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.

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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.