This is what they are frightened of: from Modane, betwixt La Chambre and the Cenis Valley
“Everyday it happens, habitually at four. The rain, the lightning.” It has been true for almost my journey, since Paris definitely. Everyday in the later afternoon: thunder, storms, café terraces packing up at speed. This conversation took place in Chambéry on Sunday; on Monday I moved higher into the mountains.
“I want to go to La Chambre.”
“To sleep? Or something more?”
Cue mass laughter in the ticket office at Chambéry station.
In La Chambre there are only two hotels; one of everything else. It is a transit town with a railway station, a smoke stack factory nearby, and up the hill a high street. Tourist office closed on Mondays. It is not quite the season for the dedicated hikers. In my café, advertising wi-fi but it is “lost today” Julie arrives by scooter from the next village to check her email. She has just returned from Thailand, “holidays”. Tomorrow she travels up to the “Two Alps” to begin her summer job working as a hiking guide. “It’s families, enjoying nature, taking walks, seeing the lakes,” she says. “They are mostly French, once the school holidays have begun. Sometimes strangers, English even.” If it goes well for Julie she’ll stay on for the ski season. “Now that,” she says, “is the rock and roll.”
La Chambre is surrounded by the big mountains. In five hours it and they see at least that number of weather changes, sun, clouds, wind – a pink sunset – and, just about four, the lightning. “It is predictable these days,” Valerie, the hotel manager says. “Every day.”
“Everyday since Paris,” I say. But Paris isn’t a conversation point high in the mountains, just – I suspect – a Babel of Bureaucracy and Tax Inspectors. One thing I’ve already noticed: strangers wear either Leather or Lycra. Thank goodness, then, for the McQueen…
The worst wayes that ever I travelled in all my life in the Sommer were those betwixt Chamberie and Aiguebelle, which were as bad as the worst I ever rode in England in the midst of Winter: insomuch that the wayes of Savoy may be proverbially spoken of as the Owles of Athens, the peares of Calabria and the Quailes of Delos.
“…I commended Savoy a pretty while for the best place that ever I saw in my life, for abundance of pleasant springs, descending from the mountains, till the last I considered the cause of those springs. For they are not fresh springs, as I conjectured at the first, but onely little torrents of snow water, which distilleth from the toppe of those mountains, when the snow by the heate of the sunne is dissolved into water. Of those torrents I think I saw at the least a thousand betwixt the foote of the ascent of the Mountaine Aiguebelle and Novalaise in Piemont, at the descent of the Mountaine Senis; which places are sixty two miles asunder.
The swiftest and violentest lake that ever I saw, is that which runneth through Savoy, called Lezere, which is much swifter than the Rhodanus at Lyons, that by the poets is called Rapidissimus amnis. For this is so extreme swift, that no fish can possible live in it, by reason that it will be carried away by the most violent fource of the torrent, and dashed against huge stones which are in most places of the lake. Yea there are many thousand stones in that lake much bigger then the stones of Stoneage by the towne of Amesbury in Wilt-shire, or the exceeding great stone upon Hamdon hil in Somerset-shire, so famous for the quarre, which is within a mile of the Parish of Odcombe my dear natalitiall place. ..The cause of the extraordinary swiftness of this lake is, the continuall fluxe of the snow water descending from those mountains, which doth augment and multiplie the lake in a thousand places. There is another thing also to be observed in this lake, the horrible and hideous noyse thereof. For I thinke it keepeth almost as terrible a noyse as the river Cocytus in Hell, which the poets doe extol for the murmuring thereof, as having his name Cocytus from the olde Greeke word…which signifieth to keepe a noyse.
The “King”, “JSB” (John Sliding Bike), The “Eagle”, “One Wheel”, “Mr. Mille” and the “Rocketman” make up a biker road trip. At six they are relaxing after another long day: they’re away a week, from the middle of Holland. They drive a selection of big machines: Ducatti, Honda, Aprillia, Suzuki; and they drive them fast.
600 kilometres is an “average” day, the “Eagle” says. When I ask where they’ve stopped in the evenings it takes a long time to remember the names, in an hour and a half nobody remembers the third night’s name. They don’t take the motorways, because “that’s boring,”; they search for good roads – and speed. “We like good corners,” JSB says. “Twistys” adds Rocketman, the only non-Dutchman: he’s English but lived all over the world, crewing on boats in the Med and the Caribbean, living in Antibes, Canada, and now – finally – Holland, where is wife and family are.
