Tuesday, May 20, 2014

How to pack for a short motorbike tour...

I am writing this blog post from La Ferte Bernard, near Le Mans, and was lucky enough to enjoy the MotoGP action at the Circuit Bugatti this weekend past. It blew me away. That is all I'll say on the subject for now because the whole experience is still just sinking in but a blog post on this will follow at some point soon. However, on my way over here from Cork, Ireland, I left my packing until the day I left. I'm not normally so complacent but I had done this trip, and blogged about it here, once before, so I felt confident I could bring it all together an get it all on the VFR in time for me to meet my ferry. I did, just. For those of you looking at a short motorbike trip ahead, perhaps a few days in another country, or another state for those reading this in the US, this is my blog post of advice. Do with it whatever you will!

The Basics
There are plenty of websites out there that contain a lot of this information already but I wasn't happy with any of them and that is why I am writing this. This is not intended to show you how to pack ultra-light, it does not require you to buy anything particularly special, and does not expect you to take stuff half-way around the world. This is just some basic advice on what to bring, and how to pack it on your bike, for a few days away. A basic tour!

Where do you begin?
You begin, I think, with writing a list of questions. Decide where you want to go. How far away is it? How long will the trip take? What sort of weather should you expect? What sort of riding will you be doing? Where are you staying? How much do you want to pack? How much do you HAVE to pack? Do you think you'll bring home anything (you'll need room)? These questions will then feed into other sub-questions which will start to make things clear in your head.

These questions bring on further questions such as "should I wear leathers or fabrics?", both of these types of gear having advantages/disadvantages in various weather conditions. If you expect rain, fabric is a good option but I often find fabric gear keeps me warmer than I'd like. Leather, in this regard is good, but not waterproof and forces you to bring waterproof overcovers which take up packing space. Bear this in mind and plan accordingly. Also, you'll need to be comfortable, wear what you are used to wearing for hours in the saddle. Being uncomfortable can be a real hindrence and even a danger. The last thing you want is a sore arm from a pinching sleeve or zip while you scramble to read a roadsign to get you out of the mess you've made in getting lost! Similar advice applies to boots and gloves, make sure they are comfortable and try and waterproof them before you leave, Nikwax make some great products which will help you with this. I only mention them because I use their stuff a lot and find it excellent (also Vaseline smeared on zips makes them work a lot better). Bodywarmers are handy for keeping you warm and are easily washable in a sink (I washed mine in the sink in my ferry cabin last time to refresh them but they didn't dry on time...I didn't need them in France anyway). I think you can get ones that also keep you cool. Think back to what weather you expect and whether your gear tends to keep you warm enough with just a tshirt underneath or a sweater/jumper etc...

What did I do?
On my April ride from Ireland to France I wore my Richa Sky fabric gear with liners in (I never take them out really), bodywarmer on upper and on legs, tshirt and a windstopper top from Aldi or Lidl (they really work). This was fine in Ireland but not in France and I sweated madly on the car deck of the ferry. You might be riding through various different climates so plan for this. Work in layers, light layers are easy to wear, easy to carry, and easy to put on more if need be. This time around I wore leathers, they kept me a lot cooler but I had to make space for waterproofs in my Givi topbox. They're a tight fit, as they should be, so there's no space for bulky sweaters underneath. In this case a bodywarmer with long sleeves and a tshirt worked a treat under the jacket. Being on a faired bike my legs are well protected from cold air so the leathers alone are fine here.

Packing clothes and stuff
Hopefully you'll have an idea of what to bring with you already. It all depends on where you are going and for how long really but I think the best thing to do is start with underwear and socks. I've always done this because it's easy (I hate packing so I have to start somewhere easy). Bring as many as you think you'll need but bear in mind that, if going on a ferry and it's an overnighter, pack a set for the end of the first leg of your ride. If the ride down to the ferry has been sweaty, it's nice to take a shower and change into fresh stuff asap so you can enjoy the crossing. There's more on the ferry bit later...

Get your clothes and lay them out on a bed or on a table and sort through them. Do you really need them all? Shirts tend to get smelly quicker than trousers so bring more tshirts than trousers. Tshirts are also lighter and easier to pack in. Bring a belt, even if you don't use one normally, it can be handy for a ton of things such as wrapping a bunch of clothes tightly or keeping a bag closed etc. It might be useful to bring stuff which you don't mind losing or throwing out if you need space to bring any gifts home. A friend of mine told me he used to go around Europe years and years ago and simply pop into a supermarket and buy cheap white tshirts and wear those before then getting rid of them. It sounds wasteful but it could save you a lot of room and if you can find a charity bin for old clothes to dump them in you can even help people!

What did I do?
For a week in France, and bear in mind I was staying with my girlfriend so did not have to pack a towel etc (if you need a towel try and camping store for the ultra-light ones). I brought about six tshirts, underwear for every day and two spares which I could use on the ferry (I was glad of this when the ferry broke down on the return leg). Two trousers and two sweaters. This was more than enough really, and many will say this was waaaaay too much. They are probably right but it's what I did anyway. I used specific shirts for riding in, these tshirts were slightly bigger than my normal size to allow me more room on the bike. I kept these separate to my normal clothes.

Distributing stuff on your bike
The most important thing in this regard is to get weight towards the bike's centre of gravity but also to make sure that frequently-required stuff is close to hand. Ferry tickets, toll money, maps, camera etc are all going to be needed frequently so there isn't much point in putting those under your seat. Try and balance the need for weight to go low with the need to have some stuff very close to hand.

Panniers (for clothes)
This is pretty important. As I rushed, and I mean rushed, to the ferry for this trip to France, I noticed a flapping shadow cast across the road as I turned through a bend on the road to Rosslare ferryport. Looking in my mirror I could see one of fabric panniers flapping about madly having been caught in the wind at certain speeds. I never bungee my panniers from underneath but I might start to now in order to aid stability. Instead I use the velcro straps on the panniers and make sure at least one of those goes under the seat.
In this case it stopped the pair from completely falling off the bike. Without a bungee this time I just popped more stuff into the pannier and this extra weight stopped it flapping. A rubber mat stops the panniers from scratching your paintwork and are available in many poundshops, car shops, or bike shops, as anti-slip dashboard mats. It also stops them sliding. Put your clothes into helmet bags or plastic bags and "weigh" them with your hand. Try and spread that weight evenly and pop one bag each into each pannier. Keep the heavy stuff as close to the ground as you can.

Topbox (for light stuff)
Light stuff can then go into your topbox if you have one. My shoes wouldn't go into the panniers and are light anyway so I dropped these in the topbox. I was also able to pop other small things into my shoes. One was a phone charger and the other an electrical outlet adapter so I could use my Irish plug in a French wall socket (and because the shoes came to the ferry with me, so did these items). Because I was doing some PhD work while in France I also had a couple of books and folders in here. I also put my hard-drive in here as I was afraid that the magnets in the tankbag would ruin it. I'm not sure how true this is but... Waterpoof overcovers can also go in here so they are easily accessible at the roadside should you need them.

Tankbag (for frequently needed stuff)
Tankbags are great for maps or GPS or whatever you use but if you have a plastic tank get ready to strap the bag on. I have a steel tank so the traditional magnetic tankbags work for me. Some, like my Lidl "Ultimate Speed" one, convert into rucksacks for walking with. Put any reading material and documentation you need into the tankbag along with a washbag so you can easily freshen up (toothbrush, deodorant, the usual...).
Chocolate, water, book, map, passport, camera in camera-bag, pens, ferry tickets. Also out of sight there's a plastic bag in a sidepocket in case of really bad rain. Chain lube went in a side pocket too along with tissues and spare ear plugs.
If you bring a camera keep it here so you can easily stop to take shots without having to get off the bike. Keep a bottle of water or some food here as well if you'd like to stop and eat. Make sure it is not too light, you don't want it to fly off! If in doubt bungee it to something.

