James and I were washed up in Niort after my bike’s engine blew itself up following a long day racing down the payage on only our second day of motorbiking, this trip. We’d been punching for Bordeaux as quickly as possible while a mis-wired, ‘always-on’ oil temperature light had masked some genuine mechanical headaches. We were stranded, without plan and forced to bundle into a hotel to figure out the rest of the trip. You can read part one of our adventure here.
What had started as an adventure motorcycling had fast become a salvage operation – and it was time to check out the damage.
We walked slowly around the marbled streets of Niort, weaving new routes past tall, rustic city buildings that bordered majestic squares. We ambled up cobbled ramps to circle around the medieval Donjon, a towering, mottled 12th Century castle that straddled the reigns of Henry II and Richard the Lionheart. Of course, we didn’t know that at the time – so the cultural depths of our ongoing narration was “That’s pretty big” or “Looks old”.
There was no room for culture in my head, where a barrage of fledgling escape plans rattled around relentlessly, all being shot down before they took flight. Every five minutes or so the latest idea would work it’s way from behind my eyes and out into the world, carried on half-mumbled ramblings that wouldn’t let James find peace. He tolerated it well – refusing to snap as I verbally mapped our an action plan for the thousandth time.
When we accidentally stumbled across an organic food shop, an oasis for vegan James amidst a sea of cheese, I tried to stay quiet and let him enjoy the moment – gleefully filling his brown bag with nuts, seeds and various other health rubbish.
As we rounded the corner near our hotel, I’d finally committed to a course of action. If we could strip the bike down at the hotel I’d only have to get the cylinder and head to the local dealership rather than evacuate the whole bike (££). As they’re all closed on Mondays anyway, that meant we had a full day to grease up, get to work, and hopefully speed things up for when we got to the garage.
Emboldened by a plan that didn’t suck, James and I hit foot patrol the following morning, and relocated a Speedy garage where I sweet talked myself into a free loan of some of the tools I was missing for an engine removal. Still, as my brain is a bucket of bolts (like my bike), I’d not grabbed all the right sizes and, following a couple of trips back, was embarrassed into a 15 Euro taxi to the nearest hardware store to avoid talking to the irate mechanic any further.
Now – getting the engine out requires a little finesse and, conventionally, a motocross stand to support the bike while you wiggle away bolts that link the swingarm to the engine, to the frame. Failing that, and getting more than a few giggles of absurdity, you ‘can’ balance the whole shebang on a breeze block and an unhelpfully spherical rock. If you swear enough, of course.
James and I took turns hitting things with drifts and mallets until the engine flumped heavily into our squishy digits.
Already pretty exhausted, we dredged the last of our energy wiggling the engine this way and that until, like an overly intricate puzzle ball piece, POP – it lifted free. All thousand kilograms of it. Knees pitched in, I frogmarched the block over to some cardboard James had laid out. Our not-so-clean operating table.
I gently decanted the internals over to James, one by one, despite the fact they’d been spinning at 10’000rpm and at 100 degrees only a few hours ago. Each module was checked for damage then neatly wrapped in tissue and put to one side. I think James was genuinely enjoying the dissection, especially the part where I jammed the crankshaft with a flimsy Euro cent so the timing chain bolts would spin off.
At the point where the cylinder should have just lifted free, it didn’t. Wearing a frown on my brow I clubbed gorilla-like at the head with a rubber mallet. This is always my first instinct but, as always, there’s some hidden fasteners that you forgot about and haven’t the tools for.
These nuts were tight, too. Between giving up, drinking beer, and having multiple attempts over an hour hitting it with a drift and weeping softly yielded success.. As it finally span free, I gently tugged the cylinder up and away from the piston.
And it wasn’t a healthy diagnosis.
The piston rings were welded and shaved into their bores. Deep ruts soured the skirts, and dents padded across the pistons crown. The cylinder walls were chewed up as, free from its rings, the piston clattered insecurely in the bore. The whole thing was an absolute battleground. I held up the parts to James with the verdict. Totally Fucked.
A strange peace descended.
I’d been stretched thin calculating each and every way we might resolve this crisis quickly, but now there was no quick solution. No way I could just get the head re-skimmed…
It was time to call my Breakdown cover.
