In this piece, LAM Member Vincent Scheurer shares his top tips for successful solo foreign trips
I’m hardly a veteran of solo foreign trips on motorbikes. One solo trip to the Pyrenees and three trips to California won’t get me admitted to the Travellers Club. However, I have probably made enough mistakes while biking abroad on my own to contribute something to anyone planning a solo bike trip in a different country.
Solo touring presents some additional challenges to group travelling but also brings some benefits that are harder to find when travelling with others. In particular, the absolute freedom of the solo tour speaks to the sense of freedom we all try to find on our bikes, even during an ordinary commute. There is nothing quite like waking up in a totally different landscape and just heading off down the open road without any external constraints as to where to go or what to do. But while I recommend solo touring to anyone with any level of experience, you need to put a lot of thought into it and prepare properly. And as you will be touring alone so you will be solely responsible for all of the trip preparation.
This is what I have learnt so far: You’re not in Vauxhall any more!
This needs to be fully and carefully planned in advance. You will be paying a lot of money and holiday time for this trip so all of this research is time well spent (It’s also great fun.) Obviously there are many websites with recommendations for good biking roads in particular areas, but equally obviously one person’s choice of a good road isn’t necessarily the same as yours, so check each recommended road out individually, and don’t hesitate to try to find your own alternatives. Google maps allows you to drill down to the road surface and surroundings at any point on a road, so you can see if a winding road has a bunch of cliff edges and blind corners or is instead fairly flat with full visibility around bends. I found a beauty heading north from Las Vegas this way, and I still go back to it whenever I can.
In terms of distances I know my riding limit is about 300 miles in one full day before it starts to become a chore. However I always aim for distances closer to 200 miles between overnight stops in any particular day, largely in case the weather is worse than planned or some other unforeseen circumstance arises and I lose time as a result. I just make sure that there are some interesting additional roads near to my destination so I can still do 300 miles if I feel like it, but it avoids me having to force myself to do more if I don’t want to.
I book all of this up front. If you are in a car you can take the risk and just go where your heart tells you, hoping to find a hotel with a vacancy but sleeping in the car if you can’t. In the wilderness on a bike there isn’t necessarily much accommodation in any one area and obviously you don’t have a car to sleep in if everything is booked up. So I try hard to plan each day’s ride completely when I am still in the UK and then to stick largely to the plan when I am out on the road.
However, to contradict my last point, some of the best rides I have had were unplanned. In March I found myself unexpectedly having to try to sort out my business insurance (which was about to expire) while I was travelling through Death Valley. I urgently needed an internet connection and the nearest one was 30 miles away from my hotel, across the valley. I did this trip at 4 in the morning in total darkness, but with no oncoming traffic and the entire Milky Way above me – one of the best rides I have ever taken. So I do suggest building in the opportunity for unscripted routes each day – again this takes me back to having relatively short distances between overnight stops, to allow for additional deviations should the need or desire arise.
Choice of bike
The last thing I want is to be struggling to find the indicators when I’m stuck on a 6 lane freeway, so normally I either rent the same bike I have in London, or I test ride the rental model in the UK first (even if only for an hour or so). That way I am not surprised in the critical first few hours which can be quite tricky, as you struggle with jetlag, driving on the right, new road signs, different climate and so on. The one time I didn’t do this I found out too late that I didn’t have any room on the handlebars for my phone holder (which was my GPS solution). As a result I spent a full week commuting through the LA freeway system using my memory only, a supremely painful experience. If I had taken a better look at the bike before leaving I could have either selected a different model or found an alternative GPS solution (I will bring a wrist-strap phone holder next time). I also discovered that I tired and cramped more easily in the sports bike riding position than in my normal riding position. I should have known all of this before I left the UK.
I assume the worst about the weather and pack accordingly. I love riding in the desert but the climate is astonishingly variable, which is not great when you combine this with potentially vast distances. I have gone from below freezing to above 30 degrees centigrade in the same day, twice. As a result, for spring riding in the desert in California I bring my full winter gear, including the battery powered gloves, and take all my summer gear as well (including very light summer gloves) and swap during the day as the climate requires. This means taking a large amount of gear (and going for a large backpack) but I’ve found that this has always been worth it. I used a Kriega backpack and was very happy with it – no strain on the shoulders, easy to unclip, and lots of storage capacity.
Tricky one, this. You can rent a lid where you rent the bike but you’ve got no idea how many times it’s been dropped, and in any case you may not find full face lids are available for rental. You can take your own but I don’t fancy an argument with my insurers after an accident once they find out that the lid I was wearing wasn’t US DOT approved and was therefore arguably not legal, and therefore arguably not compliant with insurance requirements. My solution has been to buy one in the US and only use it for US trips. Costly and a hassle to carry around, but I haven’t thought of a better solution yet.
