Steven Ingham persuades his ‘good lady’ to let him go riding in to Europe with his mates. But will he survive to tell the tale?
Last summer my brother Paul asked if I would like to join him and his mates on a trip to Italy, which would encompass seven countries and riding on numerous mountain passes. However, the biggest hurdle was not the mountain passes, but the permission from the good lady, as I would be away during our first wedding anniversary. Fortunately, I think she welcomed the respite from the watching of the numerous motorcycle adventure DVDs I possess…
The night before setting off I didn’t get much sleep, which turned out to be a blessing in disguise as I was able to sleep through the incessant drone of the ship’s engine. I asked Paul ‘what time should I set my alarm for?’ to which he smiled and said, ‘don’t worry you won’t need one!’ Sure enough I didn’t and at 6am a loud siren screeched down my ear and the captain informed us that we were an hour away from docking in Rotterdam.
The bikes were loaded up and the engines fired into action. The roar of engines was exhilarating and for a moment I could be forgiven for thinking I was on the starting grid of a Moto GP race. We were instructed to leave the ferry, and as I travelled down the ramp it all felt a little too surreal as I grinned from ear to ear, saying to myself ‘don’t forget to ride on the right hand side!’
When I received the itinerary that Paul had planned I knew that day two (Rotterdam to Baden-Baden) was going to be the most challenging. Firstly, it was 383 miles, and let me tell you, for somebody who is used to a measly jaunt around North Wales and back in time for lunch, this was some serious mileage. Secondly, and most worrying, I had to overcome the fear I had built up around the infamous autobahns and the incredulous speeds of their users, knowing that split second manoeuvres, like overtaking, were a real concern for me.
Neither of these points turned out to be of any great worry. On the contrary, we found German drivers to be incredibly courteous and respectful of us sharing their superbly smooth roads. Instead, what turned out to be our nemesis for the majority of the trip was the heat, with the on-board computer often registering 38°C. All too often we found ourselves struggling to keep awake. Lifting our visors had no effect, I may as well have held a hairdryer in front of my face! The heat was also beginning to play havoc with my electric sensors and sporadically I was told that I had brake failure. Needless to say, this kept my mind occupied throughout the day, but whenever I tried the brakes they worked flawlessly, much to the relief of my fellow riders ahead of me.
Six hours after leaving the ferry we were on the B500 (one of the oldest and best-known roads in Germany), travelling from Baden-Baden to Freudenstadt, flowing through the sweeping bends and admiring the beautiful vistas. The investment made in a gel seat meant I could sit down that evening and enjoy the German cuisine all washed down with a cold beer. We were joined by another two of Paul’s colleagues that evening and our mileage paled into insignificance, as they had travelled via the tunnel and come up from Calais. So five became seven and the mood was jovial, though looking around the table we were all dead tired from the days riding and intense heat.
Day three saw us ride 238 miles into Garmisch, where we would be staying the night. A few miles outside the Austrian border we found a road side café that served chips and frankfurters covered in a delicious spicy sauce. The shade was very welcoming and I took full advantage of the stop by giving my feet a good airing, as they were beginning to look like I had trench foot.
The B&B that evening was surrounded by mountains capped with snow, and during the evening meal we were entertained by lederhosen dancing youths. What impressed me most about Garmisch was that the town took a great deal of pride in its appearance, with all the buildings ornately decorated with art and flowers.
Breakfast was fit for a king, ranging from berries of all colours to cereals, breads and meats. It was with reluctance that we left Garmisch, having spent only a fleeting amount of time there, and I promised myself that I would return. Next stop was Lake Garda, taking in numerous mountain passes through the Dolomites.
The heat was relentless and I looked forward to gaining some altitude, knowing that with height would come cooler air. I found travelling up the mountain passes more challenging than descending, as a result of the tight hairpins, which I had envisioned to be relatively easy having ridden a pedal bike up them, and knowing the best line to take. Of course, I now had to consider throttle control, the fact I had a vehicle weighing considerably more and I quite often had to sacrifice a wider entry due to other obstacles. Taking all this into account, I spent a great deal of time concentrating on my riding and forgot to take in the stunning views and live in the moment.
Stopping on the summit for lunch I sat back and gazed in awe at the jagged skyline that the mountains had forged. I was apprehensive about the trip and what a jaunt into Europe would entail. At times it had been tough, but for moments such as these it was worth it.
The airbag jacket was a great piece of kit that the wife had insisted I invest in and one that I hoped never to use. I hardly knew I was wearing it, apart from the time I walked away from the bike to pay for petrol without detaching the lanyard. Luckily it requires a 30kg tug, otherwise I would have looked like a right pillock stood in the middle of the forecourt with an inflated jacket.
Moving on, and the Italian drivers were unforgiving, especially back on the motorways, which we were using to cover some decent ground. On this occasion the toll booths were a nightmare. My mate pulled up at the barrier and I was directly behind him. He pushed the button, was issued a ticket and the barrier rose to let him go. The barrier remained up! I pushed the button, no ticket, so several times I pushed the button in desperation as a large queue was forming behind me. The car behind me had stopped so close to me
I could not back up to see if the barrier would go down. ‘Shit!’ I knew I had to go through without a ticket. I pulled over to the side where the rest were waiting. Climbing off the bike I traversed six lanes to inform a member of staff who just didn’t seem to care. We were told to move on and at the next tollbooth again I tried to explain with no success. As a consequence of not having a ticket, I was issued a fine, and had to pay the toll!
