Fire! What do you save first?

Plett sunset

We’ve all been party to at least one discussion around what precious object we’d save if fire ever threatened our homes. Pets usually get a favourable mention, then maybe photo albums, passports, laptops, cameras, whatever. Fortunately, most of us never have to do it for real.

I now know the answer, because I had to make the decision for real, and the answer is my Rune. My wife and I had spent a couple of hours one Tuesday a few weeks ago shifting three of our bikes to our remote, secure storage unit 15 minutes away. It’s one of about 30 lock-up single-car garages, located on a farm, surrounded by grassland, complete with sheep, geese and exotic birds. The whole place is surrounded by fencing, with an electric gate. Seemed like a good solution.

We were chatting to our neighbours the very next afternoon and they mentioned that they’d just been helping their relatives evacuate their house on the Airport Road in the face of the advancing bush fire. That’s when I recalled that they farm the relatives owned was right next to our new storage facility!

Our own house had miraculously escaped being burned to the ground in a bush fire back in February – a fire that destroyed three other homes in the area and laid waste to thousands of acres of open land. This new fire was being driven by gale-force winds and was now threatening the western outskirts of our town. Our own house was reasonably safe, whatever happened, because all the surrounding vegetation had been burnt away in the previous fire. But the bikes…!

We collected my riding gear and hot-footed it over to the storage units. The glow of the approaching fire was clearly visible, albeit maybe a few kilometres away. We considered the logistics of moving all three bikes to a place of greater safety, but that was going to be quite an exercise as darkness fell and the temperature dropped. The wind seemed to be keeping the fire on a parallel path to the storage units, not on a direct path towards it.

Move all three? Leave all three? Move one? We decided to move one, and that was the moment of truth: we saved the Rune. I rode it past neighbouring farms, past the airport, the eerie glow of the bush fire acting as a backlight in the gathering gloom, Peter following in the bakkie. We left it in the car port of an apartment we have in a nearby golf estate and decided to risk leaving the Ducati and the TL in the storage unit.

We called the next day to check that they had survived the night, but the phone line was permanently busy. So we drove over and were relieved to see the storage area had escaped the fire, although several houses in the area had not been so lucky. We breathed a sigh of relief and decided to leave all the bike where they were for a few days.

Two days later, the fire came back – a fierce, raging tsunami of a bush fire, driven by winds of up to 150 km/h. It would claim seven lives and more than 500 houses as it swept from the western side of the town of Sedgefield to Plettenberg Bay, 50 kilometres to the east. Sadly, Ian Barnard, one of the four volunteer firefighters who’d saved our own home back in February, was badly burned in the fire, and a colleague of his died. The whole incident was classified as a national disaster for South Africa.

We still couldn’t reach our storage company by phone (it turned out the phone lines had been burned down) and so drove out to see the damage for ourselves. It dark now and that was one eerie drive. The Airport Road looked normal to start with, then we could see the smouldering tree trunks on both sides of the road: entire forests had been burned down, pine plantations and indigenous trees both. A road sign still burned on the right; a direction board was being locked by flames around its edges on the left; there was no one in sight.

The landscape has been changed so much that we drove past the storage area in the dark, not recognising any of the usual landmarks. Fearful that it had all burned down, we turned around and stared into the gloom, and there they were: 25-30 garages, still standing, seemingly untouched. In our headlights we could see that the grass had been burnt black, right up to the edges of the garages. The fire had burned out a few feet from the storage units, as you can see in the photo; the object on the left is a burnt-out freight container.

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The next morning showed the full extent of the devastation: entire farms destroyed, houses gutted, vegetation burnt to a crisp. I’m happy to say that all three bikes were unmarked (the TL and Ducati in storage, the Rune on the golf estate).

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But there was no getting away from the tragic loss of life, the hundreds of lost – and in many cases uninsured – homes. These losses hung like a pall over a dozen communities along the coast. And, as I was to learn, one motorcycle enthusiast whose extraordinary, unique collection was garaged only 800 metres from my two machines, had lost everything.

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Escape into the smooth blue yonder

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The other day I wrote about living down a dirt road in South Africa’s Western Cape and waiting for a rare visit from a road grader to make it passable for road bikes (the image above hardly does justice to the rutted, potholed surface). Rarely has something as prosaic as a grader brought so much joy, such eager anticipation – but today that’s exactly what it did to me. It signalled freedom, the first chance to escape in two weeks.

Earlier this year my wife Peter and I made Plettenberg Bay our home. We still spend part of the year in Dubai, part in London and part in Jo’ burg, but Plett (below) is now our base; it’s where we have all our stuff, all in one place for the first time in years.

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Part of the pleasure in all this was to be the fact that most of my bikes are here, and now so were we. The fly in the ointment has been that dirt road. It’s used by ultra-heavy logging trucks and trailers, and they churn up the dirt surface into deep corrugations that are misery to navigate in anything other than a tough 4WD or on a proper off-road bike.

I’ve banged on about the damage the road has caused my bikes, and I’ll stop now, but even our Tonka-toy-tough Nissan bakkie has lost bits along the way; one neighbour had a shock absorber fall off his Land-Rover, another lost his exhaust pipe, and another has been pitched off the road in his Suzuki Jimny three times in a week because of this surface.

