The Journey

Visor Down and Michelin are my new jam

A rare bit of straight on the Cat and Fiddle road.

I ended up getting to put your advice to work sooner that I had thought. After my longish ride to the Fleece Inn, many of you offered tips on how to improve my timing, last longer in the saddle and make the most out of breaks. I’m thankful for that, because the day after I wrote that post I got a call from Visor Down asking if I could be in Stoke-on-Trent by 10:30 a.m. the next day.

Visor Down is a UK-based motorcycle website and I had won a competition to be a part of the launch event for Michelin’s Pilot Road 4 tires. The prize included getting to learn all about the new tires (more interesting than you might think), getting to put them to the test by taking a Michelin-provided bike on a 130-mile tear through Peak District National Park, getting put up in a hotel (along with food and booze), and receiving a free set of Pilot Road 4 tires to put on my own bike. All I needed to do was get myself to Michelin HQ.
The distance from the Welsh seaside town of Penarth to the Midlands city of Stoke-on-Trent is roughly 160 miles. According to Google, those miles can be covered in 2 hours and 39 minutes. But Google is a liar, and its estimates don’t take into account my tiny bladder, so I knew it would take longer. I decided the journey would, in fact, take 4 hours, which meant getting on the road by 6:30 a.m. I should have aimed to leave sooner but didn’t want to have to wake up any earlier.
As it turned out, when I finally started rolling the clock on my dash said 6:55. Strapped to the seat was the old Nike gym bag I use for overnight trips. It had occurred to me this adventure presented a great opportunity to test the AXE Saddlebags that Viking Bags sent me recently, but one of the wisest bits of Iron Butt advice that I’ve seen is: “Avoid adding accessories or doing maintenance immediately before a trip.”

I had not tried out the bags yet, had not even put them on my bike. Figuring out how to secure things when I was pressed for time would have been a bad idea. Additionally, the bags add a little width, which isn’t really something you want when you have to ride through the second most populous city in Britain — at least not until you’re able to account for that extra width when filtering.

Most of the traffic at that time of day is flowing into Cardiff, so I was out and onto the motorway quickly enough. Pegging my speed at 80 mph (a) I was soon also across the Severn Bridge and away from the heaviest of the Bristol-bound traffic, too.

There are roughly 70 million people in Britain — twice the population of Canada — all squeezed into a space the size of Oregon. Many of those people are on the roads, so you don’t tend to hold speed for long. Because traffic may come to a standstill around the corner, it’s hard to gauge progress, hard to guess how much time you have to linger when taking a break.

The Cat & Fiddle. Sort of a British equivalent of the Rock Store.

On my first break, I set a time limit of 10 minutes. Which, it turns out, is roughly the bare minimum needed to stop at the services (similar to a rest area, for those of you playing along at home, but run by corporations and usually featuring a gas station, at least two food outlets [e.g., McDonald’s] and a convenience store), wrestle off the multiple layers of gear necessary for riding at high speed in 4C (39F), do a little tinkle, wrestle all your gear back on, check your pockets 700 times to make sure no zippers are open, and get back on the road. On the second break, I allotted 20 minutes which was enough time to do all of the above and gulp down an outrageously priced pot of tea (£2.44!!).

I pushed hard and arrived at Michelin HQ at exactly 10:30. There was tea and lunch and a quick explanation of why Pilot Road 4 tires are better than their competitors and predecessors (they have good grip in wet weather and last 17 percent longer), then I was handed the keys to a Triumph Tiger Explorer XC. Expect a review of the bike soon, but suffice to say, it’s an almost-great machine.

We set out into Peak District National Park, which is home to some of the most famous motorcycling roads in the UK. I suspect that’s to do mostly with the fact a huge proportion of the UK population lives nearby. The roads there are good, but no better than those we have in Wales. And by “good” I mean “really curvy and full of blind corners,” which isn’t actually my personal definition of good. I prefer long, gentle sweeps with quality sight lines, but amongst UK riders I seem to be in an extreme minority.

We took on the Cat and Fiddle road and Snake Pass and plenty of other roads that caused my neck to go into knots. In part because I have no friends in this country who ride bikes, I suffer a knowledge gap when it comes to taking corners. You can read about cornering and watch YouTube all day, but that only goes so far. It would be nice to be able to go out with someone who could say: “This corner you can hit at xx mph,” and “Right there is where you should enter the corner” and “Here’s how to pick a line” and so on.

