One of the luxuries of solo travel is not worrying about knowing where you are, I might never be truly lost, I always have the choice of a left or right turn and sometimes stopping and looking back is all that is required to get exceptional clarity on life – being dwarfed by nature often puts things into perspective.
Laying in the grass trying to cool down but no shade for miles as I reached the top of the plateau from a road off the Col de la Madeleine. I decided to follow the tracks of the famous 1920 hillclimb route as I snaked the sixty odd kilometres between the French and Italian borders through the edges of the Vanoise National Park on the SP212 and into Novalesa. Easy on the CRF1000, but i wondered how the original hillclimb enthusiasts managed in the 1920s on such sharp includes with unforgiving and unprotected edges?
First bit of preplanned roadside maintenance required on the Honda in the form of replacement rear pads – after about 11,500km on the DCT and a lot of mountain and track work the rear pads are looking decidedly worn with less than 1mm left of the 8mm original – I have to say the bike is very balanced, but dragging the rear brake and using the DCT G mode is the best way I have found to maintain effective low speed control on the loose stuff. The job is best done early in the comfort of my present location, with a small swimming pool handy and in the shade rather than later in the next week or so by the side of the road in +33 degree temperatures. I am sticking to conventional organic fibre pads (EBCFA174) and the job is simple, a couple of torx and a slider pin to move followed by maybe a cold beer… These will see me out for the rest of this trip and beyond… and before anyone comments, apart from tubes and my puncture kit and tools these were the only parts I carried with me as I could foresee this happening looking at the existing wear rate, but they were not worn enough to change pre trip. One questions remains… why is it EBC fibre pads smell so badly of fish?
Today is different… the sometimes oppressive overhanging green canopy has broken away and the trees have been replaced with scrubby conifers struggling for purchase in soft sandy soil. The smell is different as well and the unmistakable fragrance of pine sap fills the air. Sand… oh joy the bikers nemesis… its hard packed but goes on for mile after mile and in the end I am glad when the gravel makes a return shortly to be followed by Spanish tarmac, not as smooth as the French type but very welcome all the same. Riding in sand is counter intuitive, going slower does not help and the Africa Twin is a heavy bike to rock back and forwards as she digs a trench with the rear tyre. The DCT gearbox is a revelation and Honda have certainly got that right and as Jeremy Clarkson would say “more power required” and the sand is a distant memory.
Hewn from the soft chalk, I wandered on my own through rough cut tunnels and chambers carved through the rock by labourers overseen by the German Army, the sound of running water never far away and despite the outside heat in the open air there was a cold chill and damp which quickly penetrated down through my jacket into my bones. An eerie place, yet I could not help but be in awe of the massive civil engineering efforts that were delivered at a cost of 1000’s of lives to create La Couple. The huge bunker was built by the Todt Organisation between 1942 and 1944 and was the base for launching the V2 rockets against London. The complex was bombed mercilessly by the Allies and the scars of the high explosive detonations can be seen in collapsed chambers and offset concrete caps and arches. La Coupole was abandoned during the summer of 1944, after the Normandy landings and is now slowly being reabsorbed back into the tranquil french countryside.
The best laid plans of mice and men go up in smoke with the european civil unrest which culminated in my travel plans being cancelled by my insurance provider at 23:00 on the night before I was due to leave the UK… now I am not a reckless man nor neither am I stupid, and to travel when expressly discouraged by the FCO and my Insurance Provider to me just seemed foolhardy… so I took the ribbing and rebooked at short notice all my crossings. So in 2016 having been north (twice) and east (twice) I have decided to go south again to explore the dirt trails of the Picos de Europa.
The Picos are really three separate mountain ranges with a network of maintain trails and passes split midway by the Cares Gorge. I am relieved to know that after my nights in a bivvi bag in the Scandinavian forests in both 2013 and 2015 that the native cantabrian brown bears are reportedly very timid and will avoid human contact but even then the thought of a 150kg bear snuffling in my pannier is one that might wake me when the wild boar or hedgehog trundle past my head!
I found these iconic statues of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels whilst looking for shade (and an ice cream) in the Marx-Engels-Forum which is a great open park in Berlin, a place for relaxation, surrounded by fountains and picnicking families. Whilst much of Berlin has been rebuilt, the site of these two great memorials is on the land in past occupied by the Old Town quarter which was heavily bombed during allied air attacks when most of its buildings reduced to ruins. For some reason after the war, the ruins were cleared but nothing replaced them and the open space remains. Despite the peaceful facade, the Marx-Engels Forum has been the subject of public controversy, with some saying it is an unwanted reminder of austere past times stepping past the political arguments, I welcomed the shade and respite and pondered on George Santayana’s wise words “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” as I ate my decadent western ice cream.
Testing and preparation are the two key points to ensure a successful road trip. As it was last week when I found myself alone for the first time on an early morning Eurostar bound for Calais and onward to Berlin. The plan was to test the new DCT Africa Twin in anger – to see what was missing and what would break. I am pleased to report that in the first 1800km since leaving the UK apart from about 80ml of oil being used by my ScottOiler and frequent stops for fuel, all is well with the Honda. Pit stops have become lengthy as almost inevitably a few people come and talk about the bike and the travel plans – there are only a few CRF1000D’s on the road in mainland Europe and so far I have only seen one other bike perched on a dealers trade stand when I stopped at the Spinner Brucke bike meet. Onwards to Berlin and a true autobahn speed test.
Great to see my article published in Overland Magazine – the CRF1000 DCT is a big hit here in the UK and my review has made it into print worldwide, You can check it out here.