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Road Test: Beaujolais Or Bust

Four men, four bikes, one quest - to bring home the firstbottle of Beaujolais Nouveau 2004 to British shores. The question isn't 'Why?', it's 'Why not?' Allez!




This is a tale rotten to its core with lies, deceit and treachery. Some was small, some considerably larger, but all resulted in four of us riding into deepest France in hostile conditions on a motley selection of motorcycles before racing back clutching bottles of freshly-released Beaujolais Nouveau.

On the face of things, I must take the blame for starting the ball of deviousness rolling, for it was I who stole the Triumph Daytona 650 key from a hapless Adam Harvey, the trip's dogsbody. Having had to detour on my way to the office to collect the Ducati Multistrada, I arrived behind my compadres and, knowing the other three bikes were a) already at the office, and b) better suited to the coming trip than the Multistrada, I knew I needed to act fast to secure a superior machine. So when Harvey foolishly left the Trumpet key on his desk as we chatted I palmed it fast, swapping it for the Duke item. Job done.

Dastardly you may say, but as this was to be a Wacky Races styled event, and as I was Dick Dastardly, it seemed all too appropriate.

The crew and their bikes were: Adam Harvey, as the helpless, hapless Penelope Pitstop, on the Multistrada (no discussion would now be entered into and the judges' decision was final), Colin Goodwin in the role of Mutley aboard Yamaha's Fazer 1000, while snapper Martin Heath would ride the ZZ-R1200 as Peter Perfect.

As mentioned earlier, it would seem I begun the deceit that permeated this road trip, but in fact it was someone more powerful who did this, and they did so long before we left. "The Beaujolais run's brilliant, it's an institution, there'll be all sorts of Brits doing it, it'll be like the Cannonball run," said TWO's editor-in-chief, Grant Leonard weeks beforehand. "I'd love to do it with you but I'm playing golf that week," he added.

So it fell to me and my brave band of merry men to bring home the Beaujolais. Our mission was to ride the 600-odd miles to the centre of the Beaujolais region for the party to celebrate the arrival of this youthful wine and, at the stroke of midnight upon its exact release, to bag a bottle each and leg it home. No prisoners were to be taken, no quarter to be given, it was an all-out fight to the finish. The first man home to CafŽ Rouge in Esher, Surrey (conveniently near the home of a certain G. Leonard esq), would win and once all had arrived we'd quaff our quarry over a hearty homecoming breakfast.

Not a bad sounding idea, but then nor was the Titanic. Still, we had our orders, we had our bikes. What could possibly go wrong?

ADAM HARVEY

'Beep, beep, beep...' 11.40 pm. I wake up after an hour's kip as an unusually quiet Wozza tiptoes around the room hoping I'll sleep through his departure. A dastardly thing to do, but you snooze, you lose in this game. I struggle downstairs to collect my just-released bottle of Bowjolly and at 23.58 we assemble by our bikes where a small crowd has gathered to watch us begin the challenge known as the Beaujolais run.

Wozza sneaks away a few minutes early as I realise I don't know which way to turn out of the hotel, let alone how to get back to the UK. I tag behind Colin until the motorway, leaving Martin still loading his camera equipment - all's fair in love, war and the Beaujolais run.

Twenty miles later I pull into a petrol station hoping to see the others. Of course everyone else has somehow topped their tanks up before leaving. That sort of devious behaviour I expected from Dastardly and Buttley, although I'd banked on Martin playing straighter. Damn. Still, as I'm Penelope Pea-Brain, it would be rude not to take more stops than the others.

Topped up and on my way I feel excitement mixed with fear. Racing through a foreign country in the middle of the night with no map does that to you. I felt confident the Multistrada would do me proud though, even though the fuel tank wasn't best suited to this sort of trip - more than 100 miles on a tank is a stretch and you'll spend too long looking at the fuel light if you do take it that distance.

But I'm less worried about fuel range, and more worried about whether my arms will go the distance - the Multistrada's wide bars may make perfect sense in town and down the backroads, but for extended motorway miles you'd better beef up. Mine are being ripped out of their sockets as I fight the windblast and, on the motorway at least, I'd suggest Ducati rename this thing the Musclestrada. I could happily arm wrestle Arnie after spending time aboard it.

