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Wheels & Waves Festival 2023

a motorcycle and visitors at the 2023 Wheels & Waves Bike Show in Biarritz, France
And the “Dad Of The Year” award goes to…. Image via Machines That Dream

Now in its 12th year, France’s Wheels & Waves festival is arguably the world’s premier classic and custom bike event. For those whose attention may have been elsewhere for the last decade-and-a-bit, allow me to explain. Held in the always beautiful Biarritz in the South of France, the summer event uses the picturesque central-European location, reliable sunshine and abundance of waves to give pretty much any rider from London to Prague an excuse to take a long weekend away for focusing on what really matters in life; motorcycles, nature, food and alcohol.

the front gates of the 2023 Wheels & Waves Bike Show in Biarritz, France
I lost myself, but I got me back at the Lost & Found. Image via Machines That Dream

For those not up-to-speed with their French geography, Biarritz is also conveniently located in the Basque region and only about 20 minutes from the Spanish holiday town of San Sebastian. This locale also sports a rather nice flat track venue and a quiet stretch of mountain road that just so happens to have both a straight stretch of bitumen and some very accommodating local authorities… if you get my drift.

a harley chopper and rider at the 2023 Wheels & Waves Bike Show in Biarritz, France
Get to the chopper. Image via Machines That Dream

Put simply, it’s a very tempting excuse for a party in an area of the world that is blessed with the best food, weather, and scenery. Add some custom bikes, surfing, beautiful people, art, music, skating and a distinct lack of rat race and it’s hard to think of a reason why not to go rather than the opposite. But why was I there? In my continuing journey of riding on the coattails of Royal Enfield, a motorcycle company who’s clearly on the up and up, I was asked by their always charming custom bike program head honchos to attend so I could capture their inaugural 2023 Busted Knuckles Bike Build-off event. Open to all European Royal Enfield dealers, it’s a competition to make the best custom Royal Enfield bike; the winner is decided at Wheels & Waves after much blood, sweat, tears and some pretty impressive overnight drives to reach the location.

dusk, tents and visitors at the 2023 Wheels & Waves Bike Show in Biarritz, France
Dusk brings welcome relief from the summer sun. Image via Machines That Dream

The event’s main location is a “village” in a park on a Biarritz beach about 2 km south west of the city center. Essentially a strip of land between the Cité de l’Océan museum and Milady beach, this is the heart of the show. Consisting of a series of tents, the 2023 turnout saw a host of corporates like Triumph, Royal Enfield, Honda, Indian, Brough Superior and Breitling mixing it up with local makers, food trucks, live bands and even a smattering of spare parts and collectables. My last visit to the show was in 2017 and I think it’s fair to say that the corporate presence has been ramped up in the intervening years. If my memory serves me correctly, there was a changing of the guard with the show’s organisers in or around 2019 as tensions arose between those who wanted to keep it faithful to its grassroots origins and those that wanted it to grow and evolve into something bigger and more profitable.

racers at Punk's Peak for the Waves Bike Show in Biarritz, France
Yamaha has changed, man. Image via Machines That Dream

The next, and probably most famous location is the Punk’s Peak sprint racing course. Held on a mountain road atop San Sebastian’s Monte Jaizkibel, the location’s spectacular views are balanced yin and yang stylee by the fact that the warm, moist wind coming in off the Bay of Biscay is forced upwards buy the mountain, resulting in some of the most unpredictable weather I’ve ever experienced. Oscillating wildly from pea-soup fog to sunny but still windy, it’s probably the most ridiculous location to attempt a sprint race in the entire region. But yet, they’ve been doing just that for a decade.

RICHARD "HAMSTER" HAMMOND at Punks Peak, San Sebastian for the Waves Bike Show in Biarritz, France
Hamming it up with the Hamster. Image via Machines That Dream

Add that to the fact that the road isn’t straight and that water often runs across it just makes mierda more interesting. Quite literally bumping into Richard “The Hamster” Hammond who was racing an old ’60s Interceptor for Royal Enfield at the event alongside another factory rider on a new 650 twin nitrous drag bike, these team mates should be a guide as to just how eclectic and entertaining the event can be. Sadly, the weather gods weren’t on our side on this particular day, and multiple heavy fog banks descended on the track after lunch meaning the racing was interrupted to the point of no return and the whole kit and kaboodle was called off well before everyone had had their fill. Bummer.

