TRANS EUROPEAN TRAIL
The TET in the title refers to the Trans European Trail, which is a range of routes made up of tracks and trails across Europe. The routes have been painstakingly put together by wonderful people in just about every European country. They are downloadable and can be followed at will on a GPS. Depending on where you go, there is varying amounts of road work, but where possible there is as much legitimate off-road as possible.
Our plan was to pick up the French TET in northern France, follow it south till it forks near Cels, then head east towards the Alps, into Italy and on to Swiss TET. From there, to southwestern Germany to visit friends and then back into France for the dash home. Like all such plans, it never quite worked out that way, but the trip kept faith with the concept.
We had two weeks to cover the miles and planned to camp as much as we could cope with. Municipal campsites in France tend to be cheap and well maintained, with an added bonus of being able to order your breakfast the evening before. So at about 8.30 am your fresh croissants and baguettes are waiting at reception for you to collect. These Europeans are so far ahead of us.
Three of us set off from Caen, following a pleasant overnight crossing of the channel. There were to be four but, sadly, George's classic DR 250 was struggling by Portsmouth. We hoped that a rest on the car deck would solve the issue - shockingly it didn't. This was very disappointing as we had a number of drinks in the bar talking about how it would all be OK. So despite us spending a number of hours outside the port, taking the carb apart numerous times, we failed to make a significant improvement. Therefore, a tactical withdraw was decided upon and George headed back to London.
Whilst in the midst of taking the carb apart for the umpteenth time, a parade of about 25 Velo Solex's came past, giving cheery waves as they went. Sadly, we were too involved with jets and slide to get pictures.
The three remainers - KTMs 640 & 690, plus a classic BMW GS1100 - set off for where our trails would start in Vimoutier. In fact, the first trail was close to the town centre. It is a narrow slippery, stony climb that, when we got to the top huffing and puffing, had us frantically letting air out our tyres in an attempt to gain a little more grip.
There is a selection of wooded trails and tracks across large fields as the TET meanders through Normandy. Fields have a variety of cereal, some recognised others not, stretch as far as the eye can see. It is no wonder that agriculture is so important in France. The trails crisscross the undulating landscape. On the ridges, there are often a collection of wind turbines.
Another important product of the region is cheese and, for us, lunch was a selection of cheeses in a cheese shop by the Cheese Museum in Camembert. Now, not many people know this, but Camembert only became widespread throughout France after the First World War when producers had donated one day/week of their production to the troops. Turned out to be a good marketing move, albeit an unintentional one.
One of the great things about travelling along the trails is watching the scenery and environment change. Of course, this is true on roads too but when the surface you encounter is changing constantly, you become aware on another level. There are also plenty of opportunities to stop and look about when checking the route on the GPS and speeds are relatively slower.
This brings me on to something else that occurred to me during the trip. There are more and more restrictions on opportunities to go quickly. Not many years ago, France, with its less congested roads and other road users that clearly appreciate motorcyclists, was a haven for us. There are still plenty of French riders that fully utilise their bikes and are out and about on the sunny roads at the weekend. However, more restrictions are starting to bite.
Whilst we were heading south, a group of Brits were heading the other way at the end of their trip. These were experienced riders of a certain age (pensioners) and got back to find letters inviting them to pay the French authorities some money as they had been over-enthusiastic in their approach to riding. Eight fines between them, some getting more than one.
We had diverted from the trail into the campsite in Clemont Ferrand to meet up with our buddy, Chip. He was heading home on his giant BMW RT1200, having done a Grand Tour of Europe, as far as Romania. Over 7000 miles by the time he got home. Of course, there was a letter waiting for him too, suggesting he pay €90.
We've been back a couple of weeks now and I'm feeling confident that our more modest speeds did not attract the attention of the spies at the side of the road. Our speeds may have been more modest, but riding the trails and tracks between 15 - 40 mph can supply the same buzz without the inherent risk of expensive fines. Also, being on the road with chunky, skinny front tyres running at low pressure does not work so well and thus speed are moderated.
Back to the tour. Our weather started to look a bit dodgy as we camped in the town of Aurillac. We had a great day on the trails the day before and were enjoying being in the Massif Central, but the forecast was not good, nor was the sky. A brief consultation resulted in us deciding to head east on the road to a campsite we know from previous adventures, at Alboussiere in the Ardeche.
We were off the TET now but knew there were trails aplenty in the Ardeche. On the map it does not look far but, as we all know, looks can be deceptive. Those roads wend and wind up and down the hills, through many towns and villages.
We experienced two types of rain, heavy and bloody heavy. And, eventually, it got through just about all our defences. I have been colder and wetter but not for a very long time. However, every cloud... and as we arrived like dripping, sodden things at the campsite, the lovely people were just opening the bar.
Maybe it should be a worrying thing that, despite having fingers that looked like they had been in the bath for an hour and we were standing in small puddles made from our own dripping persons, we just wanted that cold beer as it was being poured for us. Later, having gotten some clean, dry clothes on and put all our riding gear out to dry, we went back to eat and drink our fill.
Our bikes were "naked", which was a luxury. The weather had improved dramatically and it was to be the first day of the heatwave that effected a large swathe of Europe for a week or so. The day before I had messaged a friend back in London, saying where we were. She had been the reason that we first visited the area about 18 years earlier. She had bought a pile of stones that had once been a house and spent time each year travelling down and doing it up. Pressures of life necessitated that she sadly needed to sell. She replied to my text saying that her Aunty Val and Uncle Rick had bought it and were there, so we popped along, had a beer sitting in the garden discussing the ongoing project and reminiscing about previous visits, a lovely hour or so.
