Vorselaar, Belgium, to MC Touring Camp, Denmark, 584 miles
Anna and I refer to the TomTom as 'Jane', because that is the voice option we both prefer. I'm sure Anna likes Jane because her voice is clear and crisp, but I have darker motives. Jane's voice is cool and clear, a little upper-crust (she has a similar vowel range to the Queen's, and I am sure that she would refer to the things you carry coal in as 'sex'). She sounds like a head prefect at an exclusive girls' school, and you just know that under that starchy uniform she is wearing Victoria's Secret undies, and carrying a cane behind her back, with a smile that says she knows what you are thinking.
But I digress.
The TomTom sits behind the screen of the bike, with the sound off, as I don't have the Bluetoothery to get the voices in my head. I have to keep looking at it, which is a slight distraction, but nevertheless it was well worth bringing along. If I refer to Jane again in this posting, you will know who I mean.
So Jane led me through some pleasant wooded lanes and eventually to the A21 autoroute. The Pan was nicely warmed up when we hit the main road, so I settled down in the overtaking lane and wound the throttle open. A cruising speed of 90 seemed to fit in well with the rest of the traffic and made a nice balance between keeping it sensible and actually getting on with it. Apart from a few stops to take on fuel, or food, or just to have a stretch, that is the story of the next eight hours or so, so I won't bore you with a list of places I stopped or road numbers I ticked off. The sad truth is that motorways in Europe are the same as motorways in the UK – boring as hell. I will content myself with some observations about the driving styles of the countries I passed through. (And 'passed through' is the right phrase, as well. I don't feel I saw anything of the countries themselves, just their lorry parks and fast-food emporia, which is a very good reason for me to take an extra day next time, and stick to A-roads.)
The Belgians are typically European in their driving, in that at some point in their training someone mentioned lane discipline, and they remembered what they had been told. If they see you coming up fast behind, they will pull over (or indicate to say that they intend to at the next opportunity, which is helpful), and they don't pull out in front of you. They seem to be aware of bikes, and nowhere is this evident more than in stationary queues. Once or twice in Belgium I encountered stationary traffic on the autoroute, mainly around Antwerp, and the cars always leave a good space between lanes for bikes to use. If they see you coming, many of them will actually pull forward out of your way. This is immensely helpful and costs them nothing, which I suppose is why it is almost never seen in the UK. The Belgian motorcyclists used this to the full, zipping through the traffic like it wasn't there, but being a foreigner and a little cautious (and remembering that the fully-loaded Pan is w-i-d-e), I was a little less ambitious. Nevertheless, it was a pleasure to trickle through a solid traffic jam without feeling all the evil stares from the car-bound masses.
I have to confess to being a little apprehensive about riding in Germany. I had never visited before, never mind ridden a bike there, and stories of being followed up the fast lane by a Mercedes doing 160 mph with its lights flashing led me to be a little nervous. I needn't have worried. The German drivers were very disciplined and polite, and although I did see a few cars doing fabulous speeds (usually in convoys of three, for some reason), there was no aggression – just an acceptance that some people like to travel faster than others, and if we all obey some simple rules there need be no drama about it. In the UK, there would have been some self-righteous idiot in the fast lane doing 69.999 mph "because no-one is allowed go faster than this, so I can't be holding anyone up". Another thing is that I didn't see any members of the Middle Lane Owners' Club that blight the motorways of Britain. If you're finished overtaking, you get back into the right-hand lane, leaving two lanes clear for faster traffic. It just works. Even when the right-hand lane was a procession of lorries doing the prescribed 56 mph, the traffic never seemed to block up like it does in the UK.
I amused myself during the more boring bits by having an imaginary conversation with myself, along the lines of:
"Look, Richard, in zis car there are Chermans!"
"Yes, indeed, Chermans, many Chermans!"
I think you had to be there. Perhaps I watched too much Fawlty Towers. But the Germans I spoke to in filling stations and eating places were pleasant, friendly and polite, so Germany made a good impression on this first-time visitor.
The stretch from Osnabrück to Hamburg was a bit of a nightmare. There are major roadworks for mile after mile, where each carriageway is funnelled down to two narrow lanes of contraflow. Strangely, there were no major delays (in the UK, I am sure there would have been tailbacks and accidents and all sorts), but riding for 10 miles at 50 mph does nothing for your averages. Then the road opens out and you get back up to a decent cruise – only for the signs to appear for the next one half a mile later. It was very frustrating. However, it did make me notice one thing – sensible speed limits work.
Before each of the sections of road works, there was a speed limit sign – usually 120 km/hr, or 75 mph. That was followed by 110, 100, 90 and so on. The amazing thing was that everyone obeyed them. Everyone sees the signs, everyone recognises that they are there for a good reason, and everyone slows down, so that by the start of the roadworks everyone is down to 50 mph or so, and they tend to stick to it until the limit is cancelled. As soon as the roadworks are finished, the limit is removed and everyone proceeds as normal. No panic braking, no miles of 'ghost jams', just orderly and sensible driving. It actually felt very safe, and much better than the same thing on UK motorways, where everyone ignores the limits until the Gatsos or the Specs cameras appear to keep everyone in sullen good behaviour (and the lower limit is kept in force for a mile after the end of the roadworks, just to make sure we know who's boss, and to catch those who decide to speed up before they are permitted to do so).
Somewhere else entirely.
I have a theory. In Germany, on much of the autobahn network, there are no speed limits. People are trusted to make their own decisions about how fast they go. When there is a reason to do so, speed limits are imposed, in a sensible way, and removed as soon as they are not needed. Because of this, German drivers seem far more prepared to observe speed limits than British drivers are. They recognise that they are there for everyone's benefit, and used in specific circumstances, rather than as a blanket control measure designed to take the fun out of motoring and raise some cash from the motorist at the same time. I didn't see a single speed camera or traffic patrol car in Germany, and yet the compliance with speed limits was far higher than in our camera-infested country.
I got to Bremen, where I had pencilled in a potential overnight stop, in the early evening, and wondered whether I should leave the autobahn and look for a campsite. But by then I had a destination fixation, and I decided to press on. I reckoned I could be at my destination by 10 pm, so I had another drink of water and a handful of Trail Mix and pressed on.
The route past Hamburg and then on towards Kiel and Flensburg was pretty dull, but by then the traffic was thinning out and could keep up some decent speeds. However, my body was starting to complain, and any advantage I gained by being able to cruise at a good rate was negated by having to stop more and more frequently to relieve my wrists, arms, back, hips and knees – all of which were complaining loudly by this time.
I entered Denmark and stopped at the first service area for a bite to eat, and chatted to the Danish girl behind the counter, who told me to "Enjoy Danmark!" Right, I thought, I will. I bought a small "DK" sticker and stuck it on the other pannier to match the GB sticker I had put on earlier, as a kind of friendship gesture. I ate my crisps (I think here they would have to be called a 'potato-related snack product' in line with the Trades Descriptions Act) and set off again.
This was a lovely pull-in off the E45 in Denmark - quiet, wooded, private, and with a lake. I could have stayed there, quite happily.
I finally came off the motorway and started down the maze of roads and lanes towards the MC Touring Club campsite. This was the hardest bit of the day. It was dark, the roads were narrow (and with deep ditches alongside for the unwary), my visor was filthy, and I kept missing Jane's instructions to turn. However, eventually Jane signalled that I was at my destination, and sure enough there was a sign "MC Touring Club", a tarmac area to pull onto, and a guy standing there waving at me. This was Poul, the friend who had suggested the trip. We shook hands, I climbed creakily off the bike, and we had a beer. It was 10 pm – a full 12 hours since I had set off.
The site was virtually empty, so I pitched up near Poul's tent, had a couple more beers, and climbed into the sleeping bag. So far, so good.