Keeping things dry
Get yourself some plastic bags and waterproofing spray for this! My fabric panniers and tankbag have been sprayed with a waterproofing spray a few times and have survived a few downpours without letting any water in which is handy as the waterproof covers on them are a pain to put on. I'd advise you to do likewise with any fabric tankbag or pannier you have. It is also a good idea to keep a large plastic bag in each one. Then if the rain is really pouring you can just pop your stuff into the plastic bag, back into the tankbag or pannier and the bag will keep things dry. If combined with a waterproof spray on the tankbag or pannier itself you're almost guaranteed that your stuff will stay dry (my clothes were dry after heavy rain overnight when the VFR stayed on the dock while they repaired the ferry). The topbox, if you have one, is the ultimate storage space for keeping items dry but keeps the weight of your luggage up higher than desired. I've kept waterproof overcovers in here for quick access in a downpour. Sensitive electronic stuff can be kept properly dry here too (for those with expensive cameras...you probably won't be taking pics in the rain anyway so the advantage of quick access through keeping it in the tankbag is negated).

What if I take the ferry?
If you are taking the ferry and it's an overnighter (or just a long sailing) pack a separate bag which you can fit in the topbox or tankbag (anywhere easily accessible for you). In this bag put a tshirt,sweater,trousers,jocks and socks, and a pair of shoes (or tie a pair together and make them easy to carry that way separately). It's a good idea to take your tankbag with you too, especially if it converts to a rucksack, as it might be able to swallow this overnight bag for you. If not, put the shoes in there where it will join your wash bag, your reading material (gives you something to do when bored on the sailing), your map or GPS (for planning when on the ferry), and your documentation (best to keep them close). This is what I did on my ferry crossing and it made a lot of sense. However, I was lucky enough to have a cabin to throw this stuff. If you do not have one for an overnight crossing, it might be a good idea to forget the change of clothes and instead bring in a sleeping bag or a camping mat and little pillow so you can find a quiet corner and get some sleep. Your head will thank you more for sleep than for cleanliness when riding on strange roads the next day. Do try and go for a cabin though...the extra few bob is worth it.

The little things
The little things are the things that fit, mainly, under your seat (or at least under mine) and which won't be used often. They are often legally required or just for emergencies. I did not pack one but small first-aid kits are easily available for under the seat too.

Hi-Viz Vest
I do not normally wear a hi-viz vest but I always try and keep one on the bike for foggy conditions or bad rain. When abroad this can be especially important not to mention that if you're at the side of the road doing a running repair it might help make you more visible.
Chain lube
If you have a chain-drive (most bikes) bring chain lube with you. You can easily buy small tins of this stuff for touring which can fit in a tankbag pocket. Just because you're off for a few days doesn't mean you can neglect your chain. You'll likely be doing a lot more miles than you would usually so keep an eye on the chain and oil it during your touring. A small piece of cardboard can stop it being sprayed on the wheel as you apply it (you could cut up a cereal box and lay the bits flat in your topbox for this or look around for free leaflets which can do it too). 

Do you do your own work on the bike? It goes without saying that you should check it over before you leave. Prior prep prevents failure! Still, unforeseen events do happen so bring your bike's toolkit. If your bike hasn't one, find out what was in it when it was brand new, and make one yourself. We all have socks which are missing their other half so use that old sock as a tool roll. Put the tools in the sock and wrap up tightly with a bungee. Pop under seat or in topbox or wherever. I put it under the seat as I had space and because the stuff under the seat is intended for infrequent use. Stuff up high is to be used frequently (thus your documents in the tankbag, not under the seat!).

Electrical tape/gaffer tape and cable ties and bulbs
Yes these are important. They can be used for anything from fixing some fairing after a small spill, to joining wires together for the GPS to work. It costs nothing and takes up no space so get some tape and pop it under the seat. Cable ties can also be very useful so bring a few and squeeze them in between the bungee and sock which serves as the tool roll. Spare bulbs are useful, and a requirement in some countries. You can buy ready-made packs from bike shops. I popped mine into a sock. Check the picture below...
It's not the best picture ever but this is what was under my seat. Spare documents in a plastic pocket, a spare bungee, disc lock, electrical tape and a sock tied with a bungee with tools inside it and cable ties fitted between sock and bungee. Spare bulbs are in the white sock at the very top. It's a VFR so a multimeter is here too (I've yet to fit my LED voltmeter to the dash).

What stays on you
Make sure to keep your phone on your person so put that in your pocket. It's useful for all types of emergencies. If you fall the last thing you want to do is have to walk back to the bike for your phone to call help. Not only may it not have survived the fall (it will probably survive on you as the pockets are away from typical impact points) but you might not be able to make it that far. I'm not trying to scare anyone but it is worth bearing in mind.
Keep this on you if you can. At least if you lose everything else you've your phone and wallet still on you! Almost everywhere takes cards these days, at least in the EU, so just bring that and go. 
Keep your licence on you, you'll be using the same jacket for the trip, keeping it in that jacket makes sure you always have it with you.
Tyre pressure guage
One of the short needle style gauges are cheap and accurate. Keep one in your pocket.
Always useful.
If you haven't tried using them give it a go, you'll be much less tired after a motorway ride.

Be flexible
One of the main points is that you must be flexible with your use of stuff. A bungee can act as a toolroll compressor, a trouser belt can wrap tightly around an overnight bag of clothes to make it easy to carry, tying shoes together and throwing small things in them saves space. Maybe even "de-pair" your socks, they take up a lot of space when paired together I find! I've been able to lend electrical tape to another biker to help him out on his travels to mend a GPS cable/headphone cable that wasn't connecting right. It can also be used as a makeshift plaster for cuts. Chain oil doesn't just work for chains but it can also lube up a seized lock or anything else (I've helped a biker on Cherbourg port this way, his lock was seized so I sprayed it with chain lube, let it work its way in and then he was able to use it again). A packed hi-viz vest can also be used as a makeshift picnic mat to sit on or to kneel on if doing repairs or as a "carpet" in the topbox to stop things rattling.

Make your own list
Now you can go ahead and make your own list and enjoy your trip!

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Back in the Saddle: Back to Le Mans...

It's May and that means two things. One is that I've got to do some birthday present shopping as both my fantastic girlfriend (such superlatives are fitting, just wait...) happened to be born in this month some years ago. Another is that the Le Mans MotoGP is coming to the Bugatti circuit, the "purpose built" section of the famous Le Mans 24 hours track. And here is where the superlative comes in. The French MotoGP takes place on the very day of my girlfriend's birthday but that's ok, here it is, she's coming with me. Could I ask for any better?!

My last blog posts of my trip to France were quite long and detailed my preparation far in advance of the trip itself but I haven't been able to do anything of that sort for this trip. One of the main reasons for that is simply because I haven't actually put in all that much preparation this time. The bike is pretty much ready to go, tyres are fine, all fluids are fine, and despite me wanting to change the spark plugs and air filter, I've decided to let them be for another while. Like an aging athlete the VFR is looked over by my own, fairly watchful, eye and constantly monitored. As it ages bits wear down, things become brittle, it demands that little bit of extra care (but only a little extra, the VFR was a fantastic bike to begin with anyway and at 17 years old it still doesn't require intensive work). But in putting in that bit of extra work in anyway the rewards are great - you get to know the machine, you know what noises to expect, what signs are troublesome, and when (and not) to replace service items. Away from the bike and on to packing, there hasn't been any done at all so far. My tool kit, wrapped up in a sock and cable tied under the seat (novel way of stopping it from rattling), is still under the seat from the last time, as are copies of the documents I am legally required to have. The only thing to squeeze back in is the spare-light-bulb box. Planning my route will be done on the ferry I imagine as it'll be useful to waste some time engaging in a bit of map reading, I find it prepares me for the journey ahead. I'm thinking that this time around I will take a different route and experience some different roads, we'll see how that plan works out when I have a map in front of me on the ferry...

Time to fit new brake pads in the new university motorcycle club workshop
Brake Prep

So have I done any preparation at all? What's the whole point of this blog post? Actually I did do some preparation after all. The bike has been washed (twice...once after this brake pad fitting as I always think if you're spraying nasty stuff like brake cleaner about along with greases, any excess is best washed off so it doesn't wreck your paint). The bike has also, as I just gave away, been fitted with new front brake pads. This was a nice job to do because I was using the new UCC Motorcycle Club workshop. Yes that is right, my university, University College Cork, has a motorbike club and a very nice new workshop which we are still kitting out. University-based motorbike clubs such as ours (we don't have a back patch and all of that stuff, we just work on bikes together, do the odd track day and ride-out etc) are rare, the closest I know of is Bath in the UK but we're the only ones I have found with our own workshop. The new workshop was two years in the making but it can rival any professional set up even at this point where we are still working on fitting it out. I was able to roll the VFR in, put it on the lift, listen to Motopod (brilliant MotoGP podcast show, listen if you never have) and Car Talk from NPR (very funny show and informative too, I get the podcast), have something to eat and a cup of tea (we've a fridge and microwave), and then get down to working. This was luxury.

