We gathered at Pete's workshop for the ride to the ferry at Hull. Me on my Panhead, Pete on his Triumph, Paul on his Shovelhead, Stig on his Evo Sportster chopper. Pretty much covering all the recent decades, then. Roads were dry as we set off. It soon became apparent that Paul was experiencing some rough running on his Shovel; he spent the rest of our trip diagnosing the persistent problem. My bike felt good; I'd given it a service and the only niggle I could think of was my suspect plug leads: they are the cloth-covered ones and have let me down in the wet before. One of those 'must-dos' that only occur to you when they are causing problems. After roadworks in the centre of Hull sent us on a not-very-picturesque and lengthy diversion, we finally reached the P&O dock. Luckily, we'd left ourselves lots of time.
I love getting onto boats and planes. The physical boarding of a vessel of escape is a wonderfully positive experience. Ahead of you is adventure and unknown roads and experiences; behind you, domestic stress, bills and routine.
As we waited to ride up the ramp onto the Pride of Bruges, we found ourselves next to Tom and his 45; an old friend and a nice surprise. We also reacquainted ourselves with Kenny, who'd we'd met the year before on the same trip and was riding his invincible Shovelhead from Blackpool to Axel with us.
As we were waved forward towards the ferry, Pete and I were singled out and invited into a hangar by security; they wanted to search our bags. "Wouldn't be it be more sense to search us on the way back from Holland, rather than the way in?" I smiled, assuming they were customs officers. They explained they were looking for weapons, but before I could get uptight about us bikers being hassled by the man, a very elderly couple were pulled in behind us in a little car, looking a lot less relaxed than we were. These security guys must have been bored; so bored in fact, they didn't even notice the folding knife on my belt.
The crossing was the usual overpriced beer and stodgy grub. But it's always fun. Pete and I shared a cabin again; both armed with ear plugs. I like travelling with Pete. He's unflappable, good company and he rides fast.
When we docked in Zebrugge, the sun was out. Good news. Not so good news was being stopped yards from the ferry terminal by the Belgian old bill. They wanted us to put our lights on and picked on Pete, leading our ragged column, to harass. Of course, his headlight is just for show. He doesn't even have a taillight. All I could see from a few yards back was the copper pointing back to where we'd come and very firmly indicating we couldn't ride any further.Uber-fixer Tom (remember when he fixed my Panhead with a wine cork in France?) stepped up with a tiny torch to tape onto Pete's bars. Not sure what is Belgian for "Oh, fuck it…" but that's what the policeman's face indicated he was now saying.
We were on our way again. Until we got lost. Pete said he knew the way to the first big service station where we'd stopped for fuel the year before. He didn't. We stopped so I could consult my map, which meant Paul's bike conked out again. And so it went for the next few hours. We went in a complete circle then finally found the right road to the Dutch border (after Pete asked a bloke in a garden centre). Paul kept his bike coughing along, believing it was tank sealer blocking his carb. But as soon as we had to stop anywhere, it was spanners out again. When you are riding in a group of old bikes, you have to be patient. Last year, Pete's Triumph was trouble on this trip. Next time it could be me. Remaining philosophical is essential.
Around lunchtime, we finally found our way to Axel, stopping for a fuel top-up before entering the Chopper Bash site. The Panhead had run beautifully. After greeting organiser and top bloke Angelo, we found a place to park on the tiny showfield. As I wheeled my bike back into a space between two others, it occurred to me how heavy it felt; but I was still loaded up and we were on damp grass. Then a bystander said, "Unless you run your tyres on very low pressure, you have a flat!". I looked, and sure enough, the rear Avon Safety Mileage was as flat as the proverbial pancake. Balls. What a start to the weekend.
