On Thursday evening I met Howard on his Fireblade, genie on her Vespa GTS and Doug on his BMW maxi-scooter in Petersfield, where we enjoyed a Thai meal before riding down to Portsmouth in convoy and catching the overnight ferry, which deposited us in Le Havre at eight the next morning. From here it was a short ride to Honfleur and breakfast at a prearranged cafe, where we found four other members of our group. Bike Normandy's John arrived soon after 9:30 and the last two participants after another half hour. Then, after a briefing, we were off.
The Bike Normandy experience is led and tail-ended by John and his wife Jeanette, both skilled riders who know the local roads like the backs of their gloves. On this occasion, however, there was a hitch: Jen had broken her arm in a dog-walking incident a couple of days previously. I earned some brownie points by offering to tail-end, which I did for all of Friday. (I like going at the back: there's no pressure, and you can observe everyone else without anyone seeing what you're up to.)
We set off slowly as everyone got used to the group, riding on the right and working with the marker system, then picked up the pace. The roads were lovely and there was also plenty to look at, including this stone biplane:
Subsequent Googling reveals that this is a monument to the crew and passengers of a Latham-47 flying-boat which crashed off Norway in 1928.
I also spied a sign for the best French town name ever, Pissy-Pôville, which made me giggle under my helmet for ten minutes straight.
Something else which amused me, on the little ferry we took across the Seine:
We had lunch on the other side of the river, and inspected this sombre but lovely memorial to a biker:
Then we began to work our way towards Bike Normandy HQ by a series of pretty country roads, fast bits and a very welcome coffee stop. Back at the gîte, Jen was cooking one-handed and Della the Bernese mountain dog was bounding about, looking blissfully pleased with herself and unaware of the trouble she'd caused. Talk before, during and after dinner was all bikes and riding trips past and future.
Saturday meant a full day's riding. We'd all warmed up, got the hang of the roads and the measure of each other; now it was time for riders and bikes to stretch their legs and enjoy some of Bike Normandy's set pieces - like the stretch known as 'the Racetrack', Howard's favourite, with smooth tarmac, perfect curves, and straights where illegal speeds may be achieved. Lunch was at a venue I remember fondly from my first trip in 2005, a riverside restaurant specialising in mussels. The sun came out, and at one point I looked down to see a lizard perched on the knee of Howard's trousers.
In the afternoon it was time for my favourite road: the Hillclimb, all left-right-left-right and the top speed of one's bike less important than the ability to jink from one bend into its opposite number. I did it, I think, four or five times each way, plus one more downhill as we left. Another hour of country roads brought us back to the gîte and dinner.
The weekend had been so packed, it was hard to believe on Sunday morning that it was still only Sunday - yet already the last day. We bade goodbye to four of the group after morning coffee, packing them off towards Calais, and our depleted convoy pressed on.
After lunch at the Best Creperie in the World, where I had a buckwheat pancake with potatoes, ham and cheese on, we split up further, with one group returning for another night's B&B and one heading for motorway and Chunnel, while Howard and I followed John back to Le Havre.
As we were saying our farewells and thank yous, John pointed at my bike and said quietly "You ride that so well."
And that was the best part of my weekend.