The Long and Winding Road

 

The Long and Winding Road

 

Romance, Cold, Pain, Salt water,
Good food and the White Cliffs of Dover,
all in one day.


 
 
I have lost count of the number of eras that have come to an end in my time as an IT contractor. The two most memorable were the end of my stay in Manchester, New Hampshire back in December '86 and this one in February '03. I was in Paris, my contract had come to an end, I had shipped everything back home to Manchester, England and all that was left was to ride my Vulcan back home.

Although the sky was blue and the sun was shining, it was February and the steam venting forth from my open visor promised a long cold journey ahead. I had dressed for the occasion with numerous layers and my leathers on top. Looking in a café window as I threw my leg over, I smiled at the steaming black image that stared back at me. The clienteles sitting outside the café enjoying their morning dose of caffeine would also have laughed had there been any – It was far to cold to sit outside.
 
I hit the starter and the bike roared into life with its customary ease. I let it idle for a minute or two and reflected on the journey ahead as I listened to the 1500 "V" twin with it's 120 degree crank and customary "thub dub thub dub" beat. As it echoed around the ancient stone buildings of Rue de Taillebourg for the last time, I kicking it into gear with my left heel and, with no further ado, I dropped the clutch and was off.
 
It was 10am, the morning traffic had started to ease off so I decided to make my departure, in style, out through the centre of Paris rather than taking the Périphérique (Beltway). It was a route I had travelled many times with my then future wife on the back – it was designed to take in the main points of interest.
 
Starting at Place Nation I proceeded to La Bastille where the monument in the middle of the roundabout commemorates the French Revolution.
 
From there I travelled west and entered the Place de la Concorde through a huge baroque archway. In front of me was the famous Egyptian obelisk, sister of the Washington monument. Behind it in the near distance, the Eiffel tour – A breathtaking sight in anyone's book. To my left, the Louvre, home of the enigmatic smile of The Mona Lisa.
 
The traffic was travelling slow enough to give me a moment to take in the scene for one last time but, in my humble opinion, the best was yet to come. Rounding the Place de la Concorde I turned right into the Champs-Élysées - the most prestigious and broadest avenue in Paris. As the avenue opened out, my eye was taken, as always, up the long hill to the magnificent Arc de Triomphe that honoured the fallen heros of the many wars in France's colourful history and what an honour it is – 165ft high, 148ft wide and 72ft deep. The numbers don't do justice to the magnificence of the monument. As I travelled up the Champs-Élysées and it grew in my visor, even at that time of the morning I was able to make out the tourists standing on the top.
 
Anyone who considers themselves competent at riding a bike slowly in traffic and balancing throttle against back brake without putting their feet down should try circumnavigating the Arc de Triomphe at any time of the day. It doesn’t matter whether it's rush hour or not, the only difference is that, at rush hour, the horns sound louder as people anxiously try to get to or from work.
 
Well I made it round and out towards the Bois de Boulogne – Paris's equivalent to Central Park. I was now leaving the centre of Paris behind me and heading for the commercial district of La Défense. I was now approaching the outskirts of Paris and the protection of the surrounding buildings gave way to open land.  I started to feel the biting cold filtering in through the chink in my visor that I kept open to stop it from misting up. I looked down and the gauge told me the tank was just over half full so I figured I had about 50 miles left. I wondered how cold I would be by then.
 
This wasn't going to be the most scenic of journeys. The route I had chosen took me North West out of Paris, through the flat farm lands to Calais. Onto the P&O ferry to Dover and north via the fastest route possible. I would take the Motorways up to and around London then up via Birmingham to Manchester. I will spare you from a running commentary on the flat Normandy countryside save to recount a rather embarrassing moment…
 
It was bitterly cold so I found myself hopping from one rest area to the next where I would stop, stretch my legs and warm up. I was getting ever closer to Calais so I decided to miss out one of the rest areas and plough on to the next. When I finally arrived at it, my hands were numb despite the winter gloves and the fronts of my legs had long since lost all feeling. Finally I pulled into the parking area of this final rest area before Calais and stopped. During the last few turns of the wheels I put out my left leg to catch the weight of the bike but nothing happened. My mind said move but the signal never reached my cold leg muscles in time. The next think I knew I was lying on my left side with the hot engine perilously close to my leg. Fortunately the front crash bars and foot rests took the weight of the bike. The adrenaline was still surging through my veins as I managed to stand up, get my ass under the side of the seat and push the bike back up straight. Wary of going over the top and down the other side I managed to kick the stand down and rest the bike where it should have been 2 minutes before.
 
