Destination: Harz

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Destination: Harz

Post  weasley on Mon Jun 13 2011, 22:19

I wanted to put my experience in words. Turns out I need a lot of words!

In June 2010 I was one of 6 members to join up with our German colleagues for the inaugural Anglo-Deutsch Thundercat meet. Whereas we hold several smaller meets a year in different locations, in Germany they do one big bash in a different location every year. Last year it was in the Eifel region (home of the Nürburgring) and this year it was in the Harz region.

Months ago I signed up for this along with several other members. As the weeks passed various events conspired against people and eventually I was one of only two still going (along with Espaceman/John). I wasn’t being put off though – I had been looking forward to this for the best part of a year.

The German meet was being held in a campsite in Kelbra, just over what would have been the old East-West German border. We were staying in huts, so no need to carry tents etc. There would be two group ride-outs – one on the Friday and one on the Saturday.

A quick look at Google Maps showed it was (a) 619 miles from home and (b) in the middle of nowhere. I formed my travel plan; I would leave on Wednesday morning, catch a lunchtime Eurotunnel train and ride as far as Venlo (on the Dutch-German border). I would then stay overnight and push on through Germany the next day. For the return I planned to do the whole lot in one hit on Sunday.

I sorted all of the paperwork: renewing my insurance with Carole Nash gave me European breakdown cover (which also covers my KDX 125 if ever I need it!), I booked a return Eurotunnel crossing (as cheap as the ferries and at least twice as quick), I booked an overnight hotel in Venlo and let the Germans know I was coming.

I also decided I needed some sat-nav support. Bike-specific solutions are simply too expensive and besides, I have three sat-navs in the house (not including my iPhone) so I decided to go ‘ghetto’ (I believe the phrase is). One unused TomTom GO 710 (with a recently replaced battery), a cigarette-lighter power lead attachment (connects to the permanent fly-lead for my Optimate charger), a 3.5mm extension cable and a load of sticky-backed Velcro®. After a bit of faffing it was installed and, some might say, looked factory-fitted.

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Next, luggage. I was under the impression I needed to take my own bedding, so squeezed a maggot sleeping bad and a pillow into a large rucksack – this would be lashed to the pillion seat with a luggage net as a crude but effective tailpack. Everything else was going in the Oxford Sports Humpback panniers.

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The bike was given a major service over the winter but had been suffering a dropped cylinder. I believed I had tracked this down to a duff plug cap which I had replaced but I hadn’t really had time to verify this. I also had not had time to road-test the sat-nav setup; having never ridden with one before I had no idea if I could read it, if it would distract me, or even if the Velcro® would hold. Apart from this, I was otherwise ready to go. A bit more air in the tyres, a quick once-over and then throw the luggage on, plug the sat-nav in and, around 09:30 on Wednesday, I’m off.

The weather was perfect – sunny, mild and dry. Traffic was light and the trip to the tunnel was uneventful. I had the obligatory stop at Clackett Lane services (it seems I can never actually drive or ride past) and arrived at the tunnel around 40 minutes ahead of my booked train. Thankfully the bike was running beautifully and the sat-nav was easy to use and stayed in place. A quick bite to eat and then on to the train for the usual bike crossing experience (friendly chatting with some of the other bikers and blank ignorance from the others).

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35 minutes later I emerge into the bright, warm sunshine of Calais. Straight onto the autoroute for the quickest way out of France. In no time at all I’m in Belgium. I can tell I’m in Belgium because almost immediately there’s an Audi inches from my rear wheel and the road surface is like a ploughed field. Belgium seems to last forever and I get caught in the obligatory Antwerp ring road traffic, calling for a lengthy period of adventurous filtering.

Finally I clear Belgium and hit the Netherlands. I can tell I am in the Netherlands because the road is like a billiard table and there are windmills. In what seems like no time at all I am nearly across the country and closing in on Venlo. Here, I easily find the Campanile Venlo hotel, park up and switch off. Made it.

The Campanile Venlo hotel is a revelation. I have used Campanile hotels before I know they are on the ‘value’ side of things but I am chuffed to bits with this one. The staff are friendly (even to a fly-splattered, sweaty, dishevelled biker) and the room is spotless with everything I need for a stop-over. Most importantly there is a kettle, tea bags, free wi-fi and a bath – that was my evening sorted. Well, a quick but filling meal in the restaurant along with a well-earned cold beer completed the festivities. A Skype video call home and then I’m sleeping the sleep of the dead.

The next morning is more than mild – it’s warm (and it’s only 8 o’clock). Breakfast is the usual continental buffet affair then check-out, pack the bike up again, get on, fire up the engine and go to leave. The bike seems reluctant to move and I twig why. I switch it off again, get my helmet and gloves off again and remove the ENORMOUS chain and lock securing the front wheel to the lamp-post. Lock packed and this time I can go; I am 250 miles from my destination.

I don’t go straight there though. I had arranged to meet some of the German members en route; firstly meeting Bigfoot, Tom and Matzi at Duisberg. I get there around 15 minutes ahead of our arranged time and wait in the warm sun for their arrival.

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They duly arrive (late, I might add), we make our introductions and set off for the next meeting point; a fuel station in Beckum. Here, several more German members arrive and at this point I get contact from John. He has left home around 3:30 that morning and is closing in on us fast. Looks like he’s about 45 minutes away so we wait for him.

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Finally he arrives and we get going. Willi has planned a scenic route to the destination, so we follow him through towns, villages, forests and valleys, thankful to have someone else to follow and for getting off of the autobahn. Some time later we pull up at a local eatery to sample some hearty cuisine. I go for the McRoyal McMeal with Fanta.

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After lunch the group splits up; some want to get there directly and others want to continue their back-road tour. John and I opt to join the straightliners (Tom, Matzi and Dachsi) and we make very German progress along the autobahn, eventually arriving around 4 in the afternoon. There are a lot of them already there – there are greetings all round, then beer.

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Some time later it is apparent that the other part of our group still isn’t there. Then word comes through there has been an accident – one of the members (in fact the one I had originally agreed to meet in Duisberg, Bigfoot) has failed to take a corner and left the road. He is in hospital; he is battered and bruised but largely OK. The bike, it is said, is not. The rest of this group finally arrive and after beer, food and chat it’s time for bed. Turns out there is bedding! Never mind.

Friday morning. The ride-out is planned for 10, but we all know that getting 40+ bikes ready for then isn’t going to happen. No matter, a basic but welcome breakfast buffet fills a hole and the weather is warm and sunny. Finally, around 10:30, it’s time to ride.

I had witnessed the German group riding at the previous year’s meet but it still causes me to smile to myself. It’s not the speed (which is sensible but progressive) nor the overtaking (which is similar) but the way they marshal other road users to keep the group together. On approach to a junction a bike is parked across every possible entry and exit point, holding any traffic up until the whole group is through. It’s like having police outriders. And the amazing thing is that the other road users take it. The result is that the group of 40+ bikes stays mostly together, only occasionally being broken up by traffic lights.

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But the star of the show is the roads. I’m not down with the kids, but I believe the saying is “OMG”. Flowing roads with corners from fast to hairpin. The scenery isn’t mountainous wonder but pine-covered hills and valleys. The towns are impossibly quaint – wooden-clad houses with tall-spired churches, winding streets and mostly free of heavy traffic. The road surface varies from very good to mostly good and the quality of riding right across the group is high, meaning no getting caught behind that point-and-squirt-but-wobble-round-corners type. There are occasional breaks for cigarettes and finally for lunch. The venue this time is truly local; the name translates as “The Schnitzel King”. Needless to say, I had schnitzel. John opts for a sausage. I translated the menu to him – “the spiciest currywurst in the region” I said. “I like spicy food” he says. It arrives and the spicy sauce is in a jug. “You might want to test that before committing to it” says I, to no avail. Turns out it’s “the hottest thing I’ve had in my mouth for a long time” and requires several minutes of tongue-under-a-running-tap therapy. “I did warn you”.

