Monday, 12 June 2017

From Russia with love

Previous instalment.

One of my mates had a problem at the Latvian border on Thursday morning and hadn't come through with us. He was finally able to cross into Russia around midnight Friday and at 0330 he was 120 miles from Moscow and hoping to meet with us before our departure early Saturday morning. Just after 0600 he was having breakfast in a petrol station outside the city. In fact he arrived at the Cosmos just as Dmitry and Pavel arrived to lead us in convoy across the city to Red Square for some final photos with our bikes. A helmetcam video exists of this ride but I won't link to it as it includes 13 seconds of me failing to cancel my indicator after a turn and if you can't see it no such mistake was made. What happens in Moscow stays in Moscow!



Our hosts then led us out of the city and back to the M-9 before pulling over and waving us on our way.

My goodness it was cold once we left the city and eventually I had to pull over and add another layer. There were four of us leaving Moscow but two were now pressing on leaving just the two of us to maintain a steady pace westwards. We agreed that we would just return to the same hotel in Ludza and not press further on as the front runners were bound to. We started to pay attention to fuel consumption again and also to using up Rubles in petrol stations. In most (but not all) Russian petrol stations you hand over some cash or authorise a card then draw fuel then settle up. It can seem a bit strange to stop in a largely vacant lot and pass cash through a small window to an unseen hand but it works just fine and we even stopped again to top up before crossing the border.

We knew from reports by Phil & JB that they crossed back into Latvia in about half an hour. We were not so lucky and it took two hours. Also that was the point at which my Zumo decided that enough is enough and just powered off and stayed dead. I tried the USB connector - yep that still works so if necessary I'll just use that. On arrival at the hotel a while later I discovered that I'd actually dropped my USB cable somewhere along the way so dead reckoning then.

After a brief exchange of views about the price of hotel rooms and the wisdom of attempting a 1,000 mile ride at 0400 Sunday we opted for several beers tonight and a leisurely breakfast in the morning. We used these sessions to cure ourselves of secondary plans like visiting Auschwitz or Gdansk "on the way home". Sometimes when looking at a map you think "I've come 2,000 miles what's a few more?" Well Ludza to Calais is 1,380 miles; Ludza, Gdansk, Calais is 1,662 miles. That's a diversion of 282 miles, the same distance as from Suwalki to Ludza on day three of the ride out. No, IBA RTEs should be there and back not excuses to just wander around. There'll be plenty of other trips to incorporate sightseeing.


Sunday morning after breakfast I cleaned the Zumo's connectors with an alcohol rub and magically it agreed to play (didn't last though, it got tired again later on and went back to sleep). Anyway, we saddled up and headed southwest and were much better prepared this time for the roadworks with "interesting" surfaces. Right across Lithuania and into Poland we were running on Russian petrol; I was getting 18-19 kilometres per litre. Eventually we pulled into a Shell station and I treated my engine to a tankful of V-Power. Back to 22-23 kpl almost immediately! The Russian fuel was pretty cheap, around 60p per litre, but it's not the best quality.

In Warsaw we encountered some weather. Serious, biblical quantities of rain, blowing sideways with some force; thunder and lightning like the end of the world and some traffic. We filtered through  almost 14 million miles of cars backed up in the city centre until we found the cause - an unseated rider being treated by paramedics. After a few minutes we were shown a way round the chaos and we took off, into even harder, faster, rain. Visor open was too painful; visor closed meant not being able to see anything at all. We survived and slowly found our way back on track, a motorway continuing  southwest towards Lodz.

Not far past Lodz I started recognising the signs of "time for bed" and flashed Mike several times indicating my desire to get off the road. Eventually I turned off into a service area but Mike carried on. Well that's just the way it is; ever the lightweight I checked into the motel and texted Mike to let him know what's happening. The motel I have to say was a delight: clean & comfortable with everything I could want - heated towel rail for drying wet gear - and run by a husband & wife? team who bent over backwards for me; breakfast of champions. In fact when I got home I wrote a thank you letter with the help of a Polish neighbour. £33 including breakfast!


 So the last day dawned, my Zumo decided to play again, all by itself with no special treatment this time and did in fact continue to work all the way home. I set off towards Calais at a fair old lick. The speed limit on the Polish motorway 150kph but I don't think anyone drives that slowly. The only interruption is the toll booths (all Polish motorways are subject to road use tolls) and at one of these I learned yet another lesson in the never-ending learning curve of motorcycle riding: when you unzip the top of your tank bag to retrieve the toll ticket, IMMEDIATELY zip it up again. Not long after leaving the last toll booth I noticed that my strip of pills had gone for a walk. Oh well, I'll HAVE to get home today now.

It felt strange having crossed into Germany to realise that I had now slowed down, in Germany, on an autobahn with no speed limit! It's true, the overall speed of the traffic was lower in Germany than in Poland. Those who reckon that speed limits reduce speeds need to pay attention.

I arrived in Calais well ahead of schedule and caught a train almost immediately. Obviously when I emerged at Folkestone, despite having enjoyed clear, dry, sunny weather all day, driving rain stayed with me all the way home.

SUMMARY
Days away from home: 7
Miles ridden: 3,940
Highest speed: 96mph
Shortest day: 285 miles
Longest day: 945 miles

Would I recommend riding to/in Russia? absolutely. Lovely country, lovely people.

Being the first group of IBA riders we did legalities by the book but in future we'll be more relaxed: get third party motor insurance from a shack once you've crossed the border. It may well not be worth the paper it's written on in the event of a claim but it does make you legal. Nobody asked to see our International Drivers Permits but they're only £5 from a Post Office so what the hell. Nobody asked to see my fire extinguisher (yes fire extinguisher, what do you mean you don't carry one?) or, as far as I can tell, checked my fingerprints.

Travel the correct way - make yourself at home wherever you are as opposed to trying to make everywhere you go like home. Be patient and calm at border crossings. Our group included a Suzuki, a Triumph, a Honda, a Harley-Davidson and two BMWs so even if you ride a BMW you can still comfortably ride to Russia and back.

Sunday, 11 June 2017

Russian Ride To Eat

Previous instalment here.

