Sunday, 7 August 2011

Trip Report

Road Trip 2011 - Cheshire to Fayence, via Spain.

The planning for this trip began quite some time ago, over a year to my recollection, and slowly evolved into what became an epic road trip (by our standards at least). After doing the Bol d'or in 2008 we were keen to build on our experience and make this one even better. Sadly, there were no obvious events we could take in this time. The Pamplona Bull Run was mentioned, over several drinks, but quickly dismissed for the hassle involved (Pamplona gets VERY busy during this, and there was always the real chance of getting a bit dead via an angry Spanish bull!) so we were pondering options when Paul mentioned he'd be happy to put us up (up with us?) for a few days, and we could use their place as a base for some more exploration of the South of France/Alp region around his abode. Result. Next decision was easy, we hated riding through France last time, its flat and boring for the main, and the weather is no better than the UK until you get half way down, so we looked at the Santander ferry, or rather Simon did while he was onboard his ship. We hadn't even got final numbers of attendees so Simon reserved six seats on the ferry, just to give us definite places for whomsoever decided to join us this time. So, a plan was forming, overnight ferry to Santander, to avoid the French slog south, and then a fun few days hoofing across the Pyrenees to Paul and Helens in Fayence. Sounds lovely doesn't it. Over the months we had some vague map gazing to see what we were in for, during which I realised my faithful old Fazer1000 was going to need some tweaks to cope with all those hairpins, so I bored Simon stupid over winter pondering how to go about that. Many options were discussed. Quite by chance in spring I noticed a local Yamaha dealer had dropped the price on a newer model FZ1N. Hmm, thought I.  A not very sensible test ride later I was the new owner of a more agile, updated Fazer, but one with a more sporty riding position and shorter tank range. Hmm again, possibly not the cleverest idea for a 2500 mile road trip. Simon was also getting itchy wallet fingers at this point too, no doubt fuelled by months of listening ot me witter on about my own ideas. So, quickly after his return to shore, we spent a not inconsiderable day slugging down to Kent in the Zafira (with noisy borrowed bike trailer bouncing along behind) for a KTM Superduke. I thought I was being daft but this thing is bonkers, and certainly not the obvious choice for such a trip. Anyway, no one said we had to be sensible about this...

It was only a few weeks before departure that we actually realised no one else could be bothered coming with us (or couldn't due to injury - sympathies to Jimmy) and yet travelling as a pair would allow us some advantages,  not least higher average speeds, and not getting seperated quite so easily etc, but it did then bring into mind the fact that neither of us had a great tank range, and after extensive testing (we both went hoofing round Wales for the day) it became apparent that Simons' KTM would be crying for juice well before even 100 miles was up (more like 70 in fact). Mine seemed to give an average of nearer 130 miles. So, we had a minor panic while researching possible fuel stops in the mountains! Turns out they're quite frequent, but that didn't stop him deciding to add a gallon canister to the luggage as an emergency option! You'll see it in the pictures, its hard to miss, being bright green and strapped to a bright orange bike. Often parked next to a bright yellow FZ1. At least we wouldn't lose them in a carpark.

During all this "planning" Simon had kept in contact with Jim Billson, a trucker by day, we'd met on the last trip, and we'd clicked with right away. He's an old school head banger, able to knock out huge mileage runs with a big smile all the way. His aging 'blade being the steed then and now, he was more than keen to join us once again, and us equally pleased he could come along. He was forced to ride down on his lonesome, as his holiday allowance was limited, so he would ride down a few days after we left, and meet us at Fayence.

With the trip growing ever nearer we started checking the mileages, as the map seemed to get quite wide when we opened it up properly. Turns out its 750 ish miles from the port to Fayence. Crikey. With our pitiful tank ranges in mind, and not wishing the trip to turn into another hoofing along péages session we had a proper think and decided it was best to add some more days to the trip itinerary, making it the full ten we ended up with. This was sensible as we'd have only had one full day at Fayence otherwise, which would have been hard work all round. That done we still figured we'd have to cover some ground during the Spanish leg(s) as more than half the distance was mountainous hairpins and gorges. Brilliant in many ways but hard to keep a good pace up if you didn't want to end up frazzled by day two! A typical shrug and "how hard can it be" later we retired to the pub to drink to our success. Another good plan.

Two days before lift off I decided I'd best throw some luggage on the FZ1 and see how it all landed. Turns out, not too bad. Sports panniers, the Kriega tailpack (brill little thing that) and my overly large tankbag for valuables and map reading abilities. All seemed ok, if a little less than "lite" as I'd hoped for. I did a test pack and struggled, so dumped a few bits of clothing to lessen the problem. All good. Gave the chain a lube, glanced at the oil sight glass and figured I was good to go..

Day One (Tues):

We'd already decided, in the spirit of making every day a fun ride, to avoid motorways as much as possible for our run to Portsmouth on day one, so I was up early on the Tues and heading for Winsford at silly o clock. I think I got there before 7am. Exciteable some might say, not that I tend to show it. Simon was still mooching about in his house shorts, the kids milling about hoping to see us off. A cup of tea and some good byes later and we were off at last. The weather was being kind for a change, dry and mild. We headed down the A49 for Shrewsbury and beyond, in an anticpatory mood. It was at roughly this point when I noticed a strange phenomenon with my tank bag, at speeds above NSL the magnetic flaps (that hold the bag onto the tank) would lift clean off the tank and "fly" alongside!! Needless to say, I was glad I'd enlisted the safety strap round the headstock but this was still a major concern as I was facing a few thousand miles and already my luggage was trying to jump ship! A fumble at a petrol stop and I realised the tank shape was causing two channels of air to get underneath the flaps themselves. A reposition slightly further back seemed to cure it, but it meant having to make sure I did that at every fuel stop from now on.
Onwards and we're trying to settle down and enjoy ourselves but the thought of what was awaiting us in Spain and France made it all seem a bit pointless, which was a shame as ordinarily these roads would be great fun. It was still better than a tyre flattening slog down the awful M6 mind.

