Wednesday, 11 October 2017

Another season over

Last weekend I was doing the last round of the NG championship at Thruxton, mostly in those horrible neither-wet-nor-dry that everyone hates.

First practice was rather damp, but Thruxton has an odd (but immensely grippy) surface where the aggregate sits fairly proud of the asphalt, so it can be soaking wet but there's still no spray, making it rather deceptive. Pretty much everyone was on wets and taking it gently, but someone (and there's always one) who'd opted for a dry rear binned it coming out of the chicane at the end of the first lap.

I was out for race one on the R6 triple, so while the other practice sessions were on I was in the paddock, watching the tarmac for hints of dry patches, and seeing what other people were doing. Conditions were still mixed, with those who'd been on wets coming in muttering about grip and ruined tyres, and switching to dry rubber for their first races, while those who'd been out on dry tyres came in with thousand-yard stares and switched to wets. A combination of laziness and caution meant I decided to stick with the wets for race one - they've done three seasons, they're due for replacement anyway, and the afternoon was forecast to be dry, so ripping up a set of old tyres in the qualifier wouldn't be the end of the world.

If I'd known how long it'd take to get through what should have been six back-to-back ten-minute sessions, I'd have done the wheel swap. By the time race one was called the track was officially damp but in reality pretty much dry, if still cold, and with pretty much everyone else also on wets, a lot of tyres would have gone in the bin after six laps. The overall pace was about ten seconds off what it should have been - rain tyres on a dry track are pretty unpleasant once they warm up - but I brought it home ninth in class after a reasonable tussle with a bloke on a steelie.

Come the start of race eleven, which included the pre-injection 700 final, the track was properly dry and I was itching for my only chance for a full thrash round Thruxton this year. I had another cracking scrap with the bloke on the steelie, swapping places a couple of times each lap - his motor was running like crap at the top end, so my power advantage down the back straight stopped him getting away. But mostly it was good, clean passes. If he ran wide out of Church or Segrave, I nipped past on the inside. And if I'm good at anything it's late-braking, so if I couldn't get past on the straight, I sealed the deal into the final chicane.

All of which saw me finish ninth in class again, with big grins and air punches all round on the cool-down lap. I had a chat with the bloke on the steelie on the way back to the paddock, and we'd both had about as much fun as we'd had all year. Ninth isn't exactly my career best at Thruxton, but there were plenty behind me, and any chance to rag a bike round Thruxton is one to be taken - it's fast like no other circuit in the country, and it's not like it's open for trackdays.

So that's it for 2017. Twelfth in the final championship standings, down from seventh the previous two years, but I skipped a couple of rounds I couldn't be arsed to do, and the pace this year was high. I cut four seconds off my lap time at Cadwell, and still finished last in class in three races!

The bike's now tucked up in the garage, where it'll fester til I can be arsed to change the oil after winter. I'm told the average club racing career lasts for three years, and that was my third season. Since I've no intention of hanging up my leathers just yet, I'm finally above average at something! As long as the bike's still running, and I've got the cash, it looks like I'll still be racing.

Now, anyone want to buy some knackered kneesliders?

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Playing with the big boys

So here I am, a little over halfway through my first season of road racing. Regular readers (if there are any) may remember I had my first outing at Cadwell Park in April, having missed the first two rounds at Brands Hatch in March after a bit of overexcitement while testing the bike at Cadwell a weekend earlier. Hurt my wallet more than anything, but allowed Mark to open up a championship lead over me early on.

What have I learnt over the last few months? Well, for one, that I'm pretty rubbish. Being lapped by the front-runners has become something of a fact of life, and once I'd got the circuit I know best (Cadwell) out of the way the last-lap board became little more than a distant memory. For another, that trackdays taught me nothing about racing. They taught me plenty about trackcraft - how to throw a bike around to get it to go round a circuit at a reasonable pace, which has very, very little to do with riding a bike on the road. But racecraft? That, it turns out, is another thing altogether.

After Cadwell came Oulton Park. I'd been to Oulton a few times for trackdays. My first trip was pretty much a write-off due to being put in the novice group and not moving up when I should have done. My second was ended after one session by a fatality, and my third ended after four sessions with me on my arse and the bike on its side. A bit of a mixed bag. As to the racing, not much to report - I only had two races, it being a one-day event, and achieved little more than collecting a signature for a finish, putting me one step closer to losing the novice jacket.

Next up was Castle Combe. This was a circuit I'd never seen before, let alone ridden. They do run trackdays, around once a month, but noise limits are fearsomely strict and even standard road bikes fail at times. This ruled out using the race bike, so I took the mirrors off my trusty old gixer thou and booked a day of practice. It wouldn't teach me much about riding an R6 round the circuit, but would at least let me learn whether it went right or left at each corner. And it'd be a day ragging the gixer round a circuit - some things just have to be done.

Because I'd never ridden the circuit before, I had to go to a novice briefing and was obliged to wear a natty blue jacket while out on track, to let people know this whole riding-on-a-track thing was new to me. Alright, not obliged, more recommended, but I thought it'd give me a chance to showboat past the photographer and get a happily ironic photo with my bib on.

Showboating as a novice at Castle Combe

If I learnt anything from that trackday, it was that road rubber was no longer going to be good enough. I'd been using Michelin Pilot Supersport tyres on the gixer for a couple of years, and always found them up to the job, but every time I took the right-hander at Folly, doing the thick end of 140mph, I could feel the bike skipping sideways. Not sliding, not at one end, both ends skipping across the tarmac, taking me towards the outside of the bend. I'd been using the same rubber on the R6, to keep the tyre bills down, but the time had come to start spending money, and I swapped the Michelins for a set of Metzeler Racetec RRs, full-blown race rubber, second only to slicks.

Castle Combe only sees one bike racing event each year - the Motorcycle Grand National, for which NGRRCC provides the bulk of the racing. Also on the schedule would be the British F2 sidecar championships, featuring all the big names from the TT podiums, and the Lansdowne Classic series, with big names from the past riding fifty year old GP bikes. Making room for those meant compressing the schedule, and that meant losing the Newcomer races and merging the PI700 class with Streetstocks. The former meant one less race over the weekend, which I was happy to trade for being able to race in front of a decent crowd, and the latter meant sharing a grid with 48 other bikes - a somewhat daunting prospect when starting 45th on the grid. That's a lot of bikes to dodge when trying to get a good start, and a lot of bikes piling into the first corner.

Getting lapped, and trying hard not to be

The weather was, on the whole, pretty good, but my results were pretty dreadful, crowned with a personal low in the last race of the weekend. Fluids on the track meant an extended wait on the grid and a second warm-up lap, and by the time the red lights went out my bladder was full to bursting. Unable to focus on the race (look, this is my excuse and I'm sticking to it) I found myself crossing the line in flat-out last place, and the only bike on the grid to be lapped. Still, at this level finishes are finishes, and I picked up two more signatures, putting me halfway to a Clubman licence. Despite the results, two days' racing is still two days' racing, and I drove the van home on Sunday evening sublimely happy and ready to put my entry for the next round in the post.

I also left with one glimmer of hope - wet practice times. From my first time using rain tyres on a wet trackday at Oulton Park, I knew I was happy to push in the wet. Almost happier than pushing in the dry. This was backed up by my times from wet practice sessions - whereas dry sessions would see me bringing up the rear, around 14 seconds behind the fastest in my class, wet sessions would see me close that gap by up to ten seconds. Nobody really wants to be labelled a Wet Weather Specialist, but with no other specialism I was happy to play the Ant West card if the opportunity arose.

First day on rain tyres

The next round would be at Thruxton, which only sees four race events a year - two for cars (British Touring Car and BARC) and two for bikes (British Superbike and NG). Beyond that it's used for little but car experience days - there are no trackdays, so if you want to ride a bike there, the only option is to go racing. This was one of the reasons I wanted an ACU licence. The fastest circuit in the country? Let me at it!

Friday started badly with heavy rain and I arrived in the paddock two hours later than intended. Scrutineering had already started, so I threw up my shelter as quickly as I could, removed the sidestand from the bike and pushed it over to the scrutineering shed. At the first round the procedural side of racing - scrutineering and sign-on - was completely new to me. I had no idea what I was doing, had no confidence the bike would be fit to race, and was a bit of a rabbit in headlights. Four meetings later and it's a different story. No more than half an hour later the bike and my riding gear had passed inspection, I was signed on and I had my practice card for the first session on Saturday morning.

Apart from setting up in the paddock and getting an early night, I had one other thing to do: walk the circuit. This being my first visit to Thruxton, and there being no way to ride the circuit beforehand, my first time on track would be timed practice on Saturday morning. I'd watched some onboard videos on Youtube, but all that'd done was scare me silly. I was properly nervous about Thruxton, and watching laps of BSB races wasn't the right way to improve matters.

