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Taking the new bike for a spin? 3516 miles, 11 countries

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Korn
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PostPosted: 19:43 - 25 Nov 2006    Post subject: Taking the new bike for a spin… 3516 miles, 11 countries Reply with quote

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Having scoured eBay and the ad pages for months, I had finally found a suitable bike.

My first choice for an on/off road tourer had been the USA-model Kawasaki KLR650: the hummvee of the motorcycle world. However these had proved very rare, and the few that I did find were always very recent imports priced higher than I could realistically afford. The Suzuki DR650 was also a contender but again, finding a recent one in good nick had proved all but impossible, and in some respects the big air-cooled single was a bit too far towards the off road side of the compromise I wanted.

In the end, the bike I ended up with was a ‘97 model Honda Africa Twin: a bug-eyed 750cc V twin with long travel suspension, a large tank and a reputation for rock solid reliability – save for the standard fitment exploding Honda rectifier and a dodgy fuel pump I’d read about. It was a fair bit heavier than either of the other two contenders – tipping the scales at around 200kg, in fact – and the acres of vulnerable plastic fairing didn’t inspire confidence in its dropability, but I was drawn to its road going qualities and workhorse-like simplicity, deciding in the end that with a few minor changes here and there, it would do just fine.

I picked up my new steed with 50,000 miles on the clock and spent the next few days happily thrashing about. On roads it was excellent, managing the ton on motorways and being surprisingly easy to flick around the back roads; off road it was heavy but manageable, with the wide, high bars giving good leverage for muscling its bulk around. It returned anything from 180 to 260 miles to a tank, depending on throttle abuse, and the very high Dakar screen the previous owner had fitted shielded you from pretty much all wind - and rain. The brakes were good, the seat was comfy; all in all, I was pretty happy with it. Now it was time for a thorough service, and some customising…

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Stock road tyres were the first things to go in the bin, replaced with a set of Continental knobblies. These gave the bike much more bite over loose surfaces, letting it plough happily through rocks and thick mud. Road grip was somewhat reduced - the front wheel in particular now squirming alarmingly under braking - but I was happy to make the compromise, although I did wonder how the new tyres would cope with my planned visit to the Nurburgring.

To prepare for the inevitable spills the bike would encounter in its new adventure touring guise, I bolted on a set of beefy crash bars and wrap-around hand guards. These protected the bike’s vulnerable fairing and levers, though picking it up after a drop would still be quite a challenge. The stock road-style mudguard had also proved woefully inadequate during my off road test rides, filling up with all manner of muck, so it too was quickly ejected to the spare parts bin, replaced by a high-level motocross item.

Creature comforts were confined to a set of heated grips and a cigarette lighter socket added to the dash, useful for charging my phone and powering the little handheld GPS I had mounted on the handlebar. I also grafted on a set of low-level halogen spot lamps, as the bike’s original headlight did not dip low enough to illuminate the area immediately in front – a must for night time riding over rocky trails.

Despite its apparently high mileage, I couldn’t find fault with the bike’s mechanicals; the previous owner had obviously taken good care of her. With the big AT now customised to my needs, thoughts turned towards the inaugural trip. It was time to go travelling!

Day One – London, UK

Having been unable to get hold of any panniers, my luggage-carrying capacity was severely limited. The bike had come to me with a small top box, which I was grateful for, however the only other item of additional luggage I could muster was a small magnetic tank bag. After a lot of packing, repacking, swearing and frustration, I ended up with most of my solid gear – stove, cooking pots, camping supplies and food – crammed into the top box, with clothes, sleeping bag, waterproofs and other soft items stuffed into an oilskin roll-bag.

Strapping the tent to the pillion seat, the roll-bag to the tent, and covering the whole lot with an elastic cargo net and several bungees I had just enough room to squeeze myself in. Although a little wobbly, my luggage arrangement seemed to be fairly solid, and in any case it provided a neat little backrest, so I was satisfied. I stuffed the tank bag with maps, camera and a few chocolate bars, pocketed my passport and headed out of London.

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A short blast down the motorway brought me to Salisbury Plain, with its miles upon miles of trails and tank tracks. I spent the remaining daylight hours throwing the bike around this slippery assault course, generally behaving like a hooligan, and feeling more confident all the while. If the bike can handle all of this abuse, I said to myself, it should have a fair chance with the mountains.

Day Two – Salisbury Plain, UK

The next day did not start well: I woke at 6am to the sound of rain lashing my tent. Even with the leafy umbrella of the small wood I was camped in over my head, the downpour was ferocious. Not having the time to wait out the rain shower, I consoled myself with a hasty fried breakfast before donning every last piece of waterproof gear in my possession and venturing outside.

With my camp packed up the ride to Plymouth was uneventful; the rain had initially grown heavier but had then tapered off to a minor drizzle. I arrived at the ferry terminal slightly late to find a whole lane already filled with bikes, most of them heading to Portugal for the GP. A few minutes after my arrival we were all guided into the belly of the menacingly huge MV Pont Aven – our home for the next 24 hours – where the soggy bikers unloaded their luggage and left our machines for the loadies to lash down.

Leaving only the tent still strapped to the bike, I made my way upstairs and set about locating my little cabin. Changing out of the bulky rain gear felt great, and soon I had sneaked in a hot shower, donned a pair of jeans and headed off to explore the ship. Most of the other bikers had headed straight for the bar, wet leathers ‘n all, and were already knocking back the beers.

The seas out of Plymouth were pretty rough, so much so that the ship’s on-board swimming pool had to be covered up to stop its contents sloshing out with the nauseating movements of the big ferry. Electing to save the drinking for later – especially in light of the swell – I spent most of the day in an armchair by one of the ship’s big viewing windows, reading and watching the sea.

By early evening the waves had calmed down and the skies cleared of British gloom; I grabbed a deckchair on the stern to watch the drawn out, orange sunset. As well as being a ‘fucking big boat’ (technical term) with room for some 2,500 passengers the Pont Aven apparently has the fastest service speed of any ferry serving the Spanish route, something confirmed by my GPS: we were ploughing towards Spain at a steady 26 knots.

