Learning to love the 'Stans

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It wasn't Igor's size that made him intimidating, being made more of beer than of muscle. Instead, it was the way every person in Semipalatinsk, Kazakhstan, would bend over backwards to make sure Igor went away happy, even the police. I guess that’s the level of respect you command when you’re a well connected crime lord in a remote backwater famous only for Soviet-era nuclear weapons testing.

Igor manhandled a heavy black bag into the back of the 4x4. It was about the size of a human body. Dave and I exchanged a nervous look. Igor shuffled by in his flip-flops, passing our pair of XT600s and what was probably the only BMW HP2 Enduro in Kazakhstan, and rooted around in the cupboards at the back of the garage. He returned to throw three more items into the car. A blow-torch. An axe. A chainsaw.

Was this getting weird or was it our imaginations running wild? Igor’s hospitality and last night’s partying had been epic but what the hell was going on now? I’m sure I’d seen a shovel in the boot before the body bag went in...

Yesterday we’d stood here laughing while Igor showed off on his HP2, popping wheelies past the compound in his customary shorts and vest, but his fearlessness was now causing more concern than amusement. He motioned for us to get in the car and we obliged, fearing it may be impolite to say “No thanks, we think you’re a criminal”.

He gunned the engine, and as we pulled away the big iron gates at the rear of the compound automatically closed behind us. At least he hadn’t told us to get in the boot. We turned onto the highway and began heading out of town.

“Massage my head, bitch”. Fortunately this was directed at Yulia who sat behind Igor. Igor spoke Russian I couldn’t understand, but from his tone that must have been what he’d said. Yulia was girlnext- door pretty, about 20 years old to Igor’s 40-something. Just one more perk of being a drug baron. Yulia obediently began massaging Igor’s bald head.

We turned off the highway into the car park of a mini-market and stopped near another expensive 4x4. One of Igor’s friends raised a hand in greeting. Igor spoke to him before approaching a kiosk selling unrefrigerated fish under the blazing sun. Something changed hands, and my imagination told me it was drugs.

Another car with blacked out windows arrived and joined us to form a convoy that sped past the decaying remnants of communist industrialisation and on into the countryside.

Yulia was singing along to the Russian bubble-pop from the radio when Igor suddenly turned off the potholed tarmac and the 4x4 lurched onto a dirt track leading into the woods. It quickly got dark under the canopy, and any visual link to civilisation was lost. I looked at Dave, and Dave looked at me, still not quite sure whether we should be thinking “Oh shit....”

Whatever happened next, I couldn’t regret how I got here. When I first read Jupiter’s Travels and decided to ride around the world, I didn’t even have a bike licence. Cue five years of learning to ride, on every terrain. Now in the second month of riding all day, being on the bike felt natural, like standing on my own legs. I knew every vibration. It was my home, my transport, everything I owned. And it was giving me an experience of a lifetime.

I remembered three weeks earlier, when we’d been in Kyrgyzstan under a vivid sunset, camping in a grassy area with views across the river valley. Pasta for dinner, this time with wine, the first since Georgia. It was Angelina Jolie wine. It was disgusting. Thick, sweet and dark red, with Angelia’s smiling face on the label, and a claim of 17% alcohol on the back. All the wine round here had celebrities on the labels. Eva Longoria, Jessica Alba. I suspect it wasn’t an official endorsement.

Thunder made us retreat to the familiar comfort of our tents, to watch rain and lightning across the wild landscape with a plastic cup of wine and a bar of weird tasting Uzbek chocolate. In the darkness, a horseman and his herd of horses came by, paused for a while, then whooped and yelled before galloping off. His shouts and the ghostly shadows of his horses were yet another reminder that we were now in a very different culture.

The roads in Kyrgyzstan were as stunning as the unspoilt countryside. The most fun I’d ever had on a bike came when we rode up a mountain pass like the Stelvio on dirt. At the summit, as I sat disassembling Dave’s carburettor again to dislodge the muck, parts spread out over a plastic hi-viz survival bag, a solitary eagle swooped and called overhead.

Days later and we were in Semey, which was full of mismatched buildings in a worse state of decay than the roads leading there – it was grimy and Soviet. Whereas we didn’t want to leave Almaty (the girls were astonishing), we genuinely feared we might never get out of Semey. Smoke billows from industrial units that look like prisons and an acrid smell fills the air, but fortunately there are wide highways cutting across the dystopian horror, if you can avoid the aggressive drivers.

We’d planned to find a hotel, but in a quick roadside conference we agreed to just get the hell out and camp. Thirty seconds after setting off, we saw a hotel sign on the roof of a building that looked new so we changed plans once again, and pulled up at some tall iron gates.

I pushed the button on the intercom. Nothing. Then an old woman appeared. Short and fat, with an apron and a headscarf, she carried a sweeping brush made from twigs. She said something in Russian, to which we offered our default reply: “English?”

“What you want?”

It was more like telling us to get lost. “Hotel?” I suggested.

“What you want?”

She waved us away with her sweeping brush.

Then Igor and Yulia arrived in a Landcruiser, the gates opened, and Igor gestured for us to come into the compound. Igor didn’t speak English but gave us a tour, showing off his BMW HP2 in the garage. The place seemed brand new, the rooms looked like they’d never been used. Upstairs there was a bar, a billiards table, a sound system and a massive home cinema screen on the wall. We realised that this wasn’t a hotel, it was Igor’s party pad, and a front for something a little less honest.

The luxury of the place was very welcome. We weren’t just given cold beers, but shown where the fridge was so we could help ourselves, and the beautiful Yulia sat with us and used her laptop as translator.

That evening, Igor put on a party for us, with Yulia and an assortment of friends. We were treated to pizza, vodka and beer in a room that was labelled “restaurant” but was clearly just the place Igor did his entertaining. And probably his dealing. Igor showed us his motocross photos, we showed our trip photos. The vodka flowed freely, each glass downed after a toast. Music played, we shared a shisha pipe [the traditional way of smoking tobacco in the Stans – Ed], the laughter was continuous. After a while the vodka became too much for Dave and me, but our hosts had only just started and carried on early into the morning.

The next day we found ourselves hurtling out into the countryside down dirt roads through fields and forests, stomachs churning from the excesses of the previous night, minds racing with paranoid expectations.

We arrived at a river and started to realise that we weren’t being brought to the slaughter, but to a picnic. This was not normal behaviour for a hotel owner towards his guests, but was somehow “standard for the Stans”. Still, I kept a close eye on Igor as he pulled the tools out of the car.

When the chainsaw burst into life, the people at the next clearing glared over to see who the hell was disturbing the peace, but quickly sat down when they saw Igor. The axe and chainsaw were used to cut down a tree and the blowtorch to start a fire on which to roast chicken for our picnic. That’s just how they do things in Semey.

Dave and I could only laugh when Igor opened up the “body bag” and produced an inflatable boat complete with outboard motor. Cue an afternoon messing about on the river, beer glass constantly refilled, our host thrusting food into our hands. Igor always seemed to have a litre can of Baltika on the go, and the pile of empties grew rapidly. We feasted on chicken, all the while trying not to let Igor catch us admiring Yulia’s perky personality.

The further you get from home, the friendlier people are. You set off with suspicion but as you travel you come to understand that most people want to make friends. Tajik children will run across fields to say hello. Hotel owners will invite you to park in their lobbies. Parties will be laid on. Russian farmers will give you bread instead of kicking you off their land. People will go out of their way to help you, and you have to be open to it.

Soon we’d be in Mongolia, then Siberia. We were having the time of our lives.


An American across Iran


I'd just finished a contract for a big NGO and was at a loose end in Sweden. Free time and some savings put me on the road – I figured I’d try to retrace the old caravan silk road that connected Europe and Asia before the age of container ships and jumbo jets. I’d end up in the Himalayas and find… what? See when I got there.

Paved roads, signs using Roman script, restaurants and hotels recognizable as such, all made for a kind of adventure-lite as I headed from Stockholm across to Latvia and then through Central Europe down to the Bosphorus and across to Asia.

Did I need more? Did I want to challenge myself? Hard to say. Still, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel something stirring in my gut at the thought of riding across Iran and Pakistan. Fear, probably – Americans aren’t overly popular round here. Finally, after a month of riding around Turkey I felt ready. I rode down to the Iranian border, parked up, took a deep breath and went inside the building with the red, white and green flapping listlessly in the breeze.

Iran. The axis of evil, mad mullahs and “Death to America!” chants. Well, the countryside is much like Turkey and when I meet a guy who speaks passable English it turns out he used to race motocross. I’m astounded. Here? In the land of super-serious, no-fun, religion? My eyes are opened, if only a bit.

Tehran is huge, a sprawling metropolis of ten million. Like any other big city, there’s a divide, though. North Tehran has malls and bright shiny hotels. Apart from the women all wearing shawls, it doesn’t seem so different from the West. But take a detour into Southern Tehran and the houses get crowded together. The sidewalks have women in burkhas, and small shops jammed next to each other struggle for customers. Roads aren’t paved as nicely, either.

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I’m feeling rushed. My transit visa is only valid for ten days, and I have no idea how, or if, I can make it through in that time. Oh well, nothing to do but push on.

Open desert. Straight highway all the way to the horizon. I’m belting out Steppenwolf to myself in my helmet. Hours pass. I end up in Yazd, a town that looks like it was airdropped from Tatooine.

Next morning I read my guidebook over breakfast tea. Turns out I’m a lucky idiot. I’m staying in one of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements in the world. It also turns out that Yazd is the site of the sacred fire of Zoro-Astrianism. Before there was Jesus or Mohammed or Buddha there was this religion which talked about good and evil, which differed from all the other religions of the time which were concerned with gods or demons. I’d never thought about it like that, but it must’ve been a revolutionary concept. Anyway, the Zoro-Astrians originated from this area, and had a sacred fire as their symbol, which has never gone out since the religion was founded 4000 years ago. I must see this.

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I park outside a small, modest building and go in. There’s a glass case containing an urn with glowing coals. A lick of flame escapes occasionally. I ponder how much effort it takes to keep a single fire burning through thousands of years of history, of wars, famines, plenty and hardship. I’m impressed.

Onwards. Time is chasing me now. I want to make India before the monsoon season, and my transit visa runs out in a few days. Time to saddle up and put some serious mileage under the wheels.


From boredom to insanity


It was a dank grey September morning when, suddenly finding myself with nothing much left to lose and utterly bored of being me, I unglued my face from the floor beside my bed and sought guidance from the I Ching, to be thus advised: 'It furthers one to cross the Great Water'.

Fuck yeah! So I dug out my passport, licked the crumbs from my debit card, oiled the chain of my KTM and set off for a wazz around Spain via France with Morocco an option on the horizon.

France, hmm... a tedious six hours flat to the tank, unzipping her truck-choked killing fields, even once attaining absolute top speed (131mph) with my neck bones crunching and my boots flapping behind like flags in the breeze. Next day, I was up and over Tourmalet, highest col in the Pyrenees, circled by vultures, my heart soaring with freedom and loneliness, before dropping down through a sphincter-bursting series of vertical zigzags into Spain.

Crane to left of me, bulldozer to right, all unmanned and dead in the dust. Building boom's over: seems Spain woke up at last and smelt the coffee, with a shot of cheap brandy alongside. On a whim I swerved right and immediately lost myself in the Picos de Europa. Damn, it's pretty! I'll be coming back here to live out my last days among these peaks, beside any of these green rivers. Wild boar, lynx, marmots, cider, and I only hit one of those four that evening.

It was about this time, somewhere in Murcia, that my throat began to itch. I tried changing neckerchiefs but to no avail. So I shaved it away and slapped on some of my exquisite Propolis Aftershave (gathered by honeybees in their free time don't you know) and cracked on south.

I began to suspect some microbe had got into the strap of my Shoei and things deteriorated till my whole neck was on fire from chin to collarbone and I'd developed a flapping chicken skin fringe of decaying flesh. I scratched and scrabbled and screeched into the blistering wind across the plains of middle Spain.

Beautiful Segovia, fuck you in your timeless serenity. I'd have gladly trashed that precious roman viaduct if it only brought me some peace. Don't you hate being sick on holiday? That night at my tawdry campsite I even roared at a bus-full of guitar strumming hippies to shut the fuck up. And bless them they did. Sorry, dudes. On then to Granada with its fabulous Muslim palace, the Alcazar; all mirrored pools and trim hedges, plus a downtown chemist who flinched at the sight of me and my weeping scrotumnal neck sack.

