Up to Scandinavia : stage 4

Groningen, The Netherlands -> Flensburg, Germany
474 km dep: 09:20 arr: 18:45
Date: 24/07/2012
Weather: Sunny

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The german country is a beautiful as the dutch one and also very similar, in fact, had it not been for the sign, I would have never known I had left the Netherlands. This time over, I was luckier with the road layout and managed to spend most of my time out of highways; I even had to cross a river (the Elbe?) on a ferry.

Overall the day was pretty uneventful, everything went according to plan and I got enough time in Flensburg to visit the city a bit. According to wikipedia, it is an independent town, which means it is not part of a more general form of government (like Monaco for instance). However, it does not form a country and most people I encoutered spoke German as far as I know. The only peculiarity was that prices where displayed both in Danish Crowns and Euros and that most written signs were bilingual. Flensburg being so close to the border, I can understand why it opted to remain independent: to get the best of both countries.

As soon as I exited the city, I stopped at a beach to take a swim, which ended up being only a footbath because the water was full of jellyfish. I still got to take a shower, which is honestly what I was looking for the most because unlike in France, the weather for the last few days had been really hot. The border was so close to the city that in no time I got into Denmark and found a nice and quiet rest area near Aabenraa.

There I am, in Scandinavia.

Up to Scandinavia : stage 3

Brussels, Belgium -> Groningen, The Netherlands
412 km dep: 13:50 arr: 20:30
Date: 23/07/2012
Weather: Sunny

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Its a good thing this was a short day because I ended up leaving really late; last night certainly is to blame here. I met a Canadian, an American and a Cypriot at hostel and since we were all travelling alone, we decided to spend the night toghether. We spent most of the night at the Delirium Café, a bar with a selection of over 2000 beers and then we got beers and drank them right in the middle of the grand place. Afterwards, I went to bed like a rock and when I first opened my eyes, it was already past mid-day. That being said, I really enjoyed my time in Brussels, there is a lot to do and see and the city is dense both in history and culture; I will definately come back if I get the chance.

Getting out of Belgium was no trouble, but sadly, I had to take the highway for my map did not indicate a straighforward way through smaller roads. Because highways have a toll in france, there is always an alternate route that follows it through roads that are usually smaller and go through villages. In Belgium and in the Netherlands, this is not the case since highways are toll free. Still, I did manage to find a way to Groningen through the countryside.

In the Netherlands, everything is pristine, urbanised and modern whereas in Belgium, overflowing thrash cans are a common sight and so are abandonned buildings. When I arrived in Groningen, I went straight to the city center and walked around a bit. As I was eating a sandwich on a bench, what apeared to be an homeless person came to me and asked if he could share a conversation. I was not hoping for much but it turns out this man had a really interesting story to tell. He emigrated from Aruba to the Netherlands a couple of decades ago and had a career in restauration. A few years ago, while working in Germany, he interveined to stop another man from beating his girlfriend but ended up sending the man to the hospital with brain damage. The German justice system found him guilty of aggravated assault and locked him up with a sentence of two years. After serving 18 months in Germany, he was sent back to the Netherlands because of health issues and served the rest of his sentence there. When I met him, he has just been released.

It could have been another variation on the african prince hoax, but the man was clever, respectful, old, sober, polite, humble and most importantly ashamed of being homeless. He told me a night at the Salvation Army costs 4,85 so I gave him five Euros. While inside, he got in touch with his relatives back home and as soon as he gets his papers back (the prison threw him out with nothing but a few pieces of clothing), he will fly back to Aruba.

In the Netherlands, you get fined for sleeping outside apparently, so I left Groningen and stopped at the first rest area for the night.

Up to Scandinavia: stage 2

Bourges, France -> Brussels, Belgium
610 km dep: 07:55 arr: 19:50
Date: 21/07/2012
Weather: cloudy with localized rain

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Woke-up rested from a good but short night of sleep, packed everything in record time, had a coffee and then left my camping spot. The road almost all the way up to Belgium had a lot in common with what we usually find in Canada: straight and bordered with fields and forests; and I tought I would be passing through a lot of population … Quite boring but on the other hand faster; I rode more than 600 kilometers that day but it did not felt like it.

Near Reims, I encountered a few spots of heavy rain. I had rode through light rain before, but never in that scenario and believe me, it is as shitty as it is dangerous. My helmet was fogging up all the time and even if I had rain gear, I could feel the wind forcing water through every zipper and exposed area in my equipment. On to top of that I had to double up on attention because a wet road, as we all know, is more slippery and balanced on two wheels, aquaplaning is a serious threat.

In Picardie (Montcornet), I ran out of gas because I overestimated my tank’s reserve. The yellow light had been on for a while – I tought there was a good 100 k left in the tank – but while going downhill to the village, the engine stopped. Luckily, that was the village with a gas station in. Unlike North-America, France does not have gas station everywhere and in some cases, they can be as most as 50 kilometers apart (which was the case here).

Not looking forward to pushing my motorcycle to the gas bar, I managed to restart the engine at the bottom of the slope. It turns out there was a bit of gas left, but because of the incline, it could not get to the injectors. Lesson learned!