Part way down the UK Simon decides to let me in on a little secret, he's left the European card for his TomTom on the kitchen table, the one thing that we were relying on to find our first nights hotel, in a strange foreign town. I had to laugh as nothing else seemed appropriate! He texts Tracey (the wife) and gets her to post the card to Jim, so he can bring it to France with him. Not a great loss then, we'll have it for the return leg if nothing else. We get to Portsmouth in good time, and promptly fail to find the ferry terminal. A quick detour to the local shops in a vein attempt to source a fresh Euro SD card for the TomTom results in nothing. After a quick tour of the town (we can't find the ferry terminal) and some faffing, we get there and sign in, parking up behind the early birds already lined up. It was immediately apparent we had the least sensible option for the trip, as we were parked behind Harleys and various "Ewan and Borman" steeds. Bert and Ernie sat there basking in the sun nonetheless.. itching to get shown some smooth tarmac and hairpins.

The Pont Agata sidles up to her berth not long after, looking impressive as ferries go, and within an hour we were directed into her depths and strapped down. We lugged some gear up to the recliner seats we'd booked (didn't think to ask for an upgrade), and went for a wander to get our bearings. A nice ship with plenty on offer it seems, we settle for the long day/night ahead. Minutes later I realise I was going to be in a right mess if I had to sit in leathers for twenty two hours on a stuffy ship. Bringing a change of clothes up would have been a good idea had they not already locked the hold down. Oops. After watching me struggle for a couple of hours Simon finally decided it was better to loan me his shorts for the duration, rather than see me pass out at his feet. Gentlemanly of him of course, but I did look a right tit in knee length denim shorts, Sidi bike boots, sweaty tee and unkempt hair.. much to the amusement of several onlookers we noted... still, if I can be of amusement its something I guess! Halfway through the long night I decided to purchase a "shower pack" from ferries shop, and did my best to get cleaned up for our arrival on Spanish soil. £4 odd for a small towel, shower gel and soap. I was glad to pay it. 17:00 local time (Weds) we arrive in Santander. A quick flash of passport (still wearing my helmet!?) and we are let loose on the roads. We'd had a quick shufty at the map on the boat and figured we could fumble our way to Suances for the hotel that night, and slap me with a wet fish if we didn't find it without a problem! TomTom pah, old fashioned maps for the win. Showered and changed we wandered into town for a much needed cold beer and snacks. After dismissing the first touristy place (expensive!) we headed into town and got a half decent snap in a local cafebar instead. It also rained on us, which was more than a little aggravating as we hadn't booked rain! Still, food and beer consumed we hit the sack, ready for the first proper days riding and the thought of some roads and sightseeing.

Day Two (Thurs):

Up and showered early, keen to get moving. A welcome coffee and croissant in the hotel before setting off reminds me how they do it over here, no drab cereal for moi. We'd already decided to hit the motorway to bypass the city traffic, and get some easy miles under our belts so the fun stuff arrived earlier still. A gentle slog up through the hills past Bilbao and San Sebastian and we're dropping down into the plains beyond, the heat building too. Its hot, getting hotter, and the roads are pretty dull for the main, although the motorways do have more altitude and sweepers compared to ours back home. We sidle on until Pamplona where we get a little confused and end up doing a mini (de)tour through the city.. Once free of its clutches a fuel stop an hour beyond reveals another Brit biker pair to chat too. The GS1200 Beemer proving the popular choice of Brits and others it seems. Again, our colourful steeds provide amusement to most people we come across, the KTM especially as they seem quite rare out here. The day passes with a few bendy bits and fuel stops, and as its getting late we decide to find camp near Biesca and by pure chance as we turn onto the N260 looking for camping signs I spot the first decent twisties we've had all day and tear off like a child with a new toy! Tear along the dotted line, as my cereal packet suggests. Seconds later I spot the camping sign and have to hit the anchors. Rats. As it happens, this place turns out to be the best site of the trip, Camp Gavin. Superb facilities and views. We set up camp, get a superb shower and then get down to chatting about whats to come still. Not long after we are greeted by a VFR800 and R6 rolling past, and they're Brits! Introductions over we have a pleasant evening chatting bikes and life. Simon exchanges contact details in case we're ever in their neck of the woods. The sun has gone down and its getting chilly now so we retire reasonably early and try to sleep.

Day Three (Fri):

We knew this could be a long day as the map had nothing but twisty roads snaking across the hills for a few hundred miles, so another crisp start as we are right on the good stuff now. Superb road surfaces, lovely bends, amazing views, we rumble along trying to take it all in, exchanging silly grins as we close up at junctions and villages.

A few choice picture and video diary stops along the way, we settle in for some fun hours. This is what the trip was all about! The cameras we have along won't do the scenery justice of course, but we only need them to trigger memories during those long winter months. We aren't hooning our way across, that was never the plan at this stage, merely enjoying the roads at a good touring pace, stopping for coffee breaks as and when something interesting appears, or the mood takes us. The rain and stresses of home are slipping away nicely at this point, we barely talk about the real world today. As the day wears on I get a little bit zoned in and we sail across the Spanish border without even realising! The old checkpoint is still there but that’s about the sum of it bar a Polizia station nearby. We decide to press on for another hour to get some miles done and then look for camping again. What we didn't envisage was that as soon as you drop out of the hills the camping dries up quite quickly! We're almost at Narbonne before I spot a roadside campsite signage. A quick swerve and we're facing what appears to be a rundown house with a small scrubby orchard like forest alongside, typical of this area. Some scabby old caravans litter the immediate area but precious little else is evident, like an atmosphere or people. Still, apart from being a little distressed at first, we set up camp and Simon enquires about some ales and provisions – he was informed there was a local supermarket that should be open, some 500m away. He rides off in search of sustenance for us while I dive in what they laughingly called “the showers”. He returns soon after with the remains of what beers this “shop” had to offer, and some crisps. This was everything they had apparently, and he had to argue for that! Simon notes with some mirth that two of the cans are special brew strength.. says it all really. The local bug population is in full vocal swing tonight, the racket from the tree bugs is quite amazing. We wander over to the main building for another beer by the pool, just so we feel like we’ve had an evening, before deciding hitting the sack and getting out asap is perhaps the best option open to us, besides, the mozzys are out in force tonight. The place served a purpose, but I doubt I’ll be seeking it out again!