Whatever pills he offered I slugged there at the counter then staggered away and an hour later found myself in a mirrored bar laughing at the wreck of me. My throat no longer itched, ah the bliss, but what am I doing here, sick and far from home? Maybe I should just piss off back there now, to chalk up yet another failure. What was wrong with me anyway? Dare I head any further south? Yet dare I turn round now, climb back on that plank saddle (thanks KTM) and meander my way northwards, wasting enough time till my friends began to miss me?

I woke in the morning in my tent under pines, itchless and feeling pretty damn fine. I showered, shaved, and slapped on the old Propolis. What the fuck? My skin's going crazy again! So I got it, at last. A hideous allergy to my most treasured unguent. I cannot
express my relief at binning this tube of horrors, climbing back on the bike and aiming south. Magical Morocco: sweet, crazy and kind. On the bike you very soon learn that in any built-up area the pedestrian has absolute right of way and that, should the traffic police detain you briefly, they merely require funds for their next ball. The locals are largely jobless yet unable to leave the country in search of work or even, with roadblocks outside every major town, to travel freely between districts. Second class citizens in their own country, they risk a lot by befriending the affluent western tourist.

Thus a lot of folk pass the time loafing beside the road gazing into the distance or overloading their transport (mainly wives, donkeys or asses) under piles of cut branches, so beware every bush you meet lest it blunder into your path. Moroccans are almost all of them generous and friendly but may waste a lot of time telling you this.


A week after arriving, light of heart and healed of throat, I left Chefchouen reluctantly, after tasting my finest ever tagines at the Grape Cafe. Hassan, what a guy! I painted a neat mural on his wall in lieu of payment, plus his handy mate next door changed the KTM’s plugs and oil for nothing but a nude photo of my ex.

Onwards then, up and over the Atlas Mountains, three separate ranges and with each the scenery grew wilder, ending in lunar landscapes of candy-striped rock and stunted vegetation unlike any scene in Europe. On day four I reached the sudden end of a tarmac ribbon supposedly heading for the town of Azrou and paused to consult the map, wondering whether to turn back. It was pretty wild out here. A small girl appeared from her hovel on my left, furiously waving her arm, aiming me forwards, shouting ‘Piste!’

So I took up the challenge, flipped her a coin and set off on the most insane forty mile journey of my life. Within minutes the surface had degraded to loose pebbles through which I spewed my way, desperate to put my feet down but terrified of losing balance. I’m not a great road rider and total shit off-road, knowing just enough to trust the bike as she lurched and slid beneath me at about eight miles an hour. Then the pebble track descended into a boggy meadow and things turned even more horrible, bike travelling sideways, bars flapping till I lost my nerve and opened the throttle, looking for a way out before I sank into the mulch or hit one of the many massive cedar stumps littering the grass. Which turned out to be the right move because speed gave me some semblance of control. Who’d have thought? Also, if I gazed way ahead instead of fixating on any particular stump, then I’d likely miss the fucker.

And at last, out from the far corner of the meadow led an almost vertical stony track up which I slithered far too fast so I panicked again, grabbed a handful, stood on the rear brake and came to rest, engine stalled, inches from a rock wall.

I wish I could tell you that the path here turned mellow and tarmacky again. Fuck, no, it got worse, much worse. This whole scene went on for hours, up and down, swapping dry shingle river beds for more swampy, tussocky bollocks . Twice I fell off the bike, gently, and neither of us got hurt. I shouted a lot, but I never once got off and pushed. I’m proud of that. Guess I was more afraid of getting lost in the dark because the sun was already going down.

At last I came out onto a rutted track through the mountains with stunning vistas and sheer drops to left and right. On and on this continued with never another vehicle in sight, only a glinting river bed hundreds of feet below. Things climaxed when I came round a bend and careered into a great pool of red mud flooding the rock. Unable to control the bike, we went slowly sideways towards the edge till I just... lay down. My beloved KTM lay down too, like a pole-axed mare she came to rest facing me, sprawled on her side.

I’m not weak, hell, I worked out once, but after all we’d just endured I was at my tether end and though I gripped the bars and heaved, she pretty much had to get up for herself. In fear and trembling I looked her over. Only scraped plastic, a ripped tent and the brake lever snapped short, phew.

And then the great orange dingus fired up at my third attempt! I don’t mind admitting I sat down and wept, and a bare half hour later I was snivelling again, in utter relief, when the descending track finally joined a tarmac road only ten kilometres from Azrou. Ahead of me the moon was coming up.


The other side of Route 66

Retiring from work after 33 years came as a wonderful relief. I was now free to tour with friends I’d made while living in Southern California in the early 1980s. Tom Bannon was a successful amateur ex flat track racer who, even at close to 75 years of age, is a rider of some ability. His friend Dwayne Holman would join our tour and, as luck would have it, had a lovely Suzuki SV650 I could borrow.

First we headed towards Prescott in Arizona to watch flat track racing on a mile long oval. The ride out took us along Interstate 10 East. I’ve heard it said that riding miles on a straight road through a desert wilderness must be boring but for me it was far from it.

It’s not just the ever-changing skies but it’s the features you can pick out, from bizarrely shaped rock formations to mysterious
buildings (mostly beacons for military aircraft), and abandoned roadside shacks to railway tracks that bring thunderous freight
trains with their horns blaring. Plus you’ll spot coyotes and rattlesnakes that have met their end on the road, or a small oasis
with palm trees and mobile homes in the middle of nowhere.

Arizona Highway 89, by contrast, provided a welcome change of riding and scenery. We rode through green fields, and lush forests as we climbed. Stopping only to fuel up, we weaved into the mountains towards Prescott.

Next morning we rode to Yavapai Downs for the racing – I don’t think I’d been as excited about watching any form of motorcycle racing since my first visit to Oulton Park in 1965. This was to be something new, something different, something that I would rarely, if ever, get the chance to watch in Europe, especially on a long track and with the world’s top flat trackers racing.

The crowd was fascinating. They weren’t the stereotyped Harleyriding, denim-clad, bearded bad boys that the media presents. OK, there were a few of them, but there were also bikes and riders that reflected the broad church that makes up the world of two wheels; from the latest Ducati to Triumphs, Guzzis to the expected collection of Japanese bikes as well as some Brit classics.

