You’re never too young to start motorcycle touring
In the days of fast-moving social media, sound-bites and clickbait, it’s often easy to forget the things we should really cherish – memories. If there’s a single thing that we’d like people who love motorcycles to do it’s to create memories, experiences and stories. No matter how young or old you are, two wheels can lead you somewhere, as bike-obsessed-kid-turned-epic-adventurer Gordon Stuart reveals.
Ever since I can remember, I wanted to ride a motorbike. Growing up, my Dad always had bikes in the garage and I started riding pillion from probably aged seven or eight. From my early teens, each May, I used to travel with my Dad on the 420 mile round trip to the BMF show in Peterborough, where I’d get to see all the latest models, sit on all the 125s wondering which would be mine, and spend weeks after reading cover-to-cover the glossy brochures I’d picked up at the show.
I loved the Friday morning fry-up we’d religiously eat before packing the bike on BMF weekend. I loved the purring 4-cylinder engine of my Dad’s Honda Goldwing while we were doing up our helmets. I loved acceleration as we pulled out of our street onto the hill out of town. I loved the first stop at Ferrybridge, where we’d meet my Uncle and Cousin. And I loved the feeling pulling into Peterborough showground, surrounded by every kind of bike you could imagine. I loved bikes!
Fast forward almost a decade and I’m in the Verdon Canyon, South-East France, with two of my buddies, our 500cc commuter bikes loaded with camping equipment and cheap French beer. It was here I realised it wasn’t just bikes that I loved, but it was travelling on a bike, my bike, and everything amazing that comes with it.
I’d completed my CBT on my 17th birthday, booked many months before. I was lucky enough to have a brand-new Suzuki Marauder 125cc waiting for me that Dad had kindly arranged for me as a very early 18th birthday present. I remember being utterly terrified when leaving the motorbike training centre, having passed my CBT. It took me about two-three weeks to gain the courage to take on right-hand turn junctions with confidence (I purposely took routes with as few right junctions as possible). I think I rode pretty much every day, determined to pass my test as soon as possible so I could start planning some adventures of my own.
Before long, it was BMF weekend. I’d passed my test, and I was about to take on my first ‘big trip’ riding. Its 410 miles over two days wasn’t enough of a baptism of fire, I’d decided against my better judgement to have my mate come on the back. With only some cheap soft panniers and a backpack, it took us about six hours to ride the 210-mile journey to Peterborough. It was after my first BMF weekend I realised two key points that would shape my motorbiking journey. Firstly, I wanted more than just weekend trips down the motorway, I wanted to go somewhere different and ride some fun roads. Secondly, I’d need a bigger bike to get me to those places.
The Marauder was kept for only a few months more before I hastily traded it in for a Yamaha Virago 535 (the cheapest’ big bike’ I could find). The bike had countless issues which, as a 6th form student working 15 hours a week at a local supermarket, I could barely afford to keep running, let alone get another bike. I would spend the next two university years working many different jobs (barman, shop assistant, boating lake operative, gardener) to pull together enough money to get the bike I needed and go on a big trip. During this time, I’d also convinced my mate who’d travelled pillion to the BMF show with me, to do his bike test with a view to hitting the road somewhere.
While the idea to get away had always been a bit of a pipe dream, it took reality on a December night in the local pub. My friendship group from school were back together with folk returning from university / their jobs. The subject came around about doing a summer ‘lads holiday’ to Ibiza or Benidorm as a way to make sure we all stayed in touch. That really wasn’t my bag, and for the price, I thought I’d be able to ride to Spain to meet them, and it would be more fun!
Before long we’d planned a group road trip, two bikes + two cars, across France and Spain. My saving went into overdrive as I still didn’t have a bike capable of this kind of journey or the funds to pay for the ferry and petrol.
For my next bike, I got very lucky. I’d been looking for a 500cc twin, with some low-ish miles on, as a practical but affordable bike for my trip. I’d walked into a local dealership to find they didn’t have any used bikes in my price range but had the last of a discontinued model that they’d heavily discounted to get it gone. Managing to somehow trade in my failing Virago, I paid less cash than most people hand over for a new sofa. Now I was a proud owner of a brand-new Kawasaki ER-5. Adding a Givi top box and the same soft panniers from my Marauder 125, I was ready to hit the road for the few weeks’ road trip.
As often happens with plans made after a few beers in a pub (or I’ve now learnt, over decades of riding, most bike trips) as the days counted down to leave day so did the participants’ list. Before long, there was only three of us left, and no car drivers. This was no longer a road trip but a bike trip!
Having a trio made our plans a little more flexible. Rather than any fixed route or destination, we planned to play it by ear. The plan was still France and Spain but with had no firm timings to follow. We booked a ferry to the continent and were ready to go.
The route we took on the trip wasn’t that planned beforehand, but more of a day-by-day look at the map. We had a few big stops we wanted to make; my Dad’s place in Central France, St Tropez, and the Verdon Canyon, but that was it. Looking back, we were wholly unprepared for the trip, but I think that’s what made it such an adventure. In truth, none of the three of us had enough money for the trip, even though we planned to camp. We didn’t have a breakdown cover or any real knowledge of motorcycle maintenance other than how to oil the chain. We didn’t take any waterproofs, any tools, tyre bungs, or first aids kits. What we had on our side was enthusiasm, a real sense of adventure, and a map of France and Spain.
Over three-and-a-bit weeks we travelled South from Newcastle to Dover, crossing the channel to Calais. We visited some WW2 points of interest followed by a route South into Central France. We ticked off some cool roads and sights as we headed South such as the Millau Bridge. We ticked off St Tropez and headed North East to the Verdon Canyon then into the Swiss Alps and on into Germany. We took an unexpected stop off in Luxembourg (which is an amazing little city) before heading back into France, then Belgium, then back to Calais and home. (Ed: What happened to Spain?)
The trip wasn’t without issue. In the South of France’s July heat my engine lost power a few times (probably due to some dirt in my fuel). My mate’s Honda NTV 650 wouldn’t start when we tried to leave St Tropez, which was somehow solved by spending 2 hours trying and failing to remove the fuel tank to get to the starter motor and then the bike firing up no problem when we tried again.
We also had plenty of disagreements as a three in terms of route, stopping times, and which bike should take the lead and navigate, but overall it was a great group to be away with.
To anyone who is planning a first trip away, the idea is my story will give you the confidence to know that you don’t need the newest bike, complete plans, all the know-how, or even a big group to getaway. An adventure is anything you want it to be, and for me, this first trip was the real start to some even more amazing trips that I’ve been on since, often solo, which I would never have imagined as that 19-year-old lad sitting in the pub back home.