Triumph and Tribulations: Visiting the Celts
Part 2 of Abhi's 10-day trek across the UK and Ireland astride a Triumph Tiger Explorer XRT
If I could summarize our time in Wales with one word, it would simply be: "sheep." I feel like I'm seeing twice as many sheep as humans, but it turns out I'm wrong: the actual ratio is 3 to 1.
Vy's an animal lover, so she enjoys her newly dubbed "sheep peeps" greatly. We stop constantly to take photos of sheep grazing, running, or...doing nothing. (I missed out on seeing Abhi when he was in my neck of the woods because I was busy learning how to flat track at the same time. Hopefully Abhi will come back some day and I can show him that Wales has as many twisty roads as it has four-legged wool providers. –Chris)
We hug the border of Wales and England and discover a town that is famous not for sheep, but for books. Hay-on-Wye has a population of approximately 1,600, yet it features nearly 30 bookstores (many of which focus exclusively on used books). The small annually hosts one of the world's largest literary festivals, the Hay Festival – a celebration of art and literature that has expanded in recent years to include several locations worldwide.
One of the nice things of being on an adventure bike is that you can tackle whatever road strikes your fancy. That's not to say you couldn't tackle the pictured road on a sportbike, but it's much easier on this Triumph.
Wales is a small country - it's smaller than all but three of the United States. Despite that, there's plenty to admire if you enjoy natural beauty. A tenth of the nation is actually a National Park called Snowdonia, which features Wales' largest natural lake and highest mountain. It's undoubtedly gorgeous, yet after 12 straight hours of bright green rolling hills the photos and memories all feel the same to me. As we approach the top of Wales, we have to cross the Menai Strait. The most interesting way to do so (at least on a road) is across the Menai Bridge, considered to be the first modern suspension bridge in the world.
Just after the bridge, Vy and I stumble upon a town with the longest place name in Europe. It requires a deep breath to type, let alone say. It's 58 characters long and it is the second longest one-world place name in the world: Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch. No, you're not saying it correctly in your head right now, so let this weatherman show you the way:
(I'll step in here again to point out that I am a fluent Welsh speaker. Every time I mention this fact, people will demand that I say the name of this village. Truth is, though, most of us living in Wales simply refer to it as Llanfairpwll, or Llanfair PG –Chris)
A couple of days in and I am finally getting comfortable with the aptly-named Explorer. Last year, Triumph significantly updated the model for 2016 to make it more competitive with offerings from BMW and KTM, and I'd say they've succeeded. It's a quality two-up tourer and the top-of-the-line XRt model that we're on may have more computers and sensors than Apollo 11. Cornering ABS, traction control, ride-by-wire throttle control, an Inertial Measurement Unit, multiple ride modes, Semi Active Suspension, tire pressure monitors, power windshields, heated seats, even a hill hold function. The list goes on and on, and it's all good. Triumph deserves special mention here for making all of the electronics intuitive. There's a lot of (possibly too many) options available from the handlebar controls but they're designed in a way that's easy to navigate, even on the move.
My only real complaint with the Explorer is the same issue I have with the little-brother Tiger 800: it feels a bit top heavy compared to the competition, so at low speeds it feels ponderous. That might seem like an easy criticism with a big ADV bike but I've recently covered hundreds of miles on a similarly-sized BMW R1200GS, which weighs 20 pounds less and makes it feel like the weight sits lower. While I may be getting used to the bike, I don't think I'll ever get used to the UK's speed cameras.
Thankfully, the NUVIZ I am testing had audio alerts to warn me about most of them.
Our time in Wales ends as T-Pain would wish: on a boat. This is the Irish Ferries line from Holyhead to Dublin and it's the first of two ferries that we will take on our trip. It's a painless process, as employees have straps ready to go and they tie down the bikes before you can even get your gear off.
A satisfying nap's length later and we are in the capital of Ireland. When you go to Dublin, you have to have Guinness, right? After some intensive research, we determine the best place to enjoy one would be The Stag's Head Pub. It was built in the late 1700s but the interior was last modified in 1895, so you can get a side of history with your pint.
The unofficial anthem of Dublin is a song called Molly Malone, which is why the city put up a bronze statue of her in 1988 as part of its Millennium celebrations. In 2014, the statue was temporarily moved to a location with much more foot traffic, and people have responded by groping the statue so much that certain parts of her are shinier than others.
We get back on the bike, and I immediately regret it. Traffic in downtown Dublin around noon is brutal, and on a big ADV bike with large metal panniers I'm finding myself having to wait my place in line at a few lights. Vy helps to break up the tedium by requesting a stop at a post office, so she can mail out some postcards. I think back to countless times where I've walked into a post office in the United States, used an automated self-service kiosk, and left without bothering to take off my helmet. Apparently, that would be an issue here:
The one nice thing about being stuck in traffic is that I can take my time and look around. That's the reason I spotted the only Harley we saw in the wild on this trip:
Time heals all wounds, and eventually we're making good progress as we head out of town and into Northern Ireland. A quick gas stop gives me a chance to remember that green and black have different meanings on this side of the Atlantic. Make sure you double check that you're not filling your tank up with diesel!