Day Four (Sat):

Up and ready to go as quickly as possible, we hit the road N roads in an attempt to avoid Péages, but after a few slow drags through towns, an annoying diversion (the French don’t appear to bother with diversions, they just say Road Closed, point you right and leave to find your own way out of town.. I saw this a few times on our trip and not once did we get help once “off the map”) anyway, we were not making great progress at this point and the heat was getting too much so we hit the Péage reluctantly and got on our way. Unfortunately, half of France seemingly thought the same thing, as each Péage booth point had several kilometers of queues leading up to it, hardly much fun when you’re in leathers and its 30C, so some judicious filtering was called for to avoid a meltdown. And once back up to speed the winds were starting to grate a little, being quite strong and rather warm to boot. Suffice to say, I was glad when we got near the Fayence signs. Glad until Simon veered off at the first sign of a Fayence notice and dropped us off the motorway and into a town of unknown name. A wander around the area soon revealed a sign for Fayence again so we set off with trepidation. The road turns out to be quite twisty and interesting, which makes a change for the day! We eventually get near enough for Si to call Paul and get him to come fetch us. Turns out we were quite close in the end, so a quick chase of Pauls Smart Roadster and we arrive at our basecamp for the next few days. Chez Tinwell is a cute, typically French, house nestled in woodland on the hills outside Fayence itself. We quickly remove the luggage and gratefully slurp the first of many cold beers cheerfully supplied by Paul and Helen. It’s a relief to finally make it to the house, the riding today has mostly been hot and less interesting than we’d hoped. Still, the next few days should address that issue.
We get shown our rooms and get cleaned up, and sink a few more cold ones. This is the life, sitting outside on their large patio set, a clear sky, warm evening, good banter, the stresses of the UK washing away very quickly. Paul is eager to tell us about his recent Marakech off road trip too, clearly excitable about the whole thing, we sit down to watch the rather professional video one of the guys had cobbled together. We can watch/talk/look at bikes all day it seems and the trip looked like amazing fun.

Day Five (Sun):

A well earned lie in, and shower, later we're sat around chez Tinwells' fabulous patio table scoffing breakfast and supping real coffee (why can't anyone in the UK manage such a simple thing as decent coffee, it baffles me). Talk soon swings round to Jims arrival, we've been getting updates as and when he stops (which isn't very often) and he's been battling some awful weather through France, and try as it will it hasn't dampened his spirits. We expected him around lunchtime but even he has to slow down for rain (we think). Eventually the call comes in, he's nearby, so Paul directs him to the same spot we landed at and we head back over in the Smart. I suspect its another test by Paul, just as we got. We find the big guy stood in an empty carpark, that unmistakable huge grin as always. Inital greetings over with we saddle up and head back before he gets too hot and bothered. Watching the Smarts' mirrors its immediately apparent that this man is at ease on his steed, an effortless pace apparent for all to see. Paul gets to the smooth twisty roads nearer home and barrels into the same bends again. The ageing 'blade stays with us, almost if he was expecting it. Paul slows things down and we crawl along the side road his house, with bike in convoy. Simon is filming our arrival, it seems silly but we haven't seen this man in three years so this feels like a reunion of sorts. Introductions over, Jim refreshed with a shower, and we're all sat around talking nonsense as if the three year gap means nothing. Helen cooks us up a curry while we head off for a taster run to Mons, in the hills. Paul obviously likes this little run through the hills, it suits his little Aprilia well (merely one of his well fettled toys) and the views are spectacular. This is just what everyone needed I think, a taster to get us in the mood for the next few days. Big grins all round.

Cruising back to basecamp I'm chilling out, watching Paul thrapping along ahead of me and suddenly I'm startled by a 'blade rushing past with a deep whumph baaarrrrr. Jim duly earns his slingshot nickname right there and then. My heart rate subsides eventually. I love seeing this kind of tomfoolery, I just hope my heart can take it. The post ride curry goes down very well (thanks again Helen), this is proving to be a cracking base camp, good food, good wine, great company. And faultless weather of course.

Day Six (Mon):

After a brief discussion about our preferred roads and riding styles Paul comes up with a rough guide for todays jaunt. Everyone seems eager to get going, as this is the first proper run without the weight of the gear on the bikes and our first run as a group for that matter, as myself and Simon have never ridden with Jim or Paul, for whatever reason. We saddle up and head off, its a cautious pace at first but still with intent. We're all settling in to the new group, and getting to grips with the roads in this area which are super smooth and grippy for the main, although one surface type feels like shiny granite and unnerving if hit unawares. We soon get to Bargemon, a tiny village typical of postcards and romantic movies, and as is always the case in the real world, its jammed with angry French motorists all trying to go about their business. Its easy to forget we're riding during a working day and people have things to do! We employ the cheeky but neccesary ploy of just pushing through the gaps as best we can, as the heat does the engines no favours when couped up like this. We break free and the roads start flowing again. Soon enough we're climbing and entering the military zones that frequent this area. Paul enjoys them for their views and the seemingly deserted roads they offer! After an all too short burst where we all get to let loose, we stop for a breather and a recap. Jim simply has to turn around and hit the last section again, much to our amusement. He's like a big child, and sees nothing wrong with doing something he enjoys all over again. Simon attempts to film his re-arrival but the fun is thwarted by a lone motorist who ruins his exit line to a fast corner. Jims grin is still apparent when he rolls up. The 'blade growls like a barely caged animal as he rolls up. Anyway, banter over, we saddle up and continue. The roads are more open than last nights Mons run and this suits us well, easier to get a flow going and less tiring. We stop for café at a roadside diner, a nice rest and welcome caffiene. Onwards and in what feels like no time at all we reach lunchbreak. We sit at the roadside, watching local life pass by, the food is typically decent, the town typically French.

