Driven: St Andrews to Paris

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Riding a motorbike that you’ve just bought with your own money for the first time is an experience that stays with you forever. Riding for the first time, you suddenly feel much closer to the concept of ‘the world is your oyster’ and feel that all you need is the open road to have a good time. Motorcycles without a doubt entice a certain sense of freedom and adventure, and I was soon fixated on pushing the miles and limits of this newly established partnership.

Driving down to Paris on my new bike seemed nothing but natural. I was going to be working there for two months, and taking my bike there so that I could commute with it was all the explanation I needed to blackmail some travel money from my disapproving parents.

I ride a naked KTM Duke 125 which means that highways in the UK were out of my reach, however, highways on a motorcycle are dull and boring, and besides, any self-respecting rider takes the back roads whenever they can. I was estimated a travel time of around 22 hours, which I decided to split between two and a half days. My target for the first day was Peterborough, a city just under 500 miles of twisty roads, sore muscles and a broken GPS away. Needless to say, my journey to Paris wasn’t as smooth as I had imagined.

As a young rider, my first mistake was overestimating my own strength and stamina, along with a complete lack of intellect when it came to planning. I decided not to invest in a pannier set, but instead use my regular backpack as a source of storage for various items ranging from tool-kits, laptops and clothes. A combination of a naked bike and a backpack weighing in the double digits soon started to do its’ damage on my shoulders.

The lack of a windshield on my Duke meant that my shoulders and neck absorbed all the brute of the wind and the backpack. Three hours in and the pain started to really kick in. However, three hours in and I had already passed Edinburgh and was just outside of Newcastle enjoying the treat that is A68. The A68 is a beautiful road that has all the twists, climbs and descends to put a bike and a rider through their paces. I enjoyed the A68 to a large extent, and driving such a fantastic road made me appreciate more the fact that I was avoiding the dull highway travel, and I had almost forgotten the pain in my shoulders as well. It is odd how a good road has the ability to make you forget everything apart from the ride. The scenery that divides the Scottish and English border was beautiful, and in a fitting manner, just as I left the borders of Scotland, England greeted me with rain. Wet, cold and generally miserable, the romance of the travel was diminishing as fast my shoulder muscles, and by the time I reached York, I was fully convinced I’d never make it to Paris.

Reaching York was perhaps what could be called the emotional middle-point of my journey (though, distance wise nowhere near) , I was having serious doubts about my decision to ride to Paris as progress was painful and time consuming.  Oddly, the self-doubting dissolved as soon as I hit traffic. While being wet and cold are the norms when touring through the UK on a motorbike, there are a few advantages. Aside from the enormous sex-appeal brought on by the armoured suit and helmet, lane-splitting is another which benefits all riders. Speeding past miles and miles of traffic in the late afternoon, my fatigue disappeared and a smile returned inside the insect covered helmet. The sun had made a comeback and the road suddenly seemed inviting again.  I now abandoned the single carriageways to their faster brethren, the dual carriageways.

Many 125 riders would argue to stay away from the dual carriageways because the 125’s lack the necessary performance to keep up with traffic. Naïve ambition and the best 125 that Austria has to offer made mincemeat of such allegations. The Duke had no trouble pushing past 70 plus mph, I was overtaking slower cars and trucks without a problem. The engine remained cool and balanced, delivering torque when needed, and even when I turned off from the dual carriageways to take smaller roads, the engine and gearbox had no trouble adjusting to different styles of driving after a few hours of full-throttle action. The only thing that fundamentally changed during my journey was my driving style. Leaving St Andrews I rode with my usual grandeur of fast gear shifts, revving the engine into the high RPM’s before a shift, heavy on the brakes and using my body to do most of the steering. Hours later I noticed my accelerations were much smoother, gear changes less aggressive and I used the bike to steer much more. If you want to maintain your energy during such long-trips no need to exhaust yourself in the beginning by pretending you’re in a MotoGP race. Smooth is fast, as they say.

9 hours into the day, and the sign ‘Peterborough 46 miles’ popped up. Rarely has a traffic sign been the catalyst behind frantic jubilation, but in desperation of a hot shower, a cold beer and a comfortable bed, the simple things suddenly become the best of things. 46 miles, bruised shoulders and an ego the size of Everest later I was munching on a greasy burger and a cold beer.
Later, in my hotel room I needed to plan the next days’ travels which meant looking at several maps. My exhaustion and mental tiredness was soon highlighted by my inability to fold the maps back to their smaller forms. The French map turned out to be extremely easy to fold, but the map of the British Isles took me a solid five minutes to suppress, make of that what you will.

The next morning I woke up with partial confusion, part of me was ecstatic that I was undertaking such a fantastic excursion that bonds a man and his ride, but the other dreaded the days riding ahead that only signalled more pain in the shoulders and legs. Nevertheless, I hopped on the bike and started to head for the capital. London turned out be tamer than thought, little traffic and easily navigable meant I was soon passing the city limits with only an hour or so to Dover.

Waiting in line for the ferry I was surrounded by Polish trucks and French cars. A Polish man and his wife were in a van surrounded by cars, second in line, right behind an elderly French couple in a car and a caravan on tow. Upon realising that they were in-fact in the wrong queue and needed to move fast to make it to the other ferry, the Polish couple asked the French couple to move forward to the open area so that they could move past and make it to their actual ferry. The French man must have somehow heard of the submissive nature of French maps, and decided to do his country proud by folding his arms and refusing to move on the basis of principle – there was a security announcement telling cars to stay behind the painted lines and not venture out to the open parking areas. After persuading all of the surrounding cars to move the Polish couple finally made it away, the French couple still right behind the line, now campaigned with a Polish vendetta.  Watching the rest of the Polish truckers swear at the French couple, and give me the nod of approval – it appears that the sex-appeal of these armoured suits bears no bounds – was the last I saw of England as I parted the ferry.

Arriving to Calais in the evening, I started my way towards the next stop of the journey, a hotel in the town of Arras. I rode a literally empty highway for a hundred kilometres enjoying the cool summer evening. I arrived to the hotel just after the bar closed, so the tradition of a cold beer and a burger was replaced by tap-water and a Snickers Bar, however, my mood was still high despite the poor introduction to the delicacies of the French cuisine. After all, I was going to be in Paris the following day, with my Austrian companion, enjoying all that the city has to offer for two months to follow.

Arriving to Paris will be another one of those unforgettable events that will stick with me for some time. Not just because the trip had been long and exhausting but more because of the way traffic transforms in Paris. The most appropriate way of describing how Parisians approach the concept of traffic is as organised chaos. Traffic laws such as lights are respected, but otherwise it’s a free-for-all that those with the most agile vehicles along with sharp reflexes and no sense of self-preservation win. The concept of lane-splitting is respected and adhered to by most cars, but the occasional sadistic van driver that decides to turn right just as you pass him, means you are always on your toes. After an hour of exercising my middle finger and pretending to be in a drag race with every car possible I finally made it to my home for the next few months.

I parked the Duke on one of the many free parking areas for motorcycles, stepped off the bike and marvelled at the capability that this machine has. Whilst not built as a touring bike, it most certainly has the capacity for it in terms of performance. Never was I in a situation that I felt the bike handled inadequately, from the twisty backroads of Scotland to the highways of France, the KTM performed flawlessly and is a true testament to the capabilities that modern 125’s have.

As I took my last glance at the KTM before heading to my apartment, “Summer in the City” by Joe Cocker came on the shuffle in my Ipod, and so the trip was complete, sore muscles included, totally worth it.

Photograph by Nina Kreibich

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