How far could you ride a motorcycle in one day? 200 miles? 500 maybe? How about rounding it up to a nice even 1000? Read on for part two of my Iron Butt Challenge…
Things didn’t exactly get off to the greatest of starts. A road-tax related issue on the morning of departure mired me in bureaucracy when I found that despite it being very much sat outside my house, my bike remained somewhat surprisingly in the ownership of an internet breaker from Devon. I knew from experience that non-matching paperwork doesn’t amuse foreign police personnel so this presented a serious first obstacle.
Despite a rushed visit to the main post office where everything that could be achieved across the medium of a spit proof glass panel was, I calculated that I’d now probably miss my afternoon ferry. A perfect start to the trip. Now in the old days if you were late you could go a bit faster and make some time for yourself. In 2017 if you’re late, you’re properly done for because no one without a helicopter licence can make time in a country heaving under all the weight of the inescapable average speed cameras like Britain has. Talk about using a tax hammer to crack what’s basically a driver education nut. They really are everywhere now and the ‘open road’ has never been a more inaccurate moniker. Open for business maybe. Can’t be open for much else.
And so as I rolled around London -one of the world’s greatest cities- at horse and cart speed, the logistical conundrum I faced became this: My fuel range fell just short of the port. If I stopped for petrol I’d almost certainly miss the ferry. But if I didn’t, I could run out before I even got to it. Work that one out with your glasses steamed up. By the A20 I thought I might be out of the woods but when a further camera enforced limit followed me all the way into Dover, I resigned myself to my fate. What a pitiful fun-sapping country to own a motorcycle in I grumbled, and wondered why the speed camera’s inventor didn’t get the Nobel Peace Prize if they’d really saved that many lives.
Nearing the port and with the Beemer heaving up silt I dived into the very last petrol station in sight of my actual ship and made a panicky fill up, narrowly avoiding a massive sense of humour failure after a mother decided that now would be the perfect time to share news with the cashier about the progress of her dahhhling little children at playgroup inconveniencing the lives of all behind her. I made a mental note to ruin the carefully planned arc of her existence the next time I ejaculated into the right end of a woman and there was some kind of exciting biological legacy to report.
On arrival I found Dover Port as I have always found ports to be everywhere: the imperfect playgrounds of people with limited attention spans who’ve been dicking around with cement barriers before finding something better to do and leaving everything in a mess.
The dispatcher winked me a “you’re the last, bellend” and I ascended the ramp of shame onto the ship to find myself condemned by absent staff to strap down my own bike. The door clanked shut behind me and the ferry’s rumbling engines wafted several EU directives worth of diesel particulates over the smut stained cliffs of Dover. If they’re gunning for diesel cars I mused, what future have the cross channel ferries got?
Once upstairs, I realised that even though I was late, there was no one about because early May was still low season. Finally the first good news of the day, as the restaurant (which I knew from experience was a cross between the Sammy Davis Jr. era of Las Vegas casino design and a 1980s Plaxton coach) would be pretty much at my command.
I shuffled past the gold railings of the entrance and traversed the carpet which I suspected might contain a slightly little higher percentage of sick than pigment and got served in a magisterial display of practised disdain by a middle aged man whose life trajectory clearly weighed heavily on him. I chose ‘hand battered cod’ as if ‘machine battered’ might have made any difference to the type of clientele you’d find on a cross channel ferry (though I suspected the name more accurately described the fish’s unfortunate manner of death than anything particularly culinary).
Arriving in Dunkirk as a holidaying child – now that’s got to be a top ten disappointing childhood moment. There you are, deposited in that magical playground known by holidaying grown ups as ‘abroad’ and the first thing you’re confronted with isn’t the saccharine magic of Euro Disneyland but a series of smoke-billowing industrial chemicals plants followed by mile upon mile of sticky looking fields. Fields that look suspiciously like the ones you just left back home. What gives? you might reasonably say out loud.
