Would you set off for a solo European tour on a 33-year-old motorcycle with virtually no riding experience? Kathy Head did.
Story: Kathy Head
Anyone who has read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance would know that the main thesis author Robert Pirsig presents is that humanity can roughly be divided into two camps; the Classical thinkers and the Romantic thinkers. Classical thinkers are people who think in terms of science, facts, technology and machination. The Romantic thinkers aren’t so concerned with such stuff; they are more into art, concepts, nature and creativity.
We never really find out what type of motorcycle Pirsig rides on his famous trip through the mid west USA, but we learn early on that his riding buddy John is on a BMW R60. Pirsig (a classical thinker) tinkers with his bike daily; tightening this and adjusting that. He is forever getting out his little toolkit for some minor repair or another. He is very smug about it too and he can’t understand why John doesn’t seem to take an interest in motorcycle maintenance. Pirsig is frustrated by this apparent lack of care but he puts it down to the assumption that John is in the Romantic thinker’s camp.
Now Pirsig is a smart man but did he ever stop to consider that maybe… just maybe…. John didn’t need to worry about his bike; that the R60 was just one of those bikes that didn’t need a whole lot of tinkering? Or am I just a Romantic too….?
I don’t know what it was that made me come up with the idea of riding around Europe on a motorbike. It wasn’t as though I had motorbikes in my blood; in fact my history with them was rather limited. Sure, I had been on them as a pillion but my first attempt to ride one, at the age of twelve in the backyard of my family home, nearly ended with my face being implanted into a paling fence. After that I had no interest whatsoever in wanting to learn to ride a bike.
In more recent years I started to develop an appreciation of the look of older bikes. There was something about these classic bikes with their shining chrome and single round headlight that I thought was sexy. Images of Marlon Brando on his old Triumph in The Wild One or Steve McQueen in The Great Escape contributed to that appreciation. But at what point did my interest in the aesthetics slip into that world of fantasy of thinking I should actually go and ride one on the other side of the world for five months? I don’t know, but that’s exactly what I did. I got my license in November and by the following June I was riding high up in the French Alps on the Simplon Pass on my way to Chamonix Mont Blanc on a 1975 R60!
I bought it on EBay in the UK. I was staying with a mate in London until I found the right bike and every day I would log on to see what had been listed. As soon as I saw it I knew it was the bike for me. Most of the R60s I had seen of this vintage had black tanks, but this one had a silver tank with navy pin striping and I instantly fell for it. I was an anxious bidder; often outbidding myself in my eagerness but I didn’t care; I wanted the bike! When the auction ended and it sunk in that I had just bought a motorbike the nerves and self doubt set in. What the hell did I think I was doing? I was an inexperienced rider for god’s sake – I couldn’t even turn corners properly, I knew nothing about mechanics and I was about to take a 32-year-old motorcycle on a long distance jaunt across five countries! I started to think I had bitten off more than I could chew.
Catching the train up to Liverpool a week later to pick him up (dubbed Bob by this stage) my stomach was in knots the whole way. The seller was Ron; a lovely man in his early sixties who reminded me a lot of my dad. We did all the paperwork and I loaded up the panniers with my gear and proceeded to wobble very unceremoniously down the street and off into the sunset (not really… I stalled not 500 meters away and Ron had to come and help me start it again). He confessed to me later that he honestly thought that he had just sent me to an early grave!
I honestly don’t know how I survived those first few days. I had no idea what I was doing with the bike; my throttle control was appalling, I relied heavily on my rear brake rather than my front brakes (but anyone who is familiar with the front brakes of the early BMW’s can probably understand why) and I struggled with the clunky old gears. I had only ever ridden a little TA200 cruiser style thing to get my L’s so everything from the riding position to the drum brakes on Bob was foreign to me.