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With the sun now gone and the temperature dropping I vacated my deckchair, eating a rather flavourless meal from one of the on-board restaurants before heading for the bar - where the MotoGP drinking club were still in full flow. The rest of the night was a hazy mixture of rather crap cabaret shows, dreadful live bands and suspiciously cheap alcohol, a notable exception to the heady costs of everything else on board. I eventually returned to my cabin sometime around 2am, cursing the damn floor for refusing to stay still.

Day Three – MV Pont Aven, Bay of Biscay

Waking up to a hideous cacophony of French pop radio – our ship wide wakeup call – I crawled out of bed and took a hot shower. Wandering out on deck I was just in time to see the giant ferry arriving in Santander harbour; just in time to feel the first rain drops start to fall. Despite the promising clear skies last night, the British October weather had followed me over – arse!

For the next hour chaos ensued as all manner of people rushed about, grabbing last-minute breakfasts and trying to remember on which deck they had left their cars. The bikes would be last to come off, being on the lowest level, so I had plenty of time to pack up my cabin, stealing all the complimentary toiletries as I left. No more hot showers for at least few days where I was going, but at least I had some soap.

Leaving wet Santander behind I opted for the motorway, hoping that some high speed progress might let me clear the weather. I made a vague effort to stick to the speed limits for the first hour or so – after all it was my first time in Spain, and I didn’t want to start off by getting nicked – but as the traffic thinned having passed Bilbao I succumbed to temptation and pinned the throttle instead.

A few hours of motorway monotony and I had gotten my break; the rain stopped and the clouds thinned to reveal a sunny Pamplona up ahead, framed by the hilly Sierras. I dived off the motorway and rode the rest of the way on local roads, which were drying out rapidly in the newly arrived sunshine.

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In Pamplona the waterproofs went back into the tangle of luggage and were replaced with sunglasses, as I rode around the town in search of lunch. Turns out I’d picked a bad time to visit, traffic wise – there was a huge cycle race in progress! Most of the streets in town had either been closed or made one-way, and I had to revert to London-style manic filtering to navigate the tangled mess of Spanish drivers. The AT’s newly-acquired air horns got their first test here, having the desired holy-shit-that-sounds-like-a-truck effect on the locals.

Having grabbed some food and stocked up on bottled water I headed out of town towards the mountains. The back roads were magnificent, twisting and winding their way around the hills with hardly another vehicle in sight. I could have spent the whole day riding their smooth, cambered curves, but it wasn’t long before I was tempted onto the dirt. With the view to the horizon showing nothing but wild scrubland, I turned off the tarmac road and rode a straight line towards the Pyrenees.

The only punctuation to the vast emptiness I spent the next few hours travelling through were the hundreds of wind turbines jutting out of the ground, their vast white forms looking totally alien against the earthy backdrop. They were linked by a series of graded dirt tracks, no doubt left by the engineers who installed them. I occasionally hopped onto these for some higher speed travel, their smooth surfaces giving relief from the constant jolts and shocks of cutting my own trail.

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With the rainy north coast now just a distant memory and the daylight wearing away, I started thinking about a place to camp. My goal for the day had been the 10km long lake at Embalse de Yesa, but it soon became apparent that I wasn’t going to make it before dusk. Hopping briefly onto a tarmac road I rode a snaking path down into the valley carved by the lake’s main tributary, before picking up a trail running alongside the river and choosing a site to camp just as the darkness finally closed in. I would carry on downriver in the morning, I thought, as the trail seemed to continue that way.

Dinner that night was a tin of beans & sausages; I’d not yet had a chance to stock up on fresh supplies. I cursed my lack of luggage space as it had meant being unable to take such non-necessities as my small telescopic fishing rod, something I could have had put to good use judging by the constant splashing of fish next to me.

Having eaten I set about building a fire to entertain myself. Before long I had an impressive blaze crackling away, with enough thick, dry branches piled up to last the night, so I settled down for a few hours with my FM radio and wacky tobacky before calling it a day.

Day Four – Embalse de Yesa, Spain

Rising with the sun the following morning I followed the riverside trail for an hour or so before reaching the lake shore. In a few places fallen trees blocked the way, and it was obvious that this particular track wasn’t much used, but luckily I was able to find a way around each time without having to dig out my chop saw.

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The lake itself was a stunning sight. Framed by the Pyrenean foothills its shimmering blue water was perfectly clear – but dreadfully cold. I abandoned any plans of an early-morning swim, instead taking time to plot a course through the mountain roads ahead. I knew that in a few more hours I would be well into the high peaks, and feeling weary from the previous day’s gruelling Sierran trails I opted to stick mostly to tarmac.

Having encountered no police cars or speed traps up to this point my progress on the silky smooth Spanish back roads was rather brisk, and pretty soon I had left the entire Jaca valley behind and found the triumph of highway engineering that is the N-260. This road - running to some 170 miles – is sheer, absolute biking heaven. Hugging the contours of the big mountains with seemingly no regard for actual forward progress, its constant twists and turns demanded utmost concentration.

Starting in the sleepy valley town of Biescas, the N-260 begins its assault on your senses with a fierce, twisting climb some 1,000m in altitude, at the top of which a tunnel carries it through the steepest part of the ridge before the road drops down again to Broto, an equally quiet outpost of mountain civilisation located on the other side – some six miles from the border with France. This whole stretch is narrow, with no central markings; littered with sheer drops and blind corners; and makes for an adrenaline-filled ride.

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Once I’d negotiated Broto, the road opened out somewhat and the speeds increased. Over the first section I’d hardly gotten above third gear, but now the tight, technical bends of the mountain pass gave way to open, sweeping corners crafted from pristine tarmac as the N-260 meandered its way along the valley floor. With the GPS steadily counting down the miles to Andorra the high speed antics lasted for several dozen miles, before a sharp turn north signalled the start of another climb, the road suitably narrowing to match. This pattern would repeat itself along the rest of the Spanish mountain highway, with the lower, faster, sweeping sections allowing a bit of rest from the relentless concentration required by the truly twisty parts.