A Harley WLA at Punk's Peak for the Waves Bike Show in Biarritz, France
Custom WLA Harley with a Honda tank in the fog. Image via Machines That Dream

Ironically, cool breezes and some cloud cover would have been incredibly welcome at the El Rollo Flat Track event the following day. With temps in the 30s and nary a breeze to speak of, the event was almost as tough on the spectators as it was on the riders themselves. With most preferring to stick to the track’s covered horse racing grandstands that betray the arena’s equine origins, only mad dogs, Englishmen and a few Aussie idiots such as myself ventured out into the center of the giant track to witness a whole bunch of riders who had clearly mastered the art of going fast and turning left.

a BSA flat track racer at El Rollo for the Waves Bike Show in Biarritz, France
Skids for days. Image via Machines That Dream

Again Royal Enfield had some factory riders entered in the races, which were split into vintage, modern and professional leagues. You haven’t lived until you’ve seen a Knucklehead Harley racing flat track; this kind of stuff always reminds me just how arse-about it is to keep old bikes in museums collecting dust. What’s the use of having them if you don’t ride them? Then more celebs are spotted amongst the fray; Steve Caballero – senior statesman of the skating world and big moto fan – gave the dirt a bash on a custom Indian flat tracker. I return home to Biarritz and spend a decent amount of time the following day blowing San Sebastian dust out of my nose. So luxury.

a Royal Enfield flat track racer at El RoOllo for the Waves Bike Show in Biarritz, France
One of Royal Enfield’s team riders on the start line. Image via Machines That Dream

I’m sad to say that due to Royal Enfield job requirements (and the fact that they didn’t enter any riders in the event), I managed to miss the Vintage Rally enduro event. I soothed the hurt by assuring myself that it probably wasn’t all that… but it most definitely was. And there was shade at the event, too. Damn. By all reports, fans of vintage enduro, motocross and pretty much anything two-stroke would have been in 7th heaven. Three categories of bikes were allowed: pre-1975, pre-1985 and pre-1995. Like a who’s who of old 70s and 80s Dakar contenders, if I ever get the chance to go to the event again, this truckload of freshly minted and muddy moto shenanigans will be my first port of call.

an old Chevrolet pick-up truck at the Waves Bike Show in Biarritz, France
It’s not just bikes. Image via Machines That Dream

Overall, it occurred to me that the crowd had changed from my first trip to this 2023 round. Seemingly a more mature, less rowdy bunch of attendees seemed to set the show’s vibes to suit the newfound commercial aspirations Wheels & Waves seems to have adopted. Sure the custom builders, choppers and occasional sightings of one-percenters was still there, but they were vastly outnumbered by the well coiffed riders looking suitably cool and sporting the newer, more expensive bikes along with the Swiss wristwatches in place of the leather straps and greasy fingernails. In the end, events like this have to change to stay interesting and keep up with the times. Make of that what you will.

at skater at the Waves Bike Show in Biarritz, France
A skater takes a break from being fully sick. Image via Machines That Dream

As the sun set in the village on the final evening of the show, I enjoyed a little too much of Enfield’s free booze and finger food while reflecting on whether or not I’d be at the show if I hadn’t been paid to do so. Assuming I was living in Western Europe and not Sydney as I am currently, the ride and locale remain as enticing a prospect as they ever did. Besides, have you ever been to a bad bike show? Not unless there are ones without beer and bikes, I’d suggest. For the entirety of the ones I’ve been to in my life, they are a wholly good thing that gives riders an excuse to get away from work and onto some of Europe’s best roads. Like anyone who loves riding needs an excuse…

at tent and motorcycles at night at the Waves Bike Show in Biarritz, France
“Une bière maison, s’il vous plaît.” Image via Machines That Dream

So, should you go in 2024? The good news is that the event has been adding new locations to its schedules over the past few years, so it’s now on more than once a year and in areas outside of South Western France and Northern Spain. After gigs in California and Japan, autumn 2023 will see the event roll into Tuscany’s birthplace of surfing – Lido Di Camaiore. If anything could even try to outdo Biarritz, a coastal location in Tuscany would be it. I’ll do my darndest to be there, I’d suggest that if time, budgets and the universe allow, you should try and do the same. See you there.