The M-9 motorway runs from the Latvian border some 400 miles into Moscow. For context, that's roughly the distance between London and Glasgow. In Russia that entire route is cut from the forest with only a few settlements the size of English villages along the way. Don't be fooled by the term "motorway" either. The last 75 miles are recognisably motorway but until that point the road is at best equivalent to a minor English A road, not even dual carriageway. Not always surfaced either!

Every now and then we came to junctions offering side roads. These tended to have tarmac for 30-100 metres before trickling off into dirt tracks. I'm pretty sure that most of those deviations led to places where dragons are still living.

The Russians have a different approach to the roadworks strategies employed elsewhere in Europe. In England roadworks involve diversions, reduced speed limits, average speed cameras and massive inconvenience for road users. In Germany roadworks involve very sudden lack of road followed up with no useful information whatsoever. In Russia the roadcrews all wear hi-vis orange and you're expected to drive round them. If they've felt the urge to remove the road surface you'll obviously need to go a little slower and more carefully and you'll definitely want to swerve round large diggers etc.

Eventually the time comes when even we, World's Toughest Motorcycle Riders, have to stop for sustenance and we duly pulled in to a rather charming roadside diner. Unfortunately the staff only spoke Russian (and none of us could manage more than 'pojolsta'), the menu was in Russian using the Cyrillic alphabet (which none of us could read) but a Russian diner came to our rescue, translated the entire menu for us and placed our orders with the waitress before returning to finish his lunch.

As the food arrived, our rescuer finished his meal, came to us and told us that to welcome us to Russia, the meals were a gift and he got into his car and drove off. The stuffed chicken legs and rice were delicious, even more so as they're free.

I had received a text from the president of IBA Russia telling me that he wished to meet up and lead us into town from a convenient point on the motorway rather than have us struggle across the city in traffic. I'd interpreted that as "on Friday for the photo in Red Square" but no he was insistent that he'd meet us on our way in today. I added the suggested petrol station as a waypoint but also sent him a link to my tracker.
As we approached the city limits we noticed a biker frantically waving at us headed out of town. It didn't seem to be the normal "hello fellow biker" thing we'd had right across Europe and we pulled into a petrol station to fine-tune our entry to the city.
Moments later Dmitry flew in beside us on his Honda Silver Wing and introduced himself.

After spending a little getting-to-know-you time we lined up for a group ride to the Cosmos hotel. Dmitry asked what would be a comfortable speed. I said "100-110kph" so obviously we hit 145kph until the traffic became thick enough to reduce the speed. Moscow traffic is busy even at 10pm and in the midst of it I was buzzed by two local bikes which distracted me for a split-second, long enough to lose the flow and I came to a hard stop behind a broken down Mercedes van in my lane. It took perhaps a minute for me to find a way round it and of course the others were all now out of sight. I switched to following the satnav but after a little while I realised that all was not well and pulled over. The Zumo was calmly taking me back to the motorway to meet up with Dmitry! I reset and found the Cosmos within ten minutes or so.

The Cosmos hotel is a huge Soviet era thing with almost 2,000 rooms and an enormous statue of Charles DeGaulle; we were given rooms on the 21st floor with magnificent views across the city. See if you can guess where we ended up half hour after checking in? Obviously!

So there we were, a small group of gentlemen of a certain age, sat at a bar, helpfully labelled "pub" enjoying the protection of some other gentlemen wearing ill-fitting grey suits while being entertained by the sights and sounds of a busy international congregation of people out for a good time, in various ways. Fortunately I don't speak Swedish.

We slept well.

Friday morning had us join the melee in the vast canteen for breakfast. Almost anything you can think of is available for breakfast in the Cosmos, every kind of meat, vegetable, fruit, cereal, eggs, fish. Nobody goes hungry there, not even vegetarians.

A gentle morning followed at lunchtime by an excursion on the Moscow Metro across town to Red Square. Walking onto Red Square felt surreal to all of us, even those who'd been before. It's like another world and it felt slightly odd that we were even there at all. The square is huge and takes some getting used to.

We had some time to enjoy before the 4pm standard group photo so we had Borscht followed by ice cream in a cafe in the Gum shopping mall and visited St Basils cathedral, now a museum.
4pm official photo




After the photo we agreed to an early supper in a biker bar some distance away.  Fun & games with taxis finally saw us gathered in the Double Bourbon Bar for beer & bourbon followed by steak & chips accompanied by Pink Floyd.


next instalment here.

Thursday, 8 June 2017

To the Russian Border

When I called, 18 months ago, an RTE [Ride To Eat] in Red Square, Moscow I was concerned that people would just laugh and nobody would come. I was wrong: initially some two dozen IBAers signed up, a big number by IBA standards. Many dropped out along the way due to a variety of circumstances ranging from ill-health to clashes with several major IBA events. On the day we were four from the UK, two from Finland and one from Switzerland. May not sound much but that's actually a pretty good turnout for what would be a ground-breaking 4,000 mile journey.

What's the big deal? What's different about going to Russia than, say, going to Riga, Latvia?

The short answer is "it's Russia". Will I be able to get a visa? How long will it take to cross the border? to reach Moscow from the border? what will the roads be like? what about bike insurance? breakdown cover? The answer to all these questions was "I don't know". Garmin don't supply maps for Russia and the road signs will be in Cyrillic.

In Leicester for the Brit Butt Rally I developed a problem with a tooth. Dilemma: should I delay my departure, possibly making the trip impossible, by getting my tooth fixed or should I risk having to get emergency treatment far from home? Resolving that took a couple of hours but I finally opted for hoping the tooth would settle down and be ok (it was). Off to Folkestone!

30 miles from home I realised I'd forgotten to fit the Airhawk - too late now, I'll just have to tough it out. 20 miles further on my Zumo felt the need to cycle power, that's not good. On the train I inspected the cradle and connections for the Zumo but all seemed good so maybe it was just a one-off. (You know it wasn't though, don't you).


First stop Hannover, Germany, a fair old trek given that I'd been up since the crack of dawn exchanging IT kit for bike trip kit, fiddling with a tooth, fiddling with the bike but only 400 miles from Calais and I arrived around 1am in desperate need of a shower as it was still 27c.


