Words and images by Christian Gallagher.
I’ve wanted to go to Wheels and Waves since I first heard of it. I’ve spent half of my life around bikes but never really got into any of the scenes in the north of England – sportsbikes, full-dress Harleys, classics or streetfighters. The new custom scene hasn’t taken root here yet, so for a shed monkey like me with a preference for hands-on over wallet-out, this seemed the place to go. Aboard my rebuilt W650 tracker, I rode the 1600-mile round trip from Leeds to Biarritz with my camera gear on my back, accompanied by a mate on his much-admired Honda 400/4 café racer. Here’s the highlights.
In Biarritz there’s ostentatious wealth – personal bodyguards, limousines, neo-Gothic architecture – packed into steep, twisting streets that make navigation confusing. On this weekend, however, I need only follow the unforgiving bark of old bikes running open pipes as they echo between the close-set buildings, up and out of town toward the south and the Cité de l’Océan: the noisy, atmospheric, bike-clogged epicentre of this whole thing.
“Siga las motos, abajo, abajo”, a Spanish guy motions me up the road to a left turn from his 1940s Harley. So I take the left and follow the bikes – down, down to the beach, and there it is: the mini-Glastonbury of motorbikes. Arrival is breathtaking. Every single bike is worth checking out and they’re everywhere. They fill every pavement, verge and road around the site, as well as the main drag – lined with military tents housing specials builders, beers, burgers and bike paraphernalia.
It’d be easy to consider the people here poseurs – given how cool everything is – but a closer look gives a different impression. There are dirty, well-ridden bikes featuring all kinds of homemade ingenuity (one cylindrical stainless steel headlamp casing looks suspiciously like the tin I keep teabags in) and scruffy boiler suits seem the long distance riding gear of choice. Most of these people built their bikes and rode them here. To undertake a long trip on bikes like these you’ve got to mean business and the elation felt on making it is noticeable in everyone I talk to. They’re too friendly to act cool. You can walk right up to your favourite specials builders – they’re all here – and talk design, bikes, life, whatever.
I stop at Matt Black Custom Designs, who are based near Marbella where I used to work, and get chatting to Toby, the boss: “Next time you’re down there come and see us – we can go for a ride.” By the end of the first day I’ve got a pocketful of business cards and a dozen such invitations.
This isn’t another variety of the weekend dress-up I see at home: these people are real, full-time bikers of all ages. There are faces in the crowd that have clearly seen a life of bikes, which at Wheels and Waves is exactly the point.
See more of Christian’s work here.