Around the world with The Bear | Part 16 | London to Marseilles

Around the world with The Bear – Part 16

The King of Every Kingdom
Around the world on a very small motorcycle

With J. Peter “The Bear” Thoeming

Travelling two-up on an XL250 is okay for short distances, but for a proper trip you need a Yamaha XS1100! In Part 16, The Bear sets off from London once again, heading for France with Annie.


Scroll forward six or eight months. Annie and I had now enjoyed one winter in Britain, and didn’t want to face another. So the plans were made – we would go to North Africa for the cold months. Yamaha Germany very kindly offered us an XS1100 on loan, and we snapped it up.  It was taken down to Vetter Industries and fitted with a Windjammer fairing as well as panniers and a top box, turning it into the closest thing to a one-bike invasion force I had ever seen.

The Bear Around The World Part

The Bear Around The World Part

Neil and Millie, another Australian couple, decided to join us on their Suzuki GS750. This was fitted with a sports sidecar by Squire and the roomy luggage from Craven; Boyers also fitted their electronic ignition.

Around the world with The Bear Peter Thoeming Part

Around the world with The Bear Peter Thoeming Part

Wiring in the heated grips and the hot gloves for Mrs Bear in Telegraph Hill.

None of us had camping gear for more than the odd long weekend, so we spent a morning with the folk at Binleys Camping Supplies in Kettering and staggered out fully equipped. We were also sponsored by Everoak Helmets, by Derriboots, Nivea and by Duckham’s Oils. Thanks, all, once again.

It had taken a fair bit of work to get sponsorship, but a well-produced proposal and a carefully thought out set of benefits for the sponsors (mentions like this one), swung the odds in our favour, and we got just about everything we asked for. Mind you, the Yamaha, its fairing and luggage, and the Suzuki’s sidecar of course had to be given back after the trip.

At the beginning of November, badly overloaded and not really fully prepared, we rolled aboard the ferry to France. It was dark when we reached Le Havre, but we had little trouble finding the campground. Not that it did us much good for, just four days earlier, the site had closed for the season.

Around the world with The Bear Peter Thoeming Part

Around the world with The Bear Peter Thoeming Part

An experimental first ride all the way to our favourite London pub, Dingwall’s.

We set up camp in the park across the road, dined on sandwiches we’d made from the remaining contents of our refrigerator before leaving London, and slept very well. I always sleep better when it’s free….

The road signs and our maps were rather confusing in the morning, so although we had intended to follow the by-roads to Paris we ended up on the autoroute. It was Sunday and the road was full of pretty bikes, all sharp and clean, and we felt rather out of place lumbering along on our overloaded camels.

The Bois de Boulogne campsite extended its usual welcome, with deep mud and inoperative showers. It’s not all bad, really. There are a lot of trees and it’s quite close to the centre of the city. I do wish they’d fix those showers. About half of them just swallow your token, burp and give you nothing in return.

Most of the others give you your few minutes of hot water, but there’s always one that’s stuck ‘on’ and therefore free. The procedure, therefore, is never to go into an unoccupied cubicle. Wait until somebody comes out of one and ask ‘C’est marche?’ before committing your token. If one shower has a queue in front of it, that’s the free one. Wait for that.

Around the world with The Bear Peter Thoeming Part

Around the world with The Bear Peter Thoeming Part

This time it’s for real – here we are ready to head off on a seven month adventure.

If all the above sounds like too much trouble, imagine the frustration of getting undressed, putting your token in the slot without being rewarded with hot water, getting dressed, plodding over to the office to complain and get another token, getting undressed, putting your token… In 1979 the showers had been like that for at least eleven years, to my knowledge.

It rained during the night, and the top of the Lowrider tent Neil and Millie were using filled up with water, but surprisingly little seeped through. Neil and I spent the next day working on the bikes, finishing all the little things we should have done back in London.

Some people from a minibus camped next door wandered over and gave us the wonderful news that they’d just come back from Morocco and it had rained all the time.