Still life left in the Nissins but now that I'd the new CL pads I thought it best to go ahead and do it
Sitting in a swiveling chair and unbolting the front calipers I popped out the old pads, which were Nissin OEM pads, and proceeded to clean up the caliper. I keep them in good condition so there was no excessive dirt or dust in there really but I cleaned everything up and put fresh grease on the sliders etc. Red rubber grease is great stuff for this as any other grease that is oil based will eat the rubber boots and stop the sliders from, well, sliding. Copper grease on the pad pin, a tiny dab on the BACK of the pad, and you're done. It took a lot longer than that however as I checked everything. I had also planned on changing the spark plugs and air filter but the air filter had only been inspected a thousand miles ago and still looked new so I'm happy to have left it alone. Likewise, if I ever have the tank off, I pull a plug out and check it. I did this before the last trip to France and it was perfect. I'll do them at the next oil change in 3000 miles time by default. 

As I bolted the calipers back in place I noticed that our new workshop clock was telling me that it was almost 11pm and the gates to the complex are closed soon after that so I needed to get packing. A quick wash outside made sure no lingering greases or sprays would be left on the paint and then I headed on my way. New brake pads are always strange when first installed. They need time to shed their first layer, if that is even the right word, they need to bed in to the shape of the disc, and so, when you fit new pads, things don't always seem right. This is why there is no way I can really tell anyone how Carbone Lorraine pads feel! The Nissin OEM pads were always consistent but were, at this stage of their life, beginning to lack in feel and initial bite. They would still do the job but were a little vague and took more effort. The only reason I didn't buy them again was simply that I wanted to try out some different brands just to get experience of different manufacturers. The Carbone Lorraine pads are slightly different looking to the Nissins, the CL ones have 1 centre groove rather than 2 as the Nissins have while the back pad of the CL pads have no manufacturer on them and don't look as pretty as the Japanese ones. Still, brakes are all about friction, not looks. By the time I hit French roads I'm sure these new ones will have settled in.

Leathers or fabrics?

The last time I went across the sea, just three weeks back actually, my choice of riding gear was made for me. The weather, on both sides, was changeable, and even if the weather in France looked good, what if I was caught in monsoon rain upon my return to the rainiest island in the whole world (may not be factually true)? My usual fabric gear was the only sensible way to go but this time around the temperatures in France are higher and the weather, even here in Ireland, is, well, about the same as ever. Showery. I'm keen to bring the leathers though as I think they actually keep  me a little bit cooler than my fabrics and I'll never forget the heat underneath my fabric stuff on the car deck of the ferry the last time. I think this one will be a last minute decision...

Vee Fours?

It isn't often that my VFR has other V-fours around for any sort of company so this is a quick note to sign off on. Sharing it's engine angle, and general design philosophy with the RC214V Honda MotoGP bike, the VFR's engine will be in the company of many V-fours when the MotoGP rolls into town. I better make sure that on that same day that I have the birthday presents ready...

I'll do my best to provide updates of the trip along the way so keep checking back!

Saturday, May 10, 2014

The Last Day(s) in France: A fast ride to Cherbourg, new friends, and a broken ferry...

When I used to think of riding on the continent rain used never enter the picture. Whereas images of Ireland always came attached with rain of the misty and sticky kind (and the kind that makes roads lethal), images of the continent consisted of perfectly smooth roads, kindly car drivers, and a sun that was permanently shining. In fact the purpose of clouds, in these images, was to protect the paintwork from TOO MUCH sunshine! In a dreamy state said clouds also doubled as nice cloths to polish the bike with. Whenever I wash the VFR in Ireland it immediately rains, to the point where Met Éireann, the national weather service, call me on a weekly basis to ask if I am going to wash my bike. I digress...The point I was getting to was that the weather for my day of riding to Cherbourg was not looking at all like the images painted above. No guaranteed sunshine, no buffing of paintwork with clouds. The weather was looking grim. Some showers, some thunderstorms. General grimness. Examining the weather on the morning of my departure things looked in good shape, it was cooler than on previous days and, while cloudy, no hurricane was approaching. The internet was also telling me some good news. When I went out to the VFR, now loaded with its luggage, the sky looked a little different than I had hoped. Denise warned me that it would rain but she didn't warn me that the skies would whip out a few powerhoses. As we said goodbye those powerhoses were set to "thunderstorm", loud booms of thunder echoed, lightning lit the sky up and rain poured down. Cowering under a tree for shelter I wondered just how waterproof my gear was...

The rain was so heavy I was afraid of holding my phone up for long thus the shaky pic but you can see how bleak it looked.

Standing in the Carrefour, aghast at the rain.
A brief interlude in the rain allowed me to head off, my plan being to go to nearest Carrefour to fill the tank and grab some Banania (greatest hot chocolate mix of all time, the French use this for breakfast), some Speculoos paste (up there with Nutella in terms of greatness, this is made from those lovely biscuits that sometimes come with espresso and you can spread it on toast), some nice jam and biscuits for the folks at home. Carrefour is like Tesco or Walmart or Dunnes but I needed to wrap everything into one easy package because I was now running a little behind my planned time. Rain wasn't going to make it any easier. And of course once I reached Carrefour the powerhoses started again. My clothes were wrapped in plastic bags inside the panniers but the stuff in my tankbag was not. I had sprayed all of this with waterproofing spray a long time ago so I was hoping they would hold out for the length of the powerhose shower while I nipped into the Carrefour. As I filled up at the pump, thankfully, the shower stopped and I set on my way, properly this time. It was maybe 2:30 at this point and I hoped to reach Cherbourg for sometime between 6 and 7 for the 8pm sailing. This was to be a non-stop express service!
A Carrefour petrol pump with credit/debit card reader. Gazole is diesel, try not to use in your bike!
 I had considered taking a new route to Cherbourg in order to see new places and new roads but as I was just about keeping time on my side I thought better of this. Not to mention I had not planned another route so sticking with my old route I passed through Mamers, Alencon, Vire, Flers, Saint Lo, and then finally, Cherbourg. Funnily enough the one place I wanted to stop at along this route was a McDonalds, or McDough (this is how the French say it colloquially). This was not to put two fingers up at French culture but rather a simple desire to use some free wifi to backup some photos I had taken on my phone and to check in with home before I boarded the ferry. There was one in Vire or Flers which would split the journey in two, as I did on the way, but as I passed through both towns I elected to find one in Cherbourg. At least that way, if time was tight, I was not far from the ferry. The good thing about following the same route home was that I was able to get a better sense of places that I had only glanced at on the way down. I was also able to make better progress on the roads, knowing their surface and layout a little better. Indeed on one run a BMW 5 series appeared, almost, out of nowhere in my mirrors and seemed about inches from my rear tyre. Was I making too much progress? Were the Gendarmarie unhappy? I don't think they do doughnuts like other police forces, maybe they do croissants, but whatever it was they weren't happy. But was it them? I indicated to pull in to find out. As I checked my mirrors the 5 series peeled off into a garage. A strange situation but I was just happy not to deal with the Gendarmarie. It's funny how one makes up these scenes in ones mind. I had no evidence that it was the police but there I was already pinning the blame on myself for doing something, anything, wrong. Is there an Irish guilt complex? We do say "sorry" instead of "excuse me" a lot. For example if you don't hear someone clearly you say "sorry" with a question at the end instead of "excuse me". "I'm so sorry I didn't hear you please forgive me". It's a bit much isn't it? Sorry, I better get back to the story (see what I did there?)...

