Thursday, May 21, 2015

Le Mans '15

Just over a year ago the surgeon chopped off the end of my toe. This was the result of a dodgy ticker, a blocked artery at the top of my leg and bad circulation - blood wasn't reaching a couple of toes of my left foot. Bit like frostbite. I remember at the time thinking maybe this marks the end of my motorcycling days. So I sold the bike and had an empty garage over winter. Come spring, my foot felt a bit better so I thought I'd chance it and have a final motorcycling fling before hanging up my leathers and binning my helmet. Wasn't sure my lack of physical mobility would mean that boarding a bike would be an impossibility but, what the heck, I'd give it a try. So I bought a cheap and cheerful old banger of a bike for €3000 (sight unseen, apart from a few photos), had it delivered and stuck it in the shed. A few days later I eventually boarded the bike and had a quick spin up the back lanes. Luckily all went well. Had it gone badly I'd have sold the bike and given up.

With the MotoGP season in full swing, the French GP at Le Mans loomed. Mentioned it to Georgie who immediately went online and booked two tickets. That done, I then booked an hotel just outside Tours, about 60 miles from Le Mans (most of the closer ones were already fully booked). We then had a two-up trial run just to see if we could manage a little spin without falling off, getting cramp or suffering muscle spasms. Again, luckily, all went well. Er..., apart from discovering my old leathers no longer fitted (waistline expanded due to lack of exercise) and nor did my biker boots (feet expanded due to water retension in lower legs). Getting old is rubbish.

Anyways..., left home last Saturday morning at around 11ish and headed north following the route Gueret, Poitiers, Tours. Luckily the weather was average with only one teeny weeny bit of rain. I didn't have any wet weather gear due to a) it not fitting any more, and b) not having panniers to put it in (Georgie had a rucksack but that was full of whatever stuff she puts in there). Arrived at the hotel at around 5.30ish (Les Fontaines, Rochecorbon). Very nice place, still retained much of its original charm, hadn't been ponced up and ruined like so many hotels that have been 'modernised'. They didn't do evening meals so we hopped back on the bike and raided a restaurant just up the road (Restaurant de l'Embarcadere, Rochecorbon). Had a fab bit of grub followed by a sundown amble on the banks of the Loire where Georgie pointed out various flowery bits (including fig trees) that obviously flourish in the warm micro climate of this wine region. Then boogied back to the hotel for an early night.

Sunday morn dawned sunny with a big blue sky. Great. No need for wet weather gear. Hit the road at around 8.30ish after a pleasant brekkie which gave us loads of time to travel the 60 miles to Le Mans for the first race at 11. But..., there were massive traffic jams approaching the circuit. We eventually stood trackside (by the Rossi fan club stand) with three minutes to spare. Heard the 125cc race start but couldn't see it due to being vertically challenged and standing behind row upon row of giants. (Er..., I thought they seemed extremely fast for 125s so I just checked what engines they use. Well, knock me down with a feather, they're not 125s, they are in fact 250s. And single cylinder four-strokes at that. Learn summat new every day.) Caught sight of the big screen and checked for Danny Kent's position. Bah, not listed, must have fallen off. (Wrong. He was actually way down in almost last place due to qualifying in yesterday's rainy session.) By about the fourth lap he was around 17th. About ten laps later he was tailing the leading pack. With one lap to go he was 3rd. Unfortunately he finished 4th, but what a ride! Hero.

 For the next race (Moto2, 600cc bikes) we left the giants and headed for the zig-zag bend after the start straight. Discovered more giants. Only saw glimpses of the track with an occasional flash as a rider whizzed by. Heard 'em though. Georgie missed this race due to queueing for a bottle of water so I could take my lunchtime powder medication. I'd have happily chewed the powder but Georgie insisted it had to be taken with water. She queued for a good half hour or more with me standing on higher ground waiting. So we both missed the race. Bit later we spotted a tap by the medics' cabin that people were using for a quick drink. No queues. Ah well, c'est la vie.

