On 2 wheels through 7 countries
In May this year, my boyfriend and I got to do what both of us dreamt of doing for a long time even before we got to know each other. We did a motorbike trip through Europe. In total, we passed through seven countries, the first two and a half of them with me as a passenger and for the rest, we each had our own bike. We had ups and downs and gorgeous and miserable days but the whole experience was more substantial than I expected it to be. Travelling on a bike is different in many ways to travelling by car or train. Here's why:
Sitting on a bike there is - no matter how thick and tough your gear - no separating you from the outside world. In contrast, sitting in a car means you're in a closed room – climatised and protected from wind and rain. On a motorbike, you feel everything. You feel temperatures drop or rise within seconds when riding up or down a mountain. You feel the wind rushing towards you or nudging from either side, sometimes hitting you with hard and unpredictable gusts. But you also notice the windless moments which you learn to appreciate. You can feel the sun beating down as well as smell rain or woods and fumes or fertilised fields. You’re more in tune with the world around which can be both a good and a bad thing. When we rode through the middle of Spain on the last leg of our trip we had nothing but olive trees as far as the eye could see for a good couple of hours. This might be nice for some but as I don't like the taste of olives at all, the strong smell of freshly produced olive oil made in a number of factories along the road made me feel a little bit sick. However, what I loved was the smell of the pine trees which reminded me of my holidays in Sweden as a kid.
When you experience so many sensory impressions the strongest ones take all your attention. Sometimes this can be great and helpful and at other times it can become torture too. What's wonderful about it is that the feeling of freedom and closeness to nature can take your mind off problems. You only focus on the road because you’re concentrating on taking curves and countersteering wind gusts. You feel your own and the bikes weight when breaking or speeding up. You’re consumed by the ride. On rainy days you need to adapt your style of riding to the performance of two credit card sized pieces of rubber on wet tarmac. Not to mention if the temperature drops as well there's even more concentration and attention needed. For my boyfriend whose chronic illness often causes him pain and various intrusive inner body feelings, riding can at time be the perfect timeout (especially when riding fast!;-). He has to focus on outside influences and his riding performance which distracts him enough to escape from his symptoms for a while. However, on the more mundane parts of the journey when his back, hip or bum pain occurs (which come up easily when you're not used to sitting on a bike for hours) the pain takes over and starts to gain all his attention. Pain is a very big factor when it comes to long rides. I suffered from it too and the worst moments I remember from our trip were those where my hands and feet got freezing cold. If your fingers get cold and stiff, things like holding the accelerator throttle or simply the handlebar hurt so much that minutes feel like hours and all your mind focuses on is that pain. What a relief it is when you finally stop and wrap your hands around a nice hot cup of coffee.
Our goal of the trip was to find the best roads with the nicest curves and most interesting views. We were not interested in just getting to our final destination, we wanted to see and experience the countries we were riding through. Instead of asking Google for other people's advice, we wanted to explore on our own. Each day we looked at the map and chose whatever route seemed to promise nice bending roads winding through natural parks, crossing mountain areas or following rivers and we were lucky enough to get exactly that most of the time. Sometimes we hit shitty roads with a damaged and/or gravelly surface so that we had to slow down and try to avoid potholes wherever possible. A number of times we found ourselves wondering if we should change direction or turn around but we’d finally find what we were looking for. Without noticeable reasons, the bumpy track suddenly turned into a proper renewed road which provided us with breathtaking views and fun combinations of sweeping lefts and rights where we could take our cornering to the next level. Taking backroads really brought us to places you don't see when you pass through on major roads. And it’s the inner land far from the metropolis that shows you the hidden characteristics of a country, the ones that differentiate it from others.
Communication between riders on separate bikes has changed through the last 15 years. Bluetooth connections and noise cancelling headphones make conversations while riding possible and by now more and more enjoyable. As the ride for itself is an exciting and demanding experience, I hold the opinion that you don't need to talk or be entertained by music all the time. But sharing with your riding partner what interesting things you spot in the landscape or making suggestions about where to turn or stop for a picture or lunch break makes a trip in a group much easier and nicer. We were using the communication system 10S from Sena which can pair with the other rider or to a mobile device like our smartphone or iPad. We could receive navigation instructions, listen to music or talk to one another but we had to switch manually between those options. For sure, the technology for a better interface design exists and products with more features are already available on the market, but they are still very expensive, so we tried this middle range system. It actually made me realise how much we are spoilt with stable connections, automated functions and multitasking devices. But at the end of the day, our system with restricted functions still created a better flow for us and let us share moments and thoughts.
Driving a car for three or four hours without a break is, for many people, not too much of a big deal. As opposed to this, a bike ride can become tiring after only an hour because it is much more physically and mentally demanding regarding concentration and stimuli. Even if you fit in breaks every two hours, at the end of a long eight to ten hour day all you want is to put down your luggage, take off your bike gear and move around without that weight on you and enjoy the silence without the constant wind noise in your ears. All your safety gear protects you, but it does become a load when you get off your bike no matter if it's for your lunch break, a short swim in the lake or at your guest house at the end of the day. Storage opportunities are often an issue. That's why we appreciated it a lot when a parking at the Titisee lake in the black forest (Germany) provided a changing room with special lockers for bikers – for free! Accommodations which promote themselves as "biker friendly" but then don't do more than simply "tolerate" guests with loud motorbikes and heavy gear should really think a bit further. What we bikers need is often more than a standard traveller does. We need information about the nearest petrol station, workshop or restaurant with outside space. We need the right space in the right place for all our gear. We need drying rooms after a rainy day and local advice for the nicest spots and views in the area.