Last day and returning home

I’m sitting in a pleasant rest area by the roadside, shaded by woods. I’m sure I caught a waft of brewing coffee just then. The air is thick with the sound of invisible motorbikes like mosquitos, their riders drawn to the magnet of the Nurburgring race track that just now I rode by – but not on. My first youth hostel was ok-ish. There’s something about being alone but pressed up against crowds that is a bit depressing and makes me prone to feeling more self-conscious than I like to be and rather uptight. I like being alone but the environments so far I have not found relaxing.

Its midday and I’m already half way to the second hostel back in Monschau that I drove through on the way down here. As I ride, too introspective as usual, I ask myself ‘Why is this enjoyable? Is this enjoyable?’ Well, yes, is the answer, when the road is nice and winding with a nice surface (a group of 6 bikes just roared by sounding like a race-track) and the sun is shining and the breeze is cool and there’s nothing behind me. My GPS does its best to stop me riding on the best roads.

Lessons to learn for my next trip: 1. work out how to use the GPS properly to avoid autobahns; 2. proper pacing: neither too little or too much mileage. Two 250 is maybe too much and 100 is definitely too little. Between 150-180 could be ideal. I’m wondering about tomorrow’s journey where I have to press on to reach the ferry terminal by lunchtime. I think I will surrender to the GPS come what may. Another first for this holiday (and for someone who has only recently passed his bike test) will be riding in the dark – from Harwich to home. I’m so pleased I took the trouble to sort out the headlights on the bike before I left – now both lights come on at the same time and I have changed to much brighter xenon bulbs. I remember I had to dismantle the whole front of the bike to fit them – but it was worth it to get to know the bike.

I wish I had a gripping novel with me instead of this introspective analytical book on Houdini. German church bells. Bring back my memories of childhood holidays. I remember on Sunday mornings, lying in bed staying with our relatives, they rang and rang, sometimes, I think, more than one church joining in. It was so good stopping by the Mosel river yesterday and taking my boots off in the sunshine. I started the day tired and a little anxious but the day has turned out well… Now I’ve finally arrived at the last youth hostel at 4.15 only to find that its reception is closed until 6.30 and I was looking forward to a shower and getting changed. I’ve come out to lie on the grass in the shade to escape the screaming children. My good humoured contentment I gathered from successfully ordering and eating Bratwurst and chips with Mayonnaise (on the ferry some bikers warned me never to ask for vinegar on my chips in Germany) has evaporated by arriving here hot and tired to find no one to let me into my room. I’m not sure about the accommodation in the future. I have learnt that I don’t really like youth hostels. There are too many families and children. Maybe next time I will chose nicer hotels or camping. Or travel with a couple of other people.

By the beautiful Mosel

According to the GPS, tomorrow is 176 miles and time is 2 hours 47 minutes: so realistically, with a short stop, 3 1/2 hours including time for a break.

Finally I get into my room at 7pm. These youth hostels seem to specialise in employing unfriendly young men working in them. (Actually it was my days as assistant warden in a YHA hostel in Dorset in the mid 1970s that first introduced me to riding motorbikes – as a pillion of course). I have a six-bedded room to myself – I have the key. The assistant warden gave me a pile of stiff sheets, pillow slip and duvet cover. No towel – so I use my dirty t-shirt. The shower is down the hallway and the toilet even further. After showering and changing into anonymous wear after my biking costume, I walk down 25 minutes into the town, looking (maybe I could say ‘desperate’) for a drink. It is a long but beautiful walk and the town is absolutely beautiful.

Germany seems sympathetic to smokers. Phew. Things are more pleasant than an hour or so ago after a flood of drugs (the booze and fags) into the system and escaping the hostel. After reading, musing, smoking, looking around from my table, I set off back up the hill through the tall woods and characteristic tall German houses. I write this on my bed in the gloom. The scent of a wood fire is coming through my large open window. The sheet is crisp. The shouts of teenagers in the beautiful green grounds are starting to quieten. Its half past 9. Is it too early to get my head down? Shall I set my alarm? There’s probably no need. Breakfast at 8 then I zoom off on a route I’ve been through on the GPS but still can’t make sense of. I’m a bit daunted by tomorrow’s branching motorway drive but I will feel great to get onto the ferry….. I am on the ferry and I do feel great! Now seven hours to amuse myself. The GPS was worth its weight in gold on that ride full of complicated motorway branches, turnings and ring roads. I don’t know how I would have managed without it. I would have got completely lost. But it was such a windy ride. In the end I was sticking to 65 mph, though overtaken by one or two bikers going much faster.