Next up was the main race. But first we had to endure 45 minutes (or was it an hour?) of standing in the midday sun waiting for the riders to get prepared. As I didn't have a hat I perched my sweatshirt on my head in a vain attempt to avoid sunburn. Could have stood in the shade of an adjacent stand but would have lost my reasonable viewing position. Ooh, it was hot. Standing there in leather trousers, shifting weight from one foot to the other, then back again, and repositioning a badly behaved sweatshirt back on my head after it had slowly slid down my back or over my face, was not great fun. Time dragged. Oh for a seat. And oh for some shade. If we come here again we're booking a seat in that shady stand with an uninterrupted view of the track. Oh yes.

After what seemed an eternity, the bark of a distant engine announced the arrival of the main event. The bikes whizzed past as they headed for the start. Then whizzed past again on their warm up lap. Then whizzed past again in a blur as the race began. Then, suddenly, it was over. Lorenzo had won, Rossi second and Dovizioso third. Time to go home.

 Legged it back to the bike park with 100,000 others. Eventually found the bike, donned gear onto sweaty bod, jumped aboard and joined the thousands of other bikes jostling and wobbling onto chocabloc exit roads. Nightmare. Then hit a vaguely open road, notched out of bottom and second gears, wound her up and felt the relief of coolish air entering a hot helmet. Then a welcome stop for petrol and coffee about an hour up the road. Loads of bikers. Then same again after another hour. And again. Missed the Limoges turn off at Poitiers so lost an hour at dusk. Dark by the time we hit the autoroute to Gueret. Arrived home at 11.30, knackered and shivering. Well worth the effort though. Woke up Monday morning with sunburn. Ouch.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Sundown Tree

Sunshine. Makes a pleasant change from the chilly grey of winter. I've even been tempted to throw caution to the wind and step outdoors. Georgie, of course, being a gardeny-type, has been outdoors nearly every day, braving wind, rain and snow, digging, pruning, weeding, rock moving and doing whatever else gardeny-types do. Gained a few brownie points by blasting the old lawn mower from its winter slumber and demolishing the green stuff that pretends to be a lawn. Then returned to my indoor sanctuary. Felt a bit guilty when I peered out through the cobwebby window to see Georgie crowbarring rocks to form a rockery while I sipped an indoor tea. Then spotted my easel gathering dust in a corner. Dug out my bag of paints and brushes from under a pile of boxes. Checked to see if the paints had gone solid since I last used them. Must have been about eighteen months ago. Or maybe longer. Luckily they were still squeezable, or whatever the technical term might be. Then found an unused canvas lurking behind a chair in the indoor shed. So now I had all the equipment for a painting foray in the sunshine. What I didn't have was an excuse to stay indoors. But would I still be able to paint? Was the old magic still there? (Er, what magic?) There's only one way to find out... straight in at the deep end.

Spent three late afternoons and evenings sploshing paint in the shadow of the old tree up at Sprocket Hill. Couldn't get it right. The light kept changing as the sun descended. Browns turned to pinky orange and rusty reds, then back to browny grey, all in a matter of minutes. Shadows grew, light areas disappeared. With every change came a rub out with a turpsy rag. Then the sun went down and arty stuff was thrown in the dogwagon and driven back home in a frustrated rage. Looks like the old magic's been and gone. Maybe it'll return tomorrow evening. Or maybe not. Providing the sunny weather holds.

Today, the fourth day, the sun has gone. So the colours won't be there. And neither will I. Instead, I'll wait for the next sunny soirée before attacking the painting again and hopefully applying the finishing touches. Or maybe I'll just leave it unfinished. And start another one. Or maybe not.

Took a few photos of the canvassy mess. Interestingly, the snaps look completely different to the painting. The colours are all wrong. Anyways..., I'll load up one of the photos cos it's better than nothing. Or maybe it ain't!

Thursday, April 9, 2015


Brilliant weather at the moment. Four days of sunshine without a cloud in the sky. Pretty hot too. It all comes after a long, dull, grey, chilly spell so the village washing lines are full of clothing, bedding and towelly stuff all flapping under a hot sun. Neighbour Collette was first out with the pegs at crack of dawn when the sun arrived. She's always hot off the marks with her washing. We, on the other hand, are slow to get the suds going, so quite often the sun's clouded over or gone down by the time we emerge from the house with our soggy washing. Er, when I say 'we' I actually mean Georgie. And one of the drawbacks of being a bit too late to get hanging in the sun is that one ends up with a basket or two of soggy washing that slowly gets a bit mildewy while waiting for the next blast of sunshine that inevitably takes weeks to arrive. Er, I'm waffling.

