Wrong Way Down: 1000 Miles in 24 Hours (Part 3: Germany – Italy)

It’s the final part of my 1000 miles in 24 hours Iron Butt Challenge on a 1996 BMW R1100RT…

And so I had arrived at Pot Noodle in Germany: not a town but a significant milestone nonetheless. Being a bit of an amateur distance cyclist, I was normally pretty good at choosing and packing nutritious, healthy high-carb hi-protein meals from supermarkets to refuel an aching body, but with an Iron Butt being all about slouching into one position and staring straight ahead in zombified silence for hours on end like you see new parents doing after they finally realise what they’ve done to their lives, a convenience food which required zero preparation seemed wholly more appropriate.

I consulted the map and made the decision to truck on past Stuttgart before getting my head down to sleep somewhere. When that somewhere arrived, it turned out to be a small but friendly looking 24 hour manned petrol station. I was never going to pay for a hotel which I could only use for a couple of hours – there wouldn’t nearly have been enough time to dissolve all of the toiletries and soaps into the bath – so giving the cashiers a thumbs up to make sure they didn’t call an ambulance or do something else sensible (this was Germany remember) I pulled on my waterproofs, clicked my visor shut and laid down on the floor to sleep next to the bike like cowboys probably used to do with their horses – only without the fear that something incredibly heavy might tread on my balls during the night.

When I awoke some time later I had that sudden moment of incomprehension you sometimes get when sleeping in an unfamiliar place. All I could tell was that it was foggy. Very foggy. No wait, my visor…oh, oh man, something smelling badly of bratwurst…no wait, oh yeah – Germany! – Iron Butt!

Yes, I was bang in the middle of a very stupid activity and as consciousness arrived, the panic began. “I’m losing time!” What time was it? Who knew – my watch was hidden under several bunched layers of waterproofs and scrabbling at my arm while wearing lobster claw gloves to try and see it made it seem as though I was suffering an episode. It was nearly light anyway and as I blundered around in the twilight I almost dropped the RT as I stumbled it off its stand to refuel.

Still half asleep, I entered the premises to pay. Being half asleep in front of people you don’t know and will never see again is always a pleasure. I stomped about like the third man on the moon who knew that nobody’d ever remember him (can you?) so it didn’t matter if he looked like a prize dick as he stumbled around saying stuff like “AWE-some!”, tripping over his own feet and falling through some vitally important solar array. I took an unintended zig zag route to the cashier, knocked a few bags of Haribos off their display stand for good measure and attempted to pay.

The young teller signified I should use that modern horror ‘touch and pay’, which I spend much of my time in normal life trying to avoid in case my bank account is mysteriously drained after buying Hardcore Donkey Loving (is there any other type?) or something similarly humiliating like the Christmas edition of The Radio Times which I’d then be forced to recount multiple times under caution to a phalanx of horrified trainee fraud prevention officers along with their supervisors. “The Radio Times…? But heavens to goodness man, why…?”

Of course, I didn’t understand what to do. To me ‘touch and pay’ sounded like something trainee priests are warned about on their first day in seminary, but luckily Herr Teller indicated how my card would magically work and I received the receipt to prove it.

Job done I thought, but my oppo thought not and very soon he lapsed into apoplexy at my incomprehension. It’s sad that for the foreseeable future of their nation, young Germans getting tetchy about something will only ever put the visitor in mind of one particularly excessive character from their recent past.

“Do you not zpeak Jahhmun?!” the now puckering cashier squeaked as I finally realised that touch and pay in Germany actually meant touch and pay and then fucking well sign it as well you dick.

“Non” came the response. René from ‘Allo ‘Allo had arrived to save the situation. Either that or my brain, having realised I was abroad though without enough of a geographical bearing on the situation to move further up the decision tree, had reasoned that though I had no German in me apart from superior hair I must at the minimum respond in an abroad-style language.

And so without planning to, I had proven the accuracy of The Great Escape’s central contention that some Allied personnel in occupied territory may have betrayed their nationality by accidentally slipping into the wrong lingo during the war. It made me feel a hell of a lot better to be in the same boat as Gordon Jackson, especially since he’d also been the head of CI5 – a pretty important job I’d heard. “Good Luck” I said as I left, laughing the laugh of someone who’d been wearing a helmet far too long.

Austria to Italy

Heading south from Stuttgart and on towards Austria in the weak morning light I found heavy traffic which forced a revised plan. Commuter traffic was thick on the German side so I knew as soon as I entered Austria the minor roads I’d wanted to use would be even more clogged, especially with retirees in camper vans who’d devoted their lives to swinging (I’d basically learnt everything about European culture from Eurotrash).

I stayed on the motorway instead and started calculating the final mileage required against time remaining to work out what my average speed must be. If I made 50 miles every hour, I’d do it.

Austria finally arrived with the Alps rising grandly in front of me like some sort of attempt at landscape gardening to hide delicate northern European sensibilities from the disorganisation of Italy beyond. The morning was crisp and the air was as clear as my bowels were after I’d visited yet another unfortunate service station en route.

Like Switzerland, Austria uses a series of vignettes to allow you to use their motorways, so I stopped in a further station and paid for a ten-day pass from a woman who looked at me like perhaps word had got around. Shortly I was back underway and I threaded the RT towards Innsbruck and the Brenner Pass.

