Sports bikes to Africa

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We all know that sportsbikes are so focused that you need a track to get the best out of them. But, as has always been the case, it doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy them every day.

The Ducati Panigale and BMW S1000RR we have here might have close to 200bhp, sticky tyres and track-orienated suspension, but power deliveries are smooth, seats are soft and cockpits roomy – they’re actually perfect for long distances.

The latest technology also endows them with variable electronic riding modes with kindergarten-soft power deliveries, fool-proof traction control and virtually idiot-proof ABS.

It’s perfectly possible to do long distances on a sportsbike across Europe and your prize at the end of your ride are the roads of your dreams, on bikes built to go around corners.

Sure, you’ll be a bit comfier on a heavy tourer or adventure bike, but the twisties won’t be anywhere near as much fun.

Winter is actually the perfect time to take a sportsbike touring holiday, because if you know where to look you’ll find these dream roads, bathed in sunshine. And one of the best places to go in the middle of December is the southern coast of Spain, so that’s where we’re headed – Almeria, on the south east coast.

Almeria has some of the best dry and sunny mountain roads in Europe, even in December and a fantastic circuit. It’s a sportsbike-lover’s playground, but it didn’t quite scratch our adventurer’s itch. So we carried on riding along the coast to Algeciras and jumped on a ferry to Ceuta, on the northern coast of Africa.

Our 2500-mile adventure from MCN HQ in Peterborough, through Spain to Ceuta took two weeks, via the ferry from the UK to Santander, northern Spain. It allowed us to bypass France, its awful weather and expensive tolls.  It also helped preserve  our sportsbikes’ tyres.

Let the adventure begin.

It was never our intention to ride this far, but with 1328 miles under our wheels we’re here in Ceuta, a Spanish colony on the northern most tip of Africa.
We’d always planned to ride to Almeria for the sunshine, roads and racetrack – an adventure enough on a couple of no-holds-barred superbikes, but with the African continent so close you can actually see it from Spain, we decided to keep on trucking and set foot on another continent.

The Spanish always moan about the Brits owning Gibraltar, so it’s ironic they have a similar lump of land they call their own inside what is basically Morocco. But that’s good for us because it’s the easiest way to sample a slice of Africa. Being part of the EU, there’s no customs, special paperwork or currency worries – just hop on a 30-minute Balearia fast ferry from Algeciras, near Gibraltar, and you’re there.

It’s the middle of December and the news on TV paints apocalyptic pictures of floods, high winds and sub-zero temperatures back home, but here in Ceuta the sky is blue, the sun is out and the temperature is in the 20s. Best of all is the thought that this time yesterday we were racing around Almeria circuit, mixing it with race bikes and riding our sportsbikes flat out.

We’re not exactly around the world biking explorers. We’re not Charlie, Ewan or Nick Sanders, but we’ve had the best adventure we could imagine on our favourite kind of bikes. We could’ve ridden here on a tourer or adventure bike and been a bit more comfortable, but for us they’re just not exciting enough on great roads compared to a sportsbike.

Ceuta is pretty, has a picturesque port and some steep twisty mountain roads to play on. It’s a nice place to be for a day, but unremarkable – it’s Spain, with a distinct Arabian twist. But keep riding south and everything changes when you reach the border for Morocco and Africa-proper.

Hundreds of people suddenly appear and swarm the border buildings like ants. There’s a feeling of barely-contained chaos and a big police presence. People are overloaded with bags full of food, folded-up cardboard boxes and god-knows what else.

I haven’t got a clue what’s going on here, but in these buzzing, vibrant surroundings, a big part of us wants to carry on. We see a British-registered BMW R1200GS Adventure, two-up, fully-loaded, with a spare tyre bungeed to the back. Now that’s what I’d take to travel through the heart of Africa.

Ride any further on a sportsbike now, without a perfectly surfaced twisty road as the prize at the end and you’re just being bloody-minded and trying to prove a point.

But here we are with the sun on our faces, on our beloved sportsbikes. It seems a million miles away from when we left the MCN office in Peterborough a few days ago and headed down to Portsmouth to catch the ferry to Spain.

With our whole adventure ahead of us, my mate Bob picks the Panigale and I jump on the S1000RR for the freezing cold journey down the A1, M25, A3 and M27. Bob’s happy to be riding a Panigale for the first time and he’s marvelling at its smooth gearbox, slick quickshifter and searing speed. I’m just grateful to be on a bike with heated grips.

But it doesn’t take long for excitement to turn to apathy. Although I’ll figure out how to do it properly by the end of the trip, I’ve packed so badly my rucksack weighs a ton and my tank bag is so tall I can’t see over the top of it.

My riding kit is crushing me like a straightjacket, too. I’m wearing leathers, ready for the track in Almeria, so to keep warm I’m wearing thick thermals underneath and waterpoofs over the top.