Day two began with breakfast followed by a 700 mile group (mostly) ride to Suwalki, Poland. We rode quite quickly for a while before analysing the effect on fuel consumption at various speeds. At one point I noticed the effect on my fuel consumption quite suddenly and made a hasty decision to stop for fuel in the middle of some roadworks. That decision was spot on as I took 19 litres (into my 20 litre tank) but in re-establishing contact with Mike the run leader, I guessed that he would continue on the route but slow down for us to catch up. After about 70 miles of hard, fast, catching up, we stopped and texted him. He'd opted for the "wait at next services" protocol but had given that up after a while and was now ten minutes behind us.

About 100 miles from Suwalki I cocked up again and failed to turn off the freshly opened dual carriageway as I watched JB and Mike disappearing round the corner. I texted that I'd find my own way then set about looking for fuel as I was quite low at that point. The Zumo's first offering involved crossing the central barrier AND  a two metre high chainlink fence. After ignoring the "Do U-turn when you can" for some distance I was directed to a place where a petrol station will be one day, but this wasn't the day. The signs were all in place, unlike the actual buildings and pumps, but they were all crossed out. After yet more U-turns and other physically impossible suggestions from the cutting edge of technology which is the latest Garmin offering I resorted to dead reckoning and some improvised route making to reach an actual live petrol station.

The rest of the journey, 100 miles or so, passed through small villages, pretty churches, country roads and some thoroughly attractive scenery. If I was a half-decent travel writer I'd have taken photos along the way but you'll just have to take my word for it, or ride it yourself. I arrived at 10pm, just in time for the restaurant to close, no problem as I wasn't hungry, but joined the others for a beer. They stopped serving beer at 10pm also but IBA riders are handsome, smooth and resourceful and able to order beer in multiple languages while juggling 2-litre fuel cans and singing Land of Hope & Glory.


Day three, an extremely lightweight 285 miles only, introduced us to the rather different environment of the Baltic states of Lithuania and Latvia. It was here that we discovered that, whereas in Poland Garmin had included petrol stations yet to be built, here Garmin had included roads that had yet to be built and we spent quite lot of time waiting at temporary traffic lights followed by some manly offroading on what was loosely described as a "road surface".

Those 285 miles took all day because quite a lot of the day was spent doing 20mph and a fair bit spent doing not much more to avoid being flashed by speed cameras in Lithuania.




Day four - to the Russian border!
A quick blast, 20 miles or so, followed by a masterclass in waiting. Those wishing to transition from Latvia to Russia must learn the art of patience because most of the process involves waiting. Wait for the Latvian policeman to call you forward, then Latvian border patrol, then Russian I can't remember what they all were or in what order but I remember many faces and many pieces of paper.

To describe the Latvia/Russian border as an exercise in bureacracy is to grossly underestimate the process. Those with a prior exposure to Kafka's The Trial will be better prepared than others. Fill in the form, in duplicate, hand it in for inspection, get told off for incorrectness and given two more forms, try again, hand them in, wait while they're keyed into a computer and printed out, then wait while they're stamped, then, finally, move on to the next kiosk for more waiting.

Only three hours though and we're released into the wilds!


Next instalment here.

Friday, 9 December 2016

The Full Monty



C:\Users\MSF\Desktop\IBA UK Logo.gif

'The Full Monty'
(The lot, the whole lot, and nothing but the lot)

Ride report by Mark Fowler

In 2015 I contacted the IBA UK President with an idea I had for a new certificated ride. I'm not a fan of riding for hours and hours around the UK motorway network for the sake of it so remembered back to 2012 when I rode my first 4 Corners ride.  

Those that have not ridden a 4 Corners ride may want to give it a go as the nature of the locations means there's a bit more variety in the roads ridden, plus it takes a bit more planning so you can get receipts when you arrive at each place.

C:\Users\MSF\Desktop\IBA UK 4 Corners Map.jpg


In the rules for a 4 Corners ride there is some leeway given if a rider isn't able to get a receipt from either Land's End or John O'Groats if they arrive outside normal working hours.  A receipt from Penzance will be accepted but when the ride is verified 20 miles and 30 minutes are added, likewise a receipt from Wick will add 32 miles and 40 minutes.  


My idea for this new ride still encompasses the 4 Corners but has a few subtle differences:

1. A rider may start their route from any location they wish. Currently the clock starts for a 4 Corners ride with a receipt from the first one.  This means riders often have to ride many miles and hours before even starting the ride.

2. A rider must visit each corner in either a clockwise or anti-clockwise direction once the first corner has been clocked. Currently you can ride the corners in any order you choose. I know some riders start at Lowestoft, head back west over to St.Davids in Wales then go down to Land's End before blasting north up to finish at John O'Groats.

3. A rider must get a receipt from every single corner location. As mentioned above you can currently get away with a receipt from Penzance or Wick during a normal 4 Corners ride.

So after creating my own rules for this ride I sat down and worked out how far I would ride and how long it would take.  I did a few random routes starting from different places around the country and discovered that regardless whether you live in Birmingham, London, or Edinburgh if you start your ride from where you live,  then go to your first corner, ride in either direction from there on and come back to where you first started you will always ride well over 2000 miles. So that fits nicely with the current 48 hours for a Saddlesore 2000.

I then sat down and started some serious number crunching to calculate what time I would need to start from Norwich near where I live to get me to three out of the four corners that don't have 24 hour receipt options.  I also wanted to build in a rest stop half way round and this also helped me to be at every corner during normal working hours.

Next I looked at when to do the ride.  Nearly two and a half years after my serious bike accident and I still struggle riding long distances due to niggling pain in my hip joints. Probably an after effect of my Pelvis almost being split in two! Despite this year's mishap after the Brit Butt Rally I find the planning and riding in rallies more rewarding due to the stop start nature so I knew I was in for some pain with this ride.

Early September therefore looked like a good time to do it.  The weather is still usually very good and it's my birthday on the 9th so a weekday ride looked like a sensible choice with the ride taking place on a Thursday and Friday.  This also meant I would have the weekend to recover before going back to work.