I was now firmly in biking country. Euro pilots on sparkling Yamaha MTs and fleets of newly minted BMWs with adventurous looking aluminium panniers swarmed around me. My plan to hit this section in the morning when I should be the most awake seemed to be working. I felt fresh and the heavy RT wasn’t such a handful on the switchback hairpins. The weather was perfect and I was actually in high spirits, reasoning the worst thing that could happen now was that I broke down or crashed and in the confusion got helped into an ageing couple’s camper van never to be heard from again. The prospect certainly kept the cornering speed down anyway.

Mr Brenner, whoever he was, must have been a bit of a disappointment in life as if you’ve ridden it yourself, you’ll know his alpine pass is one of the least dramatic ones there is in the Alps (and the reason why I chose it). I paid the toll and a short cruise later I was in Italy – the last country I needed, so to speak. It was about 8am; I had four and a half hours to make the last 200 or so miles. Average about 45mph now on main roads and I’d be there. It was just too easy.

Italy bites back

Like I said. It was just too easy. I’ve spent a lot of time living and working in Italy, and you normally recognise when you’ve passed from say France or another normal country into the Republic of Utter Chaos because the condition of the road surface goes from acceptable to needing the prefix un, and wherever you stop a sweating, untrustworthy looking man jumps out from behind some bushes and starts asking you for money. And that was just the Prime Minister.

In terms of the whole country, the road between Brenner and Bolzano wasn’t too bad but it was the usual story of the creaking Italian network: endless single lane contraflows and no one at work doing anything about it. This started at the border and went on. And on. And on. I soon saw electronic warnings for ten kilometres of jams and my one thousand mile dream started to peter out as I clunked down into first, then finally stopped to place an oil-spattered boot on the smoothly worn asphalt. Ten kilometres of this?

As time ticked by the average speed I needed to meet went up and my confidence in the project – and my feeling of beneficence to my adoptive country – sank.

Soon I panicked and against all my instincts I began to take risks that people doing stupid activities for little more than ego tend to do. Of all the things you can do in Italy on a motorcycle, lane splitting (or filtering) is definitely the most dangerous. Drivers move lanes without warning, traffic law is taken as entirely advisory and as a foreigner you can be sure that if something bad does happen, it’ll all be your fault no matter what rules of logic you apply in your explanation. An Italian woman once advised me that the basic rule of the road in Italy is that the oldest car always has precedence as its driver clearly has the least to lose. Needless to say, motorcycles come way beneath even the oldest cars in the pecking order.

If I was to make it, I’d have to pull something out of the bag to get out of the tailbacks. I breathed in – it was time to filter.

The sun beat mercilessly down during my new game of autostrada pinball and I grew more and more stressed and sweaty until at some point I realised this was because I was still wearing the same one-piece waterproofs I’d put on while sleeping outside – except now it was 25 degrees. But with the clock ticking there was no time to stop and organise and I was condemned to broil in my own juices (a slightly plasticy, chickeny concoction as it happens) as I limboed my youthful flesh past the baying hordes of wrinkled perverts in their mobile sex-dungeons.

I wound the RT up faster and faster, darting from car to truck to lube-soiled camper, stealing gaps with inches to spare between me and the oncoming traffic. I had no choice – my ego was now in a full-on race against time.

Sweating my last ounces of broth into my waterproofs and bouncing from car to car I was no longer interested in a true 1000 miles triangulated by American military satellites. I wasn’t interested in Iron Butt bureaucracy or in some daft certificate that told me I was tough. I’d proved I was tough – I’d just slept on a manhole cover and I was wearing full waterproofs in 25 degrees. I just wanted that clock to roll from 999 to 000 one more time…COME ON! Seconds ticked by, now less than thirty minutes to go! I was still miles from my target.

Gritting my teeth in one final push I left my overtaking indicator permanently flashing (it was that serious) and blasted the Beemer towards Padova until at 12.04 pm UK time I finally turned over the magic 1000 miles on the trip counter with just 19 minutes to spare – I’d done it! I pulled off the road into an autostop to watch two wild dogs celebrate my achievement by thoroughly shagging each other until they disappeared into a hedge. A great moment to remember my achievement by.

The rest of the morning was spent riding lazily into Padova accepting imaginary garlands from grateful passers by like a preening bullfighter. Then at some point reality intruded and tiredness rendered me deficient in everything, including deciding which side the clutch lever was on. It was enough for one day and I checked in at my brother’s place to replicate a scene that recalled the end of Ice Cold In Alex, only without anyone getting arrested and me drinking all the beer.

Postscript.

I might have made 1000 miles in a day but I still wasn’t anywhere near home. So the next day I set off again and ticked off an un-timed and comparatively relaxing 750 miles from the spine of Italy before I stopped in Calabria to experiment with sleeping prone on the bike instead of on the floor due to all cockroaches the south seems happy to host. I achieved this quite successfully by burying my head in the clocks like a spice-addicted dressage rider and it actually felt comfortable (though being distressing for bystanders, who felt obliged to poke me or say things like “Mummy is that man dead?”)

The following morning I dodged the crafty “Un’euro, signore!” beggars surrounding the port at the toe of Italy and caught the Messina ferry across to Sicily for my final 200 mile ride home.

In three days I’d covered a little over 2100 miles but it was the timed challenge of the first 1000 that I’ll remember the most. The Iron Butt – whether you decide to meet all of the paperwork requirements to get your toughie certificate or do it out of sheer bloody mindedness as I did – is a proper motorcycling micro-adventure designed for those with unavoidable life commitments.

Memorable? Yes. Memorably frustrating? Doubly, but it still counts as 24 motorcycling hours I’ll never forget. The big question – would I do it all again? No chance. Next time I’ll go for the 1500.


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