What has he learnt about life after such a nomadic time. “You learn who your friends are, the true ones. If I was in deep shit there’s people who I can phone from anywhere who’d help me.”
“You don’t see much ‘culture’ on these trips,” Rocketman says, “it’s about being with the boys – no women allowed. About pushing it to the limits, knowing how fast you can get it to go.” Over their time as bikers the machines have got faster; everything is about knowing it intimately enough to keep control. They’ve ended up here, “because it was time, we were getting tired, and the weather looked as if it was going bad.”
“Weather is so important, you can’t take chances,” The Eagle says.
Chance or not, both hotels have large signs welcoming motorbikes; the bikers’ has a bike stuck to the wall, just to make sure. A poster advertises a biker convention in July. Half my hotel, and most of theirs is full of strangers passing through on motorbikes; mine has four older Australians from Adellaid who are cycling about 40k a day on a three-month tour of Europe. But they, and I, are the exceptions.
“I hate the English abroad, they’ve become twats,” says the English Rocketman. He grew up in the New Forest, bought his first bike, a BSA 125, when he was “nine.”
When he occasionally goes home, “I don’t like what I see. I think it’s about divorce, about families falling apart.”
The Dutch, I venture, are a sociable lot; anywhere in the world they’ll talk. “We’ll talk to anyone, even Germans if they are bikers.”
“We met the Hells Angels on a previous trip to Spain,” says the “King” who has been watching a video of himself riding that day: on the Sony video camera that belongs to “One Wheel” an image of the back of a bike travelling along a “road” plays and plays. “One Wheel” tapes the camera to the gas tank.
“They were fine: Hells Angels have this strange view that “normal” means riding bikes real fast, preferably Harleys, and “odd” means not doing this. There was this guy who wanted to ask them some questions, but he didn’t have a bike. Don’t have a bike, don’t get to talk with the Hells Angels.”
“But they’re bad people, no?”
“You know the answer, we saw them as guys who like bikes. So do we.”
They can go fast, these guys. In English terms the fastest so far on this trip was around 185 miles per hour. There are accidents, sometimes. “Like nasty.” says The King. In a way their ambitions are not unlike Davide in Chambery: control of the mind and body – in this case at over 200 kilometres an hour. “You calculate the risk, without calculating: we calculate, but are no good at maths,” Rocketman says.
Amongst the men is the back and forth banter of a tight-knit group. “We show the videos to friends when we get home but nobody really gets it: the jokes, the things that we get obsessed with. It’s just for us.”
“We bought a helmet yesterday; German bike helmets are the best – not the bikes though. And we’ve been laughing about it ever since. German bikers are good guys though. They’re the most common nationality we see on our trips,” the King says. There’s another story, in discrete loud Dutch, that seems to involve urination, a Belgian, and his wife…
They’ve been doing this for most of this century, it’s a week of release from family life at home. “In two months I could be back here with the caravan, the wife, the kids. We wouldn’t speak to you, we’d say: who the hell is that?” the King says. It’s not cheap: two tanks of fuel a day at fifteen Euros a go, new tires at 700 Euros, “for the Ducatti maintenance, that’s about 50 per cent of any Ducatti’s expense.”
“But they are the cool bikes, no?”
“That’s what all non-bikers think.”
“Keep them in the garage, put them in the living room as art,” The Eagle says.
Then there are the hotels, the beers, the food. “It’s expensive but money isn’t about how much you have, but what you do with it,” the King says. “This is our ‘Second Life, you know: that computer game. Except with us it is real.”
Tomorrow, 20k of highway, then a 17k tunnel. “We put the bikes in first gear and rev as hard as we can. The noise is intense in the tunnels. Like a Jumbo Jet taking off. It’s just part of the fun.”
“We sell the bikes after these trips,” the King says.
“One careful driver, woman – trips to the supermarket only,” says the Rocketman.
“Once a week,” adds JSB.
At dusk a tall thin man in sportswear walks past us with a tiny dog on a lead. “You ask us why we do this,” says the King. “It’s so we don’t become him.” We all turn to look. “Yeah,” says Rocketman, “that’s what we’re all scared of, ending up like that. Like I said, biking is just a long struggle against maturity.”