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Continental Touring by Vélo ... in November

by Christopher Smith

Yes, it can be done but first a little history!  Five years ago, worn out after a happy afternoon’s autojumbling at Beaulieu, I came across a bearded Belgian selling Vélos out of the back of a battered Renault van.  At once, I recognised the crazy device I had spent a happy summer on in 1964 when on a French exchange near Chartres.  To a 14 year old used only to bicycles, the freedom of motorised transport was intoxicating.  There was no question, I had to have one!  As le patron was keen to catch the night ferry home, his price dropped fairly rapidly to £100.00 and the deal was done.  The machine was stripped to its component parts to fit the back of an already loaded Range Rover, and stayed that way for several years.

Finally a break came in the full time round of work, children and restoring a convertible Morris Minor and VDP 1300, and I pulled the bits out of the corner.  After much cursing and swearing, with the help of a knowledgeable friend it ran, but only just.  Sadly, the thing never lived up to my childhood memories of bombproof starting and reliability.  Much later, I found the problem was a chewed Woodruff key on the flywheel which was putting the timing all over the shop.  New tyres and bits from Dave Beare got it registered and MoT’d but it remained stubborner than a mule as a form of transport.

Enter the redoubtable Mr Petersen who supplied a complete new engine via Quay Motors, Exeter.  The cost was 3 times the original price of the machine, but if it worked it had to be worth it.  I duly replaced the unit, but all was not plain sailing.  Dirt and fluff in the fuel tank, wax on the carburettor jet, loose nuts and bolts everywhere (with leaking fuel on the exhaust) and 3 seizures on the first piston took the gloss off.  A mechanic stripped the cylinder down and pronounced the piston oversize for the bore, so it had to be replaced.  It also seemed that it had been assembled with the ring gaps directly over each other, allowing blow by.  Hopefully, the Hungarian quality control is now better?  Incidentally, with regard to the correct oil mix, this mechanic strongly advised against running-in the engine on a rich oil ratio, on the grounds that the oil dilutes the mixture causing lean running, overheating and (you’ve guessed it) seizing.  Consequently, I’ve run mine from day one on 2.5% synthetic oil.

Part 2 of the story.  1999 has been a year of seemingly endless cancer scares around people I know, followed by the tragic and untimely death of a close family friend.  The funeral called for donations to Macmillan Nurses; a wonderful organisation.  Rather than drop a tenner in the box, I thought I’d try and do something more constructive.  The annual Beaujolais Nouveau Run was looming.  Not a having a vehicle fast enough to win, I thought the next best way to attract attention and publicity was to enter the slowest motorised form of transport I could think, a Vélo.

As the start on the third Thursday in November loomed, I readied the steed, with extra bike lights, bicycle speedometer, panniers and 2.5 litres of spare fuel containers.  (The engine seems to splutter after 1 litre of the tank has been used up).  One fortuitous moment came when a friend rode the Vélo 2 days before D-day and snapped a pedal off, worn through metal fatigue!  Had this happened in France, I doubt if it could have been fixed.

I planned to motor for 3 days from Le Havre collect some bottles of the non-vintage and turn back.  The first day passed well enough, although the carburettor problems, which plague the engine, continued.  If the engine did not re-start when warm within a few yards, it would choke up and not fire at all.  This was not connected with wet plugs, but simply too rich a mixture to ignite.  I probably had to strip the carb down on average 5 times a day, blow neat petrol and vapour out and start again.  Also, as I have spotted on the internet, my engine suffers from an ‘inaccurate’ choke.  Put the lever across to the right, and unless you need to avoid four-stroking downhill, it dies.  I settled down on ‘5 to 12’ for level running and near full choke for pulling up gradients.

Chris on his Solex

At the end of the first day I reached Chateauneuf near Chartres after a good run of 130 miles.  I detoured around the roads I had Vélo’d on 35 years ago for a nostalgia kick.  The evening found me in the Hotel L’Ecritoire; a superb establishment with a wonderful six course set dinner.  The owner’s wife simply didn’t believe what I had done; “Du Havre en Vélo aujourd’hui? C’est n’est pas possible!” The weather ranged from pouring rain to biting winds, but were we down hearted?

The following day was marred by a puncture, and only 90 miles was covered.  This was the only point were my schoolboy French failed.  After trying to explain that I needed to use the lavatory of a nearby shop to fill the basin with water to see where the bubbles were coming from the limp inner tube I was holding, I was politely but firmly shown the door.  I think this experience probably convinced this Frenchman of the dangers of mad cow disease in England.  The temperature never rose above freezing for the next 2 days, and I began to realise the stupidity of not accepting the offer of riding boots in place of the wet trainers I was wearing.

The third day saw me in Moulins, 80 miles short of my destination.  However, time had run out so I crammed my bottles in the panniers and turned around to head for Blighty.  The run back was faster, but made more interesting as the rear wheel bearing started cracking up resulting in a very wobbly frame and rear wheel steering, especially when pedalling.  The final run into Le Havre in the dark and wet was the worst part of the journey.  I inadvertently became detoured onto the motorway for 20 miles and was having to switch lanes with my arm out, surrounded by 80 mph traffic.  I then found an unlit country cycle route on a dis-used Route National but found that the standard headlight simply isn’t up to illuminating the path ahead at 18mph when viewed through a wet helmet visor.  Some time previously, the front left brake calliper had dropped off.  As the rear wheel had settled down to two positions, wheel locked or not on at all, slowing down became more and more of a challenge.

However, my patron saint stayed with me and I made it home onto the ferry.  As I drew up to Customs, the officer turned to his mate and said “It’s got to be a Brit!” During the ride I covered 575 miles at an average speed of 11.8 mph with a fuel consumption of 185 mpg.  To the centre of France and back for 10.00 of petrol!  Looking back, the whole episode was a genuine adventure and a lot of fun.  The sponsorship money is still rolling in and, to date, totals £1,800.00.


First published - February 2000


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