Ian Kerr catches up with Brits Neil and Sarah Thomas who set up a classic bike business and rode straight into the heart of their community
The weather in Provence is ideal for motorbiking. With 300 days of sunshine and almost deserted roads, combined with a general laid-back attitude, it’s no wonder that motorcycle fans from all over Europe can often be found on the roads of this picturesque region of southern France.
The fifties and sixties were a time when the British bike industry was turning out classic motorcycles, ones ideally suited to the roads of Provence. You may well dream of thundering down open roads that allow the Burgess silencer of a Triumph to reach just the right note to set the hairs on the back of your neck tingling before you brake, downshift and lean the bike into a long sweeping sun-kissed bend; letting the note rise again until you change up.
THE RIDE OF THEIR LIVES
It was a long-held passion for classic motorbikes and a desire to live in the south of France that inspired Neil and Sarah Thomas to set up their bike touring business, Classic Bike Esprit, which is based in St-R�my-de-Provence, just a short hop from Avignon, N�mes and Marseille.
Initially called Classic Bike Provence, Neil offered complete tours and days out. Word spread quickly and soon most of the classic magazines in Europe and even some in the USA were lavishing praise and Sarah had to quit her job as a dentist to help Neil run the flourishing business, which at that time was operating out of their house.
As Neil became a familiar sight on the local roads, he soon found himself as part of a network of classic bike enthusiasts. As the network grew, an opportunity came up to take on the local Royal Enfield concession and that was soon followed by one for Urals. A fellow Brit who had been hiring out modern bikes also decided to retire and with the new focus for the business, Neil changed the name to Classic Bike Esprit.
Such an increase and diversity resulted in the need to acquire shop premises and workshop space, as by now Neil was acquiring a reputation as a fixer of the sometimes recalcitrant classic machinery sitting in garages, with people travelling miles for his expertise.
Eventually they moved into their current shop and workshop just off the village ring road which allowed all the various strands to come together. No longer do the tour bikes live at home. These now grace the centre part of the shop and act as a magnet for the classic enthusiasts. The Urals and Enfields sit in the window along with classic clothing and helmets while the large workshop at the rear keeps everything running, including the customers’ bikes.
Good old-fashioned service and hard work has meant that they now have the distinction of being the largest Ural dealer in Europe and turn over a fair few new Enfields as well. Tours are still going well and Neil manages to juggle leading these while keeping the busy workshop running. Sarah not only manages to deal with the day-to-day running, but has proved to be very accomplished sidecar instructor!
All in all, the couple have turned the various strands into one big classic bike haven that sits nicely with the local historical surroundings.
Neil and Sarah Thomas, Classic Bike Esprit