They grade the road maybe once every four or five weeks, and for perhaps the first 24 hours it becomes a usable dirt road. Then the trucks come and carve their contemptible corrugations all over again. So three of my bikes have had to stay in the garage pretty much full time since our move south, apart from a few joyous moments on the Day The Grader Came.

Well, today was such a day, so I abandoned all other plans, such as they were, and headed for the highway on first the TL, which has had the least road time of late, then the Ducati, and finally the Rune. The V-Strom has seen more regular use in all weathers since it seems best able to withstand the abuse, so there wasn’t the same compelling urge to ride it.

The weather was perfect: dry, sunny, clear blue skies, maybe 23 degrees C, with a cool breeze that swept through my mesh riding jacket and felt fresh and invigorating. The newly graded dirt was by no means perfect, but it was passable, and the Suzuki felt wonderful once out on the tarred main road: stable, smooth, grunty. Every time I ride the TL it reminds me what a superbly balanced package it is and why I fell in love with the breed the first time I rode one in Hong Kong (and bought it on the spot).

The SportClassic was next up, and I treated myself to a new route blessed with a mixture of smooth, fast bends and long straights – perfect Ducati country. The Termignoni racing exhaust filled the air with its music, and God was in his heaven. Even the light traffic seemed to melt away.

Finally, out came the Rune, and my grin went to its widest setting. I’ve sung this bike’s praises before, many times, probably ad nauseum, but it just feels so right. Then standard Gold Wing isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but its engine is a legend, and in its heightened state of Rune tune it combines utter turbine-like smoothness with a sporty near-wail and great throttle response. The riding position suits the bike so well, and it makes street-legal speeds of 100 to 120 km/h feel like fun. When the fancy takes you, just wind open the throttle in top and the bike thrusts forward.

The controls feel like they were designed by a top engineer at Rolls Royce, so smooth and precise are they in operation. The whole ensemble just works. It’s way off being perfect, mind: rear suspension is way too stiff, the riding position is not a long-distance charmer except for the ultra-tough, and the single seat prevents me from sharing the experience with my wife, or indeed anyone else. But the combination of the way it looks, the way it feels and the way it goes just adds up to one of the most superb bikes I’ve ever ridden. So by the time I trundled the Rune back homeward, I too was in heaven.

We’re looking into remedies for the road: getting heavy trucks banned on safety grounds, persuading the authorities to grade it more often, and investigating why the tarring has been postponed for four long years and whether it might be brought forward a bit. Some other road projects clearly jumped the queue, and I’m keen to know how and why.

I’m not hopeful, though, which is why I’ve just rented myself a secure lock-up storage garage 15 minutes from the house, on a farm, accessible via a tarred road and just a little stretch of short grass. The V-Strom will remain at the house to serve as a shuttle to the storage garage, and hopefully all four bikes will finally get ridden whenever the fancy takes me.

Waiting for the grader

TL in 2017

The dirt road that runs for a kilometre between our house and the highway gets so rutted that it literally breaks vehicles. Our Nissan bakkie has lost one mudflap and had all four of its wing valences loosened by the vibration; two indicator stalks have broken on both the Ducati and the TL; the TL’s rear indicators no longer work; the V-Strom has had both mirrors damaged; and the Rune has collected two stone chips and a fractured front indicator lens lug. The authorities planned to tar the road in January this year, but now say it will be 2021 before it gets done; this being Africa, who knows?

Being reunited with the bikes after months away in Dubai was too exciting to pass up on the opportunity to ride, so I took the Rune out and rode it slowly and gingerly over the ruts and through the loose rocks to the highway. Once there, it was bliss: that ultra-smooth motor, the solidity of the beast, the slight snarl from the exhaust, the ample power, and the just-cruisin’ riding position. Warm late-summer sun (this being the southern hemisphere) and a cool breeze just added to the moment.

Rumour has it that there are just five Runes in South Africa, although someone told me he thought there might be 20. Since I now have it on good authority that only 1,508 were ever made, the five figure is probably correct. The bottom line is that almost no one here has ever seen one, so any ride brings its share of smiles, questions, photographs and thumbs-ups.

When it came time to fuel up, though, I came across a quaint South African custom I haven’t experienced in 50 years of riding in dozens of countries around the world: the request that you get off the bike while it is being filled. I’d forgotten about this, and boy is it irritating!

One imagines that there must have been two or three incidents of bikes spontaneously combusting while at the petrol pump, their riders horribly burned or turned to ash in seconds. A quick search on the Internet shows no such record, so presumably this is a rule imposed solely by Shell. The problem, as any rider without a centre-stand knows, is that you can’t fill the tank to the brim while the bike is on its side-stand. In a country where the murder rate is sky-high and education standards are not what they should be, they sit around and make rules about filling motorcycles with petrol. Ho hum.

Next up was the V-Strom, because I knew it could cope with the road far better than the two sports bikes. Okay, it was still uncomfortable, but viable. I noticed that the tyres felt a little hard and lacking grip on the tarmac. The pressures were spot on and there’s ample tread left, but I think the rubber has hardened from three years in Dubai, where the summer heat plays havoc with tyres. Time for new boots. My nearest dealer quoted me for some Mitas E10 tyres and some Bridgestone Trail Wings, and I decided the original tyres weren’t so bad after all.