As the miles slide by, I'm enveloped by a dawning certainty that I'm last, and I don't like it. The five-to-one odds on me failing don't help either. Time to get a move on. Elbows in, head down and throttle open, I'm on a mission. Deciding not to look at the fuel gauge as it made me nervous, I shoot past Colin and begin feeling better.

Running on vapour and passing the 10km sign for the next services, I see a single headlight behind and getting bigger. Fast. Moments later, Wozza zips past on the Daytona 650 sticking his leg out to say hello. I can picture the grin on his face and my head drops as I lose the place I only just realised I had.

As mentioned earlier, the Multistrada isn't an ideal motorway bike, and nor is it especially comfortable over distance, although a revised seat on the '05 model should help. But then it's not really meant for marathon blasts like this, so the fact it manages at all is no mean feat. Where the Ducati scores is on the twisty backroads we'd spent the previous day ripping up.

There, the galloping beat of the 1000DS V-twin motor makes easy work of fast progress once you tune into its rhythm (less gears, fewer revs, more speed, less effort). You're left with more time to spend working out the next bend and your line through it rather than having to constantly stoke the gearshift.

Being sat so high suddenly makes perfect sense too as you can gaze across hedgerows your sportsbike companions can only wonder about, and tramp on with a bigger safety margin to play with.

Add a taught chassis and the best brakes here alongside the Triumph and the Multistrada is a great plaything. Sadly that's all it is as the tank range, discomfort and lack of serious pillion accommodation mean it's no more useful than that.

With refuelling stops now down to five minutes each, I finally arrive at the Eurotunnel at 05.20 to hear I've just missed the 05.28 train and will have to wait two hours for the next departure. The helpful lady mentions an extremely dishonest-looking big-nosed man, who wasn't French, who arrived before me and made the now-departing train. I call Wozza to vent some of my anger. He laughs.

Sitting in the terminal I wonder about the point of the journey, considering I could buy a bottle of the same crap I had in my bag from my local off-licence in the next few hours anyway. But although it was cold and miserable I was pleased I had nearly completed this traditional challenge, and I was also pleased with the Multistrada which had not only kept me out of trouble with its easy manners, punchy motor and sweet handling, but which had also brought me this far.

As I pondered all this, Colin staggered into the terminal, equally gutted to hear Wozza had cheated his way to a two-hour advantage. The minutes passed like hours, both of us humourless and tired, and we eventually boarded the 07.28.

Exiting the terminal we filled up at the nearest petrol station, both trying to cover our competitive attitudes with a friendly face. But my mind was already sensing defeat, knowing that when it comes to London I either keep going straight or follow a randomly picked cab (because they always know where they're going).

I made our destination at 9.10 to see Wozza and Colin waiting. It had been a gruelling challenge consisting of 600 miles, five fuel stops, two peages and one bottle of Beaujolais that would have been better off stored in the fuel tank. But all in all, it was brilliant.

MARTIN HEATH

The temperature is struggling to keep above freezing but I'm sweating like a sumo in a sauna and struggling to breathe.

It's one am, pitch black and very lonely. All I can hear is the chain rolling around the rear sprocket of the ZZ-R1200 as I inch its vast weight along the pŽage. A sign ahead is finally near enough to read and tells me I've got three kilometres until the next petrol station. If the ZZ-R weren't loaded with my precious camera gear I'd ditch it, but it is and pushing is the only option.

"I can afford to give you losers a head start," I'd chimed as, one by one, they left me at the hotel, stuffing my panniers. "I'll cruise past your first fuel stop". Which I did, before running out. Me and my big mouth.

My mind is focused again by my legs burning. The sweat stings, running into my eyes as the knife in my back takes a further twist - the pŽage starts to climb uphill! One hour into this wacky race and I'm destined to be a spectator already.

The ZZ-R1200 is effortless at warp speed with gas in the tank but now it resembles a beached whale, fully loaded with my camera gear and a single bottle that reads 'Beaujolais Nouveau 2004'. The same bottle responsible for my present predicament.

As I plunge the sans-plomb into my tank what feels like hours later, I reflect on the fact I am now last. And still hundreds of miles from home.

It will be no surprise then that my biggest criticism of the ZZ-R1200 revolves around the fuel gauge, which reads half full for yonks before diving for the redline with indecent haste, leaving a reserve good for five miles.

