Europe for Beginners

Originally published in Slipstream magazine, October 2018.

Mountain Roads

Smooth, empty, twisty roads, and spectacular scenery. A far cry from our crowded little island!

Since returning from my most recent European motorcycling adventure I’ve been trying to figure out how to turn my experiences into an interesting article for the magazine. A straight-up ride report, “…and then we carved through yet another dozen hairpins…” does not, in my opinion, make for terribly engaging reading. As long-time readers of my columns will know, I prefer to try and educate while I entertain, and there’s always something new for all of us to learn.

So let’s consider this a review of sorts; a short(ish) summary of my latest unconventional motorcycling adventure, whereby I challenge conventional wisdom and somehow convince my first-time touring partner into coming along for a non-stop, full-speed dash through the European countryside.

To give you an overview, this was a 3,500-mile, two-week all-inclusive sampler of European motorcycle touring; an opportunity for me to show my partner what she had been missing all the years her riding had been constrained to our rainy little island. This included French motorways, Belgian forests, the valleys of the Mosel, forests of Bavaria, de-restricted German Autobahns, Austrian food, Swiss Alpine passes, Italian roadworks, French lakes, Spanish mountain gorges and a large number of McDonalds restaurants.

Motorcycle Mirror

Travelling in small groups or in pairs makes it easier to keep up a rapid pace.

Cramming my favourite bits of Europe and the entire Pyrenees mountain range into a 14-day vacation that included my own brother’s wedding was, perhaps, a little ambitious. 300-400 miles a day quickly proved impossible, with an average of 250 more realistic, despite my creative interpretations of continental traffic regulations. Rural road maintenance crews love to dig up (and then abandon) the only route out of town with maddening regularity, but empty sidewalks will work in a pinch. We also learned that Honda Fireblades consume around a litre of oil per thousand miles, and had ample opportunity to discover that “10W40” is pretty much the same in any language.

I discovered, to my surprise, that mainland Europe has finally embraced the debit card in the last year or two, and my insistence we carry highwayman-tempting wads of cash to cover expenses proved entirely unnecessary. ‘Pay at the Pump’ is one of the greatest inventions of the current century, and our continental cousins have embraced it wholeheartedly. So have McDonalds, with their restaurants now featuring multi-lingual touch-screens alongside table service. This means that meal stops can be short, and your interaction with the locals can be reduced to an absolute minimum.

Motorcycle Maintenance

The miles rack up fast when you’re riding every day, so you’ll want to keep an eye on fluid levels.

The more sociable among you may be horrified at the idea of travelling thousands of miles to computer-order the same bland-tasting American hamburgers for lunch, day after day, but the truth is that rural Europe really leaves you no choice. The Spanish and French seem to be competing for who can shut down their businesses for the longest during the afternoon, and if you are somehow fortunate enough to discover some dingy roadside cafe willing to feed a pair of strangely-dressed foreigners with a limited grasp of the language, they do so only with extreme reluctance.

My purpose for travelling is to ride motorcycles on entertaining roads through spectacular scenery, and the routes I chose clearly did not coincide with the European Good Food Guide. Google Maps proved no help either, as outside of major cities what little information is available on the platform is inaccurate and incomplete, making the task of reliably locating any functioning establishment beyond multinational chain restaurants essentially impossible.

McDonalds France

A far cry from the plastic frontages you expect from a much-maligned fast-food joint.

And you know what? McDonalds isn’t so bad. Their architects appear to have been competing with one another for the most interesting interpretation of the American fast-food staple, with regional variations in menus providing a modicum of culinary diversity. The food is fine, the toilets are clean, the wifi is good, and the air conditioning is extremely welcome. But most importantly, they’re open. And they have parking. And you can find them, easily, without having to detour to some traffic-clogged capital and traipsing around baking city streets in a vain attempt to find somewhere that offers the bare-minimum of celiac-friendly menu options.

Mobile apps like mean that you can pick your daily end-point during your afternoon coffee break, although first-time travellers should be aware of a few peculiarities. The French interpretation of the word “Hotel” is fairly broad, and it is only after booking that it is possible to discover the latest allowable check-in time. This might be far earlier than you would expect and is supremely unhelpful if you’re running late and are still an hour away from the room you just paid for.

Motorcycle Hotel

Book your hotel during your mid-afternoon stop and you can get some great deals.

“Breakfast included” is also subjective. In some places, it’s a multi-menu banquet from 7am onwards, while in others you delay your departure only to discover you’d have been better off saving your money and opting for a petrol-station coffee & croissant instead. Our last hosts informed us upon check-in that breakfast wasn’t served until 9am – a full half-hour after our latest realistic departure time, should we still wish to catch our ferry. We left the room keys at an abandoned reception desk when we left; they’re just lucky I’d paid in advance before arriving, as there was no-one apparently awake to check us out either.

I do recommend picking somewhere that has an on-site restaurant, however. The couple of times we chose more characterful bed & breakfast options we got badly burnt when no alternative meal options were available in any nearby towns. The hotel’s own restaurant might not be the last word in quality or value, but it’s better than cereal bars and bathroom tap water. I’ve decided to pack a can of baked beans and a tin-opener next time, just in case.

Spanish Restaurant

Roadside restaurants are rare – and don’t actually seem to serve food when you do find them.

As for routes and riding, Europe certainly offers plenty of surprises. The observant number-plate spotter will note that while the British do not seem to venture much further east than France, the Dutch appear to have fled their own country en masse, with bikes and cars alike strewn across the entirety of German-speaking Europe. Petrol stations rarely sell anything other than E10, the 10% ethanol-fortified fuel that the continent switched to some years back. Those of you running newer bikes might notice a slight drop in fuel economy, while those running older machinery might notice it eating holes in your petrol tank and associated piping.

