Monday, 30 April 2018

Travel Tales: Euro Cruise

The book that was probably responsible for me making this journey was packed in one of my new panniers on my recently acquired bike. Jupiter's Travels by Ted Simon is, for those of you who haven't read it, the story of a four year, 63000 mile journey through 54 countries on a Triumph T100, of all things. Although my journey to Spain was on a slightly smaller scale I still felt a certain affinity with Mr Simon.

It had been planned during the seemingly endless, cold winter months. Richard, my cousin, was going to Spain in the summer on his 850 Commando and I would be going as well.

All I needed was a bike, but the June departure date was getting closer. An XT250 had looked good but when l returned with the cash a few days later its engine had self destructed. Just when it seemed that nothing would turn up within my limited price range, a CBX250 was found in a Honda dealers in Fife. It was a 1985 model with just over 4000 miles on the clock and a full service history. A genuine Honda rack was fitted as well as a cumbersome top box which was swiftly removed. Otherwise, it was standard.

To convert it into a tourer a tank bag and set of throwover panniers were added. A large sports bag on the rack completed the luggage. As for spares, I took a clutch cable, 3 spark plugs and a complete set of bulbs, but they stayed packed the whole journey. On the way down we were stopping off at Newcastle, then London, before sailing direct to Santander from Plymouth.

After work on Friday the first stage of the journey started. The weather was fine when we left but not long after Edinburgh a mist came down, covering the hills and us with a light but damp drizzle. The friends that we were staying with had a huge supper and a few light ales waiting for us when we arrived. Already, this was the longest journey I had ever made.

Just outside London the next day, the Commando started to sound distinctly unhealthy but we pressed on at reduced speed eventually finding the house we were looking for. After my first experience of London traffic I now understand why it is called Shit City, and a pox on the prick in the Range Rover who almost turned me into a statistic.

The run to Plymouth on Sunday was quite good, it didn't even rain until Dartmoor, but the Commando still seemed very unhealthy. Excessive vibration between 50 and 70mph with nasty noises and backfires at tickover and low speed are not normal behaviour despite what you may have heard. Luckily, there was a British bike shop (Terry Hobbs) in Plymouth. Unluckily, it was closed. As there was still some daylight left we went to the ferry terminal, where the bike was partially stripped down.

One attraction of the Norton is that when people see it they come over for a friendly chat, Something that never happened with the CBX (and I thought you met the nicest people on a Honda). In fact, considering that everyone who talked to us used to own one, it seems surprising that the British bike industry ever died. Anyway, the alternator had moved on its studs and the rotor had eaten away the stator. A common problem due to bad design. Richard also thought that the big-end shells might need replacing. For once we were glad that the ferry was late in sailing as it gave us time to telephone Terry Hobbs (a very nice man) and the parts were delivered straight to the ship.

The previous night had been spent sleeping on the ground beside the bikes until it started to rain at about one in the morning. The remaining hours until dawn were passed in the toilet trying to keep warm under the hot air dryers.

It's worth mentioning that Brittany Ferries have a monopoly on this route and the absence of any competition means that the fares are quite expensive. Also, bikes over five years old are banned! A typical knee jerk reaction to the past actions of a group of bikers. However, if you contact the company directly and explain that you are respectable they will let you on!

It was still raining the next morning as the traffic for the ferry queued up behind us. The first other bike to arrive was one of those ugly and expensive but practical Honda CN250s - half Gold Wing, half scooter mutant. It was ridden by an OAP from oop North. He told us that he had slept rough on the moors, under an umbrella with a wild cat for company, after being caught out in the rain. Looking more closely at his bike we saw a strange looking device on the back, which turned out to be a home-made fridge for keeping his favourite butter cool and fresh as he didn't like that foreign stuff.

