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.

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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.

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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!

Camping at 1,500 metres in Davos

The plan today, Tuesday, was to visit the town of Freiburg in Germany, then get as close to the Stelvio pass in Italy as possible so we could tackle that challenging ride fresh on Wednesday. I normally like an early start to make the most of each riding day, but Tuesday morning didn’t go quite to plan.

For a start, the bar was open and served excellent coffee and croissants. Then we’d brought The Sunday Times with us from London, with its detailed analysis of the Brexit vote that had surprised so many. As Brexit supporters, we were so busy enjoying the dismay of the “remain” camp that we didn’t get underway until about 10:30. Certain moments have to be savoured!

 

Traffic on the single-lane roads was heavy as we rode through the famous region of Alsace-Lorraine, where the street signs and town names started to appear in German, even though we were still in France. We took the autoroute for the last stretch into Freiburg and made our way to the cobbled town square, with its imposing cathedral and picturesque roofscape, where an open-air lunch of pasta and German beer set us up for the afternoon.

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Market stall-holders break down their shops in Freiburg’s market square
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The impressive Roman Catholic church in  Freiburg’s town square

The Garmin took us on a mixture of autobahn and lesser roads into Lichtenstein and back out again, bringing us to Davos by early evening. Davos, the home of the World Economic Forum, was actually quite disappointing and nothing like the picture-postcard towns and villages one normally associates with Switzerland. Some of its hotels are downright ugly, to our eyes at least: the Intercontinental, for example, looks like a giant concrete ostrich egg that has been sat on by a herd of elephants. Maybe the whole place looks more magical under a blanket of winter snow, but in summer it’s nothing special.

It did boast one campground outside of town, and happily they had space for a tent – lots of space, given that there was only one other tent pitched there, among a bunch of caravans. The sun was deserting the valley and it was getting chilly. We were at 1,500 metres, and I wondered whether our summer camping gear was up to the task.

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Breaking camp, Wednesday morning, just outside Davos

 

Again, the beer was cold, the food excellent and they even had a decent scotch to warm us up. Happily, the newly acquired “two-season” sleeping bags were warm enough. Next morning, the woman running the café offered to bake us fresh croissants for breakfast. They arrived within minutes, accompanied by the suggestion that we wait a minute longer as they had just come out of the oven. Never tasted croissants that fresh, that hot or that good!

An old-fashioned, oft-used paper map showed us the route to Stelvio, but the signposting within Davos was so obscure that we overshot the turn and headed toward Klosters. It felt wrong, so we turned the Garmin back on. It surprised us by telling us to continue in the direction we were travelling, which we did, for several more miles, retracing our route of the night before along agreeably twisty roads.

The limitations of sat-nav became all-too-apparent when the Garmin directed us to a roundabout where it called for a U-turn and a trip back into Davos. This was the Garmin 590LM, designed for motorcycles; it would have been so easy to suggest a three-point turn miles back! I must confess that we’d deliberately left our intercom at home, so had no audio feed from the Garmin – there may well have been an unheard, strident voice telling me to “turn around as soon as you can”.

The intercom uses lip-touch microphones and can be a bit irritating at times, with wires from both helmets running down to a control unit in my jacket pocket. It also takes a mobile phone and an iPad, but Peter finds it annoying. My Schuberth takes a neat-looking but horribly expensive wireless comms system, and we haven’t checked out what wireless kit her Shoei can take (although they probably would’t connect with each other anyway), so we resort to the time-honoured methods of pointing fingers, tapping shoulders and enjoying the ride in silence.

We found the right road, and not for the first time came across traffic lights around single-lane traffic for roadworks. I guess the weather takes its toll on alpine roads and there’s probably a small window in summer when they can be resurfaced. On one stretch, a few miles outside Davos, one side of the carriageway had completely fallen into the valley below. It looked as if the efforts to rebuild it in that confined space would take some time.

The nice thing about these roadworks is that they bunch all the traffic together, including the trucks that somehow have to negotiate these routes. With luck, a bike can squeeze its way to the front of the queue and enjoy miles of empty road after the lights go green. On this occasion, however, there was no room to get past, but we quickly accelerated past the leading cars and trucks after the roadworks; the road opened up before us and we embarked upon the most enjoyable and challenging alpine riding we’d ever experienced.

