Ducati Tour de France

December 25, 2008
Steve Atlas
Steve Atlas
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Professional-grade speed and an attitude to match, Steve Atlas is the new blood at MotoUSA. Atlas has AMA racing creds that are even more extensive than his driving record.

“Like all great travelers, I have seen more than I remember, and remember more than I have seen.” -Benjamin Disraeli, 19th Century British Prime Minister
The south of France has views to die for, plus equally good roads. We had a horrible time...
The south of France has views to die for, plus equally good roads. We had a horrible time…

These words ring true as I recall the amazing ride I took with my girlfriend from the French Riviera to Paris. We covered nearly all of France, starting on the southern French Riviera and working our way north to Paris. We literally saw almost the entire country in under a week, all from the saddle of a Ducati GT1000. And while there really is no better way to take in a foreign land than onboard a motorcycle, the problem becomes narrowing down and fitting the epic adventure on the allotted pages. But I’ll do my best. So sit back, relax and enjoy the journey. We did. (Well, most of it…)

Our journey began following the recent 2009 Ducati Monster 1100 introduction in the south of France. With the intro taking place the Wednesday before the French round of World Superbike, the plan was to see the southern coast for a day, then head north to Magny-Cours for a dose of racing action, followed by a “quick jaunt” up to Paris for a couple days. The route looked fairly straightforward and easy enough on Google Maps. Though quite far at nearly 700 miles, it would surely be no problem for a couple hardcore motorcyclists, right?

Let’s back up a little to the real first step of any journey: packing. As boring as packing usually is, in this case it wasn’t quite as easy. Imagine what your girlfriend would say if you told her she had to live out of a suitcase the size of her purse for a week. I’m a light packer and I was worried, thus when I broke the news of our travel arrangements to my girlfriend Angela, she wasn’t exactly stoked. She did well though, jamming more into a single soft-side saddlebag than anyone in the history of motorcycling, then taking half of my bag as well. A tank bag and a backpack were added to house the overflow and we (or should I say, she) were somehow able to make it work. Barely…

“A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step.” Lao Tzu, Chinese Philosopher

Whether said quote is true or not could be argued until we are blue in the face, but no doubt the master planners behind the southern coastal region of France would surely agree. To say Cannes, Monaco, and St. Tropez are only a bit excessive would be like saying Valentino Rossi is pretty good on a motorcycle. They embody the very essence of excess, yet do it with old-world beauty and class.

The InterContinental Cannes played host to our visit to the French beach town: Beautiful hotel with tons of history.
The InterContinental Cannes played host to our visit to the French beach town: Beautiful hotel with tons of history.

Day one of our journey was spent in Cannes, home of the world famous independent film festival that dates back to 1946. It’s quickly apparent why this is a sought after destination for the rich and famous. The entire city sits on the water, overlooking a bay filled with about 80% of the world’s mega-yachts. Hotels, shops, restaurants – you name it, it’s high-end and it’s in a beautiful early 20th-century building.

It’s all about seeing and being seen, so we figured we would go all out and shack up at the famous InterContinental Carlton Hotel, the very first high-end hotel in Cannes, the one which essentially started the city as it is today. The grand liaison for the film festival is given the presidential suite at the InterContinental every year, and while it has history in spades, the common-folk rooms are small and unimpressive. The shared areas – hallways, staircases, entry way – are quite the opposite. When was the last time you were in a hotel where the marble floors were hand-polished every night? Exactly. While I wouldn’t recommend staying there unless you have uber-money and can pop for a suite, it’s no doubt worth checking out solely to see the beauty of the building itself.

Another must-see in Cannes: the sunset from the boardwalk along the ocean. There really isn’t anything like it. Angela and I took a quick stroll along the docks at around 7 p.m. our one night in town and instantly fell in love with the place. In a matter of minutes we were both convinced that someday we needed to own a home there. There’s something so soothing and serene about the waves rolling into the bay as the sun disappears behind them, witnessed from the porch of a French café eating a pastry one could kill for (no one does pastries like the French, no one).