Some time later, as the road opened out again, having negotiated yet another set of sub-50mph twisties, I hatched a cunning plan: while the tarmac road ahead headed south to skirt a big ridge, I would cross it straight on. My low-level map of the mountains showed many tracks and trails heading up and around the big rocky outcrop, and I decided that at least one of these would be suitable for a bike.

In fact most of the lines marked on the map represented little more than rocky paths, their surfaces strewn with tennis ball-sized rocks which sent the AT’s wheels bouncing wildly. Progress was painfully slow, and by the time I’d made it half way up the sun was already beginning to set. My plan for the day had been rather vague as to how far I would travel; indeed my whole trip was rather opened-ended in that respect, with no deadlines to meet. With this in mind I decided that sleeping up here was definitely an option.

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The trouble was, for the past several miles the trail had refused to yield anything resembling a camping spot. On its way up and around the big rocky mountain one side had always been pretty much vertical rock, covered with scrub and thorn bushes, while the other was a steep drop down to the valley below. By the time the sun finally disappeared to the west, the landscape had not changed and my only option was to continue plodding upwards in the gathering gloom of night.

With the bike’s lights illuminating the trail ahead, and with an uncomfortable black nothingness to the left of me, it was another two hours before I found a place to sleep. At some 1,800 meters – according to the GPS’ altitude indicator – the gradient began to level off and soon my narrow, rocky path emerged onto a much bigger, smoother-looking one. This track, however, only lasted for a mile or so before coming to an abrupt end in a circular clearing, bringing to a close both my journey upwards and the search for a place to camp.

It was only once I’d finally erected my tent and dispensed with headlights and torches that my eyes had a chance to adjust to the inky blackness. Combined with a perfectly clear sky, this complete and utter darkness showed me the best display of stars I’d ever seen. No longer just the few speckles of light us city-dwellers are used to; the entire cosmos now seemed to be viewable above me, with thousands of pinpricks of varying intensity shining through the eerie white glow of the Milky Way. I spent an eternity lying like this on my back – quite stoned – just contemplating the scale of it all, before finally sleep caught up with.

Day Five – Somewhere in the Spanish Pyrenees

Crawling out of the tent to yet another beautifully clear, cold morning I saw for the first time where I was. What had been pure, black nothingness the night before had now transformed into a spectacular view, with the whole valley laid out below me and steep cliffs above. Cooking a hearty breakfast of eggs and sausages, I sat on a pillar of rock and stared at the N-260 far below, watching the occasional car navigate its sweeping bends, before packing up camp ready for another long day on the road.

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The clearing had indeed been the end of the road for this particular trail, and further exploration on foot revealed no passable ways to get my bike any further up. Trying to correlate my position with the map I could see no way to complete my intended passage over the ridge, and before long the only option left was to back-track down to the road below.

Riding back down the same rocky trail I confirmed in daylight just how dangerous the previous night’s journey had been. In several places the track was bordered on one side by nothing more than a sheer drop – something I was completely oblivious to in the inky blackness of last night – and it was disconcerting seeking just how close my tyre tracks had been to the edge. Once I’d carefully negotiated a return to the valley floor, I bid farewell to the mountain, admitting defeat and rejoining the relative safety of the road.

Despite the GPS placing last night’s camp only 50 miles away (as the crow flies) from my destination, the twisting undulations of the N-260’s final stretch meant it was a good three hours before I crossed the border into Andorra - a small independent state seemingly filled with nothing but car/bike dealerships and petrol stations.

Enduring the capital’s gridlocked streets and busloads of gawking tourists only long enough to acquire food, I headed north towards France. Annoyingly the traffic was still fairly heavy by the time I reached the pass, but this was of no consequence as the Andorrans had thoughtfully provided two lanes in the upward direction, and all the cagers seemed content to leave the overtaking lane purely for bikes. The pass snaked its way up the mountainside for what seemed like an eternity, but before long I began to see snow, soon after arriving at the top.

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On the other side of the pass, the journey down into France was made all the more interesting by a TDM 850 pilot who, after sitting beside me in the queue through the French border post, had proceeded to hoist a huge wheelie away from the immigration booth and disappeared down the mountain at an alarming speed. Suspending my must-not-ride-like-a-twat-while-on-holiday rule for a short while, I decided that this was something I could have a go at, and the chase was on.

The road down the mountain was still three lanes, though the middle was now dedicated to traffic going in the opposite direction. Luckily the cars were still shying away from using it, allowing me to close down the TDM who, having seen the lunatic foreigner approaching in his mirrors, also abandoned the idea of driving on the correct side of the road and stepped up the pace. Soon we were both blasting past the downhill traffic with wild abandon, enjoying the race.

Having made no real plans for what route to take through France, I happily followed my new guide’s choice of roads, working hard to keep pace, knobblies squirming in the corners. The bikes were well matched in terms of speed, and for what seemed like at least two hours we carved up the valley roads, the sound of two big twins rumbling around the mountains.

Eventually though I began seeing signs for Toulouse, and deciding that this was the wrong way to be heading, backed off to check the map. Having stopped at the side of the road for a few minutes, I was surprised to see TDM guy coming back towards me, pulling in with a concerned look under his visor. He fired off a rapid stream of French, pointing at the petrol tank, and it became obvious he’d thought I’d run out of juice. I tried to explain that I needed to head east, and after a few minutes of basic sign language he’d understood and had pointed out a good route. Pulling off with a wave and another huge wheelie, my new French friend buggered off in his original direction, leaving me to pick a path across the mountains towards the med.

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Taking the recommended route I was soon carving my way out onto the lowlands, the mountainous terrain of the Pyrenees giving way to rolling woodland. Although the French side of the mountains had been no less breathtaking than the Spanish, once out of the foothills the quality of the roads began to noticeably degrade. Another complaint was that, although the froggy cagers were very polite – going out of their way to give you room to overtake – there were just too many of them, and so soon I had grown tired of weaving my way around cars.

