Beer always gives people strange ideas. Nothing is so preposterous that it doesn’t seem like a viable proposition after a few pints. You can bet Eddie the Eagle decided to take up ski jumping after a sesh. And those blokes who tried to paddle across the Channel on a lilo a few weeks ago had probably been on the sauce the night before, too.
This particular good idea was also born out of a few Friday night pints. It developed something like this…
First pint: I wonder how many bike meetings you could go to in a weekend?
Second pint: Dunno.
Third pint: Why not find out?
Fourth pint: What about next weekend?
Fifth pint: Brilliant idea.
The Place: MCN Offices, Peterborough, Cambs
Time: Friday 6.30pm
Distance travelled: 0 miles
So here I am, the following Friday evening, with my CBR600 fuelled up and a map on the tank bag, wondering what the hell I’ve talked myself into.
To the outsider, bike meets must seem bizarre – a load of people drawn together simply because they use a similar type of transport. You don’t get congregations of Ford Mondeos in car parks – though if you sail into an M25 traffic jam you may think you’ve accidentally ridden into one.
If there’s one way to find out what the appeal is, it’s to go to a few and find out from the people who turn up to them – though I can’t help thinking the attraction might wane if you’re stupid enough to go to several in one night, like me. Still, I load up and point the bike in the direction of Loughborough and the first stop. Wild Ox, here I come…
The Place: Wild Ox, Loughborough, Leics
Time: Friday, 7:30pm
Distance travelled: 60 miles
The main bike meet here is on Tuesdays. This is Friday and there are around 50 bikes in the car park – everything from sports bikes and tourers to specials and old sheds.
When I take off my lid I can hear the sound of rock ’n’ roll and smell burgers wafting on the evening air. I wander along the front of the huge half-timbered building and start chatting to a couple sitting on one of the many outdoor wooden tables.
Terry Watkins and his wife Carol are pretty much newcomers here. CBR1000 rider Terry says: " We had been meaning to go for a while, then the other week we decided to make the effort. Now we’re hooked. You get to recognise faces after a while, make new friends. But it’s not just about being here, it’s about getting here. "
A Bandit 600 rider called Loz agrees. He says: " The roads round here are fantastic. " And he’s right – I’ve just spent a very pleasurable hour getting to this spot.
Landlord Barry Starkey comes over for a chat. He says: " It started five years ago. Now we get 4500 bikers here on a Tuesday. Even if it rains, 2000 turn up. "
There’s even a B&B should you wish to stay over, which is tempting. After a drink and a chat with a few more regulars I should be leaving for my next stop, but I can’t tear myself away just yet. This is the perfect way to start the weekend – a rideout straight after work on a beautiful summer’s night before hooking up with a bunch of fellow riders. With the sounds of Elvis in my ears, I reluctantly strap my helmet on and head out of the car park.
The Place: Chelsea Bridge, London
Time: Friday, 10pm
Distance ridden: 200 miles
Compared to the scenic setting of the Wild Ox, Chelsea Bridge is a bit of a letdown. One small van, like the sort you get in lay-bys, is selling coffee and puffing out the familiar meaty fumes of greasy burgers. There are about 20 machines parked along the pavement, nearly all sports bikes with a few despatch hacks.
There’s a real bad boy feel to the place. A Bandit 1200 rider revs up and wheelies the length of the bridge. Before long six more riders are wheelieing, pulling stoppies and doing burnouts. Even a bloke on a Monkey bike gets in on the act. " It’s street art, " one rider tells me. " We like to entertain people. " Apparently, on a busy night there can be 300 people cheering them on.
A cabbie called Paul confides: " The police aren’t as easily impressed. Every now and then they’ll have a purge. " Not wanting to be around in case they decide to have one tonight, I fire the CBR up and head west (on both wheels and at the correct speed, officer), towards Bristol.
The place: The Sloop Inn, Llandogo, mon
Time: Saturday, noon
Distance ridden: 350 miles
After a much-needed kip in Bristol, I glide over the Severn Bridge and into Wales, home of some of the best biking roads in Britain. I follow the A466 and it isn’t long before I reach the Sloop Inn. This pub, in the middle of a small, picturesque village, is a perfect place to stop off for a bite to eat before I head deeper into the land of Taff.
