Wheels & Waves Mixes Motorcycles, Surfing, Skateboarding, And Art On The Edge Of The Atlantic Ocean
Photography by Alex Sobran
For an American traveling in Europe, there are few experiences more humbling than receiving a proper dressing down from a well-dressed Frenchman. For a journalist who gets paid in part to understand what he’s writing about, there are few more embarrassing than being called out when you don’t. So when my friends at BMW Classic invited me this summer to spend a few days in France surrounded by motorcycles I knew next to nothing about, it seemed like a pretty good opportunity to prove my ineptitude while enjoying the pretty beaches of Biarritz as undue compensation.
The event itself, aptly called Wheels & Waves, spills outside the city by the sea to span two sovereignties (three, if you count the Basque Country), thousands of modified motorcycles brought in by even more people, four full days of activity, and in my case five full Sandisk memory cards trying to capture everything from hillclimb sprints overlooking the Atlantic Ocean to art shows set inside skateparks.
Since the first official meeting was organized in 2009 by the members of the Southsiders Motorcycle Club, Wheels & Waves has expanded from a 20-odd-person cruise to a nearly comprehensive spectacle of custom motorcycle culture that’s since gotten the attention and support of manufacturers like BMW, Indian, Husqvarna, and Honda. Attending for two of the event’s four days meant we couldn’t check off everything on the dense schedule, but I’ve tried to section the gallery below into three distinct parts—Punk’s Peak, The Village, and Artride VI—to at least give some sense of the different ways a motorcycle enthusiast can be skinned here, even if they all wear hip wool hats and flannel.
We are up early in the morning on the first day of Wheels & Waves for some round robin racing set on the side of a very green and dewy mountain. It seems that what was once a good vantage point for spotting marauders coming down the medieval coastline has evolved into a cow and donkey buffet with a particularly good view, but for one day each year it also becomes “Punk’s Peak” and hosts motorcycle sprints.
The sky looked freshly roiled and ominously like rain to come when we arrived, but nobody else appeared to mind this very much as they hoisted their bikes off open trailers and rolled them out of enclosed ones to be arranged in a neat, angled row alongside the afternoon’s course. At first, before the sun came out and the racing started, striking the right pose atop and next to their bikes looked to be paramountly important to this crowd. The cynic in me was enjoying the apparent fact that all these cool-looking people could only pull off the -looking part of being cool, but once they started dueling each other up the hill it was made clear that these guys could walk the walk too and I was back to feeling like a putz.
And speaking of competency, BMW Motorrad had invited two-time former Superbike World Champion Troy Corser to ride the supercharged 1929 R57 from its collection (pictured near the top of the article) in the pre-war class. But the Aussie pro wasn’t the only one putting on a show of skill, as everything from heavily modified sport bikes to garage-built electric whisper-rockets were ridden up the hill with equal parts gumption and talent—my advice for going fast on a bike is limited to twisting the right grip and trying not to fall off, but it’s impossible not to notice how skinny the tires are and how low the knees are dropping.
The day after we watched Troy ride a 90-year-old bike like a 16-year-old who’d just stolen it, we were back in Biarritz to watch him paddle into the ocean to surf on a board with a go-kart motor stuffed inside. He outdrank us every night, too. Some people…
With the jet surf demonstration complete and the contraption lashed back onto the roof of the special BMW 2000 Touring (BMW Classic says this one-off was made in period and later on served as a Motorsport works team support vehicle in the paddock), we spent the rest of the day doing some high-quality people-watching in the “Village” that Wheels & Waves set up for vendors.
Of course, there were a lot of new leather jackets with spurious patina applied to the most stylish spots, but for all the guff that motorcycling hipsters get from old “car guy” codgers I still can’t see a big difference between an affected youth in never-dirty Carhartts atop a cafe racer’d CB and a geriatric old bean who insists on wearing a leather cap and goggles for a ride in his MG TC—can you? At any rate, there was more to look at than the latest in vintage moto fashion.
BMW had set up a tent-mansion that wouldn’t have looked out of place in Lawrence of Arabia were it not for the Motorrad memorabilia inside and the dozen custom bikes outside. Some were factory jobs like the black R18, but most of the diversity on the pallets came from independent creators and shops who’d transformed standard Beemers into things like a Mooneyes-themed machine complete with Rat Fink waterski, or the subtle but clever “Matschboxer.” That manufacturers do a good job of advertising isn’t news though, and the smaller companies in the Village—from an onsite dry plate photo studio to clothing-only shops to full-service bike builders—went a long way in creating an atmosphere as bright and cheerful as the weather.
The weather proved fickle, but the first fat drops of rain in the evening were timed perfectly with our escape indoors for Artride VI. The name is pretty self-explanatory—this is Wheels & Waves’ sixth motorcycle art show—but it’s hard to know what to expect from “custom bikes arranged in a skatepark” until you’ve seen just how many cigarette butts are on the ground and which gangs have graffiti’d the walls.
Unlike every park I’ve been to, there was neither of that here. Instead the indoor complex of ramps and rails was starkly clean save for the marks of little polyurethane wheels, and the walls were covered in sanctioned artwork rather than the kind done at night with backpacks and dark clothes.
All of these observations should be taken with a full shaker of salt. I don’t “know” motorcycles nearly as much as I can barely say the same about cars, but an appreciation for machines designed to go fast or far or for fun isn’t limited to what we can recite by chassis code. In other words, I think your average Lockheed jet mechanic can appreciate a supercharged motorcycle just fine.
I learned a lot of surface-level stuff about a lot of bikes that weekend, to the extent that the only bit of knowledge that stuck with me was that Biarritz isn’t just the name of an Eldorado with extra chrome. I still can’t carry an intelligent conversation about motorcycles with anyone who knows what they’re—and what I’m not—talking about, but I can say that if you want to dive in and start getting up to speed, Wheels & Waves sure beats getting run over by a buzzed Paul Teutul lookalike in Myrtle Beach.
The leftovers gallery: