In my 12 years as a professional photographer a jobs hadn’t come much more perfect than the one I had lined up. 5 luxury glamping accommodations to photograph, dotted along the Spanish & Portuguese southern coast for. The weather had been positively awful for a month in Wales so a trip to one of the sunniest part of Europe couldn’t have come at a better time. To add the cherry on the cake I would be taking my BMW R100RS along for the ride. The ferry would get me & my bike to Santander, and the rest was all motorcycle travel.
This particular 1982 RS was showing just shy of 50,000 miles and had been no stranger to travel. Over the past 8 years in my ownership it has visited nearly half of Europe’s 44 countries, getting as far North as John o’Groats, and as far south as the hills of Albania.
Back in the late 70’s the RS was penned as the ultimate touring machine, and 40 years on the basic needs of a touring motorcyclist haven’t changed a lot. Blistering performance and the latest gadgets are bonuses but in my opinion all you ready need in a touring bike is comfort, reliability and a bit of character that’ll keep you interested when the days on the road are long.
Ask someone who’s test rode an RS and they might tell you they’re a bit dull, and a brief 10 minute test ride might even confirm that for you. But the RS’s character introduces itself over a greater number of miles, the gentle tapping of valves and civilised exhaust note a comforting reminder that the team in Bavaria engineered this bike, not for quick cheap thrills, but for longer more meaningful journeys. Saying that, turn up the wick, tuck behind the screen and there’s nothing boring about hitting 120mph with ease on a 40 year old machine!
It was only since this winter the bike was identifiable as an RS as it had spent its early years in S trim, with just the bubble fairing for protection. For a basic reduction in wind blast that does the job just fine, but pales in comparison to the serene microclimate you live in when sat behind the once ground breaking RS fairing. It might be rainy and cold outside, but in your own little bubble you’re always warmer and drier than you would be standing still! Sure it adds a little wind noise, but this can be rectified with ear plugs or the addition of a little spoiler. Nothing else looked like it at the time, and other manufacturers soon rushed out to produce their own, mostly inferior, alternatives.
I had allowed 3 days to travel from Santander to the first job in the Algarve. While not a leisurely sightseeing tour, enough time for a scenic route without blowing Euros on Portugal’s tricky to decipher toll road system and squaring off my brand new rubber in the process.
Crossing the Picos via Potes & Riano was no more than a mornings work, and the afternoon was spent dodging gravel patches and potholes on the remote mountain pass from Ponteferra which leads into North Portugal.
Two more days winding south through Portugal’s hills and vineyards gave me a chance to get a feel for the Lasertec’s which, despite looking like a 40 year old tyre, handled my immature track day style antics well.
The front end, now sprung with Motobins’ own progressive springs, dealt reassuringly well with trail braking into corners, and felt pliable yet surefooted on the often bumpy asphalt, with a distinct willingness to turn the bike towards the apex, something that had been missing in stock form. Sure it gets a little cranky if you push the front too hard, but a comfortable ride has to come with some compromise. The rest of handling lived up to it’s Gummikuh (Rubber Cow in German) nickname and the rear gets a little fidgety under pressure, but never dangerously so, it’s just a movement under the saddle you get used to and soon learn isn’t about cause any major upsets.
My evenings and mornings are spent taking photos of cabins, and the rest is spent on scenic routes heading East to the next job.
It’s early spring and the temperature is hovering around 20 degree making life for me and the air cooled engine very pleasant. It’s hard to find a fault in any of it, the roads are quiet, the scenery is beautiful and the towns are quaint and welcoming. At that point having a bike that purrs through town centres rather than barking it’s presence makes you feel part of the atmosphere rather than an noisy disturbance. In the background to my blissful lifestyle a story is bubbling about Coronavirus spreading in Europe. I keep an eye on it during breaks, become stricter with my personal hygiene and for now it’s not a worry as I’m a long way from trouble.
Cut to three days later and I’m riding south to my next job near Marbella. Last night Madrid and the surrounding area got red flagged as hotspots for the virus and is no longer recommended for travellers which cuts off my direct route back to the ferry. My client back in the UK (Canopy & Stars) is getting a bit twitchy about the situation. After a brief discussion we decide to go ahead with the next job, but book a backup ferry to leave Santander a few days earlier in case the situation deteriorates. The final 10 miles involves twisting up and down tiny lanes into the hills on loose gravel and rough asphalt, not the RS’s speciality with its short bars and wrist heavy riding position.
The tiny cabin to be photographed is nestled amongst orange & lemon trees with a backdrop of nothing but untouched landscape. Despite only a handful of kilometres separating us, the luxury yachts, pampered celebs and overly lavish lifestyle of Marbella seem refreshingly far away.