I, however, love it. Years of practised disappointment have gifted me a great fondness for northern French theatrical industrialism. The massive open cast greyness of its skies rivals Canada’s. The endless clod bound fields of cold-hearted agri-business punctuated by delicate spires of religious piety form a backdrop that’s nothing less than inspirational in its drabness. It’s desolate. Unromantic. Immense. Unprettified. Useful. Dunkirk is the Grand Canyon of ploughing. The Sagrada Familia of petrochemicals.
As I arrived last, so I was consigned to leave the ship in the same way. At 6.30pm local time I rolled down the ramp into the calming grey light of a Pas de Calais afternoon which quickly dulled the panic-ridden memories of stage one. At least I’d slept, but enjoyable though it always is to rest with one eye open in the company of the Polish chapter of the Grant Mitchell Appreciation Society, the ferry was little more than dead time for me – wasted hours of rest that counted from my 24, so my focus was now on clicking off miles through the endless brown sod of the north. A little over 200 down and almost 800 to go by half past midday tomorrow. “It’s perfectly possible” I told myself. And I almost believed it.
The RT, even with its horrendous, inexcusable clonking ruination of a gearbox was still a decent asset on a distance ride. It was my second BMW – the first was half the size of this one and made under licence by Aprilia in Italy and wasn’t really considered a proper BMW by aficionados, but its all round greatness as a motorcycle had sold me on the BMW brand and this 1100 was the real thing: heavy, agricultural, surprisingly unreliable and of course needlessly complicated. Just like a modern BMW is supposed to be I’ve since found.
I quickly dialled up 70mph which arrived in eerie windless silence and looked down at my riding plan scribbled in front of me and duct taped to the tank. I’d travel south-east through the night on the toll free motorways then sleep in Germany once nature decided it was time. Once it got light I’d hop over Austria and into Italy where I’d pass the 1000 miles mark just before half past midday. Being sure that once I was tired small things would confuse me, I sensibly decided to not adjust the Beemer’s on board clock to European time.
After a few miles the initial surge of traffic from the ferry soon dried up and with it came the increasingly tribal urge to acknowledge the sporadically encountered British cars that overtook. I always enjoy seeing their younger occupants’ pitiful faces fixed in rictus grins of horror at the realisation that yes, this is in fact exactly what ‘abroad’ is. “WAIT ‘TIL YOU SEE LUXEMBOURG” is all I could gleefully shout after them.
With the English holiday makers out of the way, the French section was knocked off in record time before Belgium announced itself without fanfare, as it’s required historically to do (alongside its unrivalled position as the exception which proves the rule that travel broadens the mind, which it continues to uphold with great distinction).
After a few hours more, dusk fell and my digital gauge suggested I needed fuel. Now getting fuel is an important part of the Iron Butt – you have to keep the receipts remember. But my first experience was an unqualified disaster. The pump, one of those modern things stuck out in the middle of a field that obliges its user to paw uselessly at a glass screen like the thicker members of the cat community do when confronted by a fish tank did not provide me with a receipt though I requested one repeatedly. It was immensely annoying and underlined the stupidity of what I was doing nicely. If the ‘success’ of your trip hangs on the retention of a petrol pump receipt, you’ve got to ask yourself why you’re doing it all in the first place. Is it to enjoy a challenge or to get a piece of paper that tells you you’re tough? I answer my own question and decide to toss the receipts for the rest of the trip.
Before long another great field-based nation was upon me. Luxembourg loomed in the rancid glow of the Beemer’s pitiful headlight and before long I had despatched it without learning anything useful about it other than ‘it has cows’. Next up would be Germany. With its famed autobahn system and lack of tolerance for other people’s borders, I tacked southeast to continue over more rolling low level farmland for the industrial landscape surrounding Saarbrücken.
Despite the whole issue of receipt failure, I was actually making good progress on decent roads, I hadn’t broken down and it still wasn’t raining. Was I enjoying myself then? Well, I hadn’t broken the back of it yet so like any good Englishman I reserved any feelings of enjoyment or satisfaction that I harboured for later, as if there would be a specific time for enjoyment. Which there is I think – it’s after dinner right? I’m pretty sure that’s why the English decided to invent parlour games anyway.
