BUDWEIS OR BUST

The Budvar Bike’s epic road trip to South Bohemia

What do you do when you’ve hand-built a beautiful custom motorcycle, transforming a vintage Czech workhorse into something that has been proudly exhibited among the world’s best customs at Bike Shed in London?

Simple: you take it for a spin.

Actually, we’re talking about far more than a spin here. Right from the off, TRUE BOHEMIANS – the collaboration between Budvar and BOLT Motorcycles – had an awesome endgame. After the beer-inspired bike build was complete, the idea was to ride the little custom JAWA CZ on an epic road trip from BOLT’s workshop in London to the Budvar brewery in the Czech Republic.

It’s a 1000-mile ride across Europe that would see six riders take in Amsterdam, Hannover and Prague en-route to České Budějovice in South Bohemia, all in six days. A long road and no small challenge, but with adventures and incredible experiences along the way.

DAY 1 -

London, England

Now with the motorcycle finished, the time had come to lay down tools, saddle up and get the Budvar bike out on the open road. BOLT’s founder, Andrew Almond, and custom builder Simone Fiore were raring to go. Having led the design and build from the start, bringing in craftsmen to create beautiful bespoke touches, Andrew would be riding the Budvar Bike himself with Simone on another vintage ride: a classic 1974 Kawasaki. The rest of the riders would be a hand-picked crew of friends and fellow enthusiasts.

“All of us are close friends through BOLT.” Andrew explained the day before departure. “We know and trust each other; we’ve ridden thousands of miles and had countless good times. This is going to be a challenge. Everyone is excited and a little nervous.”

But it was all smiles as the crew pulled into BOLT’s cobbled courtyard the next afternoon on a mixture of classic bikes. After strapping up bags, it was a short warm-up ride to Colchester in Essex for the night, taking a scenic detour via Mersea Island just as the sun was gilding the glistening pools in the mudflats either side of the road.

DAY 2 -

Amsterdam, Holland

Up with the dawn, the team made it, bleary eyed, onto the 9am ferry at Harwich bound for the Hook of Holland. With bikes stowed and time to kill, Moto GP in the ship’s arcades become a speed-racing battleground, in between catching up on sleep. Then, rolling off the ferry at 5pm, the riders set a more leisurely pace for the 60 miles to Amsterdam, where Zoran from Rusty Gold Motorshop had put together a welcome party – one of the many that would greet the Budvar Bike along the way.

Amid Zoran’s racks of well-curated bike apparel and custom tees, Budvars in hand and Dutch delicacies on the shop’s tables, the team met with the local crowd while the Budvar Bike outside drew the attention of motorcycle enthusiasts and pavement passers-by. The motorcycle scene in Amsterdam is growing and is as unique as the city; there’s a real sense of creativity and brotherhood, which was reflected in the crowd and the technicoloured line of custom bikes outside the shop. After closing up with Zoran, we all headed to a local bar for piping hot chips with peanut sauce, grabbing another celebratory beer before hitting the hotel.

The next morning, we gulped down coffees back at Rusty Gold where Zoran had fired up his famous espresso machine in the journey’s honour, before the team headed east out of Amsterdam. Starting off on the highway, the crew quickly cut off around Apeldoorn for the smaller roads better suited to the Budvar Bike. At 250cc and with a vintage two-stroke engine, the JAWA CZ has a top speed of 55mph, it didn’t pay to gun it. Taking the next leg at a leisurely pace, the countryside opened up all the way to the horizon: a flatland of green punctuated by huge glasshouses filled with bright flowers and Dutch windmills set against an azure blue sky.

DAY 3 -

Hannover, Germany

Just before the German border, we broke for lunch in Borne, grabbing a big table outside at ‘Roast It’ restaurant in the main square. The owner, like most of the residents of this sleepy town, was surprised by the sudden influx of bikes and riders cooling their toes in the fountain, but he welcomed us with open arms. As the name suggests, Roast It is all about meat, and most plumped for the burger, which is apparently the result of a year’s research into the perfect cuts and mixtures. It’s research that has clearly paid off; it was one of the best burgers this side of Brooklyn, served with a set of perfect set of fries. Suitably fortified and energised by post-meal espressos, the team was soon back in the saddle, following the winding country roads towards Hannover.