I unpack my kit. In the left pannier a drone, laptop and some flashguns. Right pannier two digital SLRs and three lenses. The carrying capacity of the Hepco & Becker panniers, offered as a factory add on when purchased new, is impressive, and being lockable essential when carrying over £10,000 worth of equipment. It just adds that security of knowing I can leave the bike for 5 minutes without an opportunist thief getting at my gear. Also a great design feature of these panniers is how snugly they sit on the sides of the bike, meaning the overall width of the bike is not increased with the despite their ability to swallow a lot of luggage, useful as I do like a cheeky filter from time to time! From the rear of the twin seat I unstrap the 50 litre dry bag which contains two weeks worth of clothes. Not so secure from theft, but if someone wants my 3 day old underpants then they must be pretty desperate.
No sooner had I sat down to a refreshing glass of fresh lemonade the texts starting coming. First my Dad, then my girlfriend, then sister & now Canopy and Stars are ringing. The message is clear, Spain is in lockdown from an out of control epidemic, travel is restricted, all non residents must leave the country.
But my ferry isn’t for over two days, it’s a long time to be staying in this part of the world, with the political landscape changing day to day who knows where I might end up stuck. Minutes later that option is taken out of the equation – Britanny Ferries are reducing their sailings and my ferry has been cancelled! Looking at the ferry timetables I review the options. I’m currently the furthest from home I’ve been on the entire trip. How soon could I make Santander if I leave now? On a normal day I’d allow 2 days for this, but maybe it could be done in a day?
Whatever the option time isn’t on my side, and scrolling through various ferry options is taking up time that, right now, I need to be spending on the bike heading North. I hastily repack the bike, the various bits of equipment, that previous fitted perfectly in their places like Tetris shapes now don’t seem to fit anymore, and everything’s just getting stuffed in any old way. The plastic panniers are bulging and the rusty hinges creaking, but I’m packed and ready to roll.I get my Dad on the phone as I head off on the bike, he toured Europe regularly at my age and has been on a fair few big adventures so was the first person I decided to call for a solution. The Sena SMH5 headset combined with a smartphone allows for voice activated dialing, ideal when I’m in no mood for pulling over to make a call. While I’m navigating the gravelly paths to the main roads he’s checking ferry companies for the next possible route home. Ten minutes later I get the call back I didn’t want, all ferries from Spain are fully booked, no room for a motorcycle and rider. Dad is not longer available so I get Charlotte, my girlfriend, on the line. She’s right on the case, checking out all routes out of Europe. She’s got a solution…
“I’ve found a ferry for you, it leaves in two days from St Malo”
“Great! How far have I got to ride?”
“Google maps says 2000 kilometres”
“Charlie, I need the next nearest port”
“That IS the next nearest port!”
It’s now 7pm, the evening is drawing in and I’m getting close to the motorway. It’s 47 hours until my ferry leaves so packing in for the night is not an option. I fill up with fuel, put on my warmest riding gear and set off into the Spanish wilderness. I’ve rush booked budget accommodation in Zaragova while I was stopped, I thought it was easily makeable this evening but when I set the Sat Nav it’s 4 hours away and check in closes on my expected arrival time.
For the most part of the tour I’d been gentle on the bike’s engine, respectful of its age and keen not to work the air cooled boxer too hard in the warmer climate, but this wasn’t time for motorcycle preservation and the bike spent most of it’s time with the clock near the 100mph mark. What surprised me was the ease at while it sat there, almost no vibration and an occasional look down at the dipstick thermometer confirmed it wasn’t working too hard, registering a healthy 110 degrees. As the motorway climbed away from the coast and onto the Meseta central plateau, illuminated towns dotting the hills gave way to an empty dark landscape and all that was left to see was the never ending stream of white lines illuminated by the headlight.
Three high performance cars with British plates flew past me and what must’ve been close to 150mph, clearly they’d had the same idea! Would I be able to get petrol? Would the hotel even allow me in? Will the border still be open? Where can I get food? By this point I was hungry but I knew my chances of a hot meal were long gone!
The R100RS tank is generally good for more than 200 miles, but having once been caught out playing the fuel tank lottery I played it safe and started looking petrol stations at 150miles. A nervous 30 miles went past before I saw the welcoming bright lights only to receive much less warm reception when I arrived. Makeshift barriers barred access to the shop and toilets, with the attendant now serving behind a pane of glass wearing a mask & gloves.
Food choices are limited at best in Spanish petrol stations, but I knew this might be my last chance for food till the morning so I tried to signal to the attendant which items I wanted. Carbs (the food kind!) are essential for this kind of travel as you burn through a surprising amount and that’s not a problem to get – chocolate bars, donuts, crisps, pastries, if its unhealthy they’ve got it! Protein and vitamins are more of a problem, I’d have to settle on a yoghurt drink and a pack of mixed nuts for now.