I’d made so many decision on the basis that my breakdown recovery would solely repatriate myself and the bike back to England, nullifying the rest of the trip. But, during that call, I was forced to come to terms with my own stupidity, fairly bluntly.
They were magical.
I wilfully handed them the reigns to my life and sat back, watching a level of coordination that I’d only dreamed of unfold.
- The bike (or what’s left of it, I thought with a smile), would have to be inspected for damage.
- If no-go on repairs (smile), I’d could arrange a hire bike if I could find one, and get reimbursed later.
- There’d be a taxi waiting to take me to such a garage (once I’d done the homework to find one nearby) first thing in the morning.
- If there were any problems translating French, I could use them as an intermediary – within reason obviously..
In the garage, Moto Pulsion, I was just signing the last of the paperwork on a shiny white XJ5 Diversion (I know they can be a little wet and definitely not a contender for off-roader of the year, but I’d need some luggage to carry all my new tools), when guess who showed up to the party on the back of a pick-up?
Yep, the garage I was renting from would also have the pleasure of assessing the damage to the KTM. Gerome, the owner, had a quick look at the bike and blue mop bucket full of engine parts and looked back at me while raising his eyebrows inquisitively.
I promised I’d try to bring the Yamaha back in one piece as I danced out of the doors and rode off before he could change his mind. It was so new and white after all. Shame.
With a daily limit of 200kms and an exorbitant fee being charged for additional mileage, it was incredibly unlikely that we’d get to Spain now. We had to come up with a crap, but more realistic plan.
Some Sort of Saddle Time
Punching La Rochelle, a nearby 12th century trading port and tourist hot-spot, into my satnav we headed out onto the open road once more, all the happier for knowing one of our bikes wouldn’t imminently explode. We were in ‘avoid’ everything mode – so ended up thumping our way across narrow strips of tarmac that seemed painted across the green and golden rural backdrop. Literally through the middle of fields for no apparent reason.
I opened the XJ6 up and let all hell loose.
..at least I would have if I’d have been on my GSR. With the throttle pinned the revs climbed smoothly and the bike accelerated away linearly and predictably. I was braced for a neck dislocating torque band that never came. There was no kick in the teeth, the XJR was too polite to give me smack I sorely needed. Everything I’d heard about the diversion engine, a bit lifeless, a bit sterile, was being proven true before my eyes and between my legs.
Soon enough we started pratting around on the really small roads that James’ GS was built for – big chunks of earth and washboard sand. I continued cautiously (did I mention I’d never seen anything so shiny or clean as the XJ6?) to a vantage point where we could get some shots of J-man tearing the turf. It was the first opportunity to do so four days into an eight day trip. There was a sadness pang that we’d be riding day one of the event had I not blown up…
We reached La Rochelle in time for a late coffee shop lunch and a linger around the old town. The streets were lined with white stone, polished gloss smooth by millions of feet and hundreds of years. Pressing on in the afternoon glow we searched out a nearby campsite, but found ourselves in the depressingly familiar position of crossing campsites from our list. Each was either closed or didn’t exist in the first place. Stumped, we paid the toll to cross the gently curving 1.8 mile bridge to Île de Ré, hopeful for better prospects. At the forefront of a long dusk, the sky mellowed as we rode through sandy woodland with stubby grasses.
As we crossed off three more campsites, it finally looked like my rock, my bastion, was running out of patience. The perennial smile had faded from his face, to be replaced by a low scrumpled brow as he stared unblinkingly at his phone, thumbing for more options, unlikely as it may be.
The island was almost totally dead, ran only on a skeleton crew until summer swung back around. No one was around to keep campsites open in October. But we were a little bloody minded, so made tracks across every square inch of land, looking for somewhere to sleep. Finally, after a nice meal in Saint-Martin-de-Ré, our tail lights bobbed along through the dark and into a tiny patch of woodland. It was bonechillingly quiet and dark as we pitched our tents, each crack from tiny twigs underfoot ricocheted around the clearing. We were a little fraught, which is exactly why we were carrying emergency rations – beer. It was a horror site no longer, but a cosy hidden retreat and a backdrop for interesting conversation. Beer.
But the good times were fleeting.