With the forests yielding no passable off road routes, I was forced to carry on using the blacktop, before long arriving on the coast just as the sun was starting its descent from the sky. Having done pretty much the whole day on tarmac, I wasn’t the least bit tired, and taking a quick look at my large-scale map of Europe an idea began to form. In the end it was the mosquitoes which convinced me not to stay, making their move as soon as the sun began to dip behind the horizon and attacking so relentlessly that I was soon pulling on my helmet and running for the bike. Bollocks to this, I told the little bloodsuckers, punching digits into the GPS, and within a few minutes the AT was speeding down the autoroute.

Narbonne, Montpellier, Marseille and Cannes became just names printed on road signs, blurred against a backdrop of dark motorway, bored toll booth attendants and worryingly frequent speed camera flashes. By the time I saw the exit for Monte Carlo some 300 miles later I had probably lost my licence four times over. Good job I wasn’t French.

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Having eaten dinner while gawking at the passing totty, and ridden a few loops of the Formula 1 route – one of them behind an utter mentalist in a German-plated Porsche, obviously intent on challenging for the lap record – I headed out of town and turned north into the mountains. The plan was to ride only long enough to find a suitable camping spot, but all that soon went out of the window. Emerging into the Breil valley through the 1,800 meter long tunnel, the temperature dropped so much that I felt like I’d been dropped into a freezer.

I rode the winding mountain roads in the dark, following the occasional sign for Cuneo. It was only at the opposite end of the valley that my heart sank, and I finally realised what all those odd “Route Barree” signs had meant. The tunnel into Italy was closed and, since there was no alternative route, I had to turn back. After a few minutes of back-tracking the 40 miles to the coast, my heart sank even further when the bike spluttered onto reserve. Since entering Monaco I hadn’t seen a single open fuel stop, and in any case I seriously doubted I had enough juice to get back there.

I finally left the Breil valley around 1am, the temperature picking up noticeably once I emerged from the tunnel. By the time I’d neared Monaco the bike had been on reserve for so long that I assumed it could only be running on fumes. I had one trick left up my sleeve, however, and after tipping the remains of my small 1ltr bottle of unleaded stove fuel into the tank and offering prayers to the gods of frugal combustion, I decided that my best chances of finding a petrol station open this late would be to return to the motorway.

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The motorway services I’d encountered on my trip around the med had been reassuringly frequent, but by the I hit the Italian border a sign announced the next ones were still 25km away. Stopping at the toll booths to grab a ticket, I tried sloshing the fuel in the tank to no avail. I pressed on anyway, expecting the bike to splutter and die at any moment.

In fact it almost made it, finally giving up the ghost with the bright lights of the roadside services visible tantalisingly in the distance. It wasn’t easy to push, however, due to the uphill gradient, so by the time I’d wheezed and panted my up to the petrol pumps I was thoroughly knackered.

Having finally acquired a full tank of precious go-juice, I could turn my thoughts to sleep. Not fancying another wild goose chase in the mountains, I steered the bike into the next roadside rest area and decided to sleep there. Luckily the Italian motorway ‘sanctuaries’ were just as good as the French ones, and behind the empty car park and toilet block there was a small wooded area with picnic tables dotted about. I rode over and began unpacking my gear, choosing the most private spot.

Ten minutes later I was collared by two Italian coppers, who had driven their car into rest area and made a beeline straight for me. Evidently these places are monitored with CCTV, and no doubt some late-shift control room lackey had spotted me disappearing into the trees and called out the law. Luckily the policemen who came to investigate were friendly and didn’t have a problem with me staying there, so at just after 3am I finally crawled into my sleeping bag and went out like a light.

Day Six – Austostrada E80, San Remo, Italy

I woke up to stifling heat; the inside of the tent feeling like an oven. Crawling outside I discovered beaming sunshine, and eager to forget the nightmare of last night decided it was time for a swim. Skipping breakfast and heading straight for the sea, I checked the map and took the motorway exit for Savona. Evidently my overnight stay in the rest area had confused the hell out of the toll machine, with the irate Italian woman manning the booth unable to process my ticket. After shouting at me for five minutes and getting nowhere – cars backing up behind all the time – she finally admitted defeat and opened the barrier for free.

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Riding the few miles to the beach like a loon, I stripped off my bike gear and dived into the Mediterranean. Being early morning the water was still a little chilly, though to me this was refreshing and the closest to a shower I’d had in three days. Once out of the sea I dug out my towel and spent the next few hours lying on my back, soaking up the sun and occasionally opening my eyes to stare at the many beautiful women strolling around.

As much as I could have stayed on the beach all day, it was time to move on. I was itching to get back into the mountains and that meant heading north, so having re-dressed and eaten a lunch of pancakes and strawberry jam, I set out towards Turin. The quickest route would have been to jump straight back on the autostrada, but fearing another meeting with the irate toll booth woman I opted to stay well clear.

Leaving Savona and its plentiful bikinis behind, I followed the course of the elevated motorway on meandering local roads. Terrain was hilly at first, and forward progress painfully slow, but the roads themselves were fantastic to ride, curving their way up and over the ridges in cascades of smooth hairpin bends. Pretty soon though the undulating geography gave way to flat farmland, the ribbed contours of the mountains seemingly flatten by some giant iron.

Negotiating the thrum of traffic in Turin was an experience in itself, novel and interesting but ultimately not pleasant. The local cagers appeared enraged at my riding, leaning on their horns at the cheek of this big, foreign two-wheeled intruder daring to squeeze between their stuck cars. I returned fire willingly, pressing on through the chaos to eventually emerge on the other side of town, having visited a small laundrette. With a bag of clean clothes the next item on my wish list was a hot shower, so after finally escaping the mess of mental car drivers I headed north once again.

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Once Turin had disappeared behind me, the hilly geography slowly returned, and I found a thoroughly enjoyable newly-resurfaced road to carry me all the way to Aosta; after which my plan was to cross the Alps back into France.

Arriving at the Mont Blanc tunnel and nearly having a heart attack at the price of a ticket I grudgingly took my place in the queue. After the disastrous fire here killed 39 people the authorities have introduced strict safety measures: the speed limit has been slashed, all vehicles must keep at least 150 meters apart, and various automated systems watch your every move. Released into the tunnel from my place in the queue, I found myself following a truck.

