Story by Paul d’Orléans – Originally published in BikeExif  – Photos by Mihail Jershof

 

A banner hung outside the ArtRide exhibition stated, ‘You are not in France, you are not in Spain; welcome to Basque Country.’ At the 6th iteration of Wheels&Waves, the sign should read ‘Southsiders Country’, as 20,000 guests of this festival of surf/moto culture invade the sleepy town of Biarritz, filling all the hotel rooms, Airbnbs, and camping spots, plus every bar with a sidewalk. The Basque region isn’t a hotbed of alt.custom culture, and is a long way from Paris, Berlin, or Milan, where you’ll find the majority of European custom shops. But a surprising number of folks ride to the event, on everything from vintage Brough Superiors to the latest hyper-café custom Ducati. They come, I think, as much for what isn’t at W&W – no obnoxious branding, no OEM industry hard sell – as what is; a mellow, carefully curated series of exhibits, races, and rides.

 

“Our event is about motion” is the mission statement of Southsiders MC founder Vincent Prat, chief of the triumverate (with Jerome Alle and Julien Aze) who organize this legendary surf/skate/moto festival. You’ll need motion to see it all; most of the highlights are an hour’s ride from Biarritz, except ‘the village’ at the Cité de l’Ocean, a series of military tents stretching from this wave-form cultural center to Milady beach. Prat cut back on stalls by 30% this year, to keep the quality high for clothing, scarf, bag, board, and bike vendors; there wasn’t much overlap in the offerings, and what was present was really nice stuff, if not cheap. A big stage held live music afternoons and evenings, the skate ramp was always busy (with legends like Steve Caballero dropping in at random), and the indoor cinema screened fresh material like ‘Sugar&Spade’, ‘The Ended Summer’, and ‘Crystal Voyager’ from 1972 – a legendary George Greenough film, the first shot inside a wave, with a full side of Pink Floyd’s ‘Meddle’ vinyl as soundtrack.

The second ‘El Rollo’ flat track race at San Sebastian’s hipodromo was quadruple the size of last year, with a mix of serious competitors and sloppy day-racers. The races were short enough that it wasn’t a mess, and the mix of machines ranged from the new Indian 750s (currently dominating professional races), to vintage Trackmaster specials with Triumph or BSA power.   We must all bow towards Sideburn mag for defibrillating this sport; proof again the custom scene is the lifeblood of the motorcycle industry today. Also refreshing; the mix of age and sex of the competitors, from gnarled vets to fresh young things like Zoe David on her Trackmaster pre-unit Triumph T100.

El Rollo is the first event of Wheels&Waves, and a great start to the week, on Wednesday. Thursday is the official opening day of the ‘village’, and in the evening another ride to San Sebastian is required for the ArtRide exhibition, held on 3 floors of an old fish-packing warehouse in Pasaia. It’s a mix of fresh custom and vintage bikes, photography and other art, and film/performance. A terrific, enormous montage of vintage MX and surf photos, plus surfboards and suspended racing Velocettes from the mid-1960s, were an homage to Richard Vincent, a surfer/racer from Santa Barbara, best friends with George Greenough, who filmed his racing, while Richard filmed him surfing. With professional equipment, Vincent documented an ideal SoCal life, which was dramatically halted by the draft. He was badly wounded in Vietnam, and his bikes, boards, photos and films sat for 50 years. Wheels&Waves was their first exposure since 1967; a short film about Richard Vincent was screened beside them, ‘The Ended Summer’ by David Martinez (full disclosure; exec produced by TheVintagent).

The Punks Peak hillclimb (an uphill sprint bent in the middle) has spawned a host of imitators, so the ‘El Chupito’ race spices up the pre-’50 to Powerbike mix of racers. Costumes are required to race your 50cc demon, and this year the theme was ‘Superheroes’. All sprints should be done in costume!   Especially as sprints grow faster and more serious annually; a few dirty tricks were played, like loosening clutch lever pivots, and one rider seemed hell-bent on forcing his matches off the road – fine but for the barbed wire fencing. One walkaway crash and some hairy moments didn’t dampen things, and the premier event was won by Katja Poensgen – proving women riders rock hard.

Saturday is the all-day DIY rideout into the Pyrenees, and clumps of riders criss-crossed the mountains all day, semi-lost, but with perfect weather this year nobody complained. The views and snaking roads through thousand-year old stone villages, plus the inevitability of a great Basque lunch, make this ride a highlight, and the reason many return to the area. Back at the village, a casual display of exceptional new customs dotted the field, parked without display cards, which made photo IDs difficult, but added to the casual feel, and implied they were actually ridden. Clearly, as Vincent Prat stated, Wheels&Waves isn’t about the show, it’s about the go.