This was my most terrible discovery because, on the journey down, where the others had coasted in to stops with reserve lights they'd been staring at for 25 miles or more, all I ever had to do was smugly top up my tank. Colin even ran out and ended up pushing the last 500 metres into one stop. How I wish I hadn't joined the laughter that greeted his sweaty arrival. Surely I'd beat them all back in true tortoise and hare fashion?

But the ZZ-R is no tortoise of course. In fact, she's the fastest bike here, and if fuel economy were less of a worry you can happily cruise at 160mph all day. She's got the legs for it with bundles of lovely grunt from that big-bored ZZ-R1100 motor, and she's also the most comfortable bike here with a fairing that sees off the elements and slips you through a high-speed wall of wind in a bubble of peace and tranquillity.

On the luggage side, the colour-matched Givi panniers provided ample storage for all my camera gear and enough space for Posh and Beck's combined wardrobes if required. They also kept everything dry in a downpour near Arras.

I did find the front end a little nervous at speed, but I think the panniers may have lightened things up there slightly. Functional they may be, but if outright speed's your thing then they're a bit like sticking a roof rack on Concorde. On the way home (when not pushing) I found sliding my weight forward a little helped.

During the previous day's scratching around Beaujolais' scenic country lanes, the ZZ-R coped admirably as I attempted to keep Wozza and the nimble Triumph in sight - impressive for a tourer with a weight penalty.

Back on the road with my replenished tank I now became over-cautious in keeping my steed refreshed. Surprisingly, I only just missed the 07.28 train Adam and Colin caught. If only I'd followed the others into that first fuel stop...

COLIN GOODWIN

You'd think a bloke with a fast surname like 'Pole' wouldn't need to cheat, but minutes before the official midnight start young Wozza storms right past us without saying a word, slings a leg over the Daytona 650 and wheelspins out of the hotel car park.

It's not the first time he's ignored the rules. The plan was to put our hands in a hat for our keys. Wozza put his hand in alright, before the rest of us, took the bike he fancied and told us which we were riding. About as democratic as a central African election.

Martin got the ZZ-R1200 because it's the only bike with panniers and therefore the logical choice for a snapper and his weighty gear. Adam was given the Multistrada because there's no point in having a dogsbody if you don't give him the crap jobs.

I get the Fazer Thou - not a bad result. Plenty of grunt, a fairing to keep the worst of the wind off my weedy chest and a decent chassis. The only snag is this Fazer has been stood around and has some snot in the pilot jets that makes it run as a 500cc parallel twin below five grand. But it's not a disasterbecause, apart from boarding the Eurostar at Calais, this'll be a wide-open run.

What is a nuisance is that this blockage has stuffed the Fazer's fuel economy. Its average on the way down was only 24mpg, which means even though the Yam has a 21-litre tank I'll be refilling roughly every 100 miles. In fact, I ran out on the way down, although fortunately at the beginning of a service area slip road. Even so, 800 metres is a bloody long way to push a 200kg-plus bike for a dedicated pie eater.

If I'd known Wozza was going to play dirty I'd have had a go at his bike. Wiring his camp electric suit into an HT lead would have slowed him down a bit. Martin is obvious favourite because he's the only competitor on a proper touring bike with the fairing and range to match, but there's no need to sabotage his bike because being a photographer he's bound to want to stop to snap the sunrise or the way the lights in a service area reflect off the ZZ-R's ginormous fairing. Adam's no problem either. Word is his sense of direction is so bad he once got lost playing squash. It's generally expected he'll end up wandering around Athens trying to find a ferry to Dover...

We rode down to Beaujolais via Reims, Troyes and Dijon, which is the logical route. I, however, am coming back via Paris. I've had the maps out and using a carefully plucked hair have scientifically measured the two routes and found the Paris route shorter by a fraction. The real advantage is this route has more services, so by using a cunning fuel strategy I can minimise my stops. Also, if anything unfortunate were to happen on the Reims route, such as Interpol setting a roadblock to catch three terrorist suspects on Brit-registered motorcycles, I'll be well out of it.

Going through Paris is obviously a bit of a pain but I'll be there about 3am, and riding around the pŽriphŽrique at night on a fast naked bike is proper fun. Also, if by then I'm hacked off with the whole exercise, I can hit the abort button and spend the rest of the night in the seedy Pigale district watching 'gentlemens' entertainment.

