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This is a question Road Trip

Gather round the fire and share stories of epic travels. Remember this is about the voyage, not what happened when you got there. Any of that shite and you're going in the fire.

Suggestion by Dr Preference

(, Thu 14 Jul 2011, 22:27)
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Easy Rider
In the Summer of 1998 I booked a return ferry ticket from Harwich to Gothenburg, on a whim. I had a couple of weeks off work and no real plans, but I wanted to get out of the house for a bit. So I took my motorcycle on a 3,000-mile, two-week trip of Scandinavia. Just because I had nothing better to do. I took the bike in for its scheduled service, made sure it was in tip-top condition for the trip, and went for it.

The ferry crossing to Sweden takes roughly 24 hours, and I had the pleasure of spending much of it in the company of a very friendly and welcoming bunch of people from the Chiltern Motorcycling Club (or possibly Chilton; I forget the exact name). When we arrived they rode off in one direction, to Norway, and I rode another, travelling through the night to Stockholm. I think I killed a goose on the way. At least, I hope I killed it. There was some very thick fog to add to the already dark conditions; without any warning I hit a goose with the toe of my boot, a goose which was standing next to the centre line and was invisible in the fog. I wasn't going particularly quickly, thanks to the fog, but being kicked in the chest by a heavy bike boot wouldn't do any creature much good at any speed. I hope I killed it outright, and quickly, rather than condemning it to a slow, agonizing death from the injuries. There was a car a few hundred yards behind me, and I wasn't wearing any reflective gear, so I did not dare stop to see what I'd done to the poor bird lest the same happen to me.

It's very weird to arrive somewhere at 4 o'clock in the morning in the broad daylight. The streets were busy with scantily-dressed clubbers of all genders, who were being turfed out as the venues closed for the night. I made my way to the docks, lay down beside the bike and dozed for a few hours until the ferry offices opened.

On another whim I bought a ticket for that morning's ferry to Turku, Finland, instead of mooching around Stockholm for the day. While strapping down my bike in the ferry's hold I saw another biker securing a Triumph sporting an English number plate. My spirits emboldened, I approached my fellow Brit and expressed delight that I would have someone to share the crossing with. He looked around and, with a strong accent, said, "I'm Finnish. I'm a medical student studying in England. I bought this bike there and I'm bringing it home for the Summer." Finn or Brit, we hit it off and spent the entire crossing of the Baltic on the top deck in the sunshine, drinking beer and putting the world to rights.

When we got to Turku I made ready to hit the road for a blast across to Helsinki, but my companion stopped me. "I've just called my girlfriend. Her parents have a spare bed; you're welcome to spend the night. She'd like to meet you." So off we rode to Tampere instead. My first evening in Finland was spent naked in a sauna with a bloke I'd met only that morning and his girlfriend's brother, whom I'd known for roughly an hour by that point.

The next day I made my farewells and set off. Each day I would pick a place at random on the map, open the guide book to find some accommodation at my destination, and ride there. No fights, no arguments, no hassles, just the bike and me and hardly any traffic at all. I gradually meandered my way northwards, accidentally entering Russia illegally on the way (I only realised when I saw a bunch of bright yellow signs covered in warning symbols and Cyrillic characters, upon which I turned immediately around and scarpered), eventually reaching Rovaniemi, just south of the Arctic Circle.

I don't know if it's due to riding on the other side of the road, or if the culture is so much more relaxed, but I never had any of the hassles which plague my riding in this country. Car drivers always saw me coming and pulled over in plenty of time, instead of hogging the centre line in a testosterone-fuelled attempt to "win" by preventing me from passing. Here you're lucky to get a terse nod from another biker, but over there they wave to each other, with one's cool factor measured by how low one's wave goes. I swear I saw some cruiser riders scrape their gloves on the tarmac. The waving might also be partly due to the left hand's being the clutch hand on most modern bikes, so releasing that hand doesn't cause the throttle to close.