At this time of year, the sun doesn't set until about 10 pm. So, when we arrive at the Titanic Belfast museum, it is already closed even though there is plenty of light outside. That doesn't stop us from getting a photo of the distinctive architecture.
The next morning, Northern Ireland decides to throw a little rain our way, but it clears up before it can become a nuisance. That's good news, because we've got a trifecta of sights to see and two of them require a bit of hiking to get to. We start with Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge, which was originally built by salmon fishermen. Nowadays there aren't many salmon left in the area, so it's become a tourist attraction instead. It is popular enough that the National Trust limits how many people can visit at a time, and they do so with timed tickets that have the potential to sell out. We arrive just after opening time at 9:30 am, and get one of the first slots.
The current version of the bridge cost more than £16,000 when it was built in 2008. It might be modern, but it still feels rickety. Tourists occasionally cross the bridge one way and are too terrified to come back across - they have to be brought back to the mainland via boat.
The rope bridge is a fun experience, but it's our next stop that we've been waiting for ever since we left Los Angeles. Giant's Causeway is just 15 minutes to the west, and it's the surreal result of volcanic activity about 50 million years ago. The name comes from an Irish folk tale that the formation is what remains from a causeway built by a giant named Finn MacCool in his quest to fight a Scottish giant that challenges him. The Visitor's Center at the monument plays a short video that tells the tale:
Ignoring the legend, Giant's Causeway is actually a collection of approximately 40,000 basalt columns and the way they are organized is fascinating.
There are cheap buses that will take you from the visitor center to the Causeway, or you can shuffle your feet for about a mile and get down for free.
Vy summits the tallest columns, which presumably gives her a view like the Finn McCool, the giant.
On our way out, we dealt with a different type of giant animal. This is what Northern Ireland calls a traffic jam:
Turns out, the Explorer XRt is an excellent camera platform. I mentioned earlier that this bike is jam-packed with electronic whizbangery, but I'm surprised to find that the feature I'm using most is the one I originally thought was the biggest gimmick: Hill Hold. The concept is simple - if the bike is on and you're at a stop, simply pull the front brake lever all the way in and the Triumph will apply the rear brake and keep it on until you pull the lever in again (or shut off the bike). This is a godsend when it comes to taking photos. Normally I have to turn a bike off and leave it in gear. Now, I just engage hill hold, take the photo, and I'm immediately back on my way. This is especially convenient because the Explorer always seems to take a couple of seconds after you turn the ignition on for the fuel pump to prime before you can actually get the starter to turn over.
Nevertheless, we take most of our photos off the bike. Game of Thrones fans may recognize this road - the rest of us can just consider it a beautiful tree tunnel in Northern Ireland called The Dark Hedges. The weather was gloomy when we left our beautiful bed and breakfast this morning, but it uncharacteristically cleared up. Vy thought (correctly) that this photo would have been cooler if the weather was crap, but I'll take the sun any time.
We visit the Dunlop Memorial Garden, which is depressing and inspiring at the same time. Joey and Robert Dunlop were two brothers and local motorcycling heroes that lost their lives during motorcycle competition in 2000 and 2008, respectively. Robert passed away during qualifying for the 250cc race of the North West 200. Two days later, his son Michael raced the event, and won. Michael's become a legend in his own right - he currently holds the Isle of Man TT course record as the only person to ever complete a lap in less than 17 minutes.
Getting to Scotland requires another ferry, and this time we take the Stena Line. Like before, the employees are ready to tie down the Explorer before I can get out of my Aerostich. I'm not complaining.
We enter Scotland and are greeted by...you guessed it, more sheep.
At least Scottish traffic jams don't involve wildlife. Still, it seems a bit stereotypical:
The B-and-B industry is much more prevalent here, and they all have stories about motorcycles to share once they see you pull up in gear. As Vy and I enjoy the second B of our bed and breakfast in Pathhead in the morning, the proprietor mentions that is some vintage motorcycle racing about to happen just 30 minutes away. We take it as a sign and decide to make a quick stop at East Fortune Race Circuit, where the Scottish Motorcycle Racing Championship is having their only "Classics" day of the season. What luck!
Just like with the Sammy Miller Museum, I want to share countless photos of the event. Even the parking lot is a treat:
We already have a packed schedule for the day so I try to make this a quick stop, but there are so many fantastic machines that we end up spending a couple of hours. One of my favorite bikes is this Vincent sidecar racer. Up until this point I have just been taking photos of bikes and moving on but I can't help myself and I have to talk to the owner, who is named Mike.
The vintage sidecars are my favorite, but there are also plenty of excellent two-wheelers.
This track day is a unplanned stop, so we have to get back on the road if we'll make our destination in England in the evening. Still, there's one bike in the parking lot that demands my attention and my time.
We end this segment of the story as it began: surrounded by sheep.
England, here we come! More tales of our adventure coming soon. (Read Part 1 here)