Two Aussie blokes riding their BMW R1150GSs from Australia to Europe

Category: Austria

A rather dramatic end of the road after 34,119kms

After being stuck in Vienna far longer than expected whilst we tried to finalise settling down, the opportunity to return to London and ride the bike home finally presented itself. Unfortunately Moni decided that she wasn’t able to spare the time to join me, so our original plans of heading north through Belgium, The Netherlands and Northern Germany to catch up with her friends there were made null and void. I decided however to make the most of the opportunity and return to The Alps where I could enjoy the mountain riding – this time without a pillion. It also gave me the chance to catch up with another friend from Beijing, Becs, who’d moved back to Geneva a few years ago.

With views like this, I'm pretty sure you'd be keen to get to The Alps too

With views like this, I’m pretty sure you’d be keen to get to The Alps too

With a tight timeline and The Alps firmly in my sight, my trip across France was again nothing more than a commute. I considered stopping in Paris for the night, but the thought of navigating the bike through one of Europe’s biggest cities just to say “I’ve done it” didn’t really enthuse me, so I steered clear. And so in two days, stopping for nothing but food and fuel, I made it to Geneva.

It was fantastic to see Becs again and she wasted no time in showing me some of Geneva’s eating and drinking highlights – we hadn’t seen each other in four years, and enjoying beers on Lake Geneva really emphasised the cultural differences to Beijing. But The Alps were a stone’s throw away so the following morning I set off to put myself in their midst.

I’d marked a few mountain passes on the map, the first being the Grimsel Pass. After giving the bike a good flogging I stopped at the damn wall of Lake Grimsel to take a break and a photo or two. There were motorbikes everywhere, but one stood out: a brand new R1200GS fully loaded, complete with a spare set of heavy duty tyres. Of course, when you see a big bike in an Asian country it’s not at all unusual to see a spare set of tyres on it. But in Western Europe big bikes and motorcycle workshops are in abundance, so I knew this bloke was heading somewhere different. Turns out he’d noticed the “AUS” sticker next to my number plate and we immediately knew we were on bigger journeys than the other bikers tearing up and down the passes.

The old adventurer and the new with the old bike and the new.

The old adventurer and the new with the old bike and the new.

Ewen was only four days into his trip around the world (check out his blog – he’d left from Cologne in Germany and was planning to spend two years on the road. Heading in the opposite direction to that which we had come, he was enroute to Australia, after which he was planning to skip across to The Americas. After the small talk we realised that we were heading in the same direction for the day and both wanted to smash a few more passes. So with no good reason not to, we decided to ride together.

The Old Girl, at the top of Furka Pass

The Old Girl, at the top of Furka Pass

And smash the mountain passes we did. From Grimsel we next took on the Furka Pass, and that in turn led us to the Gotthard Pass. The Gotthard Pass took us in the wrong direction, but we decided to ride it anyway as that would give us a good excuse to do it all over again in reverse. This is where it all went horribly wrong.

Spurred on by another rider who was undoubtedly on a more powerful bike than I, I was giving the Old Girl everything she had to keep up as we zig-zagged back up the pass. I wrapped the throttle on after coming out of a hairpin and the bike revved in turn – but there was no power to the wheel. Trying again, the engine screamed, but forward momentum escaped me. Needless to say I was a touch disappointed that here, on the first day of what I’d hoped would be several in The Alps, my bike was going nowhere.

Eventually Ewen came back, realising that I was no longer in his rear vision mirror. He graciously offered his help to try and sort it out with me but I refused: we’d only met two hours before, and four days into his journey he didn’t need to be burdened with a bloke on broken bike. And besides, after riding more than 30,000kms across the world I was pretty sure I could sort something out on my own. So I bid him good luck and farewell, and proceeded to push my bike in the opposite direction.

The wonderful thing about breaking down near the top of a mountain pass in the European Alps is that you’ve got a long way to get to the bottom. I rolled the Old Girl no less than 5kms (at quite a pace too) before the hill flattened out and I rolled to a stop. The nearest campground was still 10kms away so I turned her over to see what might happen. Applying the throttle very gently I was able to get some momentum, but if I pushed it any harder than 4000RPM the power disappeared. So ever so gently I eased towards the camp site.

The timing was painfully ironic – I was only 1000kms away from finishing the journey for good, and yet here I was stuck in the middle of Switzerland with a bike that couldn’t ride any faster than an electric wheelchair. Suspecting the clutch to be the cause of my woes, I posted on the Advrider forum to see what others more knowledgable than me thought of the situation. The night’s campsite set me back $45AUD so I wasn’t really enthusiastic about getting the bike repaired in Switzerland; the clutch after all is one of the most time consuming jobs to do on a BMW. I really just wanted to know if people thought I could make it back to Vienna.