More bikes arrived later including a brand new Harley Sportster, two Irish registered BMWs, a Scottish XJ900 and a KTM 250 with most rudimentary lights and number plate. Perhaps due to the ban, there were no older bikes. Several people admired the Commando but expressed the opinion that Richard must be mad taking it on such a trip without any breakdown cover or backup vehicle. We kept quiet about the engine trouble.

The KTM owner was returning to Majorca where he worked but he couldn’t get the bike started to ride on to the ferry. It was probably down to the wet conditions and dubious electrics but the fact that the engine flooded after a few kicks, anyway, couldn't have helped matters. To supplement the small and illegal plastic petrol tank he had a gallon can strapped to the back. His tool roll had been stolen and his luggage was a duffle bag. In comparison, we seemed to have packed everything but the kitchen sink. Half of Richard’s luggage must’ve been tools, but these were essential.

24 hours later we were in Spain. I couldn't believe the weather, if anything it was wetter in Spain than the UK! We had decided that the Commando would not make it the 500 miles to Valencia in the south, where we had friends with garage space. We then arranged to hire a van with the KTM's owner who could still not start his machine; he could catch a ferry to Majorca. The three bikes were crammed into a newish Avis Transit van unfortunately, the van had to be returned to Santander, which meant a three way trip.

On the way, we crashed the van, breaking the rear wheel. Repairing that the jack snapped! When we eventually reached Valencia we were exhausted. I have never been more grateful for a cold beer, a warm meal and a bed.

The next day it was back to Santander with the CBX in the back. The return journey on the Honda was much more fun. The twisty roads that had been such a pain with the van were brilliant on the narrow and light Honda single. With enthusiastic use, two up, the stand touches down and I think the exhausts too, judging by the scratches on them, but I couldn’t be absolutely sure.

We had plenty of opportunities to be thankful that the brakes were very powerful and as long as you are prepared to use all the six gears the bike is quite rapid, especially when you consider that it is only a 250cc single.

The weather improves as you get nearer the south until it's almost unbearably hot. Even at speed the air that hits you is hot and doesn't cool you down at all. It feels like riding into an oven. Spain is a large, open country with a fairly small population for its size. The distance between towns can be considerable.

Much of the countryside is desert like and stretches as far as the eye can see. The occasional large memorial at the roadside marks the spot where someone’s journey ended for good, although as these were usually on long straight stretches it does make you wonder how it could have happened. At least it makes you slow down to a reasonable speed for a while. In other places it is mountainous with birds of prey soaring high overhead.

The views into the valleys far below are fantastic, as are the roads which snake and twist through incredibly tight hairpin bends. Some of the ascents and descents take your breath away. These roads were probably responsible for one mishap that occurred. Despite having a piece of foam tied on the pillion seat to lift the throwovers clear of the exhausts, one side slipped down and the plastic bag inside melted on to some of my clothes.

As the Med gets nearer the signs of the tourist industry increase, but it makes a welcome change to see so many people after miles and miles of deserted countryside. Valencia itself is a busy, exciting place and the pace of life is very fast. There are lots of bikes about, mostly mopeds, small Vespas and sub 125cc racer clones which are all ridden at unbelievable speed by the local crazies. Their lack of horsepower is compensated for by a total disregard for personal safety.

The air is alive with the piercing, buzzing sound of two strokes. Silencers seem to be regarded by many as an optional extra and it's important to at least sound as if you are going very fast, even if you can't. Virtually no-one wears helmets in town unless it is raining when they keep your hair dry. The standard riding kit is tee shirt, shorts, sandals or training shoes and sunglasses. Apparently, the transplant services obtain most of their organs from the steady supply of two wheeled donors. Enough said!

After we had recovered from travelling 1500 miles in three days, our friends took us to the festival of San Juan in Valencia. The historical reason for this festival is not clear and latter day participants content themselves with getting drunk on the one litre cups of spirits that the bars sell. Cars and bikes of every description race around the town all night. Later on, everyone goes to the beach to jump over three waves and make a wish.

