VUK 2016

You meet the nicest people on a Honda…

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It may be a line from an old Honda advert, but this weekend at least, it was true.

Step in the UK Varadero forum having a get-together in North Yorkshire. I’ve been a member on the forum for a few years – mainly for the occasional question on how to solve this or that problem with the bike – as I suspect is the same reason many people join the forum.

However, when the ‘VUK2016’ date was announced, and it happened to coincide with a free weekend – well, it would be great to put some faces to the forum names!

It quickly became apparent though that we would be the newbies – everyone else having already been on some mega trips with each other – so you might expect that we could easily have felt like intruders on a bunch of friends – but quite the opposite – they really couldn’t have been more welcoming! They made lots of effort to make sure we weren’t left out of anything. So, yes, you do meet the nicest people on a Honda!

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Sharon and I took the Friday afternoon off work and after a quick lunch and last minute packing we set of for Hardraw in North Yorkshire. Maybe one day I’ll try a different route to the south west, but the A7 is hard to beat, and popping onto the M9 and Carlisle it’s only 20 miles to Penrith and we’re off the motorway onto the (packed!) A66. Not much fun there either, but we were soon at Brough and able to leave the traffic behind and head through Kirkby Stephen, Nateby and down to the Moor’s Inn on the A684, then just a short ride to Hardraw and the Green Dragon.

On arrival we were directed to take the bike straight through to the car park, then a few quick intro’s before we got inside to check in and get our room key. The minor matter of getting all the luggage and bits and pieces off the bike, unpack, quick change, and straight back to the pub for much needed beer – was it really only Friday still? My mind rebelled and kept telling me Friday was Saturday, and Saturday was Sunday!!

We were introduced to everyone as and when they turned up. My wonderful inability to remember names was not going to help… so I’m doing quite well to remember a few…

Jess & Tess, Stewart (Boss of the forum, and Mister Baker to you!), Spence, Gareth (the very Welsh farmer), Big Dave and, er, Mrs Big Dave, Erik & Anne (from Oslo!) , Keith, Martyn and…. Ok, so apologies to the numerous rest who’s names I’ve already managed to forget!!!

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I reckon overall we did fairly well to manage to toddle off to bed at a sensible time without drinking too much – certainly the huge bed was very comfy and we both slept very soundly indeed, in fact we woke later than expected and were probably among the last to make it to breakfast. No worries though as the ride out wasn’t due to leave until around 9:30 and in fact we were ready in loads of time and then hung around waiting on another couple, Harv & Mrs Harv to arrive – and as soon as they did, we were on our way.

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The original plan had been a tour of the high passes in the Lake District, but the weather forecast wasn’t looking so great to the west, so Big Dave and Spence hatched a plan for a more southerly route. I hadn’t a clue where we were going, so the following image is, er, borrowed from Jess & Tess’ excellent write up of the weekend here – www.camulos.com/motor/vuk2016.htm

VUK GPS Route map

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We had a couple of stops for comfort breaks and some scran, and although I think I’d have preferred a few less single track sheep-poo covered roads, it was largely free of traffic, and as they were operating the drop off system, there was no pressure to keep the rider in front in view – you knew there’d be a rider waiting at the next junction to direct you the right way.

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I’ve put together a 20 min vid of the run here – apologies for the rubbish sound – the camera’s external mic is rubbish, and it works far better with a proper mic plugged in, but mine broke just before the trip, so the best I can do is edit the sound levels down in the vid as the wind noise is pretty awful.

We had a great turnout (19 bikes in total(?) 12 Varas, a crosstourer, a blackbird, a Triumph and a few others) and everyone got back safely, despite a rather frustrating time behind a caravan on a single track road… twice.. the same blasted selfish ignorant effing caravan….. just how many miles of tailbacks do you need to cause before you’re willing to pull over and let the 30 or so bikes, cars and trucks get by??

Back at the Green Dragon we did a quick change, and as we expected rain the following day, we decided now was the best chance to visit the falls – it’s a fairly short walk from the hotel, and even with relatively little water in the river system at the moment, it’s still an impressive site.

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The Saturday evening was possibly a little less buoyant than the Friday – understandable I reckon as it’s always exciting the first night meeting old friends and new folk, by the second night that excitement has worn off a bit and there’s maybe fatigue from the day’s riding – although thankfully no recriminations!

Despite waking up to rain on the Sunday morning we were very lucky to enjoy only a couple of trivial showers on the ride home, and enjoyed sun for the majority of it. Judging by some of the damp roads we somehow managed to just miss many of the showers – blind luck rather than careful judgement! We stopped at the Whitshiels Inn for lunch – they did warn us it was busy and food would take a while, but just over an hour and a half for lunch was pretty slow – mind you, the food is fab, and the sun was still shining – oh, and they have a live camera feed from a hen harrier’s nest so we could watch the chicks being fed, which rather helped pass the time.

Getting home mid-afternoon gave us plenty of time to unpack, relax, make amends with Ella, Sharon’s cat who’d been home alone, and get ready to head back to work on Monday.

Thank you to each and every one who was there – thank you for welcoming us – thank you for looking after us – and thank you for always making us feel welcome and included in everything – we WILL be seeing you at a future meeting!

Oh, and thank you also for the Varadero Mug we were presented with as newbies!

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The next 12-18 months will be entertaining with house move(s) and a wedding to sort out, so VIM 2017 in Sweden is looking rather unlikely, but another VUK meet could be a very real possibility.

Ireland, October 2015

Ireland – land of Guinness and Leprachauns? Yes, and, well, I’m not superstitious!

Home of the Dunlop motorbike road racing dynasty? Absolutely.

AirBnB – Bed and breakfast without the breakfast? Not this time.
Accommodation on the cheap? Nope, well, certainly good value, but definitely didn’t feel cheap!
Luxury? Yep, well, certainly felt like it!

Going to Ireland in October is a bit of a gamble weather wise, but we were lucky and got pretty damned good weather. Not exactly toasty, but largely dry, and to be honest that’s probably the best you can expect.

The ferries – Stenna vs P&O

Thanks to differing sailing times, and the fact that neither Stenna nor P&O seem to offer any discount on a return trip, we sailed to Ireland with Stenna and back from Ireland with P&O.

Bike friendly? – both were very friendly at check in and security and guided us to the head of the queue for boarding. On board the ties down positions were spookily similar, Stenna’s tie down straps were thinner than the ones used by P&O, but the P&O guy was a bit over zealous with the ratchet and really crushed the seat down, the Stenna staff did a more careful job. Stenna wins that one.

Onboard comfort – Stenna ferry was bigger, so the forward lounge had more space. The only down side being a lot of the seating was against the forward windows, so you would be sitting with your back to the window – P&O on the other hand have lots of tables and chairs at the front windows – this is important to any traveller who tends to suffer from motion sickness – a clear view to the horizon can really help stave off the onset or severity of the motion sickness. That said, comfort and space wise, Stenna was better, so overall I’d call that a draw.

Onboard food – We thought Stenna was a little on the dear side, but after sailing back on P&O we discovered that Stenna was around 25% cheaper on board for meals than P&O, so Stenna wins again.

Cost wise there wasn’t really much to choose between them, we only went with the different operators to get sailing times that suited us.

Overall then, Stenna wins the ferry battle.

The plan – 5 days, 4 nights.

Day 1 – Ferry from Cairnryan to Belfast (would have gone from Troon, but that service ends at the end of September), head north around the Antrim coast, pop into southern Ireland via Derry into Donegal, staying near Letterkenny.

Day 2 – take the coast road around the westerly bulge, part of the wild atlantic way, Glenveigh national park, and finish up in Ballbofey.

Day 3 – head a little east and south, take in ? and Enniskillen, crossing back through Northern Ireland even though we’re heading south.. stay near Drumsna.