A glance at the sat nav reveals that tucking behind the screen for the past few hours has gained me a few extra minutes meaning when I arrived in Villarobledo I had enough time for check in. It was nearly midnight, and the town was lifeless except for a few late night food deliveries, tended to by eery looking figures in full protective suits. I hurriedly chained the bike to a lamp post on the curb outside the hotel. I had a feeling it was illegally parked and slightly in the way, but I was going to be leaving at 6am so wasn’t expecting issues overnight.
With an adequate 5 hours sleep I set off before sunrise. Last nights dash up the motorway had left me with 350 miles to the French border and I was keen to get there by lunchtime. A long stretch of the journey across the Monegros desert is on A-roads rather than motorway. It’s a glorious ride as the roads are fast, flowing and completely empty. Once the morning mist that was hampering my vision clears I’m making good progress. The roads are smooth, and the RS is just in it’s element sweeping through the rocky formations at speed.
The torquey flat twin has a satisfying handful of grunt, giving a characteristic side to side vibration as you pull out of the slower corners, smoothing out to a ride that would put many Inline 4’s to shame as it settles to it’s cruising speed.
My whole inspiration for buying a classic started with Mad Max (1979), and in particular the scene where Goose takes the Kawasaki Z1000 for a high speed dash across the desert. At this moment I felt I was living that scene. Sure the R100RS is a tamer beast, but here I was tucked cockpit of a 70’s classic, charging across the rocky landscape as the flat twin roared beneath me…that morning I spent very little time worrying about the situation, I was living a little dream and I was having way too much fun!
250 miles passed very quickly, and by lunchtime the welcome sight of the Pyrenees appeared on the horizon.
A much needed petrol stop break gave me a chance to fill up on food supplies. More nuts, a handful of protein bars, an energy drink and some crisps was best I could do…but wait, whats this…bananas! That’s a genuine fruit right there, filled with vitamins and potassium, maybe I’d escape Spain without getting scurvy after all!
A picturesque ascent up the South side of the Pyrenees was followed by the welcome sight of the border. No restrictions, in fact just lots of people enjoying the mountains! I took a break to take in the fresh mountain air and catch up with the news. France was now going into lockdown, all public spaces were closed and travel would be restricted from tomorrow. My ferry in the afternoon would be the last one out of the country!
By the time I started descending out of the mountains I was realising a constant schedule of working/riding/working/riding followed by crossing Spain was starting to take its toll on me and I was just exhausted. It was time to get some proper rest, France would have to be conquered tomorrow. I found accommodation in the unremarkable town Pau and finished the final 50 miles of the day.
The final dash to the ferry was 450 mostly motorway miles across France. The temperature had dropped dramatically since Spain, and I was very glad of the protection from the elements offered by the fairing. Rain showers were deflected around me, with only my helmet, shoulders and boots getting hit by the spray.
Much has been said about the RS riding position and its somewhat backbreaking nature, and by this point I was starting to suffer from its characteristics. Despite the slight raise provided by the K75 bars (a popular mod offering a 4cm raise over the stock RS bars) some serious shoulder and neck cramp was setting in. This is an unfortunate side affect caused by the lack of wind blast - nothing to help hold your body weight off your arms. At this point a bit of cruise control wouldn’t go amiss, just to give the right arm a chance to stretch out and recover.
The roads are still empty, at one point I went a full 10 minutes without seeing another vehicle on the motorway. The only other vehicles mainly carry British, German, Belgian and Dutch plates…all hot footing it North to get out of France before the lockdown. The speedo needle still sits around the 100 mark, and I occasionally get a blinding flash from one of the conveniently front facing speed cameras. The boxer twin shows no sign of giving up, the constant flat twin drone, sound of valves and wind noise give the impression of being in the cockpit of an old single seater aircraft.
It’s a long day, and while France is a beautiful country, this part is very flat with not much to look at from the main drag. It’s a relief when I glimpse down at the sat nav and see just 20 miles to go. I arrived with 2 hours to spare greeted by police checks in the centre of St Malo. No-one is allowed to be out and about unless they’re on essential travel, but as I’ve got nowhere to go I’m allowed through and can sit in the harbour in the now warmer sunshine. I’m grateful that BMW built these bikes to last and, like so many times before, it got me to my destination without a fuss. 40 years ago these bikes cost more than twice than a Kawasaki Z900, but to see it soldering on after so many years makes you realise the original list price was actually excellent value for the quality that was being bought.
The ferry ride home is a huge comedown, everyone is ordered to stay in their cabins for the entire trip. The adrenaline of the past few days wore off quickly and watching the news is the first time it really sinks in the severity of what is going on and the tragic background of this adventure. Britain was going into lockdown too and I was arriving into a country very different to the one I left.
With my photography career put on hold by the Coronavirus lockdown, I’ve had plenty of time to give the bike the attention it deserves, and it now sits serviced and perfectly polished as the centrepiece of my garage. It’s great to look at, but these bikes aren’t ready to become museum pieces just yet and as soon as we’re allowed back outside it’ll be a workhorse once again.
Link below shows a map of the route