I took the Wednesday off work too and took time to prepare and load the bike, get some rest and try and relax.  I ended up going to bed a bit later than planned at 7 p.m.  My alarm then quickly went off again at 01.15 and I was on my way to a nearby 24 hour Esso garage ready for my start receipt.  At precisely 02.00 hours I was off and heading to my first corner which handily for me is only 40 minutes down the road at Lowestoft.

I pulled onto the petrol station forecourt and brimmed the tank. When I checked the receipt the bloody time was wrong by exactly one hour.  It said it was 01.39 not 02.39!  Their clock setting must have still been on winter time.  Hopefully as I can't ride to Norwich from there in 21 minutes I hoped this would still be accepted when verification checks were done.



I never usually use the A12 when heading south as the first part to Ipswich is slow single carriageway but at three o'clock in the morning there was virtually no traffic apart from the odd lorry and van.

I reached the M25 and intended to go south over the bridge round to the M3.  Shortly after joining though there were signs up saying the M25 was closed ahead! I did a u-turn at the next junction and headed off anti-clockwise instead.  As I passed Heathrow more bad news came in the form of warning signs that the M3 was also closed between junctions 2 and 4a.  I turned onto the M4 then headed south to Basingstoke to rejoin the M3 then A303.

My first fuel stop after Lowestoft was at Wincanton in Somerset. I was now 10 minutes ahead of schedule so nipped into the Morrisons store to use the toilet and grab a hot sausage roll for breakfast. It then got light and my mood improved.  The further I headed into Devon and Cornwall the sunnier it got.  Unfortunately the dualling road works the other side of Bodmin slowed things down and on the approaches to Penzance the traffic brought things to a standstill.  I eventually reached Land's End 30 minutes behind time and only had a short stop for my receipt and food/water.

       

Next fuel stop was at Oakhampton and there were no more delays on the A30 or M5.  I got held up a bit waiting for the queues at the Severn Bridge toll booths and around Cardiff.  By the time I pulled into the Texaco garage on the outskirts of St.Davids I was now an hour late.

The route north through Wales was a wet one and I was thankful to follow a fast van driver along the winding roads on the approaches to Oswestry where I could join familiar roads once again up to Chester and across to the M6.  

I'd previously booked a cheap Travelodge at the Lancaster M6 Forton Services but by the time I arrived I was and hour and a half behind schedule.  I decided to have an extra hour here and was in bed at eleven and up again shortly before three o'clock in the morning. I did a another fuel up and was heading north again with all the lorries at just after 03.30 hours.

My original plan was to take the scenic route via Fort William and come down the A9.  I knew the A9 should be quicker so changed my plan and did a quick fuel/breakfast stop at Pitclochry.  It was still raining.  The A9 north of Inverness is one of my all time favourite roads and it was virtually dry so made good progress. I got my John O'Groats receipt from the Post Office at just after 11.30 which was now only 30 minutes behind my schedule.  

The A9 up to Inverness had been dreadfully slow though because of all the average speed cameras and road works.  I'd quickly calculated that the journey south via Fort William was only a few miles different so thought I could make some more time up going that way back instead - WRONG!!
I ran into rush hour traffic crawling into Fort William and the rain had set in once again.  I did a short stop at the Esso garage and decided to put my over suit and winter gloves on as I wouldn't be stopping again until Gretna Services. The traffic continued to be busy but now the wind and rain picked up.  Going up Glencoe and across Rannoch Moor was dreadfully slow with gusts of wind and rain.  To cap it all a traffic warning pinged up on my Zumo 590 through my phone app and heavy traffic had added 19 minutes onto my arrival time at Gretna.  I took a gamble and headed down to Glasgow via Calendar instead of Loch Lomond. Mistake number two.

I hit the tail end of rush hour and joined 8 miles of gridlock on the M80.  I managed to filter for 5 miles before it slowly picked up and then I joined the M74 South.

The next few hours were the most nerve racking I've ever spent on two wheels.  The weather worsened considerably.  The daylight went, the winds became gale force and blustery, the rain became heavy and don't even get me started on standing water.  Cars continued to wang along at 70-80 but I had to slow to more like 50 or 60 to keep the bike upright.  It was at this time I seriously considered binning the ride, especially as my arrival time at Gretna had slipped by 2.5 hours.  I only had a 3 hour fiddle factor time for the whole ride so thought the game was up.

The one good thing about very long rides is you have time to re-calculate and think about what to do to improve things.  My fuel up distances were around 270 miles which were nice and comfortable as my GSA has an easy 300 mile range.  After Gretna though I was planning another fuel stop at Kings Lynn but calculated If I pushed on to Penrith I wouldn't need to stop any more and would still be under the 350 mile re-fuel limit.

So I pushed on and got my last fill up in Penrith and headed over the still wet and blustery A66 to Scotch Corner.  My finish time at Norwich was now 01.45 so only 15 minutes to spare which was never going to happen considering you only lose time and rarely make it up.  I then had a panic thought. They close the A1 at Scotch Corner for more road works.  This would scupper me, having to divert over onto the A19.

When I reached Scotch Corner there were no signs about closures so my morale went up a gear as I headed south on the A1.  The weather also improved and the further south I rode the warmer it got.  The finish time also started ticking down too.  I had a quick stop south of Doncaster somewhere and removed my over suit and changed my wet winter gloves and neck tube for thinner and drier ones.

By the time I reached the A17 turn off I actually thought I might do it.  I know the A17 like the back of my hand, even in the dark and the later the hours got the lighter the traffic became.  It was a dream riding back the last 100 miles and I even took great delight in flashing my Clearwater Krista's at anything that thought they were bright when on dip beam and at their lowest power setting.  That usually shuts them up :-)

By the time I got back to Norwich I knew I was easily going to make it and got my finish receipt at 01.14 hours. Yippee! I took a leisurely ride the short distance back home and crawled into bed at two in the morning.

Later that day when I eventually rose from my pit I reflected on what I'd just done.  I ached all over, especially my knees hips and shoulders.  The sat nav had said I'd ridden 2174 miles. My maximum speed was 82 mph, moving average was 56 mph with overall average at 53 mph.