I woke the following morning to a multitude of replies to my post on the forum – the internet really is an incredible thing! There were two possible scenarios put forward: firstly as I suspected, my clutch was spent; secondly it could be that the drive shaft was turning inside itself, causing the loss of power. It was proposed that if it was the clutch I might be able make it to Vienna; if it was the drive shaft the bike was going home on a truck.

The fly wheel and clutch plates from behind the starter motor

The fly wheel and clutch plates from behind the starter motor

I pulled the starter motor off the side of the bike to take a look at the clutch, which to my untrained eyes looked fine – no fluid to be seen which could cause slippage. But without the means to inspect the driveshaft myself, I resolved to try riding 80kms to the nearest BMW dealership to see what they had to say on the matter. I decided their opinion would determine my course of action – providing of course that I made it there at all.

To go easy on the bike, I choose to ride under the Gotthard Pass - a 16.9km tunnel - the fourth longest in the world

To go easy on the bike, I choose to ride under the Gotthard Pass – a 16.9km tunnel – the fourth longest in the world

After perhaps the slowest, most nervous 80kms I’d ever ridden I arrived just 30 minutes before closing time. The head mechanic took the bike for a quick spin and upon his return he announced through a thick Swiss-German accent “it’s really bad”. Well, no surprises there.

He suspected it was the clutch and quoted approximately 2000 Swiss Francs for the labour to repair it – near enough to $3000AUD – which is almost what the bike itself is worth. This was all the motivation I needed to jump straight back on the bike and try my luck to Vienna. The first goal was just to get out of Switzerland; if it did come to the point that I needed to call a truck, my wallet desperately wanted to be making that phone call from Germany or Austria – not Switzerland. It was already 6pm, and I had 200kms to ride before the next border – Europe never felt so big! By 10PM I found a campsite just over the Austrian border. No more than two minutes passed after I’d set up my tent before the heavens opened. What a day.

The heavens were still wide open when I woke the following morning – it was pissing down. This was to be my last day on the bike, and what a way to start it. I packed the sopping wet tent in the pouring rain and proceeded to get sopping wet in the process. Over breakfast I checked the map: 650kms to Vienna. Then I checked the weather forecast: rain all day, all the way to Vienna.

Wet and cold and enroute to Vienna

Wet and cold and enroute to Vienna

And so my last day on the bike was spent riding on the shoulder of the autobahn on a busted bike for ten hours in the non-stop pouring rain. Seriously, it didn’t let up even for five minutes. It was the most depressing day I’ve ever spent on a motorcycle. Of course, the silver lining was that the bike made it to Vienna without further incident, and I’m seriously thankful the journey didn’t end on the back of a truck.

When I did finally step off the bike every inch of me was soaked through – my supposedly waterproof gear was saturated; water squished out of my boots as I walked; my camera and passport were damp inside my waterproof tank bag wrapped in it’s waterproof rain cover; the GoPro on the handlebars sat in a small pool of water inside its waterproof case. Under these circumstances it was difficult to appreciate what I’d just finished: 34,119kms from one corner of the globe to another.

Getting off the bike in Vienna for the last time. This photo says a lot

Getting off the bike in Vienna for the last time. This photo says a lot

As stereotypical as it may sound, it was Ewan McGregor and Charlie Borman’s “Long Way Round” that originally inspired me to ride a motorcycle. Their journey was presented as a stylised adventure and it’s popularity spawned a new category of motorcycling complete with motorcycles to go with it: Adventure Motorcycling. Subconsciously it was they who planted the seed for Drew and I more than ten years ago. Commercial hype aside, our our journey was very similar – an adventure. And how lucky I was to share it with my best mate Drew, with my wife Monica joining me at times along the way.

The dream team in Kathmandu

The dream team in Kathmandu

But now, several weeks after the journey’s completion I’m left not with a sense of adventure, but an overwhelming sense of privilege. Privilege that I had the opportunity and the means to complete such an epic adventure. I had health, financial means and freedom from responsibilities like children and mortgages – not to mention an understanding wife! However these privileges I was aware of even before we departed.

As the journey progressed I became acutely aware of a different sort of privilege – the privilege of circumstance. This adventure didn’t require extraordinarily hard work, nor did I have to make extraordinary sacrifices to achieve it; I’m just an ordinary guy living an otherwise ordinary life. But I was born into a life immeasurably more privileged than so many other people. It’s very difficult to perceive this as you go about normal life, especially living in the city that for the sixth year running has been ranked as the world’s most liveable.

It becomes painfully obvious however as you travel through developing countries with little wealth or prosperity. When you’re approached at traffic lights by emancipated child-beggars. As you overtake a family of five travelling together on a 100cc scooter. When you stop at road works and watch women laying tar by hand. When you see rubble piled up on street corners twelve months after an earthquake. When you pass men sitting together in the back of a pickup holding machine guns. When you see buildings pockmarked with bullet holes. After seeing these things, you realise that you really do live a privileged life.

