You’re not in a position to take the year off. Like most people you’re just wondering how to get away on the bike for a few weeks. The heat and excitement of Morocco appeals, or maybe the incredible empty roads of Spain, but how to get there?
It’s a discussion I hear every year at The Overland Event; “The ferry costs a fortune doesn’t it?” “How much cheaper is it to ride through France?” There seems to be lots of anecdotal evidence but I wasn’t aware of anyone providing a definite measured answer, so thought it best I go and explore with notepad and calculator to hand.
To take a large adventure bike like many of us own and record every mile and every expense from Overland HQ in Banbury to Santander on the north coast of Spain where the ferry would dock, and from where a return sailing to the UK would leave. Planned meticulously to coincide with the first day of Brexit, (ahem) using the tunnel early on the 30th March 2019, I would also be able to see if the roads really were blocked with trucks, if the French Police pulled me over to check my International Driving Permit, and if my insurance was valid…
Like Brexit, facts can be manipulated in favour and against. If I wanted to prove riding overland was always cheaper I could have used a Honda CG125, slept in a ditch, and eaten Ramen noodles. But I wanted to consider the reality of an annual holiday, which is also why I didn’t get straight onto the Autoroute, hydrate with cans of RedBull and see if I could beat the time set by Google Maps for the fastest route: 16 hours 15mins 995 miles.
I decided the acceptable reality (especially if you are travelling with a loved one), is around 350 miles a day, experiencing a little bit of France and staying in low-medium priced hotels. I also decided that there was no way I was going down to the Pyrenees and not bagging at least one Pass, so wanted to avoid the coast road at Biarritz. The planned route therefore meant a total of 1,120miles. I brought a pillion, Saul from Overland Events, to take pics, to realistically reflect rear tyre wear, and because the cabin on the boat is the same price for two.
A busy day at the office and then getting the kids to bed (it’s all so rock ‘n roll), meant leaving Banbury at 9pm with a full tank of fuel in the Ducati Multistrada 1260S and heading down to Ashford in Kent, where we’d managed to call upon the kindness of friends to put us up for free. Pressing on a little, so that we didn’t arrive too inconveniently late, meant the fuel light came on and the available range, even knocking speed back to 55mph, couldn’t match my destination so I had to put in a fiver at Maidstone Services and cringed at how few litres that bought.
The following morning, up bright and early we got to The EuroTunnel well ahead of the 09.40am crossing to have a nice cup of tea, buy a little GB sticker and organise the ability to do a bit of filming. There weren’t any terrible queues. In fact it was eerily quiet and the big red Ducati was the only bike on the train, which started rolling bang on time. Brexit hadn’t happened and the sky hadn’t fallen down. Who knew when it would!
I sat on the floor – the crossing is quick at 35mins but there are no facilities – and contemplated tackling the Multistrada’s menu system to change the display into kilometres. (I later discovered that making the change between units actually zeros the trip meters, which is inconvenient!)
Bright sunlight, blue skies and ever-increasing heat told me the trip had begun, as I rode past the lines of fencing and barbed wire that represent the way we value some elements of humanity so differently. To hideously mis-quote the 16th century reformer John Bradford ‘here, but for an accident of birth ride I, free to cross continents’.
I always like to take a moment to compose myself and adjust to riding on the ‘wrong’ side of the road, so having cleared the terminal I opted for a bit of motorway to get started, away from the port and towards LeMans. But we’d already lost an hour with the time difference, so try as I might, with 540kms still to reach the hotel, I ended up staying on the motorway to beyond Rouen.
If we hadn’t managed to lodge in Ashford the previous night it would have been a monster of a day and I’m long past marathon rides for their own sake. Ten years a dispatch rider put paid to that!
Having filled up in the morning in Kent there were two more tank fills before arriving in the island town of Saumur in darkness just after 8.15pm. As we left the hotel half an hour later to find some grub, the receptionist checked that we had the door entry code and promptly turned off the lights and locked the building!
Surrounded by the mighty Loire river and famous for its tank museum and cobbled centre-ville, I hoped that Saturday night in Saumur would lead to a buzzing atmosphere, a gastronomique delight sur-la-terrace and maybe une biere ou deux. But it seemed France was closed. As usual. Checking ‘bars and restaurants near me’ on Google provided little joy save Le PubHouse which served pizza but had welcoming staff and clientele.
Day two and there really is something magical about those tree-lined roads France is so famous for. Often said to be planted on the orders of Napoleon, so that his troops could have some shade as they marched, there’s an ongoing road safety campaign to have them cut down. Heaven forbid diving standards just be improved… Using a mixture of N and D roads we wound our way to Cognac for a late lunch and to sample the drink the locals make out of poor grape stock. There’s nothing quite like a little authenticity!
Further south we had to by-pass Roguefort and miss the blue cheese experience as we became a slave to Father Time again enroute to Hagumet and a gem of a hotel for the second night in France. And already it became clear that quickly traversing a nation as big as this is fraught with difficulty. There are the tempting historic villages and chateau it would be great to wander around. The twisty roads jutting off into ever-changing landscapes that seem so enticing. The cafés and museums that might be open… What dilemmas! Maybe just ride around France and try to experience that?
Interestingly, when I was browsing the Brittany Ferries website before booking the return sailing, I discovered that they do sailing and B&B packages for as many nights as you wish if you really want to just enjoy the road without a ton of luggage. That’s where I ended up sourcing the hotels, but more on them later.
South of Bordeaux the scenery is markedly different as the Maritime Pine species blanket the sandy soils and for a moment I’m transported to Thetford Forest… The fuel stop rigmarole seems unending but does provide some respite from the increasingly uncomfortable seat. Strangely the jack-hammer vibrations from the big L-twin don’t transmit through the ‘bars or ‘pegs, only the seat, and I find myself giving in to tea and snack stops more often too. The roads I’m forced to adhere to just to cover ground don’t offer quite enough corners to keep things interesting and I have to admit that by late afternoon it’s becoming a chore. With one or two stops for photos, it’s dusk when we reach the architecturally remarkable curved hotel at Hagumet.
Just a little too far out of town, and with my bum having no desire to get back in the saddle, I indulged in the hotel’s sublime ‘menu de jour’ and watched the sun set over the surrounding lakes. I felt I deserved it, since lunch had been the travellers’ favourite cheese and ham roll filled and secreted away during breakfast back in Saumur.
Day three was, in truth, what I’d been looking forward to and it wasn’t long before the mighty Pyrenees began to show themselves ahead, cloaked in a dark and brooding sky. Still only the 1st of April I got a stark reminder of what altitude really means when passing the information signs with ‘open’ and ‘closed’ next the names of ‘Cols’. The warmth of the low plains can easily lull you into a false sense of security, but the big Testatretta twin revelled in the climb. This is where this bike excels, pulling strongly everywhere, laughing at inclines and changing direction effortlessly. There are few things in motorcycling quite like playing in the mountains on nearly deserted roads. Just a few hardy cyclists were out to share the joy provided by the sinuous tarmac.
I could have stayed there all week, braking and accelerating, rolling from edge to edge of the Pirelli Scorpion Trail II tyres. Thoughts of numb bum didn’t enter my mind and as I crossed the border at the height of the pass and descended into Spain on near-perfect tarmac I couldn’t help but think how much more convenient it would be to just arrive here, in this nirvana, without the three-day slog beforehand.
A navigational error in the mountains (shame) meant a few more twisty kilometres than planned and a bit of a blast on dual carriageway from Pamplona to reach Santander after dark. I’ve taken the Brittany Ferries ships from the UK a few times but confess that I’ve never given Santander a second glance on arrival. Cruising the seafront before checking-in to the beautiful Hotel Gran Victoria I realised it was a happening place. The beautiful people were everywhere, strutting their stuff or watching others from the crowded street cafes. Seeing such clean streets, with well-tended public gardens, I congratulated myself on bagging such a nice room in a great position. The boat didn’t sail until 10.30 in the morning so we could go and celebrate our arrival. Until I checked boarding times and realised that we were sailing from Bilbao, a hundred kilometres back the way we’d come!
But it wasn’t all about my organisational incompetence. This trip was about the real cost of riding, as opposed to sailing, to northern Spain. Two-up is the norm for many and the fuel cost is almost the same, as is a single room if you can find such a thing. We only ate lavishly once, generally missed lunch or grabbed a sandwich and ended up being too tired to have any more than a couple of beers in the evening.
However, as this may well be an expense avoided by some, I’ve left it out of the total expenditure.
The most complicated element of the costings is that having booked the hotels through the Brittany Ferries website, it meant that the sailing was only £166 for bike and two people. This is because my three hotels were classed as a mini holiday, so the 4-berth cabin on the boat becomes gratis and I hadn’t realised.
To make the comparison more realistic therefore, I asked Brittany how much my sailing would have been, for bike and two people with a 4-berth cabin on the date we sailed and it was £274. My total from Bilbao to Banbury is the cost of sailing north, food on the boat and food and fuel back up the road after docking in Portsmouth.
As I said at the beginning, travelling on a shoestring budget is possible, but wasn’t the point of the exercise. Acting as though it was part of having a couple of weeks holiday, without being lavish, was the goal. Perhaps the most dramatic cost was the fuel and those little tea stops. And when you factor in 25% of a rear tyre and 25% of a service on the bike, well… We both agreed that in reality, adding one extra day would have made it a much better trip.
Personally I like exploring France, but if time is against me I love making it to the Portsmouth and letting the trip start there. Boots off, feet up perusing a map and all the twisty possibilities that will present themselves when I’ve woken up the next day in Santander. Or Bilbao.
Words: Paddy Tyson