Use it! My bike trips are usually undertaken as soon as I get to the US (rather than at the end of my US trip) so I am still largely on UK time. That means almost no riding on the day that I arrive – I usually get to the US early afternoon (so late evening in the UK) and I am happy to pick up the bike and drive 10 or so miles on the first day, but no more. Accordingly, my first overnight stay is always near the bike rental garage. I go to bed at 7pm local time and get up without an alarm at about 4am and leave at 5am. I feel that this is a fairly good time to do some serious motorway riding without much traffic (a big factor around LA), so I can hit the interesting country roads once the sun comes up by which time I will be a long way away from the city and the traffic. This does mean high speeds in potentially very cold weather at night, when the heated gloves and winter gear are essential. I also make sure I am not riding any time after the end of the afternoon during the first few days.
Local rules and etiquette
It is worth having a chat with the people at the rental garage to understand local rules and etiquette. For instance, “lane splitting” (i.e. filtering) is not allowed in many US states, including Nevada (although it is allowed in California). Greeting oncoming bikers in the US is done by the Churchillian “V for victory” sign with the left arm (rather than a nod or a kick of the leg). Tricky when you are piling through a bend at speed. Parking in LA is not nearly as easy as it is in London and tickets are given freely; luckily I researched this aspect in advance so have avoided tickets so far (but at the cost of expensive parking spaces). However I only found out too late that some carpool lanes in LA can be used by bikes – I should have asked about this on day one.
Believe the road signs, even if they look wrong - I guess this is true in the UK as well. Riding into the hills from the Mojave desert in late March, in 30 degree heat, I was confronted by signs warning of ice on the roads. I could see that this was a location that might see snow during the winter but I assumed that this was long gone by the time I was there. So I thought that the local authorities had just forgotten to take the signs down.
Ice in the desert? You must be kidding
Bad mistake – an hour (and many more ice signs) later and I was flying over sheets of ice randomly dotted across mountain roads, and I hadn’t even packed my brown trousers.
Your phone is indispensable so obviously take extra mobile phone chargers, replacement charging cables and an external battery pack. I would even take a spare phone if you have one. Unfortunately phone reception is patchy to non-existent in many places outside of towns and villages in the US so I think (although I haven’t tested this yet) that it is worth also buying a US SIM card as an alternative, just to have more options if you are in an area where you phone doesn’t work. My UK SIM works fine in all built up areas in the US but I have been to places where it didn’t work but the locals still seemed to be getting a signal. Clearly you need to have a fully functioning GPS solution (see below) and contact details for the rental garage and emergency towing readily to hand. Even the dumbest events can occur out of nowhere and test your preparations to the limit.
There's a set of keys here somewhere! Thankfully I found the keys again after a few minutes of systematic searching (while fighting mounting panic) but it is amazing how such a banal problem could have ended up as a really serious issue. If I had trodden the keys into the sand I would never have found them. At best I would have had to stop oncoming traffic, blag a trip to the local town (some hours away), call the rental garage and wait perhaps a full day while someone came along with a replacement set of keys (or maybe a replacement bike – I was hundreds of miles away from the rental garage), largely writing off the rest of the trip. At worst nobody came past (or nobody stopped) before nightfall. This is one area where you start to wonder whether a solo trip was such a good idea. So in the future I will ensure that I am more careful with keys (into a zipped pocket every time) and that my wife knows where I am supposed to be at any time – I can check in by text message each evening so at least one person knows I am not where I am supposed to be if this kind of thing happens again.
I get all the insurance – the excesses, the waivers, the additional charges for free towing, the lot. It is worth paying a bit extra for peace of mind given the huge effort and expense of organising a road trip, and the free towing came in useful when I blew the back tyre of my R3 due to some vicious metal shrapnel on the road one day in Central LA.
Some rental bikes come with GPS units but two of the bikes I have rented in the US didn’t. This was fine; I just used my iPhone, which has an inbuilt GPS system. However you need to ensure that you have a GPS app – don’t just rely on Apple maps as this needs data (for the maps), so won’t work if you don’t have a phone signal. There are plenty of GPS apps for the iPhone, and I use Here We Go and Google Maps. On the few occasions one of them didn’t seem to work the other did, so I was glad I got both. Just remember to download all of the local maps first; and only while on a Wi-Fi connection, or your trip may end up even more expensive than planned.
Bikes are a great way to visit new countries and landscapes, especially in places like the US where the infrastructure is generally very good. But time spent in preparation is never wasted.
Plenty of bends but no cliff edges – perfect!
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