Lets start this post with an important fact. The S1000RR has gone, in fact this happened back in February as many of you will know who follow my Facebook posts. I had hinted at the possibility on my last blog post. In hindsight it was very much a foregone conclusion with the decision even preceding my first ride on a GS that I had rented for my trip to the Tail of the Dragon (US129) in the Smokey Mountains. I had made my mind up. Don’t get me wrong, I love the RR and by comparison the GS (affectionately) can be a bag of spanners but I’ve had more fun on that rental on the 318 curves in 11 miles than I’ve had on any bike. It was also in the knowledge that a GS would open up a whole new world of possibilities, like touring the Alps, and so the RR was traded in for a brand new R1200GS Triple Black with all the toys.
Now that I had the tools at my disposal the next step was to decide upon and plan a trip. This was initiated by a work colleague (lets call him Nick, because that’s his name). His friend Brian, and the third member of this trip, had previously used a company called Bikeshuttle. Basically you ride to Northampton, load your bike on a lorry with all your gear, get a shuttle to Luton airport where you fly out to Geneva. After a restful night (and a few beers) in a hotel your bike is then waiting for you the next morning outside the hotel having come overnight and overland through France. Thats the boring motorway miles (and unnecessary mileage on the bike) dealt with.
Planning the Alps
The planning had been maticulous and had at its core a set of routes that I had been sent by someone on a GS forum who had previously done the Alps. The routes did exactly what we wanted by taking in some of the best roads that the Swiss, French and Italian Alps could offer. I set the routes up in Garmin Basecamp and transferred them to the Navigator V SatNav. I also bought paper map backups of all of the Alps in case the new fangled technology failed and I created an in depth itinerary with maps, route information, snippets of Wikipedia information on the key passes, hotel bookings and a checklist of things that we needed to take. The fact that no-one read it was a problem. I once read that if you plan to ride as a group then make sure that everyone invested in the planning of route. I can’t stress that enough in passing on that tip.
The only deviation from the original inherited routes was a slight detour south. To be specific, Monaco. The plan was to put the bikes around the F1 circuit.
As far as prepping the bike there was little to do. It was way off its next service and had fresh tyres. From where I had come from packing was a luxury. Not only had I bought a 40L roll bag that happily say across the ample rear seat. I had luggage, lots of luggage, two panniers and a top box. Luxury! I’d be packing extra underwear for this trip.
The general plan was to head from Geneva to the French village of Bramans. From there we would head south to Menton, away from the Alps, where we could easily visit Monaco. Heading back towards the Alps to get us on our original route we would stay at La Norma before heading off to a place just north of Martigny. We would then ride the Rhone Valley to Andermatt which would be a hub for tackling all the main Swiss passes for a couple of days before heading to Lauterbrunnen, the Swiss Yosemite before returning to Geneva once again.
The transfer to Geneva was as painless as it could have been and we arose on the next morning to find our bikes lined up in the sunshine to the rear of the hotel. It didn’t take us long to load up and get on our way. The route would take us into Geneva (the hotel was actually just inside France in Thoiry) and then south. After tackling the city centre we rode for a good hour before I began to have suspicions that we weren’t on the route. Stopping for breakfast it became apparent that the SatNav was trying to take us to the fastest route to Bramans and not follow the pre-defined trips. Looking at the maps and desperately tinkering with the navigation settings had us ready to try again but it became evident that we would have to change the days route. We had gone way too far south west and were at Annecy and way off course. The plan was to head a short way north and then east towards Thônes. Once there and happy that I was getting to grips with the SatNav I entered a new route on the fly. It did mean that we had to abandon much of the planned route but we had made two discoveries. The Navigator V would fight to get off the good roads if you had ‘fastest’ route planning set and also the waypoints that I had told me not to alert me about had become ‘shaping points’ which were more advisory than actual waypoints. All was not lost though as having got back on track we stopped for lunch in La Clusaz and our first taste of a Swiss ski resort. We carried on along the route, stopping off at the spectacular Lac De Roselend with its azure blue water, and then broke off at Bourg St Maurice to take the road through Val-d’Isère and the Col de l’Iseran to approach Bramans from the opposite side than initially intended.
