“Nous Sommes Amis de Bill…”
Many years ago, in the top left-hand corner of France, a number of vintage motorcycle riders in and around the popular seaside town of Luc-sur-Mer decided to form a club, in order to nurture and promote their mutual interest.
I should point out at this stage that I meant that it was the motorcycles that were vintage, although I daresay one or two of the riders may have fitted that description too; but anyway, the club was formed way back in the last century; 1989 in fact.
During their first year the members of the fledgling Rétro Moto Côte de Nacre organised an international rally – there had been respectable attendances on the organised rides on the first Sunday of each month, so support for a rally was good.
The club’s popularity grew over the years and during their tenth year they entertained 420 international participants on the rally, but due to the increased issues surrounding admin, security and organising suitable venues to facilitate such a large number of bikes and riders, numbers were later restricted to a maximum of 200.
Of course, this was all happening roughly 150 miles away on the other side of the English Channel, so it would be fair to say I was oblivious to these goings on.
I first became aware of the rally – and indeed the club – earlier this year when a friend (Julia) who has a converted barn in the region invited us over to stay, asking me to suggest a date. I suggested late June (call me old fashioned, but if I’m on a biking holiday I prefer to try and arrange it when there’s at least a reasonable chance of some decent riding weather).
Julia and her partner Andy (who’d both accompanied us when we participated in the Distinguished Gentleman’s Ride in Amsterdam in 2017) then mentioned the Rétro Moto Côte de Nacre (RMC) Rally International, which was due to happen on 23rd June.
The initial suggestion was that I borrow a vintage bike, in order to participate in the rally. But having tried this unsuccessfully on my doorstep in Kent a few years ago (for the Vintage Motor Cycle Club’s International West Kent Run), I knew this was an unlikely option, so I decided instead to report on the rally, which is why – and indeed how – you’re reading this.
So after checking work schedules for the day job, and with some invaluable assistance from Christopher Jones at Brittany Ferries, (not to mention the small matter of renewing my passport in the nick of time) I asked my son Ben if he would come along as an additional photographer, so the threads began to come together and it eventually looked like we were heading for Normandy.
In the meantime, Andy gave me the contact details of his old friend Bill Brown, Vice President of the RMC. Bill had been a fellow member of the Cambridge University Motorcycle Club with Andy back in the 1970s.
After running my suggested coverage strategy of the Rally International past Bill, he then checked that it would be OK with the club’s Honourable Secretary, and a few emails later I was given the green light to attend the rally as ‘un journaliste international itinerant.’
So It was all systems go. Having met Ben at his place near Maidstone on the Friday evening, we headed to Portsmouth docks, in plenty of time for the 22:45 sailing to Ouistreham aboard the vast Mont St. Michel.
We met Andy on the ferry, which was useful as he knew stuff. Stuff like where the self-service cafeteria on the ferry was, and also where the RMC’s Saturday Auto Jumble was being held. The latter would enable us to meet Bill and collect our information pack and the (as yet undisclosed) route for the Sunday run.
We cleared customs and passport control on a bright, sunny Saturday morning, with the distinct feeling that we were up and about before most of the local population, the roads were very quiet.
Having left our ferry booking until relatively late in the day, we hadn’t been able to get a cabin, and we didn’t get a great deal of sleep during the crossing, so finding ourselves pootling sedately along the French coast so early in the day seemed a little surreal, especially when we were overtaken at great speed on the outskirts of town by a Renault hatchback towing a well laden camping trailer, the driver of which turned out to be heading for the same place as us.
We arrived at the seafront car park at Luc-sur-Mer to find an impressive array of motorcycles and motorcycle parts, as well as a considerable collection of moto paraphernalia of all shapes, sizes and conditions, including twist grips, knee pads, petrol tanks and near-complete bikes.