Along the road the most fascinating bits to me were the faded painted advertisements on the sides of houses or buildings. The weather slowly tearing them apart, they are a testament to a by-gone age. They don't light up, they don't change colour, they don't have scannable QR-codes. What they do have is character, a window into history, and a certain lasting quality. Not permanence as they are fading, but some are decades old. Try and think of an electronic billboard or a paper and paste one that has lasted that long with the same picture! The "D" roads permitted this sort of sightseeing but after Flers I would be hitting some proper dual-carriageway where the signage advertised the cultural treats of the regions I was passing through. One such billboard, a steel one I think, showed a picture of a guy milking a cow. Bretagne is a dairy region I suppose so it makes sense. There was also a tank museum and some images of the beach landings for D-Day which occurred nearby as I went further north toward Cherbourg. This road was not in the least bit interesting but I was making good time now, keeping the VFR a little bit above the official speed limit and doing a fair bit of passing in the overtaking lane. The VFR seems most comfy at 80mph where the wind takes the weight off of my wrists. Handy for miles like this. Unfortunately it does little for your bum, mine was now going numb. The front part of that region of the body was, however, making itself felt. Let me explain. I had coffee that morning and had some water along the way and now it needed to come out. But where to stop? In the back of my mind I had wanted to complete the 4 hour journey to Cherbourg without stopping, just as a form of test. The VFR certainly had the tank range, but did I? The answer in the end was no, I did not. It had crossed my mind to pull into a McDonalds to use the wifi, go to the loo, and maybe even buy a milkshake and fries (try this, you need to dip the fries into the milkshake...) but I hope food in my tankbag and didn't really want to stop until Cherbourg. On many of the D roads there had been nice parking spots with picnic benches which seemed a nice idea but what if a family was sitting to lunch and I went into the bushes to pee? I couldn't even explain myself if asked what I was doing! The N13 dual carriageway that I was now on also had parking spots but these were small and none had a convenient place to pee. They were, however, frequent, being marked every kilometre or so. Eventually I spotted one with an embankment and pulled in. There's not a lot of space to get in and slow from 80mph but once in I found a good spot to relieve myself before sitting down to eat a piece of baguette that Denise had kindly put together for me. It was nice to just get off of the bike as well and allow my arse to regain some feeling, the hard saddle on the 17 year old VFR providing little comfort after almost 3 hours in the saddle. I wasn't disappointed by my stop, I had made it as far as Valognes which is a stone's throw from Cherbourg. To be honest I doubt I would held up well if I had decided to wait until getting into Cherbourg proper anyway what with having to deal with traffic as well.

On my approach to Cherbourg I decided to go through the city itself rather than take the ring road and I was glad I did, the view as you drop in through the valley was pretty astounding as you can see here on Google Maps: http://goo.gl/maps/JJmth  Following this road down through the valley I just kept aiming for the sea but traffic was beginning to get heavy. Imagine if the regulator/rectifier gave up the ghost in the heat here? So near and yet, it would be, so far too. Could I push the bike to the ferry? I didn't need to worry, it was nowhere as bad as Le Mans and I was soon changing lanes to get myself into the McDonalds near the port. Parking the bike I grabbed my tankbag and went inside to use the wifi and grab a coffee. It was nice, once again, to sit on a soft seat. It was also nice to eat some ice-cream, something I have given up for Lent. French McDonalds have an ordering system whereby you can order on a computer terminal in the middle of the restaurant with a card and then collect at the counter. It's handy and, because we don't have it in Ireland, I used it for the novelty value. One cafe noissant (spl?) and one Dime McFlurry (recommended by Denise). I have to say, it was bloody good. Sitting alone and hooking up to the wifi I looked out of the window into the valley I had come down through. Then our eyes met for a moment before recognition set in. Out here, far away from anyone I knew, was someone who had known me since I was in a baby buggy. Derek Lynch and his family were going through the drive-through and spotted me and there was waving through the window. Half guessing he'd be on the same ferry as I, I looked forward to catching up with them and having a laugh about this very random episode! Of course it was at the ferry that things became very interesting indeed...

Waiting,and wondering, by the ferry...
After entering Cherbourg port I just said "merci" to the guy directing me where to go, not having understood a word of his French. Instead I followed the ER-6 with French registration ahead of me. The sound of the thumping parallel twin was addictive anyway and later I saw that it had an Akropovic silencer on it. Fantastic. Pulling into, what turned out to be, lane 6, a couple of other bikes were there and ready. A BMW and a Silverwing. Ah but that Silverwing had made it to Scotland from Cork and then all the way into Spain before coming north to lane 6 in Cherbourg port. What a journey. The most amazing aspect of it was that the American man riding it, Rick, wasn't all that experienced, declaring that a Honda 80 (Cub 80?) was the largest thing he had ridden back home. A Silverwing 650 was a big jump in this case but I had no reason to disbelieve him. The rickety scooter was a bit of a contrast next to a Touratech-kitted GS. Indeed the GS made me think of the MZ Mastiff that I had encountered on the way out a week or so earlier. The GS looked so big and heavy but comfortable and ready for battle. My memory of the MZ conjured up a picture of a bike much lighter, less user-friendly, but somehow more charismatic too. The GS is the most popular bike in Europe these days, outstripping even scooter sales in some countries. In contrast the MZ is a rarity, an object which can start conversation in the middle of nowhere and for no particular reason apart from the fact that the many motorcyclists would have no idea what kind of bike they were glancing at. A GS then, is just another GS. The only thing I remember from it is that it was the older air-cooled version. Still, the owner, a quiet guy from Wicklow, seemed content with it and, I suppose, that is all that matters. Rick, the Silverwing guy, also seemed pretty happy, calling the Silverwing his flying couch. One problem with the flying couch was that it had a cracked, yes cracked, rear brake disc. Rick had no idea how this had happened, and I'd never seen one before, but there it was, a squiggly line running across the brake disc. 

Having chatted a bit and also having admired the ER-6 and exchanged pleasantries with the French rider on it, talk turned to the large ferry in the background. It was supposed to sail at 8:00pm but 8pm was drawing ever closer with no sign of any doors opening or staff lining us up to embark. Thinking that a small delay at the start of a 19 hour journey was no big deal I relaxed and soaked up the scenery. Not that there was all that much of it, a port is, well, a port. The ship was in the background and people were walking around. In some ways it was like a scene from The Walking Dead with a whole ton of people wandering about not having any real idea of what was happening. Eventually we were told to get our stuff and get on to the ferry where we would be fed and slept for the night. At this point the rumour filtering through the large crowd was that a radar problem was holding the ship in port and that it was very likely that a problem such as that would mean no sailing tomorrow either. This seemed to be confirmed when it was later announced that we would have to leave the ship the next morning at 8am. Walking through the huge doors on to the car deck beside Aurelion, my new French friend on the ER-6 (the other lads seemed to disappear which was surprising), it seemed like we were escaping a war zone and taking our most precious possessions with us in preparation for a new life elsewhere. The funny thing in this case was that our most precious possessions consisted of our helmets and tankbags, certainly very different from the things bundled into other people's arms. Blankets, toys for agitated kids, pillows, whole mattresses almost. On the subject of young people there were a number of coaches parked up near the bikes, all full of French schoolchildren going a trip to Ireland. Now knowing that the ferry was pretty much cancelled I felt properly sorry for the teachers in charge. Talking with Aurelion we discussed how safe our bikes would be, but such worries probably paled into significance in comparison with the phone calls the teachers had to make to parents and hotels.

The bikes waiting patiently as we boarded to sleep for the night on a radarless ferry.
The drama started the next morning. Having had breakfast with Aurelion, his conversational English proving much more useful than my complete and utter lack of French, we chatted about what to do when off the ship. Having secured a cabin for him to sleep in the night before (he hadn't booked one but seeing as the ferry wasn't sailing I thought they really should sort him out) I felt slightly responsible for him. I had helped a group of other riders on the other BMW GSs in the picture above but having helped them deal with the Irish Ferries staff they disappeared and were never seen again. Aurelion, however, stuck around and seemed to genuinely appreciate the bit of help I could give. So, it was a slight bit of hesitation, that I dragged him into an epic battle of angry travelers versus angry ferry crew the next morning. A man let me, and the family of Derek Lynch whom I had saluted in the McDonald's the day before, that EU law stated we did not have to leave the ship. Without any alternative arrangements solidly in place this was great advice because once we were off the ship it would be much more difficult to assert those rights. Conspiracy theories spun around that Irish Ferries simply wanted rid of us in order to have a clean ferry for a scheduled sailing on Thursday. While hoards of people were guided down the main stairways and out to the port, I stayed behind, the flow of people rushing around me, like a river diverting around a large rock. 

The 40 or so of us who remained on the boat had our options outlined later on, much as the people on the port were having done in the Terminal Building where, according to reports, the queues and conditions were unbearable. One option was to go home through the UK on two ferries, another was to get on a smaller ferry leaving that night, and another was to remain on the Oscar Wilde and sail whenever the radar was sorted. The UK option was out of the question for many reasons, cost being among them, while the alternative sailing that night seemed tempting. However, it was soon full and there was no chance of me getting a place on it. It was time to become familiar with the Oscar Wilde.