Thoughts of this were soon forgotten as we gently cruised Lake Garda. The town was vibrant, the seven of us passing the evening sat at a lake side bar listening to a rock band. With ground to cover we were back on the road the very next morning, the views once again breathtaking as we hugged the lake. The road from there climbed as we headed for the next country of Switzerland, where a little over the border we encountered cooler air and the scent of alpine trees.
Day seven was Lauterbrunnen to Dun sur Meuse, with a room booked at the Two Wheel Moorings, run by a lovely couple, Carol and Ian. In previous years I had toured quite a bit of France on a pedal bike and was looking forward to returning. As we passed through small towns and villages, folk would smile and wave, empowering me with an enormous sense of well-being. Later that evening we wined and dined for the final time before two of the party left for the tunnel the following morning. We followed not far behind them, the end of a great eight days on the road.
Back in England I wanted every road user and pedestrian to know what I had achieved and where I had been. It was sad that the trip was ending, but exciting to be telling friends and family. The next day I took the bike down to see if the brake warning light was anything to worry about. Arriving at the garage, still beaming, I saw a gentleman waiting for his bike to be repaired. I thought finally I could boast about trips further afield, as so many others have done to me. I smugly told him where I had been, to which he replied ‘I’ve just got back from three weeks touring in India on a Royal Enfield, do you want to see the pictures?’ How’s that for pissing on my parade?
Returning back home and wheeling the bike back into the garage my eyes gravitated towards the map on the wall, looking where to next.
Q&A About The Ride
What bike? BMW R1200GS, ’07 plate, 31,771 miles. The only modifications I had made to the bike were the addition of some LED spotlights and a gel seat (see later for details). How did the bike hold up? Mechanically the bike was superb, never skipping a beat. This was the second year that I owned it and before buying it I was a little dubious to how it may handle with it being so big. But I have to say, I found that once moving I could plant the bike where I wanted it, and on the autobahn I never felt like I was underpowered to get out of situations should they arise. Electronically, the heat played havoc with the brake sensors. How many countries on this trip? Seven countries: Holland, Belgium, Germany, Austria, Italy, Switzerland, France. Eight days.
How many miles? 2,400 miles What was the budget/total cost? (if you’re comfortable answering that) In total (inc ferry and B&B’s petrol etc) £1,100 Where did you sail from and to? I sailed from Hull to Rotterdam, overnight ferry £200 return with all you can eat buffet meal. With which company? P&O Would you recommend it? Definitely, I enjoyed the fresh air on deck and there was a jovial atmosphere on board. It was a smooth crossing. Food was great, always a plus. Did you have to take your own straps? I didn’t and when I saw some mates dig out their extra straps I have to say I was a little concerned that I may find my bike on its side the next morning. Luckily, the crossings were smooth, but next time I would definitely take extra. It would put a dampner on the start of a trip having to sort out damage. Benefits of riding in a big group? It was good to have a more mechanically able person look at my bike when the electronics started to cause problems, but I genuinely felt that I would have got help from the people in the towns and villages we passed through as they were very welcoming. Drawbacks? Trying to organise a stop on the autobahn to check the brakes or simply have a rest was no mean feat, especially with the communication devices not pairing. What documentation did you take/need? I took my passport, bike insurance documentation, V5, EU medical card, travel insurance and driving licence. I was surprised with the ease of passing through the borders. Did you take any tools? I had some basic tools: screwdrivers, a set of allen keys, a leatherman, tyre pressure gauge and most importantly duck tape, which you can repair anything with! I had heard that the BMW can use a bit of oil, so I took a small bottle, but didn’t end up using a drop. I guess my engine’s worn in.
Anything you’d do differently next time? Our route involved some spectacular roads and mountain passes, but in order to get to them, and within a decent time frame, we had to jump on the monotonous motorways. Granted, you did forget about the motorways when faced with awesome views. Time permitting, I would split the route up and cover less miles in the day and perhaps stop a little more. Tell us about the airbag jacket? It was last year at the NEC that I met a chap called Peter who was advertising an airbag vest by Helite that inflated in a fraction of a second, should you come off your bike. I liked the idea, knowing that should the worst happen I could potentially increase my chances of walking away. However, at a price of £450 I had to put that on an ever increasing wish list! Two weeks before heading off on my first adventure abroad the good lady said to me ‘I think we should get you one of those airbag vests,’ and so I contacted Peter and popped over to see him, where he was kind enough to demonstrate it on me. He pulled the cord and a split second later I ‘inflated’. Fortunately, on this trip I didn’t have to use it. What gel seat did you use? When I first bought the bike I would go out on a ride and just over the 60 mile mark I could not feel my butt! So I contacted Tony Archer in Huddersfield and he did a great job customising the seat with a gel insert and red stripes down the side. Great job from a great guy. Was it any good? It meant I could sit down every night and enjoy the evening.