The next day we stripped down the Commando in the welcoming cool of the underground garage. Strangely enough, we couldn’t find any indication of what had caused the problem and after the new alternator had been fitted and the engine reassembled it seemed to run OK. Maybe we had tightened up something that had been loose without us noticing it but the cause was still a bit of a mystery. We were glad that we had bought a gallon of oil before leaving Britain because it is expensive in Spain, and we certainly needed it.

After a few more days we felt it was time to head north to Galicia. This time the journey was more relaxed and we had plenty of time to enjoy the roads and the scenery. On one bend I ran out of road and for a few frightening seconds the CBX became a motocrosser, but luckily there was a gravel run off instead of the sheer drops that were on other corners. Needless to say, I slowed down after that. On these roads the Commando stormed off ahead, as Richard tried to get his knee down, but I usually caught up with him when he stopped to tighten up the nuts and bolts that had vibrated loose.

We made good progress and by nightfall were quite near Galicia but couldn't find a campsite so we just rode off the road up an overgrown track which led to a clearing, just like in The Howling. It was too dark to put the tent up and we were too tired. in any case a thin layer of canvas wouldn't stop your average werewolf, so we just slept on the ground until the cold got to us early in the morning.

By 7 o'clock we were on the road and in mountainous country. On every incline we zoomed past convoys of lumbering, diesel belching Spanish trucks. Despite the foul smell I didn't mind the clouds of exhaust fumes because they were quite warm and gave welcome relief from the numbing cold. Every now and then there would be an overturned lorry at the side of the road. This was usually the only time we saw the police and since they carry guns this suited me just fine, although we did get stopped once and told to put our lights on by a friendly policeman.

That afternoon we arrived at our friend's house in La Coruna after using the toll motorway for the first time It was well surfaced and not very busy but quite expensive. The weather in this part of the country is similar to the South West of England and the clean if cold Atlantic makes a refreshing change from the filthy, polluted Mediterranean. Ideal motorcycle country with good weather, light traffic and excellent roads.

A lot of locals have fairly hot poop, big bore machinery to match, Yamaha EXUP 1000s, 900 Ninjas and the like. Our ferry was sailing in a few days so we moved along the coast to a small fishing village called Laxe, but before leaving we visited a hypermarket where we bought as much of the brilliant local beer as we could carry. We also stocked up on wine and lots of chocolate, wishing we had more room on the bikes.

The last few days were really good, sunny and hot, but not excessively so, and we just took it easy. The beaches were really clean and quiet, not a lager lout in sight (apart from us, that is). We were entertained one day by watching two beautiful girls in tight shorts speeding about the village on a red ZX-10.

Our last night in Spain was spent in a campsite near Santander where we got very drunk on beer and a sweet, strong liqueu rcalled 43. In spite of a bit of a hangover, the next morning we managed to get up in time to catch the ferry. Parked beside us was the Team Norton van returning from an endurance race in Portugal after finishing second. Hurray! High winds and angry seas greeted us in Plymouth. The wind and rain stayed with us for the 500 mile ride home.

Throughout the 3500 mile journey the bike never let me down, the only minor problem being a loose gear lever which needed tightening every few hundred miles. lt averaged 85mpg without myself making any attempt at restrained riding. Thanks to the excellent seat and riding position, I was always comfortable.

Later, I found the chain was worn out at 8500 miles and I had to replace the starter motor and camshaft bearings a little later. The rear tyre and front pads last for around 10000 miles.

It’s a great bike that will do most things well, commuting, scratching and even touring, but just remember that it isn’t a dirt bike. As for the trip itself, it was very good, despite the mysterious mechanical trouble and the resultant extra travel which deprived us of the chance to reach Portugal. The people were friendly, food and drink was cheap. and plentiful, the weather was usually in our favour and, last, but not least, the roads and scenery were excellent. What more could you ask for?

Stewart Norton

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