Cycle lane to St Tropez

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Cycle lane to St Tropez. Leica M9, 21mm Summilux

In the spring I often find myself working in St Tropez. It’s about 6 kms from the boat and there is a cycle lane all the way now. They built it a few years ago. It was certainly needed. Before the cycle lane you would have had to have been mad to want to go to St Tropez on a bicycle. I used to use a scooter as taking the car is out of the question. Apart from appalling traffic the costs of parking are shocking. The car park in St Tropez makes 3,000,000 Euros a year I am told.

Frankly now that the cycle lane is there I can’t understand why anyone would drive there. The weather is generally good and there are no steep hills to deal with. The clincher is that on most days riding a bicycle is quicker by far. When will people give up their cars? It seems idiotic to me as I ride past an endless line of practically stationary traffic on my beloved and quite brilliant Brompton folding bike.

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‘Cyclists roulez au pastis’. Someone has a sense of humour! Leica M9, 21mm Summilux.

The cycle lane is pretty good but not without it’s issues. It’s separated from the traffic by a concrete curb about a foot high which worries me a bit. If you fell off your bike onto that you’d know all about it! But at least it keeps the traffic out of the cycle lane so it’s just one of those things.

The biggest problem are the pedestrians who also use it. After all it is for sharing but they are a dozy bunch for the most part and they seem so utterly surprised and not a little indignant when you pass them, if they have left you enough room to pass that is. Every day I surprise someone who is dawdling along and paying no attention or worse has earphones in and is oblivious to the world around them.

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Bikes and people must share. These pedestrians seem aware of bicycles but this is a rare situation. Mostly they are oblivious and always surprised to see a bike! Leica M9 21mm Summilux.

The solution to this was to fit a loud horn to warn them that I am coming. They still seem surprised to see a bicycle however. I don’t know what can be done about this. I don’t mind sharing the route with pedestrians and I am courteous and patient with them but I do not feel that it is reciprocated. It would be nice if we could all have our own path to use but there’s not much chance of that.

Not every cyclist uses the path and that could be because it’s often in need of sweeping. Dead leaves, dust and broken glass can often be found along with puddles of standing water where the path was badly made. The worst aspect are the drains which some berk in their wisdom placed in line with the path so if you have small narrow wheels on your bicycle, beware!

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Not helpful. Drains facing the wrong way. Since they are square it would be no hardship to turn them through 90 degrees! Leica M9, 21mm Summilux.

Despite these few issues the cycle lane is fabulous and I am happy to use it. I am constantly amazed how few bikes use it. On a typical day in May I might see only half a dozen other bikes. It’s a big shame that it is not used more because for every bike on the path it’s another car off the road.

Using the path every day you become aware of one thing; the stupidity and lazyness of people in their cars. Are they even aware that they are in traffic? They don’t seem to mind, everyone seems very calm and resigned. When driving, I can’t stand traffic and it makes me feel like a freak and an idiot. What am I doing sitting in this metal box polluting the environment and hardly moving?

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Lovely views of the bay of St Tropez from the cycle path. Leica M9, 21mm Summilux.

What is so wrong with cycling? Would people really rather sit in their car not moving than get some exercise and fresh air AND get to their destination faster? Never mind the pollution. It is very sad that the council have provided this cycle lane in an effort to reduce traffic yet people still prefer to take the car. Bikes are brilliant. When I get where I am going, there is no worries about parking, no fees to pay. If I was to park in St Tropez, I might still have a good ten minute walk to get into town from the car park. Cars are supposed to save time are they not?

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Riding in to St Tropez in the morning. Note the stationary traffic on the way in. Most days are like this. It’s much quicker by bike. Leica M9, 21mm Summilux.

I can do this 6 kms in about 15 minutes and often I pass EVERY car. That same journey in a car can take an hour or more. Why do people do it? I just can’t work it out. If there was no cycle lane I could understand it but there is. Who was it who said that they had hope for humanity every time they saw an adult riding a bicycle. I feel that way too. Every time I see another cyclist I think; here is someone who ‘gets it’ and prefers to ride for free without polluting. Good for them.

Although the cycle lane is not used as much as it could be I feel that I am setting an example. The more people that use the cycle lane, the more those idiot car drivers would realise that there IS an alternative. It’s a no brainer! No cost. Keeps you fit. Faster. No pollution. No parking. And on top of that it’s much more pleasant on a bicycle. The views of the bay from the cycle path are lovely. The only real down side of the cycle lane is the sheer noise from the traffic. Of course it’s better when it’s stationary but there is a never ending stream of noisy scooters constantly overtaking.