A capacity of about 1600 but with only 40 on board, the Oscar Wilde was a ghost town.

A section of the bridge
Myself and the First Officer after him giving me a tour of the impressive bridge. And no I did not break the radar.
This is not a ferry blog so there's not much point in me going into too much detail on the ferry itself apart from emphasizing that, if you travel on an overnight ferry, bring a change of clothes! Maybe two. I was glad I did during this unplanned stop. While we were allowed to get off of the ship, times were tight as the ship was going to be moved to a restricted part of the port, and no one knew where to get cheap socks and jocks in Cherbourg. I was glad not to need them but it is something to bear in mind. My main bike related thoughts at this particular time centred around the GS riders, both the French group, and the lone Wicklow man, and Rick on his Silverwing. Having swapped email addresses with Rick on portside the day before, he was able to keep in touch. Upon hooking up to the wifi on the ship I received an email from him stating that himself and the Irish GS rider were now after being booked on to the Stena Line sailing that was leaving that night. They had to forego the cabins they had paid for on their original Irish Ferries ticket but they were going home. It turned out they had been some of the first people off and were, thus, at the top of the queue for alternative sailings. It must have been a similar case with the French GS riders who were looking to begin their holiday in Ireland. What surprised me however, was that they had not really looked out for Aurelion. French bikers, from my reading, seem to stick together and look out for one another, but they seemed to leave him on his own. Was it a symptom of the bikes they rode? Or am I being too romantic about it all and need to wake up and see that, bikers or not, we are out for ourselves only? Perhaps there is a middle ground...

In some ways the lack of any contact annoyed me a little, after all I had helped them the day before, and kept an eye out for them. Still, they had a holiday to get started. By the Thursday these thoughts had changed to thoughts about home. Overdosing on food while staying on the ship, because you really just ate out of boredom (another croissant? go on then I've nowhere to be and nothing to do...), was now making me pine for home cooked meals. The random timings of everything made me pine for a routine. Despite making the best with what I had my clothes were less than fresh by Thursday so this led to wishes of grabbing a clean shirt from my wardrobe at home. I just wanted to go home and on Thursday night the wish was granted. The ship set sail for Irelard and, it was time for me to get home and time for Aurelion to start his holiday. As an aside, about 200 people who disembarked the ship on the Wednesday morning, ended up coming back onboard on Thursday night having not found places on the alternative Stena Line sailing. Tales of hotel prices and the process in claiming that money back from Irish Ferries really did justify my decision not to leave but I left sorry for those people with kids who were making it known that they were sick of hanging about. 

Approaching the Irish coast
When we all finally disembarked in Rosslare Aurelion and I had a chat and he rode with me to Cork. Getting used to driving on the left again was, in some ways, harder than my initial switch to driving on the right in France. Although due to the massive line of traffic on the single-carriageway road out of Rosslare, I had enough time to adjust my mind. Aurelion's first destination was Killarney so I agreed to show him on to the road to Killarney before I peeled off to go home. After a quick stop in Burger King (it was a big deal for him, he'd never seen one before!) the heavens opened. Rain was pouring down and it was time for the rain suits to come out. With visibility getting noticeably worse I gave Aurelion my hi-viz vest just in case he needed it for the next leg of his trip and we both set off for the N22 west to Killarney. I peeled off at Ballincollig and saw a day-glo orange figure zoom off into the grey murkiness of low cloud to the west. While he had missed a few days in Ireland I had hoped that the help I was able to give him could make up a little for this. It was reciprocal though for I was glad to have someone to talk with about bikes, MotoGP and anything else involving two-wheels. It also showed that, despite the disappearance of the GS riders, bikers do tend to stick together. Perhaps it was just that we both had Japanese bikes...

Looking back at the trip now from a perspective two weeks ahead, I can see that this was a real adventure. No it was not a round-the-world trip, it was by no means groundbreaking, and I have outlined that in earlier posts. However, for me, it broke down barriers. Not barriers of fear but barriers of apprehension. An apprehensiveness that riding abroad would be very difficult, that it would take too much effort, that I would go a round a roundabout he wrong way. This trip made me see that I could do this, that my bike could do this, and that it was all a lot of fun. And easier than most people make it out to be. There isn't a need to feel as if you have to go all of the way south to Spain or ride through the Alps for great roads. Neither is the idea all about great roads. The overall idea is a proper change of scenery, a change of culture, and ultimately a change of mindset. I am convinced that such a trip improves you as a rider and as a person as well. On a practical level it also makes your travel so much more independent. Except for when your ferry loses its radar. 

Thanks for reading my posts and I hope that each one has been enjoyable for you. My next post will detail what you need for a small trip onto continental Europe but it will be applicable for any small touring trip such as mine. Many of the sites I visited had stories of people packing luggage for weeks and months abroad but I struggled to find assistance for someone going away just for a few days. The upcoming blog post hopes to fill that gap and help people out. If you have been thinking of taking your bike abroad it should be worth a read. More importantly though, do it anyway, and have a ball. 

For those of you who made it this far here is the full set of photos from the trip: https://plus.google.com/photos/104352531381765890415/albums/6002469080227199041?authkey=CNT0rrncsOav0wE

Thanks and bye for now!

Monday, April 21, 2014

Day Three, Four, Five and Six in France: The Mulsanne Straight and the calling of a race track.

The last few days haven't exactly been productive on the blog but there just isn't always time to really put pen to paper. Having a limited amount of time with my girlfriend here means that I sometimes just need to cast this aside and let it wait. That can be a good thing though. Thoughts percolate a little longer and sometimes more meaning is derived from things when given some time to stew. I may have even managed to forget the irrelevant bits so that you don't feel the need to bring a very big bag of popcorn to the computer with you. Still, it might be a good idea to get a cup of tea.

The four days previous to this have really flown by with me engaging in two French meals with two very welcoming French families. I've ridden the VFR along the Mulsanne straight and as much of the Le Mans 24 Hours circuit as possible without going into the Circuit Bugatti. I've strolled through a busy racing paddock and eaten in a cafe with various Le Mans race suits pinned to the walls around me. I've seen a large old castle in a small village called Le Lude and even eaten in a Dutch-themed restaurant. There was a lot in those few days.

Keeping things on track for this blog and the audience that tends to read it lets begin on the Mulsanne straight.
The VFR by the armco that runs along the Mulsanne Straight
I had intended to run the VFR around the Circuit de la Sarthe, the famous 8.47 mile circuit, which is mainly composed of public roads. Having planned my route I set off and it didn't take long to see exactly where I was. The names on the signposts conjured up the ephemeral feelings of watching Le Mans races on the TV and hearing the commentators guide you around the circuit...Mulsanne, Arnage...they all seemed so familiar but in a very unfamiliar way. It is hard to put it into words but the overall feeling was one of real excitement and amazement. This was the place. And here were trucks and buses and cars just ambling by, using the roads as it was intended. No prototype racers here, no exotic Ferraris. There was the odd Renault 5 I grant you but that was about it! The amount of traffic actually made it relatively difficult to take any good pictures but the feeling of just riding along that straight and seeing the chicanes (and how well blocked off they were for obvious reasons) was very special. Going through a couple of the roundabouts on the straight (a couple of which are actually cut right through by the track for the week of 24 hour racing) I thought it fitting that the VFR was able to prowl along the Mulsanne straight and head out then toward Arnage and the Indianapolis bend. Many of its roots go back to Honda's endurance racers in the 80s and indeed the 90s too and so it seemed right that the VFR visit the home of endurance racing and take a peek around.

Stopping outside the stands on the main straight of the Bugatti circuit, where all of the races start from, I simply wanted to sit down and take it all in. I'm not used to this at home. Motorsport is very much a niche sport in Ireland and there is only one purpose built track in Ireland (Mondello Park) and, while I had fun there on the trackday I did on the VFR, it cannot provide the variety that a selection of different tracks could offer. On top of that it is not nearby, located near Naas in Kildare, it is about 3 hours from Cork. Not that far in the scheme of things but not altogether close either. Especially so when you consider that in another 3 hours you can be at the other side of the country! And so, having such a historic track so near where I was staying, together with motorsport being considered an equal with field sports (in fact more important in many senses) made this whole experience almost surreal.

