Originally published in Slipstream magazine, July 2017.
Regardless of whether you have ever taken an extended, long-distance tour by bike or not, everyone has their own idea of what a “motorcycle trip” looks like. It’s even possible that many of us never consider that others might plan and execute their two-wheeled vacations in a completely different manner.
Last month I set off on two week-long oversees adventures within a few days of each other. Each trip was on a different motorcycle, travelling in the opposite direction, and both with a very different focus. Neither was “better” than the other; both were amazing, memorable trips that I shall remember fondly for many years, and neither was a type of tour that I had tried before. But surely riding a motorcycle is, well, riding a motorcycle? How can there be “types” of trip? I shall explain.
My parents, fiancé and even one of my brothers all ride motorcycles, as do most of my aunts and uncles. In the past few years I’ve organised – or joined in – trips to France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Holland, and Italy. Travelling in a group, particularly outside of TVAM, frequently means a much slower pace that we have grown used to in the club. As I’ve benefitted from the training and guidance of our wealth of experienced members, I found myself spending more and more time waiting at the side of the road for others to catch up. It was time to try something new
In late June my brother and I loaded our two sportiest motorcycles – his Honda VTR Firestorm and my Triumph Street Triple R – with the minimum necessary luggage and set off for the Swiss alps. We were on the road by 5am, on the train by 7am and on the continent before most people would have even eaten their breakfast. We booked no accommodation, using travel apps on our mobile phones to book hotels when we began getting tired each afternoon, and ended up close to the Swiss border by dinner time on the first day.
From there, we zig-zagged across the Swiss Alps, riding a total of twenty-two passes in just three days. We drank bottled water to stay hydrated and avoid lengthy coffee stops, ate quick lunches in cafes, and utilised fast-food restaurants for free wifi and cheap calories where necessary. We never rode while exhausted, and maintained a safe, sensible pace to enjoy every mile. Switzerland complete, we explored the Black Forest, lapped the Nürburgring and enjoyed the valleys of the Mosel before heading home for a 7-day, 2,500-mile round trip.
This type of early-start, high-mileage, fast-paced, zero-planning trip won’t be for everyone; my mother would’ve hated it, my fiancé would’ve been bored, and many others would’ve been baffled as to why we didn’t stop to walk around every town and village we passed through. But that wasn’t the point; we wanted to ride motorcycles on really good roads, with beautiful backdrops to the action, all with zero hold-ups; and that’s exactly what we got.
A few weeks later, my fiancé and I attached three fully-loaded hard cases to my Suzuki V-Strom 650 and headed west for Ireland. Rosa booked every bed & breakfast months in advance, with several nights booked in Dingle and Killarney so that we could spend days off the bike exploring the scenery in hiking boots. Distances between stops were designed to require just an hour or two per jump if the weather turned foul while allowing for more scenic detours along the coast and through forests should we get lucky.
It was a very different kind of trip, with more frequent stops in cafes, an upper limit of four hours’ riding per day, with half the total mileage by the time we returned home seven days later. Travelling alone freed us from worrying about waiting for other riders, even if I couldn’t corner quite as quickly two-up as I might’ve solo. Instead of climbing Swiss mountains on the motorcycle, we hiked up Irish hills on foot. Instead of practising my cornering technique through German forests, we threaded our way through Killarney National Park on rented bicycles. It was an absolute blast.
If these two trips had been taken by two different, single-minded individuals, both might have considered the other person crazy for wasting a week “doing it wrong”. As it stood, I enjoyed both of them tremendously, and am already musing follow-ups in both veins. But motorcycling’s strength is in its variety – and there are many other kinds of trips I’d love to try.
I keep meeting Harley-Davidson converts who’ve traded in everything for their now-cherished 1950’s technology, who all now proclaim the tremendous enjoyment of a low-speed, low-pressure rumble through the South of France. I told my brother about the Trans-Euro Trail and now the race is on to buy a couple of used Honda CRF250L’s so that we can go get stuck off-road in north-eastern Europe.
Then there’s the crazy couples who tour Spanish race-tracks two-up on Yamaha R1’s, the maniacs riding WW2-era BMW sidecars thousands of miles just to show they can, and the genuine adventurers who justify the 21” spoked wheels on their Honda Africa Twins by riding to the southern tip of the world on their new steeds. These all sound like amazing adventures, ones I’d dearly love to try for myself.
For my part, I’ve got one more trip planned this summer, attempting to combine as many aspects of previous tours as possible into a two-week loop of the Härz mountains in north-eastern Germany. What seems like my entire extended family is joining in, but I’ll maintain my sanity by heading out solo and meeting them at the end of each segment, rather than joining their convoy during the day.
My fiancé Rosa is flying into Frankfurt to meet me for a few days of sightseeing, and I might even get a chance to try another lap of the ‘ring on my way back. I’ll get to ride at my own pace, enjoying some quiet solitude, but also share stories with my family at the end of each day and even explore a city or two on foot. If I can just find a few dirt roads to tackle en route I might just be able to have it all!
What I’m trying to say is this: maybe next year, go try something new. If you normally travel with the kitchen sink on your Goldwing, pack light and take a sportsbike instead. If you usually make a pair of underwear last four days and two trackways as you weave your way between MotoGP rounds, try renting a bagger and see how the other half lives. You may be addicted to all the electronics on your new KTM or BMW, but perhaps you should try taking an old Norton or Triumph through Scotland to experience how things used to be.
It’s also important to “know thyself”; to understand what it is about motorcycle travel that keeps you coming back for more, and engineer your trips so that you and any companions get the most out of our limited time. Experiment, push your personal envelope, try new ideas and explore new places. You may discover something new that you’ll wish you’d found decades ago, or simply find something you can skip entirely in the future. Either way, there’s a real opportunity to surprise yourself and have an amazing, unexpected, and memorable adventure!