With unbroken blue skies, it was a glorious ride. Crossing the border into Germany, the terrain started to lift and roll; we hit the backroads, detouring around Bad Essen, a pretty spa town that acts like a breakwater between the northern, Saxony plains and the Wiehengebirge hills. The pastoral charm was pervasive; the crew rode through rolling cornfields into a dusty vision of older times. There was hardly a car on the blacktop too and the riders opened up throttles, which brought something of a racket with the Budvar Bike. At full throttle, residents of the sleepy towns definitely knew the plucky old engine was passing through.

“The JAWA was great; in fact, it was a whole lot of fun.” Andrew explained. “It wasn’t as fast as it sounded and you felt every bump in the road, but it reignited my love of the stripped-back to basics feel of classic vehicles, rough, ready and perfect for a road trip.”

The outskirts of Hanover didn’t loom into vision until dark, and after a good refuel of the local delicacy ‘flammkuchen’ – a kind of German pizza topped generously with sour cream, onions and bacon. Pulling in at the hotel, everyone was more than ready to turn-in for the night. It had been a long day, and we’d covered a lot of ground. But we all knew too that the next day would be the longest of the trip. 300 miles. It was going to take time.

DAY 4 -

Prague, Czech Republic

Not long after the sun had risen, we headed out of town and south east to Leipzig, stopping on the outskirts among the repurposed industrial factories for coffee and sandwiches. The ragged crew of other bikes, ranging from 70’s Japanese classics to an aluminium café racer, perfectly fitted the anarchic landscape of Leipzig’s warehouse squats and reclaimed land. We pulled into a disused train yard filled with giant sculptures made from pallets that felt somewhere between the trailer parks of Joshua tree and Mad Max.

The sun had been beating down on the riders all morning and, pulling gloves and helmets off, it was clear some water, shade and a bit more of a free-hand with the sunscreen were required. Then it was heads down for a stretch on the autobahn all the way to the Czech border. In spite of its reputation the legendary German highway wasn’t packed with cars going 200mph; more of steady flow, like being a stick in the centre of a mighty stream, which suited the vintage bikes. The team stuck together too, ploughing through several hours of riding before reaching the Ore mountains that separate Germany from the Czech Republic.

Soaring 1200 metres above sea level, these were a dramatic sight for sore eyes and the most stunning scenes so far on the ride. Mined for tin since the Bronze Age, the way through is – fittingly – a long tunnel hewed through the middle. Riding in felt somewhere between Lord of the Rings and Blade Runner; neon lights traced a line into the belly of an ancient mountain. Strange weather was colouring the sky as we came out the other side: a blazing but setting sun and sheets of cold, fine rain. Two hours later we were pulling into Prague’s old town, moving along its dimly-lit Gothic streets to legendary clothing store Denim Heads.

Stan the owner, and a crew of local bike-heads, were waiting with drinks. The rain had died away and the party spilled outside. Cold Budvars gave way to shots of the local plum brandy, slivovitz. Again, the Budvar Bike became a magnet for discussion. People asked about the bespoke hop motif leatherwork and the vintage sign-painted logo, toasting the build with bottles of the lager itself. Inside the store, a steady stream of shoppers browsed carefully-curated racks full of denims from Japan, Europe and the USA. After closing, anyone still feeling strong enough accompanied the ebullient Stan to his favourite local bar on the other side of the Vltava, the Czech mother river, with the rest getting some much-needed rest.

    DAY 5 -

    Český Krumlov, Czech Republic

    But we were up again early to deal with some pressing issues. During the last leg of the ride, the JAWA CZ had developed a problem. Hardly surprising with a vintage bike being put to this kind of test, but the fact was we needed to find a new clutch and gearbox, and a garage where we could work from to fabricate some new engine brackets. All on a Saturday morning in Prague. After a phone around, we struck gold. A guy 60 miles out of the city had a similar 60’s JAWA engine we could buy for parts. With the new engine in our hands, we headed to a much-recommended garage on the outskirts of the city.

    The original partner of MCH garage, Milan Chalupnik, had sadly passed away just three days before we arrived, but his son-in-law and grandson had kindly agreed to open up specially to help us. Although still grieving, after hearing our story of creating the Budvar Bike, their sense of pride in the JAWA brand and the challenge of the journey, they pulled together to make sure we would make it to the finish line.

    As they worked, we took in what was a Promised Land for JAWAs. Milan had worked for JAWA as engineer and raced in their team, competing in the local races and Grand Prix from the 1950s. Frantisek “Franta” Stastny was a close friend and a formidable star of the JAWA team, a real legend in motorcycling history. Following an accident in the 1970’s Milan gave his racing JAWA to Franta who raced it in the classic classes and numerous TT races on the Isle of Man.

