European dash, 2004, #1

Been working without a decent break for 18 months, just back from three weeks in Greece and still not in the mood for work. Calls from friends in Germany and France moaning that they'd not seen me for years, coupled with a newish sports tourer in the garage and a reasonable weather forecast prompted me to do an end of summer dash to Europe for ten days. A big loop looked the best route…

10th September, leaving tomorrow, time to pack. I've done a few of these tours (though never alone before), so I'm pretty much up to speed with what I'll need and what'll fit into two hard panniers and a tank bag. Panniers: enough tools to adjust the chain (only Ducati could make a sports tourer and not include tools for this - tho' given that they based the ST on the 916 and re-positioned the pipes from under the seat to 'in the way of panniers' I guess I shouldn't be too surprised), some chain lube, a litre of oil and a load of underwear and T-shirts. And some shorts, trousers and shoes (I've forgotten to pack shoes in the past, ahem), plus a long sleeved shirt in case it gets chilly. And rechargers, health insurance, bike's documents, including warranty and 'Ducati Assist' documents; Ducati provide two years worth of breakdown insurance when you buy a bike from them, and clearly it's going to be good - of all manufacturers Ducati surely has the most experience in this field… Tank bag takes quick access stuff: visor wipe, tickets, passport, cash, today's map, camera, phone, waterproofs and plastic bags for inside the boots should it rain. That's packing done.

Top up bike's oil to max, lube the chain and note the mileage - 275, although as this is the third dashboard she's actually covered 3879 miles from new. Third dash? Well, I've had her (2004 ST4s ABS) from new, and when I got her home the first time the computer (aka ECU) didn't work properly - try any of the functions (reset trip meter, see average fuel consumption etc) and it just errored, and remained errored until re-booted - which meant turn-off bike and turn it on again. And the ECU is intimately related to the dash - change it and the dash has to be changed as well. The first change actually worked OK; a day later I noticed the ABS light was, er, not there. It took a couple of months for the correct dash to be delivered, and each new dash zeros the odometer - bit of a pain, because amongst other bits of sophistication the ST4s also sports a service interval indicator - a little spanner that flashes for the first 100 miles when a service is due, then remains on solid until the dealer resets it. So mine is now 3604 miles out and I've got to delay services a tad to gradually re-sync it.

Previous day I'd put new tyres on her (Bridgestone 010 front, 020 rear) and scrubbed them in, and the day before that I'd fitted heated grips (what a hassle - main problem being re-wiring the grips into a new male half for the AMP Superseal connector hidden under the front fairing - real pig to make the connectors connect).

Saturday 11th September and in retrospect I think I'd rather not have chosen 9/11 as my launch date, but it didn't occur to me when I was booking stuff. 7:30am start for a 10:00am ferry from Dover and I'm bleary eyed but at least it's not raining. Hour and a half to windy Dover, remove helmet and ear plug falls out - spend 10 minutes chasing it across the car park and then set the ST's dash to European; works a treat, drive proudly onto ferry in kph.

After an easy crossing I can't get the bike off the centre stand; it just slides on the metal deck and takes two deck hands and me to finally roll it off the stand and into Calais, France. Voila! It's noon local time and I want to end the day close to Luxembourg in the Ardennes for the first night and Boullion looked tempting. Roads in Northern France are as interesting as daytime TV so I've mapped Autoroute/N-road to Le Cateau and in a couple of hours I'm there. Where it starts to rain, so out with the waterproofs, into the Ardennes.

The Ardennes is a forest that stretches over hills and river valleys, straddling France, Belgium and Luxembourg. It's pretty, unspoilt and there are some lovely biking roads in there, with the proviso that you've got a lot of trees to cope with (well, it is a forest). I've been there before and came to the conclusion that trees and bikes don't go together very well. Trees block sightlines, ruin run-offs, drop leaves (though not yet) and worse on the tarmac, hide detail in shade and stop roads drying out fast or consistently. So I have issues with them, but not so many I'll not ride in their presence, and this first stretch of the ST's legs and first rate suspenders was exhilarating. Tight hairpins, fast sweepers, climbs and descents and wonderful views (trees permitting), swinging from France to Belgium and back again, the only way of knowing which country you're actually in being to look at the road surface - if it's bumpy and potholed you're in Belgium.