As we travelled through Australia, nobody looked twice at us on our adventure motorcycles. Nor did we score a second glance from anybody beyond Turkey. But in developing countries people showed us real interest – we were different. The interest I’m sure was genuine, but fundamentally it was not us that they were interested in. They were interested in a life that was foreign to them, a life that in their realms of possibility could never be possible – we were exposing them to something that previously had only ever existed on TV or an illegally copied DVD. We were unreal to them.

Surrounded by people in Pakistan who couldn't quite understand what they were seeing

Surrounded by people in Pakistan who couldn’t quite understand what they were seeing

And it is this that I am left with: how truly privileged I am to have completed such a journey. For Drew and I it’s been the adventure of a lifetime, and I hope from behind your computer or smartphone you’ve enjoyed coming along for the ride.

With our sincerest thanks,

Drew & James – The Blokes on Spokes

2016-05-19 at 19-28-01

Central Europe – a change of lineup and a change of mindset

It was a strange feeling saying goodbye to Drew after literally spending every waking minute together for the last four months. We’d travelled so far, met so many people and experienced so much; together. Of course, the practical part of me (which a lot of people would argue is the most dominant) knew from the beginning that this moment was coming. But that didn’t make it any easier to say farewell.

What did make it easier though was the knowledge that for me, the journey wasn’t over yet. After spending a few weeks in Vienna making preparations for our residency it was out with the old, in with the new and back on the road again. Like it or not Drew has been replaced by Moni, my wife, and two up we’re now making our way across Europe.

This change in personnel has also marked a significant change in attitude for the journey. You can’t channel Casey Stoner when you’re two up, not if you want to stay married that is. Road selection hasn’t been about how many bends it has or how high it’s altitude is, and certainly not whether there’s any dirt we can hit. It has become a delicate balance of practicality; how quickly will we reach our destination vs how much will we enjoy the time on the bike.

And despite the change in personnel, I can’t help but recognise there’s been a shift in the journey that’s totally out of my hands. We’re no longer ‘adventure motorcyclists’ because if we’re totally honest, we’re no longer on an adventure. Travel through Europe is blissfully easy; people follow the rules, road quality is magnificent, food is fantastic, infrastructure functions in a functional fashion, you don’t have to factor four hours to cross a border and you can sit down on the toilet and use paper instead of your hands to clean up after yourself. We’re tourists and we’re on holiday, we just happen to be doing it on a motorcycle.

And we're on the road

And we’re on the road

This transition from adventurer to tourist has been apparent in the way other people interact with us too – previously our motorcycles would attract attention, and when asked what our purpose was people would clearly struggle to comprehend just what was wrong with us.

You can't be sure your tank's really full unless 50 people confirm that it's full

You can’t be sure your tank’s really full unless 50 people confirm that it’s full

Now we don’t stand out in the crowd – nobody seems to notice us riding a bike that’s 13 years old and not straight off the factory floor like most of the other bikes we see (and gee BMW must be doing alright for themselves at the moment). I suspect that most people think the ‘AUS’ on the back of my bike stands for Austria instead of Australia as even fellow motorcyclists don’t engage in conversation with us – it’s all just so normal.

Waiting to board the ferry to Sardinia - we lined up with 10 other bikes, and none of them even said hello

Waiting to board the ferry to Sardinia – we lined up with 10 other bikes, and none of them even said hello

And so it’s with this new line up and mindset that Moni and I have made it two thousand kilometres further west of Vienna. I had organised to spend a week on the Italian island of Sardinia for Moni’s Christmas present, so it was in the south-west direction that I pointed the handlebars. We ate breakfast in Graz, Austria, had lunch in Ljubljana, Slovenia, before arriving in eastern Italy for dinner.

Good to know how far several of our destinations are - overlooking Graz, Austria

Good to know how far several of our destinations are – overlooking Graz, Austria

We’d decided to skip Venice enroute, as we knew we couldn’t take the bike there. The thought of finding somewhere to leave the bike and then unloading all of our luggage didn’t really appeal so we scraped it from the list. Of course, we still needed to find somewhere to stay for the night, and purely by coincidence we found ourselves in a caravan park almost directly opposite The Floating City. When checking in, the receptionist showed us the map of the park and pointed to the bus stop out the front, saying “this is where the bus departs to Venice, and it will take you there in ten minutes”. I looked at Moni and said “dinner in Venice then?”, and before we knew it we were on the bus. What a delightfully pleasant surprise too – we spent two hours walking through the city enjoying the atmosphere before we found somewhere to eat.

The next morning it was off to the Tuscan capital of Florence. The road into Florence crossed a mountain range which made for some cracking motorcycling, even though we were two up. The sound of performance sport bikes echoed through the hills as we descended into Florence – the Italians do enjoy their motorcycling! After another casual stroll through the old town we obliged our palettes by indulging in some more quality Italian food and wine.