It was then that Andy – the only French speaker among us (following his mis-spent youth as a van driver’s mate, collecting clothes for a Paris charity shop – but that’s another story) introduced us to Denis Lebel – Président du Rétro-moto Côte de Nacre with the words ‘nous sommes amis de Bill’ – to which the instant response was warm smiles, handshakes all round, and a sentence or two in response and recognition that I’m ashamed to say I only recognised a small handful of words, these included ‘journaliste Anglais’ and ‘Rider’s Digest’.
We were told that coffee and croissants would shortly be ready, and to feel free to wander around.
Some of the bikes present looked as though all they needed was a quick polish up, an oil change and a spark plug. For example, a rather tasty Moto Minarelli Gitane Testi, complete with a rather nifty centre pull front brake cable arrangement.
Others looked like they needed the last rites read, including a ‘pot de pisse’ (excuse my French – literally…) crash helmet with a pronounced dent in the top, and a collection of random cycle parts that appeared to be largely held together with rust.
But of course, if that’s exactly what you’re looking for, as they probably don’t say in these parts. ‘la viande d’un homme est le poison d’un autre’. Try ‘Google Translate’ – I did.
After wandering around and taking a number of photographs of the exhibits on sale, Bill arrived on his distinctive 1954 AJS Model 20 – his daily rider.
We realised it was Bill immediately, 6’6” tall with flowing locks, and the sort of boundless enthusiasm that meant that everyone seemed pleased to greet him, with handshakes, kisses on the cheek and embraces.
Bill introduced us to club trésorière Marie Claire Epinette, responsible for collating the rally paperwork and generally ensuring everybody – including me – had the correct information. I was handed a large brown envelope containing a detailed map of the route, the itinerary for the day, and details of the precise times riders were to arrive at important way points during the day.
Also included in the envelope were a few things I wasn’t expecting – wristbands for Ben and I for lunch, a beautiful medallion bearing the club’s logo, and a stylish oval motorcycle rally plaque.
I was quite taken aback by the club’s generosity, which along with the warm welcome we received from everyone who was told ‘nous sommes amis de Bill’ and ‘Je suis journaliste Anglais’.
After chatting to Bill, partaking in coffee and croissants, and sitting in the warm morning sun looking out across the very beaches that the allies had landed on 75 years earlier, we decided to move on; it was late morning, and we were due to meet Julia at Le Molay-Littry, some 45 km west of Luc-sur-Mer.
This was of course just a few weeks after the 75th anniversary of the Normandy Landings during the Second World War. Travelling across the region the commemorations were still very much in evidence, with portraits of presumably fallen allied troops adorning many of the lamp posts en route.
The Americans appeared to have made a huge and lasting impact at Le Molay-Littry, as we pulled into the centre of the town we noticed that the central roundabout bore a five pointed star – the logo of the United States Army.
We parked the bikes next to a pizza vending machine, after noticing a model of a Waco CG-4A combat glider – known as ‘The Flying Coffins of World War II’ along with what must have been a half scale landing craft.
The music of the Glen Miller Orchestra blared from speakers dotted around the town centre as we headed to the Café De Paris Armurie, a curious mixture of – as the name would suggest – a café and an armoury, the walls lined with racks of guns, along with a considerable array of camouflage clothing, duck decoys and general gear for hunting le canard, a curious setting for late morning coffee.
After buying bread – Julia has an ingenious method of carrying pains (French sticks) on her Kawasaki Vulcan 650, basically a despatch rider’s extendable document tube with a shoulder strap.
After another 40 or so kilometres we arrived at Julia’s barn, where we opted for a traditional light lunch of bread and cheese before taking a siesta to try and make up for the overnight lack of sleepage on the ferry. I know that’s not a real word, I made it up. You can borrow it if you like.
We later had a relaxing evening as we were joined by some of Julia and Andy’s friends, I contributed by getting some music going on an outdoor speaker system (I of course tuned my iPad in to www.exilefm.com) while Ben got the wood fired pizza oven going. I later amazed myself by preparing a very tasty pepperoni, mushroom and cheese pizza which I managed to neither incinerate or drop on the floor. As the moon lit the rustic charm of Julia’s barn the evening was rounded off by lighting a huge bonfire.