Things become a lot easier when I’ve lightened my rucksack and lowered my tankbag later on in the journey (see ‘what we took’ box-out), but by the time we hit the M25, I dreading a ride to Africa in such discomfort…sh*t, I’m about to run out of fuel.

I’ve made the mistake of assuming the BMW was full before we left (and relying on the Ducati needing fuel first), but for the last 20-odd miles, zipping through rush hour traffic, I’ve been blissfully unaware I’m on reserve.

My tank bag is obscuring the yellow fuel light and it’s only when I hit a bump and the tankbag does a little dance, I see it and the LCD display telling me I’ve only got four-miles of fuel to go. After turning off the M25, we luckily find fuel on the A4 near Heathrow, with zero miles left in the tank.

By the time we reach Portsmouth, I’m freezing, despite the heated grips, and grumpy. Only a month ago I’d tested some big, relaxing touring bikes to the south of France in warm, comfy riding kit. Now I’m on some little BMW race replica riding in a straightjacket, an elephant on my back and a brick wall in front of me.

The idea to take the ferry to Spain seems genius right now – 24 hours of warmth, food, beer and the thought of dry, sunny roads the other end. Amen to that.

But any thoughts of sombreros and sun cream in northern Spain are dashed as soon as we arrive at Santander’s port. For the next 764 of 784 miles from here to Almeria, the weather is grim. It’s raining and because most of Spain is mountainous and at high altitude, bitterly cold, too, hovering between one and five degrees.

‘Rain’ and ‘Wet’ riding modes are selected to take advantage of our bikes’ friendlier power deliveries (and a softer suspension setting on the Panigale) and we grind out the miles, dividing the journey into tanks of fuel, which thanks to the Panigale means stopping every 70-100-miles.

Its 17-litre fuel tank is only half a litre smaller than the BMW’s, but it only does 38mpg, compared to the S1000RR’s 45mpg, so the fuel light comes on around 80-miles. Practically, once you see 70-miles on the Ducati’s trip you have to stop at the next service station – ignore it at your peril, as you never know when the next one will be.

To get to the south as quick as possible, we don’t linger at petrol stations, aside from lunchtimes, when we search out little off-piste villages for a snack – a simple meal chorizo, fried egg and fresh bread is a Spanish speciality and to die for. Delicious. For the first few fuel stops from the ferry, I’m sick – still suffering the head-spinning effects of the brutal Bay of Biscay.

During the warmer months you’d be spoilt for amazing roads to ride on the way down. Northern Spain is beautiful. Snow-covered mountains, lush green forests and Swiss Alp-like architecture is about as far away as the clichéd Benidorm portrayal of Spain you can get and off the motorway the roads are spectacular.

Then there are the ski resorts of northern Madrid, a biker’s paradise when the snow’s buggered-off, leaving miles of magical twists and turns. Further south is the Sierra Nevada mountain range and the roads we’ve come for.

We get a final blast of freezing fog for good measure near Guadix, but as we descend down the twisty A92 motorway towards Spain’s south east coast, the sky turns blue and the temperature rises. Almeria is reported to be the driest place in Europe. It’s the home of the Spaghetti Western and the kind of scenery you expect to see Wile. E. Coyote and Road Runner racing around in. It’s also where you’ll find some of the best sportsbike roads around. 

Despite a sportsbike’s reputation for being cramped and uncomfortable the S1000RR and Panigale have been a piece of cake on the motorways. The Ducati is the roomiest of the two with wide bars and lots of legroom. It has fantastic LED headlights, which turn night into brilliant white and a light-sensitive dash.

There’s also an outside temperature gauge, which might not sound like a big deal, but when you’re cold and you can track the temperature going up as you descend mountains, it keeps your spirits up.

The BMW makes big miles easy thanks to its turbine-smooth engine, soft seat and heated grips, but the pegs are a bit too high for my lanky legs, so I’m riding with feet like Daffy Duck.

Various get-offs over the years has given me the knees, back and wrists of an 80-year old, but I’m not really feeling uncomfortable on either bike now we’re fully plugged in to the journey.

Tankbags and the windblast support our chests, so wrists don’t get a hammering and on the roomy Panigale especially, knees don’t get too squashed. My back is actually fine and hurts much more on an upright bike, where you can’t help but slouch after a few hundred miles.

With Almeria getting ever closer, the now-dry motorway really starts to shake its hips and wiggle. It’s the first time since we left Peterborough we’ve really been able to lean over and do anything but sit squarely in our seats.

As the curves get tighter we start hanging off and moving feet around the footpegs. We toggle up through the bikes’ electronic riding modes, in search of more instant power, and for the Panigale, stiffer suspension. 

We turn off the A92 motorway at Sorbas/Tabernas and throw off our waterproofs. This stretch of tarmac runs past Almeria circuit and to the road we’ve come for: the slice of heaven that’s the A-1102 from Sorbas to the coast.