Come about 4:30pm it's stopped raining so off with the waterproofs and onwards to Boullion (tip: D1 and D31 are marvellous). Arrive about 5:30 and trundle round the town checking out the hotels. It's busy, hotels are numerous, so I draw up outside a tempting looking one (off-street parking, close to the centre, nice view of the river). I've not booked anything as there's only one of me and it's now out of season so surely they'll be no problem finding a room. Walk in, ask pour une chambre. "Nous sommes complete, M'sieu, desole". Go to next hotel, same story. "Ok, you're full and desolated, I'm tired and hungry - are there any rooms at all in this town?" "Not usually at le weekend M'sieu ". Bugger. So decide to head for the next town, Florenville, where I get gouged 98 euro for a tiny room. But it's comfortable, I have a small meal and a large beer and the bike gets to overnight in a locked up garage. 604km in total today and I'm feeling good.

Sunday morning in the Ardennes, weather's dry, soon so will the bike be, and I'm worried about getting fuel. Wander round Bastogne for ages before finding an open fuel station, then head into Luxembourg where the first thing I see is loads of garages, all open and all much cheaper than Belgium, doh!

Entered on the N84 (N15 in Lux) and hit the most amazing set of bends- uphill 180 degrees, clear view through and fast - 120kph and I should have gone faster. Road works in the middle spoilt it a bit, but I still turned around and did 'em again. Lux is full of fast sweepers and spent a bit too much time playing with them, taking in Diekirch and Echternach (N19/N10), and end up doing a fast 200 kms on the motorway though the Vosges to Saarbrucken, Germany, where I get lost. For all their talk of integration, the EU countries remain resolutely independent when it comes to road signs. I need to get to Strasbourg (France) from Saarbrucken (Germany), and although Strasbourg's the biggest town for miles they don't signpost it. I eventually twig that I have to follow signs for Sarreguemines, which is like being in London and needing to know that to get to Birmingham you've got to head for Enfield. Pathetic.



Ardennes viewpoint. An abundance of tree


From Strasbourg I head north to Baden-Baden and into the Black Forest. Another place full of trees but I like it, and have been here before as well. Notice that my neck's starting to ache a bit, but soon forget it as I hit the 500. Only minor on the maps, the 500's surface is as flat as a lake as it winds sinuously across the ridges rather than following a river valley, so trees are fewer and there's more open corners. Then I get lost and end up at Freudenstadt after another marvellous bit of road - fast and curvey and quiet this Sunday evening.

Descend into Bad Peterstal, an Alpine looking town - lots of wooden houses with big balconies festooned with flowers and a clear blue stream running through the middle. The sky is also a deep clear blue, there's a distinct chill in the air, but finding a room is no problem. Lock up the bike under the balcony - 561 kms today. As I drink the first beer of the day I realise I'm not covering ground fast enough. Map out the next day's route, which has to finish at Rosenheim, home of my German friends. I opt to head south on the 500 as far as possible, then zip into Switzerland for the first taste of the Alps before swinging back north to Bavaria.

Monday morning, weather is cloudy but dry, I hit the road before 9:00am and straight away notice there's more traffic. The 500 is disjointed - it disappears from time to time and you have to take major roads to connect to the next bit and these are all busy - a lot of trucks to hedge-hop, but the 500 (and bits of the 33) are worth it when the traffic's only in the mirrors. Eventually get to Waldshut, and sail pass the road to Zurich, because Zurich, not being in Germany, isn't signposted. Realise mistake only as I leave the town without having crossed the Rhine.

Switzerland is antiseptic - a lot of police and everyone obeys every road sign, so keeping up a reasonable pace is hard. I've decided to head up the A3 motorway to Landquart, then hang a left through Klosters and Davos, and this proves pretty easy to do, except it took me a hour to get through Zurich - good signposting, but it's a big place, there's no bypass and it's lunchtime. Weather is hot and sunny and the bike's fan is on, but eventually we clear the city and hit the motorway.

I heard later that I should have bought a vignette for Switzerland - this works out at a minimum of about a months road tax for the privilege of using their infrastructure for about 5 hours and is pricy - some 40 euros. But ignorance is bliss, and this probably helped with my first encounter with the law. In Davos I got lost (which is hard - it's a two road town) and decided to do a U turn. I'd spotted the two armed coppers but not that I was in a one way street (well, actually the one way street).


Black Forest
Black Forest 500. Trees present, but not too many near the road