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After lunch we left the cool restaurant to remount our bikes in the blazing sunshine – it must have been approaching 30°C which was, in truth, a little too hot. Once we were going again everything was cool and the roads and scenery just kept on coming. By 5:30 we had covered around 150 miles were heading for home…

…or so we thought. In fact we rode straight past our camp site and kept on going. We eventually stopped in a car park near a large building. I asked what was happening and was told we were visiting Bigfoot in hospital. “What, ALL of us?!”. “Ja…. we try”. And so we did. Around 30 bikers crowded into the hospital, into the corridors of the ward he was staying on. The staff were fantastic – they thought it was funny/mad but had no concerns about it at all. Our friend appeared and was in good spirits – he had stitches to his chin and a few bumps and bruises but was basically OK and was going to join us the next day for the BBQ. The mood was good.

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After pictures and chat at the hospital we rode the short journey back to the campsite where a cool shower and a cold beer did the trick. The evening was spent sitting outside, eating ordered-in pizza, drinking beer and generally wandering up and down the rows of bikes, chatting to owners about this bit and that part. I became inexplicably drawn to a street-fightered Thundercat – I am not a fan of street-fighters but this, although still very much work-in-progress, really appealed to me as it was done sensibly and with thought, rather than just to look like this or that. The owner, Mastacleana, was a great guy too. I would like to see the end product one day.

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Beer finally gave way to bed, but before I retired I agreed that I would be up and ready for an 8:30 sortie to “the Kyffhäuser”.

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Now, the Kyffhäuser, it turns out, is something of a celebrity road amongst bikers. It is around 3.5 miles of relentless corners that climb up the hill nearby. Think of it as a sort of Cat and Fiddle, but shorter and without the pub… or stone walls….. or stupid speed limit. I guess there must be a speed limit but who can tell on these foreign roads?

As planned a few of us were up and ready to take it on. The weather was perfect – getting warm but still with a cool morning air. It was bright and the road was already getting warm. In total we did three ‘laps’ of the road; one lap comprising a run up the hill, followed by a run back down. The corners were all fairly tight and I eventually settled on doing the whole thing in 2nd gear. I also discovered I am better on lefts than rights and determined this is largely down to a lack of throttle finesse on right handers, with my right arm under compression from pushing the bar and closer to my body as I leant off the bike to that side. I’m going to have to work on that. I also discovered that I barely sat on the seat for the whole run and by the end my thighs felt like they had been in the gym for half an hour and I had a right sweat on. I’m going to have to work on that too.

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Anyway, with the Kyffhäuser dispatched we returned to the site to await the day’s ride-out. Sitting in the morning sun, surrounded by bikes and new mates, idly discussing this and that, it was a chilled time. Then we heard it. We all heard it and we all thought the same thing.

Running alongside the campsite is a long, straight road. You have to use this road to get in and out of the site. The site had hundreds of people in it, many of whom were bike groups. All day long you would hear bikes on fruity pipes accelerating along this road either approaching or leaving the site. On this morning we heard, in the distance, the unmistakeable sound of a Jap inline-4 with a racy can accelerating hard along this road. Then we all heard a loud ‘bang’. Then we all heard nothing. To a man we all stood from our seats and looked at each other. Then someone jumped in their van and drove off to investigate. We waited. Around 10 minutes later a helicopter arrived.

Soon enough we knew. One of our group had had a big one. I won’t go into details except to say it involved a car. The group went silent. There were looks of shock all around. I don’t mind admitting it got to me. I was a long way from home, from my wife and two kids, and suddenly it wasn’t fun any more. One of us was down and it didn’t look good. The ride-out was cancelled and I took the decision to leave. I had an overwhelming urge to be with my family – I spoke to my wife, told her the situation and made hasty plans to come home. I made sure that the group knew my plans and were OK about it – they were all very understanding and supportive. I called the hotel in Venlo and got their last room for that night – I didn’t fancy the heroic single hit home any more and opted for a steady return trip.

News came through that the rider was alive but very badly injured. Better news than I had expected and it helped to remove doubt and give hope. Within the hour I was packed and leaving with many sombre farewells and a vow to return next year. On leaving the site I had to ride past the scene of the accident. The rider had been taken to hospital but his leathers and bike lay where they landed. Not a nice scene, especially as a prelude to a long ride home.

Needless to say I rode carefully away from Kelbra, my head going over and over the “what ifs”. The first part of the route was through A-type roads and I eventually found my rhythm – the roads were nice, the traffic was clear, the weather was fine and I found myself, every now and then, enjoying the riding. I eventually hit the autobahn and, as is the way, settled at my resonant cruising speed, which seems to be around 90 mph. I decided that it was better to ride ‘normally’ than to force myself to ride slower and, effectively, out of my comfort zone. Hour led to hour, the kilometres clicked over and over and by 5 in the evening I was back in Venlo. The distance and time had helped me to rationalise the day’s events and I felt more positive again, although with a strong sense of sorrow and support for Torsten and his family. I let the group know I was OK and they let me know that Torsten was critical but stable and the prognosis was good. Apparently the mood in the campsite had lifted at the news and things were returning to something like normal. I was happy as I was halfway home. I used the free wi-fi to amend my Eurotunnel booking and got my head down.

After the same excellent service at the hotel I left the next day under very different weather. Overnight I had been woken by thunder and now the roads were wet. It was significantly cooler too and I soon wished I’d put more layers on. I pushed on across the Netherlands and reached Belgium. This time on a Sunday there was no Antwerp traffic but this was where it started to rain. Showers on and off to start with then, as I reached France, it started to rain properly. I was wearing a water-proof touring-style leather/textile suit and anything valuable in my luggage was in a plastic bag, so I kept going. The rain became heaviest as I reached the Eurotunnel terminal, where I had to queue for 30 minutes to clear the border controls. No cover, nothing you can do but just sit there and take it.

Luckily I had a ticket which got me straight on the next train and I was the last bike on before the doors were shut. The crossing was spent drying off, swapping for my winter gloves and covering the panniers. In Folkestone I rode off into showers and that’s how it remained until I got home around 4 that evening. I am always pleased to see my wife and children but this time was very special. My 3 year old daughter had been tracking my progress online (iPhone MobileMe Find My Phone!) and was waiting for me as I pulled onto the drive. My wife had a cup of tea brewed. I was home, safely, no incidents and nearly 1,500 miles more experienced.

Looking back, if it’s possible to take the accident out of the picture then I very much enjoyed the trip – the people were warm and welcoming, the roads were fantastic and the trips there and back had been easy. Of course you can’t forget what happened and my thoughts remain with Torsten for a speedy recovery. Could’ve been any one of us.

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Re: Destination: Harz

Post  yamahamad on Mon Jun 13 2011, 22:44

Excellent write up & pictures paul. Damn shame about torsten & i can understand the overwhelming urge to get home & be with family.
I read yesterday or the day before that he is stable, hope he is over the worst & wish him a speedy recovery.
Paul.
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Re: Destination: Harz

Post  Guest on Mon Jun 13 2011, 22:46

Brilliant Paul , really brilliant . You took much better pictures than me , the one of me and "the sausage" it looks far too much like ermm ,well you know !
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Re: Destination: Harz

Post  0ldcat on Tue Jun 14 2011, 09:29

Excellent write up and photo's Paul.

Between yours and Johns also excellent report, perhaps we could drum up support for next year.

Shame to hear of the two offs, especially the more serious of them.
My thoughts and wishes for speedy recovery to them both.
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