This is one of the most spectacular roads in Europe and the location for many an MCN winter group test, not to mention numerous manufacturer’s model launches. It’s mile after mile of second to fourth gear corners, perfect tarmac, breathtaking scenery and not a soul to be seen, except us.

This is why we’ve come all this way on sportsbikes. Unlike bigger, more accommodating bikes, the S1000RR’s and Panigale’s limits are way in excess of what we could hope to dish out on the road.

Sportsbikes will stop in time for every corner, no matter how hard you throw yourself at them – keep on leaning and our knees touch the road. Acceleration out of corners seems mind boggling after riding 700-plus miles in the rain at barely tickover. 

On these magnificent roads the BMW is smooth, fast, exhilarating and easy to ride. It leaves the slower-steering Ducat behind and, amazingly, has more grunt off the corners than the slightly peakier Panigale – who’d have thought that from a Ducati?

In a race, the perfectly polished S1000RR will always win, but that’s not the whole story on the road, because the Ducati is the more rewarding, not to mention the one that gets the admiring glances wherever you go. The BMW, meanwhile, is invisible most of the time. Ducati for show, BMW for go.

You sense the Panigale flex its muscles through every corner, feel every pulse of its big, shouty V-twin engine and every grain of tarmac through the sticky Pirellis, Ohlins suspension and racing seat. Pulling on the front brake lever is like riding into a cliff.

The Ducati’s party piece is lifting its front wheel through second gear flip-flops, like John Kocinski on his old Marlboro Yamaha YZR250 GP bike.

The Ducati’s exhaust note, which is too loud for most UK trackdays, sounds sensational in these mountains. Anyone listening miles away would be fooled into thinking a major storm was brewing. Anything other than a sportsbike on these roads would leave you frustrated and unfulfilled.

This trip would be worth it just for this stretch of road and we end up riding it twice…and can’t resist making a detour to ride it a third time on the way back from Ceuta. But we’ve still got Almeria circuit to ride (see separate story) and an African continent to set foot on, which after the fun of the track, is where we’re off to now…

Leaving our hotel near the track at 6am for the four hour ride to the ferry terminal at Algeciras, the Ducati’s air temperature display shows a measly one degree – this bloody cold seems to be the story of our travels and wearing vented boots I have to run around the forecourt at every petrol station to get heat back into my feet.

In the pitch black, the lack of cat’s eyes on the roads and motorways in Spain is more of a problem than you’d think and with the dazzle of on-coming traffic it’s hard to see where you are on the road, especially when it’s twisty.

The sun doesn’t pop up over the horizon until 8.30 (lazy), but lights the sky up in a breathtaking explosion of bright red and orange over Malaga. The magnificent sunrise lifts our spirits and we’re soon in Algeciras, lining up for our ferry to Ceuta.

We’ve been riding for five days and these two sportsbikes now feel part of us – they fit us perfectly. We don’t notice our luggage anymore, or our extra layers. We’ve got a sixth sense for each other, the traffic around us and what the road is going to do next.

Our adventure has melded into one gloriously speed-filled blur, charged with ever changing villages, towns and cities. We float past stunning sea views, navigate beautiful mountains and creep though charming little Spanish villages, burning tank after tank of fuel, until we pull into a new town that evening, a hotel and that beer you promised yourself you wouldn’t have this morning, when you woke up with a slightly fuzzy head.

This has been an amazing journey on two incredible sportsbikes – adventure bikes, in every sense of the word.

The way back
After a day’s sightseeing in Ceuta and marvelling at the brown water coming out of our hotel’s taps, we head back and travel back up the coast past Almeria to Cartagena, where I take part in the Triumph Daytona 675R launch for a few days.

Once done, we head north away from the coast and within 20 miles the sun and warmth disappear and we’re back into the same weather we had on the way down. By the time we reach Bilbao the poor bikes are filthy from rain, mud, brake dust and chain lube. We notice that the BMW’s hugger has a go-faster slot cut into it, allowing dirt to shower the rear shock.

Both bikes have behaved themselves, more or less. The Ducati threw a wobbly in Almeria after I pulled a long wheelie. It must’ve confused the wheel speed sensors and shut everything down, but luckily mended itself after being sat at the side of the road for 10 minutes.

The BMW’s side stand lets us down as we hit northern Spain. The side stand bolts kept coming out and wouldn’t do back up tightly – they’d stripped their threads.

We can’t use the stand by the end of the trip, which makes fuel stops interesting and we have to persuade the car-deckhands in the ferry to let us strap it to the wall instead of the stand. Worse still, the S1000RR falls over as Bob gets off it – the side stand gives way and pins him underneath.

The way back always seems quicker than the way there and before we know it, Spain is done, the ferry has docked at Portsmouth and within a mile of leaving the docks we’re in more traffic than we’ve seen in the whole of Spain. Back at MCN HQ our adventure is already a distant memory.