Before the racing started I wandered round stalls when a small, wizened, elderly man wearing immaculate denims emblazoned with badges brushed past me. “That was Sonny Barger,” Tom whispered to me – I’d been brushed past by the founder of the Hell’s Angels.

The racing was something to behold. Riders such as the legendary Chris Carr muscled beautiful, rasping Harleys round, backing them in and sliding them out like flyweight speedway machines. But the highlight was seeing the Harleys beaten for the first time in a top class national flat track race, by Joe Kopp on a Ducati – but then only by a tyre’s width.

Kopp and the Ducati got a rapturous reception, though as one wag in the crowd shouted “You watch, betcha the AMA will change the rules again to make sure Harley wins next time!” Several months later, I read that that was exactly what had happened.

The next morning we headed towards Flagstaff. Unlike many European bikers who fantasise about ‘getting their kicks on Route 66’ and imagining they are the modern day explorer, I did not have precisely the same feelings. For me the road mostly represented the plight of all those dispossessed farmers and labourers who, along with all their worldly possessions and family, made their way in battered trucks to California during the Great Depression of the 1930s, hoping for a better life.

The 66 proved to us it could still bite. We were heading to Oatman, which marks the start of perhaps the most dangerous section of the old road, and one where many a migrant found their escape to the promise of California ending in a tangle of metal, broken bones and lost dreams.

It was by now late afternoon; the sun was low in the sky, at points blinding us. I fell back from Tom and Dwayne, unable to maintain their pace. After a while, I saw Tom heading towards me to check I was ok. I gave him the thumbs up and continued, catching up with Dwayne. We waited for Tom. And waited.

Dwayne rode back and sure enough Tom had come off on one of the bends. Thankfully, he had bounced on his bum pack and narrowly avoided a boulder the size of a car. Tom had many accidents in his racing career but this was very different – he was now 75, had artificial hips and knees and didn’t bounce. Luckily, he seemed ok.

The appearance of Havasu City was enough to depress anyone after the wide open spaces and wilderness of parts of our ride. Garish, tacky, bright, it was an America I can usually deal with but after all that had happened I could not wait till the next morning when we got the hell out of the place. Still, there was the sight of London Bridge (bedecked in American and British flags) to take in as well as old British phone boxes, an old London bus and men dressed up as Beefeaters. It was about authentic as an American diner in the middle of Doncaster on a wet day in February.

By now the effect and pain of the crash was beginning to sink in on Tom. Dwayne and I had to help him to climb onto his bike and this was to be repeated at every stop we made for the rest of that day. But as we made our way through Joshua Tree, Yucca Valley and Morongo Valley on a roller coaster of a road crowded with local traffic and heavy trucks it was clear the best roads were over.

Like every major ride I’ve done, it wasn’t just an adventure, but an education and a feast of sublime images and experiences. After close to forty years of visiting, working in and touring the US, I still knew that I had much to learn.


"Don't just dream, live!"

I got the bug from my father Kevin Sanders, who holds the Guinness World Record for going round the world on a bike in under 20 days in 2002. I won’t beat that but to follow in his tracks is amazing.

After leaving school at 17 I went into hospitality, working my way through cafes, restaurants and bars, but it was always a means to an end. I wanted a challenge and this is it.

I started in London and headed across northern Europe through China to Bangkok before dipping into Australia through snow and rivers. Then I flew to Los Angeles and rode into South America and city floods in Peru. I’m currently heading through Argentina, with the next stop in Cape Town in South Africa.

I’ve done just under 50,000 miles in about 13 months, with the Tiger whipping me through more than 50 countries. The bike has been unbelievable. I’ve put it through everything and all sorts of terrain – snow in New Zealand, river crossings, mud and it just keeps on going. It’s so reassuring because I know it will turn over every time. The engine is stunning and just looking at my bike makes me think ‘yesssss’. It has style and class and badass mixed in. After my first two miles of the trip, I knew I could complete it.

Back home we hear so much about the world, places, people and cultures, and one thing that shocked me is how inaccurately the media portrays different people. China wowed me the most because the people were just overwhelming and the place made me feel alive.

Colombia, a nation branded ‘dangerous’, was anything but for me. Both made me realise that people are people, all trying to survive, protect their families and put food on the table. It’s that simple.

Scenery wise, the highlight so far has to be the Chinese Sand Dune Desert in western China. Who’d have thought China had deserts?

The first days were tough though. At first I really missed those moments you want as a 23-year-old – to have one of my close mates riding with me. But as I grew into the trip, I turned to Facebook and it felt like they were there by my side.

Also, even after a rough day with challenge after challenge you wake up the next day and think ‘that was amazing, I feel so alive’. When I finish I’ll be 24 and will have to pay my credit card bills, so it will be back to a normal job, but I want to continue inspiring others to get out and do what they want. If you want to do something, think of how you can do it not what’s stopping you. Don’t just dream, plan and put it into action, live life fully NOW!

The Bandit's Italian Job

In my dreams I’m blasting across Europe on one of them new VFR800Fs. Matching luggage, heated grips, all the bells and whistles. These are unclean, unfaithful thoughts, and the Slippery Bandit (oil leak) knows I’m having them. She trundles on faithfully nonetheless. We’ve done 60k miles together, around the UK and Ireland but, like a couple in need of some counselling, the love’s gone. Complaints? Me, her horrible damping, vibration and ear-splitting exhaust. Her, my ham-fisted control inputs, propensity for dropping her and woeful maintenance record. Like all relationships, we need a change of scene. We need... a holiday. What’s that you say? Samantha’s getting married in Tuscany? France, Riviera, San Gimignano, alpine switchbacks on the return. Plan.

Friday night, D-Day, the allotted departure time. Revellers outside are treated to a heroic swearing display when I discover some arse-hat has defiled the Slippery Bandit. Wing mirror, wrenched from its socket, lies on the ground. Indicator dangles from its cable, swinging gently in the wind like a hangman’s victim. Fucker didn’t even leave a note.

Eurotunnel rescheduled and the folks at AyeGee in Welling provide the wing-mirror first thing. Gaffer tape does the rest and 24 hours after all the swearing we’re snuggled up in a cute little hotel in Pontaubert, a very picture-skew village on the border of the Morvan national park with classic, tree-lined roads straight out of a tourist brochure. They do a nice line in sleepy villages, fortress cathedrals and chateaus too. Would monsieur be liking zum wine wis hiz dejeuner? Don’t mind if I do.