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Sadly road side memorials like this are far too common. A bicycle is a far safer way to get to St Tropez than a scooter. Leica M9, 21 Summilux.

The scooter is the way that most people beat the traffic but they drive like idiots and every week there is an accident on this road. People are so impatient and overtake even if the traffic is moving at a reasonable pace. A scooter is better for the environment than a car for sure but a bicycle is better and a hell of a lot safer too!

If you are thinking of going to St Tropez in the summer, do your self a favour and hire a bicycle and ride in. You’ll have a much better experience. There are plenty of people renting bikes but perhaps the most interesting is one called Beach Kulture who rent the funkiest types of bikes and scooters. They can be found on Facebook and are located at Marines de Cogolin.

I have made my self a T Shirt that I wear sometimes. On the back in big bold letters it says:

Zero Pollution & Plus vite que vous! (zero pollution and faster than you!)


Fiat 126 Bis long term review

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Wilf, our trusty (well not that trusty) 126 Bis in Cannes. Leica M9, 21mm Asph

You know how it is, when you don’t need to buy a car, you see them for sale simply everywhere but when you suddenly need one, there’s not one for sale. This is the situation I found myself in about 7 years ago. I didn’t really want to buy a car but I had to get to work somehow.

It was amazing, I couldn’t find anything anywhere. Secondhand cars in France are shockingly expensive, even the crappiest, abused and dented twenty year old Peugeot 205 will cost over 1000 Euros. In the end I even went to the garages, often they have old part ex vehicles they can’t be bothered with that they will sell cheap. Still no luck.

Eventually I found myself at the local Fiat garage and asked if they had anything cheap and cheerful for sale. As it happens, my luck was in, they had a 13 year old Fiat 126 Bis in white. One owner with an unbelievable 4000 kms on the clock!


Wilf as bought by me in 2003 at 13 years old and with only 4000 kms on the clock. Note nasty wheel rims and plastic panels on the doors.

Obviously I doubted this at first, well it’s only natural isn’t it. How can a 13 year old car only have 4000 kms on the clock? But there was the possibility that it was genuine because the garage had known the car all its life and was bought from them in the first place. The guy swore that the mileage was for real. Then there’s the fact that small cars don’t get used as much as bigger ones and often their small high revving engines blow up long before they go around the clock.

The cars condition was very good. It needed a bloody good polish as the paint was flat. The drivers side door had loads of small dents in it where someone must have been opening their door on it for years on end. I could see this little car sitting unloved in the driveway getting bashed all the time. The interior was faded too. It might have done very few miles but it had spent its entire life outdoors. It still had it’s original yellow headlight bulbs which were about as effective at lighting the road at night as a lit fart.

The guy was asking a shocking 1800 Euros for the car which at the time seemed a ridiculous amount of money to pay for a 13 year old Polish 126 but then I hadn’t found anything else and it was very low mileage and only one owner. Also it had been Ziebarted from new so had absolutely no rust on it. And anyway it was a 126, it seemed like fate. I had bought my partner one years ago for 50 quid. ‘Sterling’ was a good little car while it lasted. We got 15,000 miles out of it for £50. Motoring doesn’t come much cheaper than this!

So we bought it. It has a WF in the number plate so we called him Wilf. It seems to suit him. Fiat 126s are nothing new to me. My first car was a green 126 my dad bought me for £80. I loved that car but it didn’t last long. Constant wheel spins and handbrake turns soon killed it. I soon lost first gear and then discovered that I could wheelspin in reverse so then soon after I lost reverse gear. No big deal as it was so small and light it was easy enough to get out and push it backwards.

Pulling away in second gear soon burned out the clutch and then when being towed home by a mate I thought it would be a laugh to slam the brakes on and try and stop him. All it achieved was to pull the whole front of the car off. How we laughed.


How cute is this? Steel wheels which filled the arches. Just enough chrome and a simple unadorned body. This early model doesn’t even have opening rear windows. Later models open an inch or two. A design classic.

Since then I have had any number of Fiat 126s. In fact I am solely responsible for Quik Fit exhausts refusing to have anything to do with them. I would buy an exhaust and a week later it would snap at the manifold so I’d go back for a new one. They soon got sick of that! The reason why they broke so often was certainly due to the fact that I caned the shit out of the poor little things. I often managed 90mph (140kph) going down steep hills with the wind behind me. The speedo only goes to 80 and I often saw the needle way beyond that.