Day 4 – head further east and come North, visit NewGrange, a 5,000 year old burial site, finish up near Carilngford

Day 5 – north up to Larne, ferry to Cairnryan and head home.

Originally I had thought we’d try and do the entire Irish coast – but that would have been way too long – we could have managed it, but it would mean long, long days in the saddle and not many opportunities to stop and smell the flowers. So I worked out some shorter routes, and we’re keeping the rest of the south of Ireland for another trip.

day 1

Antrim is very pretty, lovely coast road with enough twisties to keep me happy. Heading west there’s a handy car park a mile or so before the Carrick-a-rede rope bridge that affords a nice view of the bridge.

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Along to Giant’s Causeway I sneaked the bike into the Hotel carpark and off we wandered, skipped by the visitor centre, down the road and grabbed a few photos on the causeway before the sun dipped below the horizon.

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It was getting dark by the time we walked back up to the bike, and here it’s worth noting that my preferred route mapping method (written instructions, held on my tank bag so I can glance down and see them) work great in daytime, but it’s pretty useless after dark! Time then to dig the satnav out and let it take us to the accommodation in the dark.

We stopped in for fuel near Derry and grabbed some food and wine for dinner, squeezing the various bits and pieces into any and all available spaces in the panniers.

That first night we stayed in a cottage – someone’s house – Maria – only Maria wasn’t there, she was away on holiday, but she did have a house sitter – who was away to a concert! So we recovered the house key from the prearranged spot, let ourselves in, had dinner, stayed over, had breakfast, tidied up, locked up and headed off. To be entrusted with someone’s house, someone we’d never even met, is a huge privilege and honour, and no way would we leave the place in a mess. Sharon was in her element, running around feeding all the cats, talking to the cows in the field next door, and a random friendly spaniel that appeared.

The wild atlantic way around Donegal is very pretty indeed, the landscape varies more than I’d have expected, but also has a seen a huge amount of housing development – I don’t mean big housing estates, just lots, and lots, and LOTS of big detached houses, and it felt like they were everywhere! It’s a damned shame in my view, it’s like there’s not really any beginning or end to some villages, they just run one into the other, and never enough density of housing to suggest a village centre… it’s weird…. Do bear in mind though that this is just my impression after over 100 miles of road – it’s not ALL houses, there are a few bits devoid of them… not many though…

day 2

We took a couple of detours off the main road, one into Glenveigh National park – very pretty

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Sharon spotted a ruined church, down a road signposted as the ‘Poisoned Glen’ – Google maps says it’s Dunlewey – The Lonely Planet explains how it got it’s name :

Legend has it that the huge ice-carved hollow of the Poisoned Glen got its sinister name when the ancient one-eyed giant king of Tory, Balor, was killed here by his exiled grandson, Lughaidh, whereupon the poison from his eye split the rock and poisoned the glen. The less interesting truth, however, lies in a cartographic gaffe. Locals were inspired to name it An Gleann Neamhe (The Heavenly Glen), but when an English cartographer mapped the area, he carelessly marked it An Gleann Neimhe – The Poisoned Glen.

We rode down and parked up outside the ruined church – built around 1830 and includes a lot of local white marble

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The next (random!) detour took us off to the west of the main road – we found ourselves at Donegal Airport!

We came inland for the Friday night, to Ballybofey – the planned dinner stop – a hotel/restaurant at the junction of the road we had to take wasn’t there – which didn’t help as that also meant I missed the road and had to find a place to get turned. With no other food options nearby we road on past our accommodation and on into the town centre. Riding slowly through town in the dark and rain looking for a place to have dinner we were filled with indecision – never good to be indecisive on a bike… happily the slow speed of the traffic let us ride slowly and look for options. After turning in a handy carpark we came back through town again and I found a handy place to park the bike up a few metres away from a Chinese restaurant I’d spotted.

I’m always nervous leaving the bike parked in roadside parking areas – worried a reversing car might hit it….

The restaurant was quiet – hmmmm – thank god it got busy! I don’t trust a quiet restaurant in a town centre on a Friday night!!

Suitably stuffed we returned to the thankfully unscathed bike and as we were getting the kit on some moron in a big 4×4 almost reversed into me, standing beside the bike – only shouting and a slap on the car from Sharon stopped the car going further – the driver made a one word apology and drove off – OK, it was dark, and wet, but I’m 6’6” for christ sake – how the hell didn’t he see me, right behind him? I despair!

Our host that night was Bernard, in his lovely house. The AirBnB reviews hinted that Bernard could talk the hind legs off a donkey – they weren’t far wrong – and that’s not a complaint! After settling into our room we nipped back downstairs to ask if we could make a cuppa, well, that was us chatting away happily with Bernard until it was time to call it a night – entertainment at its best and not a drop of alcohol in sight.

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The Saturday run took us south, and thanks to the odd and seemingly random border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, we left Ireland, into Northern Ireland, and then back into Ireland, all while heading south. Just seems odd to me. The only thing to give it away was the different roadsigns – apart from miles vs kilometres on the signs, the style is different too, and the system not quite as helpful…. For example in the UK it’s normal to have an advance sign for a junction, followed by a finger sign at the junction itself, but not in Euro land, there all you got was the sign AT the junction, not so handy as you rocket past it… The road signs seem to assume everyone knows where they’re going and just need the odd reminder….

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The route took less time than I’d planned so we made a detour up around Lough Allen and stopped in at the canal lock in Drumshanbo for a gander and to use the facilities. The road up out of the carpark was steep – with pillion and full luggage it was interesting having to stop at the top of the exit – the front of the bike was so light! Not much traction on the front until we were actually on the road and able to turn – that was one wide turn!

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Our host for that night, Cat, wasn’t at the house when we arrived. Thankfully it wasn’t raining. We were wondering what to try after texts and calls gave no joy when a car pulled in, only this turned out to be the other guests for that night. Two lovely girls from Alaska, one rather painfully shy. Turns out this was their 2nd visit to the house that day in an attempt to get in…. they’d turned up an hour earlier to find no-one at home, gone for a drive, and come back an hour later to find us there, and still no sign of Cat.

We chatted to them for maybe a quarter of an hour and then Cat turned up, looking suitably harassed and highly apologetic. Running a household with 4 young kids is hectic and clearly she was being kept more than busy with this lot! We got settled into the biggest bedroom I’ve ever seen. It had two double beds and a big en-suite, yet still had so much space it made the beds look small. Outside the bedroom, on the upstairs landing (huge!) was comfy seating, tea and coffee facilities, biscuits etc. With the kids clearly still very active downstairs we settled onto the bed with our books, and after a while we were both so drowsy we gave up and went to sleep – it was only 9:30! I guess we needed the sleep, we were out like lights. We had to apologise to Cat the following morning – as we sat eating breakfast in her massive kitchen. I believe in taking people as you find them, and Cat was lovely, if a little harassed by her brood of hyperactive children!

day 4

Sunday was our last day, a bit of motorway like road had me bored pretty quickly so I looked for an alternative route that would keep us off the main roads. That was a definite improvement. We stopped in at the Newgrange site – leaving the lids and tank bag at the visitor centre we got the bus up to the Newgrange site – remarkable to consider it pre-dates Stonehenge by one thousand years, and the great pyramids by five hundred years! Although the external walls have had to be rebuilt, inside the site is amazing – 5,000 years old and still watertight!! We had the warmest weather of the trip here – should have brought the water bottles off the bike along with us. We were parched by the time we got back to the bike.

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More back roads, a few probable wrong turns, but what the hey, we were going in the right direction, and soon we were in Carnlough on the east coast. We found a good spot to park the bike in the street and got dinner in a pub. After dinner I was very glad to be leaving the town – noisy, although, to be fair, I think the rugby was on and Ireland were playing!