You should never play with a Tom Tom when drunk. Upshot: wiggely-windy setting accidently engaged the boozy night before means it takes 14 hours to travel from Pontaubert to St Lauren du Verdon in Provence. Google said it would take six. Those missing eight hours are a combination of bum-ache and awe. The D981 goes through towns and villages straight out of the guidebooks, before tedium sets in past Cluny. It’s all worth it though. An unfortunate detour through the centre of Grenoble is rewarded with a stunning road. The Bandit breaths the cool mountain air and sings as the late afternoon sun brings out shadows and gobsmacking reveals following the N85 over the mountains. Past Gap, sunshine peaks out from behind a mountain and the sign says ‘Bienvenue a Provence’.

Running in to the Verdon park on the D952, sun sets, clouds gather in the distance and the road twists again. Lightning from a receding storm makes the clouds flicker like fizzing light bulbs, briefly illuminating a wonderful piece of tarmac. Man this road is good. Man I wish I had ridden it in daylight. Next time.

Ten pm and La Colombiere du Chateau hoves into view not a moment too soon. Tom and Barbara greet me. Yup, I’ll say it again. Tom and Barbara. Do not, under any circumstances, mention The Good Life. My B&B hosts have finished dinner but find me some much-needed cake and a few beers. Sitting me down with the rest of their guests, all of whom are German or Austrian, everyone immediately switches to English for my benefit, and we all have a laugh at the Anglo-Saxon refusal to learn languages. Tom and Barbara are bikers too. They know all the best routes through Verdon and the next morning send me off with tips a-plenty.

Moustiers-St-Marie is perched on a hilltop in the shadow of a mountain, overflowing with flower boxes, baskets and tourists. Cute lanes are narrow and the Bandit’s antisocial exhaust volume is ruining the vibe, so on we go, to la Routes de Cretes, the D23. It’s a circuit skirting the Verdon gorge, and it’s joyous. You can’t help but smile as you look out over Europe’s answer to the Grand Canyon. It’s breathtaking.

Things to do as a biker on a travel holiday in the Verdon gorge: 1) Arrive at blazing-hot vantage points in roasting bike gear while everyone else is wearing shorts. 2) Leave helmet on as you walk around said vantage point. 3) Put camera on timer and make rushed, not-at-all natural poses. 4) Crawl on belly to edge of precipice for vertigo-inducing photo. 5) Crawl back. 6) Look back at other tourists and wonder why they’re looking at you funny. 7) Repeat at next roadside vantage point.

Back on the D952 to Castellane, skirting the river and lakes through second and third gear sweepers. Staying in the torqueband, the Bandit bounds from hairpin to hairpin like a joyful, gormless Labrador. She’s never experienced roads like this before. She has a heart, and it’s overflowing.

On a bike you get to see many sights in a far more involved, engaging way than your average driver. The French Riviera however, is probably best seen by boat. The motorway burrows through hillsides and every tunnel exit brings classic Riviera venues: Nice, Monaco, Cap-Martin. Each exit reveals more and more overdeveloped terracotta-topped identi-towns, from the cliffs to my left down to the sea on my right. A perfect example of how to take a beautiful scene and royally ruin it. Still, I’m sure if I was supping Crystal from a super-yacht down below, I wouldn’t mind at all. I’m rushing to make it to Tuscany when I should have stopped. Near La Spezia a black Peugeot 206 pulls in front of me and the driver turns, gives me wide eyes and repeatedly jabs his finger in to his temple. I don’t know what I’ve done to upset him, probably because I’m knackered. Drink before you’re thirsty, eat before you’re hungry and rest before you yawn. My judgement has rightly been called in to question. Then I run a red light. It’s time to pull in.

The final hour and the road to San Gimignano is probably epic but I can’t see much in the dark. The moon hides behind clouds and the Bandit’s weedy headlight is as welcome as a knobflavoured ice-lolly. We ride triumphantly in to San Gimignano to the sound of honking horns. I’m on the wrong side of the road.

The main reason for me being here is a wedding. Long story short, she said yes, he said yes, massive party, massive hangover, and then it’s time to ride home. The ride back has to take a different route so it’s time for The Italian Job. A fan-site suggests the mountain scenes were filmed at the Grand St Bernard pass into Switzerland, the Petite St Bernard pass into France and the roads in the Gran Paradiso national park. Best of all, they are fairly close to each other and accessible from the Aosta Valley in the far north east of Italy. New plan hatched.

Over the next two days we ride through Gran Paradiso. It is both Grand, and definitely a version of paradise. SP50 is staggering. Remember the bit at the end of The Italian Job, with the coach being hurled around single-track hairpin bends? It could have been filmed here. Judging by the pot holes and loose stuff they haven’t re-surfaced it since the movie was filmed.

The sun’s out as we climb, hairpin after hairpin, the Bandit beginning to gasp in the rarefied air. Clouds follow us up, obscuring peaks as we pass them. Emerald green lakes appear as we pass road signs conveying some kind of danger. Whatever. Just after the Colle del Nivolet the patchy tarmac runs out, and there’s a chain across a dirt-track. Aww! I wanna go further! I turn around and enjoy the road on the way down.

The final day, the run over the SS26, Le Petite St Bernard pass, or Colle de Piccolo San Bernardo. Endless sweeps form the road out of Terme Pre-Saint-Didier. Onward. Upward. Higher, higher. You could come back and spend a week running this road and the little ones off it. In fact, I think I will. Put a date in the diary and I’ll see you there.


Whitby or bust on a CD175

The plan was simple. The three of us would jump on the bikes head to Whitby, pitch tents and have a few days on the lash. Live it large, like young men are supposed to do. What could possibly go wrong? Our assorted rides for one thing.

Ian had an X7, a recently completed project with flat bars, single racing seat and expansion pipes. Nige had a Z250 Scorpion and I was riding my dad’s CD175. Both Scorpion and CD had Sidewinder sidecars attached (ask your dad).

My ride wasn’t a conscious decision, but foisted on me by lack of choice and money. But motoring down the road in a small group of bikes, the sensations were so intense. I had a huge grin almost visible through my visor. At last, this was life. My bike was crap, but in my mind it was an LC, or a big Z.

