This is the end, my only friend, the end
Finally my last post – it’s been a long journey consisting of a bunch of even longer posts, this being no exception… bear with me, it’s going to stretch on a bit. You have my permission to skip to the end if you can’t be bothered with the novel in between.
So it was that I found myself in Switzerland with a week left until I needed to be back in England, and no real plan for what to do next. I really wanted to see Monaco, which was about a day’s ride south. I was also still kicking myself for missing the Nurburgring, which was about a day’s ride north. I needed to pick one… but then I realised… why not do both? What was I, afraid of riding long-distance!? So I packed my bags – although I felt like I was leaving a piece of myself in Switzerland. And by a piece of myself, I mean a sizable chunk of my bank account. Bring on France, bring on the euro zone, and especially bring on paying less than 40 euro a night for a bed.
As the sun was nearly setting, I stopped on this mountain pass to take a photo and was struck by the silence – I hadn’t seen anyone for half an hour. It was just me and my bike, on the top of the world, completely alone. Zen.
It may surprise you to learn that there’s not a lot of budget accommodation available in Monaco, so I found a hostel in nearby Nice and made my way south. Having wasted (by which I mean spent wisely) a bunch of time looking at art in the morning, it was going to be a rush to beat the latest check-in time of 9pm… and having checked the weather and learned that it was raining all over the French alps, I opted to just let George show me the fastest route and follow that until I got reasonably close to Nice. I even left “Avoid tolls” off – how expensive could it possibly be? After being inexplicably guided across the Italian border and finding myself at a toll booth for a 22 euro tunnel. I suppose I could’ve turned around, but not wanting to spend a lot of time backtracking nor being searched by the border police that had just kindly waved me through meant that I just sucked it up. Maybe I wouldn’t be saving that much in France after all.
It’s pretty Nice. HAHAHA
Probably a good thing I did take the ultra-tunnel, because as night fell I found myself still with 2 hours of curvy roads still between me and my destination. Going down twisty roads at night is really one of the guilty pleasures of motorcycle traveling – you can’t plan your corners, rather you just have to react to them as they pop up in your headlight beam.
Reminds me of dash-cam footage of the World Rally Championship. Great fun, if a tad inadvisable from a safety point of view. Somehow I kept my imitation of Sebastian Loeb from resulting in a fiery death though, and I arrived in Nice. Which is to say I arrived at the edge of Nice… unfortunately this meant that the battle had just begun. For some reason Nice is a perfect grid of perpendicular roads. Every intersection is equipped with a traffic light. And seemingly no set of lights is green at the same time as any other in the whole city
. Riding through involves a light going green, moving forward 50 metres to the next red light, stopping for 3 minutes until it
goes green and so on. I can see why the French just runs them, it’s insane.
Managed to get around Monaco without crashing once, making me infinitely better than Pastor Maldonado. Expecting an F1 seat for 2013 now.
The next day I found myself riding along the picturesque Cote d’Azure on my way to Monaco. Navigating in Monaco is like playing Super Mario Brothers… make one mistake and you find yourself in a one-way tunnel all the way back to France, then you have to start all over again. It’s a fun place to get lost in though – everywhere you look there’s a dealership for some luxury car brand. At the other end of the market though, I was happy to learn that shopping centres in Monaco do indeed have McDonalds… I was expecting their fast food to be based around caviar and fois gras, but apparantly they’re just slobs like the rest of us after all.
Of course, the real reason I came was to check out the Grand Prix track, which after a lot of scanning kerbs for red-and-white stripes I eventually found. I’d assumed that I’d be able to navigate around it based on in-car footage from watching F1 and memories of playing Grand Turismo, but I found that it looks a lot different with the chicanes removed and a bunch of traffic added.
Actually as I type this I realise how utterly obvious that fact would be to anyone with more than two brain cells. Egh.
In any case, after a lot of riding about looking for red-and-white-striped kerbs, I managed a reasonable circumnavigation of the track. I was disappointed to find, however, that the part next to the casino is closed off to non-essential vehicles… which seems to mean that you need a shiny black Mercedes to enter. Unfortunately I left mine in my other garage – what a gyp.