After we got our tents up and before our first beer, I asked around about inner tubes, pumps and tyre irons and was reassured by the relaxed responses from the locals and promises of help. I talked to Shaky Mike and Steve and decided to attack the repair the next day. Next job was to get the GKM table up and trading; the afternoon passed in the usual relaxed manner of these events… greeting old friends, chatting to customers and drinking beer. I then did my first stint (of several) over the weekend on the CD decks in the main tent; it's not an event where people dance, so I felt free to play whatever I wanted, from the Buzzcocks to the Osmonds, Desmond Dekker to Bowie.
As the sun went down that night, so did the temperature. Partying over, I crashed into my tent (relatively sober) at around 2am then lay, fully clothed with a coat on, in my sleeping bag. Shivering. But shit nights' sleep are part of these trips for me. You can sleep when you're dead, right?
Next morning I wanted to get going on my tyre repair; Rolf, bless him, found us a jack (I didn't fancy having to lift the bike with a log) and Shaky, me and Steve got the wheel off. Easy bit done, we waited for Jack to turn up with some promised tyre levers. With levers in hand, Pete and Paul took over, tearing off the tyre and fitting the new tube that had come via a friend of Rene's at IronPit Motorcycles (thanks all for you help). I then put the wheel back in the bike.
The Saturday night passed much as the first did, though I gave myself a few hours off from the DJ booth and had a nice meal in town with Steve. Prizes were given out; Pete won Best British (he was in town and missed the call), and Best in Show went to a stunning Panhead chopper (with rigid front as well as rear end) ridden all the way to Axel by a young guy from Sweden. Righteous. I hope we'll get to feature it in GKM. The quality of the bikes at the show was excellent; some beautiful choppers and bob-jobs… nearly all ridden from their respective countries (including Italy, UK, Spain, Sweden, Germany, France). Every bike I loved was built by a Swede… can't help myself.
Setting off back to Zeebrugge on the Sunday, I stopped in a lay-by to consult my tiny map and everyone pulled in behind me. Stig's Evo, however, decided it had had enough of its gears, and shed them. He'd given the lever a bit too much weight and had snapped the selector rod at the gear-end. Terminal. So though Paul heroically got into the gearbox to make a prognosis, we were forced to leave Stig and his oil-drenched machine to the mercy of the Dutch recovery van. (He told us Renshaw was the only biker who bothered to stop to see if he was OK.)
The rest of us stopped off in beautiful Bruges for lunch and caught up with a few other English show-goers who were staying in town at Charlie Rockets. The sun was out and it was nice to do some sightseeing for an hour. Then it was back on the bikes and we braved the shit-awful Belgian roads back to the port.
When we arrived back in England the next morning, it was pissing down and cold. Welcome back to Blighty. We set off after negotiating border control, Tom heading back in a different direction, and we ended up on a busy dual carriageway (with no hard shoulder) heading towards the Humber Bridge. Suddenly, my bike started to falter, then started running on one cylinder. Balls. The rain was very heavy and I could just about see Pete disappear away into the distance ahead of me. Then the bike stopped and I pulled in the clutch, drifting silently to a halt up against the high verge as wagons thundered past. I had plenty of fuel and knew immediately what the problem was: those sodding (and sodden) plug leads. As I got off the bike, Paul pulled up on his Shovelhead behind me. We had a shouty conversation over the sound of the rain and the traffic and I told him what I thought the problem was; then he realised his battery was dead. We both started to push our Harleys.
We pulled in to relative safety about 500 yards further along, where an exit slip road headed for the bridge. Paul's electrics were jiggered; he was going nowhere. He suggested I try his plug leads. Bingo. My Pan started. At this moment the old bill turned up and I decided to make an exit; I have to thank Paul for stopping: he would have made it home if he hadn't, and I made it home – freezing and dripping wet – because he did.
It was an enjoyable weekend, with all the old-bike shenanigans you could wish for; lots of tinkering, getting lost and riding on new roads. Thank you Angelo, Oli, Rolf, Sven, Rob, Keith, Peggy, Aline, Hank, Rene and all the other people who worked – and partied – so hard to make the Flanders Chopper Bash such a success.