Puffing and panting I sat down on the side of the seat just as my aching body thawed out enough to feel the pain of the bruises developing on my hip and shoulder. Fortunately that took my mind off my hands which had also started to thaw. Every biker will empathise with the pain of thawing hands. The air was blue with Anglo Saxon expletives which, fortunately, the other travellers around me didn't seem to understand. One of them did come over and enquire after my health - "Cava monsieur" ? he asked – If I wasn't in pain and my French was up to it I would have replied something like "My ass is frozen off and I have just dropped a 400 pound bike on my leg – other than that Great!" but I settled for "Oui Mecri" and grimaced through my visor.
 
A coffee, a sandwich and a leak later I was back on the road....
 
…. Finally I was at the Port of Calais - I pulled up at the customs control and was asked to remove my helmet while my passport was checked. I had hardly removed it when the guy said "Merci Monsieur" and waved me on my way without even looking at me – Bloody officious French peasant I muttered under my breath!!
 
I followed the signs to my appointed gate and lined up behind a row of cars. Everyone was sitting warm behind their wheels so I kicked down the stand and strolled off in search of somewhere to get rid of my earlier coffee – No, dear reader, I am not incontinent but the cold and the vibration from the engine had taken their toll on my system. By the time I had relieved my aching bladder and walked out again the boarding marshals were beginning to wave us into the boat (or was it a ship? – Whatever)
 
As I drove up the ramp and down into the bowels of the vehicle deck, I caught a glimpse of the large metal plaque high above my head – "P & O Ferries – The Pride of Kent". I recognised this as one of the recently commissioned ferries and so I looked forward to availing myself of the facilities during the 1h40m crossing.
 
Reaching the bottom of the ramp, a crew member waved me to an area reserved for motorcycles and as I switched off and removed my helmet he walked over to me and asked rhetorically "I don’t suppose this has a centre stand does it?" My smile answered him and he picked up an extra set of straps to lash my bike down to the deck. "It's a bit bumpy out there today so I'll strap the wheels and throw one over the saddle. With the straps in place and ratcheted down, I thanked him and made my way to the steep stairs leading up to the warmth of the passenger decks above.
 
I had travelled on cross channel ferries many times so I knew exactly where I was headed – No self service restaurant for me – I walked past the large duty free shop and up the stairs to the "Langan's" restaurant on the top deck. I had been there before and enjoyed the quiet silver service restaurant – reminiscent of a bygone age. As I reached the double doors, the head waiter opened them and greeted me. The brief look of surprise on his face prompted me to look down and realise I was still wearing my road stained leathers. I apologised and started to remove my jacket in the doorway. "Don't worry Sir, come in and I'll take your helmet and gloves while you disrobe. I removed my jacket, boots and leather trousers and stood there in relatively clean jeans and a black tee shirt with a large blue "Eagles" skull on the front. If he was disgusted by the state of my damp leathers as I handed them to him he didn't show it – He said "I'll just go and hang these up and I'll be back to seat you".
 
Shortly, he returned and I was ushered over, in my stocking feet, to a prime window seat. As I looked out of the window I could see out over the docks – It would be another 30 minutes before the ship was ready to sail. "Would you like a drink from the bar sir? – Perhaps something warm?" I still had a long ride ahead of me but I was determined to have something strong. "Yes please I'll have an Irish coffee and make it a double Jameson's".
 
"Certainly Sir" he smiled as I accepted the menu he proffered. I started to peruse it's pages but it didn't take me long to decide - Pâté de foie gras to start followed by Dover Sole in a Butter and Dill sauce with baby new potatoes and Asparagus tips.
 
My Irish coffee arrived and I wrapped my hands around the long glass cup as I sipped the hot nectar. I could tell you how good the foie gras tasted spread on lightly buttered brown bread or how the fish fell off the bone as I ate each tasty mouthful but I won't.
 