The accommodation at Bramans was an indulgence on my part, although the others secretly liked it too. We had opted for a bit of glamping in a wood walled, canvas roofed ‘tent’ on a camp site. It was all part of the adventure touring experience and the location was stunning at the foot of the mountains. We would also encounter the first of many was the bell towers that were an ongoing feature of our trip. While they do go silent overnight they start up again very early. Pretty much every place we stayed had a similar tower. There are no need for alarm clocks in the Alps.
We set off very early the following morning in the sunshine having wiped the dew from the bikes. We set off just as the bell tower decided it was time for everyone to be awake and as the early mist cleared we rolled out of Bramans. This was the long ride down to Menton on the south coast of France. Our initial route took us over Mont-Cenis to Susa in Italy where we would have breakfast.
The road down to Susa is a treat with well maintained roads, hairpins and sweeping curves. Easily one of the best on the trip. Leaving Susa it was all about getting our heads down on the Autostrada with the prospect of tolls. Having hit the coast we followed it around and back into France on a series of quite spectacular elevated roads.
The accommodation at Menton was a nice change from the basic lodgings at the Bramans campsite being a 3 star hotel with underground secure parking, a rooftop terrace bar and a short stroll to the beach where we enjoyed a few beers and a bite to eat. Being in France it would have been rude not to dive into a bar and watch the host country beat Germany in the Euros where secretly I was cheering on Germany on behalf of my GS. But as France won we had to endure the streets erupting at the final whistle and car horns until the early hours.
The next morning we took in a petit dejeuner on a side street before loading up once again and heading for Monaco. Monaco, what a shit hole. A cramped town of traffic and high rise buildings. We fought our way down to the harbour and took a look at the collection of ridiculously lavish yachts moored up before preparing for the main event of a couple of laps of the F1 course (Circuit de Monaco). We followed it best we could given the road works and the amount of traffic but despite this I’d say we took in all the best bits, the starting grid, the Mirabeau, the tunnel, Piscine and La Rascasse. All this with out getting caught by the gendarmerie. We got out of Monaco as soon as possible after our laps with another slog on the Autostrada in prospect, and with one last look at the place from Palace Vista we were gone.
We decided to let the Nav V take us the absolute quickest way to our next stop, La Norma, forsaking the excellent road that we had rode down to Susa. But as we racked up toll after toll we wondered if it was worth it. Already smarting from the constant payouts we then got hit with another €29 to take the final tunnel (T4 – see below) out of Italy. It was a fine feat of engineering through the mountain but it brought our journey to something like €150 in tolls alone!
To quote wikipedia:
The Fréjus Road Tunnel is a tunnel that connects France and Italy. It runs under Col du Fréjus in the Cottian Alps between Modane in France and Bardonecchia in Italy. It is one of the major trans-Alpine transport routes between France and Italy being used for 80% of the commercial road traffic.
Construction of the 13 km (8.1 mi) long tunnel started in 1974, and it came into service on 12 July 1980, leading to the closure of the motorail shuttle service in the Fréjus rail tunnel. It cost 2 billion francs (equivalent to €700 million at 2005 prices). It is the ninth longest road tunnel in the world (as of 2014).
On the other side of the tunnel we got our bearings and punched the accommodation address into the SatNav. Climbing up another set of hairpins we arrived at La Norma and to the treat of a perfect little purpose built ski village. There were bars, restaurants and shops. The perfect way to relax after a long ride.
By now we had properly got to grips with the Nav V and I was changing the shaping points to waypoints on the device. This made a massive difference and we were following the routes with confidence. This all made for one of the best days of the trip, back though Col de l’Iseran (the D902 is a treat), Col de Petit St Bernard and Col de Gran St Bernard on the way to Martigny. We started with another coffee in a small village with a newsagent, come tobacconist, come coffee shop who sent us across the road to a patisserie to get our fresh croissants.
