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My First Time

Dave Stevenson

Memories prompted by this year’s Sars Poteries Run

You always remember your first time, they say.  Actually, like a lot of other things that 'they' say this is so much a partial truth that it is almost a lie.  Human memory has an enormous capacity for softening the outline of excruciatingly embarrassing events brought about by shortage of experience, over-enthusiasm and lack of practice.  So, as near as I can give it to you, here is an account of my first time which occurred thirty years ago, sometime in either March or April 1967.

Our school, which was on the outskirts of Southwest London, ran an exchange scheme with a similar institution in the outer banlieues of Paris.  My father who was, and is, a great francophile and who had been sent to boarding school at about the same age, decided I was old enough to take advantage of this excellent opportunity.  What he didn't know was that somewhere in the darkest reaches of central France a businessman was pulling strings to have his son, who lived at Auxerre over a hundred miles from the location of the proposed exchange, included in the scheme.  Like a lot of other manipulative and scheming people this gentleman got more than he bargained for.  As twin for his handsome, confident, mature, sportif 15 year old off-spring he imported a snivelling, tear be-grimed, emotionally wrecked 13 year old child too miserably homesick to care whether the entire French population lived or died, in short (and I was at the time), me.  My companions were miles away and Auxerre at this date seemed completely devoid of anyone who spoke English fluently.

My hosts, who ran a soft-drinks business from a courtyard behind their house big enough to turn lorries in, must have been desperate.  So, when I found an old VéloSoleX in one of the sheds in the yard, they encouraged their son to help me fiddle with it.  I had already developed some interest in mechanical matters, having read some books which described how the internal combustion engine worked, but I had no practical experience at all.  He knew even less and soon lost interest but I persevered.  By a process which my father subsequently and unkindly described as the blind leading the blind I succeeded in persuading an elderly and reluctant cyclemotor to first fire and eventually pull me around the courtyard and then down the street outside.  I don't know now how deep my tinkerings went.  In more recent times I remember being surprised to find that the VéloSoleX has a fuel pump, so I suspect my ministrations were fairly superficial, but for a while absorption and later satisfaction dulled the pangs of homesickness.

By this time my hosts despair of me had turned to a frank lack of interest and I remember spending a large part of the time alone in their gloomy house with the maid who replied to my infrequent questions with Je pas. This, I later discovered, was short for "I don't know" and was the beginning of an annoying habit which the French persist in to this day of:

A consequence of this was that when my road tests reached a suitably advanced stage I was able to set out on a serious ride without any hindrance.  This was absolutely illegal, of course, I wasn't fourteen, didn't have any insurance and, this being my first visit, hadn't even so much as ridden a bicycle in France.  I must have been dimly aware of these facts because, having successfully negotiated the outskirts of the town, I turned into a field road to give the bike a proper trial.  The track led slightly downhill in open countryside and I gave the old beast its head.  We picked up speed until, to my inexperienced eye, it seemed we were fairly flying.  Ahead I began to discern the main road which ran on the other side of the field busy with its French traffic.  Time to ease back.  Unfortunately I then discovered that the bumping and unaccustomed speed had led to the throttle linkage coming apart and we were stuck at full speed on the rattling gravel.  The only answer was to take a hand off the handlebar and pull the lever that lifted the engine off the front tyre but this I dared not do since, on the rough track, I would certainly have lost control and fallen off.  Ahead the heavy traffic was getting closer.

My salvation appeared quite suddenly in the shape of a cross-roads in the track.  Turning left uphill would slow us down a bit and hopefully allow me to disengage the drive.  Gratefully I took a long sweep at it, cutting a corner of the field to avoid falling on the loose surface.  Unhappily I had failed to notice that my salvation had a ditch down the side of it.  It would be fair to say that the VéloSoleX, with all its weight over the front wheel, is not a jumping man's machine.  We hit the far side of the ditch at an angle and at a fair lick and went sprawling down the road side by side.  The only bright point on the horizon was that the engine stopped.  I can't remember whether I got it going again for the ride home or not.  I do remember the huge bruises on the inside of my knees which were luckily my only injury.  The bike went back to its shed with a very firm French Non! and I went back to being homesick.

The tendency to forget the uncomfortable parts of remembering is a simple survival mechanism: Man cannot take too much reality.  The real perversity of human nature is to be discovered in the fact that having hated every second of my first trip to France and having crashed quite badly on my first ever motor cycle ride I now, thirty years later, devote much of my spare time to motor cycling and visit France at every opportunity I get.  And still, 'they', the bloody fools, say you learn best from your mistakes...

First published - August 1997

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