I treated the TL to its second new battery in two years. I have no idea what’s going on there – all the bikes have been kept on identical trickle chargers year-round. Might be the fact that the most recent replacement was Chinese. Fifty years on, and we’re saying the same things about Chinese product quality that we used to say back then about Japanese quality – but that changed fast. And I treated myself to some new riding gloves. I own about five pairs already, but two are with our bike in the UK and three were in a shipping container somewhere off the coast of Africa at that exact moment. Bad planning.

The road is so bad that the Rune, TL and Ducati are trapped in my garage until the road grader pays its next visit, so I’ve been looking for other solutions – like a secure lock-up garage accessible via a smooth, tarred road. Meantime, the new gloves have already started to disintegrate after about four rides. I checked the label just now. Made in China? No – Pakistan. Hmmm…

Back in the saddle

I’d be a 365-days-a-year rider if I could. I used to be, back in the days when a bike was my sole means of transport, in British rain, hail, snow or occasional sunshine.

Things changed. I let it happen. First came the company car, which was so warm, dry and convenient. Then came the crazy work schedule that made bike riding a luxury. You can get into a maelstrom of frenetic work in your 30s, 40s and even 50s that becomes the norm. Work, eat, sleep, repeat. Finding time to ride can get a little tricky.

But wait! Like a swimmer caught up in a rip-tide, you can break out of the cycle – eventually. I did, about five years ago, and it was truly great. I had amassed a small collection of bikes over the years and now I could make time to ride them.

Fate, however, can be cruel. Four of those bikes resided with me in Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates, an oasis of calm and relative civility in the Middle East. However, instead of rain, hail, snow and occasional sunshine came endless sunshine. Be careful what you wish for, they say – you may get it. In summer, the bikes gathered dust in a shaded car port as temperatures hovered in the mid-40s Centigrade with occasional forays into the low 50s.

That gets into the danger zone. I had to ride for an hour at midday in 47-degree heat from Dubai to Abu Dhabi for an urgent and unexpected business meeting. I could feel the blood get hot inside my head; my legs actually burned through my black jeans. When I eventually stopped, I felt faint and had to consume several bottles of chilled water before I felt even vaguely human – dizzy, but human.

Desert summers may be the polar opposites of British winters, but for motorcyclists the two have too much in common; they can be miserable. The solution came from spreading my humble stable of bikes between the UK and South Africa, where I also have a home, and forgetting about the Middle East as a biking base. The roads are generally too straight, too boring and too dangerous, anyway.

But life and work still keep me on the move between all three places, and this year that meant that my last spell of motorcycling was in Europe in July on my cherished Valkyrie. So, when I made it down to South Africa last week, my garage promised a feast of biking pleasure: the Honda Rune, Ducati Sport Classic 1000, Suzuki TL1000S and Suzuki V-Strom 1000 all sat there, batteries fully charged and raring to go.

Some unseasonably wet weather and the state of my local dirt road meant they stayed in the garage, sadly. The road is used by heavy logging trucks and becomes like a motocross track unless it is regularly graded. The surface is so rough that it has already fractured the rear light unit of my Ducati, created a couple of small stone chips on the Rune, and caused various bits of my Nissan bakkie (pick-up truck) to get loose or fall off.

When it rains, the red dirt conspires to latch on to every crevice, nook and cranny of your bike, compounding your misery. So, I had to wait five days until the graders appeared, the weather dried out and I could get back in the saddle – at last!

First up was the Rune, because it never fails to instil in me a wonderful sense of occasion. It growls in a civilised way; it oozes power, even though there are many more powerful bikes out there; and the riding position is nigh-on perfect if you are into the cruiser thing. It never fails to put a smile on my face.

Next up was the Ducati, now fully restored to pristine glory after its tank-slapping hissy-fit 18 months ago. The replica Termignoni silencer did its usual Ducati thing, sounding for all the world like a ‘70s racing machine. The contrast between the two machines couldn’t be more pronounced – one laid back and relaxing, the other bent forward and intense – but on this warm, sunny November day they both spelled fun.

The TL was next in line, but its Chinese battery – newly installed 18 just months ago – was devoid of life, despite being on trickle charge like all the others. So, it was on to the V-Strom, an excellent bike that somehow seems to exist in the shadow of its more glamorous siblings. It started instantly, as always, and felt like an old pair of boots as I sailed down the dirt road: smooth, comfortable and agile.

With its tall seat and totally upright riding position, it felt completely different to the low, laid-back stance of the Rune or the forward-leaning placement of the two sports bikes. Its 1,000cc V-twin doesn’t lack useful grunt, and it handles well on the road. Off-road, apart from over smooth-ish dirt, its weight hampers its ability.

Different bikes, different styles, but after a gap of almost four months, it felt great to be back in the saddle. Now I just need to find a decent battery for the TL…

Box of tricks solves Givi brackets puzzle

It was James May, I believe, who said “every man needs a shed”. He may be right; all I know is that everyone who tinkers in a small way with cars, motorcycles or other mechanical things needs either a large box of nuts, bolts and washers – or a good friend with such a box.

I am lucky to have the latter: our daughter’s father-in-law Peter Meadowcroft, whose garage is a model of organisation.

You’d think that a superstore like B&Q would stock pretty much every bolt and nut under the sun, and they probably do – just not at the branch near Altrincham on the outskirts of Manchester. The branch was in closing-down mode, apparently because the real estate is worth more than the profit the store can generate.

