A salty biker’s guide to road-tripping in Europe
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You’ve probably heard numerous motoring journalists (my colleagues among them) bang on about how a car road trip through Europe is the best way to spend your summer. And they’d be correct – albeit in the same sort of way that a kitten’s algebra is correct.
Yes, this is the bit where I – rather predictably – wade in and say that the single best way to explore continental Europe’s finest roads is on two wheels, not four.
Ever since I rode my first tentative miles into Europe back in 2010, aboard my Triumph Daytona 675, motorbike road-tripping has sunk its claws into me. I now buy my bikes based solely on how I think they’d cope with 2,500 miles of mixed roads in a week. I look at potential purchases in showrooms and imagine how they’d look parked next to an Alp, tyres devoid of chicken strips, handlebars draped in local sausages and with the fug of local ale clouding my view after a good day’s ride.
Friday, 9pm. Work is done. Two weeks off with a mate and your bike. This was September 2016 – one of the best trips I did
When people all around are hanging up stockings and wrapping presents, I’m lost in a world of the summery daydreams of Google StreetView. I’m a hopeless road trip addict. I love the planning, the daydreaming and the trip – but mostly I adore the freedom that you get travelling on a bike.
Day one should always be painful…
If you’re starting your adventure in Blighty and getting Eurotunnel Le Shuttle to France, you’re best off accepting a fairly brutal first day. You want to blitz straight across Northern France so you can wake up on day two and fall out of bed onto a hairpin. I usually head to the Vosges Mountains, home of the fantastic Route des Cretes. Whichever way you cut it, that’s a 560km (360-mile) stretch of motorway. Just get an early train and bash it out. Fire a Spotify playlist into your lid and see if you can high-five your mates as you ride.
An upright adventure bike like my old Ducati Multistrada will make the motorway day disappear without any discomfort
You’ll see a few convoys of sad-looking men in their desperately uncomfortable Lotuses along the way. And they’ll be stopping for fuel every 300 miles as opposed to every 120 that you’ll probably do on a bike. But you’ll still be more comfortable than them, regardless of the bike you’re on – you can stand up for a few miles on your pegs. If they did that they’d probably knock some of their fibreglass off.
… but the rewards are worth it
Road-tripping on a bike is a far more elemental experience than in a car. Derek in his knackered old Elise isn’t getting as much of that fresh Alpine air blowing through his lint-lined air vents. You, superb motorcyclist, will be experiencing such clarity of air that you’ll swear you’ve woken up in heaven.
This is the Vosges mountains. Easy to reach from Calais in six hours, leaving time for a golden-hour ride when you get there
There’s a flipside to this. As you demolish the hit-and-miss Tarmac of the Route des Cretes and sink your way westwards down the road’s final hairpins, you’ll emerge onto a vast plain that stretches away to the foothills of the Black Forests. Germany awaits.
Before you get there, however, your helmet will fill with the excretive odours of several exuberantly fecal cows, and a few of those nasty chemical factories that all countries love to put on their borders.
However, it’s worth enduring the Eau de Vache because the Black Forest brings its own rewards for bikers. Clip onto the B500 south out of Baden Baden and you’ll be rewarded with a riding experience that you just can’t match on four wheels. It’s a fast, wide and flowing stretch that feels more like a racetrack than a B road. But I’ve lost track of the numbers of Caterhams, Ferraris and even Paganis that I’ve found stuck behind coachloads of tourists.
I don't have any good photos of the B500 in the Black Forest – always too busy riding. My old Honda Blackbird was the perfect bike for its fast, sweeping bends
No matter how fast your car, you’re limited by how much you can see – and when you’re basically sitting on the floor then it only takes a slight rise in the road to turn your Veyron into a Stay-behind-the-lorry-ron. Even on a sportsbike you’ll have a higher viewpoint from which to pick your overtakes, and clearly you can move about in (and out) of your lane with far more ease than old Derek.
In 2016 we did France, Germany, Italy, Austria, then back across France to Spain. It's amazing what you can pack into a fortnight
It’d be legally dubious to recount some of the cornering speeds I’ve seen while traversing the B500, but let’s just say you’ll enjoy your bike at higher speeds than usual and your tyres will be nice and scrubbed in by the end of the day.
Once you’ve hit the Southern end of the Black Forest, Europe really is your oyster. You have a delightful platter of scenic options on the table. You can head east through the alpine foothills towards Neuschwanstein and its fairytale castle, and then south into Austria or north for a few days exploring the delights of Munich and its litre measures of beer. Or you can – if your exhaust isn’t too noisy – head south into the mountainous delights of the Swiss Alpine passes. Just stick to the speed limits or prepare to spend a few months’ mortgage payments appeasing the police.
Switzerland is mega – but stick to the speed limits and make sure your exhaust is legal
By now you’ve earned a break – I always try to stay in a city for two nights halfway through the trip to give myself time to unwind. After all, riding long, fast hours on unknown roads is pretty knackering. And this, dear reader, is where the motorbike plays its next trump card. Parking.
No matter what AirBnB you book, chances are you can fit a bike outside. Hell, I’ve left my bikes on some wide pavements outside flats in Berlin while working out where the key for the apartment is. There’s none of the stress you normally get parking a car up in a strange city.
Does it feel like a holiday?
No matter where your European biking trip takes you, there may be days when it doesn’t feel like much of a holiday. Those final few days doing long miles back to Calais can feel a bit of a bind especially.
Okay, it's not always fun. This was a road closure near the Route Napoleon. Two hours stood soaking.
But trust me – pack as many places as you can into your trip and you’ll look back on it with a hunger to do even more next time. A hunger to find new places, eat new things and finally nail those power wheelies away from the peage booths. You’ll be like me – a proper road trip addict.
Some tips for improving your next bike road trip:
• Don’t worry about what bike you own – I’ve road-tripped on everything from supersports bikes to adventure bikes. It doesn’t matter what you ride. You’ll have a deeper bond with your bike when you get home anyway.
• Get some intercom systems – Sena and Cardo systems work well with four bikers, and it adds an extra dimension to long trips. You can warn mates of upcoming mid-corner cattle grids, or just shoot the breeze on the Autoroute.
• Don’t bother camping – on my first two trips in 2010 and 2011 I took a tent and sleeping bag to save some money. Camping is a giant faff, and you’ll only put a tent away in the rain once before you decide to book AirBnBs in future.
• Don’t take the mick with speeds – Europe is no longer the free-and-easy speed demon’s playground. Play by the rules.
• Take Eurotunnel. You don’t have to strap your bike down like you do on a ferry, and it’s just far less hassle in general. Bike crossings are decent value too.
• Don’t stress about filming the whole thing. I used to stick a GoPro to my head for every trip to try and convey the excitement when I got home. I now have hard drives full of (mostly) unedited footage. Just live in the moment and enjoy it.
• Be flexible. Book the first night’s accommodation, but leave as much as you can open. If the weather worsens then you may want to head over to Spain instead of into Germany, for example. The important thing is to ride. It doesn’t really matter where.