Anyways..., yes, big sunshine recently. Daffodils sprouting up all over le magasin. Standing to attention and facing south, basking in the sun's rays. And not only daffodils. Up t'other end of the village there's a house with millions of narcissises..., narcissisae..., er, small daffodils. Well, when I say 'house' I actually mean 'garden'. It's a bit odd though. The house faces east while most of the houses up this way sort of face south. Or, if they're on the opposite side of the road and face north, their backs face south. Personally, I prefer a west facing plot so you get the sun in the soirée. But, as I said, that house faces east so it gets the morning sun but it's in the shadow of a bank in the evening. Not good for enjoying a soirée aperitif or deux. Good view though in the morning sun. Er, I'm waffling again. Better stop.

More photos taken around 4pm when the light changed and the Narcissii really stood out...

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Maybe an Alfa

Almost a year ago. Lying in a hospital bed. Minus one end of a left foot toe. Amputated.

So, there I was, staring at the ceiling, wondering not only if I'd walk again but also if I'd ever drive again or ride a motorbike again (a fully functioning left foot comes in handy for operating the clutch in a car and for changing gear on a motorcycle).

I was a worried man.

Luckily, about a week later, I left hospital having been assured by the chief medic that, despite having stitches in my foot, I should be able to drive home, no problem. And he was right too. However, the damage had been done. The seed of uncertainty had been planted in the cars and bikes section of my brain. I decided to ditch my car with its manual gearbox and get an auto, just in case another problem arose with my left foot.

My post-op medication consisted of three pills to be taken daily. One of these little horrors had the side effect of causing my foot to swell up due to water retention, or whatever. This meant none of my shoes fitted. However, I modified an old sandal which I managed to squeeze into. Attired thus, I was just about able to drive, though operating the clutch was a bit of a challenge. The search for an auto became a priority. But should I go for a big sporty auto such as a Jaguar or Audi, or a little economical runaround such as a Twingo or Civic? As usual, I couldn't really decide. And then, of course, there's the prickly problem of budgetry constraints.

My search for an auto became an obsession. Days turned to weeks. Weeks turned to months. I lost count of the cars I nearly went for. By this time the pill that caused my foot expansion had been swapped for another which reduced the swelling so my shoes fitted again. Gear changing worries took a back seat as foot problem memories faded from my mind. Then the search for a car took a new direction. Instead of looking for a boring old auto, I decided to look for a proper driver's car. Possibly an Alfa Romeo. Maybe one with that fabulous six cylinder, 3.2 litre, Busso engine (Google it - it's a cracker). After all, I'm in my late sixties and I can't have that many driving years left, so why not have one final fling? Good brief, huh?

Meanwhile, almost unnoticed, my faithful runaround, the Citroen ZX, 1.4 litre, cheapo dogwagon, was being as reliable as ever. Strange; you only really notice a car when it goes wrong, not when it goes right. It suddenly dawned on me that this boring little car was a winner in every respect, apart from providing sheer driving pleasure, or whatever it is that Alfa drivers rave about. So maybe if and when I get an Alfa (or whatever) I'd be well advised to keep the ZX. That way I could use the ZX for trips to the local supermarket etc. and use the Alfa for longer trips and Sunday drives.

Looking back, I must have checked out hundreds of possible contenders on the Leboncoin website. Almost bought an immaculate, low mileage, Mercedes 190e auto from a chap down Nice way. And a stunning Audi A4 auto from someone up north. But in both cases I chickened out at the last moment, unconvinced that a 'sensible' auto was really what I wanted. I also looked at a few 'mini' autos such as a Renault 5 and a VW Polo but turned 'em down. Then there was an Alfa 166 with a 3 litre (alas, not a 3.2) engine that I almost went for but decided against at the last moment due to Alfa reliability and cambelt worries. Another Alfa I almost bought was a 147 in excellent nick with low miles being sold by a small-time dealer up Montlucon way. Decided against it though. Bit pricey for me at almost €6k. Another car I went to see was a fab, low mileage, auto, Ford Scorpio with V6, 2.9 litre, Cosworth engine. Drove well in a wafting sort of manner but some reliability issues which I discovered on the internet put me off.