The bikes sit in the sun behind us, not cooling down. A trick we still haven't mastered is the local habit of parking the bikes in shade where possible. Still, the bikes do look good with the rays bouncing off the various contours and colours, metallic orange, carbon fibre, deep yellow, solid black, 90s shell suit graphics cutting the atmosphere with attitude. The locals seem indifferent to these imposters on their lunch hour, but we appreciate them all the same, like horses waiting for their owners to return, they rest in the fenced off square..

Pictures are taken, talk of fuel springs up once again. Simons KTM is a thirsty beast and carries precious little fuel with it, despite its recent addition of bright green fuel canister. The two colours clash horribly but it lends the bike a charm all of its own nonetheless. A local supermarket provides us with more motion juice. We ride on, the day is proving to be most enjoyable for all, and we all find our own pace and what suits our respective steeds. We get home that evening, tired but impressed. The bikes are all excellent in their own ways, mine loves the sweeping roads as much as the tighter corners, Pauls just seems happy doing everything, Jim can handle whatever you throw at him, the bike just deals with the results in a similar manner. Simon hangs back, learning his new machine in his own way, revelling in the punchy Vee twin and its mental delivery. I barely have the opportunity the open the taps on mine, the low and midrange proving more than capable of delivering the pace and control I want for these roads.

We decide to stick on the road types we've come to love, and Paul suggests heading to Grasse, which I take literally sadly and hoof off into the distance on my own, revelling in the FZ1s ability to chew up fast sweepers and growl its way down straights, yet still attack hairpins without a twitch. Needless to say, I'm in my element and soon hit Grasse itself, on my own. I pass a sign which might be a route back but continue down to Grasse without thinking. I figure a stop to let the lads catch up might be the sensible thing to do. I stand on the wide hairpin, soaking up the noises and smells of the town. After what seems like more than enough time for the others to close up (I'm not that fast a rider after all!) and decide to double back and see what the problem is, hoping that they'll be waiting for me up the road. Almost immediately I pass Jim and the usual garbled waving ensues. I stop at the roundabout and wait for him. Paul then turns up on his own and informs me that Simon had to stop for fuel and we were too far ahead to be informed. Figures. We regroup and head down into Grasse once again.

 Its a busy place and not what any of us had wanted after such a day enjoying ourselves, still, Paul gets us through it and back to Feyance in good time. We roll up to the house, happy but tired.

The evening peace is broken by worrying news regarding Helen and Traceys' mother.  She has been suffering with cancer for some time and had fallen earlier that week although we thought she was doing ok. News was she was fading fast and while we knew this event was coming, we'd just hoped it would wait till after the riding holiday, in so much that it would mean everyone was where they should be when events like this unfold, with family. As it stood, Simon was a thousand miles from his family and Paul and Helen were similarly away from their mother. After a swift family meeting it was decided that Helen was taking the first available plane back to the UK. My memory of the details is hazy sadly, but we eventually get news that she's passed away before Helen or Tracey can get to her. Upsetting news. Paul has to drop his riding plans, instead taking Helen to the airport early the next day, so we figure its no use us getting in anyone's way and plan a rough itinerary for the next day. Paul gives us some hints on areas to head for, in between sorting his familys plans out. A solemn evening, despite our best attempts to carry on as normal.

Day Seven (Tues):

Moods are slightly tempered this morning and no one seems up for a ride,  so Paul suggests a day off and a walk. We saunter off down the dirt tracks that litter the area, and down to the local forest. Its a hot day so we're not exactly stomping along, a few kilometres covered and we get back and chill while Paul knocks yet another delicious meal up. In the evening Simon decides to face the elephant in the room and figure out what to do about his return for the funeral, should it get arranged for Friday rather than Monday as we'd hoped. Eventually news comes through that the funeral is in fact Friday. That's decided it then, and at least now we know. Paul and the boys have little option but to fly over, and it makes sense for Simon to go with them, leaving his bike in France and me with the prospect of riding back across France and Spain myself. A slightly daunting task for me I must admit but over the space of the afternoon I'm starting to look upon it as a challenge and almost relish the idea. Jim "slingshot" was due to leave in the morning to get back to his wife and kids for the weekend. It all seems cut n dried.

Day Eight (Weds):

Paul sees us off for our day wandering the hills without him. He's stopping home to keep an eye on the lads, Lief and Jake, and sort the details of getting back to the UK.
We head for familiar turf, Draguignan then north into the hills and gorges within Verdon Parc Nationale. The roads and scenery proving equally distracting up here so frequent photo ops and breathers are neccesary. We're all awestruck at the beauty this region reveals to us, and the creatures that reside here. We spy a lone eagle and stare in awe as it circles above us. Its soon apparent its not alone, there are a dozen or so, gently circulating the gorge we're climbing out of! Simon attempts to get footage while we jabber like schoolboys at this natural marvel. We're not used to seeing anything more exotic than pigeons and seagulls back in blighty, so this is a rare treat indeed.

Lunchtime beckons so we head back to Castellane as we know it has what we need, nourishment and fuel! Always with the fuel. This lunch proves to be slightly unique on this holiday however. We're enjoying our various salads and pasta meals, when thunder claps overhead. A few decent bangs too, so we know there's something serious in the air. The sky darkens, the air noticably cools and the winds get stronger. This one might not pass us by after all. Minutes later, the thunder gets stronger and the locals are getting chatty. We're soon rewarded with some serious rainfall which turns to hail! I'm more concerned with my poor bike getting battered but the tourists are all running about avoiding the soaking they're inevitably getting. We shuffle our table further under the cover of the café, although I'm still getting wet from the inadequate drainage. We order another round of coffees and sit back to let nature do its thing. Its an impressive display, turning a sunny day into a cold, noisy and wet one in the space of half an hour.

