To ride from one end of Europe to the other (Nordkapp to Gibraltar) in 72 hours
I’m sitting here writing this looking out over the most beautiful view I’ve seen this year. It’s 22:18 and the sun is still in the sky where it will apparently remain all night; the temperature is a pleasant 14-15ºC. We’ve rented a cabin for a couple of nights and have just had a nice meal and a wander over the hills surrounding the cabin. What could be better?
We’re on day 4 of our trip and in Skarsvåg which is a few kilometres from Nordkapp, the most Northerly point in Europe. We’ve travelled through France, Belgium, Holland, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Finland and finally Norway to get here and we’re both knackered having travelled around 2200 miles; this doesn’t bode well for the rest of our trip.
I can’t get my head around the fact that we’re planning to ride 3500 miles in 72 hours. The first day’s riding will be back to the stop we made 2 days ago and those 2 days have been really hard. I ended up buying a couple of those little demister pads to stick down my trousers to ease my aching bottom. (Did my bum look big? You betcha! And deformed as my ever-honest husband informed me!).
Kevin had been planning to do this trip for about a year, ever since he read about it on an Iron Butt Association (IBA) site, and this is the first opportunity we’d had to attempt it. I’m not sure when I agreed to come with him but at this stage I was seriously wondering about my sanity, and his. We’d had a lot of help from other people – route suggestions, accommodation recommendations, strategies for the ride – but at the end of the day we had to decide for ourselves. One of the key decisions was whether to attempt the journey in two legs with one long sleep break, which seems to be the preferred method for most of the few riders who have recorded this IBA ride, or three legs with two shorter rests. We finally decided on the three legs option. When I was sitting in the cabin worrying about the ride ahead Kevin told me to stop thinking about it as a single ride and think of it as 3 Saddlesore 1000s (a shorter IBA ride); each day would be around 1000 miles…ish. I hadn’t thought of it like that but it did actually made it seem a lot easier; the old ‘how to eat an elephant’ strategy.
Nordkapp is at the very top of Europe in the Finmark region of Norway. It is a breathtakingly beautiful place which has only been accessible by road for 10 years or so. The roads, bridges and tunnels are a magnificent feat of engineering in their own right and provide many miles of blissful biking pleasure. It’s well past the Arctic Circle at 71deg north and in July it is blessed by 24 hours of sunshine (when it’s not foggy or raining of course).
Kevin went to bed as he was tired from the riding and I stayed up to take a photo with the magic midnight sun.
The next day we had a good lie-in and missed breakfast. Kevin checked the bike and especially the tyres which had been new when we left. Still loads of tread. We spent the rest of the day at the visitor centre in Nordkapp but the weather wasn’t so good and we thought we might not actually see any of the scenery due to the low clouds. Luckily they eventually rolled away and we were treated to the spectacular sight of the cliffs with the Arctic Ocean disappearing into the distance. Next stop the North Pole.
Leg 1: We were riding according to the IBA Finland rules for the EE2E ride. Our first day of the ride started with a light breakfast and another short hop back to the Nordkapphall to get our start-of-ride witness signatures and that all-important start-time receipt (11.29).
Then we were off! It was very foggy in places round the cape but the girl in the gift shop told us it was only local and was clear lower down. She wasn’t wrong. Before long we were out of the clouds and back to that gorgeous sweeping coast road.
The Norwegian Police are apparently very hot on speeding but there are lots of roads and fewer Police. We kept rigidly to the speed limits in populated areas (as we always do) but had fun in the open areas without going too mad. Kevin said it was worth the time spent getting there just to ride the sweeping bends on the E69.
On the ride up I was paranoid about reindeer on the roads. We saw several small groups of them and they seemed oblivious to the vehicles, moving off to their next eating spot at a very leisurely pace; we even rode through the middle of one group on the way up. I was keeping my eyes peeled and at the slightest sight of any animal I’d tell Kevin “Sheep!” My brain is so used to sheep-spotting that it couldn’t process ‘reindeer’ quickly enough. Needless to say we didn’t see any sheep. Kevin was always quicker to spot the animals, even the lone one stood facing us that was the same colour as the road.
Friends in England had told us we should expect rain until we got into Sweden so we were wearing our waterproofs but to start with they were not required. Once we left the coast road the clouds ahead were looking blacker. Soon enough the inevitable happened and we were in torrential rain. It only lasted for about 30 miles and that was the end of the rain for the trip. We knew that later on it would be so hot we’d be fantasising about the time it rained so we tried to enjoy it.
The time we spent figuring out where the food and petrol stops were paid off and this time Finland was not bathed in torrential rain. The dry roads helped ensure we made better time.
