“The road is long with many a winding turn ” – the Hollies
Ah, the anticipation. Stood by the bike waiting for the ramp to go down and let the light of Europia into the bowels of the ship. Gloves pulled on and tightened, a last tug of each strap of the bags lashed to the seat, a glance down at the tyres to check that the chocks have been removed and as the crunch of the ramp door gears kick into life, the immensely satisfying firm pull of the helmet over your ears. Sat Nav – 500 miles to go.
Many dislike a motorway run, especially long distance ones but I love them. A day alone with my thoughts, service stations, cheap coffee and complete concentration. A chance to recharge my battery, leaving the debris of mental exhaustion scattered along the autobahns of Holland and Germany. Holland passed by quickly save for a quick toilet stop outside Eindhoven and then on to the de-restricted autobahns leading through to Monchengladbach and my major first target of Koblenz. My overall plan was to clear Holland and also Germany and, if time permitted, get to the Austrian border. However, experience over the years has taught me to have a decision point along the way – weather, delays and tiredness are all unpredictable. The decision point would be Stuttgart – take stock at that point and look to book a bed and breakfast
I love the autobahn network – German drivers, as I’ve said before, are the best drivers in Europe and with long de-restricted stretches you can really make progress. Thundering along and catching up on vehicles in the slow lane, shoulder check, out to lane 2, more traffic ahead, roll on the throttle, shoulder check again and get ahead of the Porsche thats flying in the fast lane, speedo increasing, panniers beginning to wobble, head tucked down behind the screen, shoulder check and pull back in. Look at the speedo, see the traffic falling away rapidly in the mirrors, grin broadly.
I can never remember what I think about. I sing, I chat to myself (its only madness if you answer back…). I shuffle my backside. Signs pass by in a green blur, the only thing stopping me is the desire for a stretch of the legs, another caffeine infusion or just, well, a break to see what service stations are like. They are a key part of the trip for me – and nearly always, I get chatting to someone who wants to look at the bike or comments on the stickers on the panniers. A German hen party with clattering heels and giggling squeals fuelled by Prosecco, an ex BMW designer who I couldn’t get over the language barrier with where the conversation resorted to pointing at parts of the bike and thumbs ups, an English family travelling to the south of Italy in a motor home with the father talking to me with a thousand yard stare , no doubt from the deafening noise inside the van which would probably rival any scene from Apocalypse Now. The odd biker with the usual nod, no need for words – we both know each other without ever talking.
Life on the road is just that – living. Everyone going somewhere – to family, a beautiful beach, the mountains but here we all are on a piece of concrete in the middle of nowhere, kicking tyres, sipping coffee and staring at the vista of a forecourt, a toilet block and usually a few overflowing bins and a bedraggled line of trees which were, no doubt, planted as some kind of environmental apology. Oh, almost forgot, cake. Got to have cake too. It’s an unwritten rule. One of the key differences on the continents the lack of litter in lay-bys compared to the UK. When I say litter, I mean Tesco bags filled with faeces which (some) lorry drivers have casually dumped at the side of the road. Although on this trip, I did stop in a lay-by in Austria and as I stood taking a swig of a water, I looked across to one of the lorries to see the female companion of a driver bent over on the connection between the trailer and the cab and urinating in what can only be described as a perfect Fibonnaci spiral. I remember muttering ‘fair enough’ to myself as I turned around to examine the waste skip to spare my blushes rather than hers.
It was all going so well up to just North of Mannheim and then the traffic slowed and then stopped. My bike is oil cooled and so needs a constant airflow to prevent overheating. As I sat in the queue for the turn off I needed, I was hitting the kill switch, waiting for traffic to move a bit and then restarting the bike to move forward. No room to filter at all (and its illegal in Germany) with lorries on the turn off spur. I waited and then got back on to the main autobahn, headed down a junction and pulled into a rest stop to check t’internet for traffic problems. Sure enough, total blockage of the autobahn and no indication of delays other than a +40 mins estimate. Punched in another route, having to head across to Heilbronn and then across and back down to my original route which would add on an hour but rather that than wait for a major accident to be cleared. Mid afternoon by this point and I started thinking about decision points – reasoned that I had about another 2 hours of daylight and so I’d ride for an hour and see where that got me and then book accommodation for the night.
The detour was slow – slower roads and heavy traffic which saw time ebbing away. I reached Satteldorf, filled with fuel and booked a room – it would be farther than I wanted to travel given that it was late and dusk was approaching but it was a cheap deal at what looked like an annex to a monastery/church. Booked it. Back on the bike, rode a little more and hit traffic again due to another accident and set of roadworks which stretched for several miles. Dusk came and went, darkness fell with no moon. Still 80 miles to go, much of which was clogged autobahn in the dark. I took the decision to go cross country, pulling off the main roads and on to the equivalent of B roads to bypass the delays. Believe me, nothing sharpens the senses more than being on fast flowing B roads through woods in the dark. Especially when you realise that you’re on the local boy racer route with cars flying round sharp corners. They knew the roads, I didn’t and so I told myself to just follow the system and let them go by when I could and get there in one piece. For those who don’t know the system is the advanced rider system that the police use. Not being able to see the road at all was unnerving – no idea of where holes or debris might be. Kept the speed up at the limit, gave a good account of myself even as a stranger in a strange land. I was glad to get back on the autobahn however, pulling over at a petrol station purely to get a drink and a bite to eat – the bed and breakfast had emailed me to say that they would leave a key outside the building in a box and warned me that there was nowhere locally to eat. Strange, it didnt look to me on the map as though it was far out of a small town. By this point, tiredness was kicking in along with the inevitable sore butt cheeks. No haribo this time to keep me going unlike in Sweden.
