil and Sarah about the tours and what is on offer for potential visitors.
Beneath their typical French property sits the ‘cave’ full of bikes that all have pet names, apart from those official titles bestowed by the factory.
Currently there are sixteen, including a classic Honda, Kawasaki and BMW, but the total number is always changing as and when more decent classic bikes become available at sensible prices.
For me it really was a trip back in time and a real injection of nostalgia. The 650 BSA A65 was my first big bike after passing me test, then there was the oil in the frame Triumph 650 that I traded it in for.
A Norton 850 Commando brought back memories of an old girlfriend, many of these not being repeatable! All the bikes apart from the Sunbeam S8 are clean and tidy examples that make you feel at home.
The Sunbeam is very much in concourse condition and is in fact owned by an American friend who garages it with Neil and in exchange allows him to use it.
(This one you are very conscious of its condition when riding!)
The bikes are all sensible classics from the sixties and early seventies with no particular vices (apart from the Velocette!) and need no special skills to ride them.
All have been carefully maintained and are rigorously checked to keep breakdowns to a minimum. Neil claims that most are just due to the odd loose wire or similar caused by general use.
Certainly in the past he has had no major mechanical failures thanks to his careful fettling and regular oil changes.
If anybody does want modern bikes, these can be sourced if the Hinckley Triumph is not suitable, but they come outside the general pricing structure and would not be used in conjunction with a classic bike tour for obvious reasons.
Neil starts each day from the base, picking up the clients from their accommodation if necessary and then having a briefing and choosing the day’s itinerary. Although set tours are advertised on the excellent website, he is very flexible and apart from the two and five day versions, he can adapt on the day as we did.
Having discussed it at some length and due to my brief stay we decided to just criss-cross the area to see the major landmarks, rather than do the set routes.
This would mean the days would be longer than normal, but personally I was glad as it meant that I could ride more of the bikes!
Normally the daily tours start with riders picking a mount from the stable. This then gets swapped for another during the day, so clients can experience as wide a range of possible from the now defunct British factories.
Due to their base location, there are no towns to head out through; it is straight out onto the diverse natural landscape that makes up the region, so riders get the flavour of things very quickly. It also allows those not used to riding on the other side of the road or dealing with right foot gear changes a chance to adapt on the quieter roads before meeting any real traffic!
Literally the whole local area of France is available to ride, but depending on your length of stay there is the chance to experience the azure coastline of the Côte Bleueand the maritime centres of Marseille, Cassis, and Méjean.
You can head inland to the majestic peaks of Mt Saint Victoire, Mt Ventoux, and the rolling hills of the Luberonto the breathtaking depths of the world famous Gorges du Verdon.
(Those fans of cycling will enjoy riding Ventoux, one of the most famous sections of the Tour de France where Brit Tommy Simpson died in 1967 when pushing too hard on the climb up. No problems for any of Neil’s bikes though!)
Then there are the acclaimed vineyards of the Coteaux d'Aix region, or a ride through the Camargue, to a breathtaking run along the picturesque Route des Cretes.
There are also two day rides taking is some of the mountain villages of the lower Alps, or a five day trip to Corsica! Most of the trips are suitable for riders of varying experience and ability. Pillions accompanying a rider currently travel free.
Many of the locations that Neil takes you too are those not normally frequented by tourists, even the resorts are those typically populated by the French holidaymaker. This means that you really do get immersed in the culture.
In addition it means you end up on spectacular roads that are not full of tourists doing unpredictable manoeuvres every time a new view presents itself. The bikes are very well maintained, but drum brakes are not as good as modern disc brakes!
Neil admitted our pace was slightly faster than normal to try and fit everything in to my short stay. Personally I was really enjoying pushing the bikes a bit and realising how much bikes have improved, as well as reliving my youth!
Maybe it really is a case of “the older I get the faster I was”, because these bikes made me realise rose tinted spectacles are as good as a Spielberg movie in making you believe things!
Normally frequent stops are made during each days ride for sightseeing, refreshments, and photo opportunities. Actual riding times vary between 4-5 hours per day, although this is just a general guide, there is no meter running!
The traffic level in the Provencal countryside is in general very light, so you can ride at your own pace and enjoy the scenery, but due to this you still cover quite fair distances!
By the end of the day the sun was shining and I was throwing the Triumph 650 around like I used to when I owned one. We always attracted favourable looks and attention as we drifted through the odd small town or village. Even more so when we stopped, allowing some practice of my schoolboy French language skills (or lack of!), although comfortingly Neil is fluent!
Return to base saw the bikes being cleaned and checked before quick shower and one of Sarah’s excellent meals, plus a glass or two of the fine local grape extract!
Normally clients make their own arrangements for accommodation, so they can control the costs, although apparently most seem to eat at the CB HQ and take advantage of the shuttle bus back to their digs.
Fortunately I just went down into the guest quarters below the house for a good nights sleep.
Accommodation in the area ranges from simple auberges (hostels) & chambres d'hotes (B&B's) up to 2 & 3 star hotels to and even a luxurious chateaux.
For those whose partners want to accompany them but do not want to ride, or even those who just want to combine a couple of days riding with other pursuits, there is plenty in the area to do and see. For the active there is everything from hot air ballooning to canoeing, not forgetting the odd golf course or two.
But, for those into culture there are cookery lessons, wine tasting, and watercolour painting among other activities. Lastly those who want to take home something chic, there is plenty of retail therapy in the nearby city of Aix en Provencewhich is a veritable shopper’s paradise.
My second day saw me reacquainted with the Norton after twenty odd years and I found it difficult to concentrate on the bike as the memories came flooding back.
Over a leisurely lunch in a castle, Neil was at pains to point out that he makes sure each tour is as relaxing and enjoyable as possible for the clients, as he is well aware that it is part of a holiday period for them.
This is one of the reasons why there is so much flexibility to accommodate people. Mind you lucky man, he has not reached the stage that he regards it as work for him!
Back to base and another evening with good food good wine and excellent company. We discussed the future and where CB was heading. New bikes may join the garage to offer a greater diversity and there may be some special tours added for a bit of variety in the near future, all of which will be announced on the website.
It definitely seems that there is already a hard core of clients that keep coming back to enjoy the camaraderie that these tours are engendering. Already many friendships have been forged, a lot with Neil and Sarah and I know why!
The following day while sitting in a quaint harbour with the sun beating down eating a very reasonably priced local dish, I had no problems seeing why Neil made the career change! A quick stop at a local winery on the way back gave a chance to see how wine and olive oil is made, as well as getting a chance to taste some of the local produce.
Waiting for the plane I could easily see why people return and that includes a fair few from the USA as well as from all over Europe.
Classic Bike Provence has got to be one of the best motorcycle holiday firms anywhere offering real value for money. Turn up with your helmet, (they do supply if you really need one) go for a ride and then head off, no fuss no worries!. De-stressing at its very best and in the words of a certain Mr Schwarzenegger “I’ll be back”
For further information on tour dates, accommodation, details of the bikes and full details of how to get there etc see their excellent website http://www.classicbikeprovence.com/Contact them by post: Classic Bike Provence, Mas Peiro Fleurido, Quartier Peyre Plantade, 13122 VENTABREN, France.