Sunday morning came, and we needed an early start, heading back to Salle Brummel, a community hall in the back streets of Luc-sur-Mer, where more than 100 motorcycles and scooters of all shapes, sizes and ages were assembled, many of the riders taking advantage of the coffee and madeleines being served inside the hall, while others greeted their fellow riders and pillions and talked bikes.
Among the people I chatted with were Geoff (Jeff?) Bishop, who along with wife Sandra live locally, riding their vintage Francis Barnett on the run. Geoff explained that he saw an advert in the paper for the club: ‘It said: French motorcycle club, English spoken, everybody welcome. I thought, I’ll Give that a go. The first bloke I met was Bill – he’s a character and a half!’
That was about ten years ago.
Sandra added ‘It’s about an hour and a half, an hour and three quarters away from us. They are all so friendly, they’re all lovely.’
Ted Dady, from Southampton was one of a number of members of the British Two Stroke Club, who seemed to have arrived in force.
But things were not quite as they seemed, Ted was riding a 1961 350 AJS – a four stroke the last time I looked: ‘I have a two stoke, but it let me down just before we were coming, so I came on the AJS’.
Ted’s bike was immaculate, he’d bought it in 1995 and had been attending rallies in France ever since. ‘It’s been very, very reliable’ he added.
I also met Marco, a *proper* journalist from the fortnightly French publication, ‘La Vie de la Moto’. Marco was easy to spot, with his green one-piece military overalls and naval officer’s cap – which I suppose must be the official garb for professional journalists – but our conversation was somewhat stilted by his inability to speak English. I dunno.
Just before nine there was a sudden flurry of activity, as riders and pillions suddenly started to don their coats and helmets and – in most cases – start their engines. Some of the bikes proved a little reluctant’ but there was plenty of help on hand with a push for a bump start, a spare spark plug, or just moral support.
Eventually, through parting clouds of blue two stroke smoke, (the like of which I haven’t seen since riding behind a friend’s CZ175 in the late 70s) every single one of the bikes headed south towards the Normandy countryside, and the coffee stop, which was scheduled for 09:45 hours at Tilly-sur-Seulles.
And arrive at 09:45 is exactly what they did, headed by an advance party of more modern machines including a Gold Wing, a BMW K1600, police outriders and a vintage 1950s Peugeot 203 saloon car with a PA speaker strapped to its roof.
This is clearly a club that takes organisational efficiency very seriously; I haven’t seen such an entourage since I watched the Tour de France peloton whizz past many years ago.
Julia and Andy headed off to enjoy a leisurely brunch while Ben and I – both our bikes unsuitable for the convoy (2017 BMW R1200GS and 2012 Harley – Davidson FLD) chose a faster route to get ahead of the pack, enabling us to photograph the convoy riding into town.
Such was the precision of the club’s timing that this worked a treat, I was able to park my bike, remove my gloves and lid, get my camera ready and find a good vantage point as the first of the gendarme outriders on their blue Yamaha FJR1300s appeared in the distance.
Several of the riders recognised me from earlier, smiled and waved, which I found quite touching.
Of course, by the time the group had disappeared round the corner we then had to work out where they’d gone, but with so many machines in a relatively small town we soon tracked them down to the car park of the Mairie, at the Place Général de Gaulle.
This was a great opportunity to have a further good look at the bikes; while my knowledge of old British iron is passable, there were a number of French machines there, as well as several from other parts of the world too, and all I can tell you about many of them is that they were absolutely beautiful.
One of the standout machines was a peculiar AJS, that belonged to Steve Ross from Uxbridge, which bore a cricket bat and ball (on an old bed spring) on the rear carrier, but more of that later, as I managed to have a chat with Steve when we stopped for lunch.
Inevitably there were a few late comers, picked up by the recovery car and van. From what I was told the route was quite challenging, so to only have less than 3% of these vintage machines fail was, I thought, pretty good going.
