THERE were some decent enough reasons for making this voyage of intense pleasure and crippling pain.
My new 2001 GSX-R600, in its glorious black and yellow, needed a good thousand miles of running in according to Suzuki, and after four years away from riding I wanted to give myself some serious time to get comfortable with my new weekend passion before taking myself near a track.
Second, I think I deserved a break after nine months of solid slog helping to relaunch motorcyclenews.com.
Third, Easter was upon us and I thought it would be nice to spend a ‘special’ day with my two baby nieces, who live in Switzerland.
So, this is what I planned: ferry to Bilbao (northern Spain). Day 1: morning at the Guggenheim museum (where there’s a bike display on), then up the Pyrenees to Andorra. Day 2: back down the Pyrenees towards Perpignan and then across the South of France into Italy to Turin. Day 3: up and over the mountains into Switzerland to Zurich. Day 4: lie on very soft cushions with all aching parts on ice and eat chocolate bunnies. Day 5: Up through Alsace to Strasbourg and Luxembourg. Day 6: Luxembourg to Calais.
Booking the ferry was easy. A five minute phone call with a nice lady at P&O got me a cabin with a bed (for two nights) and my GSX-R a thorough lashing up in the hold below.
It’s always terrifying watching your bike get tied up with fat ship rope in a smoggy car deck. It does make you pray for a calm crossing and everyone is very obviously relieved when they get back to their bikes to see them standing and OK.
We docked at 8am and I was off the boat having my wheels sprayed with disinfectant twenty minutes later (still not sure whether genuinely to stop the spread of foot and mouth or just for the pleasure of covering Brits in toilet duck).
Still, it was better than at our end, where they made us ride across a ten foot disinfecting skidmat that almost had the ZX-12R in front of me on its side. Beware if you go through a port while the epidemic is still here.
By 9am I was having a cup of coffee strong enough to wake the dead surrounded by Spanish men old enough to be my great-great granddad tucking into their second or third brandy of the day – that is the life I want when I retire.
I arrived at the Guggenheim at 10am, before the queues started getting long. The queues get long for a good reason – it is a awesome place.
At 1pm I was back on the bike and on a twisting, undulating dual-carriageway. Spanish and Italian motorways are quite fun because everyone drives fast and there are real bends. I was still running the bike in and at 7000rpm in top I was doing 90mph, which was perfect for getting the feel of being on a bike at speed again.
That bit of the Basque country also has a very warm feel looking something like a cross between the scenery in Asterix and the home of Russel Crowe in The Gladiator.
So from Bilbao I went up through San Sebastian and into France, where it started getting chillier and much more boring for about the next two hours. My Wolf leather jacket has air vents everywhere and I ended up putting my waterproof oversuit on against the wind. I wish I had invested in a touring jacket before leaving. It would have been worth it because it only got colder.
I dropped off the motorway at about 5pm at St Gaudens and headed south into the Pyrenees towards Foix. This was a gorgeous tree-lined road winding through small villages with the odd castle dotted around and the permanent backdrop of snow-capped mountains in the evening sun. I started to open it up to 10,500 rpm and it just felt so good. I was beginning to think I might not make it to Andorra before dark but no longer cared. This was putting a big grin on my face.
At Foix I filled up with petrol (again) and started the climb up to Andorra. It was a blast on the senses – cold dry air, unbelievable scenery, and great, great roads. Within an hour I was up above the snow line and not long after that was coming over the peak of Andorra to drop down the 10 or 15 miles into the capital city. Since the motorway, that was about three and a half hours of fantastic roads – enough to leave anyone very happy indeed.
Also enough to leave anyone riding a GSX-R600 in agony, which I discovered on my graceless dismount outside a hotel. It was already 8.45pm (but still light as there’s an extra hour of daylight on the continent) and all I wanted was a safe place to leave the bike, a hot bath and huge meal. I got all of the above in a very nice hotel for about £50. Andorra la Vella (the capital) is basically a tax haven, so you can buy electronic goods and Louis Vuitton luggage at a discount but not much else. It does mean that hotels and food are good value.
In the morning I blew away the cobwebs with more kick-arse Spanish coffee (which I’m sure would not be legal in this country) and strapped on my luggage (an Oxford Sports expandable tankbag and a rucksack strapped to the pillion seat).
The tankbag is great – easy to take off and put on, you can carry it around like a rucksack and best of all you can lean on it on long stretches to take the strain off your wrists.
I set off already grinning, knowing that the 150 odd miles to Perpignan would all be on more of those fab winding roads.
I wasn’t at all disappointed. After passing the skiiers on their first runs of the day, I wound my way down the mountains, hairpin after hairpin, the bends gradually becoming wider and wider. Most of this was in second and third and I started to lean the bike over hard for the first time. At least I thought I was until two Blades came blasting past me.