Once its over, we head out towards the lake Paul suggested, for its roads as much as its views. Not far out of Castelane the roads are dry again, and the fun soon picks up where it left off. A slight navigational misjudgment on Jims part sees us heading up a steep lane, with a few decent hairpins.. despite his error I can see there are some views to be had so we stop for more pictures. Again, we see the eagles cruising the area, I can only imagine what they see from up there but it looks like fun. We pick up the intended route again and soon find the lake. Its a deep, intense, blue and the views we are afforded are worth the long stop we have up there. Our tourist spec cameras cannot do this justice but we try anyway. Jim vaults onto the wall for a better shot, much to the shock of others.

After an aborted attempt at a food stop we decide to just hot foot it back to our residence, seeing as it was getting late already and we were still some 80kms from Feyance. Once we get our bearings the pace from myself and Jim seems to gather momentum, both of us letting the bikes breathe a little more than usual.. the roads are bigger and we're enjoying the freedom this gives. After a period I figure I should hang back and let the Simon close up, just in case he's short of juice again. Once we've grouped I settle down to a slightly more sensible cruising altitude for the remaining miles, slingshot has long since gone, he's a master of covering ground like that. We get back from another great day out playing, all tired but chatting away like schoolkids on an outing. This riding bikes lark is fun anyway, but down here its like having your very own playground, and even the locals don't seem to mind!

In Helens absence Paul has made us another superb curry type dish, we scoff it down, grateful as ever for their hospitality. Some local plonk goes down with alarming ease, and we start on a crate of 1664. Jake, the eldest son, is gleefully watching as the talk gets more and more stupid, filming segments of the nonsense on his phone, quietly observing the grown ups being silly. Paul has relaxed now, and starts pouring Southern Comfort out for all (sorry Helen!). A fresh litre bottle soon becomes half a litre, and the talk really is nonsense now. Its a good night, a daft night, a night I don't recall all that well (haven't seen Jakes' footage as yet!) and soon the bottle is empty.

Day Nine (Thurs):

I wake fairly early today, the thought of today being the beginning of the end of the trip no doubt, and the idea that I might be alone for the last few days. I'm incredibly lucid too, considering the intake the previous night/early morning.. even Simon is surprised to see me up and about so early, and able to speak. We mill around like zombies for a couple of hours, its a pathetic sight, much to Jakes amusement. Later I see Jim on the phone to his wife, he's been offered Simons' ferry ticket and figures its better for us both to travel back together rather than both firing off on our own the following day. Luckily for us his wife is brill and lets him off the hook for another few days. The Plan is formed, get the tickets swapped over to slingshot and we'll ride back the way I came over with Simon, camping in roughly the same spots as we know its do able without painfully long days. SImon is clearly bothered by having to break his holiday up and almost leave me to it, but things have worked out in the end, and we joke that we now have the chance to come back as his bike will need resucing at some point! We're still pondering the logistics of this event to this day, with a few options on the table. Tickets swapped, bikes packed, we decide its best to make a move before we lose anymore of the day. We've got a long and tedious Péage to cover today, as there's no clean way of getting round the south coast to Spain that wouldn't take several days! We saddle up and get moving, half excited to be on the move again, half depressed that the fun is almost over.. We head for Draguignan on the fun roads, just to get in the groove, but all too soon its the steady slog of the hot Péage. The hours and odd fuel stop pass us by and we're soon at Perpignan and peeling off onto the N roads that will take us to the Spanish border at Bourg Madame/Puigcerda. The N116 gently takes us up from the coastal plain and towards what appears to be the apocalypse hiding behind the mountains! Neither of us can hide our displeasure at natures wrath so we decide to abort the plan of getting across the border before camping, and after a little searching we find a nice little site just off the main drag near Prades. Its a simple site but the kindly owner speaks a little English (our French is shamefully poor) and sorts us out. She offers the special dish of the day to us, Paella, clever old bird can see we're too tired to care that its Euro15 and we agree readily. Be in the cafe area for 20:00hrs we're told. We're just pleased to find camp, not be getting rained on, and be offered food. I'd have eaten beans on toast if she'd offered it. As we're erecting the tents I hear a whump and whirl round to see the throbber (tm) on its side!? The stand has sunken into the soft earth and its flopped onto its side like a tired cow. A swift lunge from the pair of us has it righted and Jim inspects the damage with the air of a man les than bothered than I. A broken indicator seems to be the worst of it thankfully.

This is the beauty of a relatively cheap steed such as the Throbber (tm), its mechanically fettled but cosmetically well used, giving the air of nonchalence whilst still being capable of upsetting anyone that dares take it on. An idea thats not lost on Simon and I. Tents finally up, we're both feeling tired but in good spirits, we broke the back of the dull riding today and its all good from here on in again. A few beers while we wait for the Paella and watch the other familys' going about their business. I do my best to leer at the younger lady staff, clearly studenty types earning some summer spendies. Jim wouldn't do such a thing as he's a happily married man of course. The paella arrives eventually, and its better than could be expected, we're pleasantly surprised and scoff the lot while talking the usual bikey bollox. Even sitting in an average campsite such as this cannot alter the fact we're just happy to be able to let loose on our bikes, life can be good when you sit back and take stock. Its getting dark by now so a quick clean up, slingshot offers his compliments to the chef loitering outside with a fag hanging from his mouth (the chef that is, not slingshot, the only thing he smokes is brakes and white vans) and we retire, in readiness for some decent roads and more spectacular mountain views.