The Italians have an interesting way of discouraging speeding, with what I could only deduce were speed-sensitive traffic lights. No junctions, no pedestrian crossings, and they’d go green again as soon as you’d stopped. But if you approached them more slowly, they’d never turn red in the first place; an interesting tactic, for sure. Speed cameras themselves are slowly spreading across the French countryside like an infectious disease, usually concealed and on otherwise perfectly safe roads. Fortunately, the locals seem as unimpressed as I was, with the overwhelming majority having been comprehensively disabled through the generous application of spray paint.

Surprise Cows

Surprise cows!

Mountain passes, both in the Alps and Pyrenees, can vary tremendously in terms of traffic, road surface, severity of corners and width of carriageway. If a pass crosses a border, then you can often tell when you’ve moved into a new sovereign land not from merely by noting the abandoned check-points, but from the sudden change in tarmac quality. Italy – I’m looking at you.

You might also find that a pass that was all flowing, well-telegraphed bends on smooth, wide, empty tarmac on one side of the mountain becomes a treacherous, single-width goat path with, in many cases, actual goats waiting for you on the other side of a blind hairpin. Cows, too, are frequently to be found enjoying the tarmac and evidently doing their best to cover every square inch in dung as they move up the mountain.

Bumpy Road

Bumpy? I’d hate to imagine what Swiss road planners would make of British roads…

Tunnels are frequent and sometimes many miles long, offering a welcome respite from hot or wet weather. But beware – the smaller ones sometimes feature unexpected livestock seeking shelter from the rain, and the larger tunnels often sport surprise toll booths on the other side. The remote operators of these booths apparently subscribe to the very American idea that getting a foreigner to understand you is merely a matter of shouting more loudly at them, in this case through a tinny little speaker. It’s ok though; after a while, they seem to give up and let you through anyway.

Choice of bike is important for a trip like this. A 100-mile tank range is insufficient, as taking the scenic route can easily mean fuel stops are necessarily further apart than that. Sportsbikes – even those with raised bars – simply aren’t comfortable for consecutive 10-hour riding days, and the rest of Europe seems to agree. We saw just two fairing-clad travellers in two whole weeks on the road; BMW has half the market sewn up with R1200GS’s littering the slopes and K1600’s and S1000XR’s dotted around liberally to break up the monotony. Harley-Davidson is clearly doing very well in Europe, with an easy third of our fellow bikers having chosen the bar-and-shield brand for their twisty mountain adventures. Honestly, it was impressive to watch – limited ground clearance simply means your lines through the hairpins have to be spot-on.

Harley-Davidson Ultra Glide

Adventure bikes are clearly the traveller’s weapon of choice, but Harley’s are popular too.

And yet, adventure bikes of all shapes and sizes are clearly the weapon of choice for travellers of all stripes. I finally discovered where all of Suzuki’s European V-Strom 650’s have been hiding – they’re all in the Alps, making the absolute most of their modest horsepower to embarrass their better-heeled brothers and sisters. More than once I wished I could hand out TVAM business cards as I overtook well-financed yet dangerously underskilled riders on my way up a mountain. With cornering lines like that, they may well find their ride back down the mountain takes considerably less time than they might have previously expected.

No matter what you ride, make sure that you have a firm set of low-speed riding skills under your belt before you venture into these mountains. Some hairpins are closer to uphill u-turns than any of the bends you’ll encounter on our comparably flat little island. Also ensure that you have enough power and confidence to execute overtakes on relatively short pieces of road, or you may find a wonderful stretch utterly ruined by the maddeningly slow Fiat or Citroen blocking the view ahead.

Gravel Road

Surprise gravel! Well, unless you can read Spanish road signs, I suspect…

Being comfortable on loose surfaces would be advantageous too. More than once we found the Spanish mountain roads strewn with gravel, and at one point the racetrack-smooth tarmac simply stopped mid-way through a fast right-hander, becoming a genuine hard-core gravel track. My V-Strom took it all in its stride, but Jasmine on board her Fireblade was deeply unamused.

Others may disagree, but I also recommend that you stick to a full waterproof textile suit for a trip like this. Leathers and waterproofs may be your preference for an unavoidable shower, but up in the mountains it’s easy to be caught by surprise. In the space of just ten miles we went from sitting outside a cafe drinking hot chocolate in the sunshine to peering through dark clouds at flooded roads on the side of a barren slice of mountain. If your default gear is already waterproof you can just ride on; anyone who needs to stop to get changed will already be soaked by the time they find somewhere safe to pull over. Heated grips can be most welcome, even in September.

Rainy Mountain Road

Rain is always a risk, and it can be cold up in the mountains.

Down in the foothills of Spain however, you’ll wish they were electrically cooled as well. Even in mid-September, and even in the hilly north of the country we were consistently suffering high-20’s, with a genuine 33C predicted for the day after we set sail from Bilbao. A friend from Portugal has previously advised me that, should I wish to venture any further south, I should restrict my plans to early spring at the latest; I think I can see why.

If you’ve never travelled to Europe by motorcycle, then you’ve really got to get out there. TVAM runs a number of trips each year, with several specifically designed for first-timers to get their first taste of riding on the right. And it’s really very easy, and relatively inexpensive – the Eurotunnel is around £80 return for bikes, and even less if you’re going for five days or fewer. Weekend trips are doable, and your effective range only increases if you can get a Friday or a Monday off work too.

Travel light, take a toolkit, keep your smartphone charged up and go enjoy Europe before they decide us difficult Brits are more trouble than we’re worth!

Cote de Azure

Why waste money sitting on a beach when you can do this?