The bike went like a dream although I think I might have a tiny leak from a seal on the bottom of my final drive unit, but it was only a black mark and not wet with oil so I'll see how that goes.
It's only when we ride these sorts of distances in the time we do that we truly appreciate just how congested and roadwork ridden this country has become.  This certainly makes riding the plan far more difficult to achieve, and it was certainly the hardest ride I've ever done. From now on I'll mostly stick to rallies I think.

'The Full Monty'

2127 miles in 47 hours 16 minutes

8 - 9 September 2016




Friday, 29 July 2016

RBLR 1000 2016



  1. Here I am first out the starting gate at Squires cafe waiting for the start at 0500 weather forecast rain and fog most of the day 'oh deep joy!!' along side is a lad called Dale on a Honda Gold wing whilst waiting for the off we decided to do the ride together mutual support and all that.

    As there was delays likely on the north bound A1 due to long running road works Dale took us North via the A19 and the Tyne tunnel then back to the A1 North of Newcastle, by this time the weather had got into it's routine that is rain that nasty persistent drizzle.

    The first stop was Berwick-on-tweed fuel quick drink and a snack then on to Dreghorn on the Edinburgh bypass the second stop a top up and get in the traffic for the Forth road bridge while we were waiting we had a grand stand seat for the construction of the second Forth road bridge.

    North on the A9 average speed cameras from Perth to Inverness it does get a bit tedious and the rain was no help as the bulk of the A9 North of Berwick is on the coast we had sea fog to contend with as well by the time we got to Inverness it was time for a break hot drink and a hot snack.

    I changed my bike in January from a 1999 BMW R1100 GS to a 2007 R1200 GS now it is more refined, faster and lighter and nicer to ride, two irritating niggles with the bike.

    The saddle is uncomfortable so my poor arris was getting grief again (see the Three corners write up)
    The bike only has a 20 Ltr tank which give a range of 175 miles against the R1100 GS 25 Ltr tank with a 200+ miles range.

    I had the seat recovered after the ride as it had ordinary upholstery foam for motorcycle foam which is much firmer a couple of test rides later problem solved. I have acquired a 33 Ltr GSA tank that should give approx 300 miles range that is being fitted soon I was reluctant to fit before the RBLR ride as it is unknown so it will be fitted on the 24th June ( I should have got a GSA in the first place)

    That's enough moaning back to the ride.

    North of Inverness the A9 is free of cameras as is the A99 to Wick but as both roads follow the coast the rain was taking it turn with the fog at one point rain and fog North of Helmsdale on the A9 there is an uphill right hand hairpin bend which due to the rain and fog I almost missed threw the bike over scraping the foot peg all the way screaming like a girl after a stop to get the water off the inside of the visor and regain my equilibrium we continued North.

    The rain stopped as we turned right on to the A99 and we had a good run up to the third stop Tesco's at Wick at this point Dale and I got separated riding through Wick town centre it transpired that he had stopped for fuel at the garage in the town I carried on to Tesco's just outside the town we did not see each other until we got back to squires.

    South bound to Inverness thankfully rain free I had a good fast ride to the fourth stop at Fort William Tea and a sandwich a quick scrub with wet wipes change the by now wet neck tube and gloves south on the A82 in company with three other riders we caught up with rain at Glen Coe.

    I lost the other three as I had to stop at Teabay services on the M6 for fuel and a tea (I should have got a GSA) continued on to Birch services on the M62 the fifth and last stop before Squires the rain was on and off like a tap.

    The final fifty odd miles was through road works on the M62 my first RBLR ride was in 2013 and there was road works on the M62 then do they ever stop??

    Got a bacon roll and a tea at Squires most welcome finally fell into bed at 3 am

    I completed the ride in twenty one hours thirty minutes and raised £100.00 pounds for the Royal British Legion.

    Thanks for looking

    John Morning

Wednesday, 6 July 2016

Lost keys, Romania

Ride To Eat - Castle Bran, Romania - 25th June 2016

Executive Summary

Poorly planned and poorly executed ride to the middle of Romania; rider turns to gibbering idiot on arrival, has to cancel rest of trip and kick his heels for two days waiting for a mate to fetch his spare keys; aimless ride home across six countries. Multiple stays in Iron Butt motels, no certified rides. Long, rambling, trip report containing mind-numbing details and some photos.

Planning & Preparation

When the schedule of ERTEs for 2016 was announced this was the standout destination. What's not to like? Dracula, Transfagarasan, Transylvania, 1500 miles each way. Who wouldn't want to make such a ride for supper with your mates?


During planning it became obvious that Romania wasn't going to be a BunBurner ride, a SaddleSore to Budapest was definitely on but further east achievable progress just wasn't up to BB pace. Unfortunately that's about as far as my planning got. For a variety of reasons I didn't plan the ride in my usual amount of detail and I didn't prepare myself as I normally do, I opted to just wing it. I decided not to bother recording any rides and I even went to my local for a couple of pints the night before leaving.

Day 1 - Thursday

On Thursday 23rd my planned 0800 departure was executed promptly at 0840 and I was soon filtering through rush hour traffic past Farnham, filtering along the Hog's Back, filtering past Guildford, filtering up the A3 until I turned onto the M25 where I filtered gently through traffic moving at around 25mph for a short while before reaching the flooded section which halted the traffic. I then had to do some serious filtering to get past the holdup and that's when the forecast heavy rain started. The forecast was for heavy rain in Kent followed by heavy rain in France so I was wearing my boil-in-the-bag rain suit from the off.

On arrival at Eurotunnel I was greeted by the friendly check-in terminal giving me a ticking off about arriving too late and offering me a 90 minute wait for a train. The noticeboards all apologised for the 30 minute delay so I went for the traditional waiting for a train Burger King. Venturing outside again, still wearing the rain suit, I noted the further, strangely precise, 14 minute delay and chatted to a pair of rather cute Scotties guarding their master in the sun.