After nearly 8 miles of steady, monotonous riding through the heart of the big mountain, I couldn’t resist a small celebration wheelie upon seeing French daylight. The on-duty gendarmes were not amused, however, and ran out to give me a bollocking, but luckily their wrath didn’t stretch to a proper booking and I was soon on my way.

Descending into Chamonix I made a beeline for tourist information, who found me a cheap little B&B to hole up in. Having had a much needed shower I set out in search of a pub, and spent the rest of the evening in the company of some American mountain bike nuts, most of whom it turned out also rode motocross. Glad of some conversation after days of solitude, I eventually returned to the B&B considerably worse for wear and pored over my new low-level map of the Swiss Alps to plan tomorrow’s adventures.

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Day Seven – Chamonix, France

The following morning was wet – the first bit of rain I’d seen since the opening day’s showers in Spain. By the time I was dressed and out of the guest house, however, things had brightened up considerably. I took it easy on the wet roads at first; the AT’s tyres slithering around considerably, but after carefully negotiating the pass into Martigny, I was pleasantly surprised to find the route down the other side of the mountain completely dry. Hooning it towards the valley floor with a big grin on my face, I had only been in Switzerland for a few minutes before coming face to face with a roadside speed trap.

Pretending not to notice the Swiss cop’s frantic waving, I dived off the road at the next opportunity, instead finishing my descent on muddy forest tracks. Wary of any contact with the authorities after my little incident on the mountain, I skirted the town centre and found myself on a rather strange road. Straight as an arrow for 8 whole miles and surrounded with nothing but fields, it had a speed limit of 50km/h which all the locals seemed to be sticking to rigidly. Fearing some sort of unseen monitoring system I plodded along at the required rate for several miles, only to be overtaken by a GSXR-shaped blur happily clocking triple figures: what the hell?

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A few miles after the road turned twisty again I spotted another speed trap, though this time I wasn’t being particularly naughty and managed to slow down in time. Fearing more of these unwelcome outposts of Swiss traffic law enforcement ahead, I made an effort to continue my progress through the Rhone valley on the smallest roads I could find.

Finding off road distractions down on the valley floor had proved difficult, and most of the tracks I chose tried to lead me up into the mountains before petering out in dead ends. After several hours of making stunningly little forward progress in my intended direction I decided to stop for food, being joined within minutes of sitting down at a roadside café by a weathered looking gentleman on a BMW F650. He was riding the entire length of the Alps from east to west, he told me, and had plenty of trails marked on his map that he was happy to share.

His recount of one particular trail caught my interest. It was an old gravel road, accessed at the top of the Furka pass. It led to a mysterious military-looking installation, he explained, after which it was possible to continue across country eventually reaching the surface of the Rhone glacier – the source of the Rhone river and one of the main sources of water supplying Lake Geneva. He’d even walked on the glacier itself, BMW guy boasted, and my mind was made up.

By the time I reached the foot of the Furka, daylight was already starting to fade. I negotiated the banked switchbacks of the pass soon enough, arriving at the top to find the gravel road exactly where it was supposed to be. A mile or two along it the mystery military installation appeared, crafted from gleaming white stone. A cursory inspection of the perimeter revealed only one door – heavy, iron and firmly shut.

http://www.kornel.com/gallery/albums/Europe/normal_P1010163.jpg

The gravel road ended here, and further progress was hampered by the slimy ground, still wet from the morning’s rain. After a few close calls I decided enough was enough, and looked for a place to pitch camp. If the weather stayed dry, I’d continue on in the morning, trying for the glacier which was now visible a few miles ahead; and if not, I’d admit defeat and return to the road.

With no wood around with which to make a fire, and needing some physical activity to stave off the cold, my only distraction with which to while away the evening were the many rocks scattered about. Making a life-size replica stack of yourself out of stone might seem a rather stupid idea to some (probably more sensible) people, but my evening’s labour was not wasted as in the following day’s sunlight it would pose for a photo which – unbeknownst to me at the time – would become my favourite of the trip.

Once I’d stopped moving about however, I began to notice the cold. Having taken advice from an outdoorsy-type friend about what sort of things I might need to camp high in the Alps in October before leaving home – “your fucking head tested” was the top contender, by the way – I’d splashed out on some very neat thermal underwear as well as a good quality four season sleeping bag, and a few minutes after crawling into this clobber, still wearing my fleece, I began to warm up quite nicely. Enjoying the by now familiar display of stars visible above, sleep was not far away.

http://www.kornel.com/gallery/albums/Europe/normal_P1010159.jpg

Day Eight – Rhone Glacier, Switzerland

Surprisingly sleeping next to a glacier had not proved as freezing as one would imagine, and I woke up still snug inside my insulated cocoon. Packing up camp as quickly as possible I jumped on the bike and continuing along my trail, which had by now dried out completely. It wasn’t long before I reached the edge of the glacier itself, and after dismounting briefly to test the grip offered by the frozen surface I gingerly eased the big AT onto the ice.

I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting, to be honest, but it wasn’t the sort of place you can ride a bike. The ice was remarkably grippy, for sure – its rough, textured surface giving the tyres much more bite that I thought possible – but I hadn’t gone very far before a huge crack in the white giant’s snow-covered surface blocked my path. I carefully turned the bike around and rode back to the edge, shivering in the cold, and decided to head back.

Once back onto firmer soil, I retraced my steps along the trail, pausing for a few photos. By the time I reached the road again, I was thoroughly frozen, and longed for a hot drink. Sharing the downhill ride along the pass into Andermatt with a staggering number of fellow riders, I arrived in town to be find nearly every available parking space already occupied by a bike.

http://www.kornel.com/gallery/albums/Europe/normal_P1010161.jpg

After warming up in the quaint little town with a bite to eat, I spent the next few hours on tarmac. The Ursern valley is a popular destination with bikers from many miles around, it turns out, and I was certainly not short of company. In contrast to the previous day, not even the Swiss car drivers were obeying any sort of speed limit, and indeed several of the more sporty cages were remarkably keen on ‘having a go’. With the valley echoing the sounds of dozens of bikes at full chat, I had little time to admire the beautiful scenery.