Having ticked that box, it was a mad dash north to make it to the Nurburgring – the next day there was a special session on where the Grand Prix and Nordschliefe circuits would be combined, but tourist laps would only be charged out at normal cost. And the weather report said it wouldn’t rain until the day after – perfect! I went north on the fastest route that the GPS could find without resorting to tollroads. After spending the night at a depressing Hostelling International-style hostel I hopped over the German border for the third time to finally ride the ring. I found the hostel, took off my panniers and got to the track. Apart from the track itself, I was expecting a car park and maybe a caravan selling cups of coffee – the sort of thing you’d find on the side of a good motorcycling road on a Sunday morning. In reality the Nurburgring is as much a theme park as a race track – the central building includes a big shopping centre selling car merchandise, a go kart track, a cinema and even a rollercoaster. They also sold cards that allowed you on the Nordschliefe – four laps was 98 euros! Nearly as expensive as an Italian tunnel.
More like Nurburgularyring
After getting some directions at the theme park, I went down the road to find something closer to what I expected – a car park full of Audis, BMWs, Ferraris and so forth with a massive restaurant – it’ll do. I pulled up to the boom gate, took my card out and… found one of the marshals patting me down?
Upon reaching my knees he said “what is this?”.
“Kevlar jeans”, I said, assuredly. I’d be nervous, but I’d already phoned ahead to make sure that this was okay.
“This is not safe… you cannot go” he said, with all the good humour that you’d expect from a German whose job is to enforce safety. I tried arguing that I’d already phoned, found out that they were okay and based off that I’d bought a card, but he wasn’t listening to any of it. Apparently you need knee armour to ride – good thing they wrote that down on the website instead of just enigmatically stating that “protective clothing” was mandatory. Not.
By this time it was already 4pm – the sun was dropping quick and the track closed at 7pm. I rode around the nearby villages, only to find that the main motorcycle shop was closed for holidays and the Ducati dealer didn’t know anything about buying kneepads (I guess they don’t really help you ride to the cafe and sip a cappucino?). And it was forecast to rain tomorrow. Defeated, I returned to the hostel, with my only consolation that I’d managed to get a dorm room to myself.
I’d just ridden two days from the south to the north of Europe based on a miscommunication – I was pretty angry. And when I get angry, I get… creative.
There was no way I was just going to give up and leave – not without trying everything I could to get onto that track first. The next morning, inspired by the fact that it wasn’t raining, I took the elbow pads out of my other jacket, cloth-taped them to my knees, put my thermals on over the top to make it feel like it was actually part of my pants, and rode back to the track. I nervously pulled up to the gate, got my card out and swiped it… and find that this time no one seemed keen to feel my luscious legs at all.
“Are those kevlar?” asked the marshal – a different one to yesterday. “We only allow kevlar jeans here”.
“Yeah, they’re kevlar”, I replied. And that was it, I was on the track… seems their standards are completely based on how
much of a nazi
the marshal feels on the day… and my whole tape-and-elbow-pads effort was completely pointless. All’s well that ends well though – and I’d ended up on the Nurburgring!
My jubilation was short-lived
Riding on, I started to properly take notice of the other cars I’d be sharing the track with. In front of me was an Audi R8 with a Nurburgring sticker on the back… behind him was an M5, similarly adorned. Aboard my 650cc Kawasaki Versys – a bike slow enough that versions of it are legal for learners to ride back home – I quickly came to realise that I wasn’t going to need to remember the overtaking rules very often. I’ve never been in a motorcycle race, never done a track day, and the only occasions that I’ve dragged my knee have been half-way to falling off. As you can imagine, my four laps were a slaughter – I was overtaken again, and again, and again, and again.
I’d always had some fantasy that I’d do alright – obviously the supercars would be faster in the straights but gee whiz, I’d get ‘em in the corners. Nope. I think I’m not alone among motorcycle riders in having this perception, built up on many a road ride, that cars are just inherently slower than bikes. Doesn’t matter how powerful the car or wimpy the bike, the bike is always faster because whenever we go riding in the mountains we’re always finding ourselves stuck behind families on their way to their holiday house for the weekend.
I hope he has a very understanding insurer
The Nurburgring is some topsy-turvy world where cars are always faster than bikes – not just in my case either, I witnessed that even Suzuki Swifts would make their way around superbikes mid-corner. The reason for this became pretty clear though – when a car driver pushes his limits on the ring, he spins into an armco barrier, climbs out and waves his high-vis vest until a truck picks him up. If a motorcyclist pushes his limits… he dies. There’s no run-offs, nowhere to slide to a stop – just uneven road, a few metres of wet grass and a solid, skull-shattering wall. The cars are really pushing too – every lap I saw at least one new crash, and after I’d finished the whole track was shutdown to get an ambulance onto it. I found myself looking at my mirrors more than I looked ahead, and even then I didn’t always see cars coming up behind me… the faster ones seemed like sci-fi spaceships, uncloaking in my peripheral vision before jumping to lightspeed up the road ahead. Every now and again I’d claim a bit of ground back over a long sweeper, only to have the car in front hit the gas and disappear on the next straight. I did claim a few scalps though – a decidedly docile MX-5, an M5 doing driver training and a flatbed crash-recovery truck. Like I said, my 2013 F1 drive is basically confirmed.