Striking camp I realised that somehow, somewhere, my phone had disentangled from my persons. It dawned on me that, hyper connected to the RAC recovery team, I actually needed it to get home otherwise I’d have written it off as collateral damage.
After spending the early part of the morning covering our tracks, James and me rolled back into La Rochelle old town, to form a plan of attack from a vegan coffee shop James had spotted the day before (only after hunger and desperation had driven him into the arms of a triple cheese toasty the day before). James had the passion, but fortunately wasn’t a total militant about it – i.e. I don’t think he would slap a burger out of my hands, unless of course he was just making a point about me losing everything – burger included. As I sipped my vegan coffee, that was black with septic looking clumps white gunk floating in it, I remained unconvinced of the vegan cause based on taste and taste alone.
Calling the Hotel back in Niort was a last chance saloon for my phone; inching back through farmers fields and scouring the ground was simply off the cards. The cheerful receptionist searched the garage and came up trumps, a relief, but it did mean that I might get confronted over the jugs of used motor oil, stained cardboard and rags I’d left in their carpark. But that was for another day – now me and James had to get on with riding.
Limited by the daily mileage, we basically drew a ring of possible destinations around Niort, chose ‘Parc Naturel Régional Périgord Limousin’ as a destination and kept our fingers crossed for some interesting roads. At least there was shit loads of camping meant to be there… and again, all closed.
We struck lucky when, exploring another devoid campsite, the owners emerged from a nearby cabin and we managed to charm our way around staying, despite it technically being closed for the season. We used it as a base for a couple of days, looking out for local trails that could give James’ GS a workout, myself relegated to photo duty as not to scupper the plastics on the shiny Yamaha.
We were on our way back to Niort, exploring some of the more sedate roads, when we pulled down a gravel track and parked up on a grassy verge to eat another bread and cheese lunch. (James ate a bag of lettuce). The sun was out and our moods were improved by a couple of days actual riding. Climbing stiffly from our picnic spot and in no particular rush, we geared up and slumped onto our bikes – only to find James’ GS stone dead. The dash lit up with the key, but then shut down with the starter button, never to return. Clearly being an electric issue, we bumped it to no avail – then disconnected the battery to hard restart the computer. It worked, but only for a time – like 100m worth of time – before cutting out again. I rode over to James, who’d figured out the problem.
For whatever reason the bike was dying when the ABS was turned off. Having been taught at an off-road BMW training day in Wales, James knew he had to turn it off for some of the steep off road descents or climbs else there’d be trouble. It was also something only a GS garage could have fixed.
Now it might sound like a dick thing to admit, but I was so relieved. With me or my bike fucking things up every which way, James had ample time to demonstrate how patient and great he is as a pal – all while I was in the naughty corner. It was an entirely unilateral companionship, but now (granted it wasn’t quite as debilitating a fault) I got to don my own patient facade if only for a sweet, fleeting moment.
It was mid-afternoon, roadside in a small village lay-by, when we had to split ways.
I’d wired the satnav to James’ bike while still at La Ribiera Sud campsite, specifically to help him make the ride North to St Malo, where we’d catch a ferry home in the morning. I was heading back to Niort to drop off the bike, pick up the phone I’d left in the hotel and attempt to re-stoke my relationship with the RAC after dropping off grid for 4 days without explanation…
Again, everything went according to plan when I relinquished control to the RAC, and soon I was motoring North along the highways myself, hot on James’ heels in a cheeky black Opal something-or-other that had too many buttons around the steering wheel. The momentum was short lived. Cars had flipped, were on fire, but more importantly they were successful in jamming up the motorways and dragging the drive out over 7 hours. I met up with James in the hotel foyer hungry and in dire need of a beer.
The rest, as they say, is history. You don’t want to hear a blow-by-blow account of two man-friends sharing a ferry cabin (choice of phrase?) and giggly sneaking into watch movies they hadn’t bought tickets for. Then let’s face it, it was pretty much a given that I’d leave something in the hire car as I dropped it off in Wolverhampton (my passport, keys and motorcycle jacket was impressive though, even for me…).
I allowed the dust to settle before heading back into the garage, for the second winter in a row, to rebuild this bike.
But that’s another story.