The track walk was very useful - in the company of a couple of experienced racers, we spent an hour or so walking round the circuit, making a note of kerbs and apexes, and memorising which way it went at each corner. Even for an airfield circuit (with a live airport in the centre), Thruxton is featureless and offers very little to use as markers for braking and turn-in. Fortunately there aren't many places where braking is needed - with a couple of exceptions it's mostly a case of "how big are your balls", with vast sections taken at full throttle with the bike on its side. By the end of the walk the circuit no longer felt threatening, and I got an early night feeling fairly confident.

First practice on Saturday morning was a little different. A bend that feels comfortable at walking pace is a different matter with 155mph on the speedo. My times from practice weren't going to set the world alight, with a best of 1:44.24, but they were coming down with each lap and the bike was working perfectly. And I'd had the chance to ride Thruxton. As I said at the time, that alone made every penny I'd spent racing feel worth it. And it's a lot of pennies.

The rest of the day was mostly the same old story - I was able to keep other bikes in sight for the first lap or two, and then watched them vanish into the distance. At the end of lap four I saw the last-lap board, which meant I was going to be able to finish full race distance. I took the chequered flag without being passed, and the results showed I'd knocked five seconds off my lap time from practice, a best of 1:39.31. I had only done twelve laps of the circuit in total - including one on foot and one warm-up lap at near-race pace. The second race saw me put in a best lap of 1:38.76 and collect a handful of championship points. With another signature and another nibble into Mark's championship lead, I looked to the sky and prayed for rain.

The last race of the day was the Open Newcomers, for anyone on a bike over 500cc who'd been racing less than two years. At my first meeting, this was my highlight. This time I can't really remember much about it, but I put in a 1:37.86, my fastest lap of the weekend.

The forecast for Sunday was rain. Biblical rain. The kind of rain that makes people build boats and load them with animals two-by-two. And, luckily for me, the forecast was spot on. The day started with wind and heavy, diagonal rain, which stopped just minutes before third practice, when I was due on track. That meant the circuit would be soaking wet, but with no rain, which is pretty much my idea of perfection. The results, at first glance, told a different story. 17 seconds off the pace at the front. But a closer look showed me only 7 seconds off the pace in my class. Things looked promising.

The qualifiying race was a revelation. Rather than watch the pack run off into the distance, I found I could stick with them. Not just for the first lap, but for the second and third. And then I was closing the gap. For the last three laps I was tagged to the three bikes in front and had a chance to measure them up, work out where I was stronger and they were weaker, while watching them come close to disaster into the final chicane, enough distance between us that I could avoid the fallout and pick up a place or two if things went wrong. On the last lap I took a different line through the last turn of the complex, drove out of the corner, and passed bike 41 in front. He'd finished 31 seconds ahead of me in the qualifying race on Saturday, but had been slower than me in wet practice and now I was ahead. But not for long - he dived past me again into the next corner and the pack of four bikes crossed the line a quarter of a second apart. For most of the cool-down lap I was laughing inside my helmet, cackling with glee. For the first time I'd had an actual race, rather than an extended practice session; I'd had a chance to size up the bike in front, work out where to pass, and made the pass work. But I'd failed to make it stick. But this was progress, real progress. And my best lap was a 1:44.37, as fast as I'd been in practice the previous morning, in the dry.

I turned this slider round before the last race to extend its life. It didn't last long.

The second race on Sunday was the last of the day, and the last of the weekend. Buoyed by my performance in the qualifier, I was itching to get out and see what I could do in the championship race. So long as I could get a reasonable start, and keep the pack in sight over the first couple of laps, I stood a chance. And so it was - lights out, first lap done, and head down. On lap 3 I passed 41 again, and this time I was determined to make it stick, taking defensive lines into each corner to make sure he couldn't dive inside me again to take the place back. This meant compromising the chase to the next bike, but I knew from the earlier race that I stood a chance of closing the gap. Half a lap later I glanced over my shoulder and 41 was nowhere to be seen, and I knew I'd pulled it off. That just left the gap to 113 in front.

Corner by corner I closed the gap down, and spent a couple of laps watching to see where he was strong and where I might be able to make a pass. On the last lap I knew what I had to do - carry more speed through Church, the last fast right-hander, and use that speed to draw level on the final straight, a flat-out sixth-gear left kink leading to the final chicane. As I exited the corner I could see he wasn't pulling away, despite being ahead, and as we passed through the kink I was alongside. That just left the chicane. In near zero-visibility with the spray, on a soaking wet track, I left it to the absolute last moment before hauling on the front brake, and immediately thought I'd made a terrible mistake. From roughly 145mph to under 30 in a matter of yards, I might scrub the speed but there was no way I was going to make it through the corner. But I was wrong - I just managed to haul the bike up, throw it in right, throw it back left, throw it right again, and I was onto the finish straight. In the wrong gear, with no drive, this would be all about the dash to the line, so I stamped down the box, whacked the throttle open and ducked behind the screen to take the chequered flag.

And that was it - I'd made another pass stick. Sixth place, my best ever result, beating seventh by half a second, and with a best and final lap of 1:38.87. Only a tenth of a second off my best time in the dry the day before, and only four seconds off the pace of the class winner, and almost six seconds faster than my previous best in the wet. A huge improvement over anything I'd done before.

It turns out I have bollocks after all. Big ones, when they're needed. And oh god isn't racing fun when you're doing it properly?

Next up, Anglesey. Another circuit I've never seen before. Suffice to say, I shall being doing my best rain dance.

Results here and here.

Monday, 13 April 2015

First time racer

Well, that's it. Something I'll never be able to do again: last weekend I did my first race. Was it worth the time, money and effort? Was it fun? Everything I hoped it'd be? We'll come to that.

Seven months ago, in September 2014, somebody planted the idea in my head. Stop playing games. Endless trackdays. Do it properly. Go racing. November saw my ACU test done and licence arrive, December saw an extra bike in the garage and after many, many evenings, weekends and grazed knuckles in the garage, by March I had something roughly like a race bike. And then, the weekend before I was due to race for the first time, I crashed it while testing at a trackday. Cue a couple of frantic weeks of repair work and shopping for parts, ending with yet another bike in the garage being cannibalised for parts over Easter. Entry in, van booked, repairs done, and ready for another go.

Friday started early, picking up and then loading the van, and by lunchtime I was on the road. Cadwell Park is a long slog from south west London, six hours' drive in traffic, and after a lively dash down some single-track roads to avoid jams I parked up in the paddock at next to Mark's tent. Mark is the cousin of a friend of mine, and the three of us are all racing for the first time this season, all in the pre-injection 700 championship class with North Glos racing. Not superbikes and not MZs, it's a keen but relatively cheap class to play in, and not a bad place to start.

I had just enough time to unload the van, sort a few things out and take the bike down for scrutineering. I'd spent the week leading up to the event waiting for the nerves to kick in. They didn't appear until Thursday evening, and it was nothing to do with the race itself. I'd converted the road bike myself, with some professional help with the engine, and the ACU Road Race rulebook is long and detailed. My main worry wasn't that I'd get hurt or look like an idiot on track, it was that scrutes wouldn't let me race the bike at all.

My fears proved unfounded, with just a minor grumble about hollow tips on the foot pedals and plastic dustcaps on the tyre valves instead of metal ones. I promised to sort them out and that was it, my technical control card was signed. A few minutes later my kit had been approved and I was in the race office signing on for the first time. All simple formalities, for the most part, and I've done a lot of trackdays and gone to a lot of races as a (mostly quite drunk) spectator, but as a first-timer at a serious event it was all a bit daunting. Still, job done and I'd pretty much finished setting up in the paddock when my support crew for the weekend started to arrive. Paul (aka Eddie) was going to be around until Saturday afternoon, seeing me through practice and the first race, and Andy and Adie were around most of the weekend. Along with Mark and a few other people I already knew in the paddock, I was far from alone. After a quick dinner in town I got an early and unusually sober night, catching what sleep I could while the wind and rain howled round the shelter.

Saturday started before 7am as I packed up the tent, unloaded the bike from the van and got my head ready for first practice. Each race day starts with short practice sessions to meet ACU rules, and nobody gets to race without doing at least two timed laps. By the time Eddie crawled out of his tent I'd had the bike through noise testing, got the tyre warmers on and was about to get kitted up. And then the rain came back with a vengeance. Practice was going to be wet and windy.

We quickly swapped wheels - everyone has a spare set with rain tyres fitted and I was no exception. And then, minutes before my session was due to start, I noticed two metal tubes on the ground next to the back wheel. Early R6s have an odd arrangement with a roller bearing in the rear wheel, and the inner collar and spacer can easily fall out. That meant there was no inner race on the wheel bearing, so the wheel had to come back out. With perfect timing the wind picked up, and while Eddie and a neighbour fought to stop the shelter flying away, I quickly got to work, helmet on and fully kitted up. As I took the sprocket carrier off I realised I was an idiot - the spacer and collar were from the wheel I'd taken off, not the one I'd put on. I had moments left to fit the wheel, get my gloves on and head down to the assembly area, leaving Eddie to fight against the wind.