We found a camp site, pitched the tents and set about being utter dicks, annoying almost everybody unfortunate enough to be anywhere near us. It was the usual stuff. Start a fire, start the bike, rev the nuts off it. Ride to the toilet block even though it was only 30 yards from the tent. Priceless. Mid-afternoon we decided to ride into town and found that the road by the campsite ran towards the Abbey. Ignoring the ‘unsuitable for motors’ sign we passed the abbey and dropped down the hill towards the centre of Whitby. The road was getting narrower and then turned into a cobbled affair with slight steps. A wise man would turn around, but we were in sight of the Duke of York, one of the main bars in Whitby and a biker hangout at the time.

Then the road dropped away dramatically but by this point we were unable to turn back. As the gradient became steeper and the cobbles offered less and less grip I slid up the bike onto the petrol tank, my legs flailing to the right and pegged by the sidecar on the left. Panic progressed to sheer terror as I slowly lost control (all at less than 5mph) and the combo slithered down and onto its side, depositing me in a sweaty heap right in front of a jeering lager-ed up throng at the pub doorway. Ian got away a little easier on the X7, but what miniscule cred the Scorpion or CD may have laid claim to disappeared like a fart in a hurricane. Any hope of impressing a biker chick was long gone…


Lost in Laos

I've been a lucky bugger as far as bikes are concerned. My biker’s brag list includes New Zealand, Australia, Assen TT, Andalucía (off-road), Lake District, Turkey, Norway, and Vietnam. So when I tell you that easily the best biking day ever was on a Chinese skinny-tyred flatulent step thru, you can maybe appreciate this had to be something special.

It came about on a family trip to Laos and Cambodia for Christmas and New Year. The day after Boxing Day my son Rob and I travelled to Vang Vieng, 10 hours of twisty mountain passes in a sweaty, overcrowded local bus.

Next morning, Rob was sent out to find two bikes for the day. Expectations were not high, but hey, two wheels are two wheels. He came back with some crap story that the best bikes in town being two brand new Chinese shoppers for 24,000 Kip per day, helmets, fuelled, ready to go. Arse! 24,000 Kip, that’s £2! Per hour maybe? Another fricking job for me to sort out then...

Twenty minutes later we’d laid down our 48,000 Kip and wobbled off on two brand new, fresh out of the crate Lifan 110s. Yes, truly the best and cheapest bikes in town. Maybe Rob got an apology at the time. If not, here’s one now. Sorry Rob. Ouch.

A warming sun, huge forever skies, father and son out on the open road, a very foreign field, nowhere to be and no one to answer to, and none of my mates to witness my Asian shopping trolley embarrassment. Perfect.

The bikes were completely crass of course. They didn’t stop, didn’t steer, had the suspension of a hardtail, and really didn’t go. Ratio changes in the semi-automatic box took minutes. We pottered about the picturesque town, down to the river, through the market, over wooden bridges, out to pretty temples, pagodas and fish farms. No maps and no mobile signal to summon one up. So that’s a nice hour filled, what next? There’s only one thing for it, let’s get lost.

So down the tarmacked road out of town for 20 miles or so, swerving round bony, lazy cattle, potholes you could lose a Hummer in, avoiding every kind of agricultural harvest laid out on the road to dry. Express buses and Chinese overloaded trucks barrelled past, unsettling us in their stifling backdrafts.

Then, taking the next dirt road we came to, we turned left, maybe right, maybe right again and three lefts. Through glades of tall bamboo, between verdant paddy fields, over small gushing streams we went. So quickly out of the semi-tourist environs of Vang Vieng and into a world of field-to-table farming, National Geographic landscapes, jungle wilderness and who knows what.

Through a gap between two small hills, the hardened mud turned to a steep, rutted gravel track. Our skinny tyres washed out almost immediately, and we both had quick tumbles. The laughter started at this point, and never went away, defining the day.

We rode and rode, hard as they would go, over looooooong plank bridges with no handrails, 10cms wide over boulder-strewn fast flowing rivers, through villages whose relative affluence seemed to decline with every mile travelled. No map, no idea.

Around lunchtime we hit yet another frustrating full stop valley. It was beautiful, but by now we were getting sick of struggling to find a way through. We’d turned and were heading away when an old guy sprinted out of a hut and grabbed me by the arm, highly animated. We presumed it was a trespass thing but when he calmed down a little he gestured to follow him.

Cautiously we did, and inside the hut his wider family proceeded to ply us with warm Fanta and pushed grubby tickets in our hands in exchange for a few Kip. We’ve too many travelling miles under our belts to fall for Asian money-making scams, but we were in the deepest countryside, felt as though this was territory untravelled by fellow westerners, and so despite our cynicism, went along with it.

And I’m so pleased we did. Our new friend marched us through the jungle to a bamboo footbridge leading to the cliffs that marked the true head of the valley. This ran over a fast flowing river that seemed to just lead to a shingle beach. Crossing the bridge, we saw an opening in the cliff and he led us through an unmarked entrance to what turned out to be the most magnificent caving complex. Lit only by the torches, we clambered around caverns, tunnels, waterfalls and magnificent limestone structures.

Reluctantly we ended it after an hour or so, even though he evidently had much more to show us. Humbled and blown away by this magical underground discovery, and with no sense of time, direction, or location, we dragged ourselves away, wound the throttle to the max and pushed on, forgetting that we’d forgotten about the one gallon tank. Being the lardier rider, my bike started to cough and splutter first.

Uh oh. There were maybe 10 houses in the hamlet where we’d come to a halt, each one looking as though it could be blown over in a light breeze. This was close to subsistence society, certainly no electricity or vehicles. A door opened, a curious local looked out, all smiles. I gesture at the tank and shake my head. He disappears, and then comes shuffling out with what I take to be a bottle of local cloudy hooch. Typical of the wonderful Laotian people to offer sustenance at the time of need. Grateful as I am, getting pissed out here is not going to make things easier. I politely decline his hospitality, but he points at the filler cap and his hooch bottle. As he removes the top, it smells refreshingly like unleaded, despite its appearance, and in it goes, along with one more and a couple into Rob’s bike too. Top man. Our salvation fill-up cost us slightly more than hiring the bikes, but it’s the best value fuel ever bought.

So the adventure goes on, full throttle only. Coming across a fast flowing small river, the footbridge is too tight even for us, with only a ford as an alternative which is clearly designed for tractors. Again using sign language, we ask some locals if it’s okay to cross on the bikes. They are encouraging, and squat down to watch. No pressure then. We commit.