The riders of two of these machines used the time available at the coffee stop to try and get their machines going. One of these bikes, a sort of Belgian Bantam, which looked to my untrained eye like a 1950s Saroléa Oiseau Bleu – I’m sure I don’t need to translate that for you – wasn’t having any of it, which was a shame, as it looked a great little machine, with telescopic forks and a hard tail, but with an innovative saddle sprung by a cantilever device.
The other bike undergoing first aid treatment looked to be a 1930s Terrot, and ultimately with a more successful outcome. This may be a case of mistaken identity, but the man who triumphantly fired the bike up after several attempts – cheered on by a crowd of onlookers – appeared to be none other than Monsieur le Président, Denis Lebel.
Despite the admirable organisation of the rally, every seemed to be pretty laid back and enjoying their coffee, greeting and chatting with friends old and new when someone blew a whistle, and with a flurry of gentle activity the riders and pillions returned to their machines and prepared to move on to the next part of the run.
Once the advance security party had left, the mounted gendarmes then stopped the traffic and the convoy once again set off, heading south towards Noyers-Bocage, and then on to the scenic riverside setting of La Roche à Bunel, a spacious restaurant on the outskirts of Saint-Martin-de-Sallen.
As before, while I was faffing about with my camera and making notes, Ben had programmed a route into his sat nav to enable us to get to the restaurant ahead of the rally, but once they’d left we headed in the opposite direction to the nearby Carrefour to fill up with sans plomb and get some cold drinks.
At the main crossroads, as we turned right (everyone else had gone left) an elderly local leapt out into the road, and waving his arms shouted ‘non, non, non!’ while pointing in the opposite direction. Using the universal thumbs-up gesture we carried on, but he did look a little despairing…
The route took us through some beautiful scenery; unfortunately, large sections of it had just been resurfaced with loose grey gravel, so it wasn’t one of the best rides I’ve ever had.
We got to the restaurant just after the advance party, and after asking one of the riders I somehow established which direction the bikes would be approaching from, and set up my GoPro camera to film the entire convoy coming down the hill to the car (bike in this case) park entrance, which being at the bottom of a hill and then doubling back to the right down a grassy slope was a little challenging, but everyone made it without incident.
You can watch the video HERE.
While everyone was sorting themselves out and getting ready to go in for lunch, I had another chat with Steve Ross, the guy from Uxbridge I mentioned earlier.
His vintage (and very English looking) AJS MS 16 stood out from the crowd in many ways, not least due to the cricket bat and ball on the rear carrier.
I’ll let Steve continue: It has a nice little wooden seat, which I sculpted out of marine ply and shaped it up; fits me quite nicely. That’s a friend’s brewery heat exchanger pipe there, (pointing to the exhaust) and then there’s the grease pot; Dad (John Ross, former scrambler from the 50s through to the 70s) said ‘let’s re-design that’ so we put the speedo in it.’
‘We’ve got the Sturmey-Archer bike rack on the front, which acts as the oil carrier, there’s the ‘King of the Road’ bulb horn and a German Type 2 gas mask tool roll holder.’
All these components might make Steve’s AJS sound a bit ‘Heath – Robinson’ but the overall effect was excellent. The bike looks considerably more stripped down than the standard model, but having added bags of character, which suited Steve’s striped blazer, waxed moustache and retro Marco Simoncelli replica lid perfectly.
I asked Steve if he takes part in the Distinguished Gentleman’s Ride. ‘Yes’ he replied, ‘we do the London one’. It was just a hunch.
Taking our place among the rows and rows of packed tables, we were then treated to a leisurely four course lunch, more evidence of the RMC’s approach to organising the Rally International: classy, punctual and efficient, but very with a very French feel to the proceedings.
During lunch Andy arrived on his MZ Skorpion and having had brunch with Julia earlier, sat on the riverside terrace enjoying coffee.
After going outside to join him for more coffee, we once again heard the whistle in the distance, followed by pretty well every kind of motorcycle noise you could imagine, as they once again set off, this time heading north towards Amayé-sur-Orne on their way back to Luc-sur-Mer.