Stopping a 126 from speeds like that is impossible without cooking the brakes. The only way was to let gravity and friction do it. Suffice to say I had a few arse clenching moments trying to stop. Then in a moment of madness I fitted a 60 hp Suzuki Whizz Kid engine to one, mainly because my mate Shaun said I could never do it. Well I did it. It was rough and ready but hysterical fun and frankly lethal with it’s original skinny tyres, poor suspension and brakes.

Fiat 126s may not be fast but they can surprise on corners. Often I would catch people up and they could never get far away from me much to their surprise and annoyance. You don’t use the brakes much when you drive a 126. You learn to anticipate and think ahead. I think everyone should be made to drive a 126 for a few months before being allowed another car.


Wilf looking very small at les Gorges de Verdon. Leica Digilux 2

Anyway, back to Wilf. He is the Bis, the very latest version of the 126. It has a hatchback and that is the most obvious difference between the old 126 and the Bis. Under the skin the engine is completely different and lies on its side rather than bolt upright. It still has two cylinders but now has a tarmac ripping 27 horse power. It’s quite nippy off the line but could never be described as fast. If you thrash it you can easily keep up with the fastest moving of traffic.

The 126 works surprisingly well on rough terrain and snow. It will get to places that a lot of cars can’t. Steep inclines are no problem unless the engine is cold. Once we suffered an embarrassing 5 minutes when we couldn’t get up a slope and out of a car park. The solution, if rather unorthodox was to go out backwards!

It’s not as economical as you might think. We regularly get about 50 mpg (or about 20 km/lr and sometimes more depending on how many hills we can turn the engine off on and coast down. Even with the engine off we still catch people up on the bends!

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Wilf as he is today. 20 years old an despite a few faults is basically very sound and has passed his Control Technique every time with nothing needing doing!! Leica M9 21mm Asph.

Wilf has been surprisingly reliable except for a couple of issues. The first was when the timing chain snapped at only 25k kms Luckily the engine was only ticking over at the time so it didn’t do any harm. 30 Euros later and we were sent a new chain and sprockets to fit. It was a relatively easy job and since then has been fine.

The 126 Bis is prone to head gasket problems and Wilf was no exception. Luckily gaskets are not expensive. In fact most parts are cheap. The head had to be skimmed to flatten it. Later gaskets are better so once replaced is unlikely to cause further problems. That happened at 30k kms. Since then he’s gone wrong about every 5000kms on average.

The wind winder broke. That was fun fitting a new one! Both headlights went black when the chrome came off their insides. The fuel pump died and the fuel pipes are such crappy quality that they needed replacing. Wilf’s latest problem is the breaking of the rear shock absorber mount. This is a bit annoying as it means the removal of the rear swinging arm.

He’s a crappy car really. My other half gets quite upset when I say that but it’s true. He’s noisy and uncomfortable, has hardly any suspension. Perhaps this was no big deal back in the 70s when he was designed but these days with speed ramps he is really bloody awful. That said, he is a lot of fun and generally gets us from A to B without costing too much or using too much fuel.

He has his faults, like the wipers that won’t switch off when it’s damp. There is a way to stop them though and that is to turn off the ignition just as the wipers are parking! I’ve got it down to a fine art! The head lining fell down years ago. It sounds very tinny without it.

I’m being harsh. The 126 is a laugh. It’s fun to drive, like a little go cart. You can park them in the tinyest spot. Just the other day I took a place that had a mere 8” either end and got in easily. A passing motorist stopped and clapped his approval. Little kids point and smile. In St Tropez it gets as many looks as the latest Merc or Porsche. We are very fond of him. I have never owned a car this long in my life.

He is mildly customised. He has 12” alloy wheels instead of the original 13” steels. To my mind he looked stupid on 13” rims. Luckily I knew a fellow 126 owner who needed some cash and he sold me his VERY rare alloys. All 5 of them. Look carefully and you can see that the wheel hubs are nothing more than sprayed jam jar lids! They fit perfectly.


One of the first things to do was get some decent alloys on him. These are 12” which look much better proportioned. Perhaps they used bigger wheels to make the car higher to pass regulations? Jam jar wheel hubs yet to be fitted!

I fitted wheel spacers to bring the tyres out a bit. I believe for looks, a car’s tyres ought to be as near level to the arches as possible. I also took off the nasty plastic door covers/protectors. Plastic bumpers is bad enough but with all that plastic it was awful. If I had the money I’d love to replace the plastic bumpers with chrome ones. The first 126 was the best looking, no doubt about it. The earliest ones are now over 35 years old!

