I had spent my days off in the previous two weeks making various bikely preparations. It's had a full service done bit-by-bit over the last three months, with the exception of two time-consuming items: checking the valve clearances and re-lubing the rear hub. Wise advice from them what know suggests that both these items can be safely left until a higher mileage, and in the absence of any indication of malfunction that's what I did. I fitted new steering head bearings to make it steer properly, and put fresh oil in the forks. Together with a new pair of Michelin Pilot Road 2 radials, this has transformed the handling.
Other modifications included making a bracket to move the indicators up and back so they wouldn't interfere with the panniers, and a small alloy plate below the number plate for a GB sticker. The Sprint's rear bodywork is so curvaceous that there was literally no flat surface for the sticker to be visible.
The Sprint has a built-in Powerlet socket beneath the rider's left knee (I'm guessing the most convenient position for heated clothing) so I installed another one on the left of the dash panel for the satnav. I also made up a long cable so that I could have a cigarette-lighter socket inside the tank bag, connected to the original socket, to recharge the phone on the move. Both worked fine and were very useful.
I left home at silly o'clock. A brief stop at Cardiff West services for an archive shot ...
... and then on to Oxford. D2 shares a house there with D1 and her partner, so it was pleasant to have lunch together. Then we mounted the topbox (which had suddenly been filled with gold bullion, apparently) and were ready to go. Last photo-opportunity:
and we were on our way.
OK, confession time. I am not used to having a pillion passenger on board. The last time I rode two-up was last year on the Bonnie, when D2 visited for the weekend. Anna and I did quite a few days out on the Pan, and before that (long, long before that) I did a tour of Ireland with D2's Mum on my old Jawa. But apart from giving random strangers a lift to a petrol station on the odd occasion, that's about it. And, of course, D2's experience of riding shotgun was minimal, and zero on a fast bike like the Sprint. Heavy luggage is different - it's low down and it doesn't move about - but even a light passenger like D2 makes a big difference to the dynamics. So I started off ultra-cautious and kept it to around 60 mph as we got onto the M40 towards London. The Sprint was bored and drumming its fingers on the desk, and I was feeling like the whole journey would take forever, so when we stopped for fuel at Beaconsfield I asked D2 how she was finding it. She was absolutely OK, so after that I upped the speed to reasonable levels (i.e. not enough to draw unwelcome attention) and we started making a bit more progress.
Traffic was modest, even on the M25, and we got to the Eurotunnel terminal at Folkestone in good time. I am in awe of the efficiency of the tunnel's operation and systems. D2 set us an immediate challenge by being over-eager and pressing the 'French' button on the card reader, so our Francophone part of the trip started early. In goes the card (the one you used to pay online), and up comes a message, calling you by name (reassuring) and listing the available crossings, including the earliest available and the one you actually booked. We pressed the button for the next crossing (the one before our booked crossing) and then rode onto the train. I imagine it is easy for them to do this for a bike, as we take up very little room on the train, but it is massively convenient. Every time I have used Eurotunnel I have arrived early, and got onto an earlier crossing than scheduled. It takes a lot of the drama out of journey planning - when travelling by ferry I always get there far too early, as missing the crossing there would involve a long wait for the next one, so the Tunnel is very time-efficient for motorcyclists. Rock up, ride on, off you go. Space age stuff.
I knew I had a full day's ride from home on the first day, so I planned an early evening crossing and booked into a hotel in Coquelles (a suburb of Calais, where the Tunnel terminates) for that night. With the loss of one hour from moving to French time, we got there about 7 pm. Thanks to a recommendation from Endemoniada_88, I chose the Formule 1 hotel and booked online for the first and last nights. It was a good move. (Thanks, mate.)
A word about the Formule 1 (usually abbreviated to HotelF1 in the guidebooks). They are cheap (€35 per night for a double + single bunk room, and breakfast is under €4) and they are cheerful, but the Ritz they are not. You get a basic room which (on my limited experience) is clean and comfy. If you arrive when Reception is open, you get a 6-digit code which gets you into the parking area, the hotel building, and your room. If you arrive in the middle of the night, you can check in through a machine on the wall and get the same. I don't need luxury (although clean is good), so for me this is fine. There are two drawbacks: one is that the showers and toilets are communal, so sometimes things aren't quite as you would have them at home. I can put up with this, but D2 was less easily convinced. The other is a function of being at the very lowest price point - you are sharing accommodation with contractors working away from home, truckers, reps on business trips, and parties of schoolchildren. This means that noise levels late at night can be high. Again, this didn't worry me, but D2 didn't get much sleep. However, the modest cost meant that we could have a room each, which gave us a bit of breathing space. On the positive side, there is secure parking, and breakfast is an all-you-can-eat buffet: unlimited coffee (vital), baguettes and croissants, but also Brit-friendly cereals and milk, and you can fill up enough to make an apple and a bottle of water do for lunch.
On the whole, if I were travelling alone, I would use these every time. With D2 along, they slide down the scale to a kind of backstop position when all else fails. But still it's good to know they are there.
On the recommendation of a party of Lancashire bikers, we took a 10-minute walk to the nearest eaterie, a bizarre place called the Buffalo Grill. It's a chain restaurant (curiously, we found another one near the other F1 we stopped at in Verdun, which is probably not a coincidence) and with a Wild West theme. I feared a McDonalds level of nutrition, but being in France (and packed with local people - good sign) the food was excellent.
And so to bed, with a re-pack of the panniers and much use of the free wi-fi (pronounce it 'wiffy' if you have to ask) to burn the last of the phone's battery before a good night's sleep. For me, at least.