Since it was now dark, the satnav was again pressed into service and we found our way to our final night’s accommodation. Turning into the driveway I wondered if there was some mistake… the grounds were so big, the house so big, I wondered if it was a private school… Pulling up beside the house we could see someone sitting in the kitchen, who turned out to be a friend of the host, Eve, who’d been called away at short notice. After a brief tour of the huge house, we were handed the keys and left on our own once more, in someone else’s house! We sat in one of the lounges, wondering at the space, the furnishings, the potential view… it was pitch dark…

The morning revealed the true grandeur of the house and its location – just stunning. They had three living rooms… The kitchen had a full size Aga, plus a ‘normal’ cooker beside it – and the kitchen was so vast the cooker didn’t look all that big!

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Views from the house were amazing, up to the hills. Just gorgeous. What treat to stay here – and what a privilege to be trusted with the care of such an amazing house!

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Monday was simply a case of get to the ferry, and get home. The only nice road was from Carnlough up to the motorway, and then just a zoom to Larne. We diverted off the main road at Larne to find a petrol station before going to the ferry as we had loads of time. The weather was cooler today, windy, and the odd sharp shower. Happily the showers stayed away while we waited to board the ferry, but Sharon had to don her helmet long before then just to keep the chill off her neck and ears.

We’d planned to get lunch on board the ferry – but the prices were crazy, so we settled for some sarnies and crisps. That was fine really as although I wasn’t actually feeling sea sick, the feeling was always there that it wasn’t far away… I’m not great company on a ferry, I go quiet and pretty much just stare out the window. It’s just my way of avoiding/coping with motion sickness. Happily, although it was a little rough, it really didn’t amount to much movement on the ferry and I was fine.

Going back down to the bike it felt very odd that we were the only bike on the ferry – I’ve not taken the bike on many ferry crossings – this one was only my sixth – but this was the first where I was the only bike… something nice about the camaraderie of other bikes around you. Oh well.

Getting off the ferry and heading north up the A77 the weather stayed pretty dry and I could have a bit of a play in the corners, and nipping past traffic from the ferry. Once we reached Ayr and the start of the dual carriageway, that was the end of the fun, and it was just a case of stick to the limits and get home. Boring, but necessary.

The road system in Ireland is broadly equivalent to the UK – M is motorway, N is an A road, R is a B road, but the signs aren’t the best.

Some of the N roads are pretty major – no fun on a motorbike. There’s an interesting system on some of the N roads – it’ll be wide, still one lane in each direction, but each lane has a kind of hard shoulder on the nearside, lined off by a broken orange line – sometimes vehicles joining the road turn into the road and use that ‘hard shoulder’ as an acceleration lane before merging in – sometimes joggers are using it…. sometimes a slower vehicle will move left, into that area, to allow a faster vehicle to go by without it having to encroach into the oncoming lane..

So, Ireland – not always the best roads, but good, and a beautiful place, wonderful people – a fantastic destination for a holiday. The recession hit Ireland very hard, and there are signs of that here and there. House prices are still very depressed, because there’s still precious little employment outside the cities – every so often you see part finished buildings – big grand houses that are unfinished and now going to ruin – presumably started in the good times and abandoned after the recession hit and the money ran out. Sobering. But the spirit of Ireland feels like it’s still very much there.

Rua Reidh

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The one thing about planning trips in Scotland is that you simply can’t rely on the weather. That’s not a moan, it’s just a fact of life. For a weekend that involves mainly outdoor activities this means you need the right clothing, or it’s highly likely to be a miserable experience…

Back in Feb/March this year I stumbled across Rua Reidh lighthouse – I can’t now remember how or why – but it’s a B&B in a lighthouse on a very remote peninsula near Gairloch – lighthouse / remote – what’s not to love about that? Looking at their booking page the first weekend they had space and I was free was the end of August – ah well, nothing like planning ahead.

With the stay booked and paid for it then slipped out of mind, but by early August we were starting to look forward to it. The preceding weekend was very warm and sunny – not good, since at this time of year two weekends in a row of good weather isn’t terribly likely. Tough.

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Location wise, the lighthouse is 12 miles away from Gairloch, the nearest resource for fuel, food, drink etc, along a single track road. We’d take a full day to ride up on the motorbike, taking the scenic route of course. A full day at the lighthouse to go walking, and another full day for the (scenic) ride home. Now ‘go walking’ in the far northwest of Scotland does NOT involve nice paths, it means heather, peat bogs, midges, sodden wet ground that will suck you in up to the knees… in short, you need decent walking gear. Now for the next conundrum – how to get all that on the motorbike?

Packing…. My hard panniers are pretty good – well, they’re tough and they’re watertight. They’re not big though. At 35 litre capacity they’re about the capacity of a moderate size rucksack. My ‘normal’ backpack for walking is 50 litres. Because the panniers are hard there’s no room for expansion… So we each had one 35 litre space in which to cram walking boots, gaiters, waterproof jacket, waterproof trousers, clothes, underwear, toiletries etc. Packing is an art, and we succeeded, I even managed to cram in my kindle, binoculars and another pair of shoes – so I had something other than filthy walking boots or big motorbike boots to walk around the B&B in, and a priority – wine – one bottle in each pannier. Well, got to have the priorities sorted, don’t you?

Finally the weekend arrived and with the bike checked over and loaded up we set off. The route up took us through Glen Devon, past Loch Earn, Tyndrum, Glencoe, Fort William, Loch Cluanie, Achnasheen, Kinlochewe and Gairloch. Around a 271 mile run, and on some of my favourite roads.

The first planned coffee stop was at the Tullybannocher café just outside Comrie, but we decided we didn’t want or need to stop, so pressed on through Tyndrum and Glencoe to reach Glencoe Village where we planned to stop for lunch. As we approached Glencoe valley from the south we could see the clouds ahead, but up to then we’d only had the odd short shower, so I guess we’d hoped for the same… err, no. It tipped down all the way through Glencoe and continued to rain as we reached Glencoe village. Our planned lunch stop had been invaded by a coach load of tourists (bloody Rabbie’s tours..). We jumped back on the bike in the rain and sought another café. After a couple of false starts we found an alternative café and Sharon went to investigate while I got the bike parked – place was full – seems that wet weather is a café owner’s dream – oh well, nowt to do but push on to Fort William for both fuel and food.

Fuel was easy enough, but stepping/dripping into MacDonalds the queue was long and didn’t shift while we waited, and looking round there were no free tables, so leaving the bike in the MacD’s car park we walked/splashed over to the Morrisons supermarket to see if it had a restaurant – it did, and there were free tables – great! We ordered and paid for lunch, sat down and waited. And waited. I wandered off for some shaving oil, came back, still no lunch. Hmm. It eventually arrived – stingy would be a good description of the portion size. While we sat there the rain stopped and everything outside started to dry up. By the time we’d eaten and got back to the bike the rain was back on. Dammit.

We were accosted in the car park by my pal Bruce – he was on his way back from a wee visit to Thunder in the Glenn by Aviemore – not much time to chat as it was peeing down and we were all kitted and champing at the bit to get going, we’d lost a lot of time both in Glencoe and here in Fort William.

Back on the road we passed almost right underneath a Sea King style helicopter descending low into a field right beside the road – practising something I guess as the road was clear.

Further on up the road, not too far short of the Cluanie Inn we were overtaken by a hero/statistic in waiting on a sports bike. He nipped by us, and decided against all common sense to also go by the car in front of me. Bad idea considering it was a blind corner. Sure enough an oncoming car hoved into view and the hero/statistic in waiting was forced to squeeze between the two vehicles, causing both to swerve to avoid taking him out. Well, how long before he becomes another statistic, and another nail in the coffin for the freedom that bikers enjoy?

