London to Barcelona - on a Buell XB
After being made redundant in August last year, I was looking for a job in London, but to no avail. I sent off some C.V.s to some continental schools on the off chance that someone might need an experienced English teacher (my current profession) and received a reply to one of them. After a couple of relatively brief conversations with the Head of Studies of the school, at the beginning of September I was offered a job there for nine months. I was told that the position was to start on the 27th of September and was reminded that the school was in Barcelona; "that's okay" I thought, it would be nice to have a change of scenery for a while.
Then of course, I thought about my relatively, newly acquired bike - what would I do with it? Leave it here? Sell it so soon? I weighed up the pros and cons of each option I had available and decided that it would be a great excuse for a road trip. I would ride the XB to Barcelona!
So, within twenty or so days I had decided how and when I was going to make it down the 950 miles to the capital of Catalunya. My plan was quite simple:
Day 1 - London to Paris (A20, Eurotunnel, A26, A1) - about 285 miles
Day 2 – visit Paris
Day 3 - Paris to Millau (E50, A10, A71, A75) - about 400 miles
Day 4 - Millau to Barcelona (A75, A9 - border - AP-7) - about 250 miles
Total: about 950 miles (including wrong turns, getting a bit lost etc)
I bought a ticket for the Eurotunnel on their website, which was very simple to do, took up an invitation I had to go and visit a friend in Paris, and found and paid for a night's accommodation in a decent hotel in Millau. The important bits were planned.
Oh, I need luggage. Hmm... I am going to need to bring a fair amount of stuff for the length of my contract (9 months), how should I do that?
I remember seeing a successful bodge-job that another Londonbikers.com member did attaching a top box to a CBR600rr by bolting it to the rear seat - it worked perfectly and was more than secure enough. I thought ‘that will do me’ and quickly sourced a second-hand Givi Flow 35L model. It was used, but a good price, had two keys and came with the baseplate - all I needed. Instead of bolting it to the expensive one piece seat of the XB, I decided to 'adapt' the underseat straps used by my Kriega US10 to hold the baseplate of the Givi in place, then I'd have something secure to lock the box onto; with a system of bungees and carefully placed zip ties, I could make sure there was no movement from the box. Check the accompanying photos and videos for a better idea. To cut a long story short - it bloody worked!
I also wanted panniers. I liked the look of the Oxford Sport soft luggage and after much hunting, managed to find a set on Gumtree for a reasonable price; I didn't want to buy them new as I wasn't going to be making a habit of this and getting the most use out of them. I also bought a bumbag to carry extra stuff.
To conserve space, I bought some 'vacuum bags' to pack clothes into.
(Reviews of all this kit are at the end of the article.)
I found out about the foreign cover that came with my insurance policy and how much time it was valid for - 60 days. I would be more than safe until I was settled in Spain and could look into it further, so I thought.
I packed and re-packed and made sure that all my stuff would fit and that the top box was secure – took the bike for a spin on the A3 with everything attached and all systems were go!
On the road
Day 1 - London to Paris
From my flat in Putney to Dover was a very simple ride; luckily the weather was pleasant and I had made enough preparations that I had time to stop off at Get Geared in Leatherhead to buy a puncture repair kit (part of a necessary collection of things for foreign travel which also includes spare bulbs and a medical kit). I had previously bought spare bulbs in Halfords and some other things online.
The Eurotunnel was great - just a simple wait as the train filled up with cars, bikes were the last on, but first off, which was nice. Before, I had been worried about the train moving and my bike falling, but just make sure it is in gear and the stand is safely down and you should have no problems. I was also allowed to get on an earlier train as I had made such good time to Dover. I shared the ride with two other riders who were on a short tour of France and half way through our conversation I noticed daylight through the windows of the train - nous étions arrivés! (we had arrived).
The route you take from the Eurotunnel feeds you directly onto the French motorway (autoroute), so you needn't worry about finding yourself confonted with highspeed traffic on the wrong side of the road. The roads were as smooth and the driving manners of other road users as pleasant as everyone had told me, drivers really did move over and I felt myself more of an equal than a bit of a target.
My first roundabout experience was made easier by the fact that there were no other vehicles on it; it was freaky just the same. Bikers outside Paris were very friendly with almost all of them acknowledging one another (usually with a left hand slightly extended to that side of the bike), but like any big city, everyone looks out for themselves the closer you get to the centre. Paris within BP (Boulevard Peripherique) is a bit mad with many cobbled streets and narrow roads, most of which I wasn't sure if they were one way (sense unique) or not.
In the end, I parked the bike on the pavement - very near my friend's house I was staying in - locked it with the Almax and covered it, so I felt fairly certain that I'd see it the following day. I was further reassured when I noticed the sheer amount of PTWs - loads of them. Safety in numbers I always think. Mind you, I was in a relatively old part of the city centre which was why the streets are cobbled and packed with bars, restaurants and people.