The better weather gave us a chance to take a good look at the countryside and we realised just what a beautiful region Scandinavia is. It is very green and where you could see water it was bright blue. The roads in Sweden are interesting being a mixture of single carriageways and ‘dual’ carriageways where one direction has 2 lanes and the other direction has one lane. These swap and change to give vehicles in each direction the chance to overtake. We really must have a word with the elves who change things around overnight thus ensuring whichever way we are travelling, the traffic in the other direction always has more dual carriageway!
We were getting into the rhythm and on schedule [leg 1, 16 hours, 919 miles] when we had to stop for petrol about 170 miles short of Stockholm. We filled up and Kevin thumbed the starter, ‘click’ then nothing. The bike was completely dead! Nothing would get the bike started and there was no indication that anything was working at all. Kevin checked all the fuses which were fine then said he was stumped. We called Green Flag and were horrified to learn that our ‘personal’ cover didn’t extend to Europe except for our ‘main car’… now what?
We called a local recovery service and he said he’d be with us in about 2 hours. So that was that. A dead bike and even if he managed to get it fixed it would have taken so long we couldn’t finish the challenge in time.
Kevin was gutted. Ever since he’d read about the challenge he’d been keen to do it and now it was over. It was one thing to abort the ride because one of us was unable to continue but the bike breaking down was just not a good reason. I was also gutted, not least because I knew that if we failed this time Kevin would be planning that long ride back up to Nordkapp to have another attempt as soon as he could. Mind you, the scenery would (almost) make it all worthwhile.
People were following us on our Spot at Spotwalla which is a near-real-time track so I texted a couple of people to say what had happened to ensure they didn’t worry because we’d stopped for a long time. I got a response back from Richard – obviously a light sleeper as it was about 3am in the UK – and he said it could either be the battery or perhaps a loose earth. This triggered something in Kevin’s memory and he was soon back at the bike taking the side panels off and wiggling the wires by the battery.
He tried the bike and ‘vrooom’ it started! We checked the clock. We’d been in the services for about 2.5 hours but if the bike carried on we might still make it. We decided to ride on to Stockholm, our next petrol and planned sleep stop, and hope that the bike started again. We arrived in Stockholm, filled up with petrol and pulled up outside the Ibis; 08:00 and 1080 miles completed.
Leg 2: We’d had our sleep break – a bit shorter than planned in an effort to make up some of the lost time – and went out to the bike to pack it back up. Now we were further south and it was daytime and dry we no longer needed our waterproofs (thankfully) or our liners but we struggled to get them all stowed away and ended up unpacking and repacking everything; I’m sure being tired didn’t help. Eventually we were ready and Kevin pressed the starter…
I couldn’t believe it! I thought Kevin was going to be really irritated but he wasn’t. He calmly got off the bike, took the side panel and battery cover off, then fiddled with the wiring again. It worked. The battery on the GTR is not particularly accessible as it’s in a just-big-enough hole under the rear of the fuel tank and a couple of bolted-on panels have to be removed to gain access to it. This time Kevin left the panels off to ensure it was easier to get to if required.
At 11:40 we were on the road again and into the end of the Stockholm rush hour. The roads were fairly busy but they were flowing nicely.
We’d forgone breakfast to reduce our stop time so I was getting very hungry when late in the afternoon we stopped at a familiar McDonalds where the theme for the day seemed to be teenagers (it had been mothers and toddlers on the way up). The queue inside was so big that I resorted to going to the ‘drive through’ bit where there were no cars waiting. Some people swear that McDonalds is the worst thing you can eat on the long rides, preferring ‘trail mix’, but we find that you can rely on them and keep the trail mix for those stops where we can’t get anything else. It’s also quite messy to keep milkshakes in the top box.
After a short break we set off again and continued to make good time towards the Malmo bridge which we reached in the early evening. As we travelled through Denmark I realised how much like England it is. Unlike Sweden where the majority of the houses are built from the ubiquitous pine, the buildings here were made from other materials such as bricks and render.
We got to Rodby for the Puttgarden ferry just in time to have missed one but as they go every half an hour it wasn’t too bad. Kevin had decided not to attempt a proper fix for the starting issue in case whatever was failing was finally broken during the investigation but it was getting worse. As we waited in the queue he identified which wire was causing the problem and we resolved to stop at the first services in Germany to try to sort it out. I was looking forward to being able to stand by the bike for the half an hour but no sooner had I dismounted than we were called forward. So, climb back on…
Once at the services the problem turned out to be as simple as a loose battery terminal connection. Why on earth that should have come loose after 28k miles we have no idea but we discovered later that it’s a known issue for the GTR; we’ll certainly know next time. It was quickly fixed and we had no more problems.