The Bis is still very much a 126 but it has luxuries, like water cooling and a key to start the engine (early 126s had a pull lever between the seats!). It even has a two speed fan, rear wash wipe AND a heated rear window. Surprisingly, apart from the aforementioned issue with the intermittent intermittent setting of the wipers and the ever glowing water level light, all the electrics still work.


Wilf with a Woodenwidget folding dinghy and sail on the roof rack. The dinghy will actually fit inside the car! Leica Digilux 2

He’s quite surprisingly practical, with the seats down at the rear you can stuff an amazing amount of stuff into him. The front seat comes out in a few seconds to gain extra space. The boot at the front is only big enough for a few tools, a set of jump leads and a tow rope. Wilf has a roof rack and that allows some very big loads to be carried. He has even carried a 10 metre long mast on his roof before now.


He’s nearly 20 years old himself now. For all his faults I must say he has been a faithful friend. I try not to abuse him but he’s a Fiat and almost begs out to be thrashed and thrown around the corners. I just can’t help myself! He now has 40,000 kms on him. Still very low mileage for a 20 year old car.

Prices are rising. With Fiat 500s going for silly money, the 126 is the next obvious investment. Just the other day I saw a 126 Bis for sale for 6500 Euros!!! That’s not to say it will sell for that but it does show that others have already seen this car as the next excellent investment. As small cars become ever more popular the prices of these cars can only rise. Many have rotted away by now, but those that have been cared for have stood the test of time.

You can get any part for your 126 and most parts are very cheap compared to many other cars. The sensible thing to do if you have one is to buy up a few others while prices are low. In the UK £500 will buy you a perfectly usable 126 Bis and if it’s not on the road it could go for peanuts. If you have space to store a few spare cars, you could keep one going for decades!


Wilf at lake de St Croix, at les Gorges de Verdon. Leica Digilux 2 with 23mm lens adapter.

Leica m9

Leica M9 is a bargain

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Leica M9, Elmarit 21 asph, 160 ISO f11 @ 250 Bay of St Tropez, March 2010

Buying an M9 was not a rash decision for me, it wasn’t a sudden thing at all. This was the camera I had wanted for 15 years, ever since I realised that the future was digital. The Leica M9 is everything I want in a camera. I had to laugh when critics complained that it could only take 7 shots continually and only two frames a second. Admittedly this is rather pathetic compared to most DSLRs but this is missing the point. Using a rangefinder just isn’t like using any other camera.


Canal du Midi Leica M9 Summilux 21mm

How could I justify spending so much money on a camera? Well, I’ll tell you. I do not plan on buying another camera for a very long time. When the M10 comes out I will still own an awesome camera capable of taking superb images. This will never change. Leicas are built to last. I do so hate this disposable world we live in.


Island of Porquerolles, France. Stasha nesting sailing dinghy Leica M9 Summilux 21mm

Many people who love the rangefinder philosophy and those wonderful Leica lenses but can’t afford an M9 can still buy any number of film Ms to use but this may be a false economy. Asides from the damage that film causes to the planet it’s a costly process. With the amount I use my camera it won’t take more than 5 years to get the cost of the camera back in saved film and developing costs alone.


Church pew, Portugal. Leica M9 Summilux 21mm

Then consider that an M9 will always be worth something. Sure, it will be superseded soon enough but historically it is an important camera, as important as the M3 was in it’s day and as such will always be desirable. I dare say it will lose much of it’s value over time but it will always be worth something which is more than can be said for most digital cameras.


Tired girl on Metro. Portugal. Leica M9 Summilux 21mm

Because the M9 is such a competent camera if I do take any nice shots I can easily sell them and this too will help to pay it off. But having said all that, even if I never sold any shots from it and assumed it will lose all it’s value over the time I own it, it would still be worth it to me just because it’s so beautiful and inspiring to use.


Mad tiled pavements. Lisbon. Leica M9 Summilux 21mm

Let’s look at value for a moment. Yes, £6000 is a lot for a camera but if I keep it for ten years (which is entirely feasible and likely even) it will only have cost about a tenner a week to own. What is £10 these days? It won’t buy you much , a newspaper and a package of cigarettes would cost as much. It’s a pittance that almost anyone can afford.