The last 30 miles were hard going – pitch black, rain and a derestricted autobahn. I knocked the speed off (slower reactions when tired) and kept an eagle eye on the mirrors. After working hours, the autobahns become the playground of Porsche’s and SLK’s and at over 130mph I don’t think they will have enough time to see the back of a bike pootling along at 100. I remember touching the brakes very lightly every time I saw fast lights approaching and then turned my view back to the Hypnotic array of lights and white lines in front of me, made all the more mesmerising by the smearing effect of a rain laden visor. Living fast, on high, repentless, let it ride. Then the exit, downshift, drop the speed off, shoulders relax, body goes upright and breathe.
Having passed through the small village which was my supposed destination, I began to get concerned about directions – surely I should have turned off by now? Out into countryside again, woods on either side and no sign at all of any turn offs. Sat at asks me to turn right and off I head up a small road and then I see the lights of the huge church. So here I am, in the middle of woods, in the dark, sitting astride the bike at a deserted church. It’s at these moments when your mind tends to drift. Have i put the right postcode in the sat nav? Did i turn too early? Is there a figure moving in those woods? I’m sure I saw a silhouette at that window. Why is there no one around? Decided to ride around to the back of the church and to my relief, I saw the signs to the rooms and retrieved the key. What a place, I wasn’t expecting much but wow, all the rooms had been fully refurbished from the original monk’s rooms – I stayed in Leo’s room. As those who pay attention and go the extra mile to work out the quotes and the song links that I scatter about in all these blog posts will no doubt have realised by now, Leo ain’t heavy, he’s my Bruder.
So very tired, drank a litre or more of water, stripped off and collapsed onto the bed. My eyes flickered open with the first rays of the sun as they streamed through the window swiftly followed by the familiar smell of mild sweat generated over 700 miles of tarmac. Out of bed, pleased to see the sun, stretched, yawned and headed for the toilet. Now, there’s always a consequence to not doing things properly and in my tiredness the previous night, I had dumped all my clothing on the floor. This was waiting for me as I took my first steps. Or rather, my helmet was waiting for me and more specifically the little toe on my left foot. After a few choice words to the Lord and a bit of hopping, I sat back down on the bed, clutching my toe in the vain hope it would act as pain relief, stopped cursing and opened my eyes. What’s right in front of me as I open my eyes? A crucifix. I paused for a second and then reminded myself that God is all knowing and all powerful and therefore by definition has to be a biker too. With a sense of relief, I stepped into the shower for more ablutions. Back on with all my gear, packed the bike back up and bade farewell to Bruder Leo before dropping the key back in the box.
The grounds of the monastery were revealed in the morning light – manicured gardens and buildings all around – many of them being restored. I found the rectory and headed into the breakfast area – tables laid out in neat rows on a stark stone floor. Quiet, total silence other than the squeak of my boots on the floor. Basic, yet functional as you might expect. Cards with names on were dotted around the tables – I think I looped around twice and couldn’t see my name. Finally three ladies walked in and I had just managed a quick ‘guten morgen’ when one of them fixed her gaze on me, wagged her finger and uttered something in German. After a quick exchange, she said it again in harsh English, ‘you cannot sit there’. I tried to explain i wasn’t going to sit down but was looking for where to sit. They sat down, I wandered off into the main hall to try and find a monk or failing that a polished shield and Perseus before I decided to enter the lair again. I found no one. Just corridors and religious paraphernalia and silence, interrupted only by the squeak of my boots and the swish of my leg armour rubbing against each other. No choice but to head back – fortunately the person doing the breakfasts had arrived and welcomed me with a warm smile, told me to sit wherever I liked and help myself to food and drink. As I poured a coffee, trying desperately not to disturb the utter silence, my jacket caught a small pot of spoons and in slow motion they fell to the floor. A deafening clatter followed by a deafening silence. A deed without a name and the three whispered disapprovingly, perhaps I wouldn’t become the Thane of Cawdor after all.
As I crouched there picking up silver ware, awkwardly due to the stiff bike gear, six figures in white entered from stage right. Moving past me silently, leaving the smell of soap, strong carbolic soap. Oversized habits crackling as the nylon repeatedly discharged with every step.
Back on my chair, silence. The nuns whispered in a slow and deliberate and very serious conversation. Whispering in German meant I had no idea if they were discussing the Apostles or commenting on the coffee, cheese and ham. I smiled, nodded and toasted one of them with my hastily constructed cheese sandwich. A brief nod back was given
Now, it was at this point that I had a dilemma and it is one that all of us have faced at some point whether we admit it or not. 12 hours riding a bike compresses your body into a fixed position, you sleep and then put yourself back into your gear and start to move about again…and then you eat and drink…and then you have to contort down to pick up spoons. All of this can only lead to one outcome…your stomach wakes up and you need to pass wind. I’m sat between 6 nuns, the weyward sisters and the place is utterly silent with images of god all around. I packed away my plate and cup, every movement seeing my posture change and my knees tighten together. Every step deliberate and measured like a soldier in a minefield having Braxton Hicks contractions.
I made it outside, looking skyward for some form of divine approval. None given but I would imagine that those who saw this oddly dressed and even more oddly contorted figure appear from the building would have indeed thought he moved in mysterious ways.
Next post – the road digger association of Europe, Italian logistics and meeting Italy’s Basil Fawlty.