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Up at the snow line en route to the Stelvio pass

Zak and rain – but no pain

We spent Sunday as planned visiting our daughter and three-week-old grandson Zak Paul Xanthidis in south-east London before staring the journey proper on Monday.

The first leg involved an early-morning dash to catch the Eurotunnel train at Folkestone for the 35-minute journey under the English Channel to Calais involved rain. Not a lot of rain, but enough to remind us that we were in Britain and it was June.

The Kuryakyn luggage isn’t waterproof in any way but comes with separate nylon covers for the panniers and a plastic cover for the top case. They’re fiddly and billow madly in the wind, look like they’ll burn on the exhaust pipes but never do, but stuff stays more or less dry. The top case cover is secured by a slip-cord, but the seams around the cord had split early on it its life and so it was even more difficult to secure.

That’s probably why it was no longer there by the time we reached the Eurotunnel terminal, having presumably flown away en route. Not a big deal, we figured. A bigger deal was our decision to nip inside the terminal for a warming coffee and porridge, because we were ahead of schedule. We then headed for UK passport control in good time and got through without delay – with my wife’s South African passport, you can never be too sure.

French passport control, however, was much slower, with long queues, and when we eventually got through we’d missed our train’s loading time by minutes. Eurotunnel had thoughtfully laid on an extra service 20 minutes later, which spat us out into a drizzly Calais still more or less on schedule.

We’d decided to use the autoroute to cover as much ground as possible on day one, and it was a doddle. This was our first time using our new Garmin sat-nav in France, and it worked a treat as we headed east through the patchy rain, stopping for petrol every 120 miles or so. By lunchtime, the rain was largely behind us and we could feel the air getting warmer.

There were also two things I couldn’t feel: pain in my butt and pain in my back. For the past few years, I’ve had a sharp pain just below my left shoulder blade after about an hour on any bike. Peter was used to massaging it with her fingers, but it invariably came back. Not this day! No back pain. No idea why, but it was great news. What’s more, it stayed away for the entire trip.

Even better was the fact that my backside was also pain-free. For longer than I care to remember, I could pretty much guarantee that I would be squirming in my seat within two hours. I’d move about a bit and seek a more comfortable position, but it was never quite right – regardless of the bike I was riding.

But this day I felt fine, even after three hours. Then I realised that my new ISX Desert summer riding trousers had no seams on the bottom, whereas I’d always worn jeans or cargo pants in the past and their pocket seams had dug into my backside. I’ve criticised a lot of motorcycle seats over the years and now it seems that the problem was probably me, not the bike. Anyway, if you experience bum ache, try a seam-free pair of trousers. It would be the afternoon of day three before I felt the slightest twinge, and that was a one-off.

Our route took us past Arras and Reims to Chalons-en-Champagne, where we left the motorway and moved on to the slower but much more enjoyable routes nationale. By day’s end we’d reached Moyenmoutier in the Vosges region and found a really nice campsite there for the princely sum of €15. They served wonderfully cold beer but no food, saying that the nearby town had so many restaurants that there was no demand for food at the camp.

So we walked the 15 minutes in to the town, only to discover that there were indeed quite a few restaurants, although the majority were selling pizza and kebabs. What ever happened to French cuisine? The only other problem was that it was Monday, and almost all the restaurants were closed on Mondays!

We settled in for a one-hour wait at one of only two open pizza places in the area; fortunately, the pizza was great. But nowhere was open to serve alcohol and by the time we’d hiked back up the hill to the campsite the bar there was closed. Admittedly, their summer season was still a week or two away. So if you’re in the area, the Camping Vosgina campsite is really great, the nearby town less so, at least on Mondays.

 

Ever take too much stuff on tour?

I guess we all have an idea of what we need to take on a motorcycle tour, and that idea evolves over time until we have the whole subject nailed down -or think we do. We probably start out by packing far too much stuff and then realise we didn’t use some of it, so next trip we pare it down and try again.

I took my first truly long-distance trip on a bike – a Yamaha YR5 350cc two-stroke – 40 years ago and completed the journey from London to Rome in two days. Crazy, I realise now, but I was young, foolish and intrepid. I don’t remember what I packed back then, but I do remember enjoying every minute. I stayed in small hotels, negating the need for camping gear, which is what takes up most of the space.