I would strongly recommend calling into the campsite at Alboussiere. It is not expensive, there is an abundance of trails nearby and the roads are great too, well worth a visit.
Out timetable was starting to slip and we definitely wanted to spend time in the Alps, so another day on the road to Briancon was required. It was a hot, sunny Sunday and there were bikes out by the hundreds, with and without engines. The route took us past L'Alpe D'Huez, which, for those who don't know, is a famous cycle climb. From the road at the foot of the climb, it goes up for 12 km to the cycle/ski resort at the top. When I say "up", I can't emphasise enough what "up" means. Huge respect for those lycra-clad cyclists.
In Briancon, we stayed with our mate Seb. We were there two years ago and wanted more of those Alpine trails that he knows so well. I could write a whole thing on Seb, his bikes and his adventures, but not now because it would overshadow our story. Suffice to say, he chefs during the winter in the ski resorts and rides the rest of the year. His chosen off-road steed is an old and very well used old Africa Twin. Over a glass or several, we planned the next few day's rides across the mountains of France, Italy and into Switzerland. Time constraints meant we were not going to make the Swiss TET as it was too far east for this trip, next time. Seb would guide us for the best part of the next day which was great as it means we don't have to think about making sure we're on the right trail.
The trails and scenery were utterly spectacular. High mountains never fail to leave an overwhelming impression. This was the first time that Will had travelled over such terrain, having previously been limited to the mountains of Wales, also a great place but not close to the Alps. Truly wonderful. The final Alpine pass for us was the Grand Saint Bernard Pass, it was with some disappointment that we descended and headed towards Montreux on Lake Geneva.
Milky had a shock when we stopped at a supermarket to buy some bits for lunch. The handy till receipt usefully showed the exchange rate. He vowed not to buy anything else till Germany. The roads in Switzerland are pretty busy and slow, particularly after France and Italy. To use the motorways requires a vignette, which cost the best part of £40, it lasts a year but not much use if you only want to get across the country and out the other side in a day. Needless to say, we didn't get one but did jump on and off a couple of times to get past big towns.
Our lovely friends Robert and Nina live in Germany, close to the Swiss border. Their home is the most amazing old farmhouse. I have visited several times and still not got the hang of navigating the various steep staircases and multitude rooms that are full of things, many, many things. It appears crazier than before because their grown-up children have flown the nest and there aren't the voices and footsteps coming from different directions.
The great advantage of this house is that it is wonderfully cool during the intense heat that we were experiencing. The town where they live, being at the southern point of the Black Forest, is not thought to be a politically radical area but the town, like so many in Germany, have hosted refugee families from troubled areas of the world.
The town constructed some temporary homes and Robert is involved with the local authority in finding more permanent housing and jobs. Some of the people from Syria were keen to make the cheese that they used to have at home and a local farmer sells them milk and allows the use of his small dairy to make the semi-hard cheese. We were invited to become cheesemakers and were surprised by what an easy process it is.
After a couple of nights in the cool house, we needed to head towards home in the ever-increasing heat. It wasn't long before we were back in France and going through a forest, we soon spotted some likely looking trails but were disappointed to find they were not for us to play on.
Having been on so many excellent, legitimate trails we did not want to upset anyone by riding where we were not wanted. Having reached the town of Neufchateau early afternoon, we decided to stop for the day in a shady campsite. As soon as we arrived, Will went off in search of cold beer, returning not only with beer but ice polls too. One of the best calls of the trip.
The following morning, we thought we might be proper tourists and headed out to find a Roman fort outside the town. It was in a forest and cost €9 each, the alternative was a very promising looking trail through the forest which didn't take us too far out the way.
Following that one, we found several more, including one through a wood with the remains of an Abbey, a nice surprise as we thought that our trail riding was done with. However, when we checked our progress, the distance travelled was very little. It had been worth it. Now some miles needed to be covered so heads down, next stop Amien, striking distance to Calais the next day and the ferry home.
I haven't mentioned how our bikes fared on this journey. Pretty good really. My 640 broke a chain and lost a tooth on the gearbox sprocket on the trail but a replacement split link sorted. Milky's 690 started to develop some clutch slip under load.
It was on the home leg so he just took it easy, not accelerating too eagerly. The GS had a few brake issues, partly due to Will not knowing about having to turn off the ABS each time he turned the ignition on.
We may have overheated the brakes too and new brake fluid is on the list of tasks to do. The only other thing to mention is tyres. Both Milky and I had chosen to splash out on new sets. By coincidence, we both chose Mitas tyres, but different ones. I selected the MC 23 Rockriders, which worked well off-road in the muddy bits and on the loose stony/rocky going. Not so sure-footed on the road, as is to be expected.
Milky went for the E10 on the front and an E07 on the rear, they are supposed to be a 50/50 road/off-road claim. Milky might dispute this description. He struggled to find grip on anything that was slippery or loose but was more comfortable than I on the wet tarmac. Oh, the only other thing is that Will discovered his Krauser panniers have an inherent weakness if they ground out when showing off in what you think is snow but turns out to be ice!
Where next guys? Back to the Alps, or maybe the Pyrenees, or maybe Bulgaria, what about...let's have another beer and talk about it.
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