I go first, easy to start, but a bloody big sink-hole in the middle has me almost to seat level. Luckily I have enough speed to bounce through it into the shallows on the other side. Rob chooses a different line, but a hidden boulder gets him. He’s off and down. We drag the submerged bike to the shore and hit the starter button. Nothing. We’ve destroyed this little bike on its very first outing and we’re stranded again. We debate fashioning a tow rope. Can we split 3.5bhp between two bikes? A scavenge around doesn’t reveal anything promising. So we sit, scratching our bums for inspiration. Just for the hell of it Rob tries the dead starter again, the bike fires first time.

In due course we reach a road we recognise, and the apparent unrideability and frequent falling of this morning is a distant memory. If you have the cash to go to Laos, go, it’s unmissable. If you don’t, go anyway, the locals need your money more than you do. It’s a bit pricey to get there, and at least two flights, but it’s cheap when you are and the mopeds are almost for free.

AUTHOR’S FOOTNOTE: Reading this through I now wonder whether your heart goes out to the family that rented us these bikes for almost no money and think us to be prize pricks for abusing their generosity. In our defence, we did wash the bikes, and there’s maybe a little artistic licence as to how hard we thrashed them, and most of the falls were cushioned by our bodies. And we did leave a tip of £1 each. OK, you are right, we were pricks. We need to go back and make amends. You coming?


Texan to Scotland

I pump my fist as I cross the River Sark. The M6 becomes the A74(M). England becomes Scotland. The car behind me honks in support of my celebration. Scotland is one of those Mecca places for an American – as with Ireland, almost all of us claim to have originated here – and this is the first time I’ve made it this far north in almost eight years of living in the UK.

This is the longest motorcycle trip I’ve ever taken. Cardiff to Perth and back is more than 1,000 miles. I used to drive distances
like that in my pickup truck back in the States without even thinking but on a motorcycle it’s a different thing. You feel every mile. Or, in the case of the CBF’s handlebar buzzing, you don’t feel it.

The ride from Cardiff to Borrowdale wasn’t easy – 300 miles was the greatest distance I’d ever ridden in a single day. Because I am American, I decided to take the motorway. Because this is Britain, I spent nine hours crawling through work zones and narrowly avoiding death at the hands of inattentive BMW drivers. When I finally arrived at my hostel in the Lake District, I was so tired I almost fell off my bike.

I started riding in Britain when I got sick of driving – narrow roads, too many roundabouts, too much traffic – and sold my car for scrap. What I didn’t process, though, was that something was missing in my life: a something I can’t really define. I need to go.

“Go where?” my wife used to ask. I don’t know. Nowhere. Anywhere. I just need to be going there.

Maybe it’s an American thing: our fanatical devotion to the concept of freedom. Without it, I felt miserable. I’ve never been the world’s most emotionally stable person, but without the solace of movement I slipped deeper and deeper down the well. And all those cliches that celebrities have ghost-written into their autobiographies? I’ve been there. I’ve practiced tying knots. I’ve enjoyed the view from high bridges. So I started riding bikes.

Despite my numerous delays, I arrive at my hotel with plenty of daylight left to clean and lube the bike’s chain. Because I am the sort to over-prepare I have brought a torque wrench with me to adjust the chain. Because I ride a Honda there will be no need to use it. The late afternoon sun is strong enough that I strip down to just two layers and sweat as I work on the bike.

I choose a route back that will take me through Northumberland National Park. As soon as I’m south of Edinburgh the road is delightful. The cold of the wind is cutting across this barren landscape but there is something about the space that makes my heart jump.

The roads of Northumberland are incredible. I’m able to hit everything at speed and see all the way through the curve; there are no hedgerows or trees to block my view.

Next day I pick up the A483 and it feels like a victory lap. South of Newtown the road gets stupid curvy. All those “best biker roads” books mention this stretch. In the United States, a road like this would be given an ominous name like “Devil’s Highway” or “Widow’s Alley.” In Wales, it is the A483. Swooping, diving, leaning, accelerating, pushing toward home I feel connected. To the bike, the road, this place, and my place within it all. Connected, not confined. There are no stops, no limitations. This piece of metal, this secondhand Japanese machine, will take me anywhere I want to be. I am free.


"Adventure is Whatever Makes You Feel Alive"

Bear Grylls is leaning against a dry-stone wall munching an apple, England’s green, rolling fields stretching to the horizon before him. The beautiful setting might not hold the adrenalin charge of Death Valley, the jungle or the Australian Outback, but that matters little to one of Britain’s best known adventurers.

“The other day, I jumped on my Tiger to pick up one of the kids. The sun was shining, I had a favourite tune playing and it was one of those moments where you just feel so grateful to be alive. That in itself is what adventure is about for me – doing things that make you feel alive – in the best sense of the word,” he said, relaxing briefly during filming for Triumph’s No Ordinary Adventure Bike campaign.

The father-of-three’s self-awareness and dedication to his family ensure he gets the most out of life’s smaller joys despite his stardom. “I’m just an ordinary guy who likes to get out on his bike. Yes, my job puts me in a few extreme situations, but we can all find great adventures in our lives.

“It’s about pursuing those tangible beats in time when everything just comes together, when the concentration and focus that bikes demand mean you’re not worrying about yesterday or tomorrow. When it’s all about the moment.”

Bear – his real name is Edward, which became Teddy and then Bear – didn’t hesitate when the opportunity arose to work with Triumph and ride the new Tiger XC. “I love Triumph’s heritage and Englishness, and that’s why it’s always my Tiger or Trophy that I go to first. The Tiger is built for adventure but it’s versatile too, whereas for longer road journeys the Trophy is in a class of its own.

“Bikes have always played a big part in my life. I have always loved the feeling of being alone and riding. When you’re on an adventure, there are enough other things to worry about, so I need to know that the gear I have is going to work. You get that assurance with a Triumph.”

When Hollywood star Zac Efron [ask your kids – Ed] became the current series of Running Wild With Bear Grylls’ first victim – sorry, volunteer – he captured the essence of everything his survival guru believes bikes do for him without even knowing it. After jumping from a helicopter and rappelling down a 150ft waterfall, the High School Musical star said: “I haven’t thought about one thing today apart from what I’m doing and where I am at this moment, and I think that’s one of the most beautiful things about nature. Thank you BG.”