They didn’t have metric bolts in the size or length I needed to fit the Givi pannier brackets to my Valkyrie. I did find a pack of the short bolts I needed for the third retaining point at the bottom of the brackets, but for the other two supports it was time to improvise.

Hearing my problem, Peter just said to bring the bike over to his workshop. It was pouring with rain, of course, this being the Manchester area in July, but everything else went like clockwork. We knew the top front bolts that were already fitted to the bike worked fine; they were just an inch too long. So Peter cut me two spacers from chrome-plated copper pipe that he happened to have lying around – well, actually, nothing lies around in that workshop; the pipe was neatly tucked away.

The top rear bolts supplied by Givi were a perfect match for their blind retaining nuts, but again were a bit too long. Two chunky washers either side took care of that. Then it was just a matter of applying a bit of brute force to the brackets to get the third hole properly aligned, and the Givi brackets were on. Easy, when you have the right parts and the right tools. Thanks, Peter!

Our plan had been to finish the camping part of our European trip with an overnight stay in the Yorkshire Dales, but steady rain put paid to that notion. It also put paid to returning to London that day: wife Peter had come without waterproof gear, and I didn’t see any point in getting her Roland Sands leather jacket soaking wet.

So we spent four happy days with daughter Elizabeth, her husband James and our three-year grandson William before heading back to Woking – through a series of heavy rain showers! Once home, we could remove the Kuryakyn textile panniers and see if the Givis would fit the new brackets.

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They slipped straight on, locked in place, and looked just fine. Okay, they’re not as stylish as the original Honda items or maybe some of the expensive US aftermarket options, but they fit, they come off the bike with a twist of a key, and they take 35 litres of gear apiece. Job done. How do they work in practice? We’ll have to wait till our next tour to find out.

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One huge benefit was the ease of removing the things. We needed to take the bike into central London next day to meet an old friend, and London’s solo motorcycle parking bays are hard to squeeze into at the best of times. We found one bay with one vacant slot, and it fitted the unadorned Valkyrie like a glove. Nice when things work out.

Fabulous trip – but great to be home, too

The two Bentley drivers looked fit to be tied! One had an old dark green 1960s-era two-door convertible, the other maybe a 1980s coupe in light blue. They’d come through some sort of Fast Track lane at the Channel Tunnel and wanted to barge into the queue – and the people in their Fords, Volvos and VWs weren’t having any of it. Fun to behold – but I’m getting about 450 kilometres ahead of myself. More of that anon.

The advantage of spending our last night in an hotel in eastern France rather than camping was that packing the bike up next morning was quick and easy. The downside was the 67 euro for the hotel room, which was about three times what we’d have paid for a campsite, but such is life.

We were able to enjoy the same sweeping curves that had proved so entertaining the night before, then took the faster N67 to help us cover the ground to Calais in time for our 15:20 Eurotunnel shuttle. Northern France by autoroute is pretty boring, to be honest. I’ve enjoyed the area several times when I travelled on the back roads, passing through small towns and getting some sense of local life, in the days when I was too poor or too cheap to pay the tolls.

But it can take forever, so the autoroute is our preferred way of getting the journey done. The road surfaces are generally ultra-smooth, the traffic fairly light – we were still a few days ahead of the main holiday rush. The countryside isn’t much to look at and is marred these days by countless wind turbines, most of them doing nothing.

It was plain sailing all the way and we got to the Channel Tunnel terminal without incident, enjoying the smooth hum of the flat six and the warmth of the sun. It was a great day to be on a bike. The one dread was finding that armies of migrants or militant French farmers were blockading the motorway and the tunnel approaches, as is their wont – but fortunately they weren’t.

No, today the problem was UK Border Control, situated about 80 metres beyond its French equivalent. The French had six booths manned and the traffic moved through at a reasonable pace – not quickly, but not too slowly either.

Once through, however, we hit virtual gridlock. The six lanes from the French side filtered in to three UK booths, and progress slowed to a standstill. It felt as though Britain was on a go-slow, maybe extracting an early revenge on holidaymakers in the new post-Brexit mood. The fact that at least half the cars and bikes in the queues were British-registered didn’t seem to make any difference.

The queue moved forward at a painful pace. The only brief amusement was seeing those Bentley drivers come tearing through from a lane off to the left of everyone else. There is a lane on the French side for people who have paid way over the odds for flexible tickets and it’s possible that’s what these guys had done. But there was no special Fast Track lane at UK Border Control, so they were trying to force their way in at the front of the queue. Needless to say, the folks who’d been queuing there for half an hour weren’t hugely impressed. The scowls and gesticulations from the Bentley gents brought a moment of levity to the queue; lovely cars, though, especially the older one.

We made it to the booth and for the first time that I can recall we were asked to remove our helmets. The Border Control officer was chatty, pleasant and efficient, explaining that the helmets puffed up our cheeks and made us look different. Not a good look, clearly. Good to know that we’re taking border control seriously, however.

Finally, we got to the train, which turned out to be only half full. It left on time and 35 minutes later we were duly back on British soil, taking the M20 back to London. The weather was pleasantly warm by British standards: a dry and sunny 21 degrees, or thereabouts. The contrast with the French autoroute was stark, though: the M20 is like a cart track in places by comparison.

We refuelled, happy to see that petrol prices were lower than we’d seen in France, Germany, Switzerland or Italy. We were aiming to be at our daughter Charlotte’s house for 4:30 pm (the UK being an hour behind France), but we were early.

