Originally published in Slipstream magazine, May 2018.
Motorcycle travel can mean different things to different people. It’s not just our choice of bike and destination; the very reason we travel and what we hope to get out of the experience can vary dramatically from person to person.
Some people pack a credit card and a toothbrush and follow their nose, stopping wherever it suits them and not worrying too much about getting the best bargain. Others might plan each and every mile months in advance, double and triple-check their packing lists and then hit the road with every hotel booked, their pre-programmed GPS taking them along the best roads and through the most spectacular scenery. Most of us fall somewhere in the middle.
Are you a long-day mile muncher, purely interested in getting to your destination as quickly possible, all so that you can enjoy an exotic locale without having ever cooped yourself up inside some kind of metal box? Perhaps the journey is the destination, with plenty of stops along the way to admire the view, sample the food and enjoy the scenery as it flows serenely by? Again, perhaps you’re somewhere in the middle.
And what of the bike? Have you spent years honing your machine through a series of careful modifications into the ultimate no-compromise all-rounder, or did you just skip to the end and collect your new BMW R1200GS direct from the dealer? Did you prioritise maximum comfort and go for the Honda Goldwing, or was the only requirement that it have two wheels and your name on the V5? All of these are legitimate choices, and none will leave the chooser envious of their peers. Usually.
This past weekend my girlfriend, two of our friends and myself all traced a decidedly squiggly line through Yorkshire by way of the Lake District. Just under a thousand miles were carefully planned, yet fuel for bikes and riders was left for us to discover en route. A two-night B&B was booked at a central location, but only a week in advance. We chose to sacrifice the best deals for the best weather report.
Of our group, only one of us had ridden more than a few hundred miles in a day, and none but myself had ever packed more than an overnight bag on their bike. This was to be a shakedown run, to see how three touring novices, their bikes and their gear coped with a highly compressed trip encompassing as many types of road as I could manage in one weekend. Everyone wanted to see what would go wrong.
The first issue turned out to be fuel; early Honda FireBlades are known for their thirst, and timing fuel stops quickly proved tricky. Stop too early or too often and some of us won’t manage the minimum £5 delivery some pumps require. Push your luck and suddenly petrol stations disappear as our route meanders off into the moors for fifty miles. None of us ran out, but we came close.
Next up, temperature. One of us had a fairing, two of us had heated grips and all of us were cold for the first few hours. But by the end of the day we were touching 20C, and extra layers would’ve had nowhere to go in our meagre luggage. Panniers and top boxes would’ve made that easier, but the additional weight would’ve made the twisting, turning roads less entertaining.
Half-way through the first day, two of our group asked me for help adjusting their suspension to better survive the bumpy, uneven roads of the Yorkshire Moors. By the end of the trip, all but myself had sworn to seek out a suspension specialist upon their return home. I’d already spent that money, and had a few recommendations I could share.
Day two began with rain, and grumbling from she who hates waterproofs. He who wears kevlar jeans decided to hope it was just a quick shower. He with the cheap textiles crossed his fingers and wobbled through the wet corners, all confidence gone. I hate being cold and wet, so I’d invested the time and money many years ago in order to ensure comfort in all conditions. TVAM training in the hills of mid-Wales meant that damp tarmac held no fear for me, and I found myself waiting at a number of Lake District junctions for the others. Preparation takes all forms!
Once the rain departed, the cyclists arrived, along with fog and 1-in-3-grade hairpins, courtesy of the Hard Nott pass. Having conquered this road years ago I warned my fellow travellers to practice their low-speed control prior to the trip. Dodging lycra in zero visibility was a new challenge, however, and when one of your party has fuelling issues resulting in no usable torque in the bottom half of their rev range and a steering lock that a freight train would sneer at, a few of those hairpins become three-point turns. The rest become merely terrifying.
A lunch picked at random can be a revelation or simply revolting, proving that sometimes planning pays off. Delays necessitating neutered routes are not a problem, providing you have allowed for such possibilities during your preparations. The result was a half hour of dual carriageway, allowing those of us on unfaired machines to cast jealous glances at those with wind-blocking hardware fitted.
The final piece of the puzzle was the inevitable breakdown. I never break down, because the laws that govern the universe dictate that he who carries a full set of tools shall never need them, while the moment you leave the compressor and plugs at home you’re guaranteed to collect enough nails and screws in your tyres to open your own joinery shop.
I also don’t drop by bikes anymore, probably because I’ve gone to great lengths and expense to install crash protection specifically to guard against such a possibility. All my slow-speed training and experience meant that I was also the least likely to fall over during a U-turn, so of course – I did.
It was the least spectacular drop ever; the sort of thing you probably haven’t achieved since your CBT. In brief, I simply ran out of steering lock; not too difficult on a Street Triple perhaps, but embarrassing nonetheless. I put it down as gently as I could, the bike actually landing on my right leg before I tumbled off, laughing at myself. A quick inspection after picking the bike up showed that the indicator had taken the brunt of the landing, then shattered the fairing piece it was attached to. A small green puddle on the ground didn’t bode well, despite the crash bungs having never actually touched the ground. Good job, Triumph.
A short while later I was advised via the intercom that I was leaving clouds of steam and pools of coolant in my wake, and we pulled over to attempt repairs. Tools out, fairing off and radiator topped up we still couldn’t identify the leak – but we were reasonably sure that the source was the radiator itself. Surrounded on all sides by nothing but sheep we limped on to the nearest town and mobile phone tower, where I threw in the towel and pulled the metaphorical parachute, calling for a flatbed truck to take me home.
The moral of the story is that preparation is important in order to get the most out of each adventure, but that the very definition of the word cautions us against assuming that we have everything covered. Many things are choices on a scale, with an adventure bike serving you well in the gravel but compromised once things become fast and smooth. Your sports bike wins here, but will punish your foolishness on farm track hairpins and cripple you after 500 miles of motorway.
It’s true that you can throw a certain amount of money at the problem, and one of these days I fully expect to hand BMW my credit card and trade in all my bikes for one that will do everything better. I’m already wearing head-to-toe GoreTex, backed up by high-tech moisture-wicking fabrics designed to handle the extremes of hot and cold. I’m already carrying enough tools to rebuild my bike at the side of the road or maintain consumables for weeks and weeks of hard touring.
And yet I’m the only one who didn’t finish the trip on their own bike. No matter what, you can’t prepare for everything.
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