A Very Long Bike Ride

by Alex Rowan



What's the furthest you have ever ridden a motorcycle in one go? That is, without stopping to sleep?

My personal record is 1366 miles. Brindisi to Calais in 1982, taking about 36 hours. And I did it on a 1200 Laverda.  God, I was tough in those days

t all began (to coin a phrase) in 1977 when Bike magazine published a road test of the then new Laverda 1200s, the standard 1200 and the Mirage. The test of the standard 1200 took the form of a trip by Bike editor Dave Calderwood from Peterborough to Corfu and back. It was an immensely evocative report and I read and reread it until I knew it by heart. It was a real adventure and it made the bike seem amazing.

So I got a 1200 in 1978 and planned to do a trip to Corfu as soon as I could. I finally got my chance in 1982.

Trouble was I knew nothing about continental touring. I was not a member of the RAC or AA so I could not make use of their foreign travel services, I didn't even knew that such things as breakdown insurance existed. I was totally naive.

I was certainly naive about the cost of the trip. When I set off I had 600 quid in English currency, and that was it. No travellers cheques, no credit cards, nothing else. I had not booked any ferries ahead of time either, apart from the crossing from Harwich to Esbjerg in Denmark.

Denmark? Well, I was going to visit an old girlfriend from my University days. I figured just to drop by, not take too much time out of my schedule etc.

Unfortunately, Denmark was rather more expensive than I thought, and although I didn't have to pay for accommodation, taking Jonna out for meals and drinks cost me an alarming amount of money. Petrol wasn't cheap either. And it rained.

Anyway, I decided not to hang about when I finally got going. 

I stormed down the autobahns, Copenhagen to Baden-Baden in one day (612 miles), mostly in the rain. Aaaargh, the cost of a meal and room for one night! Right, I thought, I am going to have to really economise from now on.

I couldn't go through Switzerland, 'cos I had forgotten to get a green card. But I knew that under EEC law my British insurance was valid in all EEC countries (which included Greece), so I rode into France and spent the night in a cheap hotel in the foothills of the Alps listening to the rain.

The following day dawned bright and clear (to coin a another phrase) and I crossed into Italy via Col du Mont Cenis. It stayed dry in Italy all the way down but I was grimed and filthy and the bike was worse. My intention was to go down to Brindisi and catch the ferry across to Igoumenitsa (I figured that there had to be a daily ferry, so I wouldn't need to book ahead). >But the autostrada tolls were alarming as well. I was starting to get a chill feeling that I had seriously underestimated the budget for the trip and was grimly aware that I had no fall back.

knew that the further south I went the cheaper the ferry crossing would be, but against that was the need for a night's accommodation, petrol, tolls etc. So I compromised, I stopped off at Ancona and bought a one way ticket to Igoumenitsa

The trouble was, the ferry only went twice a week to Greece, and I had to wait for two days before the next one departed. I found a hotel but the cost was such that I decided that I would stay there the first night only and sleep rough the second.

Now Ancona is a pretty little town as fishing/ferry ports go. A fair number of things to photograph, but it does get a little wearying waiting for the day/evening/night to pass. I spent a lot of time just pootling round the town on the Laverda - for some reason I didn’t feel like exploring the surrounding countryside even though I had more than enough time to spare.

To conserve money I bought my lunch from a grocer’s. Some bread and garlic sausage and a bottle of water. 

I was sitting in the main square watching the girls go by on their scooters (no helmets) when this scruffy so-and-so pedals up. He looks at me, clocks the GB plate on the back and says "Are you British?". Yes, I replied warily. It turned out his name was John and he had been stranded in Ancona for three weeks after his passport and all his money had been stolen.  He was expecting a replacement passport and a ticket home for some time "But you know what the Italian postal service is like".

Poor bugger had been sleeping on the beach for three weeks and hadn’t eaten for two days. All he owned was his bicycle and a tatty old sleeping bag - and he was about to sell his bike to buy food.

I was so sorry for him that I donated my lunch and gave him 2500 lire (about £1). He was amazingly grateful, and said that when I got back to London I was to look him up - it turned out that he was the stage manager of a strip club in Soho! The Sunset Strip in Dean Street. I took a picture of him.

That evening I was refilling my water bottle from a fountain in the main park (a tip from John). I noticed a Byronically handsome man with long hair and an Errol Flynn moustache looking over my bike. He also spotted the GB plate. He was Italian, and he spoke enough English to hold a conversation. Turned out he also owned a Laverda (a 750 SF2), although he didn’t have it with him as he was a sailor. We chatted about Laverdas and riding experiences and so on. I said that I was on my way to Greece and was going to sleep in the park that night

He wasn’t impressed by that idea at all and insisted that I come back to his ship and sleep on board as his guest. Oh Ho! I thought, Hello Sailor etc. But then I reconsidered, I didn’t really expect to get much sleep in the park what with the discomfort and waking up every time someone slammed a car door or trod on a twig 300 metres away, and since I was considerably bigger, stronger and (I suspected) nastier than this friendly little poof, I agreed.

It turned out he was absolutely straight and genuine. He had a spare bunk in his cabin as his room mate was away and I had 5-6 hours decent rest. He even bought me breakfast the next day. I took his picture too. Thanks Emilio, you’ll never read this but I want to say that you are a star.

The ferry left at midday the next day. By the time I pottered down to the quayside the queue had built up already. All Germans, of course, with bloody big Audis, BMs etc. towing caravans. I calmly joined the end and passed the time adjusting my chain, fiddling with tyre pressures etc.

The sheer filthiness of my bike I think caused a bit of comment. At any rate, a friendly German who spoke immaculate English (he was Hewlett Packard's regional manager for Westphalia) let me wash my hands in his caravan - though he turned the tap on and off for me. That was so that it didn’t get dirty presumably.

