Day 1: The Start, London (UK) to Epernay (France)
Lining up to board the train shuttle at Folkstone feels such a long way from destinations end. It is a source of real mystery that you can ride a motorcycle overland from say a Starbucks or Burger King here in Kent, across Europe and Turkey and then Iran, then across all these odd sounding countries that end with a blokes name called 'Stan' until you get to the Gobi Desert. Then you cross the Gobi and end up crossing a vast expanse of rock and sand called Outer and then Inner Mongolia. And if you could compare such a journey to space travel such a ride would be like visiting the edge of some lesser known galaxy, seated somewhere on some elliptical cluster of stars. Then, like ‘Milliways, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe,’ fleeing from some Vogon battleship, you get to Ulan Bataar, where waiting for YOU is a coffee at another Starbucks and another burger at a MacDonalds! Yes, this too is a ‘Total Perspective Vortex’ and 16 riders loosely led by myself went to check it out.
Disembarking from the Channel Shuttle Train I noticed nesting swans and other birds in a small lake as we exited the terminus en route to Calais. It made me think about two things. The first was how riding in the traffic and the dust and the noise was quite at odds with what we, as bikers, see from the saddle rushing through the wind. What we are doing could be thought of as an oblique concept to what we want? I don't know but I'll ask the riders what they thought about the swans but I am sure they will agree.
The second thing aligned to this thought was something, Iain MacGregor, one of the riders said to me in our first cafe stop in Calais. He talked about the teenager Stephen Story who sadly is dying in hospital in England. "My partner was a Macmillan nurse during the early part if his illness," he said, "and he said to me he wanted a photograph of the Ghengis Khan statue in Mongolia, so that's my mission." I said to Mac that we should all have that as a group mission and have the young lad as our mascot. His bravery is beyond words and actions and something all of us can learn from. Like the nesting swans and the simple things in life and the quitenesses we miss and take for granted. So this story is dedicated to a young brave man in hospital.
Also it’s time to start introducing the people supporting the project – Oxford Products are providing me with an RPHA 101 helmet, Yamaha the XT660, Continental with Road Attack tyres and Hilleberg the Tentmaker for supplying the tent.
Day 2: Epernay to Niedereschach (Germany)
Sat-Nav verses maps? Interesting. Both? Can't deny that the Garmin system is effective for many of my clients but some can't stand navigating electronically. One works simply and compactly, doesn't crease nor needs to be folded away. The other switches on and off, is splash proof and if programmed correctly is 100% accurate. And yet, fabulously capable you need to know how to programme this ‘improbability drive’ with the correct information otherwise you jam it up if you ask for a ‘cup of tea’.
The people at Touratech live in Niedereschach not so far from the Austrian border. While the riders were buying parts and being shown a tour of their impressive assembly plant, I had a few minutes with the two founding bosses of the company. Herbert Schwarz is such a mild mannered man but clearly an astute businessman. My recollections of our first meetings was of a slightly distracted artist who was as removed from the sharp edge of such a big engineering environment as a man could be. The motorcycle riding gave us that connection. His partner, Jochen Schanz came into the Touratch restaurant and we shook hands. He has production problems due to the implementation of a new system and boy did he look stressed. “What do you want Jochen,” I said, “money or time?” and he looked into the middle distance to think. Harsh question and not something he could answer just then. The two bosses have come a long way from when they developed the Zega panniers named after a small village in Africa.
Hermod the Dane has had his X-rays reviewed and the diagnosis is poor. Dr Caroline described it as a ‘non-displayed fracture through the head of the humuous;’ it’s a complete fracture with a small possibility of impaction, but it’s stable. Perfectly repairable with no future negative repercussions, but should he fall he could end up with a complete fracture needing major surgery, possible shoulder replacement, definite pinning and plating and six months or more recovery time with a strong chance of a reduced range of movements for ever. No contest. He packed his bags and prepared to fly home to Panama.
Day 3: Niedereschach to Landeck (Austria)
I am very sad today. To lose a rider, and especially such a good fellow like Hermod for him is a disaster and for me something that will haunt me for days. There is only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve: the fear of failure so at least he tried.
So we left.
Landeck to Rijeck (Croatia)
Long 600km ride across Austria and then the Dolomites. Hardly a straight section of road until we hit the autoroute and then headed east on the road to Cortina, swimming as we were through swathes of conifers stuck on the high mountains as if transplanted. The bends sweep and swoop as any rider knows who has crossed the Italian Alps, cramming its high mountains around narrow lanes as if sketching a route across a kind of wilderness. That night we staying on a boat hotel moored in the harbour in the centre of town.
Rijeck to Dubrovnik
5 kms out of the city Mac suffers a front wheel puncture on the new dual carriageway overlooking the port. I follow closely behind as do a couple of other riders who help him push the bike to the side of what fortunately was not a busy road. Quickly arriving on the scene two police cars close off the nearside lane and a route maintenance van arrives, blocking off vehicles with bollards to allow for a safe investigation of what the police treat as a ‘crash site.’ The police are polite, efficient and mark the bike with arrows and the road with chalk, measuring the skid marks to see if during the accident an infringement had occurred. 2 hours later we are allowed to leave and with the bike on the trailer we take the next exit.
Working on the bikes on a parking bay just off the carriageway, it's going to be a long day. Still, everyone is safe and the bikes are repairable. Mac's front tyre is fixed, the engine bars saved his water pump. Some metal wearing down at the base of the forks. Meanwhile Andy Grennan’s front brake isn't bleeding so he rides for the rets of the day with only a back brake.
The road down to Split was one of the sweetest routes I have ridden. Gently curving bends holding tightly to the contours of a warm coast and a sea lapping close to the edge of the road itself. Orange blossom smells sift from baskets of the fruit harvested from nearby hillsides. And the bends just keep on coming like a passage from some motorcycle heaven.
At the hotel in Dubrovnik news filtered back that another rider skedaddled his back end behind a bus and binned his bike. Another just fell off sort of spontaneously. The law of tall bikes and short legs always prevails and generally whilst 30% of the group have dumped their machinery on the Tarmac by day 5, the good news is there is plenty of time for the rest to follow suite. Day 6 awaits equally with excitement and trepidation.
Dubrovnik to Kastoria (Greece)
The ride down the remainder of the coast was short, without incident and magnificent. High crags of granite rock sunk as if from the sky down to a deep blue and turquoise sea. The water I'm sure was warm and of the type from which you never want to immerse. Sitting against the side of the road in hot textiles it was just possible to imagine small fish nibbling at my toes. Instead at the Montenegro border control we queued for an hour, pleasantly passing our time, discovering the lives of riders prepared to ride to Mongolia.
Paul didn't get into the hotel until 3am. He ran out of fuel after his GPS took him up a goat track. The eagerness of the riders to embrace true adventure is very strong. Having purchased some low octane stuff from a villager also selling fish - apparently Paul had no local currency so the fisherman gave him some sardines (so much for the bad reputation that sticks like a bad odour) and he rode back to the town and evaded the police patrol he had hitherto had the good sense to outrun earlier. Albanian police late at night would require payment for the slightest sleight. In the final few kilometres before the hotel Roland dumped his bike in a ditch, dabbing onto his front brake round a bend and both Rob, Shane and Andy came off at roundabouts in the rain.
Weather was filthy, all night. The Lake road was unmade - gravel, holed, lashing rain, dark, no street lights, alone a long way from home. Experience like this comes at a price but it's all good. Except that Peter driving the support vehicle arrived at 6am, Gavin the Aussie also went up a goat track, hit a pothole, punctured and had to wait for the backup. Peter was air-striked into position and the boy collected safely for repair, except that Peters GPS took him up a goat track too with no space to turn. GPS verses cartographic initiative? Well, the two actually work well together but such is the dependence mindset on technology, it rarely happens. So Gavin the Oz couldn't get his wheel off because the 17mm bolt had been screwed in too tight. His bike stayed on the truck the next day but he did get what he needed to be done in Thessaloniki and rested and refreshed he would be back on the bike by morning.
Kastoria to Alexandropoulis
Even after a hard nights riding, most of the group left early the next day. If there is one thing they can do well it is riding their bikes. In a way I pride myself on the calibre of rider – usually highly skilled and experienced pilots. So the sheer volume of accidents is something I don’t understand. At home they don’t crash, yet here the spills are very nearly serious enough to lose half the group.
Day 8: Alexandropoulis to Sapanca (Turkey)
The campsite at Alexandropoulis was superb and we left for the Turkish border. Weather was wet, hard drizzly rain and the autoroute leading to Istanbul was at a standstill. Halfway around the ring road, a complete section of carriageway had been closed and all the traffic heading from Europe and west Turkey towards Asia and crossing over the Bosphorus was diverted down a minor road. Of course any respecting motorcyclist will filter between vehicles and within an hour reports of incidents were being relayed back to me. Michael Burt had scraped along the Armco with his panniers. Shayne Dawson braked hard behind the vehicle in front, lost his bike wheel and slid across three lanes of slow moving traffic, while in front of me, Irishman Paul Walsh slipped off a step of Tarmac so throwing his bike across the hard shoulder.
Day 9: Sapanca to Goreme
It was somehow appropriate that a brave Austrian bloke with a beard, cross-dressed in a gold lame Shirley Bassey number, won the Eurovision Song Contest, because the mincers at the reception desk at the Royal Spanka Hotel couldn't organise flies round shit. Delightful chaps in a hideaway location but everyone got the wrong room and breakfast was an hour late, so except for the greedy Brummie (Grennan), no one got fed. Hardly a crises. The reality is we have become spoilt Europeans and even on a rough adventure we want it all perfectly packaged. This isn’t the view of the riders, they are casual and just get on with the riding, but as organiser it becomes a contradiction in terms – trying to tame the unpredictable. That's not fair to the riders who have averaged 400 mile days since leaving London. 8 days into the trip since leaving the UK and this divided into the 3200 miles we've ridden so far, means we’re working quite hard, as the Yamaha XT’s – as if impossible to break.
Today, by lunchtime, no one has crashed. On a minute-by-minute basis I carry my phone, message vibrate turned on, waiting for that dreaded call. By evening, everyone is parked opposite a hotel next to Cappadocian ‘Fairy Chimneys’ standing erect without a mince in sight. Interestingly, these ‘Hoodoos’ typically form in areas where a thick layer of a relatively soft rock, such as mudstone, poorly cemented sandstone or tuff (consolidated volcanic ash), is covered by a thin layer of hard rock. They all look like giant male appendages and are perfect inspiration for courting couples.