These days my wife and I tend to pack about 60 lbs of gear for a 10-day tour. I’d love to get this weight way down, so if anyone out there has some suggestions I’d like to hear them.

The core item is a two-man tent I bought from Halford’s for about £50 about 12 years ago. It takes about 15 minutes to erect and packs into a manageable size to fit inside our Kuryakyn tour pack on the rear rack. It works just fine, has never let in a drop of rain and is only now beginning to show its age, with one of the glass fibre stay segments splitting. It probably weighs a few kilos, and no doubt a lighter option is out there somewhere, maybe saving a kilo or so.

We used a thick, blow-up double mattress until this year. It was quite heavy, quite bulky and needed a lot of pumping, but it was comfortable. This year we switched to a couple of backpacker’s mattress that self-inflate to about half strength and need a little lung power to finish the job. They are about an inch and a half thick in use, very comfortable and insulate you nicely from the ground temperature. The much lower height also creates more space inside the tent.

Then there are two simple blow-up pillows and two single, standard-shape sleeping bags. Together, this lot takes up a lot of space. The mattresses go inside a plastic waterproof sausage-shaped bag, and that gets strapped atop the Kuryakyn tail bag, which in turn takes the tent and sleeping bags.

That leaves us with the two Kuryakyn fabric panniers for clothes and a magnetic Oxford tank bag for odds and sods. The panniers are sort of okay. Our last two bikes came with factory-fitted hard panniers (Triumph Rocket III Touring and Honda Valkyrie Touring) which had their own flaws but at least were secure and looked better. However, the current Valkyrie came with ridiculously small Highwayman bags, and the options for finding hard bags were limited. You either pay a fortune for original Valkyrie bags from the Touring model ($1,000 if you can find them) or some modern lookalikes that all look a bit out of place or are pretty expensive, or both.

So replacing the Kuryakyns this summer with second-hand Givis may be the ultimate compromise. I didn’t manage to get the right bolts to fit them until after our Rome trip was over, but the end result looks promising. Okay, they’re not as sleek or cool as I’d like, but they do detach from the bike in seconds, seem waterproof, are lockable, and hold a full-face helmet each. I can’t wait to try them out on tour.

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The Kuryakyns and the Givis are said to hold 35 litres apiece, but I think the Kuryakyns might be a bit smaller than that, even with the expansion zips deployed. What goes inside, then? This is where we could probably save some space and some weight. I tend to pack about five pairs of underwear and socks, five T-shirts, two pairs of shorts, two pairs of cargo pants, flip-flops, running shoes, two running shirts, running shorts, three pairs of running socks. Just typing this makes it look silly, and I already plan to remove a few of those items from the list next time out.

My wife’s clothing list is similar, but a little smaller. It’s a balance between going minimalist and washing your clothes every couple of days, or taking enough stuff to get you through four or five days before having to wash anything. Oh, and we also pack a small washbag and two microfibre camping towels, which take up almost no space and are great.

The Oxford tank bag is a godsend and a nuisance at the same time. It holds sunscreen, contact lenses, reading glasses, a helmet lock, two Kindles, maps, passports, mobile phones, a phone charger, insect repellent, and our tent light. On the downside, the magnets make it heavy and it has to be shifted every time you fill up, which with the Valkyrie is typically every 130 miles.

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All of this means that there’s no room for, say, rain suits, so we compromise on what riding gear we wear. In summer, Peter wears Kevlar jeans, TCX boots, leather jacket and leather gloves, and reckons that if it rains she’ll eventually dry out.

I hate getting wet so opt for waterproof boots and trousers, a choice of waterproof or plain leather gloves, and a non-waterproof jacket, trusting to luck that summer in Europe won’t get too wet. Mostly, it works out that way.

For winter trips, I go the full Rukka waterproof route and Peter wears a one-piece Oxford waterproof sack-like thing that she hates, but concedes that it does keep her dry. We rode back from Manchester to London in torrential rain recently and she welcomed its contribution.

One friend with a Gold Wing solved the “what to bring” problem by adding a trailer, which is a solution that I can understand totally but would never want to try. Others try to manage without mattresses, or go solo which simply requires less gear. Others go for exotic gear like titanium tent pegs to save weight. And lots of people skip the whole camping thing and stay in hotels. There’s probably no single ideal solution, but I’d like to hear yours!

Boots, bags, bolts and gloves: what could possibly go wrong?