We were taking the ferry to Sardinia from Livorno which is 25kms from the infamous Pisa, and it would have been quite rude of us not to pay a visit.

After a night on Livorno’s coast where we watched kite surfers with envy, we rose stupidly early to catch the ferry to Sardinia. Our destination was Stintino on the far north western corner, where we did absolutely nothing but eat, drink and laze on the beach for a week!

All good things must come to an end as they say, but our next firm destination was to be St. Gallen in Switzerland more than a week later. On a whim we decided to spend that week making our way north through France’s answer to Sardinia; Corsica. I don’t even know where to start with Corsica – it’s like Tasmania on steroids, in the middle of the mediterranean! It has mountains over 2500 metres high, picture perfect beaches, world class hiking trails, surfing, kite surfing, diving, sailing – the list goes on. Oh, and did I mention the motorcycling? The place is a motorcyclist’s wet dream and for Drew’s sake I’m sorry to say that it beats Romania for the number one motorcycling destination we’ve travelled through yet. And to top it all off the food is to die for – fantastic locally produced cured meats, cheese, wine and beer make for very happy tourists.

Unfortunately St. Gallen was calling and so it was back on the bike to get back on the boat to begin our mad-dash through Europe to catch up with the dozen or so friends we have dotted in all corners of the continent. It’s tough, but somebody’s gotta do it…

Budapest to Vienna – the end of the road after 26,250kms

Very happy with ourselves as we stepped off the bikes in the heart of Vienna

Very happy with ourselves as we stepped off the bikes in the heart of Vienna

And that’s a wrap folks! For me this epic adventure has finally come to an end, I promised Sophie I would be home for her birthday and although I have missed it by one day I will make her birthday party. I feel naked without my motorcycle, my life as I know it is in a 27kg bag and my bike will eventually make it home by ship, thankfully James and Monica can look after it until then.

What a bike! Brigitta's 17 years old with 170,000kms on her clock and she's taken me 26,250kms across 14 countries without a hitch

What a bike! Brigitta’s 17 years old with 170,000kms on her clock and she’s taken me 26,250kms across 14 countries without a hitch

All 27kgs of my life's possessions for the last 4 months, wrapped up in a $4 gypsy bag

All 27kgs of my life’s possessions for the last 4 months, wrapped up in a $4 gypsy bag

Vienna, Austria (Monica’s home city) was the catalyst for this trip and what a beautiful city it is! Always coming in a very close second to the world’s most liveable city, Melbourne. After spending six wonderful days in Romania I only had three full days to take in Vienna, but with Monica to show me around I feel like I know it and can’t wait to visit again with Sophie. We have many friends and family who now reside in Europe so I can see many trips to come.

The red wine consumed last night has brought on some emotional reflection of our journey. What we accomplished in four months on our motorcycles will only take a jet plane 22 hours. Looking out the window of the plane I can almost pinpoint our journey overland. I’m dressed in my new clothes from Zara in Vienna, upon purchase I noticed it was made in Pakistan and it took me back to the road, riding past huge textile factories producing items for the western world to consume but I’m sure none of the other patrons were thinking what I was…

For us Pakistan has a very different meaning than most

For us Pakistan has a very different meaning than most

Blokes on Spokes was a motorcycle adventure but underneath our desire to ride around the world there was much more to the journey. James and Monica had made a massive decision to leave Melbourne and start anew in Vienna. For myself it was an opportunity to remove myself from our all consuming business and busy life in Melbourne. My business partner Nick and I have been working extremely hard on our business for the past 12 years and I am the first to acknowledge that it has taken a toll on our health and well being. Four months ago I left Melbourne a worn soul: I was searching for something other than the 8-5 slog and have to admit I was concerned that our journey would provoke even further frustration of my work/life balance. In fact it had the opposite effect. The whole experience has been so humbling that I now only feel guilt of how fortunate my life is. I am returning to Australia a new man. I had lost my way in a Western world driven by money and success and forgotten about the most important things in life. Family, love and health come first and everything else second from now on. We left Melbourne in search of good roads, scenery and adventure but I’m returning with no lasting memory of the riding but only of the kindness of people. I am also returning a more focussed businessman; wealth is an absolute privilege in this world and I am lucky enough to have the support and ability to increase it for the future of my children and family.

I cannot thank James enough for the support over the last few years, not only was he my best man at our wedding he was also the brainchild behind our adventure. Months of preparation leading up to our rushed departure proved vital to our success and I will be forever grateful.

Jimmy, on the streets of Malaysia. It takes two to tango, and I wouldn't have made it without his help

Jimmy, on the streets of Malaysia. It takes two to tango, and I wouldn’t have made it without his help

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