As the crow flies, there are roughly 850 miles of land and water between Cardiff, Wales, and Volterra, Italy. I'm not a crow, however, and I'm traveling by motorcycle—a vehicle that abhors direct routes. Getting there and back will see me clocking 3,325 miles across eight countries (nine, if you're a Welsh separatist.)
Covering that distance will take me places I've never before visited and present me with riding challenges I've never before faced. I'll ride in the Alps, witness Dirt Quake, and experience the autobahn. I'll swim in a glacier-fed river, sleep under the stars, and consume huge quantities of bratwurst and beer.
It's not a life-changing event. I won't feel intrinsically altered at the end of it. We've fallen into a modern trap of thinking all long journeys have to reveal hidden truths of the universe, that every road trip has to be a film written by Nick Hornby. This won't be that, but it'll be worth it nonetheless.
MUST READ: How To: Riding in the Alps | RideApart
The trip starts, as all my motorcycle trips do, with my running behind schedule. I set off at 12:42 pm, just three hours and 42 minutes later than intended. That's OK since I always build in windows of snafu time. Almost all the 255 miles I need to cover today can be done on motorway. The ferry doesn't sail until 11 pm.
Still, I'm annoyed and tired. The reason for my delay is that when I woke up this morning, I decided to repack everything. All of it. Every single bit of kit out of the bags, then back in a different way. This after staying up packing until 2 am.
Seven hours later, I'm sitting in a line of cars and bikes at Harwich International Port, waiting to be let aboard the MV Stena Hollandica, an overnight ferry to Hoek van Holland, in the Netherlands. I'm tired and sore from having spent so much of the journey tensed up.
The M25, which circles London, is always busy and always chaotic. If I hadn't gotten off to such a late start I could have avoided it.
Actually, I could have avoided it regardless. The ferry is running late. Labor strikes and an ever-worsening migrant crisis are affecting the far busier cross-Channel route of Dover to Calais, about 60 miles to the south. The British government has turned an entire section of motorway near Dover into a parking lot for semi-trucks. Drivers unwilling to wait it out pour into other ports –– Harwich, Portsmouth, Plymouth, Hull, and so on –– and everything is moving slow.
Motorcycles are the first to be let aboard, but the ferry doesn't actually leave until 2 am, by which time I'm sound asleep in my cabin. I'm awakened by the shudder of the ship's engines as it pushes away from port, then fall back into dreams of perfect roads.
According to the ambient temperature gauge on my 2015 Suzuki V-Strom 1000, it's 34C (93.2F) when I make my first stop the next day. It's 11 am. I'm in the Netherlands, but the terrain prompts memories of going to college in northwestern Minnesota. The rest area I'm at is a reminder, though, that I'm in Europe. Men's urinals are placed out in the open with only a waist-high metal curtain for privacy. Weary Polish truck drivers smoke cigarettes and nap in the shade of decorative trees.
I clean and lube the bike's chain. The rear tire is so hot I get blisters on my fingers when I touch it.
The Netherlands are proof that every argument you will ever hear against infrastructure is nothing more than selfish BS. Roads are not magic. Building good ones is not some exclusive art that only the Dutch have mastered. The reason roads here are in amazing condition is simply the people of the Netherlands have made the effort. They actually try.
Drivers are reasonably courteous. Filtering (i.e., lane splitting) is permitted, and alongside almost every single road in this country is a second road dedicated for bicycles and scooters. It's a transportation Valhalla.
The speed limit on Netherlandic motorways is 130 kph (80 mph) and the free-flowing nature of the roadways allows me to drift a little above that. A nifty feature of the V-Strom is that it switches easily between mph (which we use in Britain), and kph (which is used in the rest of Europe). I randomly pick 137 kph as my cruising speed. This puts revs at an comfortable 5,000 rpm, well below the Strom's 10,000 rpm redline.
The bike eats distance without effort, but if you've ever read a V-Strom 1000 review written by a tall person you'll know its stock screen is poo. I've not yet had the time or finances to replace the screen, so as I drop into Belgium I give my neck a rest from fighting the wind and head onto slower roads.
Almost instantly, I'm rewarded with a sign pointing me to Bastogne, which is home to one of the more inspiring battles of WWII.
MUST READ: So You Want To Be A Bike Builder | RideApart
Surrounded by Nazi forces, ill-equipped for winter, and unable to receive supplies, US forces were trapped in Bastogne in December 1944. The Nazis demanded surrender. The Americans' response was a message that said, simply: "To the German commander: NUTS!"
American forces (the famous 101st Airborne Division among them) battled tooth and nail, eventually gaining the upper hand, vanquishing the Nazis and liberating Bastogne. The whole story is told in the 1949 film Battleground (featuring soldiers who were actually there). Without hesitation, I head toward the town hoping it has a plaque or something commemorating the siege.
Yeah, they have something: an enormous 40-foot high stone monument in the shape of a five-pointed American star. The names of all 50 US states are written in steel letters. Plaques denote all the divisions that took part, and huge stone tablets tell the story in slightly vainglorious prose. Roughly 200 yards away, a museum offers more depth and context.
For an American, the quiet subtext of this whole place is that we can do great things when we try. We can be a force for good if only we decide we want to be. Today also happens to be the 4th of July. I climb the stairs to the top of the monument, look out on the countryside my grandparents' generation helped liberate, and feel immensely proud.