Angela and I start our French journey.
Angela and I start our French journey.

After a night spent taking in the breathtaking southern coast, we had to get on our way. No doubt we could have stayed for weeks, or even months, but we needed to make it to Lyon that night, some 400-plus km to the northeast. It was set to be our longest leg of the journey, which was only made longer by getting lost a few times due to some tricky French street signs and goofy toll booths. All in the name of adventure though, right?

The ride itself was spent mostly on motorways. And as unexciting as freeway riding in the U.S. is, in France it can be quite the opposite. Only in Europe will you be flying along on the motorway at 160 km/h (roughly 100 mph) when on your left a soccer mom and her three kids come flying by, leaving you as if you were chained to a post, all while she talks on her Bluetooth cell phone and breastfeeds her newborn. This may be startling the first couple times it happens, but by about the fifth time you get passed by a Citroën wagon with the pedal to the metal, your ego adjusts accordingly and you stop trying to pass them back.

Speed limits, you ask? Merely a suggestion, of which most do not obey. Police don’t patrol the motorways, they use speed cameras, which most current Euro GPS systems have marked as waypoints, so speeding is fairly risk-free. Because we didn’t have a GPS, I gauged traffic flow and watched for any excessive group-braking. The majority of the time we were able to identify speed cameras fairly easy – at least I think we were. However, there is a slim chance Ducati France could be getting a small bill for traffic citations. Fingers crossed…

Angela and I take in the French coast. We both decided in a matter of minutes we will be retiring here if at all possible.
Taking in the French coast. We both decided in a matter of minutes we will be retiring here if at all possible.

Even at motorway speeds, it’s impossible not to be in awe of the scenery in Southern France. The lush green hills, mountains off to one side, ocean at your back, all littered with old-world churches and castles built long before America was even known. It’s simply majestic. Concentration on the road can easily be lost due to said view, which is why we recommend stopping and checking out the historic buildings as much as you can afford. They are clearly marked several kilometers before you need to exit with easy-toread signs along the motorway, so you can’t miss them.

All said and done, including unplanned detours (in no way was I “lost” per se), we covered 541 km en route to Lyon, pulling into the Hilton hotel on the outskirts of town just as the rain set in – impeccable timing. We were beat. At least the worst was over; the longest, motorway-filled leg was behind us, so all we have left was smooth sailing and beautiful backroads. Or so we thought…

““Travel is glamorous only in retrospect.”  Paul Theroux, American Novelist

When I look back at our 246 km ride from Lyon to Nevers, it almost seems as if we had a nice time, as if we made the most of the freezing cold by laughing it off and chalking it up to the name of adventure. But that wasn’t the case at the time. Oh, no…

Nevers  France turned out to be the hidden jewel of the trip. I think you can see why.
Nevers, France turned out to be the hidden jewel of the trip. I think you can see why.

We were far from prepared for temperatures only a hair over 40 degrees when we left the hotel that Saturday morning. One can only pile on so many layers of cloth and riding gear before turning into the Michelin Man, unable to move and properly operate a motorcycle. Add to that zero wind protection from the retro-styled GT, and no two ways around it, we were flat out freezing. We had one mission and one mission alone: to get to Magny-Cours as fast as possible to stop the pain.

Having to miss some of the beauty of the French countryside due to complete focus on avoiding hypothermia was a shame, but sometimes riding a motorcycle becomes more than just recreation. It becomes survival. We kept the trusty GT humming along at a brisk 150 km/h, stopping only for gas and a quick shot of espresso to warm our insides when we were at the point of becoming human popsicles.

Nevers, France was not supposed to be an amazing addition to the journey. It was originally thought of as the only town close to Magny-Cours with hotels and restaurants. It was a necessity, not a destination. How wrong we were. As luck would have it, it turned out to be a beautiful, rustic, small 18th-century town built around a massive, gothic church straight out of a 1970’s Dracula B-movie.