The instinct to chase welled up but then I saw the drop off the edge of the next bend into a rocky gorge below and the instinct to live got the better of me. Next year…
I stopped in Perpignan to reflect. I decided then that if I didn’t see another fun road in the rest of the trip it would still have been worth it. In fact, if it hadn’t been for my nieces in Switzerland, I would have stayed around the Pyrenees for a couple more days. It’s stunning and the roads are fantastic.
But now the fun for the day was pretty much over – I just wanted to get across France by the end of the day and it was already noon. So I put my head down and prepared for a few dull hours on the motorway and then a bizarre thing happened.
From a pleasant, cool sunny day promising the onset of spring it turned suddenly into a freezing, cloudy wind-tunnel-threatening-apocalypse for anyone on or in a vehicle under 30 tonnes.
My waterproofs are great at keeping off the wind, but not being the tightest fit, they also make great sails and so I was buffeted left right and centre in mild panic about disappearing under one of the many swaying trucks.
After passing two accidents I pulled off the motorway. Here it was worse, with no trees as a wind barrier and even stopping at junctions I had to be careful to put both feet down firmly for fear of having the bike blown on its side. Enough was enough.
I had made it to Avignon (halfway across the south coast of France). After an hour messing around trying to find a hotel (not easy on Good Friday) I drove out of town and hit lucky in a small village called Sourges. Basic room, four course meal, half a bottle of wine (and live local cabaret, which I managed to escape) for £45. There was also a locked car park for the bike.
Now I had to plan a route from Avignon to Zug (near Zurich) which would be easily done in a day and not too boring. I decided to get on the motorway first thing as far as Grenoble to kill off a load of miles and then take back roads up to Geneva. This was like a reverse of the day before – the first part in high winds, very cold and generally miserable before leaving the motorway to find sun, scenes straight from Heidi and roads sweeping gently up towards Switzerland. It was another amazing mood swing from " Why the f*** am I doing this to myself? " to " God, this is the best thing I have done in ages! "
I climbed up to Annecy with a GSX-R 750 rode by a Frenchman with very long hair. We passed a bad crash – someone had lost their 996 coming down the other way. The bike was mangled and it did not look good for the rider. Sobered by that, I took a break for crepes and coffee and to thaw out a bit before another 40 miles of the same roads snaking up to Geneva.
Easter Sunday was a day of rest and chocolate. It was also raining and very cold. I prayed for the weather to change and it did – it got a bit colder (but kept on raining). I set off anyway as the forecast for the next day was no better. My waterproofs – a Weise oversuit – which cost £35 were great.
Nothing got through them, even the motorway spray, and it really did rain, sleet, hail for about 90 miles. My boots got a bit wet but the worst was my gloves. I had no over gloves and they got wet through, which in the cold was agony.
After Zurich and Mulhause it brightened up into a Spring day and I came off the motorway for a quick thrash up into Strasbourg for lunch. Strasbourg is very beautiful and has a big, impressive castle which we owned before the war… apparently.
From Strasbourg it was up through Alsace, through Metz to Luxembourg. Alsace is an amazingly bright green. So green it can give you a headache after a while as it all goes past in a blur.
The roads were straight and fast with long sweeping bends. By Metz the sun was out again and it was the first time I could take off my waterproofs that day with any confidence of staying dry.
Like a butterfly emerging from its ugly crysalis, I unzipped myself and stretched out in my glorious comfy leathers for the run up to Luxembourg.
I went to Luxembourg because I have never been there. No one I know has ever been there. Maybe there was a good reason, maybe we were all missing something.
I’m happy to say, we have all been missing something – Luxembourg is a stunning town with a huge gorge running down its middle, meaning lots of bridges with excellent views. I was a bit sad the next day when I got on my bike. Partly because it was so dirty and partly because I knew I basically had a dull run up to Calais. I reckon you could spend months researching roads through that bomb-shattered, north west bit of France without finding one that was any real fun. And they’re really badly surfaced. And it was cold and showering now and then. And my back hurt. And I wanted to be at home. So I took it easy all the way to Calais (wishing secretly to myself that I was on a big fat tourer with massive fairing).
If I did this again I would take a touring jacket and waterproof gloves to better cope with changes in weather. A double-bubble screen (which was on order but had not arrived) would also have made things much more comfy.
The good bits to ride were the Pyrenees (and that was very very good) and the run up to and around Switzerland. If you do this trip, spend two or three days around the Pyrenees, take two days across France, and come into Switzerland from Italy, which is even better. It would be worth the ferry to Bilbao and back just for a few days in the Pyrenees and a trip to the Guggenheim. Alsace is very pretty, very green and if the weather had been better would have been great fun with its sweeping bends. The rest of it (and that’s a lot of miles) was quite painful done in such a short time on a focused, small sports bike. Two weeks for the same trip would have been fantastic.
The whole trip cost me just over £717 including ferries, tolls, fuel, food and some decent hotels.
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