The next day I left the bike at the hostel in Rovaniemi and hopped on a bus to Santa Claus Village, where I sat outside in the blazing sunshine eating reindeer, drinking beer, and listening to Christmas carols... in June. I also got to sit on Father Christmas' knee, and paid handsomely for the photograph of it (though sadly not the negatives). According to the paint on the ground, which couldn't possibly be exaggerated for tourists, Santa Claus Village is directly on the Arctic Circle's line of latitude.

A couple of days later I reached a campsite near Karigasniemi, on the Finno-Norwegian border, and stayed in a log cabin with blackout curtains. I was far north of the Arctic Circle by that point, enduring not just constant daylight but constant sunshine. Even weirder than it being broad daylight at 4 in the morning is to see the sun high above the horizon at 2 o'clock and yet have no idea if it's morning or afternoon. The blackout curtains were essential.

I tried to press on to North Cape, but hadn't banked on the cold. Even in the middle of Summer, when you're that far north it's a wee bit parky, especially at 70MPH in perforated leathers. I did, however, buy the most expensive petrol I've ever bought. In 1998 I paid 13 Norwegian Crowns (£1.30) per litre. I dread to think how much it costs now.

While bimbling through northern Finland after returning from Norway, I noticed something odd. The roads were, in the main, in excellent condition, maintained very well and a lot of fun to ride, especially on the hilly, twisty bits. But every so often the road would become dead straight for a mile or so, and the tree line would retreat a few hundred yards on either side before returning to hug the road. This happened a few times, and eventually I found out why: the roads double as emergency runways. I didn't see any landings, though.

Towards the end of my trip I decided I wanted to spend a couple of days in Helsinki before returning home, as well as visit a friend in Imatra (of The Tightrope Men, by Desmond Bagley, fame), but I was still deep inside the Arctic Circle, roughly 700 miles away from where I wanted to be. With a cavalier disregard for speed limits, I opened the throttle and blasted down the motorway until hitting Reserve an hour or so later. I found a petrol station, paid a bit less than £1.30 per litre for fuel, downed some coffee, and walked back out to the bike, which was sitting rather oddly. The rear tyre was completely flat. Pumping it didn't help; I could hear a loud hiss which I eventually traced to a gaping hole in the centre of the tread. I don't know how I didn't notice it sooner; a flat rear tyre on a bike causes a very distinctive wobble. As I'd been doing 100MPH+ for the previous hour-and-a-bit, this was a tad worrying. Still, I'd had the forethought to arrange European cover with the AA, so I hauled out my mobile phone and made an expensive call back to the UK.

I sat at the petrol station, drinking more coffee, and waited.

And waited.

And waited.

After an hour-and-a-half or so, the proprietor of the petrol station addressed me by name. I thought this odd as I'd paid for everything with cash. I looked up and he held his hand to his ear, thumb and little finger extended in the universal "telephone" gesture. He handed me the telephone, and I found out why I'd been waiting for so long: the AA operator had left out a digit from my telephone number, so they couldn't call me back directly. Thanks to international directory enquiries, they'd managed to track down the number for the petrol station instead.

"Would you like the good news, or the even better news, sir?"
"Both, please, in that order."
"It took us a while - there aren't many bike places in Finland - but we've found a tyre for you. There's a tyre fitting place which has a tyre which fits your bike. They've only got one in stock; it was an order which wasn't collected."
"And the better news?"
"It's a mile from where you are now. They can come and pick you up, but it'll be a while before they can spare anyone to do it."
"Never mind; I'll ride there, slowly."

Eighty quid and an hour later I was back on the road with a belly full of food, a tank full of petrol, and a tyre full of air. I had intended to be a hero and ride almost the length of Finland, from Karigasniemi to Imatra, in a day, but gave it up as a bad idea and called in at Rovaniemi for a night's kip before pressing on in torrential rain to Imatra, where I had some god-awful blini in a "Russian" restaurant.