Day Ten (Fri):

Up fairly early again, to which I blame eagerness to get moving, and the early sunrises pervading my tent a lot easier than they do the blinds back home, It dawns on me that the apocalyptic weather we saw and heard over night has blown right past and all I see is blue skies, to much relief.
I dive in the camp site showers for a warm wake up call. Refreshed, I start packing the tent and gear together while slingshot sorts himself out. These cheap little tents (mine was £26 from Millets!) are proving to be more than adequate for our need, and we question ourselves for buying posh Vangos on the Bol trip still. Packed up we figure its easier to get breakfast on the road as its still early and now I'm kitted up I'd rather not stand around and wait for that blowtorch to grow any higher in the sky, its already warm at 8am. A gentle start and we're already into some lovely, smooth sweeping roads when I spot a petrol stop with a café attached, perfect I think and brake to swing in the furthest entrance. As I do so I spot slingshot has the same idea and is already cruising to a stop. Its a ramshackle little joint but there are some locals already enjoying their breakfast. A good sign. Two lots of coffee and a croissant consumed before slingshot decides to tape his wayward indicator up properly. Gaffa tape comes out, is liberally applied and we're good to go.

While all this is going on we've seen quite a few local bikers already making their way into the hills and for the border. Its going to be a good day by the looks of it. Onwards and quickly over the border, and once again I am slightly bemused at the ease of it all, what with being used to endless faff at airports back in the UK.. just riding clean across the "border" feels somewhat of a letdown in comparison. Still, onwards we go, along the valley floors, following the sinous N260 again as it guides us back towards those epic mountains and gorges. Slingshot is taking it all in as best he can, we're making fair progress without rushing ourselves.

A few short photo ops to capture what we can of this amazing area and the sheer scale of the place. A fuel stop reveals another small coffee stop, and some other Brit bikers doing likewise. The customary nods and waves done with we sit down for yet another glorious café and take in the view from this seemingly innocuous place. I nip off to "drop the kids off" and even the water closet has a huge (open) window looking out into the valley. Surely the best view I've ever had from a lav!

Another quick map recce and we're off again, the N260 guiding us home still, this time down the side of a valley, laying out sinous sweepers and hairpins between the villages. More photo ops see slingshot scampering up embankments on foot and with the help of the Throbber (tm). He's obviously keener to get the more elusive shots than I am, which is great as I'll just get a copy of his pics when we meet next!

We cruise through some more towns on the valley floor, just passing through, ships in the night, locals accustomed to seeing bikes barely acknowledge our passage. Each town has its own little heartbeat going on, locals sat around drinking coffee, workmen working as slowly as ever, kids milling about, small vans hurtle about delivering fresh goods. Soon the roads climb back out of the long valley and reveal ever tightening sweepers, which in turn squeeze down to hairpins. We catch small pockets of vehicles trapped behind lorries, which are duly despatched, as is the way with bikes of this nature. Passing a lorry in the blink of an eye is a strangely satisfying pastime, even encumbered with luggage as we are. The sudden bark of the 'blades Micron giving me the aural hint to be ready for my turn. I've not really had many reasons to open the FZ1 up on this trip, its got ample bottom end grunt to shove me and the tent along at a fair pace, and common sense makes me keep a reign on things as I have a lot of miles to cover and I'd like to get us both back in one piece, but that said, occasionally its nice to wind a gear up to pass clumps of cars or trucks, and by christ it responds very well when I do ask it to. The rather dull drone from my road legal Scorpion can gives way to an organic growl from the front mounted airbox and the bike leaps forward with an almost alarming pace. A man with less self control than I would find himself sans licence very quickly on this bike. We climb for some time, catching glimpses of the scenery, pace dropping off as we both crane to soak it up, trying to work out if its worth stopping for pics again... I'm starting to recognise towns and fuel stops now, such was the gentle pace and frequent fillups from our journey across a few days earlier. This brings a strange sense of relief, that we're on the right track and also the familiarity is reassurring.

We roll down towards Biesca, I nip past slingshot as I have a better idea of where Camp Gavin will be, and lo, its still there waiting for us. We check in, and get started on the tents for the last time on this trip. With it being a Friday we are surrounded by quite a few groups and families clearly having a weekend break, they don't do things by halves, often having six or more large tents in their own little enclaves, with seemingly hoardes of kids dashing about enjoying the freedom. Its a nice change to see some people after a fairly quiet day on te bikes but I'm quietly hoping they'll all sod off to bed soon. They don't of course, its Friday night and the parents are too concerned with sitting around talking... Still, its less annoying than the bugs that infest most trees in France. In fact I noticed with relief that this campsite seems devoid of the screechy insects, a rare treat. I'm getting used to sleeping on the feeble airbed and one season bag now too, the base layer pants and tee shirt are donned and I'm cosy as a whatever in there.

A thought has repeatedly cropped up in my mind, that is, despite this areas natural beauty, I'm still not warming to Spain as much as I have with France. I put it down to the numerous childhood family holidays to France, and my (marginally) better grasp of the language. I feel a little lost in Spain as I can't even rely on my poor GSCE level language skillz to get by, its all guesswork and
common sense based on similarity to French words...Its nothing I couldn't remedy with some effort of course, but I still think I'd rather brush up on conversational French before tackling Spanish. The people have been nothing but friendly throughout of course, its just a personal feeling that I'm sure would dissipate over time. Its still farking hot mind, something I can never adapt to it seems, and wearing leathers all day clearly isn't ideal..

Day Eleven (Sat):

Up at sparrows fart as usual, I dash down to the showers before they're swarming with kids, and blag the largest booth with its own sink. Its a small win but I'll take it all the same. Hot shower and a shave and I feel more human again. I enjoy being up early, watching the world wake up, feeling the heat build as the soon peaks over the horizon, I just wish I wasn't so tired when I managed to get up! Jim's up and about when I get back, so I watch camp while he washes his bits. The campsite is waking up now, folk shuffling around half dressed, the early birds heading for the freshest bread, the lazier ones heading for the café for a breakfast.
We clear the gear away again, I make sure I repack so that my tailpack has a change of clothes and my shoes so that I can whip that off and take it to the cabin with me, meaning just the tankbag to unclip once we get stowed. I'm not suffering for a day on a ferry with no light clothing again, its horrid. We saddle up and head to reception to sign out and pay the bill. That sorted I nip next door and grab us some coffees to get us started. Already its warm in the sun, I wish I didn't struggle with heat so much, it takes the edge off the enjoyment these countries bring. Coffee consumed its back on the road. I knew the roads got pretty straight and uninteresting from here on in, but kept quiet as best I could for Jims sake. The roads might be duller but the sights are still worth gawping at, we drift along huge valley floors just taking the spectacle in. Britain has some impressive scale when you go looking for it but we have nothing on mainland Spain. Vast valley plains with a lone road snaking across the centre, small villages come and go, we stop at one for lunch, a neat little cafebar serves us a club sandwich that must have had opposing polarities as I simply cannot keep it in one piece. I make a right mess. Still, yet more excellent coffee and pleasant chatter. We press on until we reach Lake Yesa.

