At my school we had a film club and one Sunday evening a film was put on that changed my life. It was called On any Sunday and it was about motorcycle racing in America. Many of you will have seen it, I’m sure. Steve McQueen, who was a talented off-road motorcycle racer (far more accomplished than he was on four wheels), stars in the film. On any Sunday showed a variety of bike sports from road racing to flat track to motocross but above all it showed how cool motorcycling is as a pastime. I came away from that film knowing that I had to own a motorcycle as soon as I was old enough to do so.
Almost fifty years later and five decades of biking behind me, I am at an event that has an atmosphere that reminds me of that film. It is called Wheels and Waves and it is held in Biarritz, France. Biarritz is on France’s western coast, the last big town before you hit the Spanish border. A town that rivalled Monte Carlo as hang out for the wealthy and the beautiful and today is much more attractive and appealing than that famous enclave. There is a large casino and several fabulous beaches. But for five days at the beginning of July it is invaded by thousands of motorcycle enthusiasts.
Now in its eleventh year (and after a break of a couple of years due to you know what) the Wheels and Waves festival is a celebration of motorcycling and in particular the custom scene. Choppers, bobbers, café racers, classics, vintage off-road bikes; you’ll see them all here. So big has it become, so cool is its reputation, that several motorcycle manufacturers not only attend and have stands showing their latest models, but most commission special machines for the event. Triumph, Royal Enfield, BMW and Honda are all here in force, each with a couple of very special custom machines on show.
You could get away with rocking up at Wheels and Waves in a classic ‘60s American pick-up truck but to arrive in a Hyundai rental car or something as equally dull would be unthinkable. After all, what would Steve McQueen have thought? BMW France kindly lent me a R18 cruiser that wasn’t being used on its stand or for test rides (most of the manufacturers offer test rides on their machines). This imposing bike with its 1,800cc twin-cylinder boxer engine gives one immediate cred in Biarritz. And you need transport at the event not only so that you feel like you’re taking part, but because there are events that take place outside of Biarritz that are essential viewing.
The first is a hillclimb that was held on the the first day of the festival on Wednesday, across the border in Spain at the wonderfully named town of Jaizkibel. We weren’t in Biarritz in time for the hillclimb but we won’t make that mistake again because if it has half the atmosphere of the other attractions that we did see then it’s not to be missed.
The first of those was ‘The Race of the Lords WAW vintage rally’, essentially a vintage motocross gathering at a massive off-road facility outside the town of Magescq about an hour north and inland of Biarritz. The ride there was magic (and even better on the way home thanks to the dramatic view of the Pyrenees as you approach Biarritz).
Hot, dusty and dramatic, it was a scene straight out of On any Sunday. That film was released in 1971 and the machines that featured in the off-road part of the movie were classic two-stroke Maicos, Husqvarnas, Suzukis and Yamahas as well as the odd big four-stroke Triumphs that McQueen himself adored. There are more modern bikes at the Race of the Lords, water-cooled ‘strokers from the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, but it’s the earlier stuff that is the most cool.
As its name suggests, the Rally is more an opportunity to wheel out some great bikes and give them a thrashing than it is a race. That said, clearly some of the riders are very experienced off-road competitors. You expect to see a modern Honda airborne but to see a rider in a seventies-style jersey fifteen feet up in the air on a Triumph twin is something else. I’m rubbish at off-road riding but I desperately wished that I was there with a Husqvarna like the one McQueen rode along with similarly-mounted mates along a beach in the film. Wearing an open-face helmet of course.
During a break in the action there is a sand race in which a pair of riders blast off down a course, round a couple of oil drums a few hundred metres away and then charge back to the finishing line. It’s a simple discipline but made very dramatic for riders and spectators by the machinery that’s used. There’s an early Triumph but most of the riders are on 1940s or earlier Harley-Davidson and Indian V-twins. Hand gearchanges, foot clutches, often a front brake lever on the ‘wrong side’ these old machines take a bit of controlling. Especially on sand. The riders all look the part, wearing period kit.
If you live in the UK and ride bikes, and like me have doing so since the late ‘70s, you will remember that riders used to wave at each other when passing on the road. It seems to have died out today but they still do it in France. More usually it’s a foot taken off a rest and waggled so that the throttle doesn’t close, but the effect is a great feeling of camaraderie and fellowship. All the way back to Biarritz Moto Guzzis, Harleys, Triumphs and BMWs flash past doing the above.
In the evening we wander around the WAW village, down by the sea in an area of Biarritz suitably named Cite de l’Ocean. Here there are numerous stalls selling bike gear, others selling vintage spares and yet more manned by custom bike builders who have brought along their latest creations. Almost all are impressive but some are utterly breathtaking. There’s street food, live music and a short walk to the beach for surfing competitions that run throughout the five day event.
I suspect that the Waves part of the scene is one of the reasons why there are so many young people here. That said, judging by the number of young people of both sexes riding around on bikes, it is the Wheels also that appeal. I find it immensely uplifting to see my favourite passion being taken up by a new generation.
Saturday we’re back at Magescq for another day of heat, dirt and the smell of hot oil. Today it is El Rollo Dirt Track. If you’ve seen On Any Sunday you’ll have never forgotten the amazing scenes shot at flat track races. Harley-Davidson XR750 twins racing at up to 120mph on the straights and with no front brake. A much shorter course has been built for El Rollo so the speeds are less dramatic, but the action is no less tame and the falling off equally wince-inducing.
The riders and machines are separated into classes based on period. In the earliest group we meet again our friends from sand race the day before riding their flat-head American V-twins and pushrod vintage Triumphs, sliding bravely through the turns while making adjustments and managing 80 year-old controls. The races are brilliant to watch and as with the motocross and enduro bikes, there is nostalgia to be had for anyone over forty years-old – and a new experience entirely for those younger still. I’d make even more of a hash riding flat track than I would have done on the motocross track but still I wish I was on the other side of the barrier.
In truth every rider is part of Wheels and Waves. The village at Cite de l’Ocean is the hub of the event but on every street in Biarritz centre ville stunning bikes line the kerbs. A car park on the ocean front, just off a road that must be several hundred feet above sea level, has been shut off to cars and each evening is crammed full of hundreds of bikes and riders who watch the sun dip into the Bay of Biscay.
I left school at the end of the 1970s with a quartet of low grade O levels but it wasn’t time wasted. That film club started a love affair that has yet to wain. Visiting the Wheels and Waves festival has supercharged that passion. If you have an old Maico motocross bike (we called it scrambling back in the days of flares and glam rock) covered in dust and cobwebs perhaps you would let me know. I have little talent and even less bravery but a burning desire to absorb the Wheels and Waves atmosphere even more deeply. Whether it’s on a Sunday, or any day of the week.