First refuel at one hour seven minutes and 112 miles from the start. Blast. I thought self-restraint would result in a good 130 miles from a tankful. An extra 20 miles would mean one less pit stop and that's about five minutes saved. If I'm not saving fuel, I might as well go faster.

An hour-and-a-half later I'm in Paris and on the terror-phŽrique. The Fazer might not have full R1 power or the sharpness of its chassis, but for urban jinks it's spot-on.

When supermotos and race reps are out of fashion there'll always be simple bikes with stomping engines because that's the pleasure of motorcycles in its simplest form. The better news is this particular Fazer is feeling heaps better, pulling harder lowdown and, hopefully, is drinking less.

There's no traffic on the pŽriphŽrique and it only takes about 10 minutes to reach the A1 that leads to the A26 for Calais. This has indeed been an intelligent decision. The miles have passed quickly and I can't imagine that the others are ahead.

Two more fuel stops between Paris and Calais and we're at the tunnel at 5.35am. I immediately ask the woman in the ticket booth if any Brit bikers have come through: "Two," comes the reply. "One got on the 05.28 and the other just missed it. He's in the terminal." And it gets worse. The next train doesn't leave until 07.28, and it was that devious, cheating bastard Wozza who sneaked onto the earlier one. If he hadn't buggered off early he probably wouldn't have caught it and it would then have been a straight three-man shoot-out through early morning Kent as soon as the train spewed us out on the UK side.

Martin is nowhere to be seen as Adam and myself while away the time in the terminal. I have a splitting headache but it seems the Frogs think aspirin are dangerous as they refuse to stock them in any of the shops. Merde.

We slide onto the 07.28 still sans Martin, so it's just Adam versus myself on the run home. The weather is utterly vile in Kent and already the traffic is hefty on the M20 and M26. Ducati boy, youthful, foolhardy and without the mental scars from years of filtering near misses (and non-misses), hammers off into the distance.

Doesn't do him much good though. Silly boy gets completely lost and arrives 40 minutes behind me at CafŽ Rouge. Of course, Wozza has been there for ages. Cocky, relaxed and warming himself in the photographer's car. But, if he has any conscience, he'll also have a nagging voice inside his head telling him he didn't play fair.

WARREN 'WOZZA' POLE

You may have noticed people here pointing to me and saying things like "cheating", "no conscience", and "git", but ignore that, it's merely sour grapes from sore losers.

But I like to think this story is about more than winners and losers. It's not about individual achievements or triumph in the face of adversity (although I did win, and on a Triumph fittingly enough). Our voyage was about doing something because it's there, about standing proud against the elements and venturing into the unknown while lesser men stayed at home and sat on their sofas.

After all, why the hell else would you ride most of the way across France and back for a bottle of crap wine? Exactly.

As you know, I stole the Triumph Daytona and a good move it was too. Unlike most sports 600s, the Trumpet gave refreshingly little in the way of aches and pains on the long haul and for that I must congratulate the men at Hinckley.

That new 650cc motor packs a revitalised mid-range that could put Honda's CBR600RR to shame, and which also makes wheelies even easier than before. The gearchange has improved, although is still slightly stiff in the higher ratios. Otherwise, the rest of the bike feels much as before with loads of handling, oodles of braking and a slightly cheap feel with its old-fashioned clocks and monotone paintjob.

But, it had the legs for the mission, the speed to happily cruise at 120 all day and the vigour to mean that when the going got twisty I had more fun than anyone else. Which is why I nicked the key and why Adam and the Multistrada strained their way down the motorways (too upright), Martin muscled his way through towns (too heavy), and Colin bounced down the backroads (too squashy).

Having made it to Beaujeu, the hub of the Beaujolais festivities, we discover the biggest lie of the trip had been perpetrated by the French tourist board who described the event there as "a massive party", attended by "thousands". Hmm. It looks like a village fete, and if the attendance runs above the tens I would be very surprised.

Tasting the wine on offer reveals another lie. No one describes Beaujolais as classic, although there were many references to it as "good". Wrong. After tasting the stuff it appeared we had ridden 600 miles for cooking vinegar.

But so what? This was hardly an exercise in sensibility. And so to the race itself...