It really is a small town though, and the addition of the racing community puts its stresses on the city. Some heads-up early planning by Angela got us a coveted room at the Ibis Hotel, one of the few newer ones in town, all of which fill up far in advance. The room was the size of a large closet with two single beds pressed together, but it had kind of a quaint, dorm-like feel to it and wasn’t bad at all.

Celebrating Troy Baliss  third and final World Superbike Championship with Angela  middle  and fellow journalist Aaron Frank  far left .
Celebrating Troy Baliss’ third and final World Superbike Championship with Angela (middle) and fellow journalist Aaron Frank (far left).

A good night’s rest was welcomed with open arms, as was the prospect of spending the following day off the bike at the racetrack, checking out the penultimate round of the World Superbike series. Adding to the excitement was the almost certain possibility of Ducati’s Troy Bayliss wrapping up this third World Superbike Championship, in his final season before retirement.

Terrific Troy, as they call him in Italy, did exactly that in Race 1, wrapping it all up with a second to Noriyuki Haga, and boy were we in the right place at the right time. We had just happened to run down to the pit garage when one of the mechanics threw us a pair of the oneoff championship-commemorating T-shirts. Probably two of 40 that will ever be made, Bayliss himself autographed the pair at the end of the day, capping off a cold, but unforgettable day at the racetrack.

Another 250 km were in store for the following day, almost all of which was spent trying to outrun the rain and make it through Paris unhindered. Neither was easy, but fortunately, both were accomplished. Luckily, with the rain clouds came slightly warmer temperatures, which we were far more prepared for this time around. The key would be staying dry and not getting lost in Paris. Yeah, right… Surprisingly, we only hit small patches of rain as we smoothly cruised north along the A6 motorway, which dropped us off onto the outskirts of the capital.

A slightly small tank meant fuel stops were quite frequent. We did meet a lot of nice people at gas stations  however  so that was a plus.
A slightly small tank meant fuel stops were quite frequent. We did meet a lot of nice people at gas stations, however, so that was a plus.

Street signs about every five feet, all seemingly saying different things, made the trip into Paris very confusing, but by luck, after a quick stop to glance at a map before being told to move off the busy street, we somehow found our way to the right area of Paris in which Ducati France is located. Angela made the most of her Canadian middle school French classes, asking a patron at a gas station where we needed to be exactly, after which we stumbled onto the nearly hidden office building of Ducati France where we needed to drop off the GT. 

““The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.”  St. Augustine, Archbishop

We had done it – Cannes to Paris in five days, including a stop in Magny-Cours to check out World Superbike. How we made it, honestly, I have no idea. All those hard-to-read street signs, no GPS, plus how bad Google Maps is at describing directions overseas, truly made for quite an adventure, one we both will never forget.

The following day-and-a-half was spent decompressing and checking out Paris, which as a city singlehandedly defines the word beauty. Then it was back to Southern California. I miss the French pastries, old-world architecture, sunsets in Cannes and scenery in Paris already, but it sure does feel good to be home. For now… 

Rating Tour De France 

The Notre Dame Cathedral is a must-see in Paris.
The Notre Dame Cathedral is a must-see in Paris.

Amazing, to say the least. Everything from mountain switchbacks along the coast, to country B-roads, to high-speed motorways – all some of the best in the world. 

Old-world beauty at its finest down south and throughout the heart of the country, while Paris mixes old-world majesty with modern flavor. 

Southern France is dominated by seafood, which is top-notch. Due to its close proximity to Italy, the Italian food can be very good as well.
Further north food becomes more-hearty, meat and sausage based.
Throughout the country, the pastries are the best in the world bar none, as are the deserts! Hello sorbet!

While commonly thought of as not very friendly, most all the French people we came across were quite nice and very helpful. 

All of the large cities we were in provided a wide range of options. Paris is very expensive, as is the south of France. Small towns are a bit tougher, usually very inexpensive, but don’t be surprised if you end up renting a room in someone’s house. Though not always a bad thing. 

Ducati GT1000. Great bike for steady cruising and it turns heads no matter where you go as everyone thinks you are riding something made in the 1970s. Not the ideal machine for covering the amount miles we did. A windscreen and bags would have made a world of difference.