A ferry contentious issue
Is it somehow cheating to use a ferry or freight service to start your tour?
It’s that time of year again, when battle lines are drawn on forums and Facebook groups. On the one shoulder, the ferry fans and freight fanciers willing to spend a day on a ferry or a week without their bike to avoid riding across France (and possibly England too). On the other shoulder, the true-blue bikers who know that a proper tour means riding every mile, from front door to finish.
Both camps are whispering - or shouting - their arguments into the ears of the bike-curious, those reckless innocents who dare to go on a public forum and ask the question: is it worth taking the Santander ferry for my trip to Spain? Cue the battle for their biking soul... but who are the angels and who are the devils? Allow me to play Virgil and guide you through this hellish maze.
I confess: for a good 20 years I was a solid ride-it-all man. Boats, busses or lorries are just cheating, right? If it’s a bike trip, just get on with it. Don’t fanny around: ride the bloody bike, all the way - it’s what you bought it for, after all. It’s not that anything else makes you less of a biker... except it does. It’s like stopping riding for winter, or when it rains: it’s somehow not what realbikers do...
But in recent years - really, in the 16 since I started riding for a living - I’ve gradually inched my way into the other camp. Particularly where the ferry to Spain is concerned and especially as I got to know France better and better. Nowadays I know a dozen different, brilliant rides from the Channel to the Pyrenees on twisty roads, avoiding motorways - but they all take about three days... I could happily take four on some (especially now France has an 80kph limit and an appetite for sending speeding tickets).
The alternative is hammering across La Belle France, seeing none of it, in two dull, draining, expensive days on toll motorways - or one arse-killing, zombiefying ultra-mile slog. And whatever else motorcycling’s meant to be, it isn’t meant to be that.
So if you have a week off and the aim is to ride in Spain, why take so long crossing France that there’s only time for two or three days in the north-east corner of Iberia? Or push yourself so hard on the autoroute that you arrive too tired to really make the most of the amazing Spanish roads? Using any means to get to Spain quicker makes sense.
Okay, if you have more than a week off, so time is less of an issue, you can make the case for a great tour that begins in France and builds up to the majestic riding on the Spanish side of the border... but how many of us get two weeks for the annual bike trip?
I do still see the sense of the ride-all-the-way argument. It’s essentially a version of the simple philosophy that we should enjoy every mile, no matter how mundane - and when a biking holiday means taking time off work (and probably away from the family) we should maximise our mileage, not minimise it.
But I no longer buy that - because the point IS that we should enjoy every mile. I’ve ridden down to Folkestone for the Eurotunnel too many times to mistake that hair-shirt of a ride for part of biking’s rich tapestry. It’s just shit. There is nothing good about it. Nobody enjoys it: dull; dodgy drivers; thrumming annoying concrete motorway; ever-increasing congestion... Yes, other crossings are available and the rides may not be quite so ghastly - but they’re still mundane and unrewarding. So if the miles aren’t enjoyable, why ride them?
Of course, the rides to Plymouth and, especially, Portsmouth are pretty dull and frustrating as well. And they’re followed by a whole 24hours on a boat. Yawn. But to put it in perspective, when I left my old house in Lincolnshire at 7:30 on a Sunday morning for the Santander ferry, by Monday afternoon I was in the Picos de Europa. Not somewhere in the middle of France with hundreds of miles (and at least another day and a half) to go before even getting a sniff of chorizo.
Really, I think a lot of the contentiousness of the ferry boils down to cost: it’s bloody expensive. I could point out that it’s probably no more expensive than three days riding across France, with hotels and food and fuel and so on. Which is true... but ignores the fact that getting to Spain quicker simply means spending that money on Spanish hotels and food and fuel instead of French ones. So the ferry saves time but it doesn’t save money.
Ultimately the ferry is about the time v money equation. If you have the money, you can justify the cost to save the time. Especially if it catapults you to that dream destination where you really can enjoy every mile, without all the tedious slog to get there. But it highlights the fact that motorcycle touring has become a rich-man’s pastime, when it used to be a cheap holiday.
The same argument extends to freight services, where your bike is packed off and, a week or so later, you fly out to pick it up. They make more sense the further they get you from the UK, so you can leave home when you’re ready and - 24 odd hours later - you’re starting the ride of a lifetime somewhere that definitely isn’t the M20.
But does the M20 give context to those wonderful, winding, flowing roads? Are they somehow less spectacular if they’re ridden without the contrasting motorway slog? Of course not - you don’t earnyour enjoyment of a good road by serving your time on crap ones to get there.
Sadly I think a lot of people don’t believe that - that you can’t really appreciate the feast if you haven’t been hungry. Sometimes the attitude seems to be that if it’s easy to get there, it’s not worth going... As if taking the ferry is a luxury version of motorcycle touring that lacks the gritty authenticity of a properbike trip. I’m afraid I think that’s bollocks.
But I do still believe there is a lot to be said for riding every mile. It is better for the budget, I think that intangible bond between rider and bike grows stronger, it makes the trip feel like a real adventure (rather than a more off-the-shelf holiday experience). And especially if you want a complete freewheeling, go-where-the-fancy-takes-you ride, it’s the best and most liberating way to do it.
But it’s not the only way to do it.
So if you have limited time, if you want to concentrate on riding in a particular area, and if you can afford it, using a ferry or freight service to get you there fast is great. It’s the best way to make the most of your time on the bike.
Just work out what kind of trip you really want - and whether you want to pay for the privilege of the luxury version.