The story I’m about to tell you is not one of success, glory or winning against all odds. It’s not a tale about meeting objectives, hitting deadlines or proficient planning.
This is a tale of failure. A tale of getting knocked down by the fist of foolhardiness, then held down by the foot of misfortune. The feeling of turning your wallet wrong side up and gently tickling a month’s wage through the metallic teeth of a nearby drain. The high price of life experience, but with very little to brag over in the pub afterwards .
Such is life….
To The Wire
“Fuck – My Bike Won’t Start”.
I had to laugh. The trip seemed fated to disaster and neither James or I had even left yet. A friend from University, we’d all but lost touch since graduating. Then, after five long years I reached out with the promise of adventure – a three day competitive motorcycle orienteering event in Northern Spain – HUMM 2016. Not to sell him short, but James was the only friend I have who owns a motorcycle with ‘off road pretensions’ (a GS650), part of the event entry criteria. Nevertheless I was thrilled and excited when, months earlier, he sent the text “I’m in”.
But this, his latest text, was all kinds of bad mojo considering we were both to ride to Folkestone that night. A couple of hours later I received a deflated phone call.
James had tried a new battery, to no avail. Fortuitously, I’d owned a GS before that’d had the same problem, so knew what to do – although remembering it a few hours before would’ve been a lot more helpful. Rattling it forwards and backwards while in gear disengaged the intermediate gear (the one that connects the starter motor to the crankshaft), which must’ve gotten stuck. Freed, the electric starter thumped the engine into life. We were, by all accounts, back on.
It was ironic that James’ bike, a reliable 2013 BMW, would be the one with final issues considering the string of difficulties that plagued my own preparations. The night before I’d spent four hours diagnosing and agonising over a busted clutch cylinder seal, only to desperately swap in another o-ring that just happened to fit perfectly. A week before I had to replace a blown shock absorber. A few weeks before that I’d blown a cylinder base gasket and plastered my boot and bike with a thickening veneer of vapourised oil – having to limp home with a contrail of smoke. Everything that could go wrong had, and that was reassuring. I’d replaced the whole thing, – there was nothing left to fail.
But I was wrong. During a long haul ride down to Folkestone, during which my feet went numb and my eyes rattled loose under the relentless vibrations, cars started flashing and waving me as they passed. My tail light had blown so I was invisible unless I dragged my brakes. In a dismal floodlit lay-by I tugged up my neck tube against the cold and fought cold sausage fingers against loose connections to get the new bulb working properly.
It was late when I reached Folkestone. The campsite was not only sealed off with keypad barriers, but also shut for actual camping, or so the warden said. No sign of James yet, and this part of the world was apparently dead for mobile signal too. I retreated over the road to the nearest pub, parking up next to a loaded up BMW GS in the car park. True enough, standing at the bar with significantly more ginger beard than he used to have, was James. In his grey textile suit and mid-length, swept back hair he looked pretty adventurous, I had to admit.
Our whole reunion night was mostly spent politely nodding through hours of the bar-keeps wandering stories and deflecting wild conspiracy theories as and when they appeared. Our host ‘Rocket’ had been quick to offer a room for the night, something to do with the “Good Feeling” he’d got about James when he walked in. A good feeling he’d remind us he had every 10 to 15 minutes. If I hadn’t arrived, there might’ve been a small chance James would’ve been molested. Nevertheless, we drank into the night, despite the planned early start.
At 7am, fumbling through the dawn to our bikes, our blood must’ve still been pretty loaded with booze. It was difficult to escape the pub quietly, having knocked a table and roused the soft, but worryingly large Alsatian into a fit of barking. We slipped through the gates and rode into the dank morning air, nothing as important as finding a Mcdonalds and necking a coffee or two to sober up.
We’d failed to pre-book tickets for the Eurotunnel, but hadn’t expected the ‘extra charge’ of buying on the day to be literally double the usual cost. It was an early ding to the holiday budget, and I didn’t have the resilience of a good, sober nights sleep to keep taking hits like this. Unfortunately you can’t grab that many Z’s on a half an hour train journey.
The Not-So Long Haul
Our destination for the day was Bordeaux, 850km to the South. We hurtled spiritedly along the payage for hours at a time and settled into an uncomfortable rhythm of stopping for fuel, stretching the legs and heading back out for as far as the tanks would take us.
Despite our early start, we’d somehow lost hours actually getting to Calais and, regardless of our afternoon’s pace, it began to look increasingly likely that we’d fall short of Bordeaux. Over dinner in an up-market pizza place in Tours, a city around half way between Calais and Bordeaux, we decided to find somewhere to stay and make up the mileage tomorrow. It was getting late and James’ idea of finding a campsite before they shut for the night was nothing if not sensible. So, using the restaurant’s Wifi, I loaded the coordinates of three different campsites into my satnav while James disappeared into the night to hunt down bottles of fresh water.
Some time later we both stood in what appeared to be a local nature reserve, discussing the best spots we could wild camp for the night. Two campsites had been bogus, while the third had closed its gates not long before we arrived, and ahead of the advertised closing time. There was nothing we could do apart from search out somewhere secluded but unofficial for our first night on the road. The park seemed a promising prospect, but there were a couple of suspicious cars parked about for the time of night and ten minutes bouncing along clearly pedestrian walkways hadn’t revealed anywhere ‘private’ to pitch up. Afeared of becoming murdered and subsequently not confident in his ability to secure a restful night’s sleep in a park just off the main road, James assembled a compelling argument to get back on the payage and just keep riding. It was exactly the sort of rash decision I loved, so we fired up and tucked in against the bracing night frost, rumbling through the darkness towards Bordeaux. Deprived of sensory experiences other than the cold pressure of an 80mph gust and 20ft ahead painted under the soft glow of the headlights, we were soon delivered into that familiar fugue state. The miles flew by with only the remotest acknowledgement that I was actually on a motorcycle.
When the back wheel locked up at 80mph I was jolted uncomfortably back to a worrying reality. The tyre snaked from side to side until I regained enough composure to grab a handful of clutch and coast into the hard shoulder. James was right behind me.
The power dropped familiarly, like when I’d conked out of fuel in Peru. I fumbled with the fuel tap with my left hand and thumbed the starter button for a few seconds. The KTM took a little persuading, but she coughed into life and carried me the short distance to the nearest petrol station without acting too upset. Under the petrol station halogens I took a look at the fuel tap as the tank took maybe a quarter less fuel to fill up, something wasn’t right. After it cut out, I’d switched it back to main supply – it had been on reserve the whole night. I couldn’t figure out how I’d started and rode it to the petrol station with the scant fuel that would’ve been in the pipes. Something didn’t add up, but we rode on regardless… after finishing machine coffees that arrived with bits of breakfast cereal in the bottom. Niche.
The fresh hit of coffee in our veins didn’t last long and we stumbled our way through only a handful of kilometres before pulling into a roadside rest stop. These picnic areas are separate to the busy service stations, and we’d left it late enough to avoid the usual picnic thoroughfare. The tents were thrown up right next to the perimeter hedge, as far away from the road as we could get.
James’ earlier adventure to source water had proven fruitless, so I took my ‘River Bag’, a ceramic water filtering system, over to what looked like the toilet blocks to fill up. It was a big sweeping arc of a building with a path lit by orange lamps cutting straight through the middle. I was closing in on the toilet when I heard something that resembled music from behind an unmarked door. I say resembled. It wasn’t the French techo we’d come to live with, no, it was disjointed and ugly, cut with soundbytes that were incomplete. It sounded like a stuffed toy being raped on a broken vinyl player. Clearly the soundtrack of a human long since descended into madness. If this was a manned rest stop, we’d lucked out in our choice of man. I tucked my torque wrench into my sleeping bag, you know, just in case.
James and I struck camp around half 7, eager to get going before the light fully revealed our covert sleep over. We’d both slept a bit rough, of because of an anticipated bludgeoning, but a chill crept through our sleeping bags from the hard ground. Having mounted his bag from the wrong end, James spent the whole night with his feet exposed to the frosty air. The bags under our eyes told the story well enough.
Knowing what my bike has been like with fluids I decided to check the oil before firing her up. Low. Not even in the window. Morning brain attributed this to the oil being dead cold, receding into the sump. I decided to let her run for a while and check again at the nearest services. Only, we didn’t quite make it that far…
With a more dramatic fizz and a plume of smoke, the bike locked up once more and I coasted into the hard shoulder a second time. But this time there was no restarting it. True enough the kickstarter moved but needed way too much force, the guts of the engine expanding during what appeared to be a climactic overheating. I thought back to the night before and things started to fall into place. Shit.
Clad in winter armour and with James as my rear guard (he looked exactly like a Tour de France camera bike) I began the hard shoulder march, regretting that I’d filled the 18 litre tank to capacity last night. I considered this as a divine punishment of sorts, restitution for thinking I could ever rebuild an engine. As such, once the momentum had built up, I was determined not to stop, despite the burning in my shoulder and the sweat soaking my helmet. Dare I say it, it felt quite cathartic. All the while James followed with his hazards on, keeping me out of trouble.
Nonetheless, I was grateful when I could flick down the side stand and strip off some layers in a petrol forecourt. What followed could technically be called brain-stormin, but it wasn’t the sought-after, high energy session office execs get all in a tizzy for, but the dejected exploration of each and every possible course of action – hoping that talking about it would delay the inevitable death sentence of my junker KTM a little while longer.
Despite having European breakdown cover, I elected to get a local company to check it out, just in case my insurance company insisted that was it, trip over. While we waited for the repair guy three ‘road hogs’, all riding GS650s, pulled into the forecourt and struck up conversation. They either owned, or were associated with motorcycle dealerships and garaged. They were proper road warrior old boys and a pleasure to chat to.
I’d already diagnosed I’d become critically low on oil, probably causing that seizure, and at their advice filled her up with 5w 30 diesel oil. Apparently there was little difference in weight, as long as the oil was fully synthetic like what remained in my engine (10w 50 Motrex). I was buzzing, though regretted calling the recovery vehicle as he stood limply by while the Spanish biker crew took control. With their help we got it bump started (though I was pushed out of the saddle for not having the correct technique!) but, disappointingly, a continuous flurry of white smoke began shortly thereafter. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how I found out that the excessive gurgling and spraying of coolant that plagued yesterday’s ride was down to a leaking head gasket. Now, it was undeniably a blown head gasket, but the guys suggested I ride carefully, keep topping up fluids (the engine drank a litre before coming up to the right level!) and get a nearby garage to plane the head flat, fix the problem for good. Then, apologetically aware be hadn’t contributed at all, the recovery mechanic charged me 185 Euros because *shrug* the minister of transport said he had to…
For the next half an hour James and I talked tactics, again I was stalling having to re-bump and ride a blown motorcycle. We could continue south, to Bordeaux, or head back on ourselves to the nearest KTM garage. Only problem being that they had Monday off, so we’d effectively loose two days and whatever it took to fix out of our holiday. Getting to Spain seemed a non-starter. This was the beginning of a week long profound guilt that I’d totally fucked up James’ holiday.
James’ wisdom won out and we headed towards the nearest garage with the help of strangers bumping the KTM into life. It stumbled at low revs with a lack of compression, so I kept the revs up and the smoke pluming. Thankfully it wasn’t long to the nearest payage exit and I coasted and stalled up next to the payment machine. Being so high (the seat, not me), the KTM was difficult to scoot through the barriers and wait for James to help me start it up.
Pulling in behind me, I noticed that James had spatterings of oil across the front of his bike and helmet. He noticed I had oil liberally dripping from my swingarm and lathered seductively over where my chicken strips should be. Lots of oil. Enough oil to justify stopping. I rationalized that thicker oil might’ve been a bit more difficult to jam through the gap where the gasket had failed and cursed the “whatever oil – it doesn’t matter” advice of the Spanish road hogs under my breath.
Two difficult bump starts, a number of sketchy roundabouts (don’t lean it too far!) and a smoking, dying limp to the nearest town later and the KTM was finished. She’d had enough. Gently, I closed her eyelids with my soft, oily fingers and listened as the last breaths escaped her tortured lungs. That was it. That was all.
Marathoners cluttered the roads and heavy metal barriers prevented us from wheeling the bikes further, so on foot we searched out a WiFi signal to re-establish a plan. Race aside, the town was dead and as we searched for garages, pick ups or transport in a dingy bar it became apparent that Niort ground to a halt on Sunday. Suspicious about leaving the bikes on such an exposed corner, James went back to be on guard duty while I sourced us a hotel where we could gather our thoughts. Off-road parking being a premium meant this ended up being a pretty high end establishment where, covered in oil and my hair curled pubescently in the heat and sweat, I felt a little out of place. I headed back to a saintly-patient James after a quick towel rub down and a spray of deodorant.
James and I joked that I might finally have discovered a name for my previously un-christened motorcycle. ‘The Cross’. My burden to carry. The shoe certainly fit as I pushed the burnt out KTM through the side streets of Niort, shoulders straining against my penance…
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