Somewhere between Liverpool and Chester I ran out of fuel on the side of a very busy motorway with very little shoulder and with semi-trailers barreling past at 90 mile an hour. I thought Ron had sold me a dud before I actually realised it was a petrol issue. I jiggled the tank around a bit (there was definitely petrol in there) and I must have got a sniff of fuel to the lines because I was able to get him started again and we limped into a nearby petrol station. As soon as we pulled in a rotund little man came and kindly told me that I was going to get myself killed because I was using the wrong indicator (left and right were in the opposite position to what I was used to). He admired Bob, told me he used to ride one exactly like him in his younger days and then waddled off. It was only as I was filling the tank did I notice the reserve tank switch on the engine block. Well that would have been embarrassing if I had called road side service!
I gave myself a leisurely four days to get to Portsmouth to board the ferry to France. The weather wasn’t the greatest, it rained on and off forcing me to pull up in little English villages and sit it out. I didn’t have wet weather gear, just a second hand pair of leather pants and a street wear leather jacket. I was remarkably under equipped. I would be mixing with the big boys on their fancy GT1200s and Goldwings with heated seats (decked out with every imaginable mod con, navigation and luggage system) whilst I would be getting by with a set of leaky panniers and a plastic shopping bag strapped on the back!
I passed through Bath, Stonehenge and into Portsmouth where I managed to stall Bob going up the boarding ramp to the ferry. I was the very first bike to be waved onto the boat so I made a right idiot of myself in front of all the other bikers. One guy on a big BMW was good enough to pull up beside me and wait for me to get going again, but hill starts on a ferry ramp in front of a whole port full of waiting cars, bikes and trucks, isn’t the nicest predicament for a novice to find herself in. It would be the first of many.
The French have a propensity for bridges. They love the things and French bridge builders must have some serious Freudian issues going on because they like to build very, very big bridges. My first challenge after disembarking in Le Havre was facing Le Pont De Normandie (Normandy Bridge). It was 7.30am in the morning, extremely blowy and pouring with rain. I could see this gigantic arch reaching to the heavens off in the distance and as I got closer the true horror of the situation became awfully apparent. The road I was on was taking me straight to it. Arguably the highest bridge I had ever seen in my life and I was going to have to go over it on a motorbike in gale force winds. I don’t think I have ever been more scared. The wind battered us badly as we climbed the full 214 metres height and whilst other bikes (presumably from off the ferry) went flying past us, I was holding on for dear life at a modest 60kms an hour.
The pretty little seaside village of Honfleur was a welcome pit stop after surviving Le Pont de Nightmare and I ordered a double espresso from a bar to settle my nerves. Voila! I was in France.
My rough plan was to travel around France in an anti-clockwise direction before crossing the border into Italy near San Remo. I would then make my way up to Venice where I was due to meet up with a friend in eight weeks time. I had absolute freedom. It was just me, Bob and the open road.
In Bayeaux (where the famous 1,000 year old Bayeaux Tapestry hangs) I dropped Bob for the first time. I got caught on some uneven ground trying to maneuver him in a hotel car park and I lost my footing and we both hit the deck. Luckily there was another guest nearby and he helped me pick the bike up. There was no way in the world I would have been able to pick it up by myself. I was grateful for the thumping big crash bars around the twin cylinder heads (they would get quite a work out over the next few months!)
I got holed up in St Briuc for three days due to bad weather; it rained constantly and since I didn’t have wet weather gear I had to just wait until it passed. As soon as there was a break in the weather I headed for the south coast of Brittany where I boarded a ferry for the delightful island of Belle-Ile. Sarah Bernhardt had lived here in a miniature castle overlooking the wild cliffs and the broody Atlantic Ocean. There was something very nostalgic and romantic about the place and Bob looked right at home as we pottered around the island. At one stage I found myself in an open paddock full of bulls and in my haste to get the hell out of there I nearly put Bob in a ditch.