Practice felt much like the fast group at a cold, wet trackday, with one big difference - rather than an orderly exit from the assembly area onto the circuit, when the gate opened it was like bulls being let out of a pen. This wasn't playtime anymore. This was serious. And conditions were horrible. The rain had stopped but the circuit was like ice and even rain tyres struggle when stone cold. Coming out of Barn onto the pit straight, as I wound the throttle on, the motor bogged down briefly then came alive, spinning up the rear wheel and lurching it sideways. Taking it steady, I felt for grip and eased myself into the session. Entering the Mountain for the first time the yellow flags were out, and the track was full of marshals picking up a bike laying on its side halfway up the slope. My head wasn't quite in the right place after the last-minute panic in the paddock and the weather wasn't helping, but I needed the practice - my last visit had ended in the crash that ruled me out of racing at Brands the month before - so I stayed out for the session and tried to get comfortable. At the time I felt tense and slow, and my times were nothing to shout about, but looking at the results now they were actually relatively OK - 18th of 30, ahead of some who would demolish me in the dry later on.

Session over, I parked up in the paddock, added enough fuel to see me through the next race, and got busy cooking bacon rolls for breakfast. Racing, it turns out, is a bit like being a gerbil - hours of doing nothing punctuated by short bursts of frenzied activity. With practice over by 10am, and my first race not til around 2pm, I had time to kill, and it was mostly spent walking round the paddock looking at other people thinking the same thing: what the hell was the weather going to do, and what tyres would we need? Fortunately the rain held off, and the rest of the day was cold and windy, but dry. After what seemed like an eternity, the call came over the paddock tannoy - race 9 to the assembly area. It was time to pop my racing cherry.

I've ridden into the assembly area at Cadwell 80 or 90 times over the years for trackday sessions, but it never really meant anything, just a bit of fun. This felt different. At the gate I was told my grid position, which I already knew from the entry list in the programme. The first ten places go in championship order, and the rest are sorted by the postman - the last person to get their entry in goes at the back of the grid, and that was me in 15th place. Or, at least, I thought it was. The gate opened and we rode onto the circuit and down to the grid, where I took up my place at the back. There were no numbers by the markings so I stopped at the back and looked at the gaps ahead, wondering which idiot was in the wrong place. I hadn't realised four more had entered too late to get in the programme, and I was one row back from where I should have been. Still, I didn't mind - it was my first race, starting from the back would just mean nobody carving past me on the way to the first corner. And so the green flag was waved and we were off for the warmup lap. Warmup is meant to be taken at near race pace, and I quickly realised I'd missed a rare chance for a practice start as we took a lap at a pace that would terrify a novice at a trackday but felt quite comfortable on a circuit I knew well, and which was now completely dry.

I barely had time to react as the lights came on, almost wondering where everyone else was off to when they moved. But that was it. Lights out. Go. Go! GO! I watched as most of the pack screamed off ahead of me, took the first couple of corners carefully to avoid trouble, and then got my head down. I passed Mark towards the end of the back straight and spent the rest of the race trying to stay ahead of the bike I could hear behind me through every corner. I counted the laps down, pushing as hard as I could despite feeling tense and nervous, knowing this was the same circuit, bike, tyres and weather that had seen me on my arse just weeks before. Five laps, four, three, two, one, over the Mountain for the last time, through the last corner and I was across the line. That was it. My first finish. I was officially a racer. And I was completely exhausted. Sitting around all morning, the wind howling, too tense to eat or drink, I was dehydrated and tired, rookie mistakes. But I'd finished a race. I wasn't last. I hadn't been lapped. One off the bucket list. Job done.

Well, not quite done, there were two races to go before teatime. Four hours later, after ten more races and a few delays, the call came again. This time I was 16th on the grid - results in the first race deciding the grid for the second - and having started 18th in the first by mistake, I was two places up. I found the right spot, was ready for the lights and got away. Not a good start, but could have been worse, made up one place, and got to work. Another difference from a trackday - the pace is relentless, every corner counts, every straight matters, no time to relax, no chance to check your head after an iffy corner. I felt better than the earlier race, quicker, less tense, but everyone else seemed quicker still, and after I glanced back to see a bike behind me. I thought I was about to be lapped, and foolishly backed off a little, waiting, and then saw the bike I'd kept at bay in the previous race shoot past and start to pull a gap. I couldn't quite keep up, but a target to chase helped me focus and I tried to keep the bike in sight for the rest of the race. Last lap. Two corners to go and yellow flags warned me that Mark was on the grass at the old Hairpin. Last corner. Pit straight. On the gas. Chequered flag and in. I wasn't last again, I'd been passed by a slower bike, but I'd beaten an R1 and it wasn't a novice either. And this was a race that counted - the first had been a qualifier but this was a race with championship points. More importantly, it was worth a signature for my record card - I had the first of the ten I needed to lose my novice jacket and move up a grade to Clubman.

The schedule meant I'd have two races to rest, take a drink, refuel and be ready for the last race of the day. But the weather and delays over the day meant we'd run out of time, and the remaining races would have to wait til the morning. It was time to pack up, open a beer and relax after a long day. Suddenly I felt hungry - all day I'd been trying to force down morsels of food, a biscuit here, a mini sausage roll there, my hollow stomach crying out for me to eat but the constant background adrenaline meaning I had no appetite. But with the racing over I was only too happy to head up the paddock to Andy and Adie's pikey palace for a meat feast on the barbecue.

Sunday started early again, but the still weather overnight meant I'd got more sleep and had a clear head for my second day as a racer. The extra races meant a compressed schedule and fewer sessions for practice. I started the bike to warm the engine up, got changed into my leathers, and then noticed the oil light. The bike has a known fault on one cylinder and drinks oil, and I'd forgotten to check it the night before. The R6 has a dipstick rather than a sight glass, and lockwire means everything takes longer, so I had to work quickly to top up the oil, re-check it, and re-do the lockwire on the dipstick and filler cap before getting my lid and gloves on, warmers off, the bike off its stands and getting out for practice.

Dry practice was less grim than the previous day but I was low on fuel and only got three timed laps before pulling in, bottom of the timesheet. I didn't have long to get more fuel, hydrate myself and get ready for the Newcomer race, postponed from the day before. The Newcomer races are open to anyone already entered in another class with less than two years' experience, and is mostly novices. With two races merged there was a wide mix of machines and abilities, with everything from teenagers on 30 horsepower 125s at the back to cutting-edge 200+ horsepower superbikes at the front. I clearly wasn't going to be troubling the front runners at my pace on a bike from the last century, and the quick guys were faster than the winners in my main class, but the grid was full and I was in the middle. Lights out, full throttle, up from first to second, and then the gearbox jammed, I couldn't change up. I backed off, hooked third as a few bikes passed me, and joined the eight-abreast fray in the first corner. The bike in front, a GSXR750 I'd been stuck behind in practice, did something - moved, slowed, I can't remember what, and I backed off slightly to avoid it. The bike behind me came alongside, there was contact, a clunk, the bike shook, and I looked down to see my clutch lever pointing skywards. With bikes close either side I bashed the lever back down, held a line, and two corners later the pack stretched out along the back straight, faster bikes vanishing over the crest in the distance.

I spent the next few laps hunting down the slower bikes that had got ahead of me at the start. First a VFR400, then a trio of SV650 Minitwins, catching them slowly through the corners, faster along the straights, and finally diving past on the brakes. My first chance to put in proper overtakes, helped a bit by a power advantage, the first two races having given me time to get my head up to speed and the first day nerves having mostly dissipated. As I pulled up in the paddock and got the bike on its stand, I actually bounced up and down with joy. I hadn't troubled the front but, again, I hadn't been lapped, I'd put in some clean passes, beaten some bigger and quicker bikes, and, crucially, the postponement meant I'd got a finish under my belt before lunchtime and was eligible for a second signature towards my licence. That was it, mission accomplished - two days, two signatures and a fifth of the way towards Clubman.

A couple of hours later it was time for the second pre-injection qualifier. Again, due to the compressed schedule, races had been merged, our bikes being bumped down the grid by the Open 600 class at the front. Those boys are quick, some using the club races to keep busy between national championship rounds. I'd done the maths and with them lapping 25 seconds faster than me, I knew I was going to be caught after about five laps, and be caught hard. With that in mind, I made up a couple of places at the start, fighting the gearbox again, and settled down into the race. Five laps in I glanced back and saw what I'd been expecting, took a steady line through Barn and onto the straight and watched as the leader shot past me like I was standing still. The second and third came through soon after as I tipped in at Charlies, the first diving inside me at the apex as I held my line in case the other came round the outside. One more lap and in. Another finish, 7th in class.

