Are we there yet?

The five reasons you haven’t gone touring yet.

I originally wrote this back in mid-February and planned to edit and publish it not long after that. However, with current world events as they are, I really tried to stop thinking about being on the bike so much. After a few weeks in the Covid-19 uncertainty bubble now, I’m coming around to the realisation that life must go on. Whatever that life ends up looking like.

A recent post got me thinking more about touring, how I got started and what I felt at the time. This is not going to be a post for those with short attention spans. Join me on my meandering thought process.

1. I don’t have the right…

I have been guilty of this one right from the very start. I’ve never done any kind of long distance touring on anything but what most would class as a touring bike. By long distance, I’m talking about the kind of tours that involve one or more ferry trips or crossing one or more international borders. Anything over about two thousand of your favourite distance measurement units.

The common get up and go phrase here is that “you can tour on any bike”, and I fully believe that to be the case. People go around the world on mopeds for fecks sake. For this and many other things in life, I’m of the opinion that just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. Are you touring as a means of self-flagellation or because it’s something you want to enjoy? At the very least, it should be a bike you are comfortable doing long distance days on. Again, long distance is subjective. Having toured for a few years now, I’d still grumble quite a bit about doing an 800-1000km day. But if it needed to be done to get somewhere without losing an extra night of your available tour time, then so be it. On a smaller, less comfortable or less capable bike, 800km in a day might be unimaginable torture. You need to be aware of both the bike’s and your own limits.

I should clarify my own choices here. I’ve always been a lover of bigger bikes. Physically bigger, but an increase in engine size usually comes along with that. I never really thought about the ‘long distance’ thing I’ve mentioned above until I had a bike I knew I could comfortably do long distances on. My first tour out of the country was on a Yamaha Royal Star Venture (1300cc V4). Essentially a camper van on two wheels. I’m still not really sure why I bought that bike, it was just what I wanted at the time. I was 22 and didn’t know my ass from a hole in the ground.

It was superbly comfortable to tour on. Great on the motorways but felt pretty awful everywhere else. After that, a BMW R1150GS adventure. Much better, although still fantastically heavy. Fully capable of lean angles that’d touch down the corners of the side cases while winding through Alpine mountain passes. Next, another beamer. An R1200RT. The old man’s sedan chair. A touring bike through and through. But it handled everything I threw (and continue to throw) at it. Now it’s got about eighty thousand km on the clock and barely feels like it’s broken in. Most recently, an R1250GS adventure. The R1250 (will) may be on it’s first tour this year, but I expect it to be no less than stellar given the local riding I’ve done on it since I bought it in January.

You’d be right to suspect some vendor lock-in here. I am a convert to the joys of the BMW boxer engine, noisy and agricultural as it may be. Could I have gone touring on the bike that started all this ‘get out and see the world’ fever? A 650cc Yamaha Drag Star Classic? Of course I could. But I suffered more from fear of the unknown back then, something I’ll go into next.

Having the right [insert item here] extends well beyond choice of bike. The right boots, the right gloves, the right helmet, the right luggage, the right gadgets. If, like me, you are inclined to become paralysed with indecision, you might never get outside your front door when you consider the range of stuff out there you can buy. Sadly, or perhaps gladly, knowing what the right things are is entirely personal and comes with experience. Experience allows you to weigh the pros and cons of choosing one piece of equipment over another. Just don’t get too fanatical about it. If you cut the handle off your toothbrush to save a few grams in your luggage, you possibly need to step back and re-evaluate. Yes, people do that apparently.

Destination plays possibly the biggest factor here. Where am I going, what’s the weather like there and how long will I be there? That’ll determine what gear I ride in (vented or waterproof), what I wear in the evenings off the bike and the additional things I’ll need for a minimum level of comfort (sunscreen, bug spray, etc). I bring a waterproof suit with me in the luggage, but rarely use it unless I know I’m going to be riding in the rain for an extended period of time. If I get a bit wet riding around in my vented gear, chances are I’ll be dry again in no time if I’m in France in the summer months. On the subject of how much clothing do I bring, it varies on tour length. If I’m going to be in an airbnb or something similar for a few days and have access to a washing machine, the clothing quota goes down quite a bit. Less gear on the way out, more space for wine on the way back!

Gadgetry wise, I ignore those heroes that assume you’re not a proper biker if you don’t navigate with paper maps. I wouldn’t leave home without my GPS. “Yeah but gadgets fail” is what you’ll usually hear. True. Which is why I also have a smart phone. What if that fails? If that ever happened (and it hasn’t in all the years I’ve been touring) then I dunno, I’d probably pop into a supermarket and buy a replacement cheap smartphone or GPS. It’s back to fear of the unknown here. What if the eight devices I’ve brought with me to navigate all fail? I’d say you’re more likely to win the lottery than have any two devices fail while out on a 2 or 3 week tour. I write that with a big caveat. If you’re hard on your devices, they’ll fail. Same as they would at home. I generally take quite good care of my electronics. My GPS is one of those that are designed for a bike, so water resistant and a bit ruggedised. If you put a cheap GPS unit into a sandwich bag and duct tape it to your handlebars, your mileage may vary.