When my train was called I rode through the police and passport checks and joined a small group of bikers in lane 7. Two were off to Assen for the MotoGP, one Englishman returning home to the French Alps on his Harley. They told me that another rider was also heading to Castle Bran and, thinking he's probably one of us, I went to speak with him. "This Saturday? I'm hoping to reach Bran next Thursday". Not one of us then.

Emerging in France it didn't look much like heavy rain but a plan is a plan so I kept the rain suit on. The temperature was gently climbing and the skies continued to look a bit on the blue side but the plan called for me to retain the suit until Brussels so that's what I did. 36 degrees on the Brussels ring road when I peeled it off. The temperature stayed there for the rest of the ride, all the way to Bran.

I needed petrol and this was the wasteland. Rather than do their silly dance with card payments I decided to pay cash and only draw a predictable amount of fuel. I walked in to the cash desk and asked for, paid for, and got change for, 15 litres. She told me to return afterwards for a receipt. I didn't see the point as I didn't actually need a receipt but I thought I'd just return anyway. The pump clicked off at exactly 15 litres, the exact amount I'd paid for and got change from. I returned to the cash disk and she gave me more change!

Intending a long first day, I'd booked a motel room in Linz, Austria and when I left Calais ETA was showing as 2345, late but manageable. By the time I reached Cologne it had slipped into the early hours and was looking much less manageable. Eventually, just outside Frankfurt I decided enough was enough and checked into a motel, had a shower, rinsed out all my clothes, then slept for a few hours.

Day 2 - Friday

When I woke up and checked the BBC and discovered that the referendum had produced the worst possible result, a slim majority for Leave. (a large majority would have been ok but a slim majority would produce the largest possible amount of dissent and dissatisfaction). The night manager was just going off duty as I packed the bike and expressed surprise at the result and concern for the wellbeing of the UK, sympathies repeated several times along the journey to Romania.

On crossing into Austria I stopped to get a vignette when my son phoned wanting to chat on his long coach ride from Portsmouth to Grimsby (all things are relative). Several minutes standing around in bike leathers in that heat meant that when I was done I scurried along a few hundred metres to the services where I was introduced to the sheer delight of iced coffee. How had I reached this vast age without encountering that before!

Riding along the motorway I noticed that the standard of driving in Austria was quite a bit lower than that routinely found in Germany. Even cars bearing German plates seemed unable to remain in the correct lane or to use their indicators. I also noticed the signs telling, not advising or suggesting, telling drivers to form a lane for emergency vehicles in the event of traffic jams, with diagrams even. How sensible is that! Of course they shouldn't need to be told, they should just know to do that anyway but, on the other hand, it wouldn't work in England where large numbers of drivers are unable to stick to really simple rules like use lane 1 unless you're overtaking.

On the approach to Vienna I opted to follow the road signs to Budapest rather than my satnav. After recalculation, ETA had slipped by one minute - sometimes the computer knows best!

The Austria/Hungary border is a busy location even at midnight with several kiosks apparently all involved in the sale of vignettes. I say apparently because they all appear to be slightly different and I couldn't tell whether that reflected functional differences or merely appearance. Priced in Hungarian Forints, exchange rates were offered for US dollars, three quantity bands for Euros and British Pounds although the rate for this was blanked out - volatility in the market I imagine. Anticipating a process similar to those in Austria and Slovenia I was surprised to need my passport and bike registration number. I was given what looked like a slightly fancy Tesco till roll but with my details and bike registration. I went to a different kiosk, with no queue, and asked about the sticker for the bike. No need in Hungary, the motorways are covered by cameras and the system is fully automatic. Once I registered at the border the system knows about me and that's that. I feel a little cheated actually, how's anyone going to know where I've been if there's no sticker to prove it!

Sometime after passing by a darkly slumbering Budapest I decided that it was bed time so I pulled into a rest area, parked the bike, then lay down in front of it and went to sleep. The temperature was still in the high 20s and some car drivers also decided that sleeping outside was the thing to do.

When I awoke just before dawn I was able to appreciate the provision of outdoor washing facilities. (There were indoor facilities as well but when in Rome ...) Much fresher!

Day 3 - Saturday

A very pleasant early morning ride through the countryside to Szeged and on to the Romanian border where I encountered the first traffic holdups since the M25.

Filtering to the front of the line at a border checkpoint really would be the queue-jumping that some accuse us bikers of so I used the time waiting in line to remove my night-riding layers ready for a warm day's ride. Some van drivers weren't bothered about the queue-jumping thing though and just filtered anyway.

After travelling only a short distance in Romania I started to fret about my tyres. In the UK or western Europe I'd consider them to be just fine but I was starting to feel less sure-footed now and I knew it would only get worse. We've all seen the pictures of the Transfagarasan highway! Passing through Arad I kept an eye out for a tyre shop but that only led me to rougher and rougher surfaces. After riding pretty much all around town and finding several places selling car & truck tyres I decided that I was just going to have to stick with my worn Bridgestones.

I needed to be in Bran by 1600 for the photo or I'd never hear the end of it even though I'd reached Verdun with 20 minutes to spare. ETA was now showing 1450 so I rejoined the A1 motorway heading south towards Timisoara then eastwards. I stopped for fuel and lunch with views across open countryside to the mountains. Baguettes were the order of the day and where the pump attendant was desperate to talk to me but had no English and I had no Romanian. Obviously I tried the old speak slowly and clearly in English thing but I've found over the years that that method doesn't always work as well as you might think.


The motorway continued as far as Deva when it was suddenly closed. We were diverted onto a single carriageway running largely parallel to, and with a clear view of, the motorway. After 12 kms we rejoined the motorway. Absolutely no idea what that was all about, perhaps they were keen to mimic the Germans who also seem to randomly shut stretches of motorway, although in Germany they're mostly doing roadworks at those points. ETA was now 1540.

I came to the city of Fagaras in Brasov county. The cathedral can be seen quite far out and it is a real eye-catcher with its shiny golden crucifix and domes and ornate workmanship. I stopped to take a photo but traffic made it awkward and, in any event, my limited camera skill means that I wouldn't be able to do it justice. I have searched the internet for images and found none which, in my opinion, properly convey the majesty of this iconic church. Visit Fagaras and see it for yourself.

