Slow rain in the Tyrol

The last time I was in Austria on a bike was for the press launch of the BMW R45 and R65 in June 1978. I remember liking the bikes and loving the roads, though after all this time I have no idea where this took place; somewhere Alpine. My wife has long had Austria on her must-ride list, so spending four days there was one of the two main goals of our summer tour this year – the other was to hang out with family for a week in Tuscany.

The Tuscany side of the trip dictated the timing: the villa we wanted was too expensive for our pockets in the peak season, but it was both affordable and available for the last week in September. Our daughter Elizabeth and her husband James had taken walking holidays for two successive years in the KItzbuhel area and thoroughly recommended it, so that was our destination.

The plan had been to camp, but night tempertures were around 7 degrees, which made hotels seem a much more attractive option. My Internet-savvy wife is a great Airbnb fan, so she went online over breakfast in Bad Camberg and found us a decent-sounding ski-lodge apartment in the Tyrolean town of Oberau for a mere €30 a night. We’d hole up there for three nights and take day trips out into the mountains for a mixture of riding and hiking.

Torrential rain east of Munich kept us on the autobahn until we reached the Austrian border. I’m no huge fan of riding in the rain – I served my time over the years in the UK and Ireland – and motorways at least get you through it faster. The non-motorway roads in Austria were reasonably well surfaced, but the pace became quite slow. The area seems overrun with towns and villages, so you’re forever slowing down to meet a variety of speed limits that run 90 km/h, 80, 70, 60, 50, 40 and even 30!

Local drivers seem a little unsure of how to behave at roundabouts: three times in about two hours we entered a roundabout only to find the car on the road joining from the right shooting straight across in front of us. Maybe the Austrians envy the French their archaic priorité a droit rule and think that roundabouts are cool places to employ it.
We reached Oberau by late afternoon and were pleased to find we’d be upgraded to a nice one-bed apartment with mountain views.

However, the rain continued for the next two days, always steady, sometimes heavy. There seemed no point in riding, but we hiked some the area’s many trails. At one point, as we continued uphill on a steep mountain path, I noticed that the rain had suddenly taken on a mysterious, mesmerising slow-motion quality. I even said to Peter “oh, look at that – slow rain”! It took a few seconds for it to register that this, in fact, was snow! Not what one expects on a summer holiday, but the peaks next morning presented a stunning display with their fresh covering of white powder.

Austrian Tyrol

The rain and snow eventually moved away and we continued our ride to Italy. I’d known of the Brenner Pass for years but never traversed it. The much-acclaimed Grossglockner Pass was too far out of our way to make sense, so we opted for the Brenner. What a disappointment! There were some nice mountain roads en route, but nothing to write home about. Suddenly you find yourself in a town, the signs say Brenner, and that’s it! No sense of achievement, no really challenging twists and turns. If you’ve ridden decent Alpine passes like the Stelvio and the Great St Bernard, the Brenner is a big let-down.

We made up for it, though, once inside Italy. We set the Garmin for non-motorway routes and aimed for Tuscany, and within a few miles found ourselves on an increasingly narrow single-track road that pretty much ran through a few back gardens! At one point the tar gave way to a few yards of gravel but then resumed, putting us on the SS44 (or the SS508 – it was impossible to tell), which was a fabulous mountain road that kept us entertained for a while.  It was popular with motorcyclists, and this Porsche 918 Spyder driver.

Porsche 918 (2)We eventually rejoined the autostrada for the ride down to Florence, stopping at Modena (of Ferrari fame) for the night. Couldn’t find any signs for campsites, which was a shame because it was warmer now at lower altitude and we would have gladly camped. We asked a BMW rider for directions, found nothing, and then stopped at a few miserable-looking three-star hotels before finding one that seemed acceptable for a rather pricey €94, including breakfast. Heading for the highway next morning, we followed the on-ramp as it looped around on to the autostrada, and there found a sign for the campsite! C’est la vie…

 

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In Bruges? Not today, thank you…

One of the cool things about 2017 for me is anniversaries: it’s 50 years since I started riding motorcycles (okay, it was a knackered old Lambretta Li150 scooter and so not technically a motorcycle, but that’s when the bug bit me and I’ve been riding ever since). My Suzuki TL1000S is 20 years old this year, the Ducati 1000 SportClassic is 10, as is my V-Strom, and the Valkyrie is 15 years old; only the Rune breaks the symmetry as it’s 13.

