Voyager to Vence

A bad start with no brakes, and an ignominious end in a van, but the bulk of the trip was a great success (honest!).

As I left for the ferry on the Friday evening, I had just fitted the new rear tyre, which had distracted me from my previous antics - bleeding the front AP calipers - always a problem. The result was discs covered in brake fluid. It was raining steadily, so sharp braking was unwise, but I came over in a cold sweat as I contemplated alpine passes with ineffective brakes. Logical thinking diagnosed the problem as I rode gingerly towards Oxford, so I washed the discs in petrol and restored stopping power.
Rain died out, only to reappear as a monsoon on the M3. At least the ignition waterproofing seemed to work.
Ferry was the soon-to-be-axed P&O to Le Havre from Portsmouth. The overnight sailing leaves you on the Autoroutes at 0800hrs, ready for a full day. Lots of Harleys on the boat – “Convention” down in Nice, so I would be seeing more of them.

I do like the French Autoroutes. Quiet but interesting, with numerous ‘Aires’ and plenty of information to keep you thinking. Around Paris via Versailles and A86 as recommended by Michelin – seemed to work OK and no holdups. This was Saturday morning now so the Peripherique did not appeal. After Paris, the “Autoroute du Soleil” is long and once you collect your ticket, devoid of further toll booths as far as Lyon.
Skirt around Lyon for Grenoble, which comes up at about 500 miles from Le Havre – a long but relaxed first day. Voyager seemingly healthy, although I did detect a ‘new rattle’ at the end of the day, which only came on overrun. I suspected gearbox, but surely it would last the trip ?

I had promised myself the Route Napoleon, for Sunday’s run down to Vence. The top end around Grenoble is a bit messy, and there was a lot of traffic, but this gradually thinned out. This is a ‘must do’ route for all who love mountain scenery and fast sweeping roads – especially the southern section from Dignes.
My companions (“the four Varaderos”) caught up on this section while I was sampling the ‘terroir’. They had taken the train to Avignon and were checking out Provence before coming further east. Now in convoy, we finished off the lower section of Napoleon’s Route. A tip for any followers. Head east over the ‘Col de Vence’ rather than coming down to Grasse. A brilliant road with everything - fast sections and nadgery bits too and no traffic.

Our hotel in Vence looked down to Nice, but the real gem was the medieval town behind it - "worth a detour".

Two days of Cols and Gorges followed. Stay up in the hills for wonderful alpine roads. Nice is not nice IMHO. Voyager could not really compete with the Varaderos’ 90 BHP and radial tyres, but there was still much fun to be had. We even found a motorcycle museum in Entrevaux, where some British iron lurked.

So how does Voyager perform up the passes? Keep the mill spinning between 3000 and 5000 rpm and you will make good if not rocket-ship performance; and it really does sound quite exciting (Kawasaki 600 can and 8:33 rear drive). It's the same for any bike – get the hairpins right and the rest will look after itself. Do the braking first, get the right gear, choose your line (which may involve the full width of road) then feed in the power smoothly all the way round. Too much power on the bend and you will be eying the crash barrier or the drop. On the bigger passes the gradient at the hairpin is not too severe and second gear does fine. The Reliant engine will pull from nothing (Weber carb and manifold mods) but needs about 3000 before you get some real action. On the tighter passes the hairpins can be steep – particularly on the inside – requiring first gear and highlighting the Guzzi gearchange. This is either noisy or slow – certainly in the lower gears, so keeping power on means some clunks.

Downhill hairpins require a similar technique, but keeping the power on is less critical. Voyager can brake well into the corner, if you are confident enough of the grip. The seating position makes downhill braking quite comfy. The surface can be poor on the smaller roads and you do need to check it out before committing. Tight gravel-strewn hairpins with big drop-offs are not the place to discover you needed to lose another 20 mph!

Wednesday we left Vence and headed north again for two nights near Embrun. Minor Voyager problem on the way - the gearchange rod fractured. We splinted the break (Blez would have been proud) and continued, agreeing with a local garage to bring the fractured rod for welding early the next morning. This was done, although the clutch cable gave up that morning too. Having been caught like this before, I always carry a spare cable, so I was able to get repairs done before all the Varaderos finished breakfast. In fact one Varadero had picked up a self-tapper in the rear tread, so we had to get that fixed before heading off up the highest pass in Europe the Col de la Bonette at around 2800m. Very little vegetation at that height in June and only marmots for company. Continued on via Isola 2000 into Italy. This is a tiny road and still being made up on the Italian side, which makes for interesting downhill hairpins. The only time I came close to demise however was earlier when I hit a large manhole cover hidden in the depths of a dark roadworked tunnel. Even at 20mph this nearly had me off - throwing the whole Voyager up into the air.

Friday and heading north now with a few last passes. The Col de Galibier was the last, but what a pass – with magnificent views back south. We now came down to the valley leading west from the Tunnel de Frejus (where an earlier fire had resulted in closure). Coming onto the Autoroute, I opened up Voyager in celebration of our last pass. Suddenly I had a serious transmission vibration accompanied by terminal rattles and lots of burning smells. This Voyager was going nowhere, least of all the 550 miles to Le Havre or even the overnight stop at Dôle. The Varaderos had to go on to make that rendezvous, so I was on my own.
My recent insurance change did include a ‘European Assistance’ clause, so I phoned them up. Of course ‘recovery’ and ‘assistance’ are not the same, so although I clanked off the Autoroute, and was picked up by a local garage recovery truck, I now had to work out what to do. A second-hand gearbox could be found in Grenoble for 1000€ (phew!) but it was still attached to its original and he needed to know now, so I could have it Monday. I declined. Fitting a new ‘box in a French garage was not how I meant to spend the next week. Friday afternoon was drifting on, when I decided I should hire a one-way van myself and transport Voyager to Le Havre where I could clank onto the planned ferry and get picked up by helpful son-in-law in Portsmouth. The assistance people would pay for the van – great.

This plan worked remarkably well and I even caught an earlier ferry and got back late on Saturday night (thanks Mark!) I did have some problems explaining to the Europacar lady in Le Havre why the back of the van was full of old tyres (Voyager-packaging) ”Je ne suis pas la poubelle" was her protest, but my inclusion of an extra 20€ on the bill mollified her objections.
Of course, my diagnosis was hopelessly wrong. Sunday garage work showed the gearbox to be fine, but the UJ to have disintegrated. Remember that rattle on overrun? “That’s what they do” said Royce, “before they fall apart”.

Pictures under 'Voyager' images, under Royce's creations