But as things are, hard cornering stresses me the hell out. I am extremely comfortable on my bicycle but have a lot of trouble transposing that to the speed and weight of my motorcycle. I tense up and lose my nerve at points. Especially on corners of the ilk found in Wales and the Peak District. They are utterly blind, without any signage to suggest adequate speed. You’re just supposed to know how to hit these ridiculous bends that were originally cut in the 1800s for horse carts.

Toward the end of the day, however, I was starting to get the hang of things. Sort of.

There was a large group of us and I had gotten slightly ahead of everyone but the guide thanks to a procession of tractors I managed to pass before a heavy section of tight bends. Ahead of me there was only the group’s guide, a former motorcycle cop. UK motorcycle cops are some of the best high-speed riders you will ever see. This particular retired officer, who I’d guess to be in his late 60s to early 70s, was keen to have some fun, not dawdle for the sake of leading some nervous American. So, in the moment he decided I would not get lost in the upcoming stretch, his BMW went into hyperdrive. He simply disappeared.

The view from my Tiger Explorer XC

Suddenly I was on my own. Which is really how I’d prefer to be tackling corners, rather than feeling pushed by other riders behind me. Able to relax a little, I reminded myself that, hey, this Triumph wasn’t mine and it also wasn’t a test ride. If I crashed it, Michelin would be footing the bill, not me. So, I pushed. This corner I managed to take at the speed limit; that corner I managed to go 5 miles over the speed limit (a). Little by little, I was starting to feel more confident and better about myself.

The posted speed limit was 50 mph. When I came around a bend at 65 (a) I did a little celebratory cheer. Then, out of nowhere, a guy who is an engineer at Michelin screamed past going no less than 100. I felt emasculated again.

So, it was appropriate perhaps, that the hotel Michelin chose to put us up in was Splash Landings, a very kid-friendly part of the Alton Towers resort. Alton Towers, for those of you playing along at home, is sort of the British version of Disney World. But colder, wetter and without internationally beloved characters. My room had bunk beds and a view of the indoor/outdoor water park.

Having tackled nigh 300 miles in a single day, I was exhausted once I got to my hotel room. I took a shower and contemplated going straight to bed. But I wanted dinner, and in Her Majesty’s United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland one never misses out on free drinks. Really. Booze here is more important than football in Texas — more important than Jesus in church.

I headed to the bar, where Budweisers were readily shoved in my hand and I got to talk to folks from all over the country. I also got to take a bit of stick from them. At one point, a bloke from Northern England was chatting with a woman who said she wanted to get her motorcycle license but worried she wouldn’t be any good at riding. The Yorkshireman pointed at me and said: “Love, trust me: You can’t be worse than him!”

Dinner was from an all-you-can-eat buffet. Snide comments about sodium-laden tasteless food goes here, but you can’t really complain when the food is free. Besides, more beer was delivered throughout the meal and I got a chance to talk with some cool people. They joked about my weak riding but also gave me a few pointers that I’ve been able to apply since. And as much as I criticise the food I certainly ate my fair share of it. That night I barely slept, so full was my belly.

The view from my hotel room.

I made the effort of showing up for breakfast the next morning but didn’t actually consume anything other than a mug of tea and two mini pain au chocolat. The sound system was blaring generi-Caribbean music at a volume that made me feel sick. I pocketed some muffins and returned to my room until it was time to take a shuttle bus back to Michelin HQ.

Once returned, the Michelin representatives shook my hand and said they’d get in touch about having my tires sent to me. I found myself feeling weirdly sad at having to say goodbye. There was this part of me that just wanted to hang out and talk about tires. Imagine how delighted Jenn was that this part returned with me and she was that night subjected to a lecture on the qualities of the Pilot Road 4…

The first part of the ride home was a challenge. I stopped at the first services I came across and was desperate for rest. Through luck, an attractive woman who had been hired by Red Bull to hand out free cans to hapless men happened to be there. As a rule, I detest Red Bull, but on this morning I made an exception and washed it down with a bottle of water.

From there, the ride home came easy. The day warmed and I zipped down the M5 without incident. At one point I passed a bloke who had rigged a side car to an old Moto Guzzi California and we exchanged happy, stupid waves at each other. A woman on a big yellow CBR gave me a thumbs up. I wish this were my life — travelling up and down the country feeling a goofy kinship with people who choose the same means of transportation as me.

Though, when I finally got home I was happy to be there. I had travelled roughly 450 miles in less than 48 hours. Nothing approaching Iron Butt territory, but enough for me. And a great adventure to let me know that I am ready for my trip to Scotland in May.


(a) Law enforcement officials please note: This is a lie. In fact, I always obey the speed limit.