Extremely wary of his pals following on, I signalled for turning off into the car park at the Cluanie Inn and gave my rear obs far more attention than would normally be required to ensure we weren’t taken out by the hero’s pals behind us trying to overtake as we turned into the carpark. I’d happily see these fools grounded – they give us a bad name.

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After a refreshing drink we set off again, and apart from a quick stop to answer the call of nature (queue conversation of “wow, that’s an impressive stream” – “shurrup, you’re not supposed to be watching!”) the next stop was for a fuel top up in Kinlochewe. Now as it turns out, this wasn’t necessary. Annoyingly, I had googled “nearest Fuel Gairloch”, and google said Kinlochewe and Ullapool were the nearest, totally ignoring that there IS a petrol station in Gairloch. Very odd.

Kinlochewe to Gairloch is only 20 miles or so, and the plan had been to get a fish supper from the Beachcomber chippy in Gairloch. Only slight issue was that it’s now shut ‘until further notice’ – that’s not much use on a cold and windy August evening. Oh well, a very short distance away is the Fish Box Bar, on the side of the Millcroft Hotel – we headed over there and grabbed a table. Food wasn’t served until 6pm and it was 5:52pm… not a problem – Sharon takes at least 10 minutes to decide over a menu anyway. Two meals, a coffee and a soft drink came to £22 – very reasonable we thought.

Fed and watered it was time to tackle the 12 miles of single track to the lighthouse. It was raining – again – and the low speeds required for single track with blind bends and blind rises didn’t help with visor steaming issues, even with a pinlock fitted. What I thought were unmarked speed bumps turned out to be drainage culverts that had been put in leaving a bump in the tarmac. The bridges got smaller and smaller, and several of them are wooden – slippery in the rain for a bike.

Our hosts had been clear that 12 miles of single track was not to be sneered at, or underestimated, and said to expect it to take around 40 minutes, 25 minutes was closer to the mark for us, but then it was late on and there was no traffic on the road to slow us.

Roger came out to greet us and stood patiently as we unloaded the gear from the bike in the rain, and never moaned once about us coming dripping wet into the conservatory – in hindsight, dripping wet guests must be rather common there – the heated drying room with a dehumidifier is testament to the rather damp nature of that part of the world.

Roger sorted all our wet gear in the drying room and Tracy showed us to our room – a gorgeous huge double room. With the big thick walls, built to withstand anything the atlantic could throw at it, and good double glazing, the room was very quiet indeed, despite that rather windy and foul weather outside.

After unpacking and changing we took one of our bottles of wine and went back to the conservatory where we sat and chatted with Roger and Tracy, the owners, and another couple Chris and Jane who were staying there with their two dogs (here I confess I only recall the name of one dog, the rather lively Poppy, who had her name shouted rather a lot, and her older companion was so well behaved and barely ever mentioned, so the name never stuck).

Tracy and Roger are a fascinating couple. Not many people could handle the isolation of their lighthouse, and they live there all year round. We may moan about missing deliveries, but at least the delivery driver is willing to drive to your door – that’s not always the case here, instead Roger and Tracy may have to drive to the nearest point the driver will go to – Melvaig – and take delivery there, then drive/trailer the goods back themselves – pressing friends for help if it’s a larger item. OK, so you don’t get big deliveries every day, or every week, but you do get your rubbish collected don’t you? Not here, they have to drive it to Melvaig, the bin lorry won’t come to the lighthouse.

Water is a talking point – no mains water here, instead it is fresh water from the hillside – suitably filtered and UV treated – it’s absolutely safe to drink, very soft, so if you come from a hard water area you’re going to love this water –the only caveat being the colour – it’s all natural, filtered by peat on the hill, giving the water a brown tinge. Depending on the time of year that brown tinge can get quite dark. Some guests apparently find it disconcerting – some don’t actually believe it’s safe to drink – well, we loved it – proper fresh water, no chemicals – and once you get used to this, Roger assures us that ‘normal’ water tastes like the swimming pool! It does have a comic element though – when you step in the shower and see the brown water gathering at your feet and think “wow, was I that dirty?” – nope, just the water – and the effect in the toilet is brilliant – definitely looks like the last person had distinct gut issues and didn’t flush…. But this is what water SHOULD be – natural! Personally I couldn’t get enough of it.

After a decently early night and a lovely sleep in the big comfy bed we were all set up for the Sunday and a walk into the wilderness. Roger and Tracy have laminated maps with a circular route that you can borrow, but here I must add a bit of advice if you decide to tackle the full route – take an OS map, and a compass, and KNOW HOW TO USE IT.

Going around the headland was fine – it is all sheep tracks though, so just a case of keep looking and picking the best route for where you want to go. The route takes you to the cliffs above the nearest beach – a few km across relatively difficult ‘paths’ – not to be sneered at, and if you then climb down to the beach, back up again, and walk back along the headland to the lighthouse you will have done a decent walk.

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Camas Mor beach

Instead we decided to head inland, along the valley, although first we made use of the bothy to have our lunch away from the wind and the midges. Here Sharon made use of my first aid kit to tape a big plaster over a blister that was developing on her foot – her boots looked the part, but they weren’t up to the demands of the wild, and that meant wet feet and blisters.

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Loch Nan Eun

Walking up the valley on what presumably would have at one point been a cart track used by the inhabitants of the now ruined crofts the going only gets marginally easier – it’s very broken and muddy in most places. Eventually you reach the start of a wood. Here you leave the track and climb up the side of Maol Breac. The going is tough, there are no paths, no sheep tracks, and it’s hard work.

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The idea is once you reach the main ‘false summit’ and are almost at the top of the hill you locate the radio masts and walk to them, so you can descend the other side of the hill on the service road, otherwise it’s a long, long walk over very difficult, boggy ground.

Finding the masts will be very very easy in good weather, but when we reached the top of the hill, visibility was around 50 yards, and we probably had around a km of boggy ground to negotiate – think one wrong step and you’re up to your knees in water and mud. Happily for me I spent many summers in my formative years being dragged up every hill my parents could park their caravan near. I learnt many fundamentals of navigation from my Dad, for whom hillwalking was a passion, whatever the weather.

With the map and the compass initially I was lacking the critical element of the puzzle of ‘here’ in the “how do I get from here to there” puzzle – I had a broad idea, but not a definite. We soldiered on a bit and out of the mist loomed a small loch. Awesome, given the relative location of the wood below, and the bearing we’d walked up on, I was 99% sure which blue splodge on the map we were at. I set a new bearing and we set of on that. Of course it’s impossible to walk a straight line across a bog. You skirt around this and that, climb up and down peat banks – Hardly text book navigation, but decide on an identifiable ‘thing’ to aim at, get there, then find another ‘thing’ on your bearing, and so on.

Eventually through the mist we caught sight of another little loch – this confirmed where we were (not that Sharon actually believed me when I said that) – and a subtle adjustment to the bearing was made, ensuring that we’d be aiming ever so slightly west of the target as that meant if we did miss the masts, we would intersect with the service road. To miss to the east would have meant a long walk eventually descending back down to the headland.

At this point, totally inexperienced in such adventures, tired, sore, wet, and genuinely worried we were lost, poor Sharon was not confident. Really not confident. Have faith said I. Judging by her face, faith was not readily forthcoming.

In reality we probably crossed around a km of boggy ground, but it probably seemed endless to Sharon. Constantly surrounded by impenetrable mist, and sinking if you stood in the same place too long. Think Lord of the Rings and the swamps/bogs of the dead marshes that the hobbits had to negotiate, and you maybe get an idea of how uncomfortable, lost and un-navigable it all felt to Sharon.

As the first (and west most) mast finally crept into view I was relieved, but not as relieved as Sharon was. As we stepped onto the service road she was quite literally dancing for joy!