In St Brevin Le-Pin, I met a man at the Youth Hostel I was staying in who, after seeing Bob, asked if I was riding in the Tour de Brittany. It was an annual classic car and motorbike rally that was due in Nantes the following afternoon. I wasn’t really planning on going to Nantes but since it was only 40kms away, I quickly changed my mind. It proved to be one of the best nights of my trip. Huge crowds gathered in Place Marechal Foch to welcome the thousand odd entrants. Whilst there were some amazing vintage cars, I really only had eyes for the bikes. Old Indians, BSA’s, BMW’s, Nortons, Triumphs, Moto Guzzis, Ariels, Laverdas and many I had never heard of before, came beeping and backfiring into town. A handful came in on trailers having given up the ghost during the day. I spent all evening wondering around amongst them and their owners and took particular delight in the close examination of a mint R32, the first ever BMW motorcycle.
On to Bordeaux and Biaritz on France’s west coast before climbing up into the Pyrenees. For a girl who hadn’t really mastered corners before I set off, I certainly had to learn pretty fast. These mountains were simply stunning and the Basque villages dotted throughout were unbelievably charming. Bob was in his element. A boxer twin, good tarmac and big, fat bends up in the clouds is a match made in heaven!
In Sete, a quaint fishing village by the Mediterranean came my ‘Watershed’ moment. I was trying to find the Youth Hostel and the signs were directing me higher and higher up steep cobblestoned laneways. I didn’t like the look of it and yet I kept going. I turned a bend and started to go up the steepest bit of road imaginable when I panicked and did the worst thing I possibly could have done. I braked! Before I knew it, Bob and I were both on the ground. We hit the road quite hard and fuel was pouring out of the tank and going everywhere. The engine was still running so I quickly flicked the kill switch; terrified the bike was going to explode. The exhaust put a nasty hole in my jeans and a minor burn to my calf but apart from that I was unhurt. I wasn’t so sure about Bob though. I didn’t think I stood a chance in getting him righted but since he fell uphill, the steep angle of the road meant I wasn’t lifting him from a dead flat position. I got him upright but then I was stuck. It was too steep to put his stand down and it was completely the wrong angle to safely get on him and ride him down. I waited for what seemed like hours for someone to come past. My arms and legs were getting tired holding him up and by the time the first car came past I was balling my eyes out. The driver couldn’t speak much English but through my tears I was able to ask him for help in pushing Bob into a driveway on the other side of the road where I could turn him around on flat ground. That done, my Good Samaritan left, leaving me to muster the courage to get back on and ride down. It took me a good half an hour to do so and even then I was shaking like a leaf. I made a mental note to myself from that point on; avoid braking on steep hills. Better still, avoid steep hills altogether!
The gentle hills and scented air of Provence saw Bob back in his preferred conditions and a very brief love affair with a French pilot in Aix-en-Provence restored my self-esteem and passion for adventure. On to one of the most picturesque stretches of motoring road in the world; the cliff drive along the Cote D’Azur through Cannes, Nice, Monte Carlo, and San Remo. The colour of the Mediterranean is something that has to be seen to be believed and to be on a motorcycle going through the same bends Grace Kelly and Cary Grant made famous in their car chase scene in “To Catch a Thief” was as surreal as it gets.
Bob was given a few days rest in a caravan park on the outskirts of Venice while I bused it into that celebrated city to spend a few days without being astride a motorcycle. Four days later after a whirlwind encounter with one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world, I was glad to be reunited with Bob and en route to Lake Garda via Verona. A night at the theatre (Shakespeare of course) in that fair city was the cultural hit I needed before tackling the part of my trip I was most nervous about; the Alps! After a couple of days in the Lake District I set off for the Simplon Pass. No sooner had I left my hotel in Menaggio, Bob started giving me some trouble. He was coughing and carrying on and refused to idle when we were stopped in traffic. He just kept stalling. I wasn’t going to attempt the steep, winding exit route out of Lake Como with him in that state so I turned around and went back along the lake to find a garage in one of the little hamlets. Fortunately there was a motorcycle mechanic not 5kms away and whilst he didn’t specialise in BMW’s he said he would take a look. Embarrassing moment number three thousand and sixty four: I had used a tiny bit of choke that morning and I had forgotten to push it back it. Poor Bob was gagging on his own saliva!