The sunset was lovely but not a patch on last night’s. This time the sun did go down and the next 8 hours or so would be in the dark.
Germany went by in a blur of red lights and lorries. We were mostly riding autobahns with no speed limits so we made up some time. I was expecting the autobahns to be 3 or 4 lanes but they were generally only 2. In England this would have been a disaster, especially as the roads were absolutely chock-a-block with trucks of all sizes as long as it was a variation of ‘large’. Most of the trucks had trailers and they all trundled along as fast as they could but there was very little hold up as they don’t seem to have the need to overtake as much as they do in England. There were also long stretches of road where lorries are not allowed to overtake – very civilised.
At every other petrol stop we had a quick bite to eat (Kevin was eating peanuts and I ate some of the trail rations we had bought), something to drink (Kevin coffee, water for me) and if necessary a quick loo-break. Some stops had us walking round trying to wake up the parts the journey had put to sleep. At least on this journey I didn’t have to resort to the demisters as I’d obviously got acclimatised to the seat.
Our next scheduled stop was Lyon and we arrived there at about 11:00 with 2428 miles completed. The receptionist was a bit surprised that we only wanted to stay for four hours but sorted us out a room and we had a lovely, if rather short, sleep whilst the heat of the day was at its worst.
Leg 3: All good things have to come to an end and we were on our way again just before 15:00. The traffic wasn’t too bad going out of Lyon and we were able to go quickly enough that air was coming in through our jackets and trousers, albeit ‘hair-dryer’ air.
The GTR is fully faired and brilliant in the rain but when the weather is hot it can be a monster. The engine heat comes blasting up to the rider and when Kevin moves his legs it wafts up to me. By the time we’d finished the ride Kevin’s legs were quite red from the heat.
We passed through France and finally into Spain where we were going to be travelling on relatively new motorways. Last time we came through here the services were few and far between but we were pleased to see there are a lot more now and we made full use of them. Kevin was struggling at one point and made the most of the ‘Iron Butt Motel’ whilst I kept guard – ensuring the dogs that were running round didn’t bite him or pee on his feet!
The later it got (or should that be ‘earlier’?) the harder it was to stay focussed. We’d lost time due to the breakdown and the only place we could make that up was the sleep breaks, we were paying for that now. There’s always another day to do a ride and no ride is worth having an accident for so we stopped again for Kevin to have another rest; this time there was no handy bench to sleep on. There was a restaurant with tables and chairs – result – except it was so noisy it was impossible to sleep. Half an hour of staring into a coffee cup had to do but it was enough. By the time we got going again the sun was coming up.
Apart from the battery problem the bike worked like a dream. It’s reasonably agile for such a large lump of machinery which means it’s OK on mountain bends and just eats up motorway miles. The latter was pretty much all that was left now. Kevin loathes motorways with a passion as they are so boring to ride but at least the Spanish ones have bends which adds some interest.
The traffic started to get busier as we headed towards Gibraltar. We saw lots of over-stuffed cars with huge bundles strapped to their roofs. Many of the cars were wobbling around as they struggled to keep going in a straight line. Finally we came down a steep road and saw The Rock for the first time.
It’s impossible to describe the mixed emotions that well up. Excitement, anticipation, elation all mixed with a tingle of concern that we were SO close and failure now was not an option. Those final 20 miles seemed longer than all the previous thousands.
We crossed the border into Gibraltar – our first ‘real’ border crossing for thousands of miles – and stopped at the first petrol station for the all-important timed receipt and witness signatures. It was 08:57 and we’d completed 3511 miles. We’d done it! As our witness form was being signed the first congratulatory text came in from someone who had been following us on Spotwalla; excellent timing Phil.
We spent a while enjoying the moment and taking some commemorative photos then made our very weary way back to La Linea and our hotel where we crashed out for a well-deserved sleep.
Once we’d finished in Gibraltar we made our way back home (much slower and with much more sleep) through Spain, Andorra and France. About 100 miles from The Tunnel we stopped for petrol and picked up a nail in the back tyre – we weren’t doing very well with some of our petrol stops. It went in with such force that it made a loud bang which had other bikers looking round. Luckily we had a puncture repair kit and were able to fix it and carry on, albeit at a slower pace. Despite the puncture, the tyres (Michelin Pilot Road 2’s) were brilliant. We did 7500 miles on them during this trip and they both still had 3mm of tread left in the middle.
All that was left now was to send in our evidence – ride log, petrol receipts, witness signatures, etc. – for validation. We were delighted to learn we were the first English people to complete the challenge, it somehow made all the aches disappear. Now we just need to wait for IBA Finland to check our evidence and, hopefully, verify the ride.
Would you like to see some more pictures from this trip? Click here.
Post-script: Ride has now been officially verified.