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Journey’s end: cold beer, The Times and the Valkyrie that never missed a beat

In the absence of a pub, we bought some cans of cold San Miguel and The Times and sat on her doorstep in the sun, lowering the tone of the neighbourhood, while we waited for Charlotte, three-year-old Theo and new baby Zak.

The continental stage of the trip was now over, and we had a few days to relive its many highs before hitting the road again to Manchester. Great bike trip, though. If you haven’t tried it yet, you really should.

All passes – and campsites – are not created equal

Confucius he say: If man see empty campsite at 6 pm, only fool move on to look for other one…

The old Rae habit of making an early-ish start on a riding day seemed to have been consigned to history as we relaxed in the morning sun at Valpelline, re-charging our phones in the café while we drank coffee, ate pastries and read our Kindles outside. The schedule in my head said we needed to be on the road by 11 am, so we headed out of the campsite at exactly 11 and followed the signs for the Great St Bernard pass.

There’s a tunnel through the mountain, of course, but we’d been over the pass in the other direction a few years ago and it was too good to miss. Traffic was light. I think we had to overtake just four cars en route to the summit, which sits at 2,469 metres (8,100 feet).

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It’s an interesting pass and reasonably challenging too, with its share of ultra-slow hairpins, and even in high summer you’re up above the snowline again. However, after you’ve ridden the Stelvio, which we’d done just last week, the Great St Bernard seems quite ordinary. The road doesn’t stretch out like a kinky snake, the mountains aren’t as imposing and the views not as spectacular. It’s still a fun ride, and a far better choice than the tunnel unless you’re in a mad rush, but I think the Stelvio has raised the bar that bit higher.

We stopped briefly at the summit for some photos, happily without being overtaken, and headed for Martigny, where the road gave way to a full autoroute. We weren’t in a big hurry, planning to find a campsite somewhere in the Troyes region of France, which would leave us with a manageable ride to Calais the next morning. We cruised at a steady 75 mph, which kept us legal, and enjoyed wonderful views of snow-capped peaks and green lowlands dotted with those neat Swiss houses.

We stopped for a quick lunch at a petrol station where my tuna mayo sandwich was the worst I’d ever eaten, but at least it served as fuel for the rest of afternoon. Snack over, the road took us down to Montreux and along the very beautiful Lac Leman, where Peter kept other motorists amused with her attempts to photograph the lake and its multiple hues of blue over the crash barriers.

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Eventually we found ourselves on traditional French rural two-lane roads, having to overtake cars one at a time as they bunched up behind too many trucks. We normally ride through France further to the west, in the Dijon direction, and never encountered so many trucks before. Maybe that’s a better route for the future.

Overtaking two-up on a loaded and slightly wider-than-most bike takes a certain amount of pre-planning, but the Valkyrie never let us down. The road took us through Pontarlier, Besançon, Gray and Langres, offering some decent overtaking opportunities on stretches of dual carriageway and plenty of empty stretches where the Honda revelled in being flicked slowly this way and that. We were now getting into the general area where we thought we might camp for the night. The towns of Chaumont and St Dizier lay ahead, so we headed that way.

Chaumont boasted a municipal campsite, and we knew from experience that they were always good value, with decent facilities. This one, while pleasant, was deserted apart from two tents and a bored-looking man sitting in a plastic chair to collect the camping fee. It was early still, not quite 6 pm, and the site had no obvious redeeming features, so we continued on our way.

A few miles later we spotted the sign for another campsite off to the right, but I figured we should press on and get some more miles under our belts, stopping maybe by 7 pm closer to St Dizier. Hah! The N57 is a featureless four-laner with occasional two-lane stretches, but it bypasses all the local towns and we rode for about 30 minutes without seeing a single camping sign.

Peter suggested we drop down on to the local road, which seemed to go through all the villages and might well offer some camping locations. So we did just that, heading back in the direction we’d come. As luck would have it, there were indeed quite a few villages, but no campsites. We asked a motorist in one village and he pointed us in the right direction, only to get us flashed by a hidden speed camera while overtaking an ultra-slow Citroen on a deserted stretch of road. The next person we asked confirmed that there was camping in this direction, but “a long way”.

The good news is that the road was one of those great biking roads: well-surfaced with sweeping bends that gave a great cadence to the ride. Still no campsite, and it was almost 7:30 now. We reached a town so small that I don’t recall its name, remarkable for the fact that its road was like a billiard table, its signposts new, road-markings white, buildings freshly painted. We were through the centre in no time and on the other side were maybe a dozen new light industrial units, all glass and steel, bearing the names of laboratories and research firms. In this rural, agricultural setting, they looked out of place.

At the next roundabout stood a brand-new hotel and restaurant, and we turned into it. We were of one mind: at this stage, a hotel was an ideal solution. Bizarrely, it was full, though it didn’t look full. They called a local inn for us and confirmed that the inn had one room left, so we said we’d take it.

We followed the ribbon of new Tarmac back into the town, past the fancy research centres, turned right into the middle of nowhere and followed an equally pristine road to a farmhouse where we found we’d got a “suite”. It was not in its first flush of youth, but it was clean and comfortable, and the restaurant downstairs turned out to have gourmet pretensions, which it more or less lived up to.

So in the end we ate and drank well, would sleep well and be saved the effort of taking down the tent and packing the bike next morning. There’s always an upside.