Upon parking outside I had noticed some very highly pitched engine noises, something was definitely happening inside and so I ended up buying a weekend pass for the VdeV endurance series. €9 with paddock access was an absolute bargain I thought. Leaving the VFR behind I walked in to sample the atmosphere. While there was but a scattering of people in the stands I felt like I had the whole place to myself in a way and after watching some of the GT cars make their way along the straight and up towards the Dunlop chicane I ambled towards the paddock. Mondello had not been very busy for the trackday I had been at and on my previous visit to the Le Mans circuit it had been all but empty. Today however it was buzzing with activity. Michelin tyre technicians were working on small production lines, mounting wheels with tyres, balancing them and sending them off to various teams. The team trucks were neatly lined up with the backs of the trucks facing into the rear of the garages. Team personnel walked about with a purposeful air, some wheeling tyres or other equipment around the paddock. Having read about racing paddocks for a long time, and hoped to visit as many as possible in my lifetime, this was exactly what I had been expecting. It looked and sounded productive and yet, perhaps this depends on the race series, it was friendly and convivial as well. I am sure that for a lot of these people racing is not a job but a hobby that they pursue at the weekend. It didn't seem to make the action on track any easier, even during practice laps cars were running each other quite close into the corners which was interesting to see. The competitive spirit, whether it be amateur, semi-professional, or fully-professional, burns brightly at the track and it was clear that these were people who were thoroughly enjoying what they were doing. 

I would not be back at the circuit again until Sunday but riding the VFR back to La Ferte and hoping that I would not be in too much trouble for staying out much longer than I had originally planned ("I'm just going to bring the bike around the Le Mans circuit is all"...I hadn't known any racing was going on on the Bugatti circuit at the time) I felt that an important milestone had been reached. The VFR had seen the home of its roots. I had seen, and ridden on, miles of history. And my technical belly had been given quite the feed after all of that paddock access.

The next day was spent on a road trip but this time in a car as Denise, my girlfriend, and I, were chauffeured by fellow World Motorcycle Community member Frédéric Barré and his family on a Saturday drive to La Lude which is a big old mansion/castle about 30 minutes from Le Mans. The stately presence of the old building and fine grounds of the estate were a remarkable contrast from the noisy race track although what was also remarkable were the similarities. The estate was so well preened and perfectly laid out and this correlated with a well surfaced race track and a well organised paddock area. The Circuit Bugatti is far from the most interesting in the world, being a little bit of a cookie-cutter track with no real distinguishing features bar the uphill right turn toward the Dunlop bridge, but the paddock was very tidy and held a certain charm. I suppose it is a sense of history, something newer and better laid out circuits cannot quite capture yet. Le Mans has had a bit of a head start in that regard.
More like a race circuit than you might first think...
After an entertaining Saturday night with one of Denise's work colleagues and her family it was time to head back to the circuit to see some of the racing itself on the Sunday. Arriving in late I was sure that we had missed most of the action as a lot of the teams were packing up but there was quite a bit of racing still to be done in the various different classes. Not being a French speaker myself it was difficult to keep track of all that was going on as the entertaining PA-commentator, well to me at least, was keeping the locals up to date but not the one English-speaking Irishman in the midst of the other few hundred French people attending. Fair enough. Endurance racing is funny though because when the novelty of the sounds and sights wear off the nitty gritty is not quite as fun as more fast-paced races which end sooner. The delight, in endurance racing, is in the details so paddock access helped as you could roam through and see what was happening in the garages. Even hopping into some of the photographer posts around the track gave a good focus, haha, on the cars themselves as I pointed my camera and turned down the shutter speed. 

In a way, what was more interesting, was the Le Mans Legends Cafe/Restaurant in Le Mans city centre. After a day at the circuit it was the natural place to go afterward but this was not a crap eaterie which had latched on to the fame of the local race and hung some tacky souvenir-shop memorabilia on the walls to catch the unawares. This was the real deal with various items of car and bike bodywork, racetrack scratched and all, hanging by tables. Driveshafts rested on a shelf at the side of a stairs. A full Suzuki Endurance Racing Team GSXR1000 is in the front window. Race suits adorn glass cabinets around tables, one of which is made from an old Moto Guzzi. Recognising that both cars and bikes do the 24 hours at Le Mans was very endearing but more so was the originality of the place. This was authentic, and the food was good too. 
Race suits hanging up alongside gorgeous Le Mans race photos

Bodywork from an old Gulf WEC Le Mans car

Bodywork from a Corvette Le Mans car along with a drive shaft and brake disc. Stairs is on the right!
The thing I found fascinating about the Le Mans Legends Cafe was that it really normalised racing. I don't drink and have never found myself at home in a pub as such but I did in this one. Yes it's not a real pub in the sense that its main business is really food but it is also a bar. I felt at home because for me, racing, and all that comes with it, is a normal part of life. In fact it is a part of life that I very much enjoy. I enjoy watching it, analysing it, investigating the technical sides of it, and indulging in some of it on the local go-kart track about twice a year! In a world fairly dominated by mindsets, and media, that see only see field sports as sports, this place made me feel happy that I was interested in motor sport. While I undoubtedly gravitate to the two-wheeled variety, of course, I can appreciate and enjoy four-wheeled motorsport too and this place allowed me to mix both. If you are ever in Le Mans, or near it, then make sure you pay a visit. 

That all just about sums up the last few days here and today I packed my stuff in anticipation of leaving tomorrow for the ferry. There are some thunderstorms on the way it seems so the dream of riding through sunny France is postponed for now but at least some rain will keep the dust down. At about lunchtime today, it's after midnight here now, I will be on my way back to Ireland having enjoyed a few great days in France in the company of my long-suffering girlfriend who puts up with "vroom" noises from me and being dragged to the race track. I am sure that the journey home will provide many stories for this blog!

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Day Two in France: "Tell me when you see a petrol station..."

I usually see my VFR everyday. It stays right outside the front window so even if I go for a walk I can never avoid a wuick glance. I thought about it as I had my breakfast in the apartment here in La Ferte Bernard. Would I see the bike today? There was a lot of blue sky around, almost perfect weather for a spin. A light breeze to keep things cool. Yeah, the feet were becoming itchy, it was time to get out on the bike for a while.

This time Denise would be coming on the bike with me and although we were going out for this spin by ourselves there were more stunning examples of why, when you are on a bike, you really are not ever on your own (which is kind of funny when you consider that a lot of biking, for some people, is the feeling of just striking out by themselves and being independent, it's a contradiction that has yet to be resolved I suppose). Denise is lucky in that fellow Google+ World Motorcycle Community (WoMoCo) member Frédérick lives very close by and was kind enough to lend bike gear, from boots to gloves, to Denise to enable her to come out for the spin as all of her own gear was back home in Ireland. However Frédérick went one better than this the previous night in allowing me access to his garage to store the VFR safely while I am here. And more touching still was the present of a Le Mans 24 Heures Moto mug from him and his family to me on completion of my journey to La Ferte. Yes in most racing classes you get a gold or silver cup but this porcelain one was the perfect reward for my trip from Cherbourg, especially when later filled with some nice Barry's tea. So while my journey was supposed to be a solo one, there was always people on the other end willing for me to get here safely and interested in my tales from the ride and who were willing to accommodate requests for help to make the time here even more fun. You really are not that alone when on a bike.
My victory cup for making it to La Ferte, along with a small Eiffel Tower that Denise brought from Paris!