Anything else I see as optional. I obviously bring a stills camera, because that’s my thing. I used to bring a couple of action cameras, but they ended up being a burden. I may get back to bringing a single action camera, but I’d need to have it fit in with the routine instead of having to modify my routine to fit the additional gadget in. I sometimes also bring a power bank in case my now ageing phone needs some juice throughout the day. That’s somewhat less of an issue if you have a power hookup on the bike that you can use to charge phones/cameras/etc.

Long story short, you’ll find out what you need and what you don’t by experience gained on the road. Sounds like a cop out, but it’s 100% true. Your first couple of tours will be loaded down with a lot of the stuff you thought you needed but never actually used.

2. Fear of the unknown

Before I get neck deep in this one, I’ll address the two points I’ve raised above.

Your Bike

Your bike, no matter how familiar you are with riding it, is an unknown. What if it breaks down while you’re on tour? What if you’re touring for weeks or even months and you need to maintain it while you’re on the road? Due diligence before you go is always a good idea. Thankfully, it’s all common sense stuff. If the service interval is coming up or will be passed while you’re away, get it serviced before you go. If your tyres are looking a bit ropey or will go below the minimum wear level while you’re away, swap them now. I once had to swap tyres during a holiday after some particularly spirited riding in the Pyrenees. I knew when leaving on the tour that I’d almost possibly just get away with the amount of tread left on them. A blisteringly hot day on the amazing twisty roads in the mountains proved me wrong. Losing a day of your holiday sitting around waiting for tyres to be fitted is no fun whatsoever.

Accept that you can do nothing about the stuff that you can’t prepare for. If you have an electrical problem that stops your bike dead, you may not have been able to predict that. In 2019, my summer tour was over before it started with a faulty ignition switch. Didn’t even get out of the driveway. If that happened while I was at the top of a Swiss mountain pass, it would have been much more entertaining. Plan for the stuff that you can control, insure the stuff you can’t. Motorcycle specific travel insurance is a very, very good idea. I usually get mine here. It’s not cheap, but losing hundreds or even thousands of euro on missed travel connections, hotel bookings, etc is even less not cheap. Check your insurance to see if you have full European breakdown cover. I think it’s pretty common these days but it’s something I most definitely wouldn’t leave home without.

Navigating

Back to the subject of gadgets, specifically having a GPS. I combat my fear of the unknown with what some might call an obsessive level of preparation. For me, planning the tour in the weeks or months coming up to it is part of the tour itself. I usually start by checking out the best twisty routes, biker hotspots and scenic locations. Google is, as always, your friend here. I’ll play around in maps, looking at street view for great roads to ride. That all goes into Basecamp, as I’ve got a Garmin GPS.

After the twisties are sorted I’ll look at overnight stops along the routes I’ve just worked out. Usually within distances that are a comfortable days ride. Things like available accommodation preferably with secure parking (because of my own paranoia only) and other stuff like availability of places to eat, have a beer, see cool stuff, etc. Once a list of overnight stops is made, booking hotels begins. Once all the booking is done, the information goes into Basecamp along with the routes.

As always, there are a couple of schools of thought on the preparation part. Some do none and only book transport (ferries, etc). They’ll turn up in a place they want to stay and hope for the best. If there’s nothing available, ride on to the next town. Some days you hit gold, other days you end up sleeping in a bus shelter. No, I’m not being overly dramatic here. I recently read an account of two guys getting a very poor nights sleep in a bus shelter in Hallstatt, Austria because all the hotels were full. Could that have been avoided by doing some research into the area and booking a hotel in advance? All signs point to yes.

The other school of thought, and it’s one I now fully subscribe to, is to book almost everything in advance. At the very least, I’ll know where I’m laying my head every night. For an inexperienced traveller, that takes away possibly the biggest element of the unknown.

Language

Aside from those above, a big fear for me when I started touring was the language barrier. Living on the western fringes of Europe on an isolated little island means I grew up speaking English and pretty much nothing else. Pluck any one person from mainland Europe at random and they can probably speak at least three languages. Or have enough of the language to get by. It’s something I’m actively trying to improve on.

So, how will you communicate to locals what you need while you’re in their country? This is a relatively easy one, learn a few words. At a minimum, I like to be able to say ‘please’, ‘thank you’, ‘hello’, ‘goodbye’ and of course, know the phrase for ‘can I have a beer please?’