So here’s the thing: someone who’s been riding for 50 years and touring for 44 must know a thing or two about packing bikes, you’d think? I thought so too. I’ve had a particularly handy device called an Oxford Cargo Net since for ever – probably 15 years – but when I used it for a recent trip to Cape Town it had lost all its elasticity. So while visiting our daughter Charlotte, son-in-law Nikolas and grandsons Theo (that’s him on the Valkyrie, pre-trip) and Zak in south-east London I was delighted to find a new one in a nearby bike shop the day before we set off for our two-week tour of Europe.

We duly headed off first thing next morning for the Channel Tunnel, with the new cargo net holding our tubular waterproof bag to the top of our Kuryakyn tote bag. The net packaging said it was good for loads of up to 1 kg, and the bag was probably just under 2 kg – no problem, I thought. I’m sure I’ve used it for heavier loads in the past. I duly left my trusty but non-matching bungee cords at home and hit the M20 for the Tunnel terminus.

My mirrors showed me the tubular bag was moving slowly but steadily leftwards under the cargo net, so Peter kindly held it in place with her left hand while we rode through the heavy rain to catch our 08:20 train. We made good time, so Peter nipped into the terminal building and emerged with a pair of purple bungee cords which we used to secure the luggage properly. So much for 44 years of touring experience!

The Eurotunnel boarding process has always been fast, efficient and easy – but Passport Control these days is another matter. You used to be able to pass through almost on a nod with a European passport, while my wife’s South African document usually needed a quick visa search and a stamp. Not any more. It was bad last year and worse this year. The queue for the border check was moving so slowly that we missed our 08:20 train and had to take the next one, about 20 minutes later. On the way back in Calais, it was even more chaotic. I guess that’s the price we pay for security.

The rain had disappeared by the time we emerged into watery sunlight in Calais. The French have not been too diligent of late with their maintenance, and the road signs out of the port were in such a bad state that the road numbers were rusted beyond legibility. We eventually found the right exit and headed for our first overnight in Germany.

We’d both loved the movie In Bruges, a dark comedy-drama (highly recommended), and seeing that our route passed straight by the old city we figured a lunch stop there was called for. Unfortunately, our visit coincided with some daft “No Car Day”, which meant that all entrances to Bruges were blocked to normal traffic. Only pedestrians and bicycles were allowed in.

We tried a selection of different routes, to no avail, so with great reluctance had to skip Bruges and move on. I’ll never be a tree-hugger, and I am not convinced that global warming has much to do with the internal combustion engine, so I doubt that this token exercise in vehicle banning will have done any good for the people of Bruges – just inconvenienced tourists who would have spent money there. Shame.

We rode on dry roads in ever-increasing sunshine across Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany, enjoying a largely traffic-free journey. The only glitch was being offered a rip-off exchange rate of £206 for €200 at some German autobahn service area, which we declined.

After about 450-odd miles on the road it seemed time to look for a campsite, although the air felt increasingly chilly so a three-star hotel was also on the menu. We found one in Bad Camberg for about €72, including breakfast. It wasn’t anything special but it was warm, dry, had lots of space for bike gear and out-of-sight, off-road parking. We both needed an end-of-day beer and so started a mini restaurant crawl that began in a tapas bar and ended up with superb pasta in the town’s Italian eatery. We wondered if we’d succumbed to the attractions of hotel touring too easily, but there wasn’t a campsite to be found – maybe we’d camp tomorrow night, weather permitting.

Is it just me, or is England boring by bike?

