Perhaps the easiest analogy for Wheels & Waves in Biarritz, France, is to call it Sturgis for the custom bike hipster. Yet that comparison isn’t quite right. Sturgis is a mostly older crowd; Wheels & Waves is a mostly younger crowd. Sturgis is mostly Harley-Davidson; Wheels & Waves is most anything else. Sturgis is mostly stock bikes; Wheels & Waves is mostly custom bikes. Sturgis is mostly black chaps and leather fringe; Wheels & Waves is mostly raw denim and waxed cotton. Sturgis has beautiful mountains and prairie; Wheels & Waves has beautiful mountains and beach.
Wheels & Waves is definitely inspired and influenced by American culture, especially SoCal culture — that unique mash-up of hot rod, biker, surfer and skater styles. But it’s American culture translated by Europeans. So while both events are an annual opportunity for like-minded enthusiasts to reunite, talk bikes, listen to live music, cruise the streets, drag race, see bike-related exhibits, check-out their favorite custom builders, visit brand booths, buy T-shirts, take day rides into the surrounding countryside and generally party, Wheels & Waves exemplifies the simple joie de vivre the Europeans have mastered so well. Instead of a super-sized circus, it’s a more personal, less commercial celebration.
Tattoos and beards may be on par at both events, but at Wheels & Waves there a far fewer beer bellies and the women are actually dressed — and still look great. Emphasis seems to be on personal style and understated individuality, while bikes tend to lean towards used and lovingly abused, favoring patina and grime over gloss and shine.
Then there’s the food. Being in the Basque country straddling France and Spain, food and drink are a ritual. There are no fast food stands offering hot link sausages or dry hamburgers washed down with a plastic cup of Bud Light anywhere to be found. Instead, participants ride to any one of the many restaurants, seafood patios or tapas bars in town or the outlying region for some of the best slow food cuisine and wine on planet Earth. At Sturgis, food is an afterthought. At Wheels & Waves, food is an event.
With the beach right by there’s also a surfing competition, or simply the opportunity to take a swim and play in the sand, and the myriad roads hugging the coastline and winding through the Pyrenees offer hours — no, days — and hundreds of miles of breathtaking curves.
Although the majority of attendees are French, followed by what seemed Spanish, British and German, in that order (with attendees also coming from Argentina, Australia, Japan and America), the whole event was conducted in English. Attendance this year numbered near 10,000 so it’s big enough to feel like a proper event but small enough to feel exciting. The Wheels & Waves “village” — the headquarters of the whole affair — offers a centralized base and cohesive feeling to it all. Despite the wet downpour this year and the resulting nickname “Wheels & Rain,” nobody seemed to mind and it certainly didn’t dampen enthusiasm or turnout.
Maybe the Sturgis analogy isn’t apt, but like Sturgis there’s really nothing else like Wheels & Waves. The best thing to do is make plans now to attend next year and see for yourself what is quite possibly the best motorcycle event in the world. Odds are you will be very glad you did, and c’mon, if you aren’t happy riding bikes somewhere like the Basque Country, you won’t be happy anywhere.
Wheels & Waves happens the second weekend in June in Biarritz, France. Find out more at the Wheels & Waves website.
Photo courtesy Paul d’Orleans