The plan was pretty straightforward and had been carried through in various forms so many times before, going right back to 1975. We’d fly into Heathrow, pick up the Valkyrie from my cousin Tony’s garage in Woking, fit new panniers and head off to Rome. What could possibly go wrong?

For reasons to do with work and family, my wife and I divide our time between Dubai, the UK and South Africa. We keep bits of kit in each location to save humping too much stuff on and off planes. So the day before we left Dubai for London, we tried to remember what was where.

Summer riding gloves? Inside my helmet with the Valkyrie in the UK. Sleeping bags? My wife, who is also called Peter, sorted through a pile of about six and asked me which ones we needed to take. None, I replied confidently, since they too were with the bike. Then I came across my trusty waterproof riding boots and wondered why they were in Dubai. Surely I’d left them in the UK? No, I decided, last time I was there I’d used my short summer boots, so they were still there with the bike, helmet, gloves, Rukka riding suit and sleeping bags.

Twenty-four hours later, after the taxi had disgorged us at Tony’s house, the serious tour prep began. The Valkyrie was wheeled out into the sunshine and I rooted through the gear surrounding it. Out came the tent, the new air mattresses, inflatable pillows and… that was it. No sign of sleeping bags or boots, tall or short. The first smidgen of doubt crept in.

I unzipped the two Kuryakyn soft panniers and found the Rukka jacket and trousers; opening the matching carrier-top bag yielded my helmet – but no gloves. Further searching proved fruitless. Obviously for some bizarre reason I’d brought the sleeping bags, boots and gloves back to Dubai after the last trip. It was now mid-morning Friday, and we were due to set off first thing Sunday morning. Bugger!

Before we went shopping for gear we already had – but not in the right country – I turned my attention to fitting the second-hand Givi hard panniers I’d bought a few months earlier from another Valkyrie rider on an owner’s forum. He’d kindly delivered them to Tony’s house to await my arrival.

A quick inspection showed them to be in very good condition and the brackets looked like a bolt-on fit, so I removed the Kuryakyns (not an instant task, as you have to unbolt the pillion seat first) and their supporting brackets. Offering up the Givi brackets showed them to be indeed a near-perfect fit; this shouldn’t take long.

But, of course, the bolts that held on the old brackets were too long to suit the Givi ones, and I had nothing suitable to hand, so the Kuryakyns had to go straight back on: the bike had a 2 pm appointment for its annual MOT test (roadworthiness check). As expected, the Honda breezed through the test, and we set off in search of boots.

The nearest dealer had some unattractive boots for sale at prices northwards of £150, and that seemed too much for an emergency replacement. On, then, to Halfords, every UK biker or motorist’s default port of call for nuts and bolts. Nope, they didn’t have the bolts I needed, but they did have sleeping bags on sale at half price, so we filed that away for comparison purposes and would resume the enforced shopping spree on Saturday.

There’s a very cool online motorcycle clothing specialist in the UK called Motolegends that has an actual shop in nearby Guildford, and a quick look at their website showed several types of boots on sale at around £90. More than I’d hoped to pay, to be honest, but hey – needs must. So we set off for Guildford on Saturday morning in bright sunshine to beat the heavy rain forecast for that afternoon (this being Britain, we didn’t succeed in that, of course).

As luck would have it, all the £90 boots weren’t in stock at that particular warehouse, so I tried on three other pairs at prices nudging toward £200. When did bike boots get so expensive? Obviously, sometime after I bought my last pair. Unfortunately, none of these boots fitted me well enough.

The helpful salesman suggested I try a short Daytona boot, which of course fitted me like a glove – a £275 glove! Peter and I decided that they were an investment and would last forever (they have that reputation), so we sprung for the boots. A pair of waterproof, summer-weight riding gloves set us back a further £50. Thanks, Motolegends – great gear and no more expensive than the norm; it was just that I already owned all this stuff…

A trip to the camping store Milletts revealed a wider range of sleeping bags than at Halfords, and they were also on sale, although at slightly higher prices. We bought two for about £15 each, but drew the line at paying £18 for the only other item we seemed to have forgotten – a European electric two-pin adapter for our standard UK three-pin plugs. £18? Seriously, Milletts?