I’ve yet to mention the weather but it had been glorious sunshine and this made the views all the more spectacular to the point where we stopped all to often to take photos. Its hard to pick out a specific road as they were all stunning but the top of the Petit St Bernard was one that particularly stood out. We stopped for a rest and a coffee in the village at the top, got our picture of the carved St Bernard dog and carried on to more great roads roads, hairpins and scenery at an ever increasing rate. We stopped at the top of the Grand St Bernard for lunch. It had a crazy feel about it with all manner of vehicles pulling up and a row of wooden huts selling souvenirs including the obligatory stuffed St Bernard dogs. We dropped down and towards Martigny before another short climb that took us to the evenings accommodation at Salvan, just north of Martigny. The place we had picked was a nice self contained apartment but the owner was a little strange and made up wear croc shoes in the apartment, which was a pain when you are trying to unload a bike and going in and out, boots off crocs on and vice versa. Salvan was our first stop in Switzerland as all previous overnight stays had been in France and in Euros and while the exchange rate had currently been suffering this was nothing to how expensive we found Switzerland, especially food. A word to the wise for anyone following our footsteps. Be prepared with plenty of Swiss Francs… or bring sandwiches.
The next day was another scorcher. We were now heading towards some of the most well known Swiss passes. I did mention having riding buddies who preferably get involved with the route planning and with an itinerary of which I had the only copy. Explaining the route and repeating the names of the passes was getting tedious. Regardless we were back on the road heading through the Swiss valleys that follow the Rhône with its many vineyards (it was pointed out, have you ever seen a bottle of Swiss wine?).
We had decided that after a number of days of heavy riding we would break the passes up a bit and tackle the others on the second day we had in Andermatt. So heading up and over the stunning Grimsel Pass we turned around and after stopping back on the other side to take a number of photos of the Furka Pass we dropped back down to the junction onto the Furka and rode up it where we then stopped to take pictures of the Grimsel Pass. I should mention at this point that I was loving the way the GS was eating up the hairpins. What was slightly disconcerting was the lack of barriers and I did my best not to peep over the edge for fear of a bit of target fixation and a considerably long drop!
Andermatt is a very nice place to stay and perfectly located for any number of great rides. If we had opted to base ourselves at one location for our whole trip then this would have been it. Not only that we had what was probably the best hotel on the trip, the Alpenhotel Schlüssel. Clean modern rooms, private underground parking and staff who couldn’t do enough for us. After settling in we went on the search for food and found a place that was showing the Euro final. I’m not sure if it was the fact that the locals weren’t interested, or the fact that the heavens opened for the first time on the trip, but we watched the match pretty much alone. Ronaldo went off the pitch injured early on but still managed to win the game single handedly. At the final whistle a Portugal fan appeared in a car and drove around Andermatt until the early hours blowing their horn. Turns out at least one person cared about the result.
The weather report for the next day was ominous and unless we wanted a severe soaking in a thunderstorm we would have to restrict our riding to half a day. We ditched the original route of Oberalp, Lukmanier and St. Gotthard for a half day around the passes missed on the previous day. We set off to do a loop on the St. Gotthard Pass to Airolo but then head west over the Nufenen pass and back around on the Furka again (having enjoyed it so much the first time). The weather had cleared up after the previous evenings downpour which we were very grateful for as our route took us on the Tremola with its miles of twisting cobbled road that I’d imagine could be interesting in the wet. Finding the Tremola caused some confusion. The SatNav knew exactly where it wanted to go but I was hesitant as the initial road gave the feeling that we were going to end up on a goat track. After circling a couple of times we committed to the road and I’m glad we did. Its still hard to get my head around how long it must have taken to lay all the cobbled road in its precise fanned out pattern. We stopped for photographs just below the new road/tunnel high above us. Dropping down to Airolo we had breakfast and carried on to the Nufenen. At the top of the Nufenen we stopped for a photo opportunity with the three flags of the two cantons and the Swiss flag and met three guys on a pair of GSA’s and a new Africa Twin. They had obviously been offroading and the bikes showed it. One guy worked at a BMW dealer, the other guy was sold his GS from the dealer and the third guy worked at a Honda dealer and was riding the demo Africa Twin. He mused that his boss was going to kill him when he saw the state of the bike. I thought to myself that they should just stick it in the showroom window unwashed, like one of Charlie Boorman’s bikes. We carried on back over the Furka where having regularly stopped to enjoy the views the first time I took the opportunity to open the bike up and enjoy it at speed. I’ve still yet to get my knee down on a GS yet. Arriving back in Andermatt we were a little frustrated that the weather was still holding and we possibly could have done the original route although with the previous days modifications it would have been at the expense of the Nufenen so all in all I was happy.