Then I spotted a belter: a one owner, auto, Merc 190e with just 27k kms in very good condition being advertised by a small-time dealer (there are a lot in France) up near Laval up north. Phoned the dealer and said I'd be up there by teatime. Drove there (took seven hours) and arrived at 5pm. By 5.10 I knew it was a wasted journey. Apparently it had been owned by a lady down near Biarritz. She's died and the car had been parked up for a couple of years. Sea air had caused rust and corrosion in the engine bay. And probably underneath. Walked away. Booked into a hotel overnight and drove back home the next day.

Then, as is often the case in a motor hunt, disappointment is followed by elation. I spotted a gem. A low mileage, 6 cylinder, 2 litre, manual gearbox, BMW 320i with a main dealer service history being advertised locally at nearby Egletons by a car-mad gendarme with a young family who wanted to replace it with a 'family' car. Saw it that afternoon and did the deal. Collected it a few days later. That was just over a week ago. No regrets. The search for the perfect driver's car for someone with a limited budget (I allowed €5k but only spent 3) had lasted a year. But I got there in the end.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Garage... ish.

When the snows come, my car or cars have to be dug out before hitting the road. This is a laborious process that results in frostbitten fingers, soggy clothing, much hollering of expletive deleteds and, more often than not, a crippling sense of failure as one admits defeat and returns indoors without having got anywhere near achieving vehicular movement. When it snows up these here parts it's best to stay indoors and forget about driving anywhere, unless, of course, one has a garage or car port. Then, at least, it's that bit easier to hop into the car and get it moving. Er, after firstly clearing the snow from the pathway to the road (the road is generally clear thanks to the efforts of the council workers). A pic of what I'm on about...

Having endured this state of affairs for about ten winters, I eventually got planning permission to build a car port. I would have preferred a garage but, due to the house being within spitting distance of the church, we were advised that such a structure may be considered an offensive eyesore to churchgoers and that a simple lean-to thingy would be more likely to be approved by the powers that be. However, it was stipulated that the structure had to be wooden and constructed in a traditional way. I was advised that the chap to build the thing would be Pierre, the local woodman and brother of neighbour Christian. To cut a long story short, his estimate was okayed and he eventually started work on building the thing. A bit later it was almost finished just as the first snows arrived. A couple of weeks ago Pierre finished the job by putting up the guttering. Job well done. We haven't yet had the thing approved by whoever has to approve these thingies, but I remain optimistic despite the somewhat less than visually pleasing cement supports that were a late addition in order to solve the problem of building on a slope.

Winter 2014/15

When I recently dug out the camera after a longish period of photographic inactivity, I discovered some snaps of an autumnal stroll with wee Jocky (see earlier posting) together with a few taken back in January when the snows came. Or was it early February? Anyways, here we are, almost in April, with winter apparently behind us, enjoying the daffodils and longer evenings of early springtime, when, surprise, surprise, more snow arrives. The stuff fell last night. About three inches. Took some snaps but can't be arsed to load 'em up 'cos they look much the same as those taken earlier. However, am pleased to say that it's now melted away and, hopefully, springtime can continue springing. 

Autumn 2014

Haven't used the camera much recently. Dug it out the other day and downloaded the snaps. Some were taken up at the military area high in the hills where I took Jock for a little stroll last Autumn. Didn't realise it at the time but it would be one of Jock's last walks away from home territory. Also, I didn't realise the poor wee blighter was quite ill. Just thought he was slowing down due to old age. Anyways, parked up on the high point and was about to take a photo of the distant Auvergne mountains when there was a loud explosion. Military manoeuvres. A bomb had gone off. Took a snap of the resultant smoke cloud, hopped back in the car and headed back to a quieter area for our little stroll. Ah, Jocky liked his walks. So did Sprocket. And I'm pleased to say they had some damn fine bits of country to potter about in, both in the UK and in France.