The rest of the walk back was of course easy in every sense other than our feet – tired and abused from the walk so far, now the tarmac felt unreasonably hard. Spirits were, understandably, much, much higher – on the interminable bog Sharon had been tight lipped and pensive, I was quiet and concentrating, but I knew lots of placating words would have a diminishing and then negative effect. I well remember my own growing anger with my Dad, annoyed at being tired and being asked to walk further on an uncertain route, furious that it might be a waste of time and precious energy. Words are useless in the face of such worries. Results speak volumes though, so I shut up and got on with it.

As we descended the weather cleared – well, of course it would! When we eventually got back to the lighthouse we were knackered, I think Sharon was even more tired than me.

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After showers and clean clothes we went to the wildlife hide they have, which also has a display with a history of the lighthouse. Sitting in the ‘hide’ which is actually one of the lighthouse outbuildings, you have a broad view over the cliffs to the sea, and on the wall is a white board with dates of sightings – sea eagles, sea otters, minke whales, porpoises of all sorts – all are ‘common’ – although that’s a relative term – it’s a big old sea out there, and the chances of looking at the right patch of sea at the right time is rather slim… Well, at least that’s what we told ourselves when we gave up after a half an hour (tip – bring a cushion for the bench).

We ate dinner at the lighthouse on the Sunday evening, cooked by Tracy, it was lovely – boeuf bourguignonne with tatties and carrots, and plenty of it, and bread to soak up the gravy, followed by pineapple upside down cake with custard and cream – or both. Our 2nd bottle of wine made it’s appearance for dinner and Roger commented he was impressed we’d managed to find space for the wine in the panniers – got to get your priorities right I told him. Apparently they’ve had plenty of bikers staying there, some horrified at the lack of available alcohol, and others more ingenious, like a Dutch group who had one bike towing a trailer which held nothing but beer – and it had to be sent off to Gairloch the following morning to refill! We were joined at dinner by a French couple. Roger and Tracy managed to bow out of after dinner chat very gracefully indeed – they are fantastic hosts, always around, but never in your face.

Chris and Jane had done the same walk as we had, and Jane looked just as knackered as us. Everyone made their excuses and we went for an early night. After the sleep of the terminally knackered, we were up in the morning, peering out the window, but alas, no sea eagles making an appearance for us.

After breakfast it was time to say goodbye to our lovely hosts and head home – by the scenic route of course!

Gairloch / Kinlochewe / Torridon / Loch Carron / Loch Cluanie / Fort William / Glencoe / Tyndrum/ Loch Earn / Glen Devon

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The weather stayed largely dry for the ride home, well, almost.

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Stopping for a few pics, and getting lunch at the Cluanie Inn, we left Rua Reidh at 10 am and got home at 6pm, tired, rather damp (it pee’d down for the last hour).

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Would I go again? Hell yes!! Next time we’ll walk to the beach and back, and maybe try and stay a little longer and take a day or more to explore some of the places nearby. Oh, and I need better gaiters, and Sharon needs better walking boots!

Motorbike tour, France 2015

I’ve rented cars and driven in France quite a few times, where I often rapped my knuckles against the window as my left hand automatically sought the gear lever which of course was on the, er, wrong side… but I’ve never taken my own vehicle abroad, and certainly not a motorbike – at least with the bike there’s none of the issues that car drivers have, like now being on the wrong side of the car to get views for overtaking…

This was also my first full tour with a large group – I’ve done short tours, just a couple of nights with large groups, and longer tours at home just me and my gorgeous girlfriend, but never a big group for a long trip. Given that besides me and my girlfriend there were 10 other bikers going, only two of whom we knew… for an anti-sociable b*st*rd like me that’s a lot of new people to have to put up with for 12 days!

The tour started nicely – just 3 bikes heading down from Edinburgh to Telford where we met up with a few more, were put up overnight in one couple’s house, then a long run the next day to meet up with the final two at Watford, and finally round the M25 and on to Dover. We’d left Edinburgh in around 12c, and Dover was in the low 20’s, so it was already feeling warm – little did we know what awaited us, temperature wise!

The ferry crossing was a doddle, even for a total land lubber like myself. An hour and a bit later we were in Calais, and only a very short run to the hotel – the only issue being that nobody had clocked that we’d lost one bike at the port – our tour organiser zoomed off to find him and shepherded him back to the hotel in very short order indeed. That first night in France I was knackered – the ride down from Edinburgh as far as Carlisle was pleasant enough, but thereafter was pretty much all motorway. Dull, dull, dull. When the hotel bar said they stopped serving at 10pm I was quite happy to head off for some kip as we had yet more motorway ahead the following day. Apparently 3 of the group thought otherwise and arranged a taxi to a local pub where they drank far too much, came back too late… the following morning Ali didn’t look too chuffed with her husband Stuart – he’d spent the night calling Huey on the porcelain telephone… not a happy lady!

The ride to Le Mans was totally uneventful, and the scenery was utterly boring. Yet more motorways, and some péage – toll – roads – empty, fast, but seemingly random toll amounts… In a group of bikes, given you all have to wait for everyone to get through each péage area, both to collect the ticket at the start, and to pay at the end, you do wonder just how much time the péage can actually save you?

The Le Mans hotel was lovely, although the city traffic was a bit of a nightmare trying to keep all 8 bikes together.

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Now, French drivers on the motorway… well, they aren’t nearly as guilty of outer/middle lane hogging as UK drivers are, on the other hand, they think nothing of whizzing up the outside lane, then cutting up everything on the inside lanes in order to make the exit they MUST have known was coming up. No point trying to stop them doing it – it’s gonna happen whatever you do, so may as well hang back and let them get on with trying to kill themselves.

If you spot a pâtisserie it’s oh, SO worth stopping for a cake!
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On the route from Le Mans to our main Destination, Riders Rest, we had arranged to meet another member at her pal’s café. That was all very well, but firstly somehow wires had got crossed so this person had thought we’d be there the previous day. Er, no, that was never the plan… But her pal had arranged to lay on a big spread for us, so not wanting to let her down, off we went, even though the person we were going there to meet up with now couldn’t make it along.

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Although there was some info for the satnav it turned out it only got us to an industrial estate, and not the restaurant… the directions also turned out to be totally useless – ‘opposite the big armadillo like building’ – well in which of the 360 degrees around this building could you be said to be opposite it??? The restaurant actually turned out to be tucked along at the end of a big Carrefour supermarket – in fact actually in the same building – so ‘go to the Careffour and it’s along at the far right end’ would have been a perfect and easy to follow direction… as it was we wasted almost an hour riding around every blasted road in this huge expanse of industrial and retail estates in blazing heat…. Lesson learnt, stick to your own plan, and stuff all this nonsense. Oh, and never, ever, ask a woman for directions! To be fair to the lady running the restaurant, she DID put on a lovely, and seemingly never ending spread for us – although nobody was very partial to the seemingly only partially cooked black pudding…

Anyway, we could then finally head on to Rider’s Rest, Thule, Treignac. – Tony met us on the road outside the house and with the bikes parked up the introductions were made. Tony is a striking chap, well built, ex Royal Marines Commando with piercing eyes… His lovely wife Wendy was our cook – cooked breakfast every day, and 3 course meal every evening – bring it on!

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When Tony heard that the very tall me and my also rather tall girlfriend were to be in the attic double room he insisted we take the other double room – the one the tour organiser, Chris, had reserved for himself… erm…. Felt rather bad about that, although I wasn’t going to argue with Tony, he just doesn’t have a demeanour that invites easy disagreement… and the room he wanted us to have was ever so nice, so who was I to argue??