The next day the rain was still to come. All the reports were for thunderstorms and torrential rain so with this in mind we decided just to take the most direct run to Lauterbrunnen, although this would still take us over the Susten Pass, however by the time we reached our turning point at Brünig the sun was still shining and we decided to go for the run over the Glaubenburg. The roads were different to other routes consisting of tight roads through wooded areas and opening up to farmland and grazing cows. It was Emmental country after all. As we climbed higher the weather turned. Initially we rode into a cloud with next to no visibility and the moisture then turned into light rain which then turned into some of the heaviest rain I have ever rode in. The only saving grace is that in anticipation we were all dressed in our Motorrad Rain Lock jacket and trousers. Our gloves and boots were less protected and were drenched. As we dropped off the pass we reprogrammed the route. Get us to Lauterbrunnen ASAP!! At a place just outside of Thun we spotted the oasis that is BurgerKing and cold and wet we turned in to the car park. I have previously mentioned the prices in Switzerland and this is probably one of the best examples. I had a Whopper meal which cost me 18 Swiss Francs which works out at just over £14. What is it back home, around £5.99?
And so we arrived at Lauterbrunnen rightly described as the Swiss Yosemite with is steep rock faces and tall waterfalls. The cloud was low and there was no way that you could see the Eiger although we were close to its base. On paper our accommodation should have been one of the best and it was certainly one of the most expensive. In reality it was one of the worst, in fact I can easily say that it was one of the worst places I’ve ever stayed. Give me back the tent we had in Bramans! On arrival we were presented with two keys to the two ‘double’ rooms we had booked. The man on reception tried to explain about the bathroom access but I was too cold and wet to listen fully. When we got to the rooms it took us a minute to realise that there were no bathrooms or toilet in either room. What our guy on reception had tried to explain to us is that the only shower and toilet was on the floor above and shared between every other room in the hotel! Despite this we ditched our gear and got some warm dry clothes on while trying to dry our gloves and boots on whatever heat source we could find.
Lauterbrunnen is certainly a strange place. It doesn’t take you long to realise that there are Chinese people everywhere, even to the point that one of the red flags on the front of the hotel that I had assumed was a pair of Swiss flags was in fact a Chinese flag. Why? I have no idea. Digging out the phone we searched for somewhere to eat having decided that eating in the hotel possibly wasn’t the best option. We were directed to a campsite that was half a mile down the road that had a well reviewed restaurant on site. In fact it turned out to be a very nice restaurant come après–ski bar. Weissbier and Wienerschnitzel all round then. I did wake up that night and need to relive my bladder. Not fancying strolling around the hotel in my underwear I decided I needed to be ‘resourceful’. The room had a wastepaper bucket and there was a window. I’ll leave it at that and say no more about Lauterbrunnen.
And back to Geneva
The final day had promised more of the same weather wise. That coupled with the need to get the bikes back to Geneva and get them loaded on the lorry to see it on its way meant that the group decision was to take the fastest route back to our starting location. Once again the rain suits were out and we headed back to Thun, Bern and Lausanne before reaching Geneva in good time. With the bikes handed back to Bikeshuttle it was time to review our ride and compare notes with the others that were arriving back from their routes in Switzerland, France, Italy, Austria and Corsica.
Much as I love the Kawasaki and being back on two wheels in general there was that box that remained unticked. The Superbike. When once asked did I really need all the performance that one would deliver my answer was “No, but what’s that got to do with it”. I’d considered all the 1000cc options including the obvious choice having aligned my preferences with Kawasaki however I wasn’t expecting things to happen the way they did.
My regular rides out to Wales and the BMW owning riders I rode out with meant that visiting Motorrad in Chester was a regular occurrence. It was on one such visit that out of the blue I got presented with the opportunity to but an ex-demo S1000RR with all the extras on it and 1000 miles on the clock. In a whirlwind of activity one minute I was an owner of a supersport bike and the next I was the owner of one of the most desirable super bikes on the market.