Hitting the road later we took the VFR north-west to Mamers along the D2, we cruised along at a gentle pace, this being Denise's first time back in the saddle for a few months. The roads were relatively quiet and the gentle pace fitted well with the breeze which just about managed to keep temperatures comfortable. Getting out of the familiar areas of La Ferte, and traversing a road that I had already covered, but at a more frantic pace, was refreshing which was a lot more than can be said for our travails in Le Mans, but I will get to this later. In Mamers we stopped for a cold drink, took a look around and snapped a few photos as I saw various junctions that I had negotiated on Monday as I made my way to La Ferte originally.
The VFR parked in the sun in Mamers

At Denise's request we sat out in the sun while we drank some Coca-Cola. It was all a bit paradoxical really as drinking the Coke was supposed to cool us down but here we were sitting in the sun. My legs were beginning to roast underneath the bike trousers and I could feel my skin beginning to tan but the people-watching from the outside seats was interesting all the same. It is so easy to see the roots of small French villages such as Mamers and see how the villages grew and expanded. Sitting where I was the church was behind me, but providing no shade unfortunately, and in front of me was a large square where a market would usually take place. On this particular day it was either a very large car sale or else it was being used for car parking - I never asked. Eventually we made our way back to the bike and Denise carried the camera to try and snap some shots on the move. I didn't expect much to come out of this but it was worth a try. This area of France doesn't seem all that spectacular, scenery-wise it is not like the Alps or perhaps the Ring of Kerry at home, but you can really get a sense of what life is like here. The wide open fields and broad horizon make this perfect farming country and you can see all of that work in action. It's quite endearing. Not to mention that it makes it very easy to see far ahead on the roads. There are some hills though and some gorgeous castles and abbeys as well, one of which Denise was able to capture from a passenger point of view that I really am not used to!
Taken from the passenger seat as we went around some bends on a small hill.
Looking at the map we had decided to make a bit of a triangle and go south towards Le Mans. The only problem was that it was nearing rush hour. As we approached Le Mans I recognised the old town to the left of us and a river shot from the great TT Legends TV series that was on ITV a while back (now on Youtube). Denise took some more pictures while we were stuck in traffic but I was much more worried about the temperature gauge on the VFR rather than the traffic as such. Looking at the dashboard as we were stopped at traffic lights I could see the fuel gauge showed we had half a tank left, although it is never accurate anyway, and the temperature gauge was now climbing to half way. Now this might not seem like a problem but this is when the thermostat decides the fan needs to come on to cool the radiator, and thus the engine. I needed a fan myself really, sitting atop a roasting V4. Being a VFR owner my thoughts turned immediately to the regulator/rectifier located not far from the rear bank of cylinders. It was going to be boiling. If all came to all I could have probably fried a waffle on it, it even has the griddle markings for cooling. Or in this case waffles. Or steak. I was getting hungry now. Hungry, hot, worried about the bike's electrical system. All going well then. Keeping the revs down I pulled away from the lights and into more traffic but at least this was in the shade. The temperature gauge didn't budge. I hoped that the VFRness wiring harness that I had fitted would cope. Filtering up through traffic it became clear that we had no plan of action, no idea of where we were going, and no knowledge of Le Mans as regards riding around it. Instinct told me get to the centre, stop the bike, allow it to cool, use a loo, eat an apple, get back to La Ferte. I tried to follow signs for Gare SNCF, the train station, as I knew that location, but missed a couple and just followed my own sense, accompanied by inputs from Denise. A couple of bouts of anger at car drivers who didn't seem willing to give me a break, unusual on the trip so far, and worried glances at the temperature gauge, saw me finally end up outside the Irish shop in Le Mans.
It as time to sit down and relax for a moment before we moved on to the main square at least where we, coincidentially, parked next to Frédérick's gorgeous NSR125 and a plethora of other bikes. The square was busy with a lot of people outside drinking coffee and meeting friends. There was a real buzz about the place but before we could actually go over to talk to Frédérick, who was seated nearby, we went to McDonald's to find some macaroons. Nothing fancy but just something to bring back for the night. A fight outside however delayed us and when we came back the NSR125 was gone. At this stage it was also time for us to make our way.
Doesn't that NSR look like an NR?
Getting out of Le Mans was quite an experience though as the temperature gauge and I became best friends. Traffic was still heavy but at least I was learning how to ride in a French city along with other traffic - it is certainly a different experience to driving on the quieter country roads and motorways. After numerous wrong turns I finally decided to just point the bike south and follow the road until the city came to an end. Eventually it did, with signs for the Le Mans circuit coming up fast. And then "Le Mans" with a red diagonal line through it. We were out. At last. Where to go from here was another question. Searching for the D323 we ended up in Allones which is as close to Le Mans as Ballincollig is to Cork. They are practically the same place it seemed to me. Fuel was also becoming a concern at this point but not a huge one. Finally making it on to the D323 we were on the right road but going in the wrong direction so I pulled in to a layover and checked the map once more. It indicated that we had to head back to Le Mans and then follow the ring road towards the east. To be honest it was useless, it had no detail for urban centres so we were pretty much on our own. Just as I was about to ignore a "no U turn" sign at the layover two police bikes rode by. I could see the FJRs slowed down and the two gendarmarie had a good look at the VFR. Not in the best of moods at this point and with a very empty stomach I didn't want to have to deal with them so pointed the bike south again and found a roundabout to turn around at. Signs for the D323 were now plentiful with La Ferte Bernard even being marked. We had done it. The last problem was fuel. 

The VFR's tank is 21 litres with an approximate touring range of about 200 miles. It was about to be tested. The fuel gauge was now dropping in to the empty portion but no warning light had yet come on so we were ok for now. Converting kilometre signs to miles in my head and then calculating remaining fuel I was sure it was going to be close one. The odometer ticked over to 200 miles (I reset it at every fill up). Then orange "Don't make me tell you again" fuel light came on to join the chorus of nagging that the fuel gauge itself had started earlier. Oh dear, it was getting serious now. Seeing a sign for a Carrefour with petrol pumps I pulled in to a small village, rode around, saw a Carrefour with no petrol pumps and had to make my way again. Great. I just wasted precious millilitres of fuel. Getting back to the D323 I stuck the bike in 6th gear and toddled along at 60mph at 4500rpm. This was real economy territory, with me certain sure that it would have to be. Every movement on the throttle would have to be as smooth as butter. The kilometres ticked down as the miles on the odometer rose. 210 miles. 215 miles. The orange "FILL ME" light was now bright and on permanently but finally we entered La Ferte Bernard. At least if I had to push the bike the distance wouldn't be too bad here. We saw another Carrefour and swung towards it, coasting in to the pumps. 217 miles. Preparing myself, and my wallet, for 21 litres of monetary pain, I stuck the SP98 nozzel into the tank and filled it up. I had to look twice at the display however as it indicated that the tank was now full at 19 litres. I withdrew the pump a little and continued filling. The most I could get in was 19.5 litres. I still had 1.5 litres in the tank. I could hardly believe it and felt stupid for thinking we were going to run out at the side of road earlier. Calculating how economical, or not, that the last 217 miles had been saw that the VFR had returned a very respectable 50mpg (21.26 kilometres per litre). Considering half of this was done two-up and half of it was done at much greater speed than the gentle cruising of the day, it was impressive. Especially for a 17 year old bike. Who said carbs aren't efficient?! Using that average mpg figure of 50 there were another 13 miles left in the tank before it was properly empty. A touring range of 230 miles?! Not bad...

Tank filled it was time for home. Today had been a good one.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Day One in France: Be careful, the ferry exit is slippery...

On approach to Rosslare Harbour there are a lot of pubs, shops and petrol stations claiming to be the "last pub/shop/petrol station" before the ferry whisks you off to a land, apparently, without pubs, shops, or petrol stations. That's how it sounded to me anyway as I rode past on the VFR, another VFR behind me, in time for the ferry to France. Following advice dished out elsewhere I did actually find what I think is indeed the final petrol station before the ferry and filled the VFRs tank there so enable me a clear run from Cherbourg without too many worries about fuel. It would be the second stop in a petrol station that day for the first stop saw me hanging out at Waterford's old port facilities at Ferrybank where I had arranged to meet Paul on his red VFR. Paul's VFR is so clean it looks like it just came out of a showroom and while we debated whether or not his bike may have arrived in the UK, and then Ireland, from the US (I thought so due to the different colour of the switchgear markings, being red rather than white), the nearby car wash was misting both of our bikes. In between cars being washed we were able to grab a coffee, have a chat and even take a picture of the two us looking at MCN's recent new VFR800 review in front of our two 750s.
Paul and I looking at MCN. I think I may have been laughing at the lack of gear-driven cams in the new VFR. And the last ones.
Paul kindly gave me his copy of MCN for reading on the ferry and it came in very useful too, for which I offered him a bar of Cadbury's Caramel which had been packed into my tankbag the night before for the journey. With caffeine now in the veins we decided to move on towards Rosslare. Not to get all romantic about two-wheeled travel here but there really was something special in being accompanied down to the ferry by someone with whom I could talk about VFRs, shoot the breeze as regards bikes, and just have a great bike-related catch up with. While I was supposedly going to ride to La Ferte Bernard alone, it seemed that I was never far from a friendly person on another bike and this proved true on the ferry as well.