The barren landscape cups this vast blue expanse, the water has a strange lumiscent hue to it, hopefully the pics will do it justice. There are some nice little twisties in this area too, very strange, the road doesn't avoid the occasional clump of earth and instead just wraps itself around it for a couple of miles, giving a welcome respite from the relative tedium of the riding so far. We decide to skirt past Pamplona after our previous exploits, and from there in we just hit the big roads and make for the coast. On one of the stops I'd fired up the TomTom to see what it reckoned the distance was and strangely it took us via Vitoria rather than straight up to San Sebastian, so when we I clocked the signs to Vitoria I naturally took the turning. I was pondering this decision as we cruised along, hoping the TomTom wasn't about to pull another fast one on me. I figure that I'll check for a sign for Bilbao or Vitoria to alleviate my concerns. What feels like miles later and there are NO signs. I am fretting now so decide to nip off for a map check to reassure myself. We stop at a petrol stop to check, and meet the strangest little man of the week, Jim repeatedly asks him if this route will take us to Bilbao and he looks at us like we're foreigners. Slingshot draws a simple map comprising of a crude boat, and the word BILBAO written underneath. Now he gets it and starts jabbering Bilbao, and pointing... Christ on a bike. We leave promptly, with a new vigour that we are on the right track and this is indeed the shortest route. Jim pulls into a rest area as we're approaching Bilbao itself, we've got plenty time and its too hot to be messing about on motorways. A double check of the ferry ticket suggests we head 2km past Bilbao town and should pick up the yellow FERRY signs thereafter, so it says. I let Jim continue as lead, figuring he's had more experience finding his way around foreign places as a truck driver. We drift past the town for what seems like miles (thats lots x 1.6 in foreign money) and eventually he spots a small sign and we drop down to a quiet area of the port, through a simple security gate and onto the expanse of concrete. There are two vehicles ahead but otherwise we're quickly through and parked in bay two.

After a quick recce of the "facilities" (a snack machine and some bogs, a long walk away) we strip down to shorts as we're two hours early and have little cover bar the adjacent lorries. It doesn't take long before more bikes start to arrive, and as with Portsmouth its mostly touring Beemers and Harleys, and even a couple of KTMs and a Multistrada. Again, we are on the least likely touring machines, which raises a wry smile. Jim is less courteous, he obviously feels its not worth the effort unless its hard work, as you won't appreciate it as much when you get there. I can see his point, I feel the past week or so has been quite some achievement for all of us. I'm starting to let home stress creep back in now sadly, house sale, work hassles, and that stint in the UK is preying on my mind. The forecast is 50/50 for dry weather according to the brief forecast I saw earlier but Simons texts tell me a different story. Ah well, it can't be avoided now. Soon, the ferry glides into view and folk start to loiter at the quay side to watch it drift into berth. I just want to get on board and relax now, the shower is calling my name and I'm hungry (no change there then). We watch the fresh holidayers and working truckers disembark our ship, amused by the huge variety of people that appear ahead of us. Expensive Range Rovers pulling jet ski trailers, humble family motors overloaded with camping gear, motorhomes of various qualities, Spanish trucks returning from delivering whatever it is they deliver, and woah, a McLaren race truck gets stopped by the Guardia Civil, although they just want pics of whats inside. How very clichéd of them, but I'm not complaining as I get to peer at the fresh MPC-14 thats nestled inside the trailer. It reminds me of the new dealership thats opened up near our office, I really should make an effort to check that out when I get back to work. That minor excitement soon abated and we were invited to fire the bikes up by one of the port guys, waving his hands as if we were the Liverpool Harmonic Orchestra and about to do his bidding. The sound of the multitude of bikes firing up raises a smile, you don't get that with most average cars of course. We file onto the wet ship ramps, and down into the bowels again, and get directed right into a tight bow area. Slingshot parks up near some eyelets, whips his tankbag off and strides purposefully away... I'm still faffing but sheepishly follow soon after, all the while wondering why we're not waiting for the deck hands so we can supervise their work. He's not bothered of course, a dismissive "They'll be alright" is all I get. He's right of course but you can't help think you still need to be there, after all, these machines have taken us across two countries without one complaint and here we are, abandoning them almost. We fight our way up to deck 9 and dump our stuff, the cleaners are still hurriedly running around in the cabins "no ready" shouted across for all to hear. We're ahead of the official announcement asking us to wait 45mins before going to the cabin it seems, as its now ringing out in muffled tones. I decide that I'm too OCD to leave my poor bike all alone like that and decide to have a quick look see, to calm my nerves. Its fine of course, and every one else is still milling about down there, so I figure I better get back to my wingman. Oh boy, that was a mistake. This ferry is an older, more complicated one than our outgoing model. In fact, its a bloody mess of of corridors and stair wells, some stairs only go up a few floors, some corridors have No Entry Staff Only plastered across, or cleaning banners locking them off.. I'm running around in leathers, sweating like a pig, and getting completely disoriented. I chance my arm down a corridor, through a door, and come face to face with a disgruntled crew member, who tries to tell me off for using Crew Only corridors. I express my displeasure at being kept from my cabin for an hour (these tickets ain't cheap!) and then at not being able to find my way back to my wingman who has all the gear! I think she got the gist of my argument just as I decided to ignore her and try another corridor. Somehow I find Jim again and begin the calm down process after a minor rant. He's nothing but highly amused of course. We sit tight with the gear until the cabins are ready, as another more helpful staffer is shouting out when cabins become available. We get access in good time and swap back into civvies. A quick recce of the cabin facilities and a gameplan is formed. Food and rest asap. A plan with no drawbacks.