My mileage today was 176.7 miles. A bunch of five ‘Chimera’, riding Lithuania plates on real old customs, brownish leathers, matt black helmets, really noisy bikes pulled onto the ferry ahead of me. The are sitting with their shaved heads and cans of Heineken almost in silence, over on a table near me, just looking around. Are they criminals or just hard? Lithuania is a long ride from Holland. They certainly are cool and forbidding. Then there is a tall German and his shorter rather lovely partner riding a big R1200gs (he told me it weighs 280kg unladen but I don’t think this can be right). They have a huge amount of luggage strapped on the back including a camping table and chairs. In contrast to them is a very down to earth, old school Englishman on an ancient Honda 250, wearing an old hoodie for a jacket, also carrying camping equipment including a tin mug strapped to the back. I wonder how far he has gone.

I saw my unshaven face in the mirror here on the boat and thought for a few seconds about growing a beard, then decided not. Now I feel sad I have to leave this disheveled chin behind and return to normal life. Am I escaping anything? A realisation, a fear that I might not be making nearly enough of my life. I could do with a drink. Back downstairs I am surrounded by families playing noisy board games.

Summaries: total miles 788 Fery: £180 accommodation €85 petrol €85 (that was a cheap trip). Here I am back home after riding through dark Suffolk and Cambridgeshire. H was there cooking for Gam and took this triumphant photograph.

I made it back in one piece – my first ever trip

First day riding in The Netherlands and Germany

Total mileage on day 2 is 258.7 Its grey, almost frighteningly wet and grey with rain and water all around as we approach Holland. I seem to get a free breakfast by ditheringly answering ‘yes’ when asked at the counter whether I was ‘with the biker’s group’. They meant was I one of the 72 cyclists who for an inexplicable reason are also on this boat? Which I am not. Down on the car deck, for some reason my bike takes ages to start and I feel a mixture of physical anxiety and mental assurance that I have cover for almost any occurrence. I drive down the ramp and queue up to show my passport, then its on to unassuming roads out of the town and onto the network of motorways that is Holland. Its dry thankfully but the sky is very grey. I’ve set the address of my first night’s hotel into the GPS and am happy to be told how to get there – at least for now. There is not a huge amount of traffic and various smells, most of them agricultural. Eventually, a couple of hours later, it starts to rain and I find that by tipping my head sideways I can encourage the raindrops to run off my visor but when it starts to pour I realise I can’t see a thing and rather desperately pull onto the hard shoulder and start the bike’s hazard lights. I fish into my luggage to pull out the rainsuit I bought but I am really dithering here in the hope that the rain will ease off. I can’t work out why I couldn’t see. I think my glasses steamed up. With this ballooning suit on it seems to take longer to accelerate. I note that I’ve got 2002 miles from a tank (no that was meant to be 202). Once I get to the end of the motorways of Holland, near Aachen, I start to disobey my GPS seeing the name of a town I recognise from the map and so opting for nicer routes.

the totality of my luggage

Unfortunately, as I reflect later, this is not a clever option. The thing with GPS is either to do exactly what it says or not use it at all. Taking my own route and expecting it to know what I want to do is hopeless and I wasted so much time and energy literally going round in circles and taking useless detours as my downloaded route told me after I got home.

Detours and useless loops

I finally arrive at the hotel Kylburg at about 4.30 after driving off the boat at 8am and swing the bike into the garage underneath – along with some company of bikes (local number plates) but with no riders in sight.

Who’s the fairest?

I am exhausted. Interestingly its my hands are forearms that are tired and twitching but not my back which is real tribute to the bike. After 4 ½ hours sleep on the ferry, I rode for nearly 8 hours. This isn’t a formula I want to repeat and luckily I won’t have to – on this trip.

I shower – the realisation that there is no soap in this cheap hotel does not put me in a good mood with the place (maybe they just forgot it). I lie down flat on my back and fall asleep. There is something mysteriously staid and artificial about this so-called ‘bikers’ hotel: plenty of artificial plants about 9 inches tall with wooden ladybirds attached, a significant lack of motorbikers and leathers, a lack of the rock and roll on the juke box that the website says they (the bikers) ‘like to hear’. Instead are a quiet collection of silver-haired hesitant guests who wear money belts and walk around with their hands behind their backs. Everyone else is part of middle aged couples.

