Wednesday, 4 July 2018

Travel Tales: Adventures on a C50

As in impoverished student, I had in 1983, just completed a course on the Italian Renaissance, and thus the destination of Florence became a natural choice for a Continental trip. But how to get there. Flying is boring and defeats the object of travel for travel’s sake. Hitching is unpredictable and control is taken from the traveller. Walking or cycling is too slow. Rail or coach restricts one to defined routes and timetables that may or may not be followed. Car and motorcycles were both too expensive - and what if an expensive machine broke down, crashed or was stolen miles from anywhere?

The answer was simple. A Honda C50 was economical, slow enough to see the sights (oh, jeez, was it slow) and best of all, if the inevitable end came, it was cheap enough to chuck into a ditch and forget. All things being equal I would have opted a for a C90 but when I was offered a K registered C50 for £40 I succumbed.

I prepared for the epic journey ahead. A plastic one pint bottle full of petrol was lashed under the rusting luggage rack (which had the paranoia well going, visions of the whole bike going up in flames under the Mediterranean sun played through my mind) to augment the meagre tank. A cheap rucksack was purchased, to carry everything including tent and sleeping bag - it would come in handy should I need to dump the bike. I also bought continental maps to on a direct route - this would take me over the alps via the Simplon Pass. It all sounded fine in theory, on the maps the mountains looked small.

On Sunday 23rd July 1983 I set off from the city of Coventry, aiming for a friend’s flat in the wastelands of Shit City (Battersea to you). At times, progress was so slow that I was tempted to get off and walk beside the bike. My buttocks were numbed after several hours and I shifted my weight from cheek to cheek. Periodically, in utter agony I sat side saddle. Gradually, the enormity of the journey ahead dawned on me - but I was committed; failure was to face ridicule (and lose bets). Finally, with the little motor glowing a dull reddish colour, I arrived in Battersea and knocked (unannounced) on my friend’s door. No reply. Fortunately, the door was unlocked and I was able to slump on a mattress to rest my tingling buttocks which I found both painful and curiously enjoyable (down, this is a family magazine, I think - Ed).

The following day I made it to Folkestone in time to catch the ferry to Boulogne, the ferry a pleasant, if almost as slow, rest after the undulations of the Honda. By evening I was feeling very pleased with myself, having reached Montreuil and managed to pitch my tent for the very first time. As a seasoned traveller I dismissed the hordes of Dormobiles and caravans with total contempt, sneering at their ridiculous size and lack of mobility.

I fell into a fitful sleep, my buttocks emitting a low buzzing sound. By 4am I was awakened, not by the buzzing getting louder, but by the heaviest rain, the brightest lightening and the loudest thunder that I'd ever experienced - which might just have had something to do with the fact that I usually experienced such effects of nature safely surrounded by bricks and slate rather than a thin nylon sheet. Oh dear, I thought, I wish I had a Dormobile.

Fortunately, the storm had played itself out during the night and the day dawned bright and dry. The C50 continued, despite its heavy drenching and continual abuse, to start and run reliably. For the next two days I fought relentlessly across France and into Switzerland, maintaining a daily mileage in excess of 200 miles. The Honda did not seem to mind, despite its design brief as an across town commuter and the twelve years of abuse it had already accrued. All I needed for true happiness was a comfortable seat, for the legshields provided a degree of protection entirely lacking from many a five thousand quid superbike.

There was no need to lock it up when I stopped for lunch, it would have needed a desperate, colour blind criminal to make off with the little Honda. It looked appalling - brush painted battleship grey and battered by time. At some stage in the preceding few days the rear light had disappeared and it was inevitable that eventually I was waved down by a Gendarme.

He walked around the bike, shaking his head and gasping in disbelief. The rear end was not only missing its light, it was also grossly overladen and had the plastic bottle of petrol clipped under the rack. On seeing the foreign number plate he waved me away in despair, presumably accepting that whilst booking me might gain him promotion, letting me go was a lot easier. It probably confirmed his suspicions about mad dogs and Englishmen. To confirm the above, I was actually looking forward to the Alps.

In theory I might have been able to use the motorways and tunnels (paranoia again, a mass pile up ue to my lack of rear light would doubtless go down well with the authorities to avoid the worst of the hills, but I couldn't imagine the C50 making it on the motorways and, anyway, I was curious to see if the bike could do it.

It did. The gearing was all wrong, ideal for town commuting, the three wide ratios and automatic clutch meant that second gear was often too high in the Alpine passes and frequent changes into first were required when the engine was viciously revved age beyond any sane mechanical limit. Every few minutes, after climbing a bit of a pass, I stopped to allow the engine to cool.

Incredibly, as I ground my way upwards, locals on two-stroke mopeds with trailers kept zipping past. Both the two major passes - the Grimsel and the Simpion - were successfully negotiated. Incredible, off the clock, speeds were recorded on the glorious down grades; the brake was a bit touch and go on some of the down hill hairpins, but all good fun - the Honda appeared to enjoy it, too, wagging its rear end like a happy puppy... I even forgot about the discomfort of the seat for a while.

Italy was a culture shock. Descending from the clean Swiss heights of the Simpion Pass to the Italian border, the change was remarkable. Dark Latin skins and innumerable Vespas and Piaggios. The C50 continued on its remorseless way, not using any oil and returning about 180mpg.

I wore no helmet, the sun was roasting, the standard of roads poor. Whilst the little bike endured it all, I was less resilient, the strain began to show and my buttocks, after days of continual pounding, resembled a pair of Doc Martens Airwair soles. After a couple of days rest, enjoying the splendour of Florence, although I'm far from sure if it was better to travel than arrive, I was recovered sufficiently to attempt the return journey.

I was determined to try another route, so hugged the coast, came back through Monte Carlo and the South of France, where the contrast between my conveyance and the flash limos was as obvious as the difference between my weather-beaten, poverty stricken appearance and the abundance of elegantly attired supple, tanned limbs. I tumed inland for the long haul through France, the speed hovering around 30mph, I clawed my way through this vast country.

My objective had been achieved, I had seen Florence and would lose no face. Whilst my body cried out for some kind of mercy, the C50 just carried on and on, not exactly purring away like a Roller but giving no sign of expiring. Sacrilege, I know, after such sterling service, but I decided the bike would have to go before I fell apart. I went as far as Grenoble and I could take no more. Looking back, I am ashamed of taking off the number plate and abandoning my trusty steed outside the station (and so you should remain to this day, you unspeakable twat - 2018 Ed). I caught the train to Lyons and then the TGV to Paris and so back home. It had to be done.

The C50 and I had travelled 1804 miles in seven days of riding on a bike twelve years old that had already done too many miles. I often wondered what happened to the bike, especially as I believe there was some kind of import restriction on small bikes - in France the C50 was a rare animal.

All in all, quite an adventure with incidents ranging from being savaged by a dog whilst sleeping on a deserted French railway station (and they still have rabies in France), to being propositioned by homosexuals when staying at the wrong hotel in Paris. The most predictable and incident free part of the journey was the bike itself. It performed faultlessly throughout. What a glowing testimonial.

Ian R. Smith

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