I love this time of year. It's planning season. Time to open a map or a good book (ahem, if you don't have Biker's Europe yet... you can get it here) and start daydreaming about next year's tour. To be honest, the early birds have probably got their trips booked already – but with the ongoing uncertainty about Covid and its variants, it's perhaps inevitable that many people are making a later start to the process this year. I know I am. I have three simple steps for planning a successful tour.
1. Know where you're going
Sounds obvious, but the sooner you settle on a destination, the better. Every weekend spent trying to decide between the Pyrenees and the Swiss Alps, or maybe the Dolomites... or what about Slovenia? is a weekend wasted. The sooner you can commit to a destination, the more time you'll have to learn about it.
It's not necessary to go abroad for a great tour, of course: even those who might have doubted it before have had it confirmed in the past 18 months or so. There's so much cracking riding all across the country.
You don't even have to head to Scotland to join the throngs following the North Coast 500 route (though you can't go wrong if you do). Every region seems to have its own numerical route, from the Northumbria 250 to the Snowdon 360. Even I got in on the act, creating an East 500 (downloadable on the daytrips page) to encourage people to come and enjoy East Anglia's rolling hill – there is one, I promise – as the area has plenty of unexpectedly brilliant riding with a fraction of the traffic of the busy areas like the Lake District or the NC500. But no mountains, it's true...
The case of East Anglia illustrates this whole point about knowing where you're going: it's not just about picking a destination. It's also about researching it – finding out where the good roads are, the interesting towns, the castles or distilleries or motorcycle museums you might want to visit along the way, even the local bike cafes... Spending some time getting to know where you're heading will let you build up a list of places you want to see and roads you want to ride that will make putting the touring route together so much more straightforward. You might not be able to tick off everything on your list, unless it's a short list or a long trip, but the more you know about your destination before you start planning the tour route, the better that route will be.
2. Be practical about your timings
The key to planning any route is to be realistic about how long it will take to ride. Sitting down and planning around a fixed mileage – say, 250 miles every day – will never work out well. Different roads take a different amount of time to ride... That 250 miles is a dull, bum-aching morning on a French motorway, cruising along at 81mph (130kph). Try doing 250 miles in the high alps, where narrow roads with tight turns and hairpins push average speeds right down, and you'll be lucky to get to the hotel while it's still daylight...
So the secret it to plan routes around estimated hours in the saddle, not distance. You can pack in brilliant road after brilliant road, but if Google Maps tells you it's a 14-hour ride, you can be sure your touring buddies will lynch you when you roll up to your hotel in the dark... if not before. As a very rough rule of thumb, a six-hour ride tends to be a full day for a small group; a five-hour ride gives a nice and relaxed day for pillions or larger groups; while anything over six-and-a-half hours starts to get grueling for anything more than solo riders (or maybe two bikes).
Six hours doesn't sound like a lot of riding, perhaps, but all route times are a starting point for a day on tour. The thing that makes the biggest difference to how long you're on the road each day is the stopping factor. Every time you stop the bike – to fill up, to have a pee, to take a picture or for lunch – the average speed is reduced. Or to put it another way, every minute when the wheels aren't turning is another minute added to your arrival time at the night's destination...
While a solo rider might manage a fuel stop, a pee stop or a picture stop in five minutes flat, you can multiply the faff and the amount of time being shed by every rider in a group – especially at fuel stops. If you're slick and everyone gets onto a separate pump, a small group might get on and off the forecourt in ten minutes, but a tour shouldn't feel like it's punctuated by endurance-racing pit stops. Likewise, coffee stops and lunch stops should feel relaxed – it's meant to be a holiday, after all – so you have to take realistic account of how much time will be taken up with them.
Allow a quarter of an hour for a fuel stop; 25-30mins for a coffee stop and 45-60mins for lunch and 5-10mins per pic stop. It doesn't matter if you get them done faster, but if you assume you'll have to add two-and-a-half hours to any route time, you get a realistic impression of how long each day of the tour will be. So if you leave the hotel at 9am to ride a six hour route, with two-and-a-half hours of stops, you should be arriving at the next hotel around 5:30pm. That's a full day in the saddle but shouldn't feel rushed as you've allowed time for all the stops.
Inevitably, the poor mug leading the trip ends up being the only one who's paying attention to the schedule. I've found myself barking at my riding buddies, like a school teacher chastising naughty kids, when they're faffing around next to the bikes rather than just going into whatever cafe to order. My tip is: agree a standing round for the coffee stops, so you can go and get everything ordered quickly; if someone wants to change their order, it's up to them to come in and change it. Then you are likely to have an efficient half-hour coffee stop – and the whole day's timings will run like clockwork.
3. Trust the research
This is the big one – and it reflects back on the first point about knowing where you're going. As you start to build up your route using the roads and places you've researched, getting your hotels sorted and planing in any stops or rest days, you will keep learning more about the area you're going to visit. The temptation can be to keep tinkering with things – sometimes right up until the last minute.
My advice is to resist this urge to change things, as much as possible. Trust the research that you've done. By all means flex and adapt things slightly – Road A rather than Road B between these two towns, or shifting a lunch stop to village X from small town Y – but the path to madness is constantly cancelling hotels and moving overnight stops to different towns. Before you know it, the trip's either unpicked itself completely and you've effecively planned two entire, essentially different tours; or you'll end up at some point with one day that's either very short or – usually – very long.
So this why that up-front research stage is so important but you have to trust it – and when you have a plan that works, stick with it. All the extra info you build up is still valuable – either for the next tour or if, perhaps, a road is closed and you have to detour; or just for impressing your tour buddies with your depth of knowledge in the bar. But the sooner you settle on your route and trust it, the sooner you can get to really know it.
This really is the key point: if you review your route on a regular basis without changing it, you'll be much more confident when you come to ride it. You'll properly know where you're going, so any sat nav or tankbag notes just remind you where to go, rather than being the only clue to the route. When you really know the route, every road sign will reassure you when you're going the right way or ring an alarm bell if you've strayed off course. You can't do this, though, if you're constantly tinkering with the route...
So where next?
So the million-dollar question... Where will I be touring next? No question that I want to have a more-leisurely approach to riding in the UK than I managed this year. It's mostly been frantic dashes and long days researching a new book (more soon!) so I'm looking forward to taking it a bit easier in 2022 – more relaxed rides and short tours, enjoying the quieter corners of our own country.
However, I'm itching to get back to Spain and Portugal – I was staring down the barrel of a deadline in September so had to scrap my plan to head over. So Iberia is definitely at the top of the list. I may look at doing a fly-ride trip to Portugal in April to get the year off to a good start (get in touch if you'd be interested in coming along) but I also want to get back to Catalonia, Andalusia, Galicia and all points in between... all of Spain, basically.
Looking further afield, if the US is taking suitably jabbed-up tourists, I'd love to get back out there – there's amazing riding in states like Colorado, Utah, South Dakota, California, down the Apalacian Mountains on Skyline Drive and the Blue Ridge Parkway... I think a lot of riders assume it's all Harleys on Route 66 but there's so much more for serious riders to discover out there. The costs involved mean that would take serious planning so I'll have to start now if I want to do that. Maybe that's a 2023 project?
Especially as there's so much amazing accessible riding on the doorstep in Europe to get back to in 2022. From the Alps to Sardinia as well as Spain – never mind the Balkans, which I'm desperate to explore – there's so much potential. Guess I'd better start planning...
• If you need help planning a tour, with all my experience producing a trip tailored to you, please get in touch.