No one will ever believe me…
A decidedly sodden ride through France brought me to Amiens, where I permitted myself the opulence of a private room in yet another dead hostel before ticking off another of the sights I absolutely had to see before I went home – Le Mont Sant Michel. Unfortunately the day in which I found myself making my way from Amiens to Saint Malo where I’d stay the night was a Sunday, and as usual, having a bit of time up my sleeve I tried to avoid the motorways and make my way using the backroads. Eventually the fuel gauge started flashing empty. No worries, there’s petrol stations everywhere. Upon pulling into the nearest Carrefour I found that the pumps were unmanned owing to the sabbath, but that was fine because there were automatic pumps available. Heh, guess I’ll just use my credit card.
And that was when I found that American Express wasn’t welcome, and all three of my Mastercards (all linked to separate accounts) were inexplicably being declined. Mastercard had pulled this trick a couple of times before, but never at a worse time than now. I desperately buzzed around the town, going to every fuel icon the GPS knew about but finding every one to be either another mis-labelled, unmanned Hypermarket or just completely non-existent. I started riding to the next town and made it a few kilometres before the engine started surging… and eventually died. One of the things I’d feared many times during the trip had finally happened, I was immobile in a foreign country whose language I didn’t speak.
One of my last European sunsets
The GPS said there was petrol only 900m up the road… maybe a proper country station that accepted cash?! So I got off, turned on the indicators and pushed… and pushed and pushed. After a whole bunch of pushing I still couldn’t see it up ahead – how much further could it be? Another check of the GPS revealed that I was actually there already. There might indeed have been a petrol station here once… but now all there was was a snack stand, and even that was closed. And it was starting to rain.
One of the things that I’ve learned while travelling is that there’s very rarely a disaster with no solution – in fact, there’s nearly always a solution close at hand if you’ll look for it. With that in mind, I parked, walked to the side of the road and stuck my thumb out. A car drove up… and drove past. Another wooshed by, an incredulous French family staring out the rain-streaked windows. Another, an old and clearly much loved Peugeot 205, came by… and stopped twenty metres down the road from me. I ran up to the window and tried to link together the few words of French I’d pieced together from reading road signs.
“uhhhh… non… carburants?” I said, pointing back to my bike. The driver of the Peugeot, a young French guy, furrowed his brow.
I threw in the towel.
“Parlez vous anglais?”
“Yes, a little”
“I’ve run out of petrol, can you take me to the next station?”
“Yes, I am just thinking where the closest station is… ahhh, get in”.
My saviour had arrived, borne by on a scratched French hatchback. Scandalously I’ve since forgotten his name, but he took me to the nearest Carrefour, gladly poured out a full bottle of Evian so he could fill it up with petrol and refused to let me pay for it before driving me back to the bike and making sure I could start it (another push start thanks to me leaving the indicators on while pushing – thank god I’d had so much practice by this stage). A short ride to the closest motorway with its fully staffed, American Express-accepting petrol station and I was back in business. Don’t let anyone
tell you the French aren’t nice to tourists. And always go with Visa :/.
Yeah, another tourist mecca, so what?!
Le Mont Sant Michel has been on my mind ever since I stumbled upon a picture of it one day while absent-mindedly browsing reddit, and wondered if such a place could even be real. It is mind-blowing how it just rises vertically out of the sand – I don’t know why so many people visit Neuschwanstein in Germany to feel like they’re in a fairytale, this gets you so much closer. Even cooler is that it’s not just a castle – it’s actually a proper town with a population of over 100, complete with restaurants, hotels, and souvenir shops…
… a lot of souvenir shops.
If you’re under 25, an EU passport gets you into the abbey too. Score!