We had 6 full days there, 7 nights. Wine was supplied with the evening meal, plenty of it, and the rate we’d paid meant the beer was included, as much as you wanted… You’d think that would mean a mega piss-up every night, but the novelty of free beer wears off very quickly, and the wee stubbies supplied are ideal for the climate – i.e. small enough to be drunk before they warm up – but it does mean a lot of runs to the fridge…

This area of France is just dripping with history from the Crusades, and WWII. The castles and châteaus are stunning, the myriad back roads are twisty and usually devoid of traffic, and, for our stay anyway, the weather was amazing.

French petrol stations took a bit of getting used to – during normal hours all pumps are open and you can’t pay at the pump at all, you have to pay the kiosk. Out of hours only some pumps had pay at pump facilities, severely restricting available pumps. As Tony was guiding us, that was 9 bikes to fill, sometimes with only one pump…. The other hazard is the grades of petrol… Sans Plomb 95 or 98 are fine – 95 is the cheaper one and fine for bikes, but AVOID any petrol with E10 tagged onto the end of the name – it means 10% ethanol, and it dissolves stuff it shouldn’t, especially on bikes – avoid at all costs!

With the warmer and drier climate it’s little wonder there are plenty more bikes out on the roads there, and driving on the right is great for bikes as it means you’re passing left side to left side, leaving the rider’s left hand free to give a lazy wave out to the side – try doing that in the UK and you have to let go of the throttle… not so clever.

One many of the runs the speeds were high, and therefore the wind noise too much for our Scala to cope, so I ended up listening to music streamed to the Scala from my phone – I will now associate lots of Vangelis tunes with zooming around the French roads!

A massive advantage of having such a knowledgeable guide as Tony is that not only does he know the best roads, he also knows where the fuel stops are, where the best cafés are, and where the best stops are for photo opportunities. All of this makes the whole experience so much less stressful – and no pressure to keep up – running the ‘drop off’ system means that you don’t need to worry about missing a junction as a rider will be dropped off at the next junction to show the way, and will then re-join the group at the back, this also cycles through the group so everyone gets a chance to ride behind Tony. It all worked very well indeed – top tip though – if you’re the next to be ‘dropped off’, expect it, and look for a SAFE place to stop where you will still be visible to the riders behind you, but that also doesn’t obstruct traffic or put you in danger – the other may be minutes away, stuck behind traffic they couldn’t get by…

We had 6 days of ride-outs :

Day 1 – Brantome

Proper ‘Crusades’ Castle
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Brantome sits on the River Dordogne and is just gorgeous, although a nippy sensation on my shoulder turned out to be a bee sting – riding with you jacket partially unzipped to get more air in also lets the blasted bees in…

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A very happy lady – Love you!
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The run back took us to some amazing places

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It was hot too, think everyone used the fountain to soak neck bands etc to help them handle the heat
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Then on to Rapunzel’s tower (my name for it – the French would probably be highly offended at it..)
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Day 2 – Puy Mary Volcano Parc

First stop was on a dam, which the French resistance had defended from the retreating Nazi attempts to blow it up, flooding the towns below it, and cutting an important route. They obviously succeeded, but not without many of them being killed.

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The road up to Puy Mary is fantastic – brilliant views
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Good job it’s pretty quiet too…
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The road back took us to this fairy tale château, and a much needed stop for iced tea and ice cream
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Day 3 –

On our way there we stopped in at a huge Motorbike superstore – I got mesh gloves, so did most people, and a few bought vented jackets – the heat was getting to us! We also nipped over the road to the Decathlon store to buy wicking tops etc.

Oradour sur Glane is ‘the Martyred Village’ – where 624 men, women and children were massacred by the Nazi’s. They were rounded up and machine gunned, from babies through to grandparents. The town has been left almost completely untouched since that terrible day and now stands as a very moving reminder of the horror of war.

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Sadly, this occurred in Vichy France – an area that wanted independence from Paris, and figured the enemy of my enemy is my friend, so the cooperated with the Nazis, even supplying troops, officers as well as supplies. When the Nazi command demanded action be taken against the ‘terrorist’ French resistance, it was French General in a Nazi uniform who decided to make an example of a village thought to be assisting the Resistance. Not only was it a French man who decided what to do, it was also a French man that decided which village, and it was French troops in Nazi uniforms who took part in the massacre.

For the people of Oradour Sur Glan, they had never had any bad dealing with Nazi troups up until now, so when they were told the troops were looking for an arms cache, they weren’t worried as they knew there wasn’t one there, so they went willingly – women and children to the church, and the men were taken to 4 different barns within the village. Only when they heard machine gun fire did they realise what was happening, and then it was too late. Only 4 people, 3 men and 1 woman from the entire village survived. The inside church still shows the bullet strikes where women and children, some only months old, were machine gunned.

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It’s a haunting, and very sad place.

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It was also very, very hot!

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Day 4 – Rocamadour

More amazing scenery? Oh, OK then!

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After all that, the food was excellent, and the iced tea just fantastic!
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Day 5 – Millau Viaduct

This is a silly long day. Best get some water then..
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Stops were short, but pretty. Mileage, and keeping hydrated were the main orders of the day.
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Reaching the Millau Viaduct was a big TICK in the to-do list.
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Riding over it was really nothing special – panels at the side prevent you seeing anything much, so you have no point of reference to understand how high you are.

From underneath it’s pretty impressive though
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Unfortunately on the ride back, one of our group crashed. He was lucky really – he crossed the opposing carriageway on a corner and ended up in a ditch, but luckily nothing was coming the other way. He was taken off to hospital with a suspected fractured sternum. We continued on and got back to Riders Rest at 9pm that night – God bless Wendy for making sure dinner was ready for us when we got back! What a total star!

Day 6 – Collonges La Rouge

A ‘Day off’ – so Sharon and I set off alone to Collonges La Rouge via Argentat.

Argentat is just gorgeous

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Collonges La Rouge was very pretty and quaint, but it was also a total tourist trap, full of wildly overpriced restaurants. Even the Pizza place was only willing to provide a ‘Plate du Jour’ at an exorbitant price.

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Decided that sod that, we rode off and instead found a nice hotel that provided a lovely lunch for half the price, and in a lovely setting too

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Heading back to Riders Rest we got thoroughly lost in Tulle, which apparently is to be expected, but got back despite that to enjoy the last night there, and some lovely cold beers.

Then, finally it was time to head home.

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It was roughly 1,000 miles from Rider’s Rest back to home for us. Leaving Rider’s Rest was sad – Tony and Wendy are fantastic hosts, and it was them that really made this trip, but Rider’s Rest is up for sale, so will they still be there when I return??

The run up to Calais was thoroughly boring and uneventful. A lot of motorways. We did end up on the Peripherique around Paris, and I’m told the Eifell Tower was visible, but I was too busy filtering, while chanting internally ‘remember the panniers’ …

The ferry crossing back was a bit rougher than the initial crossing, but happily not enough to give me issues.

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It was the ride up the A1 that was interesting! After saying our goodbyes to the guys and gals heading west, 3 bikes headed north. A puncture was a minor issue really, it was the thunderstorms that hit us that did the damage – well, not damage, but we hadn’t had time or warning to get the waterproofs on, and we got hammered by torrential rain and hail (in July!). As we passed a sign saying that Scotch Corner was 40 miles away I pointed it out to my girlfriend who then pointed at the Services sign immediately after it. We pulled into the services thinking we’d get a bit of a heat and maybe dry off a bit, but then realised just how wet we were, and one of us, Colin, was totally soaked through and shivering away – not in any state to ride the remaining 200+ miles home – he decided he was going to the Travel Lodge to get a room for the night. That put the idea in our heads, and soon we were all agreed that was the best thing to do.

We spent an evening spent hair dryers trying to dry various bits of kit out, pinching newspapers from reception to stuff into boots and gloves, then a pretty rubbish dinner in the services, followed by a few very expensive beers in the hotel.

