40 DAYS OF MISERY
Ben Winder learns the hard way that motorbikes and mountain bikes don’t mix
Photographer Ben Winder discovers the hard way that motorbikes and mountain bikes don’t mix, as he swaps his van for a moto with a custom bike rack and heads for the mountains of Europe.
My 16-year-old self dreamt of strapping my mountain bike to the back of a motorbike, the freedom and possibilities. But my parents stopped the idea in its tracks (rightly so). A van was a more practical solution as I grew older, so I converted a camper, which took me all over Europe as I followed bike races with my camera, and my dream lay dormant. Earlier this year my van broke down. Struggling to find an alternative that was within my budget, the motorbike dream was re-awoken.
I’m currently living in the French Alps, so I imagined riding country roads in warm weather and camping in amazing locations. A little 125cc was all I wanted – something cheap, fuel-economic and in a low insurance group. I’d strap my bike to the back and continue to follow mountain biking around Europe. A deal was agreed with BTR Fabrications to build me a bike rack in exchange for photographing Burf’s (one half of BTR) wedding. I flew back to the UK, took my motorbike test, found a bike for £600 and convinced a friend to take me to Reading to pick it up. BTR built the rack in an evening and the following day I set off to France.
Baptism of fire
Four hours into the journey, my rose-tinted glasses had rattled off. It’s a long way from Wales to France. On a motorbike it seems even further. I made it to Calais on the first day and stayed in a hotel, with the intention of crossing the entire country the following day. The route planner made it seem possible, so it was with confidence that I started the journey south. I’d left the Alps during a heatwave but the weather had now turned cold and rainy, so I vibrated my way down through France, double-Buffed and thermalled and waterproofed up. I was soon soaked and freezing, and had to stop at public toilets every 50 miles to warm myself up under the hand dryers.
It was at 8pm that things really turned sour. The rain grew colder and colder until it eventually became snow. Still four hours from my house, I needed to get out of the weather. There was a glimmer of hope 20km away, in the shape of a service station. I rode those 20km at 10mph with my goggles off, because they were freezing over. Covered in ice from my zips to my Buffs, I made it to the hand dryer, and slept in a quiet corner until morning. I woke up to find to my relief that the snow had turned back into rain. A few more hours and I made it to my house and a hot shower.
But this was only half the journey – now that I’d collected my bike, the real adventure could begin. First, though, I was desperate to go for a ride, so I headed down the road to ‘1,000m of loam’. This track is almost inaccessible and its whereabouts are only known to four people. Steep, technical and, most of all, flowy, it was the perfect reward after the misery of the previous two days.
After a quick test ride of the motorbike with the bike attached, I was feeling confident. It felt weird but I could manage it, I thought. Ha. My fully-laden maiden voyage was to Lake Garda in Italy, and my gear – camera equipment, clothes, hammock, sleeping bag, riding kit and bike – was horrendously balanced, with all the weight behind the motorbike’s saddle. Imagine someone bouncing on a trampoline behind your back wheel – that’s what it felt like. This meant the front wheel picked up under acceleration and over lumps in the road. Riding at slow speeds, it occasionally wobbled uncontrollably.
When cornering, the weight was a massive issue, and controlling the motorbike really took some muscling around. Not only that, but the mountain bike turned into a sail under any slight breeze, which was beyond stressful. And it wasn’t just a problem when the wind was blowing – turbulence from other vehicles in front of me caused serious wobbles and every time a lorry passed on the other side of the road, the bike would be blown a few feet to the side. This was the biggest issue.
Bike riding was the saving grace. I stopped to ride the rocky, technical tracks of Garda, the steeps of the Alps and the fast, flowy trails of Punta Ala, and these moments of normality between the epic journeys saved me. Muscling the motorbike around gave me arm pump, and in Garda there wasn’t any let-up, with some of the rockiest and longest descents I’ve ridden. I was feeling pretty beaten-up at this point and regret was creeping into my mind.
But then, in Tuscany, I fell back in love with the bike and the idea. Given a lift down in the back of a van (cheat!), I used the motorbike for short trips and got to ride my mountain bike every day, on unique and fun trails with ultimate flow that ended at the beach. Going for a swim every evening, my arm pump was soon gone. Heading north, back towards France, I spent a night in a hammock with an amazing view – this was exactly what I’d dreamt of, even if the experience was somewhat short-lived.
With all the bouncing around, a serious amount of weight onboard and an untested bike rack, the inevitable happened – the rack cracked. I did the rounds of the local (30km away) garages and at the fourth attempt someone helped me out and fixed it. But this incident had put the fear in me and I realised it would be pretty catastrophic if the rack totally snapped while it had my bike and all my gear loaded on it.
After a hefty day on the ’ped – 10 hours to be precise – driving north through Italy, disaster struck again when the engine cut out. On the side of a busy road, I tried everything I could (mostly just hitting the bike with a hammer!). Then I pushed the bike towards a small group of houses, dripping with sweat. Some kids came over asking me what I was doing, and led me around all the garages in the town. The mechanics at three just said, “No”. At the final garage, they took a quick look and said, “Finito”.
Later that evening, camped by a river, I realised I had breakdown cover with my bank. When I called them in the morning to see if they could do anything, it turned out that they could. I was towed all the way back to France! The bike is now outside my house, still broken down (the two nearest motorbike garages both have two-month waiting lists). I’m vehicle-less, but very relieved that I don’t have to ride the bastard thing any more! Mum, Dad… you were right.