As the day passed, the wind picked up again, and as race 18 was called the rain started again. As with the day before, the question would be whether it would pass quickly or settle in, and with us out as race 19 there wasn't much time to change tyres. Within a few minutes the wind was howling and the rain was horizontal. The thought of trying to hold a line in those conditions with the fast boys screaming past just didn't appeal. I had a signature for the day, so the only reason to go out would be to pick up a few points to challenge Mark, as he'd not yet missed a championship race. Discretion being the better part of valour, I called it a day, loaded the van with Eddie's help, and went to watch the horror from the warmth of the clubhouse. For the first half of the race I almost regretted not going out, as the rain had almost stopped and the conditions looked no worse than I've endured at trackdays, but then the wind picked back up and I knew I'd made the right call, confirmed when Mark graciously declined the chance to open up his points lead over me. His bike threw him off at the end of the back straight. Two crashes in two days, you couldn't say he wasn't trying.

The day over, and the van loaded, I hit the road for the 200 miles or so home. By 11pm I'd piled everything I could put indoors at the bottom of the stairs, everything I couldn't in the garage, and crawled into bed, physically exhausted.

So, the money, the time, the effort. Fun? The first day was just hard work. I barely had a chance to enjoy myself in the races because the last-minute changes in the paddock, the sensory overload of the grid, the relentless pace and the sense of seriousness compared to a trackday, wore me out. I knew I must be having an OK time, because at the end of each race I was looking forward to the next one, but I was nervous, tense and quickly tired.

But the Newcomer race on the Sunday, that was spot on. It turns out all I need to have fun is a load of people on bikes that are slower than mine. Targets I can catch. But it's early days, and it takes more to go fast than power in a straight line. And I have eight more signatures to get before I can ditch this silly orange jacket. Pass me that entry form. I think I need to do this again.

Thursday, 1 August 2013

Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Istanbul or Bust - A Long Way Home

We were about to leave Bosnia (new readers might want to begin here) and there was quite a queue to get to the border. Not because the process was arduous but because some idiot had tried to drive round a truck on the bridge over the river that divided the two countries, and nothing could go anywhere. As the traffic eventually started to move and we rode away, a Bosnian border guard walked over and tapped on the offending driver's window. I got the impression one of them had all day to kill, and the other was in a bit of a hurry. It was almost poetry.

Crossing the bridge, we arrived at the Croatian border post. When we'd started this trip Croatia was a candidate for EU membership. By the time we got there it was a full-fledged member which meant no hassle with customs, just a quick glance at my passport and the usual quizzical look at my vehicle paperwork.The woman in the booth demanded it, then clearly had no idea what she was looking at, and shooed me away.

This would be where the group first split. We'd all intended to ride to Bardonecchia, near the French border in Italy, and Steve couldn't quite bear the prospect of a 550 mile day riding across Croatia, Slovenia and Italy. He also wanted to pop in to San Marino, thereby adding another country to his tally and guaranteeing two 600 mile days instead. Sometimes I wonder about people. I needed to be home a day earlier than Mark and Simon, and the prospect of riding to Bardonecchia and then doing 700 miles the next day to get home filled me with dread, so I'd decided to skip Italy and split a direct route over two days. But we had another destination in mind first, so we shook hands with Steve, waved him off and made a move for our final stop in Yugoslavia.

Simon, through his job, had got to know a chap, Dalibor, who was his Croatian counterpart. We'd been invited to stay at his summer house near Bjelovar, just east of the capital, Zagreb. Our host for the night had arranged for friends from two local bike clubs to join us for a barbecue and general biker-lifestyle piss-up, and it seemed like a pretty good deal. The 80 mile ride from the border introduced us to the Croatian approach to speed limits, which seemed to involve putting up random signs at random intervals with random limits that everyone comprehensively ignores. With 50k limits through the countryside, followed by 80k limits through towns, I opted for the tried-and-tested approach of latching onto a local for a bit, before giving up and just riding at whatever speed felt appropriate.

Before long we arrived in Bjelovar where Dalibor was waiting to lead us into the town centre to grab a coffee and meet his friends. We all introduced ourselves, had a drink and got chatting, sometimes directly, sometimes with one of the English-speakers acting as interpreter. Once everyone had turned up we went back to the bikes and followed our host in his car to a nearby village where we were spending the night. It quickly became apparent that what I thought was blatant disregard for speed limits had been small-fry compared to that shown by the locals, and in no time we were parked up and the beer was flowing..

We were soon adopted by two patch-wearing bike clubs, and with the beer flowing we were able to overcome all language barriers. The same trick had worked well for us everywhere we'd been and this was no exception. To give an idea of the scale of our trip, I dug out my full set of Michelin maps for every country we'd been to and spread them out on some wooden decking.

Even Genghis Khan didn't sweep across a continent that fast

To be honest, with them spread out before us, even I was surprised at the scale of our venture. I know people do longer trips, but as a first time out east, with a tight timescale, it felt like we'd gone a bloody long way. By that point it was something like 5600km in twelve days' riding, fairly respectable considering we'd hardly seen a motorway or dual carriageway in Europe since we'd left Hungary ten days earlier. Our host explained, somewhat tongue in cheek, that for his club a typical ride would be more like 50km, followed by a six hour lunch, and another 50km home. Not so different to the UK really, and the kind of thing that some of our group had seemed like they'd prefer at times, but a world apart from what we'd been doing.

Wine followed beer and with the wine came a cracking meal. Our hosts did themselves proud, and I thoroughly enjoyed what I knew would be my last night of the trip as part of a group. All too soon it was time for people to head home, and once again we realised we'd been the only ones hitting the bottle. With yet another long day ahead we headed straight off get some sleep.

I looked at my satnav before hitting the sack, and told it to take me home. I looked again in the morning. It was Saturday, and I was somewhere east of Zagreb in Croatia. Home was 1124 miles away, a good 1800km on top of the 5600 I'd already done. And I had to be at work in London on Monday morning. This was going to be a tough gig.

Estimated arrival, 4pm. Tomorrow.

We'd planned to be moving around 8am, so we were up early and had just finished packing our luggage when Dalibor arrived to make us breakfast. I can never really manage food that early in the morning, but Simon and Steve happily tucked into ham and eggs while I mainlined coffee to try and get myself in a fit state to ride. Only a little later than planned, we hit the road, making a quick stop for fuel before heading for the motorway.

A hundred miles or so later we stopped for fuel and vignettes for Slovenia. Like Austria, Slovenia charges to use its motorways, and for small vehicles they do it the right way: you have to buy a sticker. I had a minor panic when the the alarm on my bike failed to disarm. I pressed the button on the fob, nothing happened. I pressed the button on the spare fob, still nothing happened. I was a long way from home, had no time to lose, and this was the last thing I needed. Mark suggested I try pushing the bike away from the building, which caused the alarm to go off several times, but eventually did the trick, and with another press of the button I was set to go. Panic over, time to hit the road.

Our next stop was the Slovenian border, which only a few days before had been the boundary between the EU and the outside world. Now it was just another border within the union, and there was a sense that a lot of bored people manning their posts suddenly had not a lot to do. Just outside Ljubljana I pulled off the motorway again. We were approaching the point where I'd split off and head north to Austria, while Mark and Simon would go straight on to Italy. After shaking hands and generally congratulating each other on a job well done, we rode to the next junction, and I peeled off.

I'm not ashamed to say that moment was quite emotional. I was still 1005 miles from home, and was now on my own, after spending quite possibly the best two weeks of my life with some good friends. But I was also now free to ride at a pace that the other bikes would have found challenging, keep my stops as short as possible, and bring that distance down to something less intimidating.

Travelling companions

Somewhere around Bled I stopped for fuel again, and while parked up a bike appeared beside me with a Belgrade plate. I got chatting to the rider, a Serbian on his way to Munich, and since I was going the same way he asked if I wanted to ride together. I was torn for a moment, because having just split off on my own this was likely to slow me down, and I had a long way to go, but I wondered how often I'd find myself in Slovenia with a random Serb asking me if I wanted to go for a ride. Besides, it'd be useful to have someone around if I ran into any problems, and he seemed like a nice enough chap, so we set off as a pair towards the Austrian border. We were back inside the Schengen area, so the only sign we'd entered a new country was the toll booths for a tunnel through the mountains that had clearly doubled as the border post in years gone by.

We stopped once for fuel in Austria, and the stops are the times when it's good to have company. I don't mind riding alone, but it can be a bit boring when there's nobody to talk to when off the bike. From Austria we crossed into Germany, and it struck me that if one new country a day over the previous week had felt excessive, one country an hour was just taking the piss.

Before too long we were nearing Munich, and I pulled off the motorway to say goodbye to my temporary travelling companion. It was time to get my head down, make the most of roads with no speed limit, and get miles done. I still had a long way to go, and I told myself that if I could at least get to Stuttgart then the next day would be a little less painful. We swapped email addresses, shook hands and I let rip with the KTM's throttle and shot off into the distance. The Autobahn was, as usual, infested with roadworks, but in the clear sections I held a steady 95-100mph. I also have a large sportsbike, a GSXR1000, which only really sees track use these days. On that bike, those speeds would have been a doddle, almost too slow. On a bouncy supermoto, loaded with luggage, it took commitment. It did the job though, and the miles started to tick down. I stopped only for fuel, and allowed myself a single coffee and a few squares of chocolate about a hundred miles short of Stuttgart. I tweeted at each stop, counting the distance, to reassure myself that I was making progress. 6096km, 6406km and, by early evening, 6640km. I'd made it across the Rhine and into the fifth country of the day, France.