We once again plotted an alternative course, taking in fast, sweeping roads which delivered us back to the Normandy beachheads in plenty of time for cold drinks outside a busy seaside café before the familiar rumble once again returned to the Rue Guynemer.
In contrast to the previous morning, which seemed like a week ago, the bike jumble was now gone, but the stage was set for the presentations, and the returning bikes lined up in orderly ranks, where they were admired by a now considerable number of well wishers and onlookers.
The locals clearly take these guys and their machines to their hearts.
After a few short speeches, from Monsieur le President, Bill and the town’s Mayor – one of the members of RMC and a participant in the rally – the prize giving commenced, with trophies generously awarded for everything you can think of and a few things you couldn’t.
These included oldest bike, oldest rider, best dressed rider (this went to Steve Ross – owner of the AJS MS 16 I described earlier – and quite rightly so) best sidecar outfit and even prizes for the mounted gendarmes, one of whom had his birthday on the day of the rally – he said ‘we love doing this, we’re bikers too.’
Standing there in the bright afternoon sun wearing leathers I started to get the urge for an ice cream; I suggested this to Ben and Andy and we popped round the corner and bought three large waffle cones, which we enjoyed while sitting on a kerb in the shade, overlooking the busy beach.
As we sat there taking in the warm afternoon, Andy was exchanging Whatsapp messages with Julia, planning what we were doing for the evening, with Andy simultaneously plotting a ‘funky’ route on his satnav.
When we returned to the car park, almost everyone had left, so we got our gear on and followed Andy on what indeed turned out to be a funky route towards the West coast, which included fast sweeping roads and a welcome detour through the historic city of Bayeux
Unfortunately, it was one of those warm, muggy evenings that meant the flies were out in full force, which kind of took the edge off our enjoyment of the ride.
Our destination, more than 120 kilometres away was the La Cale beach bar, a tumbledown shack with a huge roaring fireplace, approached via a causeway on a spit of land overlooking the Channel Islands near Blainville-sur-Mer.
The views were spectacular; the tide was out, and a tractor waited on the beach amid the mussel beds, up to its axles in water ready to collect an approaching boat.
The outside seating arrangements were a random mismatch of picnic benches, retired dining tables and completely unsuitable chairs that sank into the soft sand. The young, pretty waitresses were rather hopeless at taking orders, and an elderly pianist expertly played a medley of Beatles tunes inside the bar.
But the atmosphere and ambience were incredible, despite the sand flies and storm bugs it was an evening I will never forget.
The next morning the forecasted rain had duly arrived, so rather than dashing off to a wet coastal town for lunch on route for Ouistreham for the afternoon ferry, we decided to spend the morning once again enjoying the rustic surroundings of Julia’s barn while packing the bikes up for the rainy ride home.
And it did rain – as expected – but not as much as we were expecting. By the time we arrived at the ferry port, the main topic of discussion – apart from the appalling drivers we encountered – was that we probably could have quite happily done the ride without donning our rain suits.
As our bikes were strapped down on the car deck of the ferry Normandie, we noticed a sizeable contingent from the British Two Stroke Club (whose website interestingly has a dating section!) who we kept bumping into on the ship while we sailed back to Blighty.
Well that’s about it really, an action-packed and very enjoyable weekend that felt more like a week, meeting some very interesting people and seeing some beautiful bikes while visiting some beautiful places, and I finally got to visit Julia’s barn.
Postscript – a week or two after the trip, I received an email from Bill telling me about the ‘Luc-sur-Mer Grand Prix’ – a closed circuit race on the sea front – that might be happening in May 2020.
Watch this space!
With heartfelt thanks to Julia Wall and Andy Tribble, Ben Haskell for additional photography, Christopher Jones at Brittany Ferries for making sure we got on the boats, and of course Bill Brown and all at the Rétro Moto Côte de Nacre for making us so welcome.