As I ate, I looked out of the window and noticed we had left the relative calm of Calais harbour and I could see the white peaks of the waves breaking around the ship. Sitting back draining the last dregs of my Irish coffee my eyes became heavy but I was brought back to life as the waiter returned to ask if I would like a dessert. It would have been rude to refuse so I took the card and looked no further than the second entry – Sticky toffee pudding with hot Crème anglaise (Vanilla custard as we brits would call it). That would line my stomach nicely and fortify me against the cold journey ahead.
 
All finished and bill paid the waiter said "Just a minute Sir I'll go and get your riding gear". He returned and handed them to me. They were dry, warm and toasty "I hung them in the Galley Sir, to dry them out", "Now that's what I call service" I replied with a big grin – I made sure to leave a good tip as I walked out. "Good luck with the weather Sir" he said as he held the door open for me.
 
Walking out, I found myself staggering down the corridor – Not the effects of the Jameson's but now that I was standing, I realised how rough the English Channel was this afternoon. I hoped, in vain, that the wind was going to die down soon. We were only 15 minutes from Dover so I quickly found the Duty free shop and bought a litre bottle of Jameson's. I had left just enough room in my saddle bag to fit it in.
 
I looked out of the Right hand window (Starboard if you must) and saw the famous White Cliffs of Dover bobbing up and down about a mile away. Not long now… As we entered the walls of the port, the waves gave way to relative calm as the boat slowed down ready to manoeuvre into the dock. The tannoy burst into life "Would all passengers please return to their vehicles ready for disembarkation".
 
Back down in the bowels of the ship, the deck crew had already removed the straps from my bike so I stowed my Irish whisky and stood next to my trusty steed. I wasn't in any great hurry to sit in the saddle – there would be plenty of time for that. "Nice bike – Harley is it?" – If I had a penny for every time someone had said that to me I would have about 17 pennies. I turned and gave the stock answer to the passenger standing by his car "Looks like one doesn't it – Actually it's a Kawasaki Vulcan" – The word "Kawasaki" on the side of the tank kind of gave the game away but my usual sarcastic whit deserted me and I spared him the sharp edge of my tongue and just pointed at it – "Ah he said – Nice bike just the same" I thanked him and we both turned as the klaxon sounded and we watched as the huge bow doors started to open and the deck marshal started to usher the cars out into the early evening.
 
I sat down on the saddle, My sore ass had recovered but my bruises had started to make themselves known. I put on my helmet, checked the green Neutral light was on and pressed the button under my left thumb. "Gentlemen start your engines" I muttered to myself with a smile. As I drove down the ramp, the dull darkening sky did nothing to dampen the awesome sight of the White cliffs as they towered 320ft above my head dwarfing the ships in the harbour below.
 
Driving out through customs and immigration and onto the streets of Dover a large blue sign on the left said… "Welcome to the UK – Please remember to drive on the Left" – The "right side" as I like to remind my colonial friends!!
 
I had every intention of driving all the way to Manchester but do you know, after that meal, I just couldn't be assed so I pulled into the first Travelodge I came to and took a room for the night. The first thing I did after walking into the room and turning on the light was to start filling the bath ready for a long soak. While I was waiting for it to fill I found a glass in the bathroom, cracked the seal on the Jameson's and poured myself a decent 3 fingers worth – The first of a few that evening.
 
The bath was just what I needed; the Jameson's dulled the pain of my bruised body and the 9 hours sleep came easily. The next morning with a good English breakfast under my belt I was under way in high spirits.
 
The journey up to Manchester was a blur of traffic, motorways, rest areas and coffee. At one point it started raining so I managed to shelter from the worst of it by tucking myself in close behind a truck and following it at 60mph until the rain stopped.
 
I finally arrived home and reviewed the statistics. I had driven 760 miles. Filled the tank 8 times, The journey had taken me 31 hours elapsed time and I reckoned I had been in the saddle for almost 16 of those hours at an average of 48mph.
 
The following day I open the garage door and surveyed the salt encrusted bike I had left the night before. As I contemplated cleaning it before the chrome got damaged I asked myself…
 
Would I do it again? – NO
Was it a challenge? – YES
Did I enjoy it? – The Jury's still out on that one....

 

Chris Ellison, Manchester, England - 02/09