Newvalkyrie

We had no further luck with bolts, so we returned to Tony’s where the black Valkyrie was duly washed and polished, in the hopes of better weather tomorrow; I never start a touring trip with a dirty motorcycle. The Givis were put reluctantly to one side and we packed the gleaming bike for Sunday’s early start, about £360 poorer but, maybe, a little wiser.

Ups and downs of a motorcycle road-tester

Suzuki X7

For eight wonderful years in the late ‘70s to early ‘80s I had the good fortune to work as a professional motorcycle road-tester. It wasn’t a full-time job, because it didn’t pay well enough, but a part-time role supplementing a full-time job. Truth be told, I’d have done it for free!

I got to ride the largest, newest, most expensive bikes on the market, at a time when I couldn’t possibly have afforded to buy most of them. On one memorable occasion, I had four of the latest, most exotic bikes available sitting in my carport at the same time (a Honda CBX, Yamaha XS1100, Laverda Jota and MV Agusta 850 race replica). The only problem was finding time to ride them while holding down that day job. It was a busy week, but oh what a week!

Unlike big-name car testers, back then we motorcycle testers didn’t get the bikes delivered to our doors and collected afterward. You had to make your own way across London or even farther afield to the headquarters of the various importers to pick up the test bike, then retrace your steps by train or Tube at the end of the test, helmet in hand. But typically you got to keep the bike for at least a week, often two, and that was worth the effort.

As a freelance, writing for four magazines, two of which I edited, I had some say in which bikes I tested. At 6’ 2” and weighing about 90kg, I tended to avoid the 125s and 250s if I could. Living 30 miles from the office, some of that on high-speed roads, I wanted more oomph to make the journey fun. I recall testing a Honda CG125 at one point and battling to keep up with the traffic into a headwind on the A2 in Kent. That was my only 125, happily, and the 250s were few: I recall the Suzuki X7, Honda CB250, Kawasaki 250 and the Puch 250.

The Puch was the one that got me into trouble. Not road trouble – political trouble. I was never one to be overly rude about a bike, but neither was I one to skirt around the issues: if I bike handled badly, had poor brakes, terrible tyres, mediocre suspension, rotten headlights, harsh ride, insufficient power or a hideous seat, then the reader deserved to be told. And back in the ‘70s, a lot of bikes suffered from at least one of those faults, sometimes several.

The Puch was an old-fashioned two-stroke twin (I think – I’ve tried to blot out all memory of it, and even an Internet search doesn’t reveal much) that had been tarted up with a BMW R90S-style bikini fairing and positioned as a sports bike. I think it was a UK-only special. It used a petroil mix, rather than the separate petrol and oil tanks that the Japanese had been using for years at that point. So you had to buy a small can of two-stroke oil or carry one with you, put some petrol in the tank and then add the oil, and shake the bike about a bit, which was hugely inconvenient and felt like stone-age technology in the late ‘70s.

The other “feature” was a very odd foot-operated clutch, in addition to the usual handlebar lever. I’s been riding bikes since I was 13 and never come across, let alone heard of, such a thing. I had some very clunky winter riding boots back then, sturdy thick leather things that didn’t transmit much to the foot within. So I found myself on several occasions, in busy London traffic, with what felt like a slipping clutch and no forward progress. I eventually tracked this down to the fact that the sole of my left boot was touching the gear lever and activating the clutch. Once I worked that out, the thing worked well enough, but not well enough to earn a good test report.

It was more economical than a contemporary Japanese 250, but way behind them in performance, convenience, quality of finish and value for money. So I said so, and was duly given a tongue-lashing by the MD of the UK importer, who sneered and called me an amateur journalist. As it happened, I was a full-time professional and fully qualified journalist working for a respected UK magazine; the truth was that the Puch was a crap bike by the standards of its peers.

Other bikes that failed to impress were the Harley-Davidson Electra Glide and the Harley XLCR1000 café racer. I rode them both on a test track in Surrey, with speed banking, in heavy rain and have rarely been so frightened in my life. The brakes didn’t work in the wet, and neither did the tyres, and it took a massive effort to complete a few laps without falling off. Neither bike felt that fast, luckily, compared with the Suzukis, Kawasakis, Yamahas and Hondas I rode that same day. The XLCR1000 was a handsome beast, all in black, but was let down by its chassis, tyres, brakes, suspension and engine. Not much more to say, really.