That afternoon, when finally nearing Lichtenstein, I witnessed the inevitable consequence of so many high-powered bikes in such close proximity, combined with too much testosterone, and such jagged roads. The hapless pilot in question had blasted past me earlier, looking like something out of the IOM TT races, but it seemed his luck had run out all too soon: looking past the crowd of onlookers and ambulance men gathered at the edge of the road, the bike and its rider were visible in the field below, having apparently failed to make the bend and tumbling to the ground some 20 feet below.

The scene was not a pleasant one, and I quickly moved on. Not wanting to ride much more tarmac that day if I could avoid it, I meandered my way into Lichtenstein on the plentiful tracks that criss-crossed the mountainsides. The only problem with this approach was that several times I’d reach the end of one of these byways only to be faced with rocky stream, and progress would stop. Much back-tracking, map checking and cursing went on before I finally rolled down off the mountain and into Vaduz, the small state’s principal city.

http://www.kornel.com/gallery/albums/Europe/normal_P1010168.jpg

It was while talking to a group of British guys about where to find the castle that I got some bad news. Mentioning my intended route through Germany and that I planned to ride the Nurburgring, I was surprised to learn that it might not be open. There was a timetable available for public days, I found out, and although they couldn’t confirm it as definite, the guys seemed to think my chance of catching it open were slim. A quick ride around the city led me to an internet café, and lo’ and behold the web confirmed the news. The ‘Ring had been open the previous day, and would open again tomorrow, but after that it was a six day wait until the masses would be let loose on it again.

My plan had been to ride across Germany during the following two days, but now this required a re-think. With evening approaching in Vaduz I would have to cover some 450 miles in pretty short order, but not wanting to miss out there was nothing else for it. Having paid a brief visit to the famous castle I’d originally stopped there to see, I left Lichtenstein and skirted the Bodensee, cutting across Switzerland on a beeline for the German border.

Once in Germany, a short ride brought me to my first Autobahn. The rest of the night would be spent on these roads, my bike’s 100mph-ish top speed laughably short of the velocity required to keep pace with the varied assortment of blurry high-end saloon cars tearing past in the fast lane. With the throttle pinned 99% of the time, the AT’s fuel economy was at it’s lowest ebb, though its tank range was still well over the distance I was prepared to travel before taking a break from the icy wind blast.

By the time I turned off the motorway and picked my way towards the Nurburgring it was well past midnight, and I was frozen solid. Several hours of piercing wind had drained my body of all its warmth, and rather than attempting to find a camping spot in the eerily quiet forests surrounding the 26km loop of famous tarmac, I yearned for a warm bed.

http://www.kornel.com/gallery/albums/Europe/normal_P1010175.jpg

With no signs of life in the two guest houses I found tucked away in surrounding villages, the only option was the posh Hotel Am Nurburgring, located right on the GP track. After venturing inside and wincing at the cost of a room, my frozen brain grudgingly accepted. I handed over my credit card, tucked the AT away in the hotel’s underground garage and was soon defrosting myself in the shower, ready for bed.

Day Nine – Nurburgring, Germany

Well rested after the previous night’s chilly night time travels, I checked out of the posh hotel and retrieved my bike from the car park. The muddy AT had looked amusingly out of place down there, sharing its temporary refuge with expensive Beemers, Mercs and Porsches. Indeed the only other bike in sight was a battered-looking Ducati 998, the myriad of scratches to its side evidence of a prior disagreement with the tarmac.

Leaving the hotel, I had a short wait before the ‘Ring opened. Breakfast was therefore served at a roadside picnic table, my last remaining Pot Noodle being dug out and consumed with anticipation. Once fed I went in search of the entrance, where a small car park heaved with high-performance machinery and a queue had already built up behind the toll booths.

I bought a one-lap ticket from the automated vending machine and took my place in line, drawing odd glances and giggles from the assembled petrolheads. Waving me out onto the hallowed road, the amused gate attendant enquired “You do not try to drive fast on the Nordschleife like this, ja?”. Yeah right, my German friend, like I’ve come all this way not to give it the beans. Dream on!

http://www.kornel.com/gallery/albums/Europe/normal_P1010177.jpg

Once through the barriers the adrenaline started flowing and trackday instinct took over. My brain clamped its hands firmly over its ears, refusing to entertain suggestions that we weren’t on the most well-suited motorcycle for high speed scratching, and proceeded to thrash the living daylights out of the poor 200kg offroad tourer.

Despite the knobbly tyres squirming in agony all they way around, my inaugural lap was completed without major drama, then back at the start line all notion of moving on was abandoned as I stuffed more and more Euros into the ticket machine.

With a few sighting laps under my belt I decided that a flyer was in order. You see the Africa Twin’s dash comes equipped with a funky digital tripmeter box, and the kind people at Honda had thoughtfully included a stopwatch among its functions. This last lap was far messier than even my Supermoto shenanigans back home, with the big AT sometimes quite alarmingly sideways as the tyres declared their alarm at what I was trying to do to them. Nevertheless – and despite being savagely overtaken by a Porsche Carerra which then promptly torpedoed the armco right in front of me – I pulled back into the finish area unharmed.

Subtracting the 10 seconds the locals reckon is lost to the toll booth diversion, my time stood at 9:10. Not exactly up to the sub-7 minute heroics of the PlayStation back home, but still faster than Clarkson in his diesel Mercedes, so there. Fearing that another crack at it would surely end in an ambulance ride and my European Health Insurance Card being put to use, I bid Auf Wiedersehen to the ‘Ring and headed towards Holland.

Carving my way north at rather too quick a pace, it wasn’t long before the rolling forest hills in which the Nurburgring is set flattened out, replaced by uniformly smooth farmland. Not far over the Dutch border, the elevation indicator on the GPS dipped into negative numbers, and I was forced to seek relief from the boring straight roads of The Netherlands by playing with traffic on the motorway.