Still, as clear skies above began to reveal the barest twinkle of stars I started to muse on how I might describe being in the middle of an Iron Butt challenge: I settled on it being the motorcycling equivalent of old age. How so? Well there’s those long periods of sitting still and thinking about when you’ll go to the bathroom punctuated by brief moments where you stand up extremely slowly up and say “agghhhhhh.” I think it works pretty well as a metaphor.
What an Iron Butt is really about though – counter intuitively in fact – is time. It’s a valuable gift in our world of relentless digitised notifications but here on my own I found I could easily partake of an activity I eventually dub “binge-pondering” and it led to some profound thoughts as the bike droned away beneath me. Will I ever be a father? Have I made a success of my life? Is she The One? Did I turn the gas off? Wait. I didn’t have gas. That one was easy.
Time passed. I rode. I stopped. I humiliated myself in front of multiple petrol pumps. I rode on. Pretty soon it was 3am and I was starting to lose focus until I came across one of the fabled unlimited autobahn sections, noticing that at a little past three thirty in the morning, the asphalt had fallen completely and utterly silent. I was the only vehicle for miles.
It took a moment to compute, but there it was – I was free! Free from cars, free from trucks, free from speed limits, free from police radar traps, free from PCP payment reminders and mileage limits, free from HG Wellsian average speed cameras, free from roadworks, free from recycling, free from shopping, free from the relentlessly forced grinning of Strictly Come Dancing contestants, free in fact from every one of life’s stupider irritations. It was like suddenly finding myself on the Bonneville Salt Flats, only in the dark and smelling a bit more of fresh cow shit than usual.
My reaction was instinctive and predictable. I tracked the dull ribbon of the darkened autobahn in my twilight of high resistance electrical connections at an ever increasing rate, glancing at the speedo needle as it tracked an upward curve, 70, 85 100, 105 then wavering with uncertainty at around 110 mph as if it wasn’t sure it should be there at all. I barely nudged the dulled aluminium bars reflecting in the clock lights as the Beemer counter steered itself through curve after curve and I wondered why I’d ever bothered to read about how you actually did that. You just did it.
Speed had become a liberation instead of a liability. I dived through pockets of cool damp air; exploded out into warmer ones, scything through the coal-blackened landscape feeling its rise and fall through the foot pegs. Insects cracked and imploded against the windshield. I sensed the temperature change through my leathers and pushed back against the strong hand of negative air pressure weighing down on me as the Beemer muscled its way through the blackness.
I rode on alone, a briefly illuminated speck of light reeling in what felt like the entire country beneath my wheels. The ageing boxer’s motor breathed deeper and harder than I’d ever heard it before as it punched the miles out at nearly two a minute. Faster still. How long could the motor take 120mph for? What if it let go? Unwilling to decide I pushed on, maybe for a few minutes or maybe it was just a few seconds with the throttles totally nailed; I had no point of reference except for the blur of armco and bridge supports flying by. I glanced at the speedo but the needle had somehow disappeared – how fast we were travelling didn’t matter anyway. The BMW had nothing more to give.
And then it was over. As Saarbrücken gradually opened out beneath me I carefully rolled back the throttles, the engine unclenched, the gearbox whistled down. The pungent fog of smelting and industry now pervaded everything and I flipped open my visor to breathe in the sulphur, the wind jerking my head back suddenly as the cold air hit me square in the face.
The moonlit reflection of the glassy sleeping Saar was soon with me as I dropped from the dark plateau and followed the dormant railway stockyards reflected in its eddying surface. I passed beneath street lamps that cast a heavy orange light into pools of silence as I listened intently for strange noises. But there were none, and for once the mechanical paranoia I usually carried with me left me alone. I slowed further in the recognition that a moment of fleeting freedom had passed my way and I knew that very soon I’d have to punctuate it by stopping. And not just for that either. It was Pot Noodle time.