To say I felt shattered would be the understatement of the century. By the time I parked up outside a Campanile in Hagenau, north of Strasbourg, I was ready to drop and the sheer sustained concentration had left my mind in a very strange place. After two weeks in places I'd only ever seen on on tv, France felt almost like home. I tweeted at the time:
France is my 15th country in 15 days and it feels overwhelmingly familiar. I think this trip might have been a little bit life-changing. 
Either that or I'm just so tired I'm going mental. Probably a bit of both.
A little later I posted a few more words:
Yesterday morning I was in Bosnia. Last night I was drinking with a bunch of patch-wearing bikers in Croatia. Today I rode just over 1000km from Croatia to France via Slovenia, Austria and Germany, about 200 miles of which were with a Serbian chap on a Z750 who I bumped into after splitting from my friends in Slovenia to come home.

Yesterday Bosnia, today Strasbourg. I'm having trouble digesting it all, to be honest. Got a bit emotional earlier when I split from the group, over a thousand miles from home, in a country I'd never seen before - not worried, just... this has been one hell of a trip.

Only 500 miles to do tomorrow. And then work on Monday morning. Adjusting to normal life is going to take some effort.
The restaurant at the hotel was closed but I'd spotted a place opposite which looked like it might be OK, Les Pins. One quick shower later I had a table to myself at a busy restaurant and when the waiter asked what I'd like I had only one answer: a very, very large beer. The food was fantastic and should I ever be around there again, it'll be top of my list of places to go back to.

As soon as I'd eaten, I went straight back to the hotel to go to bed. I was exhausted and dropped off to sleep as soon as my head hit the pillow. When I woke up in the morning, after a sound night's sleep, I was still almost 500 miles from home but only had one country left to cross. I was also now free to get moving straight away, so packed my things, checked out of the room, and hit the road.

The distance to home now tumbled, as I roared along the autoroute towards Calais, stopping every hundred miles as usual for fuel and a quick coffee. With a couple of hours left to go I used my phone to book a tunnel crossing and by 4pm I was standing next to my bike on the train chatting to another chap about our respective journeys. He'd only been riding a year and had just done a tour round Germany on his 650 V-Strom. When I told him where I'd been, and how long we'd been away, I got that look, the one I'd seen on people's faces every day. It'd been one hell of a journey.

By early evening I was home, the contents of my luggage strewn across the floor, and a cold beer in front of me as I contemplated what I'd just done. A little later, I reflected on the moment we reached our goal:
We only scratched the edge of Asia. There's a whole continent out there, and it's a lot bigger than Europe, but it'd take time I don't have, not unless I make drastic changes to my working life. Just getting to Asia was enough, something most people, the vast majority, will never do. And I can settle for that. For now, anyway.
Two weeks later, I still haven't quite taken it all in. It was simply too much to digest in such a short space of time, and writing this as a stream-of-consciousness has only brought the memories flooding back in glorious technicolor.

If you've read this far, you could check out the Storify I put together of tweets we posted along the way. A lot of it will seem familiar, but it's a glimpse of what we were thinking at the time, rather than a couple of weeks after the moment.

The final tweet sums up everything I felt about the trip, and it bears repeating here:
7415km, home. Thanks to Mark, Simon, Steve, and everyone we met along the way. You made it what it was: amazing.

Monday, 29 July 2013

Istanbul or Bust - Expectations Demolished

We were on our way home (new readers might want to begin here), but first we had another massive detour to take in. Rather than just taking a straight line back to Calais we wanted to see a bit more of what used to be Yugoslavia, and we were about to enter Montenegro.

Crna Gora, as the locals call it, is the smallest of the former Yugoslav states, at least until Kosovo gets its way. The country is almost entirely mountainous, to the point that it makes Switzerland look a bit flat in comparison. We were on our way to meet up with Balsa, another chap with an SMT who'd got in touch via the forum when I announced we were doing this trip a couple of days before we left.

As mentioned earlier, I'd got a bit bored of any detailed preparation for the return leg of the trip, and apart from deciding that we wanted to see more of Yugoslavia I hadn't delved much further, so we had no idea where we were going or where we could stay. I'd pretty much just picked the capital Podgorica as a waypoint and hoped for the best. Balsa suggested that we take a better route, meeting him in Bijelo Polje in the north of the country, from where he'd lead us to his house in the mountains. This sounded good to us, so we made it a date. I'd checked a map and told him we'd be entering the country at Granicni Prelaz, then felt like a right plum when he told me it just meant Border Crossing in the local lingo.

First we had to enter the country, which meant collecting another passport stamp and waving our documents at some confused border guards. Green cards are meant to be a standard document, but I've never seen two that look alike and mine certainly wasn't green. Combining that with a UK vehicle registration document - Mark's was half in Welsh, compounding the problem - meant every time we crossed a non-EU border we got a lot of baffled looks. Everything was in order though, and soon we were riding down from the border and into Montenegro.

They must get bored of views like this in Montenegro

We'd given up having any expectations about countries by this point, trying to leave our prejudices and preconceptions at the border and going in with our eyes wide open to see what it would be like. Montenegro is one of those small countries that most people have probably never even heard of, so we had no idea what was ahead of us, but we had heard from a few people that the roads were good for biking. They weren't wrong. Mile after mile of perfect, swooping, near-deserted tarmac, the road from the border was two-wheeled paradise.

5000km in, still loving every minute

It wasn't long before we arrived at the junction outside Bijelo Polje and we gave Balsa a call to let him know we'd arrived. He'd been planning to ride his bike up from Podgorica that morning, but the weather forecast had been a bit iffy so he'd driven up instead. After a few minutes he turned up with a friend who just wanted to come along and say hello. I often got the impression during the trip that people were just generally happy that anyone had made the effort to visit their area, even their country, and we'd ridden a long way to get there. Life in London is so cosmopolitan that it's easy to forget that not everyone gets to rub shoulders with people from thousands of miles away on a daily basis. Often literally, where London public transport is concerned.

Picturesque, and a perfect spot for suicide

After a quick coffee in the shade - the weather forecast had been monumentally wrong - we got on the bikes and followed Balsa to his house in Žabljak. There aren't many roads in Montenegro, the mountains rather getting in the way, and there aren't any fast roads at all. That just leaves yet more perfectly surfaced roads wiggling through valleys and over passes, where it's hard to focus on the road with huge panoramic vistas fighting for your attention. The route took us through the Tara River Gorge, where we stopped by the Đurđevića Tara Bridge to take a few photos and buy more fridge magnets. This is the deepest gorge in Europe, the second deepest in the world after the Grand Canyon, and the view was magnificent.

Time was getting on, so we headed on to Žabljak where the bikes were tucked up safely in the garage and we got on with the most important task of the day: drinking beer. Balsa had invited a few friends up to join us for the evening, one of whom was riding his bike up from Podgorica so Balsa could join us for a ride the next day. We had a fair distance to cover again, but had time for a detour and for the first time we had a local guide who knew the best roads in the area.

It sure beats camping

While our host popped into town to stock up on beer and meat, we hung around chatting to his mates. They'd done a fair bit of touring themselves, and we swapped tales of long days on bad surfaces until it was time to head down to the basement for a barbecue. They were a great bunch and we stuffed our faces with meat and bread, all washed down with beer and a bottle of Jim Beam that Steve had brought along for the journey. Eventually it was time for the others to leave, they all had to ride back to Podgorica, with the exception of the chap who'd ridden Balsa's SMT up - he had the joy of 70 miles of mountain roads in the dark, driving Balsa's car back for him. That's what friends are for. As they left, we realised we'd been the only ones drinking, and we'd put quite a lot away, so rather than stay up and get more battered, we headed for bed in preparation for another long day's ride.

The next morning we tried to get away early but the lure of breakfast in town was too strong, and we spent a good hour and a half loafing outside a cafe talking bollocks, scoffing pizza for breakfast and guzzling coffee, with a quick raid on a nearby supermarket for good measure. I'd done a fair bit of nagging during the trip, trying to get people moving - at times it felt like all they wanted to do was sit around and drink coffee in picturesque locations without the hassle of riding bikes between them, and Balsa knew exactly how I felt. He'd had to play the same role on his trips, though he'd gone one step further, getting into a shouting match that ended in a fist fight. Fortunately it didn't come to that and we eventually made a move.