After what can only be described as an ambitious attempt to get into the drivers lounge (free meal ticket innit) we slope off to find alternative nourishment, tails between our legs. Hell, it was amusing trying at least.. This ship isn't a patch on the Pont Agata, it feels smaller and more cramped, older generally, and the food options are limited at best. A restaurant you have to book for (on a fkin ferry?!) and two poor cafes, one situated on top deck and freezing cold! We grab some salads and crisps from the shop and sit down to chill. The next few hours are slow and samey, we talk about bikes, back home, jobs, mates.. the usual stuff. Later we notice the boat is starting to really pitch and roll, must be in the Bay of Biscay by now I presume out loud. The tannoy crackles into muffled life and informs us the captain has decided to slow the ship as the sea is due to get rough for quite some time and as a result we'll be two hours late arriving. Oh great, what was already a tight schedule in getting home on Sunday evening has no become a stressful one. We retire to the cabin to get some kip.Its been a while since I had to sleep whilst rolling about but somehow I manage to grab a few hours. Eventually it becomes almost therapeutic.

Day Twelve (Sun):

Morning breaks, the ships still bouncing around a bit but nothing to concern ourseleves with. The shower is a welcome surprise, being both hot and powerful, and refreshes us both nicely (seperately of course!). More wandering the decks, buying expensive prepacked foods, some MotoGP is caught for an hour... I remember that we've still got most of the day still to get through, and it seems like an age away, but we manage to talk bollox long enough that it passes unnoticed. A quick flick through the cameras brings some smiles back, the photos already reminding us of the superb week we've just had. Passports and valuables double checked and we get back into the bike gear, ready to get going. I decide to wing it without the waterproofs initially, figuring I can stop and throw them on once out of the hassles of port and customs. A quick queue jumping session out of the boat and we're soon through customs, just as it starts raining. Minutes back on UK soil and already its back to earth with a bump. I'm blindly following slingshot at this point, he seems to know his way round the place so I'm happy to tag along. He realises I risk a soaking and nips off the motorway before the rain gets too heavy. I struggle with the hateful waterproof overalls and gloves for the first time in ages. Ready to roll, Jim says he'll get us to the M40 and go his own way from there, I can navigate my way home from there anyway so its a sound plan. A one more petrol stop and we're off up the A34. Its raining quite badly, blowing a bloody gale and utterly pitch black thanks to zero road lighting. For an arterial route from a major port you'd think the government would at least see fit to put some bloody lights up eh? Anyway, at this point I'm still pondering the long night ahead, doing mileage sums in my head and generally trying to ignore the weather when I realise that Jim is making serious progress and dragging me along for the ride. I won't mention speeds but we're really shifting along considering the conditions, scything through the traffic, and I realise this is what its like for slingshot, this is how he gets places so easily, its a pace that comes naturally to him and the old throbber. I do my best to keep in touch, figuring it'll save me time and the sooner I get home the sooner this nightmare weather can be closed away for the night. We trounce on, settled in to the pace now, and before too long he's waving goodbye as he peels off the motorway. I take his hand signals to mean good bye anyway, and not "follow me you muppet" and give a quick light flash as he disappears out of the spray and into the night.

At this point I have a decision to make, do I cruise home and relax a little, knowing I'll be late back or do I crack on in a similar vein to slingshot and see what I can do about getting home in good time. While I'm pondering this dilemma I notice I'm having to gas the bike up to get through the multitude of truck bow waves ahead of me.. the speed is already creeping up and up, so I figure "what the hell" and wind it back up to a decent speed, hunker down to get comfy to reduce the wind drag on my suit. I like a challenge but this is hateful stuff, standing water, horrific side winds, monumental spray and dopey drivers all mixed together. I do my best to get past everyone quickly and efficiently, maintaining speed where possible. Another quick fuel stop, delayed by dithering idiots buying their weekly shop, at midnight on a Sunday (wtf?!), and we're back on the waterways. After what seems an eternity I'm coasting up the slip at Sandbach, hoping the spray and rain would die off, sadly its not to be. I'm quickly back up to speed, on roads I think I know, that is until I round a corner and see something I don't recognise, the road seems unduly flat and shiny up ahead. Oh, that'll be a full road width flood then, sheeet. Some judicious braking and my steed and I glide through the centre of Lake Sandbach, I can feel my boots getting the brunt of the bow wave, yet they still don't give in. Impressive under the circumstances. A few more careful fords later and we're into Congleton, its quiet but at least has street lights. The last few miles home are forgettable but I'm desperately trying to stay alert, the thought of coming off now is strong in my mind. I'm home for 1:05am Monday morning. We left Portsmouth 9:30pm roughly. I'm strangely impressed with myself. After throwing the bike in the garage and disrobing I'm sitting in the lounge trying to calm down. A text comes in from slingshot, he's home too, and expresses his feelings on the weather. As amusing as ever that man. I slide into my crisp, cold bed and relax. The end of a fantastic road trip, with great company, brilliant bikes, and two incredible countries. Would I do it again? Probably, but not for a few weeks at least, I need a good rest!

Massive thanks to Simon for the idea and motivation for these trips, Paul, Helen and the kids for putting up with three potty mouthed bikers for so long, Jim "slingshot" Billson for coming over to meet us after our brief meeting three years ago, and to Spain and France for letting us back in again!


ps: As a parting gift, we spotted this town local to the base camp, and couldn't resist the obvious...

1 comment:

  1. Look like a great trip. We stayed at Gavin in 2010. A great site. I agree about Spain. Much prefer France.
    South Cheshire MC
    (Michael Inman is an alias to contact the press as my job forbids me publishing in my own name. Say it fast... Michelin Man lol)