Italy: beautiful country, terrible value

We decamped, rejoined the autostrada and made it to Tuscany by late morning to meet old friends Nick and Judy, who run a superb holiday villa rental business called Villa Casavecchia on an olive farm and vineyard near San Casciano. If the notion of a family or group holiday in Tuscany appeals to you, by the way, check it out – it ticks all the boxes.

 

After a long, relaxing lunch we entrusted the Garmin with getting us to Rome by 7 o’clock, and it worked a treat, beating the target by 15 minutes. The Italian autostrada network is efficient but pretty boring, to be honest, with just the frequent appearance of fortified hilltop towns and churches to break the monotony.

The lack of an audio feed from the Garmin caused a few complications, and not for the first time this trip. When you come up to a junction on a motorway, the sat-nav screen splits and shows a digitised image of the junction on the right, complete with a photo of the actual road sign and with a purple line showing exactly what lane you need to be in. Three times in the past two days I had followed that line religiously, only to find I had taken the wrong exit and was now headed in entirely the wrong direction.

On two of those occasions I admit the fault may have been mine, misreading the five-inch screen and taking the wrong slip road at a complicated multi-exit cloverleaf. Just maybe. The third time I am absolutely convinced I made no mistake, yet still ended up riding about 10 km to the next exit in order to make a U-turn and head all the way back again. It wasn’t as if we were on a tight schedule, but petrol on Italian autostradas seemed extraordinarily expensive and it was being wasted. Memo to self: use the headset next time.

The other irritation about this segment of the journey was the trucks. Northern Italy is pretty industrialised, and the autostradas are full of trucks. Unlike the UK or the UAE, most autostradas in Italy have only two lanes in each direction. So we kept coming across one truck doing 100 km/h being overtaken by another doing maybe 102 km/h. Ignoring the fact that trucks are supposed to stick to an 80 km/h limit, this caused numerous tailbacks in the nominally “fast” lane.

It’s a tribute to Italian drivers that they coped so well with this, neither flashing in impatience nor running up your backside to intimidate you into pulling over (as the locals do all the time in the UAE). Italian road manners seem to deteriorate or disappear entirely in the big cities, as we’ve found time and time again.

We spent three great days in Rome, sightseeing with my sister Barbara who’s lived there for 40-odd years. We rented a four-door Smart so the three of us could travel together, paying more than double for the privilege compared with recent experience in the UK, France and South Africa. Italy has many attributes, but value for money isn’t one of them.

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Peter and Barbara about to beat the Rome heat after a visit to St Peter’s

What is it about Italy and tourists? A few years ago we rented a car for a family holiday at the lovely Casavecchia. On a trip into the centre of Florence to collect my sister from the train station, I apparently drove around four sides of a square looking in vain for a place to park. It seems I got snapped by cameras on each side if the square, which was off-limits to cars without some special permit. Of course, there were no signs in English saying this, and the square was full of cars, so I innocently drove around it and out again. I then received a notice that I owed the city of Florence 620 euros for breaking their traffic laws! Six hundred and twenty euros!

On this trip, we took the Smart out to Castel Gandolfo for a picnic by the lake. We parked in a public car park, noted that we had to pay and tried our level best with the ticket-issuing machine. It had an English function, but that didn’t enable us to pay for three hours’ parking (eight euros). The problem was telling the machine how long we wanted to park for; it seemingly didn’t want to know.

My sister, who speaks fluent Italian, tried and fared no better. We asked two other Italians in the car park and they couldn’t help either.  I managed to but two 30-minute tickets and placed them on the dash to show good faith. Needless to say, I got a parking ticket. My sister tells me I may get a fine of 500 euros! Listen up, Italy: that level of fine for a minor transgression is simply nuts, ignoring the fact that there was no way a non-Italian speaker could have known about the Florence square, and that the Rome ticket machine is so hard to understand. I’ve had it with Italian cities now, on principle; beautiful country, but crazy.

 

The Valkyrie was duly washed and polished to remove a thousand dead flies and a week’s travel grime before we head back north up the autostrada, leaving behind Rome’s 40 degrees C and aiming for a lovely campsite at Valpelline, near Aosta, in the Italian Alps. The roads are impressive feats of engineering up north in the Genoa area, but otherwise the ride has little to recommend it in terms of scenery or interest.

Rome ready to leave
Washed, polished and ready for the return trip

The bike was performing well, taking the load and the wide range in terrain and temperatures in its stride. Average full consumption was 37 mpg, ranging from a disappointing 33 to an impressive 40. Speed was the key factor: stick to a 75-80 80 mph cruise and we hit the high 30s; move that up to 85-90 and it would rise (or fall, depending on how you look at it) to the low 30s.

Fuel prices in France, Germany, Switzerland and Italy were all a bit (and in some cases a lot) higher than in the UK, but it wasn’t the cost that hurt, really, it was the range. The tank holds just 20 litres, meaning that you can hit reserve after only 107 miles if you’re riding hard, or at 127 if you’re not. Total range if you’re lucky is about 150 miles. That means stopping every 100 minutes or so, which is annoying when you have serious ground to cover. You find yourself passing and re-passing the same cars and trucks time and time again.

I’ve been well aware of this through ownership of three Valkyries, so I’m not really complaining. If riding for 250 miles non-stop had been my top priority, I’d have bought a BMW; I simply prefer the look and feel of the Honda. It’s a trade-off I’m happy to make. I suppose it means it takes us 30 minutes longer to complete a 500-mile day than, say, a BMW R1200RT; so be it.