The bike was like night and day compared to the previous machine. It had enough power to pull your arms out at the sockets but it was also very agile and an absolute precision tool. I spent two great years with it and spent as much time looking at it as I did riding it.
The highlights of my time with it had to be a day with the Californian Superbike School at Silverstone on an extremely we day and a tour of Scotland. The latter was the beginning of the end for the super bike as it turned out, and sports bikes in general. As I began to cover longer distances it became clear that I would have to get something that was less harsh on the joints.
Its funny looking back now but back in 2013 I had never rode anything on the road over 125cc and it had been over 20 years since I had been on a bike. In my teens I had looked longingly at RD350LCs, GPZ900Rs, Suzuki Katanas (strangely) and had a soft spot for the GPZ600. But at that moment of picking up the Kawasaki ZX-636 I was greener behind the ears than the bikes paint job. Regardless of the fact that I had been driving on the road for years and the current car was a 3.2 V6 Audi, in my mind it was the day after selling the MBX and it felt like I was that teenager again.
Those first days were a little strange. I’m not sure if it was being on a physically larger bike or that after so long I was just rusty but I remember being very stiff on the bike. Not physically, that would come later and we’ll get to that. I hadn’t appreciated that the bike needed a bit more input from me to wrestle it around. I was giving it more respect than it deserved. A few more miles under the belt sorted me out. I spent the first few weeks pottering around home just enjoying riding the bike, cleaning the bike, looking at the bike and cleaning it again just in case it had got dirty while I was looking at it. It wasn’t long before I had a local group of mates with bikes and we were taking regular longer rides around the Northwest and Wales.
Got a motorcycle, box ticked. Rode the motorcycle, box ticked. The next box that needed ticking was on the track.
With its origins as a race circuit starting in the 1950s my first recollection was going there in the late 70’s with my dad to watch the super bikes and eat beef sandwiches. Apart from the racing I remember the sandwiches had excessive amounts of butter and salt. Nice. I’m lucky that not only is it on my doorstep but, in my opinion, it is one of the best circuits in the world. In its 2.8 miles It has wonderful sweeping curves, changing gradients, and technical bits that are a joy when you nail them just right.
The bike was ready for it. I’d replaced the stock exhaust with a shorter carbon fibre PipeWerx exhaust and with its baffle out I was amazed to get it through its noise test. The mirrors were off and the headlights were taped up. Unfortunately it was a bit damp. Not so much that it would spoil the day but enough that you knew you couldn’t fully commit to the bends. Not that I’m shy of a bit of rain. As a choice we don’t ride in crap weather but thats a choice made of keeping the bikes at a showroom standard rather than any inability to ride in any condition on my part, as I’ll show later on in this tale.
Most people reading this will know my story. Its not a story that is particularly impressive or inspirational, in fact its none of those things. However it is my story and the facts cannot be changed, they can only be embellished.
I’ve always been around bikes. Before I was a twinkle in the eye my dad rode Heinkel scooters between Rotherham and Manchester. Manchester was where he settled and were I was born. As a child I remember various bikes that I know know to be a Honda Superdream and an BMW R80RT before he got a BMW R100RT, the bike I spent many hours on the back of. There was one other bike and for the purpose of this story I’m going to call it a Honda. What I do remember was that it was a 175cc trail bike and when sitting on it my feet didn’t reach the floor so I’d hop from foot to foot. It was this bike that gave me my first experience of riding solo on the fields at the back of where we lived in Sale. I was probably 9 years old at the time.
At the age of 16 I left school and started an electrical apprenticeship. It was 1984. Like most parents I’m sure that my dad didn’t really want me on a motorcycle on the road but having got my final written warning from work for turning up late I needed to get off public transport. I was working all over Manchester an often needed to catch three buses. A motorcycle would give me the independence I needed. We bought a Honda MT-50. It was a fine bike for a 16 year old and since some previous owner had tinkered with the exhaust baffles I could get the best part of 40mph out of it. After some time it started to become unreliable in the rain due to an electrical fault. It was time to move on and I had my eye on a flash new Honda MBX125F, more refined and less common than the Yamaha RD125LC of the day. As often happens I was cleaning the MT-50 ready to sell it and I found the electrical fault. A corroded going from the alternator that would short out whenever it rained which was all the time in Manchester.