The following day we had agreed to meet at the bikes at 8am. Colin couldn’t be roused – all that could be heard from his hotel room was loud and contented snoring. Oh well. The last two bikes headed north up the A1. I got only about 30 miles and the bike gave a twitch… had I hit a stone? – then another….. and another…. what the hell was going on? Suddenly it started to shake. Crap.

We were in roadworks, so I slowed until the shaking became more manageable and pulled off as soon as it was safe. I suspected a tyre, but on inspection, both tyres were good and pressures were fine. Hmm. We got back on the bike again and set off carefully, keeping the speed below 40mph, but the shaking returned, and I could hear squeaking too. Still no hardshoulder, so had to drop the speed more, and very soon we were able to pull off into a petrol station.

Further inspection showed the seal from a rear wheel bearing poking out along the rear axle. Not good. I called the RAC – I have a good level of cover, so time to use it. A van showed up just 20 minutes later, the chap couldn’t have been nicer or more helpful. He rang round all his local contacts and identified a bike shop just 10 miles away that had the bearing in stock. Great. Wheel off, and I jumped in the van with him. Arriving in Darlington, the bike shop was closed as the owner had said he’d have to ‘pop out to town’. Dammit. All there was to do was to wait on him.

We were interrupted by a lovely lady from Saragon Custom Paint, located behind the bike shop, so passed some time nattering to her and admiring the paintwork she does for motorbikes – very, very impressive stuff!

Eventually the bike shop chap came back, and he set to work on the bearing – it was totally gone, and the inner race pretty much just fell out, the mashed bearings following, leaving the outer race firmly wedged inside the wheel.

That outer race wasn’t for budging. A slide hammer extractor broke, so they resorted to grinding down a section of the bearing race until it could crack and therefore release, allowing the race to be removed.

That was a long job, it had to be done with great care – a steel bearing race in an alloy wheel – the steel is far tougher than the alloy.

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Eventually it was done, and with the knackered bearing replaced, plus the other bearing also replaced for good measure, we drove back to the petrol station where my gorgeous girlfriend had been waiting for what must have felt like an eternity (apparently talking to cows and sheep can only keep you entertained for a fairly short time..).

With the wheel fitted, we said our profuse thanks to Mr RAC man, and we could finally get back on the road, 3 hours after we first pulled into the petrol station.

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We rode up the A68, stopping just beyond Jedburgh for the first food of the day – at 3pm! It was oh, SO good to finally get home that night!

I can’t thank the gent, Chris, who organised this whole tour enough – he did a fantastic job, sorting the routes, the accommodation, fuel stops – the lot! Oh, and he didn’t complain, even once, about being kicked out of his planned room in my favour! In fact not only that, but both he and his lovely wife donated me their cooked tomato every morning at breakfast (well, shame to let them go to waste) oh, and I got the mushrooms off my girlfriend’s plate too… and her tomato – so I got the biggest breakfast of everyone, every morning!

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Motorbike Touring tips for warmer climes and/or France

Check your credit card can be used – tell your card company you’re going abroad so they don’t suddenly stop the card thinking it’s been nicked. Cash can be used most of the time, but out of hours at petrol stations you NEED a working card.

Invest in vented gear, including jacket, trousers, gloves and boots. No point almost passing out from heat on the bike! The temps got as high as 44c on this trip. Don’t forget the waterproofs too – it won’t all be sun, especially not for the ride to and from the ferry port in the UK! If you have the space in your panniers, the vented kit sold abroad is much better than the stuff sold in the UK.

Carry plenty of water. Got a topbox or panniers? Fill it with water bottles – frozen ones if you can, so they stay colder for longer. If no storage on the bike, then invest in a camel backpack. You MUST stay hydrated or your concentration will suffer.

Go easy on the evening beers – they might be lovely, cold and refreshing, but a sore head and a dehydrated start to the day aren’t going to help you enjoy what you are there for – to play in the twisties!

Wear a wicking layer under the bike gear – standard T shirts do a rubbish job – go to a Decathlon store or similar and stock up on cheap wicking tops and leggings – cycling tops cost a bit more, but they have a sticky or elasticated waist so they don’t ride up so easily when bent over on the bike.

For those of us not used to living in a hot climate, suddenly being sweaty all day can cause skin irritations – talc can help, some nappy rash cream like sudocreme may be useful, and an antihistamine is good for sweat rashes as well as insect bites. If you didn’t bring such things with you, there are pharmacies in just about every town, even the smallest, quietest ones, and if French isn’t your strong point, before you go, download a translator app to your smart phone – ideally one that works offline, so you won’t need expensive data connection.

Shops in rural France close for lunch, for two hours or so, so if you do need to get to them, plan around that. 24/7 convenience shopping has yet to reach the sleepy backyards of France, and that’s where the best roads are.

Are you a smoker? I’m not, but plenty on this trip were – most supermarkets don’t stock cigs – that’s the job of the Tabac shops, and they seem to be precious few and far between when you’re gasping for a fag… invest in a carton or whatever you need for the duration of the trip while you’re on the ferry over to France and save the scrabble for a tabac, who probably doesn’t carry your favourite brand anyway..

Make sure you have all the necessary docs WITH YOU on the bike – if the unthinkable happens and you crash, they will want to see EVERYTHING – Passport, EHIC card, Travel Insurance, V5, MOT, Insurance certificate, Driving licence – unless you’re critical, they WILL delay treatment until they check everything is in order and you are covered. Remember too that if the accident was your fault, even with an EHIC card, you will end up liable for 20% of the costs after the first few days in hospital.

Sadly, if you do crash, most bikes simply aren’t worth enough to make it economic for the insurer to recover the bike back to the UK, so get your mates to strip as much of the accessories etc off that they can, especially satnav mounts etc. You’ll still get a settlement from the insurer, but unfortunately there’s a high chance you won’t see your bike again.

Breakdown cover on long trips is a must, unless you really like living life on the edge! A roadside repair is much more likely during normal business hours, when the recovery guy will stand a much better chance of being able to source parts, otherwise it’s a recovery job.

Carry a good puncture repair kit, a pump or the CO2 inflation kits. Personally I wouldn’t rely on the small 12v electric pumps – they have a habit of expiring just when needed most, and likewise cheap footpumps have a nasty habit of bending out of shape…. CO2 is one use only, and don’t forget to wear your gloves as the sudden decompression makes the cylinders dangerously cold to touch.

A decent first aid kit and high viz might be required for France, or they might not, depending on who you listen to, and also the whim of the French Government, but they make sense to carry and don’t take up much space, so why not carry them?

Péage – toll motorways – don’t lose the ticket you get at the start of the péage! When you get to the pay point, the display will probably say 1, or Class 1 – meaning you’re going to get charged the rate for a car – if it says class 5 great, otherwise press the intercom button and ask for Class 5 – Class Cinq (‘sank’) – which is motorbikes, and often almost half the car rate. Cash for tolls is a faff, especially on a bike – a credit card is much quicker, no pin needed, just whack it in and it’s returned almost straight away. Finally, I have a use for that tiny storage compartment on the bike fairing! Just have to remember not to leave the credit card in there when I’m away from the bike…..

Ferry’s – P&O apparently take the best care of bikes – you’ll be directed to a point so that the bike’s saddle is between two tie-down points, then there will be ratchet straps available that you are expect to fit – put the bike on it’s side stand, not centre stand, and engage 1st gear, hook the strap in place with the pad on the seat and the ratchet on the stand side of the bike, pull the strapping through the ratchet to take up the easy slack, then use the ratchet to tighten it up – just tight – not so tight you leave a furrow in the seat!

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All hail the Road Racers

I love motorbike road racing. Not doing it – watching it. I can’t even begin to understand what it must be like to travel at the speeds these guys (and girls) do on roads – to blast past ‘road furniture’ at full throttle on a race tuned bike takes a special sort of person.