That problem solved the Alps awaited and straight into embarrassing moment number three thousand and sixty five. But first of all the Simplon Pass demands an introduction. I wanted to avoid the Mont Blanc tunnel at all costs. I had been through enough tunnels thus far to know I didn’t like them. Generally they were quite dark (and I have appalling night vision) and very narrow (no break down lane to speak of) and they’re usually full of European motorists (try-hard Fangios). I didn’t want to be at the centre of another Mont Blanc tunnel disaster. The Simplon Pass seemed a reasonable compromise. It had a few tunnels but they seemed like underpasses compared to the 11.6kms promised by my map for the Mont Blanc Tunnel. Things started out well enough; the road was quite steep with big bends but I just kept my knees tight to the tank and let Bob find his legs. I kept remembering the most valuable bit of advice I received from my instructor when I was going for my license; “Look where you want to go; not where you are going”. When I relaxed and just got into Bob’s groove I found I was beginning to master the art of cornering. Not long after the border crossing into Switzerland and I noticed something was going wrong with Bob. He was losing revs badly and I was forced to drop right back to second gear as we climbed higher. I noticed a café up ahead with a car park full of bikes so I approached a couple of hairy, tattooed Harley riders as they were returning to their machines and they looked at me with toothless grins. In broken English they explained that it was perfectly normal; the air was thinner up here and therefore Bob was just suffering from a lack of oxygen. What a relief! I fell in with a big group of bikes leaving the café but they quickly left me in their wake; at an altitude in excess of 2,000 meters, I had to let Bob catch his breath. One great thing about being forced to go slow was I really got to take in the amazing scenery. The snow capped peaks and multiple glaciers were truly spectacular and I felt like the luckiest person in the world.
What goes up must come down again and after three glorious days in Chamonix, Bob and I hit the road once more and dropped down to Lake Geneva, Bern and Zurich before re-entering France in the Alsace region. From Strasbourg the delights of Champagne awaited and then into more sobering country as the battlefields of World War One. Riding Bob through the towns and villages of the Western Front, along the same roads our brave diggers marched and died upon, looking out into wheat fields where ANZAC bones remain buried is something I will never, ever forget. The irony of riding a German motorbike through such sacred places as Peronne, Hamel, Villers-Bretonneux and Ypres was not lost on me and Bob even seemed to adopt that apologetic air a lot of Germans assume when mention of either war is made. Standing at the Australian Memorial near Le Hamel and looking out over the remains of trenches I was overcome by an immense love for my country and for the men who fought and died for it. I was feeling homesick and I knew it was time to go home.
I boarded a ferry at Dunkirque and I watched in awe as the White Cliffs of Dover loomed on the horizon. That was the first time I had seen them and I instantly related to the sentiment they evoked for all those who returned to ‘Blighty’ from France during the two world wars. They now played their own special role in my history, marking the end of my great motorcycling adventure.
Somewhere between Canterbury and the outskirts of London it really hit me; this was likely to be the very last hoorah on Bob. We had ridden 8,000kms together, through five countries and to altitudes of up to 2300 meters. I had dropped him no fewer than four times (once to avert running up the back of a truck), cursed him for my own stupid mistakes, subjected him to some of the most excruciating gear changes, never checked any of his vital signs and yet he just kept going for me. Every morning, wet or dry, he would start first go with rarely the need for choke. A beautiful, dense BMW growl that never failed to impress people when they heard him fire up. We had developed a very special bond and the prospect of selling him to return to Australia had me bawling into my helmet all the way to Tower Bridge.
Yes, Mr Pirsig, whilst some tinkering might not have gone astray on the poor little devil, the R60 proved to be a motorcycle that had a whole lot of Zen and very little dependence on maintenance; the perfect bike for the true romantics!