I take full advantage of a massive fry-up, convincing myself that the extra weight should help the tyres stick. Landlady Julie Grace pops out of the kitchen for a quick natter before cooking breakfast. A rider herself, she turned the Sloop into a biker-friendly pub four years ago after getting frustrated at the number of places who wouldn’t serve her and her husband because they were on two wheels. Since then, the number of bikers who visit from all over Wales and England has increased every year, and the place is packed out in the summer.
It’s a bit early in the day and I’m the only rider here at the moment. Still, at least I get the lovely barmaid, Kat, all to myself, even if I do fail miserably to get hold of her phone number. Rejected, I saddle up and continue my quest in the direction of Abergavenny. Five miles from the pub I pass 14 bikes heading back the way I’ve just come. I’m sorely tempted to turn around, but the open road beckons. And what a road it is.
The Place: Oasis Snack Bar, Abergavenny, Gwent
Time: Saturday, 1:30pm
Distance ridden: 370 miles
The road between Llandogo and Abergavenny is one of the best I have ever ridden. For about five miles its beautifully-surfaced corners flow together like a race track. By the time I get to the Oasis snack bar I’ve worked off my breakfast and am in need of a drink. The Oasis is in a car park in the middle of town and full of sport bike riders stopping off to cool down. GSX-R750-riding regular Paul Duffy says in a sing-song Welsh accent: " If you fancy a blast, there’s always someone here to go with. " I join him and his mates in a drink. As I prepare to press on, they warn me about three unmarked police cars in the area.
Forty miles down the road, I make a pilgrimage to Conti’s Café, once a popular bike meet, which has been closed for several years. It’s now a bread shop so I take advantage of a couple of buttered rolls and head down through Rhayader, which doesn’t have a biker meeting place but is still popular because of the breathtaking scenery, particularly the pass overlooking the reservoir
The Place: Ponderosa Café, Llangollen, denbighs
Time: Saturday night/Sunday morning, 6:05pm to 8:40am
Distance ridden: 545 miles
The Ponderosa really is in the middle of nowhere. The closest house is about five miles away. The place is empty and the doors closed. A few sheep which have wandered down from the nearby hills hover around the car park. The lady in the gift shop next door clears up the confusion. She says: " You’ve just missed it. They open up again at 8.30am. " The only hotel in town with a room has a little problem – no electricity. But for £10 a night – and several hours respite from the saddle – I can’t complain.
The next morning, I turn up at the Ponderosa shortly after 8.30am. Already there are eight other riders here queueing for bacon butties. The car park is rapidly filling with bikes of all types ridden by bikers of all ages. R6 rider Barry Knowles, from the Wirral in Merseyside, tells me. " Bikers use it as a breakfast stop when they go touring. Harold will be here soon. " Harold? " Yes he’s the oldest biker in town. "
Half-an-hour later, a mint Kawasaki ZX-7R pulls into the car park complete with rider in Steve Plater replica leathers. Harold is 63 and bought his bike last year. " People complain about born-again bikers. What do they want me to do, sit at home? " he says before asking me how he might go about getting his knee down. I give him a couple of tips before heading out of Wales and aiming the bike towards Cumbria and Devil’s Bridge.
The Place: Devil’s Bridge, Kirkby Lonsdale, cumbria
Time: Sunday, NOON
Distance ridden: 695 miles
Devil’s Bridge is one of the country’s most famous biker meets and always guaranteed to be busy. On a hot day you can sit by the river with an ice cream, or simply wander around and go bike-spotting. A few miles out of town there are lay-bys full of riders who have started their own mini-meets.
At the Bridge, bikes of every description are parked in rows over the whole area, even extending into a field across the road.
I start chatting to Suzuki GSX600F rider Dave Whitehead, from Keighley, West Yorks. He has been coming here for 17 years, ever since he had his first bike. What keeps him coming back? He says: " It’s really friendly. I came up today on my own. The wife was out shopping so I hopped on the bike. " Has it changed much over the years? " At the start there were only a few hundred bikes – now there are a few thousand. But the atmosphere is always the same. "
I get chatting to a group of lads parked up. They’re waiting for a couple of friends who slept in this morning. But there’s no hurry – they’re happy just hanging around soaking up the atmosphere. They tell me of another meet just down the road in Hawes. Do I have time to squeeze another one in? Of course I do.
