Every summer, a special biking community meets up in Biarritz: retro fans and grease monkeys, surfers and skaters – all united in their passion for beautifully battered vintage motorcycles.
The starting shot shatters the relative tranquility and is followed by the howling of engines. Two elderly motorcycles race around the corner. Enveloped in thick clouds of exhaust fumes, they speed neck and neck up the hairpin bends of the course in the Pyrenees. Thousands line the sides of the country roads, everyone craning to catch a view and bellow encouragement to the riders. The best place to watch this race is a place known as Punk’s Peak on the ridge of the Jaizkibel mountain range.
Motorcycles? Aren’t they a typical hobby of middle-aged guys beyond midlife crisis who chase after the rebel rocker dreams of their youth on gleaming, chrome-embellished Harley Davidson bikes? Well, prepare to abandon prejudice, because the Wheels and Waves festival in the Basque country, straddling the border between the south of France and northern Spain, reveals a completely different biker scene, one with fewer mullets, fringed jackets or skull tattoos. Instead, the majority of the crowd are in their mid-twenties, sporting faded Hawaii shirts and with the occasional ornate moustache or flat cap. There’s also an astonishing number of women, with colorful headbands, well-worn striped shirts and overalls squeezing through the crowds on their impressive bikes to great applause.
This festival is where a brand-new biker community comes to celebrate their lifestyle, where the members are less interested in the power and performance of modern bikes and more in the baroque bikes of bygone times: Yamahas from the golden Sixties with giant headlamps, mean machines like the Honda CX 500, nicknamed the “plastic maggot” in the Seventies, any number of Triumphs and Moto Guzzis that may have been avant-garde 30 years ago. Many are beat-up rides with dull paintwork, old mopeds that stink, belching copious clouds of fumes. From banger to beauty, anything goes is the motto, and the main meet for this particular community is a festival that takes place every year in June at the Plage de la Milady near Biarritz. In 2017, the event drew nearly 20 000 spectators to the Atlantic coast – from across Europe, from the United States and even from Indonesia.
A good bike isn’t necessarily the fastest one, but it needs to have character and a soul
The combines scents of gasoline, oil and singed rubber waft across the festival site. Dozens of old military tents stand in rows in a field above the beach, surrounded by a chest-high wooden fence. This is where the motorcycle makers hoping to tap into this culture showcase their bikes and services, where customizers present their weird and wonderful creations, while over in the motordrome, daring riders perform death-defying feats. Next to it, skaters and BMX riders slide and jump in a large wooden half-pipe, cheered on by young women in petticoats and bright red lipstick. Farther away, on the waves of the Atlantic, blonde surfer dudes balance adroitly on longboards while on stage, Kid Congo Powers, Brian Bent and the Tomorrow Tulips provide the soundtrack for this meet with surf rock drenched in reverb and songs with a liberal smattering of Sixties tunes. It’s like stepping back in time to the legendary surfer era and plunging into the 1966 Californian lifestyle.
The community that meets every summer in Biarritz is the motorized embodiment of the current retro trend. A few years ago, restored bicycles started appearing on the streets of hip districts around the world. Since then, the focus has shifted to motorcycles, which with a little skill can be refurbished and revamped. “In the age of the smartphone and intelligent fridges, many people are discovering the charm of the analogue, the imperfect,” says Sébastien Lorentz, born in 1975 and sporting a baseball cap and chunky spectacles. Six years ago, in his workshop, the Lucky Cat Garage in Chartres, the Frenchman started building custom motorcycles. These are no highbred mega-tech machines that howl and rumble at the press of a button. No, these are old school bikes that need a powerful kick to start them and have a fuel tap hidden under the tank that requires considerable finger contortion to open.
When he was a teenager, he saw racing champion Eddie Lawson on TV, recalls Lorentz, “and from that day on, my world revolved around motorcycle racing.” Lacking the funds for anything else, he forked out a couple of hundred francs for a ramshackle track bike. To rebuild the bike, he taught himself to take it apart and put it back together again, down to the smallest screw. He learned that it was easier to control the bike on bends with a flat saddle and offset footrests. By the time he turned 18, he had built his first custom bike.
Lorentz’s hobby has since grown to become a flourishing business. Screwing, welding, shaping: He still does most things himself. He uses BMWs for the components, because they are robust and simply built, unlike modern motorcycles, which are not suitable for conversions. Lorentz takes the engines apart and then combines them with frames, carburetors, mudguards and handlebars from other models. The DIY ethos is as much a part of this new motorcycle culture as the fact that the old rigs are prone to breaking down. “A good bike isn’t necessarily the fastest one,” says Lorentz, summing up his philosophy and experience, “but it needs to have character and a soul.”