Today’s riding, on reflection, had a number of phases. 1: a relaxed early time when the GPS guided me nicely on motorways from Hook of Holland across the Netherlands 2; a crisis when it poured and I couldn’t see anything and rode on in my cumbersome suit getting aware that I was rather tired. 3: the nicer roads in Germany when I started my helmet World War II conversations with imaginary friend Douglas – modelled on legless Douglas Bader of course, barking at him to ‘drop a cog, Douglas’ where appropriate (oh dear). 4: Getting tired and frustrated with the GPS leading me around in circles when I tried to combine its route with my own ideas.

After walking round the town, I opt for dinner here not feeling up to a lonely evening in the town’s only other eating establishment. But it could be a school dinner; a passing chicken curry but served not only with rice but with boiled potatoes and peas and carrots. Germany and good food rarely go together. For pudding there is, believe it or not, Arctic Roll. We can help ourselves to beers from the fridge at least.

Just up the street

Looking out from my balcony in this town built into the sides of a steep valley, later in the evening, I see houses and gardens ranged up the steep side of the hill opposite, topless fat men and fat housewives standing with their fists on their hips – as my step grandmother used to do in her blue nylon housecoat. My disappointment about the hotel fuels a distaste with this complacent small town as a whole. Having lost my novel earlier my book on psychoanalysis and Houdini does not lighten my mood. (Older self to my 2008 self – Lighten up.) And chose a better book to take travelling, Being and Time for example.

Only 96 miles today along the Mosel, most of it beautiful riding.

The high points of the day are brief though, starting off this morning in cool sunshine on nice winding country roads, an easy wave to some bikers coming the other way. I head toward Koblenz via Wittlich and Cochem a little before which the route joins the river valley.

It should be a straightforward ride but always is the inevitable getting lost, driving into a town then there’s no signpost toward where you want to go. I stopped at an Apothecary and buy soap, looking up the word in my phrasebook before I went in. In German you ask for ‘a’ soap. ‘Anything special?’ she asks. Luckily I remember the word for special from my youth for some reason. The assistant seems a little bemused by me. Later I turn on the GPS but again get into problems, missing a turning or two, then once in Koblenz, it whizzed me onto busy fly-overs and took me out toward my destination – here.

Walking around Bad Ems I can see that it is probably a resort for the older stouter person, either that or the town is full of grumpy older people. The women remind me of my step grandmother, slightly sour.

I buy a coffee in a cafe (there are definately no american chains here) and the rather formal young waitress reminds me of learning a little while ago about how in Germany young people have to decide which trade or training they want to commit themselves to while young, and that people who have tried two or more different things are viewed with suspicion by employers. If this were some other countries – like the UK – , this waitress would really be doing something else with her life, maybe studying, or saving up to do something she really wants to, or filling in. Here, she is a professional waitress, and from what I could see, faintly resents it.

This Youth Hostel is quiet at present and seems genuinely welcoming. I notice there is a ‘bistro’ – a bar downstairs that sells drink. I make a note to make a b-line there after dinner. The only other residents are two fat ladies and a child.

I have covered 208 miles since I filled up.
Its raining and donner und blitzen outside. The bike’s GPS cradle is wrapped up in a very British Tesco bag. Now I will venture down to dinner.

Here in Germany, on this holiday, I am being placed as single: in the last hotel the lady set me a single place to eat, separate from all the couples. Here, I sit at a table reserved for Einzel-Gäste, as opposed to the various labels for ‘Familie Schmidt’ or ‘Family Braun’. After a dinner that is impossible to begin to describe, I went to the ‘Bistro’ (open 7.30 bis 10.00hr) and bought a glass of Riesling. It was small but crowded with parents having got their children to bed chilling out by playing cards or scrabble. I go outside with my wine into the thundery night looking for somewhere to have a cigarette. I find a sheltered set of tables and benches to smoke. A couple of down-to-earth families are talking intently. I sit in a corner and smoke 2 cigarettes, then retire to my small room to brush my teeth and read a little more, leaning my sunburnt shoulder against the cool wall, thinking of going to sleep shortly after 9 with the sound of small children’s feet and laughter in the corridor outside.

My first motorcycle trip – 2008 four nights in Germany

Monday 28th July 2008 Day 0 Cambridge to Harwich: Mileage on day 1: 68.7

A trace of the whole trip (plus some stray routes in the UK)
Just about to leave

After months of planning I finally sail from Harwich tonight over to the Hook of Holland and then the rest of the week biking in Germany around the Mosel area. I have spare lightbulbs, bandages and a folded triangle that sticks out the back of my luggage. Accommodation is booked and the daily rides are not ambitious – the first day is about 350k though and rain is forecast for tomorrow. I also have a Garmin GPS which I tried out on holiday in Spain last week and I have learnt that it can really help in situations where you are totally lost – though it did give a few odd directions, like the wrong way down a one way street. So baring breakdowns (I have Cover) and accidents things should go well. With a good book – Austerlitz by Sebald (in English) which I have lost – and a pack of Camel, this should be enjoyable.