Besides the absolutely amazing speeds, and the astonishing skill it must take to handle a bike at such speeds, there’s the human cost that sits behind it. I don’t honestly know why that speaks to me so much, but it does. I can’t watch the Closer to the Edge film without at times being moved to tears – when they discuss Joey Dunlop’s death, the Robert Dunlop being killed at the Northwest 200, and 2 days later his son, Michael Dunlop raced and won, and brought almost everyone to tears – astonishing.

Closer to the Edge trailer

Then, also on that same film, we hear Paul Dobbs talking, see him leave the start line at the TT, and then he clipped a wall hurtling past at race speed, and was killed instantly. His widow talks so movingly of understanding the racers, the excitement of it all, and how “you can’t love the death, but you can’t have the excitement and adrenalin without knowing that those risks exist”.

I can watch the most heartbreaking hollywood film, and I’ll never shed a tear – that’s make believe – but this is REAL – the sport is incredibly dangerous and people die. Fact. It’d bring tears to a glass eye to hear it from the mouths of those that live with it day in, day out.

And when you start to see what they do, it’s just amazing, to me, a motorcyclist who covers 12,000 + miles a year on public roads I watch these guys with total awe – I would never, NEVER, take a corner that fast, or leave braking that late!

Of course, the TT on the Isle of Man occupies most people’s thoughts when you talk about motorcycle road racing, but last year I had the pleasure of going to watch the Tandagree 100 road races in Northern Ireland. Amazing to see, hear, feel the bikes blasting past – and the roads seem so unsuited to racing, yet the racers give it everything on every lap, pushing the limit of man and machine all the time.

Listen to Michael Dunlop thrashing a 600cc race bike around Tandagree back in 2009 (he’s even FASTER now!!)

Michael Dunlop – Tandagree 100 in 2009

The circuit racers are fast, and they probably take the bikes even closer to the edge – but it’s tame compared to the raw danger of the road races! I watched Shaky Burn drop his bike in a race at 170 mph braking for a fast corner – bang, down he went – yet up he got, and in the 2nd race of the day, he wasn’t just competing, he won it! The difference for the road racer is if they lose the front at 170mph coming into a corner they are probably going to be seriously injured at BEST! And possibly far, far worse. Yet to watch them they don’t appear to be taking all that much extra care! Watch Guy Martin and Michael Dunlop battle it out at the Ulster GP in 2012 for an idea of how hard fought the races are!

Guy Martin and Michael Dunlop, Ulster GP 2012

So why do I say “All hail the Road Racers”? – because these are ordinary guys, doing extraordinary things, and they are doing it at races that you and I can go and watch and get so, SO, close to the action. And that makes it so much more accessible, and real.

I can tip my bike into a corner and think hey, that was better, much faster – but I can be utterly confident that in race conditions these guys would have flown round that corner SO much faster than I could ever hope to get a bike around it (and live)! They are doing something that I can understand, and experience a tiny, tiny, little bit of – but I’m acutely aware that my riding a bike ‘fast’ on the road is so far removed from the realities of a motorbike road race it’s not really comparable in any way beyond the fact we’re both on bikes, and there the similarities end.

All hail the Road Racers!!

A week further on

A week on and I’m getting gradually more used to the Varadero.

The buffeting around my head at speed continued to be an issue. Last weekend I tried the screen at the lower setting, and that wasn’t any better than the high setting, and since that offered a bit more weather protection I put it back up.

I was searching the net for screen extenders, and read on a forum about a screen adjuster frame, I looked it up and ended up ordering one (from Palmer Products) as it worked out cheaper than buying a taller screen – and the forums tended to point to the low pressure area formed behind the screen as the main cause of the buffeting, so a taller screen wouldn’t necessarily fix the problem.

The adjuster arrived on Thursday, so I fitted it that evening. I set it to its highest point, which isn’t actually all that much higher than the original high position, and kept the screen angle the same as it was originally. Riding along the motorway this morning it’s made a huge difference – yes, there was wind, but not concentrated on my head, and none of the buffeting – result!!

Seems that the low pressure formed behind the screen at speed is the main source of the buffeting, and the adjuster holds the screen out just over an inch from the fairing, allowing air to come up under the screen, vastly reducing or even eliminating the low pressure area.

It remains to be seen how well the brackets cope long term – they look well built and I expect they’ll last a long time.

I’ve got the centre stand and an e-System scottoiler to fit over the weekend, and while I’m in there I’ll fit the charging lead for the new Optimate battery charger.

Oi! – you’re in MY space

What was it today? Was it a full moon last night?

Filtering by a line of traffic this morning the light up ahead changed, so I held back at the first gap to merge slowly in with the traffic. Lifesaver, yep, can see car behind me is quite close, so going steady – what do they do? Engine roaring, shove up the inside, hand on horn BAAAAAAAAAAAA. I guess they don’t like motorbikes! Oh well gave them a wave (apology/thanks for not actually knocking me off) and on I went.

A short time later, I carefully filtered to the front of queuing traffic at a junction. Cyclist already waiting, so give him plenty of space and pull up. While waiting for the lights to change another cyclist comes up behind me – “Oi mate – you’re not meant to be in here – how am I meant to get by the pinch point if you’re in the way”. I don’t think my response that “we’re all vulnerable road users” held much sway, but the lights changed and magically I was no longer in his way anyway – the Varadero is great at getting off the mark quickly.

I try to see every incident as a learning opportunity – the filtering and angry car driver is an interesting one – I’m not going to stop filtering because of one intolerant car driver, but should I take a more circumspect approach? Once you start filtering by a single traffic line you are rather committed to continue until you can find a gap to pull/merge into. Often a gap appears as the lights turn and the queue starts to move off at different speeds. This is fine if you are a good bit away from the junction / next traffic island etc and have time to allow a gap to develop and then make use of it, but if you are only a vehicle or two away from a tight spot then you have to come in a lot sooner.

Of course, there are various strategies, not least of all making an educated guess at how likely the lights are to change soon – if the traffic queue has been there a while, chances are the lights are going to change soon. Maybe best to avoid filtering in that circumstance, or if you’re already out there, look to merge in earlier? I’m going to ponder on this a while. I don’t make an automatic assumption that I can filter by any old queue of traffic.

I first making an assessment of the situation – and I try to take into account as much as I can – the space available, the length of the queue, the likelyhood of pedestrians cutting through the stationary cars, the position of junctions, the cause of the queue – is it likely to move soon, what’s the oncoming traffic like, where are my opt-out points, etc etc etc.

I don’t feel I did anything to warrant the angry hand-on-horn driver reaction other than I was beating a traffic queue they’ve probably sat in for a while. It’s not like I went whizzing by then slammed on the anchors and cut blindly in. I was going at a walking pace and tried to move very carefully back into the traffic flow as it began to move. I guess it’s inevitable that some people will be mean spirited enough to resent anyone they perceive as somehow encroaching on their space, or gaining some imagined advantage over them. That’s a shame.

Now, the cyclist. Well, I’ve had a good long think about this. I, and other commuting motorcyclists, regularly use the cycle boxes at junctions. I’ve never cut up or barged in on cyclists, I’ve always given them the maximum space I can. I have always recognised their extreme vulnerability in traffic and I make every effort to look out for them. I took the opportunity during my BikeSafe last year to quiz the motorcycle traffic cops about the use of bus lanes and cycle boxes, and they saw nothing wrong with making use of them – so long as it was being done safely and with care. I can’t help it if there are a few militant cyclists who don’t want to share their road space with motorbikes. Again, that’s probably inevitable, and it’s a shame.

Lesson for me – be even more careful about filtering, and be even more vigilant for cyclists.