We reached Valpelline and found the Grand Combin campsite we’d last stayed at in 2010. It’s an excellent site and we can highly recommend it. A decent-sized swimming pool had been added since we were last there, so after pitching the tent we enjoyed a swim and then a beer or two in the evening sun, with snow-capped peaks towering in the distance.

Last time, the village fete was on and we walked the short distance to the village where we ate a selection of great food and drank superb local wine for very little money. This time, we were too early for the fete but the bar offered five pasta dishes, so out of sheer laziness we chose the lasagne and were treated to the best we’ve ever tasted, washed down by a local red wine bottled specially for the site. Memorable stuff.

If you’re into hiking and great scenery, the campsite would make an excellent base for a few days in this area. We contented ourselves with one night, because the Great St Bernard pass beckoned tomorrow.

Nudist camp with stunning views

As most touring riders will readily attest, there comes a time in a riding day when you just want to find a place to stop for the night. In France or Italy in peak season, if I’m staying in a hotel I never want to let it get much past 5 pm before I start looking; there’s just too much risk of finding everywhere booked.

With campsites, I like to find a place by 6.30; this gives you a chance at finding a place to pitch your tent, put it up in daylight, and enjoy a beer or two before dinner.

I’ve been lucky so far – never had to ride all night for want of a place to sleep. On the Wednesday of our Stelvio adventure, we picked up the autostrada at Merano and headed south, hoping to get as close as we could to Florence by day’s end.

Looking at the map, somewhere around Bologna seemed to make sense. Bologna is a large city, and highly industrialised, so taking the first exit after the city didn’t pan out – we were still pretty much in the heart of industrial Italy. So we carried on for an exit or two until we reached what looked to be more rural, and eased off the highway.

We were soon rewarded by a sign for a campsite, with a name in Italian, and gratefully headed in that direction. It was getting late by our standards, maybe 7 o’clock. After several kilometres without further signage, we asked a mechanic at a garage who told us to continue for about five kilometres, past a municipal dump and a car breaker’s yard.

Eventually we found another camping sign, which seemed to carry a different name but I couldn’t really tell, and the international tee-pee symbol was clear, so we headed off to the right as indicated. We travelled underneath the autostrada, past piles of rubble and the sort of detritus you find in such places, and along a dirt road for about 2 km.

The sign back on the main road came back to my mind. What had it said? Camping Naturista? Sounded like a nudist camp, I suggested to Peter as we rode along. And then there it was, a campsite with Naturista over the gates, which were shut and shielded with bamboo. It was getting late now and we just wanted a place to pitch our tent, enjoy cold beer and a decent meal, so Peter pushed the bell and explained our needs to the man who answered.

He duly arrived, fully clothed, and explained that this was indeed a nudist campsite. We were welcome to stay if we didn’t mind seeing lots of naked people, and if we were “serious people” and not just voyeurs. No, he said, no one would be upset if we didn’t get naked too. And yes, they had a bar and a restaurant on site. Sounded good.

We were led to a large pitch among the trees with ample room for bike and tent. Our host explained that people generally wore clothes while eating at the restaurant, but that you had to be nude to use the swimming pool. He left us to pitch our tent and wandered back to the clubhouse.

One thing I like to take on tour is a hammer for the tent pegs in case the ground is too hard for using just a handy rock, but invariably there’s not enough room and it gets left at home. The ground here was way too hard for the rock we found, and we quickly bent about six pegs.

Then a voice from the guy with a caravan on the adjacent pitch offered us a mallet, which solved the problem instantly. He was, naturally, not wearing more than a T-shirt and a smile, but hey… One of the great advantages of a nudist camp is that changing is so much easier: you can just strip off your biking gear and put on shorts and a clean T-shirt and head for the bar, without any of the usual faffing about changing in the tent or the shower room.

The bar and restaurant area were shaded by trees and looked out over a beautiful valley, and apart from the birds the place was totally tranquil. We drank our beer, ordered our food and looked around for naked people – of which there were none. Dinner was an excellent spaghetti Bolognese, with great wine, and we stayed up sipping ameretto and discussing the Brexit result with an interesting Dutchman.

The outside showers were great and it was super-convenient not having to get dressed again before heading back to the tent. When in Rome… Next morning we duly used the pool sans costume in accordance with local etiquette, and it felt great to work out the kinks after three full days in the saddle. We dressed for breakfast, only to be served by a waiter wearing nothing but a big smile. The service was excellent, as was the food. A couple of men lounged around in the buff, reading the paper and drinking coffee, which all seemed perfectly natural by now.

All in all, our nudist campsite was a great experience, not least because the site was both beautiful and secluded. Everyone was very friendly and welcoming, even though we were not traditional clients. For the avoidance of doubt here, by the way, the photo accompanying this blog was snapped along the way and is not the nudist camp; we decided that this was one part of our trip that couldn’t really be photographed. I didn’t know whether to be reassured or disappointed that the naturists we saw were, shall we say, older and chubbier than the Hollywood norm; this was not the place to ogle physical perfection, male or female. It was, you might say, a revelation on many levels.

Stelvio Pass: breathtaking meets awesome

Route 28 leads out of Davos and heads east, twisting wonderfully through the mountains. The sky this Wednesday morning in late June was crystal clear, the air cool, the sun shining down. We followed the road to Zernez before cutting south to Livignio so that we could approach the Stelvio pass from the south.