After the best coucous in Paris (so I was told), I decided to have a couple of beers outside at a bar near where I was staying; a table next to me was free and a couple on a scooter pulled up to the bike bay opposite and just walked straight up to the table. Most definitely c'est l'vie.
Day 2 - in Paris
I was shown around the district by one of my hosts; we went to St. Eustace in Les Halles, of course my eye was still drawn to more two wheeled things – photos of a couple are included. After a day walking around Paris, the thought of having to repack all that gear was depressing.
I just wanted to be on the road, to get on with the journey.
Day 3 - Paris to Millau
The trip to Millau (pronounced 'Mee-oh') was easy if a little boring as it was the longest leg of the journey (630kms). I contented myself with the satnav playlists I had setup and a 'speak and repeat' Spanish set of .mp3s. Most of my time on the motorway was spent trying to find the sweet spot above the airbox cover ('tank') where I would experience as little turbulence as possible.
On the way to my night's hotel, I was coming down a road that was being repaved (it was as though PJ had planned my route), when I dropped the bike and snapped the nearside rider's footpeg - this made gear changing ‘fun’ and it wasn't until the next day that I stopped and decided to do something about it (read on).
That evening, I had dinner in a large bowling alley/ recreation centre. As I was eating, I noticed more and more elderly couples filling the seating areas around the hall and there was a bloke doing a sound check with a mic and a keyboard; soon, the lights dimmed and it all kicked off - an over 60's 'Come Dancing' extravaganza! The strange coincidence was that the first tune played by the expert accordion player was particularly apt to my journey; ‘Viva España’ was skillfully played by the musician. I recorded part of it and will get a video attched to the article if I have the chance.
The Deltour Hotel was fine; the room was clean and just what I needed, nothing fancy, but with a comfortable bed. The breakfast was great as well; all for 39€ – can’t go wrong.
Extended motorway journeys on a naked bike really take it out of you! Physically, I was not prepared for this so I went asleep very easily and slept very deeply that night; it wasn’t to be the first.
Day 4 - Millau to Barcelona
The next day, I was ready for another highlight of the trip - crossing the Millau Viaduct. Designed by Michel Virlogeux and Norman Foster, it is the highest bridge in the world, is 2,500m long and cost 400M€ to build. I had seen amazing photos of the span with clouds sitting in the Tarn Valley below - I might be riding above the clouds, how cool would that be!
But no, despite it being a little cloudy when I awoke that morning, I didn't cross with clouds below me; well, I possibly did, but couldn't see them because of the clouds above me that pelted me with torrential rain for the entire morning's ride. I crossed the viaduct with full waterproof gear on, rain-covers on the panniers and a feeling of great disappointment that I didn't have time to wait around for it all to clear up. As I dodged the spray from other traffic crossing the viaduct and tried to keep my foot on the stub of the rider's peg, I was thoroughly disappointed, but 'thems the breaks' of being a biker. I'll get another chance, and I'll bring less luggage next time.
After a while and the odd wrong turning, there was a break in the rain and the sun came out so I stopped for a breather and to change out of my waterproofs. I put them in the sun to dry for a bit and as I looked at the stub that was the broken peg, I realised that the pillion peg from the same side was similar and decided that I would have a go at changing one for the other. After a bit of fiddling about with inappropriate tools for the job, I managed to change the pegs over. I was absolutely stoked and felt for all the world like a truly resourceful human being; the challenge and my joyful reaction are captured in the video that will come soon.
I also realised there was a fault with the waterproof covers of the panniers - check the review below for more.
Arriving in Barcelona, it was about 5pm and still quite light; it was a warm day and with my double rucksack luggage and full leathers, I was uncomfortable in the heat. The ride had made me tired (again) and this is evident in the way I ramble on in the video, forgive me; also, the feeling that it was basically the end of the trip had taken over and I was starting to relax - too early. My original plan had been to stay with a friend for a while so I hadn't booked any hotels in Barna, but that fell through so I had to find somewhere to stay for at least the night of my arrival. This proved to be next to impossible as I had arrived on a Friday that just happened to be the start of a weekend of celebration marking the Fiesta de La Mercè (which is held in honour of the city's patron saint and protector, The Virgin de La Mercè)- Barcelona's biggest celebration of the year, so all the hotels anywhere near the centre of town were full to the brim.
After many starts and stops, asking in an Irish pub, looking on the ‘net, calling a friend of a friend and visiting different parts of the city, (basically a tour of Barcelona), I thought I'd try the airport for some hotels - the third one I visited had vacancies. The Hotel Porta Fira was apparently designed by a famous Japanese architect, I was to find out later, and is a tall, curvy red building in the Hospitalet/ Llobregat region of Barna which is also home to the airport. There was clean, safe, underground parking for my ‘road weary’ XB and a beautiful room for me - I slept very well that night!
