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Tour of Europe: Part 1 – the ferry, Bilbao and the Pyrenees

I’m no touring expert… far from it. I’ve only been on a long trip once, a few years ago, when I took my Blade around Europe for a week on my own. So this is less of a how-to tour guide compiled by a team of seasoned adventurers, and more about just sharing my experience and any lessons learned.

The plan

Firstly, it must be said that I am not a great planner. I prefer to sort the essentials and then just wing it which I know doesn’t work for a lot of people. All I really did in advance was decide very roughly where I wanted to go (which was simply a case of noting down a few must-ride roads), get the bike ready (service & new tyres), sort travel insurance, and book a ferry.

The tyres I chose were Dunlop Sportsmarts as I’d used them on a Portimao trackday and found them to be really good in terms of feel and grip (and more durable than Supercorsas). The ferry booking was Plymouth – Bilbao on the way out and Calais – Dover on the way back. I’m not a major fan of sat navs but I did get one for this journey to make sure that I could find the specific roads I wanted to include and also to make it easier to find somewhere to stay each night.

The day before I set off, I went to town and picked up some cheap socks & pants, thinking I’d rather dispose of them each day than carry around sweaty laundry. I packed my stuff, strapped everything to the bike, and went to bed with an early alarm set.

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Lakes, mountains, blue skies, and a bike – perfect

The route

The rough route was to ride down the length of the Pyrenees on the N-260, head through Andorra and into France, cross the Millau Viaduct, then head towards Monaco. After that, I would head north through Chamonix along Route Napoleon, swing over into Switzerland, and ride around Lake Geneva. The final leg was to cross over into Germany and ride along the B500 through the Black Forest and then head to Calais via Belgium and Luxembourg.

Luggage

I packed all my stuff in a Kriega R25 backpack and two Kriega tailpacks, a US20 and a US10 which clip together. I had it in my head to be really strict and take as little as possible, but I still took too much stuff, including a heavy duty chain so I could lock my bike up at night. That added some serious weight and, in hindsight, was probably unnecessary but I would have just fretted about my bike being stolen without it… which was unwanted stress so I just took it.

What I took

  • helmet

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    More mountains!

  • leathers
  • boots
  • gloves
  • earplugs
  • base layers (funky ones that bacteria can’t live in so can be worn over & over again)
  • back protector
  • neck buff
  • fleece
  • duck tape
  • cable ties
  • tools (not a toolkit – just a screwdriver & pair of pliers)
  • CO2 puncture repair kit
  • U-tag (usb dog tags which store emergency contact information)
  • wet wipes
  • spare gloves
  • clear visor
  • GoPros and mounts
  • ratchet straps
  • waterproofs
  • Tom Tom sat nav
  • digital camera
  • monster lock & chain
  • E111 card
  • travel insurance
  • chargers for phone, camera, sat nav & GoPros
  • basic toiletries (toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant, antiseptic spray)
  • normal clothes (shorts, jeans, trainers (one pair of each), a few non-disposable pairs of socks and pants, some cheap plain black tshirts, and a hoodie).

Next time I go away, I won’t bother with the chain or hoodie and will take fewer normal clothes. It was quite a lot of stuff to cart around so I’ll travel as light as possible next time.

Day 1 – Berkshire to Plymouth & the ferry

I woke up and got ready, had some breakfast and left around 10am as I had to ride 200 miles from Berkshire to Plymouth in time for a ferry that was leaving at 3.45pm. It was early June, and, hammering down with rain. Ideal. Consequently, I had a really miserable and cold ride the entire length of the A303 but made it in plenty of time to board the ferry and strap my bike down. They do provide straps but I brought a few of my own as a back-up.

My outward journey was with Brittany Ferries and the cost was about £250; my return journey was P&O and that was €42. I could have paid less on the way out but I’d booked a two-person cabin for the night for some space and to get a decent sleep. You can sit in a block of seats like on a plane and pay a lot less if you’d prefer, but I didn’t fancy that for 17 hours.

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Leaving Plymouth – grey and miserable

It was still miserable, grey, and raining as we pulled out of the port. There not being a lot of entertainment on a ferry, I had a quiet night, got some food, read for a bit and went to sleep. Rock and roll.

Day 2 – disembarking the ferry & getting to the Pyrenees

In the morning, it was obvious we’d crossed over that invisible line that surrounds the UK and keeps all the good weather out – it was gorgeous, blue skies and sunny. We pulled into the port and then there was a bit of a wait until the doors opened and the bikes were allowed out first.

I didn’t have the sat nav on so just followed everyone else through town. My vague plan was to head straight for the Pyrenees, picking up the N-260 which I’d heard a lot about and looked up on Google maps. It looked perfect – a long strip of well-surfaced tarmac running along the spine of the mountain range. After a while, I saw a sign for Pamplona and headed that way as the road I wanted began shortly after that.

The first thing that struck me was just how great the roads were as soon as I left Bilbao. I’d expected a bit of a slog until I neared the mountains, but straight away they were well-surfaced, completely deserted, twisty but also predictable, and the scenery was great. It was like riding out of Basingstoke city centre and immediately being on one of the best roads in Snowdonia. I was ecstatic – this was exactly what I’d come for.

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Approaching Spain – blue skies and hot!

New record for being pulled?

Unfortunately, my enthusiasm got the better of me and I pinned it, which led to me being stopped for speeding about 27 minutes after touching down on foreign soil. Ooops. I was taking a left-hander, accelerating out of it, and there were two motorcycle policemen stationary at a junction further up. They obviously heard me coming and blocked the road. I stopped and removed my helmet for the chat and had to admit I’d literally just got off the ferry. Luckily, I was let off with a warning after I said I was so excited to be in Spain on a bike – they smiled, told me to take it easy, and let me ride off. Phew.

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First petrol stop – better view than at my nearest BP

After a while, I stopped for fuel at a petrol station in the middle of nowhere with a backdrop of huge mountains. I had a sandwich and some water and set off again, passing through Pamplona and heading towards the N-260. The roads, which had been great from the start, were getting more and more fun as I got deeper into the Pyrenees. It was my first time riding in mountains and I was stunned at how amazing and quiet the roads were. They were also completely predictable – I don’t remember one instance of going into a corner and then needing to adjust my line as it was tighter than it looked going in. It was literally a case of setting up for the corner, tipping in, and then riding through at a consistent radius.

I reached a small mountain town called Biescas around 5pm and found a nice little hotel. I managed to book a room (speaking fluent Spanglish), checked in and went out for another ride for a few hours. It’s virtually impossible to find a bad road in the region – I just picked the first turning off the 260 and rode along there for an hour and then I turned back. If you haven’t been to the Pyrenees before, I highly recommend it. I don’t think it’s as epic in scale as the Alps, and may not have as many high passes full of hairpins to compete with the Stelvio, but it’s mostly completely deserted so you don’t get the volume of traffic as you do in the Alps. And the roads are all better than the best roads I’ve been on in the UK (although I haven’t ridden round Scotland yet so can’t offer a complete comparison).

When I got back, I had a steak for dinner at my hotel and met a bunch of riders from Germany on BMW GSs. Then it was another early night in preparation for the next day, my first full day in the Pyrenees.

To be continued…

Coming up in part 2:

  • the N260
  • new rear tyre in Andorra
  • an embarrassing off on gravel
  • wheelies across the Millau viaduct

 

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