By the time I neared Amsterdam, the weight of traffic was nearing M25 proportions, and this failed to improve as I made my way into the city, lanes upon lanes of stationary motorway commuters being replaced by stuck, angry cagers filling the city centre in an unfathomable mess of one-way streets, tram lines and canals.

http://www.kornel.com/gallery/albums/Europe/normal_P1010183.jpg

After a few laps of the city trying to find a cheap hotel outside which my bike would be likely to survive the night un-stolen, I gave up and plumped for a slightly pricier number just outside the central Dam horseshoe, its star attraction being an off-street car park. Having stowed my gear and taken a shower, I headed into town for a night of Dutch hospitality, having already depleted my own stash while still crossing Switzerland.

In between all the mind-bending smokables and free-flowing Heineken on offer, I managed to briefly locate an internet café where I booked a place on the following night’s cross channel ferry home, P&O offering the cheapest tickets that day. Finally staggering back to the hotel after a memorable night on the town, I tumbled into bed sometime around 4am.

Day Ten – Amsterdam, The Netherlands

In the morning I woke to the unwelcome intrusion of the bedside telephone. Being far too comatose to hear my earlier alarm call, I’d overslept the check-out time and reception were on the blower demanding I either clear off or pay for another night. With the return ferry booking non-transferable and my stash of holiday funds well and truly depleted anyway this was not even an option, however hung over I felt, so I grudgingly got out of bed and made my escape.

Leaving Amsterdam behind I once again hit the congested Dutch motorways, feeling very much worse for wear. The ride down to Calais was covered mainly on motorways and trunk roads, with only a quick stop-off in Antwerp, Belgium to pick up some exotic flavoured beer.

It wasn’t until passing Dunkerque that an opportunity for some exploring presented itself: with a few hours to kill until my scheduled ferry I set about exploring the miles of sand dunes between the two ports – a thoroughly enjoyable exercise. Unlike the crowded southern coast of England the French shore seems fantastically devoid of life, making the beach an ideal location to ride, and I enjoyed myself immensely carving up the sands.

All too soon though playtime was over, and I had a boat to catch. Being the only bike on the ferry I was last to board, and with the AT once again under shackled for the crossing ahead I watched the French coast disappear into the misty distance from the upper deck of the Pride of Something-Or-Other.

http://www.kornel.com/gallery/albums/Europe/normal_P1010185.jpg

Having cleared customs & immigration in Dover, I hoisted a celebratory wheelie and made for home. My riding brain clicked onto autopilot and it wasn’t long before the familiar skyline of London loomed large, with the blinking lights of the city’s high-rise financial powerhouses silhouetted against the gloomy night sky. Indeed it wasn’t so much the legions of mental cagers and suicidal pedestrians in town that confirmed my return to familiar turf, as the weather – the clouds finally opening up just miles from home.

Tucking the bike away in the garage after turning my luggage upside down in search of house keys, my thoughts were already on the next trip abroad. It’s not half fun, this touring lark…

More pics here: http://www.kornel.com/gallery/thumbnails.php?album=101
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Whosthedaddy
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PostPosted: 20:17 - 25 Nov 2006    Post subject: Reply with quote

A nice looking trip with an excursion at the Nurburgring with a time beating Jezzers S type Thumbs Up
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McJamweasel
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PostPosted: 20:21 - 25 Nov 2006    Post subject: Reply with quote

Bloody hell, that sounds like a real adventure. Makes me want to hop on the bike and go.

Git.
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Dom
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PostPosted: 22:14 - 25 Nov 2006    Post subject: Reply with quote

Fantastic writeup of what sounds like a hell of a trip. Thumbs Up
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Spudgun
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PostPosted: 22:39 - 25 Nov 2006    Post subject: Reply with quote

Nice write up Very Happy Thumbs Up
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SimonB
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PostPosted: 23:04 - 25 Nov 2006    Post subject: Reply with quote

That was a great read it does sound like a proper adventure. Thumbs Up
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carlnicholson...
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PostPosted: 23:15 - 25 Nov 2006    Post subject: Reply with quote

I am speechless with envy and awe!

Jammy little.....

From what you were saying about different bikes at the start, you seemingly got the AT for a good price, how much did it set you back if I may be so cheeky?
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popwud
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PostPosted: 01:03 - 26 Nov 2006    Post subject: Reply with quote

A really good write up Korn I enjoyed it.
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kawashima
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PostPosted: 05:54 - 26 Nov 2006    Post subject: Reply with quote

Wow. I was frightened to read the part it was a steep hill which looked dark spot. Racing with french guy on TDM was also interesting. Wondered if there are petrol stations at deep montain areas in Spain. I found photo of a train carrying tanks in photo page Smile .
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syl
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PostPosted: 08:40 - 26 Nov 2006    Post subject: Reply with quote

If you don't mind me asking, what's the approximate budget for a 10-day trip around Europe (ferry, road tolls, petrol, motels). Obviously the cost of the bike and camping equipment is additional.
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Ant
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PostPosted: 13:14 - 26 Nov 2006    Post subject: Reply with quote

i just wish i had the bottle to do a trip like that, sounds good. Thumbs Up
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swaffs
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PostPosted: 14:54 - 26 Nov 2006    Post subject: Reply with quote

Great write up, very inspiring Thumbs Up

Well done on a great adventure.

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JonB
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PostPosted: 15:21 - 26 Nov 2006    Post subject: Reply with quote

Brilliant write up! Don't think i;d be able to do my first venture round Europe by myself, but I can imagine it would be better as you can do whatever you like.

I really want to do Europe now. 2008 is when I go. Thumbs Up

Korn: - That must have taken you ages to write up. It is 8,364 words long. Shocked
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jay12329
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PostPosted: 15:26 - 26 Nov 2006    Post subject: Reply with quote

Wow, nice work. Time to book next years time off i think...
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chris___
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PostPosted: 15:40 - 26 Nov 2006    Post subject: Reply with quote

Awesome write up mate and very inspiring Thumbs Up
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Rookie
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PostPosted: 15:44 - 26 Nov 2006    Post subject: Reply with quote

Quality log, sounds like indescribable fun. Thumbs Up
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Korn
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PostPosted: 18:13 - 26 Nov 2006    Post subject: Reply with quote

carlnicholsony2k wrote:
From what you were saying about different bikes at the start, you seemingly got the AT for a good price, how much did it set you back if I may be so cheeky?

