Two Aussie blokes riding their BMW R1150GSs from Australia to Europe

Category: France

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

Western Europe and the turn from West to East – 31,782kms

Wow, how the real world has caught up with us, and fast! Our stop in Vienna several weeks ago opened a big can of worms, aptly labelled “reality”. We tried our best to jam the worms back in again and seal it shut by jumping on the bike and continuing west, but here we are back in Vienna, without a bike. We abandoned it in London to tend to some more reality related business which has taken longer than expected; we’ve since had to postpone our return flight by at least a week. The flip side is that this has provided a wonderful opportunity to update you on the most recent leg of our journey.

My first flight in 21 countries - London to Vienna

My first flight in 21 countries – London to Vienna

The Western European leg itself has been more about catching up with friends and family rather than being tourists. If you look at the map, you can see that for the most part we’d not taken a particularly interesting route to achieve this, but it wasn’t without it’s highlights.

The first stop was St. Gallen in Switzerland to visit Joanne, a former work colleague of Monica’s. Joanne’s husband is Swiss and the family had flown from Australia for a holiday.

Moni & Joanne in St Gallen

Moni & Joanne in St Gallen

Two things can be said from the outset about Switzerland. Firstly, it’s mind-blowingly beautiful; every corner you turn seems like you’ve entered into a postcard.

Secondly, it’s wallet-blowingly expensive; we paid nearly €40 for the privilege of pitching our tent on one occasion. Needless to say we didn’t stick around longer than necessary. We did however meet a fantastic French couple at said camp site who were touring on their BMW K1200. It would be an understatement to suggest that Moni was a little envious of Dominique’s pillion seat on the luxury tourer, and Vincent very kindly offered her the chance to test it out for herself. I suspect, if I succumb to Moni’s requirements of a motorcycle, my next bike might be from the K series…

Our trip towards Germany took us through some incredible mountain roads, some of which were cobbled – definitely a surface I’m not used to tipping the bike over into.

A cobbled 180° hairpin in the Swiss alps

A cobbled 180° hairpin in the Swiss alps

We skirted through the Black Forest in the south western corner of Germany before crossing the Rhine into France to spend the night in a heavily German influenced town called Turckheim. Famed for it’s wine and it’s storks, a good time was had by all.

Unfortunately I’d noticed a very disconcerting wobble whilst riding over the previous two days and I feared that the Old Girl’s final drive was about to give up on me. Without Drew’s expert advice on hand, I put the bike on it’s centre stand to take a short video which I sent to Drew for his appraisal.

He was as fearful as I was and advised that I ride no further than absolutely necessary. Moni and I decided it would be easier to turn back to Germany for some expert advice rather than try our luck in France; Moni speaks German, and being the Old Girl’s birthplace we expected parts to be easier to come by. So back over the Rhine we went to the nearest town with a service centre: Freiburg.

Crossing the Rhine in the wrong direction

Crossing the Rhine in the wrong direction

Freiburg is famed for it’s open waterways called Bächle, which flow through the streets and date back to the 13th century. Strolling around the city’s old quarter made for a pleasant distraction whilst the bike was getting her dose of TLC.

The team at Motorrad Zentrum Freiburg were absolutely amazing – they offered to put the bike on the hoist immediately to inspect the problem. Surprisingly (but thankfully) their mechanic gave the final drive a clean bill of health and suggested that the wobble might be due to my extremely worn tyre. I was hoping to make it to London on the old tyre, but the side by side comparison shot confirms that this was the right time to change it.

So with fresh rubber we were back over the Rhine (again) and heading westwards towards the UK. Disappointingly, northern France was bland to ride through. Towns were small, void of character and often people too. To make matters even less inspiring we were caught in some pretty miserable weather.

Moni sporting some additional weather protection

Moni sporting some additional weather protection

France became nothing more than a commute. It did provide a great opportunity to reflect on what I’d achieved over the last couple of months – originally England was our end goal, and now that we were only a day away the reality of travelling so far across the world was setting in.

We decided to take the shuttle train under the channel to the UK and although this was more expensive than we’d expected (€120 one way), it was certainly an interesting experience. You literally drive into the train and 35 minutes later you drive out the other end in another country! Not wanting to disappoint us, England greeted us with a not-so-warm and rainy welcome.

Inside the shuttle train under the channel

Inside the shuttle train under the channel

We were due to meet my sister in the afternoon, but with a bit of time to kill before she finished work we thought we’d ride by some of London’s sights.

What a stupid idea this turned out to be. London has the worst traffic congestion of anywhere I’ve ridden through in the last 30,000kms. It took over an hour for us to ride 10kms through the city despite the fact that I was lane splitting wherever possible. And of course, once in the city we had to get back out again!

After covering 25kms in three hours in heavy traffic, rolling into Jenny’s street in Shepherd’s Bush felt nearly as good as going for a swim in a pool of beer. And this was almost what I got as Jen showered me in champagne on our arrival. Fantastic to see her again and great that she acknowledged the achievement of riding across the world.

A champion's welcome

A champion’s welcome

A social, non bike related couple of days were spent in London catching up with friends from all over the world.

The social agenda required that we get back on the bike and continue west towards Ireland. Enroute to Wales we stopped in Warwick to say hello to my cousin Rachel and her family. To their father’s dismay the girls took quite a liking to the bike.

My cousin Rachel and her daughters

My cousin Rachel and her daughters

Before we knew it we were rolling off yet another ferry in another country. No time was lost getting straight to the heart of Irish culture: Guinness. After smashing a few pints at the St James’s Gate Brewery we spent a very hospitable night with Mich, a good friend from Melbourne who’d recently moved back to Ireland.

The following day we stopped in at a small town called Shercock to say g’day to “our man” Colm, of Darwin to Douglas fame. We met Colm and his riding partner Ed on the Thai/Myanmar border some 20,000kms ago. Almost by chance, we met again in Pakistan and travelled together as a gang of four across two thirds of the country. It was great to see Colm in his natural environment, on the farm!

Finally, after riding 30,932kms towards the setting sun, we arrived at the journey’s most westerly point; Falcarragh, a small coastal town in the north western corner of Ireland. Here we met Adrian and his partner Lou, two very good friends from Melbourne. They’ve taken a sabbatical to spend some quality time with Ado’s family and it was fantastic to get an insight into traditional Irish farm & family life, even if we could only understand half of what was being said! It’s a spectacular stretch of coastline and we spent a great couple of days taking in all the area had to offer, including of course, more Guinness.

After 5 months and 16 days of travelling west it was finally time to turn the bike around in the opposite direction. With no time to spare we were straight back to London to catch our flight to Vienna where we now sit. Western Europe has been a whirlwind of preparing to settle in Austria, social catch ups and eating up the kilometres in between each social engagement. The real world has started to dominate our thoughts and actions, and sometimes I forget that technically the journey’s not quite over yet – I just need to get back to London to get the bike! It’s also easy to forget that I’ve almost completed a dream hatched a decade ago with my best mate in a share house in Melbourne, 32,000kms away. I think now might be the time to start planning for the next one, and cheers to that…

The best plans are laid over a beer or two

The best plans are laid over a beer or two

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…

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