Playtime for the KTM club

Having ridden 3000 miles with two big singles and a manky old Triumph, it made a lovely change to have someone on a decent bike to play with. Balsa knew the roads like the back of his hand and shot off up a single track road through the Durmitor National Park, and I was only too happy to follow. The road only went one way, so rather than stop and wait we shot off into the distance and I tried to focus on the road - the scenery was lovely but I wanted to avoid becoming part of it. Every so often we stopped for some photos, to give ourselves a chance to soak up the view. It was pretty spectacular, so here it is:

After a while we started to drop down out of the national park and arrived back at the main road near Plužine. This put us close to the Bosnian border, but the nearest crossing was quite a small one and it was unlikely I'd be able to buy the insurance I needed, so Balsa had planned a route that took us further south, via Nikšić. There was only one road to Nikšić so we set off, again with Balsa leading and me glued to his rear, while the others trundled on behind as fast as their bikes would allow. Once again the SMT proved to be the perfect tool for the job, equally at home on fast, immaculately surfaced, sweeping roads as it had been on abysmally surfaced wiggly ones in Bulgaria a few days before.

After a while, we pulled in at the side of the road to wait for the others to catch up. Steve and Simon quickly appeared, and then the wait began for Mark. We waited, and we waited, and we waited some more. Eventually it got to the point where we started to wonder if he'd crashed, and when Steve tried to call his phone it rang but there was no answer. We waited a little longer and then decided Steve would go back to look for smoking wreckage while we hung around to see if Mark got in touch. Eventually we tracked him down - he was heading in completely the wrong direction, with no real idea where he was. We managed to guide him back to Plužine, where we'd last been together, and eventually he and Steve reappeared. While we waited, two cops, who'd been running a speed trap a short distance up the road, pulled in to check what we were up to. I didn't understand a word Balsa said to them, but I'm hoping it went along the lines of "our friend is a fucking idiot who can't tell east from west, let alone south." Mark confessed that he'd been so far behind that he'd not seen anyone for a while, and suspected he was going the wrong way. He checked his satnav and that gave him directions to the nearest border crossing, the one we were avoiding. He assumed he'd missed a junction and turned round to follow the satnav's directions. Had the fool ridden round one more bend he'd  have found us melting in the sun by the side of the road, wondering where the fuck he'd got to. A candidate for a Shaky Knowledge of Geography Award if ever there was one.

Our host, Balsa, who clearly has impeccable taste in bikes

Having regrouped, we headed south to Nikšić where we stopped for fuel. This was where Balsa would split off to head home, while we went in the opposite direction towards the border. He'd been the perfect host and a great guide to some cracking roads we'd never have found on our own, and I can't thank him enough for his hospitality.

Modern transport

It was time to head for the country we'd perhaps been looking forward to the most: Bosnia-Herzegovina. I can't speak for the others, but I knew almost nothing about the place beyond what I'd seen on the news in the early 90s and what I'd heard from the few people I knew who'd been there at some point. And, to be fair, most of them were wearing blue berets at the time, so they'd really only seen the country at its worst.

The road from Nikšić to the border took us past some absolutely spectacular scenery. The bit that sticks in my mind was the view down to Slankso Jezero, a lake dotted with islands that looked phenomenal from my vantage point high above. It didn't take too long to reach the border post and with minimal fuss we'd left Montenegro and were riding towards the Bosnian frontier.

I would try and give a bit of context to the situation in Bosnia, but I'd only do it clumsily and there's a pretty reasonable account on Wikipedia for anyone curious enough to look. If I learnt one thing from my time in the area it's that everyone has their own idea of what went on twenty years ago and I'm not going to argue with any of them. What's important is that, during the war that ensued when Yugoslavia disintegrated, the country was the scene of some of the worst atrocities since the Nazis, with rape and genocide used as weapons of war. The state was torn in two, and that division remains as a boundary defined almost twenty years ago, splitting the country into two entities - Republika Srpska and the Bosnian Federation. One is, as the name suggests predominantly populated by ethnic Serbs, generally orthodox christians, and the other by ethnic Bosniaks, generally muslims. There's still a very uneasy stand-off between the two and old tensions bubble away, barely beneath the surface, as scars like that take a long, long time to heal.

Republika Srpska forms a crescent that covers most of the northern and eastern borders of Bosnia-Herzegovina, so this would be our point of entry. Approaching the border, I felt some trepidation as it was the only country we were visiting that wasn't covered by my UK insurance or green card, and information about how to buy cover at the border was scarce at best, unreliable or misleading at worst.  I pulled up at the border post and handed over my passport and bike documents, and the first words out of the guard's mouth were "green card", in several languages, including one approximating English. I tried to explain that I didn't have one, and needed to buy cover, but was getting nowhere. After a while another chap appeared and told me, in better English (and believe me, I'm glad people everywhere can speak it, because if I'd had to learn the language of every country we passed through on this trip I'd still be doing evening classes) that I could indeed buy it there for about €20.

The mythical Bosnian insurance document

Once my passport was stamped I was told to park up by the booth, then walk down to the second building on the right where I could buy insurance. Sure enough, when I got there I found a chap behind a desk who sold me a three-day policy for the princely sum of €21 in cash, and once I'd shown it to the chap at the border post I was free to go. Result!

We'd been expecting terrible roads in Bosnia, clearly having learned nothing from the rest of our time in the Balkans, but the road down from the border was perfectly surfaced and offered yet more stunning views over the valley below. It was immediately clear that a huge amount of money had been poured into the country to rebuild it after the war.

As I approached Trebinje I saw a café by the side of the road which looked like a decent place to stop for a break. We were hoping to find somewhere to exchange currency after the border - Montenegro gave up its own currency a couple of years ago and now uses the Euro, despite not being a member of the EU, let alone the Eurozone, whereas Bosnia still uses the Convertible Mark (KM), a currency originally pegged to the Deutschmark, now pegged to the Euro. In spite of its name, the KM is downright impossible to buy outside BiH itself, and in recognition of this the Euro is accepted pretty much everywhere in the country, though generally only in fairly exact quantities, and change is often given in KMs.

With slightly fewer Euros and a few KM coins in my pocket, we left the café and hit the road.  Before long we headed off the main road to experiment with another Garmin Special, a single track road that took us up the side of the hill with yet another astonishing view across the valley. Just as we'd started to make our way across the plateau at the top, a truck came the other way full of men gesticulating wildly in a way that we could only imagine meant there was some reason we should turn back. For all we knew we really were in bandit country, so we did exactly that and rejoined the main road. This was no hardship, as it flowed along the valley floor for fifty miles or so, an hour of sheer pleasure.

Taking a detour in Bosnia

In the distance we could see the skies growing darker, and as we pressed on it was clear we were heading into a storm. Suddenly it started to rain hard, and there was no sign of the others in my mirrors. I waited a while, then turned back to see where they were. And then the hail began. The smallest hailstones were the size of peas and riding through them was like being shot-blasted, even through my cordura suit. Soon I found the others parked up by an metal shack, an abandoned restaurant with a small porch where they were sheltering from the storm, the sound of the hail hitting the metal roof so loud that I left my earplugs in until it stopped. We stood around for at least half an hour waiting for the weather to improve, discussing what might have happened to the burned out buildings across the road.

Eventually the rain eased a little and as time was against us I suggested we press on to our destination for the night, Mostar, an old city in the Federation. As we arrived in Mostar, the light fading and the rain still pouring, we headed for the nearest motel. The boys' own adventurers had been keen on wild camping, not something really recommended in Bosnia where some areas are still dotted with landmines and derelict buildings are occasionally booby-trapped, and to my relief the weather had dampened their spirits. 100 Euros scored us two comfortable rooms at the Motel Hercegovina, a modern hotel at the edge of the city with a friendly, English-speaking receptionist who was both amazed by the amount of luggage we were carrying and distraught at the amount of water we were dripping onto the floor. After a quick shower to try and ease the aches of yet another day on the road, we called a taxi into town for a look around.

Looks nice since they rebuilt it

Mostar takes its name from the 16th century stone bridge at its centre - the Stari Most, or old bridge, a major attraction since it was built. The city was shelled by Bosnian-Croat forces while under siege during the war, as an act of cultural destruction, resulting in its near-total obliteration. Following the war, a project was set in motion to rebuild the bridge and the old town, using traditional methods and original stones salvaged from the river below, and now it stands as it did before. It really is a fantastic sight, though its history is never far away. I didn't notice at the time, but the photo above shows a prominent reference to one of the darkest chapters of the Bosnian war.

No further comment required

Tourist trinkets on sale in Mostar ranged from the usual fridge magnets, which of course Simon and I had to buy, to objects made from items found around the city. Mostly bullets. It reminded me of walking around Ypres, where every other shop sells memorabilia from the first world war, and I wasn't sure whether to see it as just retailers pandering to a market, a visual reminder of recent history, or just tacky tourist crap. It was an interesting place to visit though, and not somewhere I'd thought I ever would.

After a quiet dinner and a few more beers some locals ordered a taxi for us and we headed back to the hotel. We were facing another long day, as we'd be riding to Banja Luka, the capital of Republika Srpska, and on to Croatia. It was a route recommended by Balsa and his friends the night before, and happened to be the route I already had in mind.

Mostar to Lug

The road north from Mostar began following the Neretva river, yet another flowing road along a valley floor. We avoided a speed trap by sheer luck, as the cop was facing the wrong way and only turned in time to hear our engines shedding revs as we dropped below the limit. We'd heard dire things about Bosnian police, though no worse than we'd heard about those in Bulgaria or Serbia before.