From stark personal experience, it’s amazing how having a very basic grasp of the language will endear you to the locals. Having enough of a language to be able to order a drink or some food at a small, rural restaurant where nobody speaks English is greeted with far more admiration than a simply repeating your request in English, except this time louder, slower and with more hand gestures.

If you try and fail, at least you’ve tried. The person with whom you’re trying to communicate will, in most cases, also try. If you’re an asshole, expect to be treated like one. I have fond memories of an old, French lady in a city hotel checking out a group of bikers after a one-night stay. Each one received a wry smile when paying their bill and received no chit-chat, no ‘bonne route’. At my turn to pay, I exchanged a few basic pleasantries in French, mostly praying there wouldn’t be any follow up because I wouldn’t understand it. When handing back my card and receipt, she leaned in to me and in almost perfect English whispered “you come again, not them”.

Repeating this one, because it’s important. Remember that YOU are in THEIR country. Don’t be an asshole. I write this next bit, keeping in mind I’m a fully fledged member of the antisocial social club; Some of the best parts of touring is interacting with the locals. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been away and someone has come up to me to chat about bikes, bike touring or how they owned a bike when they were young. I’ve had full conversations with strangers that have approached me, neither of us speaking the others language. It’s the universal language of bikers. Worst thing that could happen is you pick up a few words of a language you didn’t know.

Getting Started

If your fear of the unknown stems from not knowing how to get started or who to ask, ask any biker. Seriously. Anyone that has been bitten by the touring bug will talk your ears off about how wonderful it is and how you start. For example, you may have noticed I’ve written a couple of chapters on it so far. If you don’t want to ask, Google. All the popular biking forums probably have an entire section devoted to touring. I may have only gone to mainland Europe and you may be going to Russia, but we’ll surely have something to talk about.

3. Fear of being alone

Ok so this one may only apply to folks that prefer to go it alone, and if you’re that type of person you may not easily suffer from loneliness. But it’s a legitimate thing, so its included here.

There are those who say “better alone than in bad company”. I’d like to think I have a healthy appreciation for my own company and don’t usually have a problem keeping myself entertained for a few days. That mostly comes from being on the road in a previous day job. A type of job where if I didn’t like my own company (or at least be able to tolerate it), I’d quickly have gone nutty.

If you usually ride alone, you might assume that a solo several day tour is no problem. Consider that you may be in a foreign country where you aren’t able to communicate with people reasonably well. By which I mean to have something as simple as a casual conversation about the weather. It’s a different thing entirely to being at home and just heading out on your own for a days ride.

A few years ago we skipped the usual summer holiday routine as we were neck deep in buying a house. Long story short, by August I was so irritated, I was ready to jump out of my own skin. The summer in Ireland hadn’t been particularly good, so even pretending I’d been on holiday was a stretch of the imagination. Within a few days, I’d booked some accommodation in Germany, Austria, France and Belgium and had a very rough itinerary. There were two objectives. 1, ride through the Black Forest and 2, spend a few days in Austria riding some mountain passes I don’t usually get to.

I took off at the end of August, rode across the UK and got the Eurotunnel to France. I hadn’t even made my way through the UK before I started feeling it. I wondered why I’d done this on my own and how unfair I’d been to Julie, leaving her at home. She wasn’t actually at home though, she’d gone to visit her Dad for a week or so. But even reminding myself of that, the voice of doubt repeated in my head that I shouldn’t have gone on my own. The lowest part of that low was when I arrived in my accommodation near the Eurotunnel in the UK and it was, without being disparaging to any group in society, not a very nice place.

I didn’t have to wait long for a high thankfully. I got to France early the next morning and onto the completely empty motorway with the sun beating down. I put on some music and life was good. I was on my way to do something fun. Long day on the bike done, I ended up near Baden-Baden in Germany and stayed at a guesthouse I’ve been meaning go get to for a few years. I met two bikers from the UK and shared dinner & beers with them, as well as a few touring related war stories.

From there it was further south into the Tyrol valley, through some of the heaviest rain I’ve ever ridden in. Soaked to the bone, freezing cold, complaining loudly. But complaining through a smile, if that makes sense. Got to Austria, into sub-zero temperatures, riding mountain passes with huge snow banks either side of me. It was an experience for sure.

The lows normally got me in the evening. When it was time for dinner and I was sat on my own, surrounded by couples and families. The staff at the hotel tried their best to make conversation and even though at the time I had approximately two words of German at the time, I tried back. In previous years I had gotten used to getting a download from Julie in the evening about what she’d seen while I saw pretty much nothing but road. That first long distance, 10 day long solo tour was an eye opener. If you’re prone to the lows, bring something to do in the evening. My tablet with the Netflix on it proved to be a lifesaver. There’s only so much foreign TV you can watch.