At the last moment I bought a rain suit from Cambridge Motorcycles as a talisman that might stop it raining while I carry this around. Surprisingly it fits, rolled up, into the minimalist luggage I own. I leave the house at about 6.30pm and already my GPS is trying to send me on some bizarre route out of Cambridge and I ignore it for the first time on the holiday. I am headed for the 11.45pm ferry at Harwich. I have my trusty new Triumph tank bag and, strapped onto the passenger seat, my old two-story tank bag with my clothes, spare bulbs, padlock in case I ever want to leave my helmet with the bike and even the hazard triangle it seems you are meant to carry in Europe squeezed into it. I have a pair of Crocs and some food and water as well as documents in the front.

I started planning this short trip months ago. The first challenge was buying a bike that would not be a strain to ride at speed all day. Even driving down to London on the M11 and back on my old Bandit 600 left me with painful wrists as I tried to hold on against the raging Essex wind. After four months of investigating and looking on Ebay I bought this Triumph Sprint ST 955i with 3000 miles on the clock. Luggage was more challenging – or rather more expensive than I could afford, so hard luggage will have to wait. Instead I invested in a Garmin GPS as I realised without someone with a map on their lap in the passenger seat next to me, finding anywhere would involve endless stops by the curb and a huge amount of wasted time.

The ride takes me out of Cambridge over the Gog Magog hills, via Haverhill, where I fill up with £15 of petrol, and beautiful winding country roads down to the A12 at Colchester then on to Harwich to catch the Stenna ferry to the Hook of Holland. It’s a beautiful sunny evening and still light when I arrive at Harwich to check in behind a German couple on an old BMW.

We chat later about their holiday in the UK. I also talk to another couple who live in Amsterdam on an older Honda with 16000 miles. He’s American and she is an English concert pianist. Also friendly is a Dutchman on a bright red Honda CBR who though young is a veteran of channel crossings as I find out later. He says he has ridden more miles on the left side of the road than the right. Three other young guys arrive on brand new but miniscule 125s and are photographed presumably it’s a jaunt for some biking magazine. I try to get in the background.

Eventually, after waiting for 72 cyclists, we are beckoned to drive up the spiral ramp and on to the boat. The Dutchman has taken his bike on this ferry many times and has his own equipment for lashing it down. I am completely hopeless at it and can’t even work the ratchet on the ties, so I get generous amounts of help and advice on this i.e. tie the bike down by its handle bars being careful not to damage any of the cables. If the handlers insist on tying the bike down over its seat, trap your gloves under the tie first to avoid damaging the seat.

I can’t believe that this is the same ferry that I was sick on every summer as a boy going to Germany for our family holidays. You barely realise that you are on something moving at all so vast and smooth is this vessel.

KTM 790 Adv mods so far

Why do we spend so much time, money and thought on modifications for these machines? Maybe one reason is that we are aware that they are mass produced tangles of metal and plastic and we want them to feel more like our own unique thing. However, if beauty is in the beholder’s eye then our new bike might already arrive with that quality of gladdening the heart just by looking at it in the garage – until that feeling evaporates next to a newer more desirable model. After my first trip on the KTM I made a list – a long list – of things I wanted to change or add to the bike to improve the riding experience.

One or two items on this list were in the rational box but most were in a box with a more complicated label on it. At the risk of stating the obvious the label on the non-rational box includes something about enjoying identifying with a hardcore life without actually necessarily living it. ‘Aspirational’ would maybe be a simple way to think of it. Nearly everything on both lists is done now – along with some that were not on it at all.

The really practical things, honestly: cruise control and heated grips – the former an expensive dealership item, the second a do-it-at-home event.

Look no hands or cold hands

Then the possibly practical: One finger lighter action clutch: another home fitment. The stock was not awful but its the gentler biting point of this set up that makes the difference. A slightly longer lever is such a simple idea.

The main engineering challenge would have been the limited range of movement behind the fuel tanks.

Then in the appearance category is Barkbuster handguards. The existing ones were fine but these look better and add to visibility.

Look – they stand out

Some more items from the orangery: the high front fender I bought when I bought the bike (I’m not sure how practical it really will be), some lower wider footpegs from Rade Garage and some radiator protection at the front from R&G who did not reply to my query about fitting these guards. You have to bend the lower part to fit – though the instructions don’t mention this. Also down there but not too visible is a larger brake pedal from Touratech and a larger side stand foot also from the German company.

motorcycle with orange bits

Then there is the new exhaust from Italian company SC Project. I’d watched some Youtubers fit this and then remove the baffle to produce an amazing exhaust note. However, I’ve not yet been able to pull out that part and wonder if I’ve bought a new non-removable design. So apart from losing some weight, this did not quite deliver on expectations. I haven’t given up yet though…

2 and 1/2 Ks. Now how much did the original weigh?

I nearly forgot: the first things I did when I got the bike into my garage was to install my faithful PDM60 electrical unit that I’d used on two previous bikes and removed and then dismantle the front to make a kind of temporary mounting and connection for a new GPS Garmin unit. (Temporary until the Aurora rally kit)

KTM showing wiring under seat

There’s never enough room under the seat for this kind of addition

The other first thing was to fit a Perun luggage rack. This was a well made piece that fitted perfectly – and looks great. Fitting this enabled my first trip away on the bike.

Perun rack – nicely built. I took off the original grab handles to fit my soft luggage

Most recently I replaced the ugly and hard to adjust mirrors with Double Take mirrors from the US via Adventure Spec. These arrived quickly at a not too high price and were super easy to fit. Apart from wanting to join the club and their looks my main reason for fitting these was not the fear that I might break the originals on a fall on the trails but that they will be easier to adjust on the road.

Nice look but they seem eminently stealable.

Coming some time soon fromGreek company Aurora is their rally kit which will completely replace the slightly ugly front of this machine – once I have risen to the major challenge of installing it. Then I think I will call it a day, well apart from maybe a nicer seat…. and some…

Sony RX100Va first thoughts

For the last year I’ve been updating the contents of my bags and pockets for future trips near and far. This time its the travel camera that I take. When I downloaded the photos I took of my last trip up to Yorkshire I was a little shocked at the poor quality that my Lumix Panasonic DMC-TZ30 caught. Fewer seemed to be sharp and many suffered badly from glare (it turned out that there was a smear of something on the lens). That camera has been a great lightweight and pretty cheap companion on may trips though it has two limitations. One is the image quality – on close scrutiny everything seems to be made of putty – especially human skin. The second is how difficult it is to take photos with settings that you chose. Changing aperture, shutter speed and ISO is not straightforward and I’ve ended up just setting it to automatic and hoping for the best. Blurring the background is not something that that camera excels at for example.

I had two candidates to chose from: Fujifilm X100v or the Sony that I eventually bought. I think the Fujifilm is a more capable camera and would be more fun to use but in the end I chose the Sony for some sensible reasons: I already have a Sony helmet camera and a collection of batteries and a charger and I don’t want to have to carry around yet another set of batteries that I need to keep charged on the move – always one more thing to be on top of; the Sony is quite a lot smaller and will easily fit in a motorcycle jacket pocket; it has a wider angle lens (24mm equiv compared to 35mm on the Fuji). I also had to decide between an up to date model with a longer zoom or the one I bought (24-70mm equiv) with a f1.8 lens. I looked back at my photographs from my travels and nearly all were taken at the wide angle end. So it was decided.

So far I’ve changed some of the settings, with the advice from one of the camera’s Youtube champions and taken a few dozen photos mostly in the study but some on the streets outside.

Exported from Lightroom

What I like: the camera can save in RAW or RAW plus JPEG which the Panasonic couldn’t.

It has a little electronic viewfinder (fiddly to pull out):

The image quality is quite good but its best not to think of my Nikon D810 – which is an unfair comparison.

I like the wide aperture lens both for low light and for blurring a background. The Panasonic was f4.5 – 6.3 so you could never do that.

Adaptability of settings; aperture priority and auto ISO seems to work and its relatively easy to change the aperture – result.

What I’m disappointed with: wifi connection to iPhone – just doesn’t seem to work…. update. For some reason, this Youtuber’s instructions seemed to work. This is a big breakthrough – for sharing photos while travelling. The camera transfers JPGs not RAWs. Here’s the JPG quality from an image transferred to the phone and then to the computer:

JPEG size 1.7Mb ISO2000

The other thing I don’t like is the flip side of its main attraction and this is it is too small to handle comfortably. It just does not fit nicely into the hand – as DSLR’s do, despite their weight. There are grips available which I will try but I don’t want to permanently stick something onto its beautifully designed and engineered body. Perhaps there is a removable option.

Nevertheless, this camera will definitely improve the records of future travels and lead to some slightly more thoughtful photography on the road.

Here it is