Lug to Vinac

At Jablanica we turned away from the Sarajevo road and eventually we began to climb. At Prozor I saw a couple of cops parked up just after a set of traffic lights, who watched me pass with a look of interest. As the road left town it started to climb quickly, twisting and turning up the side of a cliff, and I wound the throttle on and enjoyed the ride. Reaching the top, I pulled over and waited for the others to catch up. Simon arrived quickly, but we had to wait a while before Mark and Steve appeared behind us. This time Mark hadn't got lost, rather the cops had seen a chance and pulled them both over after the lights, claiming they'd gone through on red. This was clearly an attempt to shake them down, and we'd been told that offering 5 Euros or so should make any problem go away, but after producing their documents they stuck to playing dumb, telling the cops they didn't understand their questions, and eventually they were told in no uncertain terms to piss off. Brits abroad 1, bent cops nil.

Vinac to Banja Luka

At some point during the day I spotted a café and pulled over for a break, flagging the others down as they appeared. As we sat on the terrace relaxing, the muezzin call to prayer from a nearby mosque mingled with the sound of a local cover of the Beatles' Twist and Shout from the café's radio. Mosques in Serbia and Bosnia are something to behold - they look like nothing so much as alpine cottages with minarets, a curious blend of Germanic and Islamic architecture, the kind of building that could spark a war in Switzerland.

Bosnia makes everywhere else look expensive, with a coffee costing 1KM (around 30p) and fuel at just over £1 a litre. It has scenery to match anywhere else in the world, great roads, seemingly friendly people - at least they seemed OK to us, regardless of how they deal with  each other - and completely demolished any expectations or preconceptions we had left. The detour from the route home cost us a couple of days, and meant we had to hustle along in other places where we'd have liked to stop and look around, but was more than worth it and I'm itching to go back and see more.

The perfect ride

The rest of the road to Banja Luka continued in the same vein - occasionally over hills, generally following a wiggly river valley, with a surface that was, for the most part, perfect. A hundred miles of some of the best biking roads I've ever done in the last country I expected to find them. An absolute highlight of the trip.

Oddly, you never see signs like this for the the Bosnian Federation

As we approached Banja Luka we re-entered Republika Srpska, the boundary proudly marked by large signs as we'd seen when entering the country from Montenegro a day earlier. Looking behind us, we saw no such sign proclaiming arrival in the Bosnian Federation. It's clear which part of the country wants nothing to do with the other, and it left me wondering how long the union will hold before the former Yugoslavia fragments a little further. If it does, I hope it happens rather more peacefully than last time.

We stopped for fuel in Banja Luka, losing Simon briefly on the way, spent the last of our Bosnian currency on ice cream and snacks, and took the brand new motorway towards the border. It felt like we'd rushed through Bosnia. In fact since leaving Turkey we'd averaged one new country a day and it felt like we were barely scratching the surface. But time was our biggest enemy, and it forced us to say goodbye to what we'd thought would be the crazier countries on the trip.

It was time to return to the EU.

Read on here.

Istanbul or Bust - Bandit Country Revisited

New readers might want to begin here.

The road between the Turkish and Greek border posts felt like proper no-mans land, with armed sentries, barbed wire and a general sense that these two countries might have fallen out with each other at some point. But while the Turkish side felt rather formal, the Greek side couldn't have been much more relaxed. Right at the edge of the village of Καστανιές (that's Kastanies, we've got another new alphabet to play with) it consisted of little more than a hut with two windows, one for us to wave our passports at and another for customs, who wasn't interested in us unless we had something worth declaring. Within seconds we were through and back in the EU. Better than that, we were back in the Eurozone, albeit the most broken part of it, so we could raid the nearest ATM for currency to see us through the rest of the trip.

Why go to Greece? Because it was there.

Right next to the border we found a small petrol station with friendly, English-speaking staff and a well-stocked ice cream cabinet. The Greek economy may be collapsing but they still know how to deal with the basics, and we loitered far longer than necessary before setting off. We were only due to be in Greece for 20 miles or so before looping back into Bulgaria, but we were a bit tired after an early start and in feeling a more than a little peckish.

Kastanies is the least likely border town I've ever seen, a charming, whitewashed little village at the very tip of Greece that looks like not much has happened in a hundred years. Nonsense, of course, as a hundred years ago it was still part of Bulgaria and feeling the brunt of the Balkan wars, but it was a sleepy little place. Riding through the village I spotted what looked like a small taverna and suggested we go back to try and get some lunch. We turned up a side road looking for somewhere to park, only to find a back garden, prompting the people who'd been sat at the front of the building to come out and see what was going on.

This was a chap and his mum, who ran the place. He spoke pretty good English and they seemed more than happy to have us in. I'm not sure they were really open for business, but trade is trade and they couldn't have given us a warmer welcome. After an iced coffee in the shade we asked if there was any chance of some food. He said he'd see what his could be rustled up, and before long we were sitting down to eat a simple meal that was one of the best we had on the entire trip. While we were waiting we had a look around the place and he ran us through the various photos on the walls, mostly of his late father's hunting and fishing exploits. Massive catfish from the nearby river, and a corker of a photo of him as a toddler sitting on the bonnet of a car wearing a chain of bullets. After a quick dose of ouzo at our host's insistence, we were back on the road, feeling glad we'd made yet another unnecessary detour.

A photo of lunch? Anyone would think this was Instagram.

From there we rode the short distance to the border post at Ormenio, where a surly Greek border guard looked at me and asked, baffled, why on earth we wanted to go to Bulgaria. Little did he know, we'd just ridden through it and loved every minute. Steve got some hassle for the video camera on his bike - it wasn't recording, but it was powered on, whereas I'd made a point of turning mine off. They're a bit funny about stuff like this in Greece, and I remembered the plane-spotters who were jailed as spies a few years ago just for taking photos at an airport. No real hassle though, and we were through in no time. The road quickly opened out to a full four-lane dual carriageway for a few hundred yards before the Bulgarian border post. The most pointless bit of tarmac I've ever seen, as the place was almost deserted and I can't imagine it ever having been that busy. A quick wave of our passports and we were through, stopping only to change some of our crisp new Euros into Leva for the day ahead. They do have ATMs in Bulgaria, though we hadn't seen one and the general advice is not to use them. Cards don't get you very far either, as it's still pretty much a cash economy - there might be a Visa sign on the door, but odds are cards won't be accepted.

Bikes resting in the shade

Our destination that day was Eco Camping Batak, a brand new campsite on the shore of Lake Batak just south of Plovdiv. I'd picked this one while doing some research online before the trip, and Nick at the campsite in Veliko Tarnovo had told me he knew the owner. Getting there meant 130 miles of minor roads across Bulgaria in 40-degree heat, relief from which came only when we passed through some heavy rain. While riding through the centre of Plovdiv I'd noticed an odd clunking sound coming from the back of the bike, but I put this down to the chain being excessively slack. We'd done almost 3000 miles in just over a week and one of the chain adjuster lock-nuts had seized solid and there wasn't much I could do about it while travelling.

Bulgaria, I think. It all starts to blend together.

Leaving Plovdiv we picked up the road towards Batak, another absolutely brilliant biking road with a reasonable surface that started winding gently through the countryside before heading up into the mountains. We gained altitude so quickly that the change in air pressure sucked one of my earplugs out and I had to stop to sort it out. I'd not looked too closely at the location for the next campsite, and hadn't noticed that it was a fair way up. By the time we got there it was early evening and the temperature was starting to drop.

Spoilt for choice

When we turned up, the office was deserted, so Steve called the owner as directed by a sign in the window and we went to set up camp. The site seemed pretty basic, with the ground sloping away towards the lake and a small cluster of sheds behind the office for the facilities. It was the only option unless we wanted to pay for a hotel, so the tents went up and after a short while the owner arrived. He sorted us out with beer at sub-Romanian prices, then gave us a quick tour of the place, which was far, far better appointed than first impressions had suggested. The showers and toilets wouldn't have been out of place in a decent hotel and a nearby building turned out to be a decent sized restaurant where we necked more beer and sampled some local dishes. Not the best choices we could have made, but better than brain.

Camping on the shore of Lake Batak

One thing that had caught my eye was the number of flash cars with UK plates, but with drivers who didn't seem to be speaking much English. The paranoia started to creep back, not really abated by a discussion with a local the following morning. I was told that there's very little crime in Bulgaria, but what crime they do have is entirely due to gypsies. The police aren't particularly interested in such things, but there are (and I presume this is a euphemism) private security firms who'll go into the gypsy camps once a year, rough a few people up, and make it clear that any more crime would result in another visit. And that's why there's no crime in Bulgaria. I'll reserve comment, suffice to say that the charm of being in Bulgaria was wearing off a little and I was looking forward to the next country on our list.