A crypt in Portugal. Leica M9 Summilux 21mm

Everyone is amazed that I would pay so much for a camera but these are the same people who probably lose more each time they part ex their old car for a new one. It costs about £200,000 to bring a child up in the UK and these same parents are amazed when they learn the price of the M9. Yes, the M9 is expensive compared to other cameras but it’s nothing compared having children or redecorating a house, even a holiday could cost more.


Foggy morning. Portugal. Leica M9 Summilux 21mm

You could buy a lesser camera and replace it every two or three years but you will probably lose about the same as if you bought an M9 and held onto it for a decade.

Then there are the lenses. What a choice! Even other manufacturers make lenses to fit the Leica M so you are completely spoiled for choice and since the M9 can use just about any Leica lens ever made that is a lot of lenses.


Children play at a wedding. Cadiz, Spain. Leica M9 Summilux 21mm

Then there’s the inspiration that the Leica gives you. I have never owned a camera that I wanted to use more. It doesn’t sound as beautiful as my M3 did but it’s pretty quiet and the discreet shutter setting is very clever and makes the camera even more stealthy than it is anyway. And it’s totally perfect, a joy just to hold and admire. The detailing is amazing and the quality of every part is obvious.


Morning after a storm. France Leica M9 Summilux 21mm

How many cameras inspire you so much that you actually want to get up pre dawn to be ready for the morning light when it arrives? Not many. The Leica M9 is that camera. Your heart glows just thinking about it waiting for you to pick it up and point at something.


Girl on bike, Florence, Italy. Leica M9 Elmar 50mm

Let’s also consider the invisibility of an M camera. There’s something quite spooky about this. Often you can get right in people’s faces and they just don’t see the camera. This happens a lot but I have never quite worked out why this is. Perhaps it’s because it doesn’t look like most cameras, maybe it’s to do with it’s shape, perhaps because half of your face is still visible to your subject when you are behind the camera, unlike DSLRs with their central viewfinder. I really don’t know, but if you want stealth you couldn’t do much better than a Leica M9.


Panerai Yacht Eilean. Leica M9 Summilux 21mm

All this for just a tenner a week. Bargain. I really don’t understand those who moan about the price of Leicas. I think they represent fantastic value. If I have a problem, I know that I will be taken seriously and treated as a valued customer, you won’t get this with a Nikon. This alone is worth a lot to me. One might also mention that the camera comes with Adobe Lightroom which is a very powerful and clever program.


The high mountains. France. Leica M9 Summilux 21mm

The M9 has been my constant companion for about 4 months now and I just love it. I’m glad I didn’t wait, I would have missed out of 4 months of glorious picture taking. What if I had died before I got my hands on one? I’d have been really annoyed about that.


Seagull after my lunch! Leica M9 Summilux 21mm

Update September 2012

It’s been three years already since i bought my M9. My how time flies. I have just re read this article and am pleased to say that nothing has changed at all. I still feel exactly the same about my M9 now as I did when I bought it.

Next year 2013 is Leica’s 100th anniversary so no doubt it will be a year of surprises from them. Will they bring out the M10? I wouldn’t be at all surprised. Will I want one? I doubt it. How will it differ? It will surely have more resolution but I don’t need any more than the M9 can offer. I took a nice picture of a friend’s motorcycle and had a huge 1.3 metre wide print made of it. The quality was astonishing, with practically no visible grain. Each picture is already 35 meg and that causes enough headaches as is what with storage and back ups.

So I’ll stick with my M9 thanks.


Flood! France. Leica M9 Summilux 21mm

Update: July 2016

Amazingly it has been almost seven years since I bought my M9. Still nothing has changed. It’s still a brilliant camera and it works beautifully. Values seem pretty steady and M9 prices seem to start at about £2000 so my camera has only lost half its value in seven years. That doesn’t seem too bad to me. The value of an M9 has likely fallen about as far as it will so.

My body now has a few brass areas where the paint has worn through. It has a lovely patina. Better than new.

One last observation. Recently I tried to take some pics of a friend’s kids. They have known me forever and have never minded me taking shots of them but this time they were not happy and ran and hid. Why is this? They didn’t like the camera I was using, they were intimidated. It was a compact Sony Nex7 so I don’t know why it freaked them so much but I know one thing, that never happened with the M9.

I’ll update this post again after I’ve owned and enjoyed my M9 for ten years but I can’t see anything changing. Leica did bring out the M10 but they called it a 240 or something. Is it any lighter or smaller than an M9? No. In fact it’s heavier. So I was right all along about the M9. A classic.


Hoopy wooden bicycle. 50 Summilux