There were other scary moments, but not many. I recall taking a BMW R100S to Ireland to test it over the wonderful twisting back roads there and being a little concerned by the state of its front tyre, which seemed to be upsetting the handling. I took it to Ireland’s only BMW specialist at the time, who found that the steering head nut was loose! He also replaced the front tyre, and normal service was resumed.

That was one of the things about test bikes: they were usually new, sometimes brand new, and were usually given a thorough check by a factory mechanic before being loaned to the press. The last thing you expected were loose nuts and bolts on crucial components.

Happy days, despite the few duds. More on the good times soon.

The head-turner that makes me smile

 

I had a couple of months back in South Africa for work, mid-March to mid-May, which meant I got to ride some of my bikes on those relatively deserted roads of the Western Cape once again. Living as we do one kilometre down a dirt road, getting out was dependent on the state of that road. To start with, it was bad – really bad. Deep ridges across the road, potholes everywhere, courtesy of the massive logging trucks that use it as a shortcut.

The V-Strom could cope, just – even the rugged double-cab Nissan N300 bakkie protested at times. The two sports bikes really didn’t want to know; their suspension just wasn’t designed for that sort of treatment. Neither, for that matter, was the Rune, its rear end sensitive as it is to even poorly surfaced Tarmac roads. I was even more worried about stone chips damaging its largely unblemished paintwork.

Then, after a few days, the guys with the road graders came and smoothed out the worst of the bumps, the sun was shining, and suddenly all the bikes were viable. Guess which one got ridden, almost exclusively? The Honda Rune. It just feels so right.

The engine is far from the largest on a modern bike, and very far from the most powerful. Yet it’s powerful enough, it’s wonderfully smooth, and it sounds great. The riding position is very relaxed, and the view from the saddle is unique: that long tank, the intense, deep chrome of the handlebars and instruments and switchgear, and the beautifully crafted chrome headlight poking forward four feet in front you.

The fact that 100 kph (62 mph) feels like a supremely comfortable cruising speed may be a turn-off for many riders. There may have been a time when I too would have dismissed as “past it” any other rider who felt that 100 kph was a satisfactory rate of progress. But it has the advantage of reducing your chance of speeding tickets and on the Rune it just feels good. So does 120 and 130, so all is not lost.

I recently placed this custom flat six at the top of my list of all-time favourite bikes, and riding it in recent weeks merely conformed that status. If you ever have a hankering after a really relaxing cruiser that impresses the hell out of you every time you lay eyes on it, then try a Rune. If you like Valkyries, you’ll love it.

The fact that it turns heads everywhere you go could be deeply irritating after a while, but so far, for me, it isn’t. I got stopped in one of the frequent, random police roadside licence checks that are part of life in South Africa, and the young female officer asked me to park the bike and walk home so she could have it. Police officers who crack jokes! Then she walked around it slowly, came back and said “I love your bike – but I hate your number plate” (it might be just a tad smaller than regulation size).

An old guy (well, about my age) walked over another time and asked if he could take a picture for his son, who owned a Panigale. Two women, probably in their early 40s, saw me walking toward it in a DIY store car park and asked: “Is that your bike?” Since it was the only bike in the place and I was wearing a bike jacket and carrying a helmet, it seemed a silly question, but that’s the Rune for you – a conversation piece.

Time for a special mention for Star Panelbeaters in Knysna. They did an excellent job respraying my black Ducati SportClassic after its tank-slapper incident last year – the final step in restoring it to virtually as-new condition. I asked them if they could try to polish out some very small surface scratches visible in the top coat of the Rune’s tank. Not sure how they got there – they may have been there before I bought it. Star said they’d give it a shot. They set to with the finest wet-and-dry emery paper I’ve ever seen, then added a thin white paste to the area and buffed it with a power polisher. The result was amazing: scratches gone and the tank immaculate once more. Thanks, guys!

The only casualty of that wretched dirt road – apart from the small truck that rolled off it and on to its side in the ditch near our house – was the Ducati. There has been a hairline crack for a while in the plastic left rear indicator stem, where it joins the tail-light assembly, and in just one trip down that dirt road on the way back from the spray shop the crack simply broke right through, leaving the flasher dangling by its electrical wire. Annoying rather than disastrous, but indicative of how rough that dirt road can be. Happily, it’s scheduled to be tarred next January.

Next planned road trip is the Valkyrie through the UK and across to Austria in July. Can’t wait!