Mark had managed to loosen the chain adjuster on my KTM the night before, and I'd finally been able to adjust the slack chain. This had only made the clunking sound worse and, fearing something might be on the verge of failure, I checked my satnav to find the nearest dealer. I'd looked up every KTM dealer east of Austria before we left and entered them all as waypoints, expecting to need to visit one at some point. There aren't many in Bulgaria - three, in fact, only one of which I'd been able to find on Streetview. By sheer chance, that one was about 15 miles away in Pazardzhik, so I set that as our next destination and we went to see if we could get the bike sorted.

Not everyone had bought a new car on finance

Parking on the street outside the dealer, I walked in and asked if anyone spoke any English. The answer was yes, a bit anyway, and within moments the chap from the shop was rolling around in the road next to my bike taking bits off and trying to work out what might be causing the odd noise. After a while he came to the conclusion that the chain was on the verge of failure, and I needed to replace it there and then. The dealer's workshop was some distance away, and happened to be closed that day anyway, but they had the right part in stock so I bought it on the spot. By the time I got back outside, the others already had the bike up on some axle stands Simon had brought along and Steve was brandishing a chain riveting tool which we could use to do the repair in the street. I'd mocked the them for the sheer quantity of tools they'd packed for the trip but I was happy to eat humble pie as they saved my bacon in deepest Bulgaria. It was at this point I realised that the English-speaking chap from the shop didn't work there at all,  but was just another customer who'd spotted we were in a fix and was only too eager to help out. Seriously, Bulgarians, just how bloody friendly can they get? Amazing!

Mark + junior hacksaw = chain off in a jiffy

Before long the chain was replaced and we were ready to hit the road again, this time with no ominous clunking noise from the bike. We were heading for the Serbian border at Dimitrovgrad, a hundred miles away, and we soon picked up the motorway to the Bulgarian capital. Rather than ride through the centre of the city we picked up the ring road which, while slow, was nothing like its Bucharest counterpart. The last bit was rather bumpy, with a lot of construction work going on and huge holes in the tarmac, several inches deep, exposing an old cobbled road over which several layers of tarmac had been laid.

Not knowing whether the price of fuel was going to go up or down when we entered Serbia, but figuring it would be hard for it to be any lower, we stopped for fuel one last time in Bulgaria, then made sure we had our bike paperwork and passports handy before approaching the border itself. Getting out of Bulgaria was quick and easy, and entering Serbia was pretty much the same. We were on the main transit route and nobody was really interested in four bikes passing through. Our passports were given back with a faint entry stamp and a leaflet advising us about police corruption. At last, proper bandit country! We stopped briefly after the border to exchange the last of our Leva and a few Euros for a fistful of Serbian Dinars and after a brief chat with an Italian couple on their way home from Armenia we were on the road again.

Serbia wasn't really a destination as such, just somewhere we were passing through on the way to Montenegro. Our goal for the day was as close to Novi Pazar in the south east of the country as we could get, but the problem with my bike had meant we'd not left Pazardzhik until almost 2pm and we were running late. We pressed on, finding that the Serbs had clearly been in on the deal with the Romanians to corner the market in 50k limit signs. Using the same approach as before I found a local to tag onto and before long we were making decent progress, often at double the limit or more, slowing occasionally when oncoming vehicles flashed their headlights to let us know we were nearing a speed trap.

"Steve, put your gloves on. Mark, no you can't have lunch!"

The road from the border to Niš started out as one side of a motorway - only one carriageway had been completed, the other had clearly been under construction at some point but work seemed to have pretty much halted. The south of Serbia is quite mountainous terrain and before long we were winding through a valley on yet another great biking road, so long as you completely ignore every posted speed limit. As we approached Niš we joined a proper motorway and in no time we'd skirted the city and were back on local roads. It was almost time for a fuel stop and around the usual hundred mile point I pulled in to a garage. Simon protested, on the basis that it only had one pump and would take too long, and as the attendant appeared I shrugged and gestured that we were going elsewhere. He saw my GB plate and asked "where are you going?" I replied "London, eventually." He laughed and gave me a hearty thump on the back, which made me wonder a bit. A few miles later we stopped at a larger garage and I dug out a map to check the route the satnav was trying to take. I mentioned Garmin Specials in an earlier post, those satnav-induced detours off the sensible route to shave a few minutes off the journey, but this was the mother of them all. Kosovo. We were heading for a fucking war zone!

OK, the war's been over a while, but it's still a bit dodgy and none of us had insurance. The border between Serbia and Kosovo is still a little unstable and there can be issues getting in and out, so we did a quick about-turn and headed back to Niš. From there we hit the toll road briefly towards Belgrade before heading for the nearest town. We'd lost more time and the light was starting to fade, but we still had nowhere to stay.. I'd done a fair bit of planning before we left, finding places we could head for at the end of each day wherever we got to, but I'd kind of lost enthusiasm for the return leg and so the preparation had ended early. The nearest big town was Krusevac, not much of a tourist hotspot but we figured it would at least have a hotel.

Anyone for tennis?

Rolling into Krusevac we found a bustling town but nowhere that looked suitable for leaving the bikes overnight. The paranoia was trying to come back, and when Simon mentioned he'd seen a sign for a campsite at the edge of town I was keen for us to head back and check it out. When we got there it seemed deserted, there was nobody around and the lights were off. It was almost dark and the omens weren't good. Steve tried the door and as it opened he found two people sitting in the gloom. Neither spoke any English, and our Serbo-Croat was based mostly on pointing at things, but after some desperate gesticulations we were invited to set up our tents next to the tennis court outside. The soil was too thin for pegs and the mosquitoes were ravenous but before long we were all set up and ready for a drink.

Curry and beer, just like being at home

The venue turned out to be a family-run restaurant, with family consisting of an old chap and his daughter, and her English-speaking son who turned up a bit later. There was one person missing from this picture, and when Simon spotted a photo of a chap in military uniform inside the building I jumped to a few conclusions. They may have been correct - the kid looked about the right age and it was a dangerous part of the world twenty years ago. The kitchen was closed, and there was no shower we could use, but we all had stoves and emergency rations, and wet-wipes work wonders when they're all you've got. As we cooked up outside, our hostess brought out some bread and another round of beers, and we tried to chat as best we could about where we'd come from and where we'd been. It was a few days after the Wimbledon championship, and as the old chap pointed at the tennis court and made refences to the final between Murray and Djokovic (a Serbian) I tried to tell him that Wimbledon was where I lived. I've no idea if he understood, but they seemed happy to have us there and we were glad to have somewhere to stay - the beer and bread was a bonus.

Pure filth

As we packed up in the morning, Steve went in to pay. Camping for four, some twenty large bottles of beer, and a basket of bread, and the bill was less than 25 quid. Clearly we were all still going to have a lot of Dinars when we left the country.. Just as we were ready to leave, our hosts appeared with four small bottles of wine as parting gifts, and posed for photos with us and our bikes, very keen to have a GB plate visible. Mine was absolutely filthy and I had to clean the filth off for the country code to show up, in the process losing the smiley face that somebody in Bulgaria had drawn in the grime. We were well off the tourist trail at this point, and like many places we passed through I got the feeling vehicles with yellow plates were something of a novelty. This kind of thing just made the trip feel all the more worthwhile.

From Krusevac we skirted round Kosovo to Novi Pazar taking in yet another perfectly surfaced biking road that wound its way through a mountain valley. I love this kind of road, a seemingly never-ending series of S-bends where nothing makes more sense than a big bike. Having not seen any other bikes in my mirrors for a while I stopped outside a restaurant and flagged the others down as they caught up. We'd made pretty good time, so I thought I'd treat Mark to lunch. I don't mean I paid for it, I mean I let him have one. Over the meal we chatted, reflecting on how yet another country had blown away our expectations and proved to be nothing like we thought it would be. Well, to a point.

What surprised me about Serbia was that it felt poor. I'd expected it to feel rather more developed, being the biggest and toughest of the former Yuglosav states. But while the basic infrastructure was OK - the road surface was generally good, and it didn't have the same downtrodden feel as parts of Romania - it felt like life was a struggle. Towns looked a bit wild west, with market stalls in front of buildings rather than proper shop-fronts. This included Novi Pazar, which is a fairly sizeable city. Cars were no longer modern, either. I'd always wonders where old cars ended up when they "went to auction". Now I understood - right-hand drive models would end up in Africa, and left-hand drive models would go east. Serbia was full of cars I hadn't seen since I was a kid. Agricultural transport had improved though. Rather than horse and carts, the vogue was for vintage tractors that looked like they'd made a meaningful contribution to a Stalinist five year plan.  It made me wonder, if Serbia looked like this, what on earth would Bosnia be like? We'd have to wait for an answer to that one, as we had another country to go through yet.

Leaving Novi Pazar we followed the road back up into the mountains towards the border with Montenegro. As we pulled up at the Serbian border post, a chap in uniform appeared from the customs office and walked towards me. I expected the worst, but when he saw my GB plate he asked "You are an Englishman?" I was. He smiled. "You have just left Serbia. Have a nice day!"

Read on here.