We'd bagged an hour's kip before leaving for safety's sake and to avoid any awkward falling-asleep-and-veering-into-the-armco-on-a-dark-pŽage-at-120mph incidents. Upon waking I try my best to leave without disturbing Adam. Knowing he has neither a map nor a clue where he is is too good an opportunity to miss. Sadly he wakes and makes it downstairs in time to depart on Goodwin's tail. Oh well.

As we struggle with luggage, fiddle with keys and the stroke of midnight nears, the air is thick with tension despite our poker-faced cheery demeanours. Ready first, I legged it reckoning if I could make the pŽage without screwing up I'm in with a chance.

Screaming through deserted rural France in the pitch black is an experience on its own, and within minutes the tired fog in my brain clears and even the cold of the November night barely touches me (although this is probably more to do with my heated underjacket and gloves - Gerbing, I love you - than anything else).

Safely onto the pŽage, all that's needed now is faultless navigation and quickfire fuel stops as these are where the real time would be lost. A possible wrong turn has me scratching my head over a map by my headlights on the hard shoulder for a few minutes while a misread fuel stop sign (I thought it was further away than it was) has me making an unnecessary pit stop.

Now confusion sets in because in a race like this you're unlikely to see your opponents. Are they behind? Or are they one minute in front? And how far is the furthest fuel stop I can reach? All these thoughts conspire to occupy your brain and prevent the onset of sleep (a good thing), while also making you ride relentlessly faster through the night (also a good thing).

Then I see a single taillight ahead. It has to be one of our boys because, in another great lie, nobody else is doing this 'historic' run. The roads are empty save for endless lorries, and we haven't seen hide nor hair of another Brit since gaining French soil.

It's idiot boy Harvey. Damn and blast. Surely he has to be the last of the other three? That's it. My plans for any rest stops go out of the window and from here I do nothing other than as many flat-out miles as I can between stops and never so much as remove my lid at the services. I'm in and out of every one in record time and, having done this from start to finish, I make it to the Eurotunnel terminal red-eyed and shaky, but seemingly ahead of the others, which is all that matters.

The icing on the cake is the train attendant's confirmation that indeed, no other Brit bikes have been through since the previous day, followed minutes later by Harvey's call to me as the train pulls out, saying he'd just missed it and the next one is two hours away. Oh sweet stolen victory is mine. Ha, Ha!

SPECS - DUCATI

TYPE - ALL ROUNDER

PRODUCTION DATE - 2005

PRICE NEW - £7750

ENGINE CAPACITY - 992cc

POWER - 83.9bhp@7000rpm

TORQUE - 67.9lb.ft@4500rpm

WEIGHT - 196kg

SEAT HEIGHT - 820mm

FUEL CAPACITY - 22L

TOP SPEED - n/a

0-60 - n/a

TANK RANGE - 135miles

SPECS - KAWASAKI

TYPE - SPORTS TOURER

PRODUCTION DATE - 2005

PRICE NEW - £8090

ENGINE CAPACITY - 1164cc

POWER - 146.2bhp@9800rpm

TORQUE - 87.5lb.ft@8200

WEIGHT - 236kg

SEAT HEIGHT - 800mm

FUEL CAPACITY - 23L

TOP SPEED - n/a

0-60 - n/a

TANK RANGE - 155miles

SPECS - TRIUMPH

TYPE - SUPERSPORT

PRODUCTION DATE - 2005

PRICE NEW - £6499

ENGINE CAPACITY - 646cc

POWER - 108.7bhp@11,400rpm

TORQUE - 52lb.ft@10,000rpm

WEIGHT - 165kg

SEAT HEIGHT - 815mm

FUEL CAPACITY - 18L

TOP SPEED - 157.7mph

0-60 - n/a

TANK RANGE - 125MILES

SPECS - YAMAHA

TYPE - STREETBIKE

PRODUCTION DATE - 2005

PRICE NEW - £6999

ENGINE CAPACITY - 998cc

POWER - 133.2bhp@10,000rpm

TORQUE - 75.2lb.ft@7500rpm

WEIGHT - 208kg

SEAT HEIGHT - 820mm

FUEL CAPACITY - 21L

TOP SPEED - n/a

0-60 - n/a

TANK RANGE - 150miles