More Discovery of France (non-FF)
A Voyager owner takes his HF BMW 650GS parallel twin to the Alps and back in company with two Honda Varaderos.
Size and quality
France is big. Not USA-big, but bigger than a number of Wales (which these days is the measurement of anything which cannot be described in football pitches or double-decker buses) - plenty of space for motorcycling. Research is necessary to seek out the remotest spots, but great rides abound. Furthermore, the French still look after their roads a lot better than we do. The infamous Chaussée Déformée warning sign, which became a standing joke in the '60s and then heralded a surface along which only a 2CV could happily bounce, is occasionally still to be seen. However, it should read Chaussée Anglaise, as it now heralds a surface no worse than your average English road. Even the suspicious gravillons only indicate some skilled patchwork and are never remotely as bad as our dreaded Top Dressing, which does nothing for potholes and everything for windscreen repairers. To see how roads ought to be maintained, go to France!
First night was in the Morvan national park, which lies about 50 miles west of Dijon. A relatively unknown area, it has some delightful rolling countryside and empty roads. This and our friendly (Dutch) hosts made us wish we were staying longer, but the high peaks beckoned. We did prolong our stay, as Tom and I were still on UK time at breakfast, but we were underway by 10 and heading southeast.
Our principle is generally only to use Autoroutes in northern France, or when we have to get around cities. If you want just to get somewhere, of course they will oblige, but motorcycling is all about interacting with the countryside. Around Grenoble we needed to use them to get through. Now it was Friday afternoon and wet. Mike had surged forwards to escape the close attention of some lorries and was hidden by traffic in front. My notes said A48 so I followed the sign and Tom followed me. Wrong! My notes should have said A480. By the time Tom and I had sorted out my error, Mike was gone. No matter, we were now at the northern end of the N85 Route de Napoleon – his march north after ably escaping Elbe and heading for Waterloo. The northern section is not the ultimate bike road, and is busy with Grenoble traffic on a Friday afternoon, but you can still enjoy it. If Napoleon had been collecting an army of motorcyclists, he would not have gone up the Durance valley via Sisteron, but would have gone north from Digne-Les-Bains to approach Gap from the east. On this road lies Seyne-Les-Alpes and it was there that we caught up with Mike trying to find the hotel- and pleased to see us.
What is it about pizzas? You order the biggest on the menu, as you are really hungry and you are a bloke. It arrives and off you go, but as you progress to the halfway point, you realise the magnitude of the task facing you – and it and your ardour are beginning to cool. So it was in Seyne, with the only food on offer in the town that evening. We stuck to 'Table d’hôte' after that.
The numbers game
Whilst acknowledging the superior condition of French roads, I have to despair at the ravages of the pen-pushers who decided on a renumbering programme a few years ago. I understood that this changed Routes National (N-roads) into similarly numbered D-roads, if there is an Autoroute along the same path. This however plays havoc with history and travellers who use road numbers to navigate. Consider the famous RN85. From Grenoble to Gap it stays as the N85. When the A51 starts, it suddenly becomes the D1085, then when it crosses a Departmental border, it becomes the D4085 before reverting to the N85 as it leaves the A51 route and goes east toward Digne. However, even this twisted logic fails when at Barrême it becomes the D4085 again and at the next Departmental border, D6085 al the way to Grasse – and all this with no Autoroute within 50 miles! Perhaps they are using Napoleon, spinning in his grave, as a new source of power.
What’s in a number?
Whatever the bureaucrats call it; this is a road that will be named on every motorcyclist’s list of favourite rides. The section from Digne to Grasse just has to be experienced: Immaculate surface, spectacular scenery, wide sweeping bends that go on for ever and little traffic. Saturday lunchtime in Castellane showed that most motorcyclists in the region are aware of this – although riding in 30-strong trains would not be my choice. The plus point is that all restaurants offer visor-cleaning kit with the meal. When the fast curves eventually get too much, you can explore any of the picturesque valleys and twisty passes which connect.
Then there were two
The penalty of the self-employed is that they can’t ignore the world of work, when on holiday. Such was Mike’s fate when an unthinking customer called a vital meeting in the middle of our trip. Hence he reluctantly headed back to Brussels, while Tom and I continued on to the southern-most passes and the Med. Coming down towards Nice, the weather warmed noticeably, although the locals still said it was cold for the season. No matter, the Col de Turini (which I see is a Top Gear best driving road) was rather fun proof that the little beemer can hold its own against the big ones. Three German 1200GS riders came up behind us at some road works and then followed us up the col. They were obviously not just admiring the scenery, but I kept them behind until just before the top when a longish straight allowed one to pass. At the top, there were thumbs up, high-fives and good Teutonic chatter. No borders here.
Our relaxing day on the sunny Italian Riviera, fending off the bead-sellers and feeling a little overdresed, was contrasted the next day, as we headed north via the Col de Tende. Back into France, the Col du Galibier tunnel – at around 2000m – was closed and the pass is another 600m higher, but enough for a metre of snow on the north side - just melt water on the road of course, but our last serious alpine pass before the overnight stop in the Jura. Before then, west of Annecy, a magnificent rosy view of Mt Blanc in the evening sunshine at about 50 miles distance. After the wilds of the high Alps, the French Jura is calm and tranquil – almost Swiss-meadow in both geography and attitude. Not that I was very calm at the end of our ride as I had foolishly not studied the last section of our day’s journey, allowing Tom’s GPS to dictate the last 20 miles. The GPS did its thing and took us the most direct route when asked. This involved a mountain track which degenerated into a gravel path through dense woodland, but I have to admit it got us there! The landlady took pity on us and provided steaks, despite the restaurant being closed.
The Fuelish question
I know Bobbe will ask me, so how did the 798cc GS '650' fair for fuel consumption this year? A perfect example of how conventional bikes suffer aerodynamically at Motorway speeds. Getting down to the M25, I averaged 70 mpg. Arriving at Folkstone, the motorways had dropped this to 65 and then by the time we left the Autoroute at St Quentin it was showing 57 mpg average. After that it gradually recovered back to 70, despite reasonable back-road speeds and keeping Germans at bay. The Autoroutes and Motorways on the return journey then hit it again, but the overall average for 10 days and 2322 miles was still 66 mpg, which is impressive in full touring mode. On the back roads, I tended to use about 40% less fuel than Tom’s big Varadero, but on the Autoroute, only about 20% less. Thus I can get well over 200 miles to a tank when on N and D roads, but not much over 180 miles at motorway speeds. This nearly caught me out on the run back, as the Varadero tank is huge and Tom was leading non-stop for our St Omer hotel, while I was watching my to go miles disappearing fast (and as the display is not an exact science, I was getting distinctly twitchy). However, he picked up my signs and we replenished just in time. I still maintain that a 200kg FF with this motor would be equally efficient in both environments, but I’d have to make it myself. The other advantage I have is that any man-handling is not the struggle it is for a weightier bike – be it HF or FF.
It was our habit of an evening to investigate the local environs on foot. Whilst interesting to speculate on the local economy, this proved decidedly quiet outings on all evenings except the last. St Omer had a full-blown disco in the square with all cafés and bars spilling out around it. Further investigation of one of these bars showed the England-Sweden game in progress and under those circumstances, you tend to get involved – and the outcome was particularly satisfying, even if the back door to the hotel was hard to find later.
Graham Robb (BMW F650GS)
PNB note: see here for the specification of BMW's perversely mis-named 798cc 'GS650' twin: