Updated: Dec 5, 2020
Three months of writing, two more in the production, publishing and printing process, then fly back to the UK to meet a pallet of books and co-ordinate my two weeks of quarantine with a virtual book launch.
This basically involved helping the dispatch department send out the pre-orders and T-shirt sticker panier box combos. After three weeks of that I decided I'd had enough screen time for one year, time for a ride.
The Triumph transition.
40 years of motorcycle ownership and riding and I've never had or even ridden a Meriden Triumph. There have been many horses in the stable over the years and one constant was and is an old Harley. Then a few years ago something happened, and for the first time in my life I started to see the beauty in the British parallel twin. I'm not sure why it came so late or why it came at all, it could have been some long dormant patriotism stirred into life by moving to Bulgaria. Or possibly my views had widened from a life time of travel and the America I was so obsessed with when I was young and impressionable lost some of its charm and appeal. With my increasing worldly awareness I felt I'd been cheated, my American dream distorted, and my lifelong love affair was reaching the end of its shelf life, it left a bitter taste. My old Harley left me with dead pan emotions... Perhaps the new breed of fashion-conscious Harley riders had diluted a potion so potent and it felt weak and insipid. Regardless of the reason, my head was turned now by more homely breeds of bike and I spent 2 years looking for the machine that fitted, not the bedroom wall poster of my childhood, but the wallpaper on my lap top.
Bought unseen off eBay in November 2019 and couriered to my mother’s garage. Due to planetary circumstance I didn’t get to see it until June 2020. Like a Russian mail order bride I couldn’t wait to get me hands on it and take it for a ride, and make sure the documents matched the powder coated frame number (I think I'm losing the analogy here).
My intention had always been to ride it back to Bulgaria.
Even having stood all winter, after kicking the engine over a few times, clutching the paper with my scribbled cold start procedure the seller had installed in me, fuel tap and tickle, it started first kick, FIRST KICK! Which was reassuring as the hernia op was only 4 months ago and I wasn’t entirely sure how healed I was and how it would hold out if there was too high compression resistance and too much strenuous action in that area.
Over the years I've learnt a thing or two about Harleys and my ignorance of the Triumph was frankly almost too embarrassing to recount. Once warmed up, I released the choke lever and it coughed and spluttered, the Amal is very different to S&S. In my defence, with every car I’ve had with a manual choke, tension on the cable meant less air entered the carb, I soon learnt it’s the opposite on an Amal. So with that little lesson well and truly drubbed in with unforgettable humiliation and a few shake down rides I relocated the mirror from front brake assembly to the clutch ready for its European transition. I strapped on some second hand throw over panniers and stuffed in a sleeping bag and a 20-year-old one-man tent from my cycling in China days. As the panniers filled, so did my stomach, with inevitable butterflies, the unknown will do that, border regulations, bike reliability, 7 frontiers to cross as I commute the 1 600 miles back home. A commute I know well but a bike that’s new to me. 42 years old and we’ve only just met. No idea how long the trip will take or how either of us will perform. The uncertainties of transit, revolving regulations, you can’t – you can – you can’t again. Plenty to contemplate inside the helmet and I'm not going to tell anyone what I'm doing, where I'm going and how I'm getting there.
On the morning of departure I headed for the ferry via the sorting office, no, my LED front light bulb is not here, another niggle, this time about the ability of the charging system as I ride through countries of compulsory 24hr headlights, the phrase ‘Lucas, prince of darkness’ lurked somewhere in my murky memory. In my mums garage I’d found a bag of old spanners that last saw the dim light of day under the bonnet of my late father’s Ford Anglia. I headed southeast with a tool bag full of nostalgia and a helmet full of foreign thoughts but with some golden advice from friends who had Brit bike credentials. I’ve quickly become aware there are a lot of people who know a lot about old British bikes and they are very happy to share their knowledge. The bike didn’t have its value in authenticity but it wasn’t an insult to the purist either, so. other than the sound of the pipes, I didn’t seem to be offending anyone.
I had got 21st century on its arse and put a USB phone charger on the bike, I’d also upgraded to wax earplugs as those TT pipes certainly match the Harley when it comes to obnoxious.
Now I have been known to write and blog a bit, it’s how I earn a living, but the contradiction on the various government websites put uncertainty into my journey so my trip was going to be stealthy without so much as a whisper on social media.
I was the only bike on the ferry, it was still with hope followed by amazement that the bike always starts first kick.
The Tiger echoes its way out of the hollow hold into Holland. I’m the slowest vehicle on the concrete that seems to cover most of the Netherlands. No need to look at the rev counter with these pipes. ‘Take it slow and stop frequency’ was the advice I got. So after 50 miles we have a break and I look over the bike, panniers are not rubbing, oil is not burning. After 100 miles I stop and top up but I’m a bit destination driven to get to my friend’s house before the pub closes, so no pictures of the bike in front of a windmill. In Germany the pubs were currently closing at 11pm and you had to sign in with your details when you enter, wear a mask as you go to your table and then you could take it off to get food and beer in your mouth.
At my time of travel Germany had 9,000 Covid deaths to the UK’s 45,000 and US’s 140,000 so they seemed to be doing something right. I wish I’d taken a photo of my Stein mug next to my traditional Deutschland dinner now as I’ve got little else to prove I got to Germany.
I kept telling myself I've got to slow the pace, eating breakfast on the banks of the Rhine I scanned the map for the direct back roads out of Germany. When I started the bike, I remembered it doesn’t really do discretion any more than it does TÜV conformity, so with loud pipes and dim lights I opted for Autobahn escapism. ‘Just get to the Czech Republic’ was the mantra of the day and a bloody cold day it was too. Although I seemed to be the only one feeling it. In service areas the aimless wandered in shorts and T-shirts, whilst I shivered with 3 layers on. At my self-imposed maximum speed of 90 kph Germany wouldn’t end. When it did the day was darkening, the former buildings of border bureaucracy had been converted into a service area so there were lots of places to hide. With a protein bar for dinner, I wild camped within the confines of the abandoned processing area. There were more hidden spots I could have camped but they were all tagged with little piles of toilet paper.
It was a really cold night – fully clothed in a cheap sleeping bag and with no mattress, the only reward for this minimalist travelling thing is knowledge I can still endure the hardships. That alone is quite an achievement. When I look out of a damp and sagging tent at a dewy bike, I feel like we are both from another time and we are ready for another day… after a bit of dawn Wi-Fi whilst I have fresh croissant and expresso. I mean there’s being hardcore but there’s no point in total deprivation.
Back roads at last, after all, I did promise this to the bike. See, I'm not the only one who’s cold, there’s a smoking chimney, oh wait they are cooking sausages, and drinking beer, at 8.30am! In fact when I got my expresso this morning, they were drinking beer at 6.30. My bike is the focus as I wait for my wurst, I could have a beer but I've got a day to ride through, keen as mustard but with a responsible beverage.
I bypass Prague and take a little highway into Slovakia. There is a KFC off the highway, I’ve stopped there before and belched my way into Hungary, not today. I'm flowing with the Danube. Man, Bratislava is looking prosperous, it used to be smoking stacks and high-rise blocks, now it’s a web of connecting elevated motorways and an urban sprawl of opulence. Its growth, and I didn’t realise I hadn’t seen it in such scale anywhere in the last decade. There’s even a new bridge over the river, designer and spectacular, suspended with white cables, the suspense will continue, it’s not open yet. I cross on an old bridge into Hungary, it feels more in keeping with my mode of transport and pace of travel, I head south as slowly the chill leaves my bones.
There is a motel, I may just enquire.
‘Have you got a room?’
‘Are you open?’
‘Bed? Sleeping?’ I make the international sign of hands together held to my ear.
‘Can you speak English’ the receptionist finally spits.
I was speaking fucking English, ‘Da’ I say, ‘How much for a room?’
She writes 15 on a piece of paper and says 25.
‘Can I see it?’
‘Fill out this form’ Oh, I think, like Germany, track and trace, I scribble my details, she looks, she sighs.
‘Can I see the room?’ I point at my eyes, she sighs, seems to be her default mode or communication ‘You know what, forget it.’ That was the best 25 euros I've not spent this trip.
A KFC calls my gnawing tummy, the music inside the masked and sterile zone only slightly more disagreeable than the taste, gimme those loud pipes again.
From a bridge crossing a railway I look down at tempting fields of waving crops, and ride the dusty track, knobblies kicking in. A deer and two fawns run past me, then hares bounce across my path and storks take flight ahead of me. I’m definitely having some of this. I find seclusion, hidden in a hedgerow of hemp. ‘Do you have room for me, are you open, can I sleep here?’ I say to no one. Distant deer bark as they skip through the corn, I'm so glad I saw the source of the sound, I'd have wondered what the hell that noise was in the night.
The sun sets profiling the hemp plants, the loudest sound is a chicken zinger belch on fluoride breath which is not as potent as the smell of hedgerow sap on my scared and greasy hands.
Tonight I can sleep with the tent flaps open and the sound of crickets on at breeze that dries out the morning’s dew.
I’m not riding the rest of the way home in one go, head buried in the hood of my sleeping bag I have an epiphany. With the money I've saved wild camping and a virtually alcohol-free journey this far, I will treat myself to a room on the bank of the Danube, a fish dinner overlooking the river to Serbia on the far bank. I turn my head from the darkness of the hood; the contrast is lighter than I expected, this can't be dawn already but it is, so I’ll be leaving then; ride, don’t dream, this isn’t fiction.
Camping with the wisps of a weed plant hedgerow brushing against the tent in Hungary, surely the country’s name and florae suggest ‘munchies’ but filling my panniers, not my mouth, is on my mind That’s how you get away with a wild camp. I join the ever-increasing traffic. It never really stopped in the night; with the soothing consistency of a lullaby, I decide it was less irritating than all-night dog barking.
Roadside restaurants tempt, but don’t stop me, and only some horrendously uneven roads slow me down. The potholes jolt me like a collapsing deckchair, I weave round them with the precision of a lucid drunk. In my mirror a duck egg blue Trabant appears and gains on me, I'm not going to be overtaken by a fuckin’ Trabant, oh, apparently, I am. I hate that colour, it doesn’t even look good on duck eggs.
In Romania the bottles the drinking water comes in is wonderfully designed, it looks like you are drinking neat vodka, so I’ll suppress my thirst until I cross the penultimate border for a souvenir container. ‘You have 24 hours to leave’ the immigration official says, ‘not a problem’ I croak, I need a drink. I fill up with fuel and quench my need from my new vodka inspired oblong container. The ATM has a ‘convenience fee’ that takes all the charm out of the transaction, so I ride on. It’s going to be an easy day dithering down to the Danube, however as the morning wears on, it appears that Romanian restaurants are not open, the choices of food are reduced with the width of the road and level of traffic. The final option is ending up with the staple of the road warrior: bread, cheese and tomato eaten off the saddle on a side road.
No worries, my destination is just a few passes and familiar hairpins away. I roll out of a canyon into the expanse of the Danube ahead to the town I plan to stop. It seems desperate, captains of chartered tours hustled to fill the craft and the place feels trashy, I've been too wild, too secluded. Sitting on a plastic chair and viewing nature is an oxymoron; I've been naturally immersed in nature and now I won’t pay for fabricated simulation. I ride on. The pensioners on benches raise their heads at my exhaust note, no doubt wondering where I’m going, I’m wondering where am I going to be stopping. Drawn like a homing magnet I come to the security of the Bulgarian border, my 7th this trip, the final frontier.
I hadn’t intended to come this far today, this evening, it’s 7pm and I've been up since 5am. Now the dilemma, I don’t want to ride in the dark, don’t need to be home tonight, I've got 2 weeks quarantine ahead of me, got to string this out. ‘Where have you come from?’ The Bulgarian border crossing official asks at the Romanian/Bulgarian border, my honest answer is Romania, the unspecific question was open to misinterpretation and not a trace of being tracked. The sun sets behind fields of sunflowers and I'm going to go home, aren’t I?
Why would I get a room or suffer a wild camp 3 hours from my bed? Darkness and a highway ahead. 2 hours of night riding, and a headlight that aims 2 meters in front of me illuminates nothing but a narrow vision, I'm cold again. I'll light a fire when I get in, I don’t care it’s July, I'm malnourished and sleep deprived. It was never meant to be an endurance ride, but after 4 weeks away the pull is stronger than my will to break this trip.
Fingers too numb, I fumble with the bolt on the gate and open the front door. It’s 15 degrees outside and 22 in the house, I don’t need a fire, just whisky, feed the cats, more whisky, more cat food, more whisky. Pat the tank, put the bike in the shed, 42 years old, it didn’t miss a beat, smitten, welcome to the shed, welcome to your retirement. If you can handle the pot holes, I’ll take traffic lights and jams out of your life, no filtering, no dampness, just playtime when the sun shines. Rest in peace, not rust to pieces. I'll give you the Autosol rubdown in the morning. Make the bed, the water has warmed up now, shower, whisky and at 2.30am I lay my head on a pillow, the wind still echoes in my ears and the ring of TT pipe tinnitus, those damn pipes will have to go.
An abridged version of that trip was actually posted on Facebook in retrospect. There were several reasons for this and it was not my intention to deceive anyone.
Firstly, prior to leaving, I read the contradicting government websites on transit and decided I would just go, see how far I got, and if I had to stop, turn around, wait, I would deal with whatever regulations were in force on that particular day, in that particular country.
Secondly, I did not want to post a trip only to be bombarded by ‘You can't go there – this website/person says so’. Turns out there were no restrictions other than 24 hours to transit Romania, and 2 weeks quarantine once I arrived in Bulgaria, which was repealed and backdated 2 days after I arrived. Which brings me to the third reason, I thought I was going to have 2 weeks in solitary confinement to write up the trip, with more detail and better photos than doing it on the road. And that’s my fourth reason. I rode the trip in the moment, there was no need for Wi-Fi, no use of data, no screen staring, just watching sunsets and deer, storks, hares and other wildlife pass by me as opposed to life passing me by as I sat oblivious on social media posting what I was missing. Anyway the bike was old school, other than the USB charger I wanted the keep the journey in a time befitting to the Triumph.
So it worked out, and I don’t think the trip lacked anything by being posted after the event. After all, my books are my diaries from past trips and events, between 5 and 20 years ago, and they to take you back without missing the point of the moment.
Ultimately, I think I wanted to prove a point, that the journey still exists even if it is not broadcast immediately over social media, and the trip is all the richer for having the full freedom of the road and not being a prisoner of the internet.
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