After dinner, I found reassurance in a sip of my duty-free Glenfiddich and we once again donned our Damart gear to go to bed. It was cold enough to penetrate our down sleeping bags. A few days in Paris were fun, but the rain refused to let up and we pushed on towards the Mediterranean.

One of the alterations we had made to the GS was fitting it with GS1000 air shocks. As we rolled out of Paris, these proved to be underinflated, and as we could not work out how to get more air into them without losing oil, we changed back to the old units.

Around the world with The Bear Peter Thoeming Part

Around the world with The Bear Peter Thoeming Part

Neil is all ready for our embarkation on the ferry to France.

A wet day followed, with occasional glimpses of the lovely French autumn countryside as we rolled through the forests. We had a picnic at lunchtime—in an old disused petrol station at Sens. It was the only place we could get in out of the rain.

Somewhat further along and after dark, I switched the XS onto high beam coming out of a tunnel and promptly blew a fuse. A few hectic seconds followed – there was a corner somewhere out there – before I’d stopped safely on the gravel. The original 10-amp fuse was obviously not enough to cope with the extra load of all the lights the Vetter gear features, so I replaced it with a 22-amp one and had no further trouble.

What a ride! In the three days it took us to make our way down to the Med, we discovered just about all of the defects our equipment was to show during the entire trip. The Vetter panniers leaked a little, and tightening the locks only cured one. To be fair, Vetter told us later that our panniers had come from the only less than perfect batch they’d had.

The sidecar hood wasn’t entirely waterproof either, and the occupant complained that it was a little claustrophobic. The GS battery refused to hold a charge and the XS happily followed every white line that presented itself.

At one point I had to make a crash stop on the outfit, and the overloaded sidecar pulled me into the opposing lane, fortunately without dire results. At least the fairings proved their value; the Windjammer was excellent and even the little Corsair on the GS helped a lot in the rain. Tempers wore a bit thin, too.

Luckily we found good campsites all the way. One night somewhere near Lyon we even found a free flat. We had pulled up to ask someone about a campsite when they told us to follow them and took us to a half-empty block of flats. They shooed us into one of them and said goodnight. There wasn’t much furniture, but it was warm and dry.

Around the world with The Bear Peter Thoeming Part

Around the world with The Bear Peter Thoeming Part

Replacing the shock absorbers on the GS750 outfit just off the Paris peripherique.

It was a great relief to find some sun – not much, but some – in Marseille. We camped at La Ciotat after a run along the coast road, where we had another chance to admire the local bikes. Mostly kitted out as endurance racers, they all seemed to be piloted by riders bent on suicide. They were fun to watch.

Our spirits were restored by an excellent if horrendously expensive bouillabaisse, which we consumed with great gusto. Like Charlie’s and my French dinner in Chiang Mai, in Thailand, it was a great morale booster for all of us.

We spent a few evenings in the ‘Civette du Port’, a friendly little bar where we fascinated the waiters by playing Scrabble late into the night. Our campsite wasn’t very pleasant, and it was still so cold that we slept in our thermal wear every night.

A short run to St Tropez wasn’t terribly impressive, either. The coast road is plastered with ‘Private Property’ signs forbidding picnics, camping and even stopping. Ah, vive la France, sure. Renewed sunshine cheered us up again and we set off west along the coast in fine spirits. But France really didn’t seem to be for us.

Just past Marseilles, the GS suddenly developed a very flat tyre. Inspection showed four broken spokes, one of which had punctured the tube. The overloading was taking its toll. Neil and I respoked the wheel as well as we could beside the road, patched the tube and limped to the nearest campsite at Carry Le Rouet.

As if that last mishap had been the parting shot from our evil luck, things began to look up immediately. The campsite was comfortable and had excellent hot showers; a bike shop in Marseilles respoked the wheel for us in a couple of hours; and the mistral started to blow the rain clouds out to sea. I did get lost on the way back from the bike shop, admittedly, and saw most of southern France before I got back onto the proper autoroute….

Next instalment we meet a young woman who’s riding her 400/4 to The Gambia to sell it. Seriously.


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