From Fagaras the roads become decidedly "interesting". They climb up into and over the mountains and twist and turn quite a lot. The surfaces appear to have been laid 80 or 90 year ago and subjected to many patchings ever since. It's not uncommon to find tarmac, concrete and gravel within a few hundred metres. Then there are the road users: modern 40 tonne lorries, 1930s tractors, cars, vans, touring motorcycles, horse-drawn carts, bullock carts, goats and cows as well as small children playing football and old people riding bicycles. ETA is slipping back ...

Castle Bran - 1558

I turned onto the main drag in front of the castle with two minutes to locate the other attendees. Fortunately one of them was flagging me down and I pulled over and parked up. We were shortly joined by the only other punctual rider and we set about taking the official photograph. With no flag, we had to improvise and agreed to use my cap badge. I was tasked with capturing the image: the three of us, the cap badge, castle in the background.
As you can see, I nearly managed that.

The next task was to check in to my hotel, the Transylvanian Inn, two kms out of town. This entailed offroading up a 750 metre, 30% gradient, loose chalk track made for use by qualified advanced mountain goats. Alright, there was some exaggeration there but I was very hot and very tired, my bike was loaded with camping, walking and swimming gear (I'll explain later) and I stopped in the middle because of cars coming down the hill. I had three goes at restarting the climb, stalling each time, before shamefully handing the bike over to Mike who just made it look easy :(

I trudged up the hill carrying my luggage, removed to make the bike lighter, and by the time I reached reception I was on my last legs - I'm quite old you know - I staggered upstairs to my suite with this view ===>
I then returned to my bike to retrieve the satnav and generally make it secure. Oh dear!
I fumbled and dropped my bike keys into the gap below the handlebars. I reached in to fish them out and they slipped through my fingers and disappeared into a parallel universe!

The keys are lost

I couldn't believe it. I put everything down and examined the scene carefully. I poked about and shone a torch in the hole. I checked the ground all around the bike. Mike returned and he and I repeated the whole looking, poking and questioning my sanity thing. "Where are your spare keys?" "Safe, at home on my desk, let's go have a beer".

We adjourned to the other hotel where we were due to eat. There were now four of us and we discussed options, whether or not to call the breakdown service and, especially, getting the spare keys couriered from home. The V-Strom key is a bit of a critical component: coded ignition with immobiliser won't start without a key; can't dismantle fairing and fuel tank without removing seat, secured by the key. The four of us returned to inspect the bike again. We "dropped" the bike on either side, we bounced it on and off its centrestand, we poked and rattled and shone torches - nothing. I emptied all my bags and pockets just in case I'd "forgotten" that I'd rescued the key. A theory was developed that the key had fallen through the bike onto the ground and been spotted by a sharp-eyed potential bike thief. We considered turning the bike upside down but decided that would a) risk injury to ourselves; b) damage the bike; and c) be unlikely to improve the situation.

So, arrange courier in the morning then. Back to the other hotel to welcome the latest arrival who'd left Bristol after work on Friday and would be leaving at 0400 to return in time for work in Bristol on Monday.

Day 4 - Sunday

All the proper riders, those who carried spare keys and didn't drop them in stupid places, left at the crack of sparrows so I got on and started the process of having mine couriered from home. The first step - get my wife to have the keys in her hand. That was a bit of a problem because my wife is a very tidy person and I'm not. The keys were on my desk where I said they were but she needed some persuasion to actually locate them. The second problem came later when I called to find whether she'd handed them over to DHL yet. Apparently there was some problem with the computer systems at the particular pickup location I'd sent her to and it couldn't be sorted until Monday.

One of the reasons I couldn't strip the bike while all this was going on, apart from needing the seat out of the way, was that all my tools were secured under the seat - no key, no tools. In addition to the several times I ventured out to the bike to "just check" (perhaps the keys might have rematerialised through the timewarp again) and the time I spent seeking advice from various forums - none of whom correctly predicted the actual location of the keys - I walked into and around the town of Bran in the hope of buying some tools that might help. No, there weren't any.

By late afternoon, with all options closed for the day, a miracle occurred. The IBA is widely known for the insanity of its members and one such, another Mike, thought he might just fancy a ride from his home in Scotland. I called my wife to confirm that she still had physical possession of the keys, warned Mike about the hazards of the journey then he set off to fetch the keys from my house in Hampshire.

I once again visited my bike to check that the keys hadn't magically reappeared then retired to the hotel's restaurant to enjoy Romania for a while.


Day 5 - Monday

I woke up before dawn on Monday and checked Mike's SPOT. Major disappointment, he hadn't even left England yet! C'mon Mike, what are you playing at? Then I looked at the time, deducted the two hour timezone difference, calculated the distance he'd travelled from Scotland, calculated how long that would have taken me and decided that he was doing ok. I went back to sleep for a while.

When I next checked his SPOT, he was making pretty good progress so I inspected the bike once again then set off to explore Predelut, Bran and the surrounding area. With the temperature easing slightly and way fewer tourists it was a very pleasant excursion. In the park I found some children aiming field guns at the west, they train them young in Romania.

I walked far enough to encounter a homeless man having his lunch in a bus shelter being interviewed by a local policeman. I also watched two middle-aged men with shirts off in the heat using long-handled spades to dig graves in the local churchyard.

After saying "good morning" to several people and getting no response I mastered the Romanian "Buna dimineata" which caused people to cheerfully acknowledge my presence.

Predelut is a fairly pretty village with all manner of gardens and houses. Construction seems to focus on "breezeblocks", different from those I've seen before, with various kinds of cladding.

In summer it's a hot and dusty place, high 30s, in winter clearly very cold. Many houses had very large wood stores for use with wood burning stoves.


In addition to swanning around town I considered and ultimately decided to cancel the rest of my planned trip itinerary. It had been my intention to head due west from Bran spending a couple of days riding to Annecy in the south of France. In 1966 I had swum the width of the lake there and last year I decided that as it would be 50 years since that event around the time of this RTE I'd go back and see if I could still do it. Despite not swimming for many years I had been slowly building up and a few days before leaving for Romania I'd managed to swim 3.2kms in my local pool. Lac D'Annecy is 3.2kms at its widest point so I should be ok. Anyway, I'd brought with me camping gear, walking boots and a wetsuit - yes, a wetsuit, it's a lake, the water would be 12-15c, I'm old now, I don't need to be tough anymore. I cancelled the hotel booking and arranged for my wife to cancel her flights to/from Geneva. I'll have to swim the lake some other time.