That release, Bear insists, is why the perfect escape is only the turn of a key away for every rider: “You don’t need to go to the Himalayas for adventure. It’s right there in front of you every time you climb on a bike. Riding gives me that personal space away
from the cameras and all that work stuff. It gives me a chance to rediscover what really matters in life.”

Adventure bikes, such as the XC, that devour off-road terrain and soak up the miles on a long trip match Bear’s wish list: “I like riding something that allows me to tickle the underbelly of danger without necessarily doing back somersaults through hoops. On
the big adventures I look for a bike that’s trustworthy and that I feel a connection with.”

The former SAS man’s love affair with bikes began as a 16-year-old with a 50cc moped, but he quickly progressed to a 125 and then a 1200cc as a reward to himself for passing selection to the British military elite. One of his first TV programmes was 1994’s Ridge Riders, a documentary about a group of riders who toured England’s historic sites by bike.

“When I’m out filming with the crew and we use all these different all-terrain vehicles and bikes to access places, I’m always first to go for the bikes, riding ahead to scout the route. It is always my favourite time, off camera, alone and pushing into new terrain and new adventures, with great friends beside me.

“I really believe that the only wealth worth having in life is our family and relationships. If you pursue money or fame it will always leave you empty. But shared adventures touch our souls in a way that is hard to describe.”


Peru by Chinese tank

While preparing for a trip to Peru my wife and I stumbled on Chinese-made bikes that not only looked ready for some off-roading but were temptingly cheap. So we bought two 200cc Keeways and had them delivered to Truijllo in Northern Peru, where we would start our journey.

Over the next six weeks we would abuse the bikes horribly but they held up well – so well that we nicknamed them the Chinese Tanks because they could get through anything. First gear, slow and steady, got us over even the trickiest terrain. We did have a few minor issues, usually involving errant bolts and parts going missing along the road, but we soon learned to make checking for loose nuts and bolts a part of a regular routine to keep everything together and the trip running smoothly.

To start with we travelled into the Peruvian Northern Sierra, a diverse mountainous region. Do you want to ride among giant trees showing off so many different shades of green you’d think it was a cartoon? What about endless switchbacks up the side of a mountain you were sure was too steep to climb by road? Or maybe the popular National Park of Huascarán in the Cordillera Blanca, where turquoise lakes and white mountain peaks are served up in boatloads? The good news is it doesn’t matter, you don’t have to choose because Northern Peru has it all within reach and we were keen to sample it all.

We reached the Llanganuco park entrance by dirt road and entered through a narrow valley with vertical rock walls on either side with waterfalls cascading. The natural beauty was surreal. It wasn’t long before we reached Laguna Llanganuco, which is actually a pair of lakes, Chinacocha and Orconcocha that are connected by the glacial river that feeds them. The road through the park passes right beside them and then the road climbs past the lakes and into the mountains, travelling only 15 kilometres to gain 900 metres of elevation to reach the Portachuelo Pass summit. Boy was that intense! Sitting at the viewpoint provides spectacular views.

Riding even deeper into the mountains we approached the Marañón river and were greeted by the ruins of a bridge. Next to it was a steel cable that ran across the river, and a small cage made of wood and steel that made the trip back and forth carrying people and goods. We asked if the cage could take bikes and the answer was yes, though none were as ‘big’ as ours.

The only problem was that the cage was on the other side of the river, and with no signs of life over there our helper seemed out of ideas. An hour later a fisherman came by on his way to the river and volunteered to help. We watched in awe as he slid down a rope dangling from a broken foot bridge to a sandbar in the middle of the river. He walked along the sandbar upstream, then jumped into the strong current and swam to the other bank. The river’s current took him far downstream and we could tell he was using all his swimming skills to reach the other side. Once there he collected the cage and returned.

We loaded one of the bikes but it was too wide to fit in the cage front first. We loaded the rear end of the bike onto the cage with the front wheel hanging in the air, tied it down with some weathered ropes and off the two men went with Naomi’s bike suspended high above the brown rushing waters. Once they were on the other side we watched helpless as they muscled the bike up the steep bank.

The unloading area had less than a metre of room to get the bike off the cage and avoid letting it fall down to the river, 15m below. It was a nerve-wracking 30 minutes as they struggled to get the bike off and up the hill safely. With the experience from the first bike under their belt the transportation of the second bike went much smoother as this time I joined them to help get the bike off the cage at the other side. It was comical having three men plus one bike in the tiny cage fly across the Marañon River. We paid almost double the agreed amount for their efforts and humbly thanked the two men for their help. It took us well over four hours to complete the crossing and would not have succeeded without the help of Pablo and Yonan.

There was no traffic on the other side of the river. The landscape was dry and dusty with small green and red parrots perched atop the cactii. The people we saw as we followed the road ran in fear as the bikes passed. We definitely didn’t look like we were from around there and with the bridge out for several months I doubt much traffic came this way anymore. We stopped to try to ask for directions but the accent of the lady was very strong and she was both scared and shy so I couldn’t make out what she was saying. I don’t blame her as we were wearing strange spaceman outfits with large colourful helmets and tinted goggles. Don’t talk to strangers they say, and we were as strange as they came.

Exploring the mountain road to Chacas through the Huascarán National Park we inquired at the park gate if there was any camping. The guard didn’t seem to have a problem with us but feared for our safety, though we never had any issues camping the entire time we were in Peru. The road was perfectly paved and a dream to ride if you are into switchbacks. We camped at the summit of 4800m, tucked away from view.

The road back down to the coast via Punta Winchus is one of the best in Ancash. It’s a paved single lane track filled with endless switchbacks – pure joy on a bike. Leaving Caraz the road leads up into the Cordillera Negra and at the top of the pass we found one of the very few Puya Raimondi forests left. The Puya Raimondi is the largest pineapple plant in the world. The flower can reach 12 metres in height, and each plant can have 8000 flowers. Unfortunately they only bloom once every 50 to 75 years and we weren’t in luck.

We found camping at the road summit. Once more our trusty Chinese Tanks proved worthy as we went off road, rode up the steep hill and we set up camp at the very top. While relaxing at our camping spot we had panoramic views of the Cordillera Blanca and the Puya Raimondi forest covering the mountain slopes. The morning sunrise was magnificent – all we could see was the outline of the mountains as the morning light silhouetted them, then, little by little, the valley and detail of the mountains was revealed. It was a fantastic end to our trip.