Confessions of a wheezy rider

By Mike Carter

I don't tell anyone it took a divorce, a bad back, hair sprouting out of my nostrils and a sudden aversion to young people before I was ready to face the obvious - I was in the throes of a mid-life crisis.

I chose a newspaper's Christmas party as the place to drunkenly announce I was going off on a six-month journey of indeterminate shape on a large motorcycle. By the next morning, as I was reaching for painkillers and scrolling through the haze of the previous night, a column had been commissioned and there was no going back.

Alas, I had failed to share with my colleagues the fact that I'd never ridden a motorcycle. This, if anything, only fuelled their enthusiasm. So, once you are committed, try not to tell too many people that you are planning to go off on a motorcycle adventure.

For everybody will have a story to tell you about a friend of a friend who did something similar. This friend of a friend always dies. Here's what I learned on the road:

Make sure you can ride a motorbike
I went on BMW's rider training centre in South Wales, in the small town of Ystradgynlais: light on vowels but heavy on pensioners crossing the road without looking.

Once you've got yourself a bike (I went for the BMW R1200GS, because I have no imagination and it was good enough for Ewan McGregor), you'll need some luggage.

I opted for a couple of chunky aluminium boxes that turn your previously sleek bike into the sort of overladen vehicle normally seen fleeing war zones. Also, get yourself some custom earplugs. Bikers recommend them to stop you going mad and/or deaf.

Book a nice hotel for your first night
I didn't, and I ended up at a travelling salesmen's hotel in an industrial estate on the outskirts of Dunkirk, trying to pacify a violent drunken Spaniard.

I joined www.globalfreeloaders.com shortly after hitting the road but there are plenty of similar sites, such as www.couchsurfing.com, where people advertise spare (free) accommodation. This can range from a room in a house to a spot to pitch your tent.

You are not Peter Fonda
Assuming you're heading off on your own for six months, I am taking it as read that you are not in a committed relationship.

If you're a man of a certain age, convinced that riding a large motorcycle will allow you to punch above your weight with the ladies, I would counsel caution.

Women are supremely indifferent to motorcycles. Expect to get mobbed by small boys and excited men every time you pull over.

Befriend bikers
Motorcyclists are the nicest people on the planet. Once you're on a motorbike, you're in the fraternity. And the bigger and nastier they look, the nicer they are. It's a biker law.

The website at www.horizonsunlimited.com is chokka with blogs and tips from bike travellers. It also allows you to liaise with bikers everywhere via its communities section.

Beware of border crossings
Do your research about what documentation might be needed for various countries. Telling an angry, heavily armed Ukrainian border guard that he should let you in because a bloke in a London pub told you everything was cool with visas after they'd hosted Eurovision will result only in an armed escort back to Hungary.

Let postcards be your guide
When arriving in a new city, always head for the nearest postcard rack. This will tell you everything you need to see. This only failed me once, in Cluj-Napoca in Romania, where every postcard in every shop showed the same statue of a man wearing a large hat sitting on a horse.

Get your knee down
Sometimes it seemed that the world was created by a higher being with motorcycling in mind.

If I had to nail a few of the best biking roads on my trip, they'd be as follows: the near-vertical ascents and descents of the Transfaragas pass through the mountains of Transylvania; the Amalfi coast road from Naples to Salerno; the Croatian coast road from Split to Dubrovnik; the roads through the drowned glacial valleys of Norway's western fjords; the other-worldly moonscape of Cappadocia in Turkey ... the list could go on.

But if God built the world with bikers in mind, he must have subcontracted out Naples. Neapolitans see rules of the road and traffic lights as just another Roman conspiracy to curb their fun. "If you can ride a bike around Naples," my hostel manager told me, "you can ride a bike anywhere."

When all else fails, try a bribe
I was stopped regularly by police on the road. No excuses, but like the language difficulties in constantly changing countries, speed limits vary from place to place, as do road laws.

Besides, when you're in rural and poor parts of Eastern Europe, you tend to stand out on a 1200cc motorbike laden with luggage.

In Romania, I was pulled over and taken off in a police car to an ATM; my crime never quite explained to me. The "fine" started off at the average Romanian annual wage and, as the officer showed me a succession of pictures of his eligible sisters, eventually came down to the equivalent of a few bucks. I asked him whether, if I married one of the sisters, I'd be let off completely.

"Meester," he replied, suddenly solemn, "bribing Romanian police very serious offence."

Whatever the country, I was nearly always let off with a warning after being bombarded with questions about my trip. I came to the conclusion that cops generally love motorcycles.

Remember, you take your midlife crisis with you
The trip changed my life in so many ways that are impossible to easily communicate.

Being exposed to risk and failure and isolation, and being so far away from my support networks, and being taken into other people's families and seeing some of Europe's breathtaking sights made me feel gloriously alive.

Did I manage to ride myself through a midlife crisis? Well, the hairy nostrils are still there, the back still aches, and young people still play their iPods too loudly on the bus. But I have only to look at my motorbike parked outside my flat, with its scratches and bruises, and I can't help but smile.

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