This year’s summer tour in Europe kicked off with a gentle trip up the east of England to visit our son James at university in Scotland, back via Manchester to visit our daughter Lizzie and her family and then on to London to visit our other UK-based daughter, Charlotte, and her family.

The family visits were enormous fun, but not much else stands out. Is it just me, or are large tracts of the English countryside just plain boring? Okay, we had a lot of ground to cover in five days, so we took the M1 for speed and convenience as far as Leeds, then headed east to Scarborough on the coast.

We’d booked into a Premier Inn for convenience. It cost £100 – clean and convenient, as always, but not cheap, although other hotels in the town were looking for £200, which is nonsense in the low season. I get regular emails from Premier Inn urging me to stay with them for £39, but that doesn’t seem to cut any ice in Scarborough.

We set off on foot in steady rain to explore the town, me in my Rukka jacket and helmet. It must have looked weird, but at least I was dry. Scarborough (main photo) is like so many English seaside towns, a picture of faded grandeur from a bygone era. It even has the obligatory seafront arcades, full of lights and naff games. This evening, there was only a single punter in the largest emporium, a woman of uncertain age pulling on the handle of a one-armed bandit.

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Amid the decay and the faded paintwork lay a pleasant hillside park. We walked through it, remarking how it was a bit overgrown and unloved-looking, then came across a beautiful so-called Italian Garden with manicured lawns, pretty flowers (many beds were empty, and signs said the plants had all been destroyed by deer), a water feature and a statue of Mercury. Impressive stuff, despite the heavy rain.

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We walked back along the waterside promenade, to be greeted by the sight of about six men in their late teens or early 20s, shooting up whatever one shoots up with needles on park benches at 7 pm in Scarborough. Not a great tourist attraction. Don’t the police care about this stuff?

The rain had passed on the following morning, and we followed the coast road to the nearby port of Whitby. We opted for a pavement table at a coffee shop, where the coffee was Maxwell House instant. Seriously? In 2017? We didn’t manage to finish the coffee, and headed off instead for Scotland.

I’m told the east of England has some great biking roads, but generally the A1 ain’t one of them. Apart from a few stretches where we could give the Valkyrie its head, and be rewarded with sweet exhaust music, it was boring and full of traffic. I’d read in Bike magazine about five great biking roads in the Yorkshire area, but they were all out of our way and only ran for about 10 miles, so it made no sense to make a detour for a few miles of bend-swinging.

Even the Yorkshire Moors were a bit of a disappointment. I’ve seen better bleak scenery (and more of it) and better riding roads in the west of Ireland. Maybe a more extended tour of the Moors would have changed my view, but we didn’t have the time or the inclination. It was bucketing with rain again, but obligingly the rain stopped as suddenly as it started and the sun came out, big-time, as we left the Moors, which helped.

Our destination was Stirling, half way between Edinburgh and Glasgow, but Peter wanted to see and travel across the new Forth Road Bridge, opened just a few days earlier by none other than Her Majesty The Queen. We found it all right, but so had hundreds if not thousands of motorists, and the queues either side were several miles long. I’m an inveterate lane-filterer, but the new (to us) Givi panniers on the Valkyrie made the bike feel a mile wide. The concentration needed to thread something that wide through lines of traffic, being deflected by cat’s eyes and thickly applied white lines, was immense.

Impressive bridge, nonetheless. We eventually made it across and back, got ripped off with high petrol prices on the motorway into Stirling, and spent a very pleasant two days exploring the Trossachs (of Loch Lomond fame) with James. Gloriously sunny on Saturday, raining steadily on Sunday – that’s Scotland for you.

More rain greeted us in Manchester, of course, but nothing could dampen our spirits as we got to meet our three-week-old granddaughter Grace, her almost-five-year-old brother William, her mum Lizzie and dad James. Then it was back on the motorway network to Surrey for a day’s laundry and bike wash before the next leg down to Italy. The M25, of course, was as clogged as ever, and again the wide Givis forced me to spend way too much time stuck in the traffic, but they were so convenient in general that I forgave them on that count.