John showed up! He radiated happiness - his passport and money had arrived. He repaid my 2500 lire and offered me his old sleeping bag. He would have offered me his tatty old bike but I had one already ...

A whole bunch of German bikers arrived. They had big immaculate Kawasakis with colour matched hard luggage, leathers, girlfriends etc. They were friendly as well, and taught me how to push in to the front of the queue (well, they would know wouldn’t they?). I think that they were impressed by how far I had come and how bold I was, considering I was ein Englander and therefore penniless ("You should meet this bloke John!"). My luggage held on with the world’s largest collection of bungees also impressed them.

While we were waiting, an Italian biker turned up and joined the front of the queue. He was pushing forty, but thought he was God’s gift. Huge sunglasses, hairy chest, biggest medallion you ever saw. He stayed aloof from us casual North European types. The Germans despised him.

It was a boiling hot day, the nearest shade was 100 metres away. Sunglasses found a rag to protect the saddle of his R100RS from the sun. He then decided he was thirsty and rode off to get a bottle of Coke. He sat on the rag.

When he came back he parked up, aloof again and strutted around in his full leathers swigging his coke. The Germans nearly died laughing. Sunglasses hadn’t realised that the rag had been recently used to clean paint brushes! Consequently it had stuck to his arse and was waving around in the breeze as he walked about. Worse, his leathers were blue and silver to match his bike but the paint on the rag was red. Nobody took pity on him, instead eventually, he noticed the tittering Teutons looking at him and twigged.

We left him looking forlornly for a supply of paint thinners ...

I met more Germans on the ship. The one who spoke the worst English, ironically, was an English teacher at a secondary school. I let him practice on me, but at a price. He rather diffidently asked whether the English had any animosity towards the Germans still, you know, as a result of the War. I said I didn’t know "Because I’m not English", "Oh" he responded "Vat are you zen?" "Me? Oh ... I’m Polish!". The poor bloke was so horrified that I could only maintain a straight face for 0.0001 seconds before shrieking with laughter. I was so sorry for him that I bought him a beer.

I spent the night sleeping in a reclining seat, trying to ignore the midnight fumblings and gigglings that a party of Swedish girl guides and boy scouts were engaged in on the floor a few feet away. I got my own back the following morning when it became light. These kids (? - some were twenty at least) were all starkers and sharing sleeping bags and were well aware that they were in full view of me. They were desperate for me to go away so that they could emerge, get dressed (assuming they could remember where their clothes were) and dash to the toilet to dispose of all the beer they had consumed the previous night.

But I was having none of it. I pretended to be asleep in my recliner till hydraulic pressure forced them to make a run for it. Mmmm, very firm bodies ... and very pink (heh! heh! heh!).

The ferry dropped me off in Igoumenitsa at midday. The German bikers were first off. I couldn’t follow them as my bike wouldn’t start! The battery had been flattened as a result of all the slow riding the previous two days (Laverdas had notoriously weak alternators). This further confirmed their preconceptions about the Brits. I pushed this horrendously heavy, fully laden machine through customs and out on Igoumenitsa High Street. I had to push start it. This was in full view of the German bikers, who were sipping long cold drinks at a pavement cafe - while I sweated.

OK, I would only have the strength to do this once, so I had to get it right. Into second, back onto compression, ignition on, choke on, fuel on, clutch in - and start pushing. Push, push, push, plod, plod, plod, stride, stride, stride, jog, jog, jog, trot, trot, trot, run, run, run, Run, Run, RUN, RUN, hurl myself onto the bike side saddle and, as my bum hit, dump the clutch. BANG (kerflutter) BLAORRR and I rocketed down Igoumenitsa High Street at 35mph with my feet sticking out to the left. After 200 metres or so, I swung my right leg over (Oh SHIT! Forgot that the luggage was piled high behind me!) and got the bike under control.

Contentedly burbling at 2000 rpm (the bike, not me) I cruised back down the street - to receive a round of applause from the German Kawasaki club! We parted company with waves and smiles as I headed to the port again to catch the ferry to Corfu.

Now I had some serious decisions to make. I had blown more than half my budget. It was obvious that I would have (a) to sleep rough (b) to eat the cheapest food I could find and (c) to start the return trip as soon as I could.

I wanted to take the short ferry trip to Corfu, so that I could at least say I had done what Dave Calderwood had done. I stayed for two days, sleeping rough using John’s old sleeping bag.

I spent the two days riding around with Mirella, an amazingly self assured Australian girl, who, despite being only 16, was backpacking and interrailing around Europe on her own (met her again later when she turned up in London). I took several pictures of her.

I discovered that there was a ferry direct from Corfu to Brindisi every day, so I booked a place on the Saturday morning crossing.  Turned out that the ferry was the Igoumenitsa to Brindisi ferry, just stopping at Corfu. It was already nearly full when it arrived.  This was not good news.

I was desperate for somewhere to lie down, because two successive nights sleeping rough had given me a total of 6 hours sleep, and I knew I had a long ride ahead. 

But the ferry was carrying 30,000 Swedish, Dutch and German backpackers who were let on board first and immediately hogged every square inch of useable deck space. Bikers were put on last, because bikes were used to fill up the corners on the cargo decks once the cars had been put on ...

I spent the ten hour crossing doing my sums with the aid of a small calculator that I had brought along to help with currency conversion (you know, so that I could say to the ghastly natives "What? that’s nearly five quid in real money!"), estimating fuel consumption, tolls, and the all important price of a ferry back over the channel when I got to Calais. I figured I had enough cash left (in half a dozen currencies) to make it back, provided I spent no money either on accommodation or food.

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