If you can’t feel the vibration of the machine, the heat of the engine when you’re riding, it’s only half the fun
And what goes for bikes certainly goes for fashion, particularly the gear worn while riding. There’s really only one look you can wear on a 40-year-old, slightly scruffy Honda: the Steve McQueen style. “For many custom bikers, looks are more important than technology,” says Thomas Errera, sitting inside his tent. Until a few years ago, Errera, 34 and a dead ringer for a youthful Antonio Banderas, worked as a medical technician, making knee and hip replacements. He wasn’t happy in his job – there wasn’t enough time for dreams. So he set up Kytone, a label for artisan biking apparel. “In the beginning, I knew nothing about fabrics, patterns and manufacturing,” he says. But he knew exactly what he wanted: jeans, T-shirts, casual looks instead of bulky leather gear. “I didn’t want to look like a Hells Angel or one of those weekend bikers with the one-piece Gore-Tex bodysuits,” he says. Instead, he rides in earth-colored long-sleeved shirts, shorts and knee-high tennis socks. “If you can’t feel the vibration of the machine, the heat of the engine when you’re riding, it’s only half the fun.” It’s a mindset that many bikers seem to share, as the young entrepreneur is successful and has found dozens of distribution partners for his label across Europe.
What distinguishes the new biker community, explains Errera, is its diversity and close connection with surfers, skaters, BMX riders and hot rod fans, forming a lively subcultural scene. “It’s a fusion that has sparked wild creativity,” he says, as an artist in the opposite tent earnestly decorates a helmet with glitter paint, comic figures and Mohawk fringing. Others stick bright neon tape on their handlebars or crochet covers for their tanks. “Everyone can do their own thing here, live their own style,” says Errera.
The festival founders were bowled over by the success of their event: “We had absolutely no idea that we’d be starting such a hype,” says Vincent Prat, a sunglasses-wearing fifty-something. Back in 2009, all Prat wanted to do was to enjoy a weekend trip from Toulouse to his old home, Biarritz – with some surfing, a barbecue, a bit of music. A good dozen friends joined him in the first year, and the group grew larger and larger by the year. By 2012, there were so many that Prat and his pals Jérôme Allé and Julien Azé had to officially register the party as an event. Nearly 100 people attended the first official Wheels and Waves festival. The following year, there were 1000, and two years later 3000. “It’s like Rebellion on wheels, and we’ve obviously hit a nerve,” says Prat. As a 16-year-old, he would go off-road across the mountains on his Yamaha, but that was banned in France many years ago. He sees the festival as a call for a bit of biker anarchy. When he fires a revolver for the starting shot of the Punk’s Peak race, or when pros and amateurs race against each other on a sandy circuit in San Sebastián, Spain, these are the moments that preserve a spark of the original unruliness of motorcycling.
Crossing boundaries, bringing a fresh spirit to biking – these are the festival’s core ideas. The organizers are proud of the fact that it is attracting more and more women. Like Irene Kotnik and Cäthe Pfläging from Berlin. Kotnik, 35, thick blonde hair, beige overall, passed her driving license in the US. On her first tour, she rode the entire length of Route 66. Pfläging, 44, nickname “Racäthe” – pronounced to sound like the German for rocket – has had a driving license for half her life. At home in Bergisches Land in Germany, all her family ride motorcycles. When she was little, she would be glued to the window at the weekend, watching the thousands of bikers racing around the bend in front of her parents’ house.
In 2015, Kotnik and Pfläging founded The Curves, a women-only motorcycle club. The hard core has come to Biarritz: Janna the journalist, Freddy the physician, Silke the mechanical engineer, and half a dozen other women aged between 20 and 50. Many of them sat their motorcycle license without making a big deal of it, preferring to avoid the stupid comments. Now they meet up for repair classes and go on group tours through the Alps. Biarritz has inspired them to set up their own little festival, Petrolettes, which is held just outside Berlin in the summer.
“The biker scene is opening up, and many clichés no longer apply,” agrees Errera, during a jaunt in his 1938 Ford Hot Rod. Harley or moped, men or women, old or young: Everyone is equal at Wheels and Waves, and everyone feels equally free. Occasionally, says Errera, he’ll grab his surfboard and simply cruise along the coast, with the wind in his hair and the sun on his face, past palm trees and over the waves – without a goal, without the need to be anywhere. And that’s when the “born to be wild feeling” is at its strongest …