She cost me £1850, knocked down from an asking price of £2000. Very pleased with that... Smile

dmahon wrote:
If you don't mind me asking, what's the approximate budget for a 10-day trip around Europe (ferry, road tolls, petrol, motels). Obviously the cost of the bike and camping equipment is additional.

The ferry to Spain cost £135 with Brittany Ferries, though this was October so off-season and quite cheap. I've been checking out their prices for next summer and the costs do seem to go up, for example a trip in May booked through their website works out at £170. The return ferry with P&O from Calais set me back £40, booked on the 'net in Holland the night before.

Road tolls are easily avoided by staying off the motorways, but sometimes there's just no other way. The 300 or so miles I did around the med was mostly tolled, costing something like €30 in total. The prices do seem to go up considerably near the mountains, where lots of expensive tunnels and viaducts have been built. A route planner such as Via Michelin will tell you which roads are toll roads, and how much you're likely to pay.

Petrol is the single biggest cost, and you can get an idea before you go by checking a comparison table for the countries you will be visiting. By far the cheapest petrol I encountered was in Spain, and the petrol stations there were fairly plentiful - even in the mountains. Altogether my petrol bill came to around £250.

Camping in the wild is free, though you'll miss out on proper toilets & showers. As for hotels: a night in the Chamonix guest house cost me £25, while the posh Nurburgring hotel was a painful £78 and the hotel in Amsterdam a slightly less painful £50.
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extreme3d
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PostPosted: 20:22 - 26 Nov 2006    Post subject: Reply with quote

Amazing write up Cool

Must get around to organisiing something like that myself next summer, although I'm thinking more of Easten Europe.
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Nath
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PostPosted: 22:21 - 26 Nov 2006    Post subject: Reply with quote

How did the trail riding work out? Did you get people trying to tell you off for riding your motorcycle on 'their' trails, eg hikers, dog walkers, local farmers? How about the legality, do they have the equivlent of green lanes in those countries, or did you basically ride on any trodden path you felt like?

Didn't you get scared of damaging your bike on trails in the middle of nowhere, and having no way to get back to civilisation?

How many miles do you think you were averaging an hour when riding off road?

Quality writeup Thumbs Up
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Korn
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PostPosted: 15:18 - 27 Nov 2006    Post subject: Reply with quote

Nath wrote:
How did the trail riding work out? Did you get people trying to tell you off for riding your motorcycle on 'their' trails, eg hikers, dog walkers, local farmers?

In Spain at least I was completely alone. Once into the mountains the isolation was fantastic, about as far removed from the crowded English countryside as you can imagine. Into France and down off the mountains the forests soon filled up with people out hunting for mushrooms, though as I was sticking to the logging roads they all happily ignored me. The Alpine valleys were the only place I frequently met other people on the actual trails - mostly mountain bikers and walkers, once again all of them friendly - though once up into the mountains again they quickly thinned out.

Nath wrote:
How about the legality, do they have the equivlent of green lanes in those countries, or did you basically ride on any trodden path you felt like?

Unsurfaced roads (our green lanes) can be found on most decent maps, and every country will have them. As for riding everywhere else it's really down to judgement: cutting through a field of fresh crops or a nature reserve is obviously not going to go down well, but once into the mountains there's nobody about so all the trails are fair game.

Nath wrote:
Didn't you get scared of damaging your bike on trails in the middle of nowhere, and having no way to get back to civilisation?

I took enough tools to cover the basic emergencies - puncture, flooded engine, dodgy electrics, crap in the fuel, etc. Anything that immobilised the bike and couldn't be fixed would have seen it ditched, and then a nice long walk. The real worry was not so much the bike but hurting myself badly enough to be stranded - something like a broken leg. I had food and water for a few days but after that it would have been game over, unless somebody happened to come by... Shifty

Nath wrote:
How many miles do you think you were averaging an hour when riding off road?

It's all very slow progress really, compared to surfaced roads. Across the Sierras on those nice, smooth gravel tracks you could easily find sections to top 60mph, but on some of the really gnarly mountain trails it was more like jogging pace.
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byke95
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PostPosted: 15:57 - 27 Nov 2006    Post subject: Reply with quote

korn wrote:
Having cleared customs & immigration in Dover, I hoisted a celebratory wheelie and made for home.


The penny only just dropped with that one! Laughing



That sounds even better reading it for the second time Thumbs Up
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andrew
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PostPosted: 18:06 - 27 Nov 2006    Post subject: Reply with quote

Korn wrote:
while the posh Nurburgring hotel was a painful £78.


Tight git! Laughing
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Paivi
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PostPosted: 19:54 - 27 Nov 2006    Post subject: Reply with quote

Excellent write-up, Korn, I enjoyed it! For obvious bike-related reasons, totally different route to what I'd do, so especially interesting to read about your escapades (& lucky escapes Shocked ) in the Spanish mountains.

Jon B wrote:
Don't think i;d be able to do my first venture round Europe by myself, but I can imagine it would be better as you can do whatever you like.

Just do it, Jon, even us girls venture round Europe on our own... Best holiday ever! What's a few thousand miles on the clock... Wink
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Mjolnir
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PostPosted: 23:07 - 27 Nov 2006    Post subject: Reply with quote

Excellent Story. I'd love to try an adventure like that myself sometime.

Thanks for writing it, I certainly enjoyed reading it. Thumbs Up
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Kickstart
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PostPosted: 23:16 - 27 Nov 2006    Post subject: Reply with quote

Korn wrote:
By far the cheapest petrol I encountered was in Spain, and the petrol stations there were fairly plentiful - even in the mountains. Altogether my petrol bill came to around £250.


When we were there, petrol was dirt cheap in Andorra. Unlike cameras and stuff, which were not better priced than you could get in the UK.

All the best

Keith
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