The previous night I’d booked my ferry ride from Dieppe to Newhaven, England. Only one and a half days left of continental Europe – it was finally nearly over. I spent my last days in France travelling around the various sights of the D-Day beaches. If you’re into the history of the war it’s really a fascinating place to be. The whole area is covered with museums, memorials and preserved sights – I could easily spend a week there looking around everything. The museum in Caen was particularly brilliant, and walking around World War 2 fortifications is somehow much more visceral and real than, say, walking around a castle. As with Gallipoli, it’s chilling how beautiful the area is as well – I’ve always watched old war movies and wondered whether the old houses and hedgerows of Normandy really looked that great. I was gratified to find that they were more picturesque than I even realised.
Pretty big guns, but not as big as mine.
It was getting late in the afternoon on my second day, and a quick check of how long it’d take to get to the ferry port in Dieppe revealed that I was already running late. Sentimental thoughts would have to wait… I queued up a final play of Iron Maiden’s Wildest Dreams
, the theme song of this whole adventure and followed my last foreign set of road signs in a mad dash to the ferry.
George thought this was an actual road – after a few hundred metres of slipping about in the mud, I stopped to take a photo, my boot slipped and I tipped over. Just wanted to let you know I suffered for this one.
After enjoying a British ale (ordered in English) and a Chicken Tikka Masala, I found myself on the left side of the road, reading English signs all the way back to London where it all began. And when I say “on the left side of the road”, I mean that I found myself there after riding on the right for fifty metres, wondering why the arrow painted in my lane was pointing backwards and finally swerving back over the centreline. Oops :-/.
Au revoir, mes ami
Once back in England, the process of repacking my bike that I’d been dreading for so long turned out to be pretty simple… I gave it a good clean (although it was far from perfect – not sure how that’s going to turn out when it gets to Australian customs), rode it to the port, packed it back in the crate and it was done. This time rather than try to tape a bunch of cardboard on I bought some cling-wrap from Tesco, figuring it a decent substitute for proper packing film. Half way through one of the guys in the warehouse saw this, pitied me and lent me a roll of proper packing film… which turned out to be basically the same as Tesco cling wrap but on a bigger roll. The forklift came by, picked it up and disappeared behind the door of the warehouse – it was official now, I’d made it the entire way around Europe without breaking down or seriously damaging the bike or myself (at least not at the same time, anyway). Phew!
Definitely a big thanks to Escort Freight Services for helping me out with picking up the bike in the first place, storing my crate for 5 months for no charge, then helping me ship it again at the end. Shipping the bike was easily as complicated as all the rest of the trip organisation put together, and it would’ve been nigh-on impossible without their help.
The first time in five months I could travel without worrying about the rain
Having taken care of the bike, I spent a couple of days enjoying the kind hospitality of my uncle before packing my backpack for the last time, taking the tube to the airport and settling in for the long flight home. Five months ago I’d imagined returning to London and feeling a great sense of accomplishment – the happiness of having made it without suffering an accident or having the bike stolen or breaking down in the middle of nowhere and being unable to move. As I waited for the engines to start I realised that now I was here, I didn’t really feel anything like that. It wasn’t that I wasn’t happy to have made it the whole way around, more that at the beginning it had seemed like such a daunting task – not so much the journey itself, but the idea of being on my own for so long. I was never sure how well I was going to cope with it, and back then it seemed like I might not cope at all.
But it had occurred to me as I dashed to make my last ferry in France that I’d been predominantly alone for weeks, and I’d barely even noticed. The idea of being alone was nothing to me now. If people were around, good. If I was by myself… just as good. The sort of anxiety I felt about being alone at the start of the trip had become as foreign to me as riding on the left-hand side of the road. And as I roared down the autoroute I realised that this was also true of so many of the worries that I had back home before I started. You don’t care about what others think of you when you’re only going to know them for a day or two. You don’t worry about your career when your job is a distant memory. You’re not concerned about relationships when you never stop long enough to start one, and who cares if you’ve got nothing to do on Saturday night? Every day is Saturday night when you’re travelling, and there’s a party whenever and wherever you want it.
I’ve met a lot of other travellers in the last 5 months. Some party every day for months on end, some challenge themselves to climb mountains, some couchsurf their way across the world meeting a billion amazing people… they travel to add things to their lives. Seeing as I it took me a while to realise what my trip was about, I’ve dipped my toe into these ways of travelling and so many more. In the end though, what it came down to wasn’t adding things, but taking them away. People often have a complete wank about “finding themselves” when they travel, but I had to admit that that’s how I felt… like I’d found a purer version of myself. After all, having taken away all the worries and pressures of everyday life, what else was left?
Just me and my motorcycle, riding down another winding road into another beautiful sunset, with little idea of where I was or where I was going…
… and yet feeling less lost than I ever had in my life.