I'm writing this months after arriving here and can now confess that my 'planning' of the trip was too haphazard for even my own expectations - I found that certain things frustrated me, although problems could have been avoided with better forward thinking. Riding and staying hotels I had booked went well, but arriving on the most popular day of the year for Barcelona was a big mistake; another one was not knowing that for my foreign cover to be valid, I was not allowed to work - holiday only. Also, that to insure my bike here, it would need to be registered here. I have only just found myself in the position of being able to register the bike in Spain - for me it is a long, costly and drawn out process. I have not ridden my bike since December 2010 because I have not been insured on it. Registration here will cost about £650. Hmmm... bad planning indeed.
However, perhaps the idea of a 'grab my stuff and go' kind of road trip appealed to me - what the hell was I thinking!?
Plans are in action to keep me biking so I can take advantage of the ultra twisty mountain roads around Barna that are perfect for short blasts of chicken-strip reduction!
Viva Barcelona! Ya esta.
Given the fact that I travelled 950 miles in different weather types, I would say I had the opportunity to test some of my kit more than just the normal ride-out or commuting use I usually subjected it to. It rained very heavily, was very warm/ hot, speeds reached 'progress-making on the motorway' upper limits (although my bike only has 86bhp ;).
Helmet: Arai Viper GT - noisy, comfortable, annoyingly weak visor system
HELD Phantom - great feedback, soft and secure feeling,
Hein Gericke Pathan - a little clumsy in a lobster kind of way stayed completely waterproof despite getting soaked
Alpinestars Octane Leather 2-piece jacket - a regular two piece, annoying front zip, good comfort overall, however not good for extended touring IMO, a bit hot when the sun came out,
Alpinestars Bionic body protection mesh top - great for when the sun comes out,
Tog24 waterproof snowboarding jacket - did what I expected of it and kept me completely dry when combined with other w/proof gear (worn over leather jacket),
EDZ windproof liner - makes a noticeable difference when you need it and packs up so small
Alpinestars Octane Leather 2-piece trousers - similarly to the jacket they are a little restrictive and warm but are very comfortable now they're ol.
Oxford waterproof over-trousers - a bit old but have always kept me very dry. I wouldn't change them and will try to find another pair when these wear out.
Sidi Vortex - very comfortable as summer boots they aren't waterproof unless you cover them with duct tape ;)
Oxford Sports panniers - hold lots of gear and look good secure well, but water collected in the waterproof covers after being sprayed up there by the rear wheel of the bike. There was about a litre each side and it soaked the lower part of the panniers which can be seen dripping in the video (check the photos as well). I understand that perhaps it was due to my bike not being a faired sportsbike, but still - grrr.
Oxford Sports hipbag - holds loads great for that extra amount and for easily accessible things like passport money keys phone sweets,
Kreiga R20 backpack - again, another Tardis-like item which, along with the US10 tailpack, are essential, lifetime luggage IMO. The build quality is great and they both work perfectly. My only gripe with the R20 is that due to my small chest size, I often seem to have the straps tightened fully and they are awkward to re-tighten.
Givi Flow 35L topbox - it was a bit out of context on the XB, but performed as expected - opened and closed well,
cheap rucksack - it was there, not made for motorway use, but carried some stuff when needed,
So Easy rider satnav case - the zip broke a while back, and it is too small for my Garmin Nuvi (Garmin's stupid fold out antenna) but I used the extra waterproof cover and had no problems with it,
Vacuum bags - basically large zip-lock bags with a valve at the opposite end from the opening which air is forced out of thereby packing things up into a smaller space. They were kind of expensive, as I bought them in the local camping shop as a last minute idea (probably cheaper online), but really worth it as there was such a difference with space! Of course, they only really worked with clothes. They also ensured the contents didn't get wet.
Garmin Nuvi 350 satnav - Has a stupid fold out antenna, good simple directions but it expects you to only ride at, or below, the speed limit - I found I was missing turnings as it would warn me to late. Thank the gods for the mp3 playing feature or I would have been bored stiff!
- http://fr.mappy.com/itinerary#p=itinerary_homepage or http://www.viamichelin.co.uk/ - sites I used to calculate toll fees and petrol budget.
- http://www.deltourhotel.com/ - the Millau hotel I stayed in.
- http://www.bowlingdemillau.fr/ - the Bowling Alley/ leisure centre in Millau (with the accordion player).
- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Millau_Viaduct - info on the Millau Viaduct.
- http://news.motorbiker.org/blogs.nsf/dx/RidingInFrance.htm - info on riding in France.
- http://www.theaa.com/motoring_advice/overseas/countrybycountry.html - driving requirements listed by country.
I also used Google Maps (especially Streetview) to rehearse my route into and out of Paris to look out for obstables; it also came in handy to find secure parking, which in the end I didn't use.
(approximate) Map of the route: