48h moules-frites run

After a short, agitated night sleep the alarm clock rang at 6am. We were up in a matter of minutes, excited about the weekend ahead. None of that drifting in and out of sleep, eyelids glued together behaviour that usually characterizes Monday to Fridays…The panniers liners were packed and ready in the hallway and the biking gear neatly laid out in the guest room. 30 minutes later we were on our bikes and ready to hit the road.

The plan was simple. Blast out of London, enter “Chirac’s 200mph a*s*h*le” at Folkestone and from Calais enjoy a nice ride on small coastal roads to our place on the Belgian seaside. The Sunday would see us ride to Bruges, be tourists for an afternoon and head back to London. Getting out of London was uneventful, if only very quiet and therefore less painful than usual. It is when we hit the M20 that the ride became splendid. Although we were on a boring motorway, we were surrounded by beautiful countryside covered in low fog and heading straight towards a fluorescent orange sunrise. Beautiful; we were in the “zone”.

We had covered about 40 miles and had another 20 to go when the W650 broke down… at 70mph on the middle lane of the M20… ouch! We managed to pull over and quickly discovered that the tank was empty. Pff! Well done us! Everything had been carefully planned except for fuel. I will digress here and complain about the W650 (blame the bike not the rider); I love the whole retro look Kawasaki was going for and they did a great job, but no fuel gauge? Really?? Not even a low fuel warning light?? To be fair, you’d have thought that after 4 such occasions in 6 months of ownership we would be more careful but nope, not wired this way… Anyway, we decided to adopt a positive attitude and walked about a mile back to a petrol station where we filled a jerry can. The whole operation only delayed us by about 30 minutes and we managed to get on the following train. The shuttle is very good like that with bikes, you just show up when you want, regardless of your reservation and they’ll put you on the next available train.

We got out on the other side of the channel to find the kind of fog Europeans always associate with London. The visibility could not have been more than 500 meters. We rode on b-roads from Calais to Dunkirk. This part of France is very….French. It’s amazing how a narrow stretch of water can make such a difference. 30 minutes away from Folkestone we were now riding through quaint French villages with people queuing in front of the local “boucherie”, older gentlemen with berets and Peugeots with those yellow front lights from the 80s.

In Dunkirk we made a little detour to ride a road I had spotted on Google Maps; the Route de la Digue du Braek, essentially a narrow road on an artificial sandbank about 2 miles long. On one side was the Channel, on the other the port of Dunkirk. In the middle sand patches. This is a very unusual and beautiful road and I would recommend it to anyone who rides in the area. We arrived in time for lunch in Oostduinkerke where we parked the bikes in the underground garage. We met up with Lucie and Karim, friends from Brussels who came up to spend some time with us and went for a long, foggy walk on the beach. We had a great time catching up and filling up on Belgian beers and moules-frites.

Sunday morning was radiant. The sun was finally out and the views of the sea were fantastic. We rode the 25 miles to Bruges following canals and carving through the infamous fields of Flanders. Bruges was the way I remembered it; incredibly pretty and full of chocolate. We played tourists for the afternoon and then headed back to London. This time we took the E40 highway to Calais because we were short on time and it was getting dark anyway. This time though, we were riding into a beautiful fluorescent orange sunset; a fitting end to our 48 hour weekend trip to Belgium.

Kawasaki Nomad 1600

The bike I currently use for my tours is a 2005 Kawasaki Nomad 1600. I’ve come to realize that it is one of the best bikes to tour Europe and it really does it for me. Other choices would have been a BMW 1200, either the GS or the RT but I do enjoy a bit of chrome and a bit of noise…

I didn’t buy the Nomad with the view to tour much on it. I guess the idea was to treat myself to a big beautiful piece of machinery.  And I quickly found out that out on the open road this thing really comes to its own!

Once you get used to the sheer size of it, the Nomad is a very comfortable bike to ride. It is quite impressive at first; the wide handlebars and the huge tank give the rider the impression that they have bitten more than they can chew. But once you’ve covered a few meters you realise that it is a surprisingly well balanced machine with very stable and light steering. The saddle is very wide, giving the rider plenty of space to move around. Same for the big floorboards. The passenger is treated very well too, with ample seating space and passenger floorboards. One thing to note is that the Nomad is so wide and stable that adding an average sized human on the back of it does not affect it at all. No change to handling, no change to power.

The engine is impressive as well. But one has to remember that this is a big bore V-twin. This is a class of its own and should not be compared to other engine architectures. I have to say that I was a little confused in the beginning. I was expecting a 1600cc engine to blow my socks away; after all, it’s nearly 3 times bigger than a Honda Hornet so it should go 3 times faster right? Nope. What it does is give the rider tonnes of torque to play with. And that’s how it should be ridden.

The Nomad ticks many of my boxes and it has a lot of the things I look for in a bike; style (debatable for some), space, noise and a certain degree of practicality. I know the latter may come as a surprise to some but with such big hardbags the rider can take whatever they need for any type of trip. This is actually one of my criteria for bikes; storage. I hate carrying gear in a rucksack, or having to loop my chain around the handlebar while riding. Each pannier carries about 35L; plenty for anyone! In addition to that there are lots of places where one can add power plugs, or fix a GPS etc…

 Accessories

I’ve added a few bits to my bike. It is a good tourer out of the box but it can do with a few more touring essentials.

The first change I did was to add a SwitchBlade 2up windshield by National Cycle; it is a really tall screen that can come off the bike in seconds. Helmet buffeting is a big problem when touring for hours; it can really ruin your experience. That’s why I think is is essential to have good wind protection.

The second addition was an intercom system. I had tried a Bluetooth system and, while they are good enough for around town, I quickly found that it was useless on the highway. So I invested in a Starcom Advance system. All hard-wired. These things are great! It’s basically a little aluminium box with lots of plugs that you hide somewhere in your bike and connect to when you want to listen to music, speak to your passenger etc… Mine came with a Bluetooth option which means it connects to my phone (although I’ve never used it). The sound quality is excellent and one of the clever tricks is that it automatically adapts the volume level to compensate for surrounding noise. This is really a must have for long tours. Listening to music (in background) and being able to discuss with your passenger really enhances the touring experience. I would recommend it to anyone. You can find second hand units on eBay for around £100, and seeing that they are bullet-proof you can’t go wrong.

Next on the list was a GPS unit… Yep, I know that one of the joys of touring on a bike is to take the road less travelled and to get lost on purpose… But I have such a bad sense of direction that I always get lost… especially in London! Like everyone I enjoy using maps of countries I visit to plan my trip and to visualize the roads ahead. But nothing can beat the practicality of a GPS unit when you are looking for your hotel in the centre of a city you’ve never been to at the end of a long day in the saddle. I didn’t buy a motorcycle specific unit. I thought that they were too expensive for the use I’d make of it. So I bought a Givi S950 pouch and a TomTom One XL that I attached to my handlebar. This GPS set-up works really well for me, the TomTom has a big screen which I find great. I enjoy having all the information on speed, speed limit, ETA etc etc right below my line of sight. I think it actually makes me safer as don’t have to look down to the instrument panel on the tank. The only issue I have is that this unit is very basic. It’s difficult to plan an itinerary with stops along the road. It also can’t record where you’ve been, what your speed was and “essential” information like that. But it always brings me to my destination safely.

I recently found a pair of SwitchBlade lower wind deflectors on eBay for a bargain. These are chromed lowers which, as the name suggests, deflect the wind that otherwise finds its way from under the windshield to your face. I have to admit that I’m not a huge fan of the look but they make an enormous difference in terms of wind protection. I can honestly say that now, riding on the highway at 70mph I find myself in a cocoon and I love it. “Fair weather” rider you say… Well, maybe that’s correct but frankly for me this really enhances my biking experience on long rides.