Boarding the ferry after filling up was a simple enough process, I followed the car lines, stopped at the checkpoint and handed over my documents and passport, was given back the passport and 3 tickets (not unlike cinema tickets in their look) and was instructed to follow lane 9. At the top of the lane a guy in a hi-viz instructed me on where to go next but really I was just following the bike in front of me. I thought it was a BMW but actually it turned out to be an MZ Mastiff, the first time I had seen one in real life! I was extremely gentle with the bike along the slippery ferry floor and kept my fingers well away from the front brake but the ramp on to the second floor of the car deck was good fun. My next encounter however saw me struggling with the strapping to tie the bike down. In the online videos it looks so easy, a monkey could do it. And a monkey could. But I am no monkey and I failed! After asking the MZ guy if he could help me out, which he did, I thought I was in business but the strap just kept taking up more and more room on the ratchet without really tightening on the bike. To top it all off my personal sauna was now up to temperature. Sweating underneath the layers of bike clothing and attempting not to breath in the fumes of cars surrounding me, it felt as if I had installed a small furnace of sauna coals inside my suit with each drop of sweat sending steam flying in all directions. To say this was less than comfortable would be quite the understatement. Obviously struggling and, being the only one left, I approached the lady who was helping to load the ferry by standing about in a hi-viz jacket and chattering on a radio (perfectly legitimate work perhaps). She was less than helpful and not terribly enamoured with the feminism which had changed men-women relationships over the last decades. "I am woman, you wait for man to come". "Em, ok, thanks", and off I went to continue my personal sauna session. When a man did finally come along he saw that the strapping I was using was faulty and found me a new one before lashing the bike down in a gentle fashion, asking me along the way if I were happy with the position of the strap and such. He couldn't have been more helpful.
Not a whole load of room...

Local bomb site after my "sauna"

One tip I should pass on to others here is that, if you are on an overnight ferry, keep a seperate set of overnight gear in a plastic bag in the topbox so you can just grab that gear (jeans, shirt, jumper, shoes, washbag) along with your tankbag (documents, camera, reading material, some munchies). Grabbing that stuff I found my cabin, dumped my stuff and had a post-sauna shower (the shower was remarkably good!)

It was my first time on a ferry so everything was a bit of a novelty for me but looking back on it, it's not a bad way to travel at all. Looking at people carrying whole bed clothes with them from their cars made me think of the lengths we go to conform to airline baggage regulations! This was a whole other kettle of fish. After my shower I rang home to say a proper goodbye having not left on wonderful terms. A lot of it was my own fault, I had wanted to "get in the zone" to begin thinking of the long journey ahead and plan through it one last time in my head but everyone (all 3 of them) was very closely watching, questioning what bike clothing I was wearing when usually not an eyelid would be batted and I felt like I was not being given enough space to get myself ready. There had been a whole morning for the questioning and general curiosity, now was not the time for it. I thought about it on the ride to Rosslare and had decided a phonecall was needed to clear the air and it doubled as the first phonecall from the deck of a ferry as I watched us steam out of the harbour.
Bye Bye Rosslare!

 Now it was time to go and explore the boat but I also had a few things to do, I had my route to plan over again, dinner to think of, the night sky to see, MCN to read and also some PhD books to read through. All was going well until just before dinner as the water became a little choppy. For most it would've been no issue at all but I was cursing myself for not bringing sea-sickness tablets and also becoming increasingly annoyed with the French schoolkids who thought that they had inherited a ferry and were now free to annoy everyone else. Then there were the small kiddies who were so excited at the prospect of being on a boat that they were running around between everyone and generally acting fearless. As my stomach churned a little and my head became light I felt more as if they were running on me, not around me. Thinking some dinner would fix this I made my way to The Left Bank brasserie, one of about four dining options onboard. Fish and chips for about €14 didn't sound as extortionate as it could have been but it didn't even come with peas. Maybe it was to stop excited kids throwing them at one another, or adults from throwing them at the staff due to having to suffer through a James Blunt album (yep a full album on the speakers in there...). Full, but not in a satisfied way, and not in a healthy way either, I retired to my cabin and lay down to watch a funny movie on the old heavy TV. The cabins are en-suite but the toilets flush like aircraft ones so there were times when a nearby toilet would flush but I thought, the first few times, that these were noises from the car deck. Visions of a VFR crushed up against a Ford Focus flooded into my head before I fiinally realised these were toilet flushes and the car deck was way too far down...I mean it'd have to have been a monster-truck destruction derby to hear it this far up the ferry. Funnily enough I had the best sleep I have had in a long time once the film was finished and I was after working out the source of the noises.

Reading the VFR review in MCN near the table-service (expensive, very) restaurant on board.

The next morning I woke up properly refreshed, something I never really feel when I wake up, and went in search of breakfast. Again it was fairly oily and expensive but I had it anyway. I could have been wiser in my choices, it's not necessarily a criticism of Irish Ferries. A coffee later and I could see land so I sat down to go over my route again, circling the towns I would go through on the way to La Ferte Bernard and writing the route on a piece of notepaper. Disembarkation from the ferry was like the queue for the last helicopter out of Vietnam as people rushed to the lifts and stairs. With less bike gear on this time (no bodywarmers) my sauna was turned off and I just observed the frantic mess going on about me while then remembering that I had no idea which car deck I was on. Therefore it was time to jump into said frantic mess. Meeting the guy on the MZ again we struck up a conversation about riding in France, bikes in general and I think there were times when neither of us understood the other due to noise and helmets but we were happy enough to agree on whatever point the other person was putting across. Then came the warning as the bikes lined up to get off the ferry, "it's very slippery at the end of the exit, be careful". Oh Oh. One by one the bikes went down the long ramp on to the slippery deck but everyone made it out ok. The wheels turning on French soil, the blue sky, the Gallic surroundings, all made for an incredible experience as the VFR left behind the shadow of the ferry.

Another tip, keep your passport in your tankbag as you will need to present it to exit the port facility. The French police woman examined it, looked at me through the helmet (wonder how she could tell it was me?) and then waved me on. I was in. Or at least I thought I was. Having put the sidestand down, when I put the bike in gear it cut out...embarrassing!

Stopping further up the road, following some advice given by the good people at irishbikerforum.com, I pulled in to the roadside and watched the traffic to adjust myself to it. Mr MZ was there as well and we chatted a bit more before my insulation tape came in handy to fix his charger for the GPS he was using. Within the conversation it came up that he had ridden a 125cc bike to Mongolia with a group of friends a couple of years ago and it was being featured in an adventure bike magazine this month. It made my own journey seem all the more small. I took a quick picture and soon we were both on our respective ways.

The MZ!
Once the MZ had pulled off it was time for me to crack on. The road to St. Lo was easy to negotiate and not unlike a motorway in Ireland and, so far, driving on the right, had proven relatively easy to do. Overcoming initial doubts about the route in St. Lo which necessitated a quick stop to check the map more thoroughly and for me to watch the temperature gauge climb up and me to picture some images of burnt electrics, I was on my way to Vire and then Flers before becoming very familiar with Alencon and finally making it to La Ferte Bernard. The roadsigns were always very clear, except for within some of the larger towns which is understandable given the amount of streets there were and the fact I was using "D" roads which are similar to regional roads in Ireland. Patience was the main thing, and besides, this was part of the experience, I was getting to ride in different towns and not simply bypass them as if they didn't exist. My one regret is not taking more pictures of this but I was becoming a little worried about my timing and whether or not I would arrive before dark as I was pretty sure the roadsigns wouldn't be half as useful when I would struggle to see them!

Once I arrived in La Ferte Bernard I made sure to send my long-suffering girlfriend a text massage to let her know I was just minutes away. On the verrrry empty D3 road that I had taken to get me to LFB I had practicing my standing up and waving routine. Any farmers in the area that I failed to spot must have thought it very strange indeed but at this part of the journey I was both hysterical with excitement, full of amazement that I was actually riding in France, and struggling to keep in mind that most accidents happen near the destination as the mind switches to think of other things. Once the bike was parked and I made my way into the apartment these are the things that were stacked on the table for me...

A few of my favourite things from the last time I was over

 I had become a real fan of Banania, baguettes and Speculoos the last time I was over, along with the rest of the pictures items. After riding 300 miles from my house to La Ferte Bernard it was a very good welcome present!

If you have read this far, thanks, and I hope you enjoyed it. I know this post had no real coherence to it really but it was a stream of thought/memories more than anything. Stay tuned to see if they improve...