Want to make sure next summer's bike trip is the best one ever? Here are my five top tips for making your next bike tour effortlessly enjoyable.
Plan early, plan slowly
It's October. There will still be riders enjoying the tail-end of the European touring season – gambling a little on the weather, but getting quieter roads and cheaper hotels than in the height of summer. But for most people, the year's big trip has already happened and this is the start of the planning season: back from a wonderful tour... where do we go next year?
My advice is to start planning now, but in a lazy, leisurely way at first. Kick the ideas around and read what you can about possible destinations, to make sure that you really would prefer to go to Austria rather than Italy, or Portugal rather than Spain. Think of it as applied daydreaming, imagining your dream destination but then doing a little research to check the cost of hotels, any ferries, estimating how many days you'll need to get there and get back (which tells you how many days you'll have there). Rule out the impractical so you can focus on the achievable.
By Christmas, you should have not only picked the destination for next year's tour but also learnt enough about it to know (at least some of) the attractions you want to see there - whether that's must-ride roads you want to tick off; castles, caves or other things you want to visit; or even any events or festivals you want to take in (or avoid).
Get the timing right
Once you're settled on your destination, begin playing with your routes. Plan each day's ride based on time in the saddle, not distance. Fast solo riders will generally beat a Google Maps estimate by 5-10 mins per hour, groups of four-to-six riders often end up matching the Google Maps predictions, while pillion couples or larger groups generally need half an hour (or even an hour) longer over the course of a day. Work out how long you want to ride each day: six hours of riding usually means setting off at 9am and arriving at 5:30-6pm, depending on how many stops you have and how long they are. A Google Map estimate of four-to-five hours generally means a relaxed day, setting off any time before ten, having a nice lunch and plenty of stops for coffee or pictures, then getting to the hotel a bit before six.
Once you've worked out where your overnight stops need to be, you have the big decision: book ahead to try to get good rates; or leave it and try to find somewhere as you go round, for greater flexibility. There are pros and cons to both approaches, but personally I prefer to pre-book with a free-cancellation option (so often use Booking.com ). If you want time off the bike to visit an attraction where tickets need to be booked in advance, tying up the accommodation at the same time just means peace of mind. And for first-time tourists, knowing there's a bed booked at the end of the day lets everyone relax and enjoy the ride.
You don't have to set your routes in stone as soon as you've planned them and booked the hotels. It's always well worth fiddling with them, whether it's just working out where you might stop for coffee or a spot of light sightseeing along the way or switching sections to alternative roads that will spice the ride up. Just don't lose sight of the overall time in the saddle... adding a few minutes to the ride here and a few minutes there can turn a manageable six-hour ride into a gruelling seven-and-a-half-hour slog.
Get a paper map
It doesn't matter if you have a sat nav or a route on your phone: if you're going to be following a pre-planned route, a paper map is invaluable. Especially if you mark the planned route on it with a highlighter a day or two before you set off. Not only does that make it easy to see where you should be when you check the map, but also you'll subconsciously note some of the places around the route as you do that. When you're on the road, spotting names on road signs may give you a crucial early clue that you've gone astray (if you go astray). It'll also refresh your memory about all those other potential roads you'd considered when planning the route so if you find a detour is necessary, a quick check of the map should make it easy to include some of those.
Maps are great on group tours. Generally there's one sucker (hello!) who ends up leading the group, but everyone should be aware of where they're meant to be going even if they're just going to blindly follow the front guy. Just unfolding and having everyone check the map at breakfast, or in the bar the night before setting off, can help get everyone on the same page.
A quick word about sat navs: if everyone in a group has one showing the route, but one nav suggests going a different way to the man in front… follow the man in front. Flash, beep, wave – get his attention if you need to, so you can find somewhere safe to stop and check that he hasn't gone wrong. But the leader has to be allowed to lead. Sometimes navs will display different versions of the route when riding, even when they're ostensibly the same units with the same maps (when I did the BMW K1300 launch, three Irish journos arrived at a crossroads: one's sat nav said go left, one said right, the third one said go straight over... no, that's not a joke!). Sometimes the leader may be be putting in an unplanned detour to go to a cafe, toilet, petrol station, thai massage parlour or something else he knows about. It's fine to stop him to check, but it's not fine to detonate the group by riding off on your own.
Don't rush the packing
Give yourself time to pack: if you do it the night before, chances are you'll forget something (I normally forget my sunglasses). Sort all the paperwork you need to take, figure out how to reduce the amount of stuff, check it all fits into your luggage… then take things out until the panniers close… then relax. Especially when touring two-up, fitting everything you need for rider and pillion into the limited space on the bike can be challenging, so get a system that works for you. Personally, I pack my clothes in individual day bags, so it's easy to separate clean and dirty stuff.
Also give yourself time to get the bike prepped. If it needs servicing, get it booked for a couple of weeks before departure. If it needs tyres, get them done the week before you go. If your tyres are part-worn and might just last… get them taken off and have a fresh set fitted. You can always refit the part-worn ones later. Don't risk wasting time (and money) getting expensive tyres fitted when you could be riding a brilliant road. And definitely don't let your tyres get worn down to the canvas...
If there's any doubt about the mechanical health of a bike, get it assessed in plenty of time before setting off. Especially if the planning process starts now, there's no excuse for getting to within a few weeks of departure with poorly motorcycle…
Stop - a lot
A great tour should produce great memories – and it's important to capture them. That means stopping to smell the flowers, admire the views and take the pictures… and drink the coffee and eat the ice-cream and generally enjoy being on holiday.
Regular stops are important for more than just getting selfies to post on Facebook to wind-up friends at home, though. If you're in the `saddle long enough for a small ache to start, it'll be with you until you go to bed and will just get worse as the day goes on. Stopping every hour, even if it's just to stretch and walk round the bike, should stop aches even forming. It's also important to stay properly hydrated – especially at altitude. Dehydration leads to a loss of concentration, which is not something you want when riding a motorcycle. Remember that coffee, even if it gives you a short-term boost, is a diuretic so will ultimately lead to dehydration: always have a glass of water with that lovely Italian double espresso...
It's important to know your tank range and stop to fill up before you reach the desperation point. If you're topping up at the first petrol station you see after hitting half-full, you'll never run dry and you shouldn't have any aches building up. If you're on a tight schedule or doing a higher-mileage day, try to fill up in garages with cafes attached, to get food or coffee at the same stop. You can't beat a forecourt picnic when you have to cover a lot of ground in a hurry.
Relax – enjoy it
One final thought: touring is meant to be fun. Obviously, all you experienced high-milers reading this know that. But sometimes we're the ones who end up overthinking things, trying to cram too much into a day, or trying to stick to a plan even when it's going sideways.
The real secret to successful touring is to have a plan but to be ready to adapt or ignore it. All that matters when touring is that you keep things rubber-side down and enjoy yourself. A bit of prep and planning can help that, but never become a hostage to a schedule. It's meant to be a holiday so just relax and enjoy yourself.