I start this article with the candid statement that I am no overseas riding expert, nor am I giving any direction or advice on riding abroad. Like you, I learn something every time I press that start button on the right handlebar.
That said, I have racked up the miles / kilometres riding overseas and hope that some of the learning from journeys or my runs may interest you – especially if you are planning an overseas trip in your future. The fact is, Europe is close and opens a huge opportunity to enjoy and experience so many new roads, food, drink, people, and riding challenges. Same can be said of America (Mid or West Coast in particular) and Australia – although there you are likely to fly out and rent a bike or tour package. For almost 30 years my job involved travel and in the last 10 years that I was working full-time, I was asked to run overseas companies – firstly in America, and then in Australia. So, after my European riding adventures, I was able to set myself up to ride in other Continents, either by renting bikes for several weeks, or (twice) buying a local bike and then selling it before I came home.
Perhaps at this point I should explain my LAM connection. Having passed the car IAM test, I moved to bikes in 1997, taking the test in Cambridge. Having then moved to London, I felt the calling from LAM (I think Trevor was Treasurer even then….) and then progressed to Local Observer and then National. I also managed to pass the Masters in 2022. In my time living in London, I was also a SERV Blood runner for 7 years, which gave me a new insight into IPSGA to say the least.
In 2014 we bought a second home near Biarritz, south-west France whilst on a bike trip and that gave me all the excuse I needed to ride in Europe all the more. With having the Biarritz base, we were able to explore the Basque Region (Pays Basque), including the Pyrenees, in much more detail and soon learned what an amazing place it is, to the extent that we now have our residency visas and live here full-time.
So, what is so good about riding overseas you ask? Well, to list a few things that have been so fulfilling to me:
Most overseas governments (US aside) subsidise the roads and take pride in their upkeep. I ride often on very rural roads in deepest northern Spain, and they are so well maintained. Coming back to UK is enlightening as to the poor state of British roads and this is just not so in Europe or many other countries. The roads also lead you to many wonderful places, with incredible views or wonderful twisty forests. Route planning is open to many options and even if you get into a place that merits a detour, you will have many ways to get where you want to go. You will find roads for all your riding styles and needs, no doubt!
in Europe a great deal of drivers have had or still have a bike, although not always with an engine. This means they understand that you are at risk, can pass where they can’t and enjoy seeing you make progress. Like everywhere, there are exceptions (see HGV and Foreigners below) and we use the 4 S’s, but in the main drivers are considerate, see you and assist your progress. Many times, when filtering I see drivers move aside and make room for bikes for example.
The countryside and locations
with so many places to see and experience overseas and you really should do it. I have seen some wonderful sights and visited incredible places, and on a bike, never had an issue with parking. Being on the bike with all our gear can affect the visit (heavy bags, helmets etc.) but if you find a great spot, organise the next visit differently. I love fishing and my bike is a key asset in taking me to rivers and streams that I would not attempt in the car.
I have met some wonderful people on my trips, and we all know the bike will open a dialogue. I am far from fluent in French and have almost no Spanish, Italian or German but as English is the language of computers and movies, most of the World can speak some English. Who you meet can make the trip and I am often surprised how welcome I am made on my travels. And people do want to help as a rule – advice on a local event, point us to a good place to eat or stay and share some tales of their trip to UK.
Cameras are your greatest risk but in the main they are well posted. We did get stopped in Spain by (biker) cops but that was a purge and ironically the Swiss, Brits and Germans got the spot fine, and not the locals. However, with your UK licence it’s a fine and no points, not that I condone breaking the law. Overall, my experience (with reference to the disclosure at the start) is that cops expect you to speed and are surprised when you do not.
Did I mention the roads, how they are maintained, devoid of roadworks and how lacking in traffic they can be? And the views….
What is not so much fun? Here is another list:
Costs or getting here
Ferries are ridiculous in cost, sometimes overcrowded and subject to weather. Hence, I am big LeShuttle user. Hotels are not bad, but the cheap ones are out of town, and you face a €20 cab ride each way, if you can get a cab back after dinner. The other cost is Autoroute fees, and they can mount up, but I find are the best way south of Paris. Consider a toll pass (which you can buy from LeShuttle website) which makes life easier and can save on tolls. The premium for the Ferry is balanced by the Autoroute fees, otherwise its added to time to get South.
Drivers of Trucks or HGVs
Europe is a large land mass, and it is not unusual to see trucks from Poland, Portugal, Netherlands or even Croatia. These guys are working, spend many hours on the road and have little patience for you on your bike. Be wary, they can drift across us and stop for almost nothing. The road from Bordeaux to Bayonne (A63) is a real nightmare in dark and wet, with the spray from trucks and worse when they overtake each other. Not such a problem on smaller roads, but then you have the tractors or large grain trucks in the summer.
Cops and why they stop us?
See above. Most of the time a stop will come at a border or near a Toll Gate, and it’s a document check. Take all your papers and the V5, which is the first thing they check in France or Spain. In the main, a UK registered bike, when you have the right gear and other paperwork is not likely to get a ticket, but there are exceptions and I suspect they are driven by quotas or a campaign. The one country that is super speeding rigid is Switzerland. Cameras will get you, there are many and the fines are huge or a licence being taken.
Rules I do not know
and I am still learning. In France, vehicles turning out from the right can have right of way and I still can’t see the sign or what designates this – I am wary on a country road and back off if I see a vehicle in a junction on my right. Check the web sites for the country you are travelling in. Also watch drink-drive limits. Germany and Italy are hot on breath tests and that morning after a few beers can be an issue – see the diagram here and UK is the highest. In our region it’s not unusual to see a group in a bar, enjoying some wine and then get into a car.
Traffic and Foreigners
Whilst you may be unsure of driving in Europe, a large number of your fellow road users can be too. I often look at the index plates as I ride in France and often see Netherlands, Portugal, Swiss and German – much more than British. These drivers are on holiday, likely unsure of where they are going and could have screaming kids or dogs being sick in the car, so be aware. I also see a lot of campervans, again often from Northern Europe. These people are the stalwarts, out for the long haul and often slow or challenged by the physical size of their vehicle. Foreign traffic is worse near ports and on Autoroutes. They also break down by the way…
The UK is small in comparison with mainland Europe and so distances can be misleading. A ride of 500Km (310 miles) is roughly 5 hours solid riding and I wonder how often you have ridden that long? Ok we need fuel and comfort stops - I often ride for over 2 hours at a stretch, but that is not always fun and can be made worse if you are on a deadline for a ferry or meeting someone. Check your planning, make time for stops and breaks. I find in many cases, 400Km is a comfortable stretch I have found, especially if you are in a group or with a passenger.
The idea of this article is to get you thinking. Is 2024 the year for an overseas trip? Are you already booked and thus I am adding to your planning thoughts?
Above all, I would advocate that you do it. Travel on a motorcycle is so involving, so expressive and gives unique access to places or events that you will treasure for ever. I have seen amazing things on my bike trips, from volcanoes in Hawaii, Napa Valley vineyards, West Coast Highways (US, Spain, Sydney, and Devon), incredible buildings or landmark buildings and monuments to the brave fallen that have stayed with me always. And that’s not counting the friends and mates that I have met along the way, many I still stay in touch with now.
Enjoy your trip and above all, ride safe.
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