Since there are no border controls in Europe, it is always a surprise when you cross from one country to the other. I hit Belgium all of a sudden and was pleased to discover they had no tolls on highways, which because of an already long day of riding, I decided to take.

In Brussels, I quickly found myself stuck in heavy traffic and having absolutely no idea of how the city was layed out nor where my hostel was, I decided to leave my motorcycle in a covered parking, packed my bag and continued on foot. I knew the hostel was at the Grand place (its not named Grand place hostel for no reason) but after walking around like an headless chicken for an hour, I set my pride aside and asked a few locals. One even let me surf on her iphone (that earned her a beer later), but it was the pub-crawl guide that finally pointed me to the right spot and even gave a map of the city (called USE-IT, very good and resourceful map/tourist-guide).

Tomorrow, I will be giving my ass a break and putting my legs to work visiting Brussels.

Up to Scandinavia: stage 1

Toulouse, France -> Bourges, France
525 km dep:10:26 arr: 21:34
Date: 20/07/2012
Weather: overcast with localized rain

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Caught a cold two days before leaving. Since I got very little sleep yesterday night, I ended up leaving an hour an half late to get a bit more time in bed. Everything was packed the night before so all that was left to was to attach the luggage to the motorcycle. After clearing Toulouse, the pace was good but a few kilometers before Cahors, the road was blocked because of the “Tour de France”. I managed to find way to downtown though backcountry roads, parkes the motorcycle and ate some sandwiches while watching the cyclists and a huge procession of press and support vehicles sprint by me. Leaving Cahors took a lot of time because it appears that I was following the exact same route as the Tour de France; I got stuck in kilometers long traffic jams on a few occasions along with what appeared to be all the camping cars in which the cyclists and supporting staff spend the night in plus a lot of spectators going back home.

Once I cleared Brives-la-Gaillarde, it was somewhat late so I decided to take the highway all the way up to Chateauroux. Most highways in France have tool but luckily for me, this one did not. However, the terrain was very hilly which meant that my speed would sometimes go down to 80kmh while going uphill. Even if that kind of practice is normally risky, I found out that drafting behind trucks makes the ride a lot more comfortable overall by helping me stabilize my speed, cuts a huge amount of head wind and leaves me less vulnerable to speeding cars. The air was surprisingly cold, so much that I had to pull over a few times to put some more clothes on. There appears to be something about the weather in this part of France, I had passed though this area (the Limousin) a few times before and on every occasion, the weather was bad.

I set up camp outside of bourges in a rest area along N151. With a few minutes of sun left, I deployed my tent and then went on with the evening routine and a meal of pasta and tomato sauce.

525 km is the most distance I have done in a day so far. Last record was Toulouse to Aix-en-Provence which was about 450 km. I have as much distance to cover tomorrow as today but while I should not encounter unforseen sporting events, I will be passing through densely populated areas.

Up to Scandinavia: Intro

A few months ago, even before owning my motorcycle, I started comtemplating going to scandinavia. It is probably because I listen to too much death-metal but there is something about this region of Europe that is very appealing to me.

So I decided to ride my motorcycle (alone) with all the equipment I need to camp along the way to discover those lands. Since it is also pretty far from Toulouse, France, the city I currently live in, I thought it would be an opportunity to challenge myself and hopefully gather experience and good memories that could come in handy and motivate me into undertaking something even harder. It should total around 5000 kms so I guess it falls into the category of serious road-tripping, especially since it will be done entirely on a motorcycle.

The bike on which I will ride that journey is an Honda Varadero XL125V, as its name implies, a 125cc. For comparison, common motorcyle average around 600cc and 125cc is right on par with the larger scooters. To put it simply, 125cc is not a lot of power; the Varadero’s top speed is just below 120 km/h but with the wind in your favor, you can go a bit faster. The main characteristic of this bike and actually what motivated me to purchase is its impressive size and comfort, truly a small bike in a big package. In fact, it is larger or at least as big as most other bikes. So much that more often that not I get the biker’s salute, an “honor” that scooters or other commuter bikes seldom receive. It can site two comfortably for very long journeys (The most I have done with my girlfriend behind is about 325 kms) and provided you have supporting racks, can also carry a fair amount of equipment.

As long as you are in no hurry, this bike will get you wherever you want to go. It can certainly do highways but being a 125cc, you will have to share the right lane with trucks. Which is why I try as much as possible to avoid them: it can get a bit scary and it totally takes away the enjoyment of driving, which is what motorcycles are for in the first place.

I will not say I am contempt with this bike, not at all, I has only made me want a larger one but since I can only drive 125cc for now, this is the best of the best. And very economical too for its size, I can go for more than 400 kms on a single (14L without the 3L reserve) tank and since gas so so expensive in Europe, this is a big plus.

Enough with the motorcycle, there really is no special point to this trip but to enjoy the road and see northern Europe. I will be going to pretty much every country I cross’ capital and spend a day or so visinting them. On the way, I will keep a log of every day or motocycling as a souvenir but also so friends and family can follow me along. However, I will concentrate on the travelling rather that the visiting; there are plenty of guides for the cities I will be going through and frankly this is not the point of a roadtrip.