If that all sounds a bit overwhelming, there is a solution for some. Ride in a group. Go with a group of friends. Or with an organised tour group. Organised tours, even though they can be a bit more expensive than doing it all on your own offer an invaluable safety blanket. A bunch of people that all speak your language, going to the same place and with a common goal. Also if you haven’t toured or been outside your home country before, you have a guide that will probably be able to sort out any problems that occur.

The final thing I’ll say on the subject of group riding is this. Only by doing a group tour will you realise if group touring is for you. If you find yourself in a group of people that you can’t get along with, you may quickly wish you were on your own. In a bunch of friends, there may be pressure to stay together as one huge group and follow a set route, stop when everyone else wants to, etc. You may end up riding outside your comfort zone if you’re feeling pressured to keep up with a fast group or be irritated at having to stay with slower riders. The group may split and tensions form between people. That and a whole lot more is shit you really don’t need on what’s supposed to be a fun, relaxing holiday.

Touring companies will likely give you the routes up front, waypoints for hotels, etc. You’ll get a daily briefing and either feel free to explore on your own or follow the guide. You’ll also get a bunch of likeminded folks to hang out with in the evening.

4. Family commitments – wife, kids, etc.

Ah yes. Here’s a subject that’s like juggling with chainsaws. For added kicks, I’m going to put ‘available money’ in with this one, because I feel like kids and available money are inextricably linked. It’s also a subject I’m not qualified to pontificate on, having no kids.

I do however have a wife and am very cognisant of the fact that in the last few years, my desire to be off in foreign lands on the bike probably far outweighs hers. I’m also overly sensitive about just packing up and taking off for a week by myself when work commitments allow.

An example perhaps. I’d like to ride some Swiss mountain passes. I’ll gladly jump on the bike and ride pretty much non-stop to Switzerland from Ireland. I wouldn’t subject her to that. Yet knowing that my theoretical itinerary would make her uncomfortable (even if she wouldn’t want to come anyway) makes me less likely to go in the first place.

I have a tendency to overthink things and that may be the case here. The other side of that is that she’s usually only too happy to hop on the bike and go on tour. She actually enjoys bike touring, not just because she’s tagging along and smiling through gritted teeth because it’s something I love doing. Before anyone points it out, I’m acutely aware that this isn’t a trait shared by lesser wives.

Free time is an easy one for me. I have loads of it and will gladly spend all of it on the bike. I often think that if I lived in mainland Europe and didn’t have the added complication of ferries and riding through now non-EU countries (meow) to get to the really good stuff, I’d probably be on the bike every weekend, heading to a different country. Until then, there’s always the west coast of Ireland to keep me sane.

There are approximately fifty million variables in the family, money and available time equation to weigh up when considering a tour of any duration. All those variables you’ll have to work out yourself. I’ve just waffled a bit about my situation, which may or may not help. Sorry, this one is a total cop out. Only you know what works for you.

5. Compare and Despair

This was a new phrase to me, but it makes perfect sense. A reason you haven’t gone touring yet is because no matter how hard you try, you couldn’t possibly be living your life as amazingly awesome as all those folks on YouTube. If you’re doomed to failure and can’t have the picture perfect touring experience like these guys, why would you even bother leaving the house?

I have and still am guilty of consuming way too much chewing gum for the eyes on social media. It’s often entertaining to watch a long running series about someone that’s just quit their job, sold all their stuff and is touring the world on their bike. But entertainment can become something else. It can, as I’ve written above, become a blocker you can use to talk yourself out of doing something. If I can’t go on a two week tour and have a face meltingly good time, why even bother?

You rarely see the other side of it. The people that film and beautifully produce a series of snappy 10 minute videos of their tour to the Dolomites are the same people that then return home to work for the other 50 weeks of the year in a job they may get no inspiration or joy from, just so they can get back to the Dolomites the following year.

Or the world touring semi-celebrity that has to work on the road, freelance writing and editing video. Hoping their article gets published or their video gets the minimum amount of views so they can afford to eat and buy petrol to keep the adventure going for just another week.

I have compared, and yes I have despaired. I try not to let it get to me as much anymore, remembering that all you’re being shown here is the peaks. The well polished, edited and often ecstatically narrated peaks. I try to remind myself that this isn’t real life. Side note; I’m also very suspicious of anyone that looks that happy all the time. Probably a psychopath that fled their home country after they filled their basement with bodies. Just saying…

So thats it for now. How I got started and why you shouldn’t be afraid to. In what is apparently going to be a series of posts on this subject (bike touring), next up is why I should learn not to put things off for some day.

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