I got to see a proper Russian border crossing, on the main road into Russia a couple of miles outside of Imatra. It looked a lot like other border crossings, but a bit more... sinister. The Iron Curtain had fallen by that point, but there was still something menacing about that low-slung concrete bunker, as if something dark and brooding was hidden somewhere beyond it. Much prettier and uplifting to behold was the castle-like Rantasipi Valtionhotelli, sadly outside my budget at the time so I spent the night in a hostel instead.

I ambled back to Helsinki, mindful of my bike's rear tyre and tyre-bursting adventures of the previous year, and spent a lazy couple of days taking in the sights and the museums (free Internet access!) before catching the ferry to Stockholm, riding across to Gothenburg, and catching another ferry back to Harwich.

The crossing to Gothenburg at the start of my trip was as smooth as glass. No wind to speak of, no waves, just a quiet afternoon's boating on a lake somewhere, a lake the size of the North Sea. The two Baltic crossings were, likewise, millponds. The trip back from Gothenburg to Harwich was hellish. I spent almost 24 hours horizontal in my cabin because I couldn't cope with being upright. I tried standing outside, hoping that the cold wind would counter the nausea. I tried standing inside, hoping that the lack of cold wind would counter the nausea. I tried visiting the loo, hoping that the smell of other people's vomit would cause me to follow suit so that I'd feel better. Nothing worked, except lying down. By the time we reached Harwich I was ravenous but too scared to eat in case I got to enjoy unintended seconds. As we docked the captain apologised for the roughness of the crossing; it wasn't his fault, but it was a nice gesture. Apparently he laid on extra steam to get it over with as soon as possible; slowing down would have just dragged out everyone's misery.

The next day I took the bike in for its next scheduled service and was asked if I'd been off-roading. The bike had been freshly serviced and cleaned and was gleaming, and they weren't expecting to see me again for a few months. Just over two weeks later it arrived caked in mud, dust, and road grime, with another 3,000+ miles on the clock.

I learned one lesson that fortnight: don't use one's phone while abroad. The novelty of making telephone calls from Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark, Estonia, and Latvia (signals from the latter three reached over the water to the ferries I was on) was too much to resist and I got landed with a bill for £250 for my troubles.
(, Fri 15 Jul 2011, 22:36, 12 replies)
Great story
You have reinvigorated my desire to take up motorbiking. I'll book my lessons tomorrow.
(, Fri 15 Jul 2011, 23:40, closed)
Thank you.
Do it. It's definitely worth it. I got my bike license on a whim, too, only a few months before making that trip.
(, Sat 16 Jul 2011, 16:23, closed)
Thanks for a lovely read.

(, Sat 16 Jul 2011, 8:37, closed)
You're welcome.

(, Sat 16 Jul 2011, 16:23, closed)
If this isn't a perfect advert for getting a bike licence,
I don't know what it. Absolutely glorious.
(, Sat 16 Jul 2011, 20:04, closed)
Go on... you know you want to.

(, Sun 17 Jul 2011, 8:46, closed)

I've just passed my test and this is exactly the sort of thing I hope to be doing one day soon. What sort of bike were you riding?
(, Sat 16 Jul 2011, 21:13, closed)
Well done on passing the test. At the time I was on a Yamaha XJ600S, my first bike after passing my test (I was over 21 so I went for Direct Access). I put 20,000 miles on it in the first year.
(, Sun 17 Jul 2011, 8:48, closed)
I'm liking this qotw, stories like this are cheering me up nicely.
(, Sun 17 Jul 2011, 5:36, closed)
Aw, shucks.

(, Sun 17 Jul 2011, 8:48, closed)
Fantastic story
Another biker hailing in. Passed my test last year and got me a fairly new SV650 that I am preparing for European travel. My first go on the front end of a bike for touring is happening this summer when we head to the Bulldog bash.

Anyway, truly inspiring, worthy of a book I feel.

Clicky hardly seems enough.
(, Sun 17 Jul 2011, 9:00, closed)
I can feel a sickie coming on.
The Bulldog Bash seems like a reasonable excuse to skive off work for the weekend.

Thanks for the kind words.
(, Wed 20 Jul 2011, 9:13, closed)

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