The Place: Hawes, Cumbria
Time: Sunday, 1:45pm
Distance Travelled: 726 miles
It might only have been 30 miles to Hawes, but by the time I get there my arms are ready to drop off. The road joining Devil’s Bridge and Hawes is like the Welsh roads, but much bumpier. The whole time I had to keep a firm hold on the CBR – there are a lot of blind corners and unforgiving walls.
Hawes is a large village with a few pubs and a couple of cafés. Most riders were using it for a quick breather. The shop is more than willing to give me some kitchen roll to clean my visor and the pub doesn’t seem too fussed when I nip into their toilet for a quick squirt.
The place: Squires, Sherburn-in-Elmet, North Yorks
Time: Sunday, 4pm
Distance Travelled: 800 miles
The journey to Hawes was nothing compared to the A1 to Sherburn. The road bucks like a rollercoaster and on a couple of occasions the front end lifts and the back end slaps my arse as my suspension unloads. Car drivers stare in amazement as a CBR600 comes flying over a crest with a rider hanging on a foot above the saddle.
Squires coffee bar has been a bike meet since it opened in 1954. It has just expanded and now has two new parking areas to fit all the bikes in. The main meet is on Wednesday night, but it’s always full, with riders popping in for a steak sandwich and a cuppa as they travel up the A1.
Current owner Harry Weston can remember it when he was 16. He says: " I use to come here when I was a kid. I met my wife here and Squire Bradbury, who owned it, always said he would sell it to me. He did and I’ve run it for the last 27 years. "
Squires bar is full of stories like these from people who have been coming here for decades. Old boys talk of putting a Rolling Stones record on the jukebox, then seeing if they could make it to the A1 and back, about six miles, before it finished. One of the best stories I hear is about two Dutch bikers who travelled all the way over from Rotterdam, had a beer, then turned around and went home again. They’d been told it was a good place to go by a couple of friends in the army.
I could spend all evening at Squires, partly because the steak butties are excellent, but also for the stories. Where the other meets were full of people passing through, you really felt you were a local at Squires and it was a real shame to leave. But there are two more meets left to visit.
The place: Matlock Bath, derbys
Time: Sunday, 6:30pm
Distance travelled: 880 miles
The miles are starting to take their toll now and I am really looking forward to getting home and collapsing with a cool beer. Luckily, it’s an easy ride to Matlock and, once there, the sight of bikes lining the main road through the town gives me a new lease of life. It’s not just sports bikes here – there are a lot of Wings and Harleys around, too.
Throngs of tourists turn up in their cars just to look at the sheer number of bikes. Carole Tomlinson, from Nottingham, says: " We love the bikes. They’re part of Matlock. " Husband Philip adds: " I’ve been coming for 40 years and there have always been bikes here. They’re phenomenal. " Meanwhile, kids are running up, pointing and asking questions. Matlock is a great way to remind people that riding a bike doesn’t make you a monster, as some seem to think. With the light fading and one more meet still to go, I head off.
The place: Stratford-Upon-Avon, warKS
Time: Sunday, 9pm
Distance ridden: 940 miles.
After 12 hours in the saddle, pulling into the picturesque town of Stratford is a massive relief. Though it’s late, there are still a few bikes parked up. Local ZX-9R rider Darryl Fletcher informs me: " You should have been here earlier – there were bikes everywhere. " The council recently stopped bikes parking on the pavement, but that doesn’t stop people turning up, and most people are happy to see them. Darryl adds: " Everyone here is friendly, the shopkeepers love bikes. The council needs to realise that. "
I’d love to hang around and soak up a bit of Shakespeare, but I’ve got 400 miles under my belt today and I’m rather keen to get home.
The Place: My house, Kettering, Northants
Time: Sunday, 11pm
Distance ridden: 1000 miles
Back home I ponder over the weekend. Though every bike meet is different, they are also similar. The madness of Chelsea Bridge is a world away from the quiet tourist town of Stratford, but they have one thing in common – camaraderie. You are not a stranger, you are simply a fellow rider.
Despite my weary body I’m already planning ahead to next weekend. I may go and stare longingly at the barmaid at the Sloop Inn again – after all, there are plenty of roads left to explore in Wales. Or I might check out Bassett’s Pole, which is a little closer to home. Then again, I hear there are some great meets in Scotland. I suppose I’ll have to set aside a longer weekend next time…
To search for meets taking place in your area, click on " What’s On " at motorcyclenews.com