    In a locked room, Milan’s workspace, sat two identical, full-fairing racing JAWAs on work benches. One was the very bike that Franta had ridden in the Isle of Man TT. The workshop told the racing history of the bike in a collection of dusty race rosettes, photos of racers and curiosities. We were showed around their entire collection, with room after room filled with immaculate motorcycles. And we weren’t allowed to leave until we were shown how to squeeze every inch out of the Budvar Bike’s engine.

    Back on quiet roads we headed south towards South Bohemia. This was the home stretch, and it felt good. We only had a few hours riding so we took it easy, enjoying the beauty of the region – the forested hills and undulating fields in full sunshine. Then, around a corner, the sight of Český Krumlov. Its Renaissance architecture on the horizon was straight from a fairy tale. The effect didn’t wear off on closer inspection; we had special permission to ride the Budvar Bike through its ancient streets and it turned a few heads. We parked up and paid another visit to the motorcycle museum, the same one Andrew had visited earlier in the year to get inspiration for the build. It was great to see how the finished custom echoed elements of the Czech classics, balancing them with modern touches and bespoke craftsmanship.

    Then we headed a little further south along forest roads to spend the night in a tipi beside the Vltava. Kanak – camp Branná is an essential part of the rafting route that families and friends take down this majestic river. The site was packed with an infectious energy coming from sing-a-longs and its busy bar, but the crew jumped straight in the river, washing away the dirt and heat of five days on the road, only lured out again by the promise of a cold beer and some hearty goulash served with big, pillowy white dumplings. We lit a fire in the middle of our huge communal tipi, shared some beers and spent a couple of hours telling stories and singing bad karaoke with a tinny Bluetooth speaker, before everyone started to doze off.

    Day 6 -

    Budweis, Czech Republic

    Mornings by a river in South Bohemia should never be hurried. And there was a relaxed feeling among everyone. Some took walks into the woods; others swam again and ate leisurely lunches on the riverbank, watching the stream of rafters passing by. No one was in a rush. The feeling was calm elation. Today was the last day, and the bike was going home.

    České Budějovice or ‘Budweis’ – the home of Budweiser Budvar – was only half an hour’s ride away but the pace of the day meant we didn’t arrive until late afternoon. After watching its build and progress, everyone at the brewery was excited about the bike’s arrival, but by the time we entered Budweis and its breathtaking market square, a mile from the brewery gate, the clutch on the JAWA had started sticking. We were tantalisingly close.

    Simone did some street-side repairs and the bike fired into life again. When intrigued diners in the town square-side cafes saw the JAWA and its ‘Budvar’ painted tank, they clapped and cheered. The crew had to stop to pose for photos and, egged on by the proud locals, do a series of victory laps of the cobbled square with lights a-blazing.

      Time to go. The riders took off in convoy for the brewery guided by its landmark sign over the town skyline, pulling into the brewery and straight into the kind of welcoming any road tripper dreams of. The bike had made it; time for celebration in Czech style – a delicious feast and – of course – no shortage of the world’s greatest lager, which is only brewed in this spot. It was an emotional end to an epic trip and amid the handshakes and cheers, a free-flowing Budvar tap kept everyone refreshed.

      Then a special honour: a late-night tour of the Budvar brewery with master brewer and beer sommelier, Aleš Dvořák during which we got to help brew our own batch of the good stuff. After letting us have a go at tipping the whole-cone Saaz hops into the iconic copper brew kettles he led us down into the freezing, refrigerated cellars and the tank rooms where Budvar is matured for 90 days.

      There Aleš dished out fresh, unfiltered and unpasteurised Budvar and it blew everybody’s mind. “All the riders have seen the Budvar Bike come to life, and seen the time and attention to detail that’s gone into the build. So, it is great to show them the dedication Budvar put into the beer.” Andrew explained. “I’d been promising everyone that they’d get to taste fresh, unpasteurised Budvar in the cellars all the way. And it didn’t disappoint.”

      And this was, of course, the point of the collaboration. To celebrate shared values of dedication, tradition and going the extra mile to create something incredible. Beer and motorcycles inspire passion, they bring people together. And down in the cellars, drinking the beer that had inspired the whole project, you could really feel that.

      It was an epic end to an epic journey.

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