Magnificent: adj Extremely beautiful, elaborate, or impressive.
If that doesn’t describe the Alps, then not many words will. Dramatic maybe. Beautiful? Certainly. Dangerous? Definitely: only a couple of weeks after my friend and travel partner Ian and I took the cable car to the top of the Aiguille du Midi, nine climbers were killed in an avalanche as they set off from there to climb Mont Blanc. Whatever words or hyperbole you use to describe this mountain range, I love it and, despite less than perfect weather on most of my previous visits, I keep heading back for more.
Having just cleaned my pushbike after a wet and grimy 65 miles that morning, my drive was damp as I wheeled my BMW K13R out of the garage into the waiting sun for its pre-trip wash. Surprisingly soon I was standing in the sun admiring my handiwork, then went inside to finish packing, before returning to the bike to load the luggage. With panniers attached, sat nav mounted and tank bag fitted, it’s lines, which could never be described as lithe, were bloated by the luggage, making it look longer lower and fatter than normal. I checked my watch: hours yet.
England’s cricketers were beating a good West Indies team, Twitter was quiet, Facebook boring, no unread emails to delete. Food then. Ian sent me a text message about the cricket, which turned into a brief exchange about how long it would take to get ready, which in turn led to us meeting at Whittlesford Services, 90 minutes early. There’s no point in sitting at home doing nothing but clock watching, let’s go!
I filled with petrol and began to slip into the familiar routine: unclip tank bag, fill up, tank bag back on, all the while getting warmer and warmer, pay, then ride off feeling cold from the sweat which had built up inside my leathers. As we launched onto the A505 I experienced an unusual disconnect, feeling excited because the only time I ever ride this road is to start one of our trips, then realizing that that was exactly what I was doing. It nearly surprised me, here at last, the culmination of the unusually minimal planning but much anticipation. We tipped onto the M11 and began the uneventful journey south.
There was a change in the trip this year, for the first time ever, the next morning the Pride of Calais would set sail without us, we’d be overtaking it (or should that be undertaking) on the Eurotunnel; no comfort, but plenty of speed. While riding a bike is a pleasure, it is fraught with risk as motorcyclists have to endure the idiocy of the many vacant motorists allowed share our roads, one of whom tried to share the exact piece of M11 that Ian and his GSXR-600 were on, I saw another a woman sat so close to the steering wheel, her chin was no more than six inches from it, no room for effective control, but I’m sure she was’t concerned, there was nothing on her bonnet or even ten feet in front of it. Yet. Mostly, the journey passed in boredom and anticipation, it always feels longer than it is, though I enjoyed snatching occasional glances at my shadow, stock still with that of my wheels bouncing on the road surface. With music in my ears, I managed to keep entertained.
We stayed the night at the Holiday Inn Express near the Eurotunnel terminal, where two boys, they were no more than 20 years old, issued our keys then served us beer while we watched England’s footballers playing on the TV. No, I don’t know who they were playing or who won: it’s football. Up early in the morning, we left as planned, but arrived at check-in a minute too late and were forced to take a train half an hour later than intended. We headed to the terminal building and bought the most appallingly tasteless coffee one could imagine, then stood in the car park watching other bikes arriving and looking for a bin in which to deposit our still full cardboard cups.
Riding 520 motorway miles in one day is only doable if broken into bite sized chunks. The prospect of riding until my tank is empty, just over 200 miles, is so unreal as to be beyond comprehension, let alone contemplation. If you go too fast, the stress of concentration increases the fatigue, so each 100 miles or so should be seen as an 80-90mph sprint designed only to waste time between filling up your tank. The bits in between are hard work and, as the day goes on, generally dominated by deep pain in the back side, bouts of intense concentration, wandering attention and random songs on the mp3 player. The first 40 miles of each stint tend to pass very quickly, the next 40 less so and, you’ve guessed it the last 20 are interminable. Sitting on a motorbike for hours is not easy, at least, not like driving a car. But it is so much more than grind and toil, if you think all dual carriageway riding is boring, you’re wrong, though only in part: that day was brilliant in places, partly due to the prospect of adventure and fantastic, undiscovered places, though also the company and camaraderie when we stopped. It’s hard to sum it up really, just miles of featureless tarmac, and some weather, and some petrol stops, and some more featureless tarmac, and some more weather. Which for the most part was very good, though as we approached Dôle I noticed dark clouds on the distant horizon which appeared to be on a collision course with us. I had checked the weather app on my phone and had seen there was a line of showers heading east and it was obviously those I could see. Eventually the sun disappeared and the road surface darkened, legacy of a recent soaking, we started passing cars being chased by rainbow filled clouds of spray created by the fading sun. With about five miles to go before we could take refuge at some motorway services, we were engulfed in an absolute deluge: big fat rain drops noisily thumping onto my helmet, stinging me through my leathers and finally, a warning whiff of diesel on the roundabout at the petrol station.
Petrol, coffee and chocolate devoured we watched as the rain stopped and the gutters emptied. I dithered, unable to decide whether to don waterproofs, un-strapping them from the bike, before putting them back again and making do with waterproof gloves, mainly to keep the lowered temperatures at bay rather than any dampness. Soon enough we were on the road I have declared the best bit of motorway in Europe. It is the A40 and I mentioned it in the notes from last year’s account. Just after Bourg-en Bresse it starts to get a bit bendy as it passes through the southern tip of the Jura Mountains. I wasn’t aware, but once you’ve negotiated the suburbs of Geneva, this sort of action continues, especially as the higher you go in the mountains, the more it resembles a rural dual carriageway than a major trunk road. The last few miles are great fun after a day of relative tedium. All sorts of bends greet you, though all are wide and well surfaced, the only problem being the traffic; this is the only road up to the Mont Blanc Tunnel, so both carriageways are needed to pass the lorries which chug and creep up the hill, spewing heat and fumes into your helmet as you pass.
Guided by the sat nav, we found our hosts’ house in an affluent back street of Chamonix. We were greeted with a Gallic kiss from both Peps and Benja, who provided more friendship and hospitality than I could ever have dreamt of, including great food, wine and digestifs to finish us off. All evening though, every time they peeped through the gathering clouds, I would steal a peek at those magnificent mountains, or the glacier which reaches toward the town down the rocky slopes, like the awesome clawed hand of a giant white malevolent monster.
Aching, tired, replete and drunk I went to bed to hazily reflect on a long, epic day. We had travelled from one end of the country to the other, seen changes in weather and in scenery. Travelled from coast to mountains: from boring to exciting. An epic day indeed.