Europe 2016 : Baptism of Fire


Before I set off on a month-long, 4000-mile expedition around Europe, the majority of my experience on a motorcycle has amounted to short runs in and around London and a number of weekends out of town. This trip was one of firsts. It was the first time I’d travelled or spent any length of time on my own. The first time I would live off the back of my bike and given that I had picked up my newly rebuilt custom W650 the day before my crossing, virtually the first time I had ridden this bike.
As I pointed for the coast and got used to riding with the extra weight of my equipment, I felt a sense of excitement coloured with a shade of trepidation. I had expected that though. It was even comforting to know that the start of my journey shared common ground with the expedition accounts I had read over the years. A sudden gust of wind caused the bike to snake and brought my thoughts back to the present. The feeling of off-road tires at high speed was new to me and I needed to concentrate. It wouldn’t be much of an adventure if I didn’t make it across The Channel.
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I woke on Friday morning ten miles inland from Calais. My plan was to ride to my Outerwear Factory in Portugal to collect and test a jacket that I have been developing over the past year. The whole of the clothing industry in Portugal shuts down for August and a day before leaving, I’d found out that my factory was closing earlier than I thought. I had four days to make the journey, Missing the appointment was not an option.
Taking the fastest route meant running with the procession of caravans on their motorway pilgrimage to meet the summer. As I cut across Northern France, riding with no fairing and off-road tires, the magnitude of the miles ahead took hold. Portugal felt a long way off and the 63,000-mile route Ted Simon traced around the World, took on a new light. My thoughts skipped over other journeys I had followed in books and films. There seemed to be a gulf between the romantic idea of what I thought a road trip would be and slogging south on the motorway. Being my first expedition, I had nothing to compare this with. Travelling alone, I had no one to share it with. They were hard miles. I knew that after I had collected my prototype the tempo would slow and the roads improve. I thought to myself, this was a right of passage.
Ashley Watson : Baptist of fire 2
The learning curve over the first few days was steep. I found out the hard way that the tool roll should always be at hand after having to unpack all of my kit to find an elusive Allen key. Problems with the Carburetor floats sticking caused delays but built my confidence every time I managed to fix the problem. To break things up, as I crunched the miles following the West Coast of France down to the Spanish border, I started to sing to myself. I’ve never been great at remembering songs and my reportage was limited. Robbie Williams ‘Angels’ and Oasis ‘Wonderwall’ over and over. I’m not sure if that’s something I should admit.
As I began to find a rhythm and make good progress, on the morning of the third day I reached for my wallet to pay a toll. It wasn’t there. Frantically, I searched in all of the places I thought it could be as the queue of holidaymakers behind me grew impatient and the sound of car horns more frequent. A sinking feeling washed over me as I accepted defeat – it was lost. I scraped together enough change to make it past the barrier and pulled over to take stock. It was Sunday and in France, everything is closed on a Sunday. I had half a tank of fuel and eighty pounds in cash, but no euros or access to my bank account. My next move had to be a good one.
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I aimed for Hossegor, a coastal town known for its surf. Back in the UK, I surf whenever I can and thought that if anyone would help, a surfer might. On route, I lost my way and pulled over to speak to a group on the side of the road to get directions. It was then that my luck started to change. They told me that around the next corner there was a local classic car and motorbike meet up. It seemed too great a coincidence that I should find myself passing through this small town on the very same morning but as promised, moments later there it was. An area in a car park cordoned off with around twenty cars and as many bikes organised in two rows; their owners sharing stories and enjoying each other’s company.
As I rode towards the gate, I was welcomed and ushered to park with the other classic motorcycles. The cameras came out and my bike was an instant hit. It was here that I met Pierre. Owner of a convertible Triumph Herald and collector of vintage surfboards. We had a lot in common and I liked him immediately. After explaining my plight, he offered to swap the euros he carried in his pocket for the pounds I had in mine. It was an exchange that he knowingly lost out on and I was touched by his kindness. Two hours ago, I had felt exposed. Now, I’d made a new friend, seen some great bikes and had enough money to make it through the day. It was becoming clear that, good or bad, I would feel every second of this experience. I was also realising that I hadn’t tested myself for far too long. This trip was doing me good.
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I pushed on, skirting the Pyrenees and crossed the border into Spain. Remembering the start of ‘Feeling Good’ by Nina Simone was a welcome respite from Robbie and the Gallaghers. Journeying south, green turned to yellow and the terrain lost its familiarity. The air-dried and winds gusted as the earth heated in the afternoons. From the top of a mountain ridge, I could see for miles, tracking my route across the planes ahead. Spain was vast. No more than a two-hour flight from home and yet I was engaging with the landscapes I passed through in a way I had not experienced before. I was shocked at how different my outlook was. Wind, temperature, rain, smell, every mile travelled had engrained itself onto me and I felt that I had earned what I saw. I was looking through a different set of eyes.
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The final stretch to the Portuguese border was the most challenging. It felt like I had a hairdryer, on full heat, blasting directly into my face. A soaked neck-scarf dried in minutes and I could only ride for a short time before I needed to escape the sun and find shade. On the afternoon of the fourth day, I rode up to the entrance of my Outerwear factory. The seamstresses were on their break and look at me curiously as I made my way through the door. I was weather-beaten and looked a sight but I didn’t care. I had the prototype in hand. It was perfect.
A weight lifted and to celebrate, I set my sights set on the Serra Da Estrella National park. A small perfectly formed motorcycle playground of empty, flowing roads cutting through untouched mountains. I was at the furthest point from home, but I felt the most confident I had since setting off. Having ridden the distance in four days I knew I could get back in the same amount of time if needed. A safety net of sorts. It dawned on me that the trip would naturally break itself into sections. The first part was over and now I looked North.
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