Day 6 - Tuesday

Waking early on Tuesday I checked Mike's SPOT and noted that he was only a couple of hours away. I set off on foot to buy beers for him (and more water) and eventually reached a small mini-market in Bran where I had a choice of two: one that I'd sampled myself but came in large, heavy, glass bottles and needed a bottle opener and one that I hadn't sampled but which came in light plastic screwcap bottles. I opted for the plastic bottles as I would have struggled to carry the glass ones back (see, I really am a lightweight aren't I!)

I returned to the hotel to get things ready. I was just starting to pack up when the sound of an FJR alerted me to Mike's arrival 15-20 minutes sooner than I expected him. I went out to the carpark and presented him with a bottle of beer which he thought would be welcome right away. He handed over my spare keys and then spent several minutes trying to locate the lost keys, without success.

While Mike retired to my room to shower and sleep I stripped the bike. This was a fairly slow process, one that I'm not good at, and as each piece was removed I inspected the newly exposed areas for any clues as to the location of the keys. I was optimistic about finding them behind the radiator, perhaps hooked around the inaccessible spark plug but, no, still no sign or sound of them.

Finally, when I had the fuel tank completely unbolted and propped up, I could see a little chink of light reflecting off the keyring up in the central hump of the tank wedged against the frame. I rushed in to see Veronica, the receptionist who'd been fretting about me for the last day or so, and she managed to find a long piece of bent coathanger. I gingerly retrieved the keys and could properly relax for the first time.

I put the bike back together (apart from the three fasteners I had left over at the end, apparently Suzuki had used too many fixings when they originally assembled the bike) while the day's forecast rain started gently. Having completed that task I waited patiently for Mike to wake up.

Riding out of the mountains

Eventually we were both saddled up and ready to go. The weather forecast was for "heavy rain showers" followed by "heavy rain" then more "heavy rain" then "heavy rain showers" followed by "light rain showers" so boil-in-the-bag time! I led carefully down the 300 metre, 5% gradient, track to the road then through Bran and out onto the road to Fagaras. I did that in a very tame manner as I was concerned about things I might not have tightened properly, I was concerned about my tyres, I was concerned that I'd been off the bike for a few days, I was concerned about the weather. I needn't have been concerned, I still haven't gotten round to replacing my tyres or refixing the additional fixings.

We stopped for fuel in Fagaras where I once again declined the opportunity to photograph the cathedral and some way further on we split up, me heading for a Subway because I was fading fast and Mike heading for the coast cos he's tougher than me.

I don't normally frequent Subway because they're just way too annoying with their "what kind of bread do you want?" "Do you want this?" "How about that?" - I just want something to eat but that day location was everything and Subway was there when I needed to eat something. They said it was a B.L.T. I'm not so sure but I didn't care, I just needed to eat.

At the border the nice young lady at Romanian passport control checked my passport and asked for the bike's documents. I gave her the whole folder and she seemed happy enough so I escaped into Hungary again.

Around 60kms before Budapest I parked up and enjoyed another pleasant stay in the Iron Butt motel.

Day 7 - Wednesday

My Chunnel home was booked for 2300 Friday, almost three days away but I decided to just ride back to Calais at a reasonable pace and just see what happened. In fact I had a largely uneventful and rather pleasant ride home, passing through Budapest in daylight and noticing the widespread use of English on billboards and traffic signs.

I spent the whole day riding firstly in Hungary then across Austria and finally Germany before deciding to call it a day near Cologne. I pulled into a rest area bearing the bed sign indicating the presence of a motel but discovered that only the Iron Butt flavour was available. Many trucks parked up, many cars with sleeping occupants but no actual motel. I considered carrying on until I found an actual motel but decided that this place was as good as any. I checked the weather forecast and noticed that "light rain showers" were due early Thursday morning. I thought about pitching my tent on one of the grassy areas but in the end I just lay down on the tarmac and went to sleep.

Around 2am the rain on my face woke me up. It was only raining gently but it was enough. I was still sleepy so I thought again about pitching my tent. No, just put the rain suit on and small tarp over my head, back to the tarmac for a further 90 minutes. It had stopped raining when I woke up the second time and I decided to get back on the road. ETA Calais was showing as 0730, almost a sensible time to be crossing the channel. I rejoined the motorway and almost immediately regretted it: pitch black with at least two metres of spray.

I continued on into Belgium and found a rest area that looked more comfortable than the one I'd left earlier. I parked up intending to go and sit in what looked like a cafe. Too early though and the door was locked so I sat on the pavement, leaned on the door and went back to sleep. When I woke up I realised that the entrance on the far side of the building was open so I walked round and poured myself a large cappuccino and drank it sitting in a comfortable armchair.

Day 8 - Thursday

With a simple enough run down to the Calais I set off westwards towards Brussels eventually joining the ring road just in time for rush hour chaos. A relatively tame filterer at the best of times, I gently made progress through the massed ranks of commuters and when I saw a bike rapidly approaching from behind I pulled over to let him through. Belgian plate and off like a rocket. Not long after another bike came through, Belgian plate, off like a rocket. I decided to follow them - when in Rome ... - but they were gradually losing me. I looked down and found that I was travelling at well over 100kph through the all but stationary traffic. Great fun :)

And so, down the final stretch to Calais where the friendly Eurotunnel check-in terminal offered me the next available train at 1150 +£45. What was I going to do? Pay £45 and go home or ... what?

So home again, 3140 miles all told, time for a hot bath and a washing machine full of laundry.

Lessons learned


  • Not all rides need careful planning, sometimes winging it works just fine.
  • Your best mate is another IBA rider.
  • Having spare keys at home is all very well but closer is sometimes better.
  • There's always a vacancy at the Iron Butt motel.
  • You're never too old to do stupid stuff.


Bob Stammers