(I originally wrote this story in December 1997 and posted it on my website. I had just come back from one of my first trips motorcycling in France and was very excited.
In July 2002 I had just come back from the motorcycle races at Laguna Seca, and I decided to rewrite the story in hopes that people will see why I prefer to ride in Europe.)
Normally I spend my summers motorcycling in Europe, mostly France and it seems that every time I would return to the States I was greeted with a new horror story of police abuse towards motorcyclists. These are not Hell's Angels type bikers but just the run of the mill, you and me type. I remember reading a story years ago in one of the motorcycle magazines about a California Highway Patrol car cutting over 3 lanes on the highway just to follow a motorcycle that was in the slow lane. The cop endangered a number of cars in doing this maneuver just to make himself known to the biker. The funny thing was that the story was written by one of the car drivers that was outraged by the actions of the police since the writer never saw the biker doing anything wrong. I thought this police harassment nonsense had stopped and all we now had to deal with was condo groups and trailer park owners. But I was wrong. First was the incident at Spartanburg SC. Then the Martha’s Vineyard episode. And then "siege" at Fontana Dam. A lot more since I wrote this story originally including drivers killing bikers and getting off with a slap on the wrist.
So when I went to the races I should have been prepared for what happened. On a road with no cross traffic and very little on coming traffic, on a road that goes no where near homes or kids or old people or walkers or bicyclers, why would the police think it is more important to have three cars with radar making sure the bikers stay to the 30 mph speed limit than it is to have at least one cop at the intersection where this same road meets the main road, a road that has traffic going 65 mph and that requires the majority of bikers to cross traffic to go in the direction they needed to? Wow, that was a mouthful. But think about it. what is the job of the cops? Is it to make us obey the law or reduce the chance of accidents? Well, maybe both but in my opinion, protecting both the bikers and the drivers from accidents would take priority. And the greater chance of accident comes not from the bikers going fast on a road to the track but from trying to cross high speed traffic. If there was a chance for an accident on this empty road to the races then it would have happened since at times the bikes were going fast. Then after the races on Sunday, do the police let the outgoing traffic take both lanes? Do they let the bikers ride in the on coming lanes so they don't get rear ended by a car? Hell NO! In fact a cop drives by yelling at the bikers to get back in the lane. drives by close enough to be dangerous to the bikers that were safer riding in the on coming lane passing the cars before the cop showed up.
Let's face it, if this nonsense happened in Europe, the bikers would begin a protest if not a boycott. Imagine what would happen to the local economies if Laguna Seca, Americade or Lacona did not happen. Or if the bikers boycotted the events? Maybe we should. it would take just one boycott, and the locals would tell the cops to back off, to support the bikers and not harass them.
Many of my friends wonder why I would rather spend 7 months riding in Europe or 3 months riding in Mexico to riding in America. Let me just relate a weekend of incidents that brought me and other bikers in direct contact with police in France and how it was handled. It might go a long way to explaining why a day riding in France is worth a week riding in America and it shows that if we focus on solutions rather than control, we can find ones that make everyone happy.
It was the weekend of the French Motorcycle Grand Prix in June '97. I was staying in St. Remy de Provence and planned to go to the races Saturday and Sunday. On Friday I was going the other direction on the French motorway, a toll road, to meet a friend in Agde for lunch. I saw lots of motorcycles heading the opposite direction towards the races. As I got off the motorway at the Agde exit, I was waved through the toll booth. The French motorways charge bikers only 50% of what they charge cars but free was even better. I mentioned this to a friend and he explained to me that during the weekend of the Motorcycle Grand Prix all motorways in France are free. Free in any direction just to motorcycles. I gave this some thought and I understand why. The motorways are the safest, fastest way to get anywhere in France and while the tolls are not high, there are many bikers who would risk the less safe Route National roads to save a few Francs. Riding fast on a Route National road, passing cars and trucks on mostly 2 lane roads, would lead to accidents and deaths. To keep this from happening and to keep car and truck drivers from having to deal with bikers pretending they are racers on the slow RN roads, the government encourages bikers to take the safer motorways by making them free starting noon the Thursday before the race until Monday noon after the race. You think this is odd, well, its only the beginning.
I get to the races and I find a secure parking area. This parking area is run by who? An insurance company. Why? Because they are the last ones who want to see motorcycles stolen. To get in to the parking area I have to show proof that the bike is mine. I have a copy of my motorcycle title and that's good enough. I am not sure what Europeans show. I am then given a ticket. They put another one on my bike and another on my helmet. I have to have all three to get the bike out. I can leave my helmet locked to the bike because no one can get the helmet out without the other tickets. When I leave the races, not only do I have to show the three tickets again to get my bike out of the parking area but when I get to the gates at the track exit, the French police are there checking registration against the motorcycle’s VIN number, not just the license plate. Everyone, including the police, are polite and friendly.
I decided not to spend the weekend camping at the track but instead I commute back and forth to St. Remy. The race track is on top of a mountain with two 2-lane switch back roads going to it. In both directions bikers are zooming past the cars with the typical disregard for solid white lines. There I begin to notice two things. First, every pole that is on either side of an access road or a paved area that looks like it would be a good place to stop, is covered with big cushions. I also notice that there are cops hanging out on the side of the road about every 100 meters. They are in full sight, not trying to hide but I never saw these cops go after anyone and I think they were there just to keep the bikers from getting too crazy. Crazy is normal, "too crazy" is going down or wrapping oneself around a tree.
At the end of the races on Sunday I was surprised that the police had blocked off one road down the mountain and was directing all the traffic along the other. I figured it was either due to an accident or because they were trying to filter all the traffic directly into the motorway and not through the small village that you have to pass through if you took the blocked road. All the way down the hill the bikers are screaming around the cars, passing where they could, as fast as they could, and then cutting back into the right lane. There is never a problem getting back in to the lane because French car drivers always give way to motorcycles. But what we didn’t seem to realize until we got all the way down the mountain was that the uphill lane was blocked off so that none of us were in any danger from on coming traffic!
On the motorway, I pass bikes at 100 mph and in turn, I am being passed like I’m standing still by other bikes. No one is worried about getting a ticket since the typical way speeding tickets are given on the motorway is by comparing the time you enter the motorway and the time you leave on the toll ticket. The police sometimes are standing on the other side of the toll booths just waiting to give out tickets. But since bikers don’t have to pay at this time, there is no way that they can be ticketed for speeding.
So here we have had a situation that could have been handle very differently if the police and the French government wanted to hassle motorcyclists. Instead they allowed people to have fun while making it as safe as possible while not making it boring.
I was at the races in Lacona a few years ago and all the police could do was give tickets. It was dark on our way back to the hotel. we were on the highway and doing the speed limit. Next thing I know is that a cop car starts to weave in and out of traffic looking for same speeding bike that had just passed us. The cop racing in and out of traffic was causing more of a hazard than the biker was.
My friend in Agde once asked me if we wave at motorcycle cops. I said no way, they are just as bad as other cops. My friend said that in France, bikers do wave to motorcycle police. That motorcycle police in France understand how hard it is to keep the speed down on a motorcycle and to not pass at any chance, solid lines or not. I have to say that every encounter I have had with police in France has been positive. So why can’t I say that of the police in this country.
After riding in Europe since 1993, I have come to the conclusion that the police in a number of western European countries allow bikers a lot of room for both having fun and making dumb mistakes like the time another biker parked his motorcycle in one of the only places in Cordoba Spain you really shouldn’t. Next to the fountain. While the police wanted to tow the bike away, they knew what hardship that could cause to the traveler and found every excuse they could not to tow it.
Why can’t all police be this way? Why can’t all people be this way?