I’d seen photos of the Stelvio – I’m sure we all have – just like the one of the northern pass on this page, but had no idea which was the best way to ride it: south to north or vice versa. We needed to get close to Florence that evening to stay on schedule, and riding south to north would allow us to join the autostrada not long after the pass and put some miles under our wheels, so that was the route we took.

Long before we got to the southern approach, the road became very interesting and quite challenging, especially two-up on a Honda Valkyrie loaded with 60 lbs of luggage. It was a Wednesday before the peak holiday season, but there were a lot of bikes on the road. We passed a two-up Harley that was making heavy weather of the twisties, but mostly we kept an eye out for well-ridden KTMs, Ducati Monsters and the like. I couldn’t have kept up with them if I’d wanted to.

 

The Valkyrie acquitted itself really well, feeling stable and very agile despite its load. The fun seemed endless, and I found myself moving around the machine to get the best out of it. Then the road started to climb – seriously climb! The turns became tighter until they were perfect 180-degree hairpins, demanding first gear every time.

Peter is the perfect pillion passenger, her presence totally neutral at all times. She reckons she had the most fun that day, being free to revel in the views while still enjoying the corners and the acceleration up the next straight.

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Peter the perfect pillion enjoys a warming cup of coffee at the summit

I don’t think I’ve ever worked so hard at riding in my life, and I doubt I’ve ever enjoyed myself more. It demanded total concentration: while the apexes of the turns were protected by barriers, there were sections before the turns where there was nothing to prevent you disappearing over the edge and plunging hundreds of feet to almost-certain death. That focuses the mind.

The great thing with a well-designed heavy tourer or cruiser/tourer is that the best of them shed a lot of their weight once they are moving. But on some of the slowest hairpins, you are barely moving at the apex, and the weight seems to come flowing back. (I confess that I put down a foot just once for extra stability, and was pleased to see several riders having to do the same on smaller, lighter bikes.) Another problem is that there’s a moment in the turn when you have no idea what you’re going to meet coming the other way, so you’re using all your peripheral vision.

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Looking back down on the gentler part of the southern ascent

Happily, traffic down the mountain wasn’t too heavy, but you have to be wary because almost everybody is giving it their all, uphill or down. We saw countless sports cars taking part in some alpine rally: four Ferraris almost nose to tail, BMW coupes, Mercs, more Ferraris. Snow lay by the roadside and the mountain tops, the sky was crystal clear with fluffy white clouds, the air chilled, and suddenly we were at the summit, 2,757 metres (9,045 feet) above sea level.

The village at the summit turned out to be a busy meeting place for bikers and cyclists, drinking coffee in roadside cafes and comparing notes.

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Bikers, both motorised and pedal-powered, take a break at the summit

There were registration plates from France, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Spain, the UK, the Netherlands: tourers, cruisers, sports bikes, adventure bikes, café racers, street bikes and superbikes. The owner of a matte-black Rocket III admired the Valkyrie, and I admired his ability to wrestle such a huge and heavy beast up and down those corners.

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Okay, so I liked this K1200!
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This Buell X12R would be a cool tool for riding the Stelvio
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We owned one of these for five years, and I wouldn’t have wanted to ride the Stelvio pass on it; gorgeous cruiser, though. His friend had a matte-black version

While I took some photos trying to capture the atmosphere, Peter had spotted the ultimate vista: the view of the road that stretched out below us, just like in all the famous pictures. It was spellbinding. We started down the northern pass, staying in the lower gears to preserve the brakes. Part-way down, we spotted an enterprising commercial photographer sitting in a chair at one hairpin and taking photos of each bike as they came down the hill. His website address was painted on the car parked next to him!

We had to stop at one hairpin to accommodate a tour bus that looked like it needed the entire road to make the turn, and it did. The only other hairy moment was meeting a camper van on a hairpin as it overtook a cyclist, between them leaving us the width of the Valkyrie’s handlebars and maybe two more inches!

We were half way down when I felt the rear brake pedal go spongy, then travel way more than it normally does, then travel forever and provide no retardation whatsoever. I’d been using it judiciously to steady the bike in corners, but the severity of the road and the sheer mass of bike, riders and luggage took their toll. I decided not to share this information with Peter for her own peace of mind and we managed to get the rest of the way down on engine braking and front brake alone. Phew! Next time I tried it, the brake had cooled down and was working flawlessly once more.

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A typical hairpin, snapped from the pillion, on the northern descent

It was a hugely memorable ride. There are better biking roads, if you like fast, sweeping bends and the flip-flop sensation of left-right-left swinging. The Stelvio is just different: more challenging, requiring more energy, greater concentration, and the ability to soak up awesome vistas while focusing on the road, fingers and toes working away relentlessly.

It was so utterly engaging and the Valkyrie so composed that at no time did I wish I’d been on a different bike. It was only afterwards, reflecting on the experience, that I wondered what it would have been like on, say, a Yamaha 350 of yore, a Ducati Monster, a KTM Duke or a Yamaha MT-09 – something relatively light and very chuckable.

But there were guys there that day on every machine under the sun, including aforementioned Rocket IIIs, Moto Guzzis and even a couple of Gold Wings.  The Stelvio pass: if you get a chance, ride it!