 

Tolls and fuel make Europe pretty pricey

When did motorcycle touring get so horribly expensive? My wife and I just returned from a truly enjoyable 3,750-mile trip that took in England, Scotland, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Austria and Italy – and I have no idea how much it cost. That’s not because I haven’t kept all the receipts (I have) but because I’m too scared! I don’t want to know.

Take petrol. The Valkyrie was returning a reasonable 43 mpg average on the England-Scotland leg, but probably dropped to the high 30s on the autobahns and autostradas. I started out paying £1.17 per litre, which seemed okay. But forking out £1.36 at a motorway service area made me wince – that’s a massive mark-up with which to sting the captive customer base on a motorway: I mean, where else can drivers or riders go?

That all paled into insignificance in Northern Italy when we were charged a cent short of €2 per litre, again on an autostrada with no other option. Given that the Continental Europeans seem to regard the pound/euro exchange rate as almost at parity, that price really hurt. It’s probably the most I’ve ever paid for petrol, anywhere.

The recent weakness of the pound was amply demonstrated when I tried to use my UK debit card to withdraw 200 euro from an ATM in Germany and the bank concerned tried to charge me £206 for the privilege! There was an option to let the banking system sort it out instead, so I went for that.

Then there’s motorway tolls. It was only last year that we rode the Valk to Rome and I don’t recall needing a second mortgage to cover the toll costs. This year we were under a degree of self-imposed time pressure, so we stuck to the autostrada and autoroute for the entire trip back from Florence to London, instead of choosing the backroads. The toll from Florence to Aosta was a staggering €55, the Mont Blanc Tunnel charged us €29, and the journey to Calais siphoned off God knows how much more.

Campsites and hotels have suddenly become expensive too. This trip was in late September, which is well and truly “out of season”, but the normally budget-priced Premier Inn charged us £100 for a night in Scarborough; the three-star hotel in Aosta cost €94 including breakfast; and even the campsite near Reims wanted €30, despite being almost empty and the bar and restaurant being closed for the winter.

The one ray of light in all this was the Airbnb my wife booked in Oberau in the Austrian Tyrol. We’d planned on camping if the weather was right, but it was only 6 or 7 degrees C and raining, so Peter got out her mobile and found us a ski lodge for just €30 a night. It came complete with king-size bed, en-suite shower room, kitchen and living and dining area – all for the same price as a patch of grass in France!

We had a thoroughly enjoyable trip, and I know that it could have been a lot cheaper if we’d camped every night and avoided the motorways. That would also cut about 30 or even 40 cents a litre from the fuel price, which would have helped a lot too. The current sterling/euro exchange rate didn’t help, either, and hopefully that too will return to a more normal rate once the Brexit jitters have settled down.

Oh – and a final gripe (well, almost final – I’m sure I have a few more tucked away somewhere): What on earth is Eurotunnel doing? I’ve used the service pretty much since its inception, and am a great fan. I even thought the fares at about £40-odd each way were reasonable. I changed our outward trip by 24 hours to spend more time with daughter Charlotte and our grandchildren in London, and that cost only £4.

However, we made such good time on our return from Tuscany that we arrived at Calais a day early and decided to head straight home. Ah no! You can’t do that! Well, not without paying an incremental £43! They tolerate someone arriving an hour or two early or late, but not a whole day. I’m sure it’s in the Ts and Cs, somewhere. Of course, we paid up, and, of course, the train wasn’t full. So that was £43 pure profit, greedy profit, exploitative profit, for Eurotunnel.

I have just given in to temptation and finally totted up the cost of this trip. I couldn’t help myself! It came to a  fraction under £2,500, including our share of a fabulous villa we rented for a family week in Tuscany. Not a fortune, perhaps, but it feels like a lot more than we’ve ever spent on a European bike trip before. Next year we’ll stay off the motorways, go earlier so we can camp more, and see if we can save a chunk of money.

 

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.

Pinedene

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).

Rune at Saarinen 3

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.

Escape into the smooth blue yonder

Dusty dirt road 1

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.