I got the MBX on my 17th birthday. It was a beautifully sunny day at the end of March and it was delivered to me on the back of the dealers van. The 125cc liquid cooled, 2 stroke sports bike was a different world to the 50cc ‘moped’ I’d just sold. I was still serving my apprenticeship and while many of my peers had taken their driving test and were in cars I was happy with my two wheels. The 17 year old me was also happy to get wet. He didn’t care if it was raining. He didn’t care that the water soaked through his jeans. He was going to look good on the bike. Back in the day no-one else cared anyway. It was never the weather that got the better of me. It was the girls. They wanted boys that had a car. That and the fact that if I didn’t pass my bike test I lost my licence. You could only ride up to 125cc on a provisional licence and you only had two years to get the test done else you were on a year ban. You could however pass your car test and have an unlimited provisional entitlement. I passed my car test and bought the car but in doing so the bike was gone.
This is where we fast forward for the first time to 1991. I’d found myself out of work with spare time on my hands. My brother-in-law decided he wanted to get a motorcycle and needed to pass his test. I had always regretted not taking my test and still had dreams of riding those bikes of whose posters adorned my bedroom walls as a teenager notably the ‘dogs’ at the time, the Kawasaki GPZ900R (red, of course). I agreed to do the training with him and we took our test. I past first time with ease, I had been riding on the road for years and had many miles in my tank, it was a formality. He failed and had to retake his test. Despite passing my test and having the ability to buy any bike without limit to engine size or power (seriously, there were no restrictions back then!), I had no job with a young family and no means to buy a bike. My brother-in-law however free from family and financial constraints went out and bought a Suzuki GSXR750. It wasn’t long before he lost it up the notorious Cat and Fiddle and went under a car. He survived after a period in intensive care. Chances of me getting a motorcycle after that? Bugger all!
This is where we fast forward again. Thoughts of having a bike were a distant dream and long forgotten. We are now in 2013 and it has been 22 years since I rode a motorcycle, and that was during the bike test. It was a late night in January and we were watching TV. More specifically we were watching Top Gun. Tom was riding his Kawasaki down the runway waving at the F-14 Tomcats. We all know that he was strapped to a trailer but that’s his story, this is mine. My thoughts went back to that poster I has so many years ago. The fastest road bike of its time and the first stock road bike to exceed 150mph, the GPZ900R. The first Kawasaki Ninja. I turned to Jayne and said “that’s the bike I always wanted and never had”. I expected nothing more than a dismissive scowl of disapproval. The reply changed everything. They talk about pivotal points in your life, your wedding, the birth of your child, Manchester United winning the treble but this was truly a life changer. “Why don’t you go and buy one then”. I remember it taking a moment or so for it to sink in such was the magnitude of what was now possible. It wasn’t long before I was trawling eBay.
It didn’t take too long for me to find that things had moved on from the 80s. There were a whole new breed of bikes available and regardless of the GPZ being the catalyst I wasn’t really into buying a classic bike. After a bit of research it seemed that the bike for me was another Ninja, the ZX6R-636 and there was one for sale in a dealer near me (green, of course). I drove over to the dealer to see it. It was in pristine condition and despite being a 10 year old bike it could have been brand new. I drove home the owner of a Kawasaki ZX6R-636 A1P. I was the owner of a supersport bike. I was a motorcycle rider again.
Its been some years since the old blog died. I didn’t have the time or inclination to try to restore the site or start a fresh at the time. As it happens I was about to embark on a new venture, ironically involving picking up where I left off when I was a fresh, wet behind the ears 18 year old. I reintroduced myself to the world of two wheels leading to new acquaintances, travel and ADVENTURES!
Now that I have announced my return to the blog I’m sure that before long I’ll be able to bring to right up to date. In the meantime I’m going to keep you waiting. I assure you that this time it won’t be years.