The original plan was to ride to EICMA on a Victory Gunner. I had come up with the idea in summer, imagining French back roads and Alpine passes.
When I get in touch with Victory's PR team in the UK, however, they gently point out the flaws in my thinking: EICMA takes place in mid November and I've given myself very little time to get there. Which means spending time on the motorway (aka freeway/interstate).
"You can do what you want, mate," says Victory UK's PR man, Steve. "I can get you a Gunner, no problem. But, well, have you ridden here in November?"
I have. Britain is terrible this time of year. Incessant rain and gale-force winds. The sun disappears until March. When Steve offers a Victory Vision as an alternative, I say yes before he finishes the suggestion.
The Vision is Victory's top-of-the-line tourer, happy to be brought up against the likes of the Indian Roadmaster, or Harley-Davidson Electra Glide. Relatively unchanged since being introduced in 2008, it maintains a contemporary look that puts it on the same aesthetic stage as the Honda Goldwing.
Twenty-nine gallons (132 liters) of storage space, full fairing, electronically adjustable screen, heated grips, heated seats, cruise control and stereo. All powered by a ginormous 1731 cc (106 cu. in.) V-twin. Yeah, that's the way to travel to Milan.
I pick up the bike in London and ride it back to Cardiff (where I live) to load its panniers and top box before heading out the next day. At first glance, the sheer enormity of the Vision intimidates me. Everything is big on this bike. Fairing the size of a Smart car, handlebars like the horns of a Texas steer, a seat large enough to accommodate an adult male polar bear.
Everything is big except the handlebar-mounted radio and cruise control buttons. They are too tiny for gloved hands. With the stereo, at least, there are additional controls on the bike's acre-sized tank. But those controls are out of my line of sight. So, there is a lot of haphazard mashing of buttons. Eventually, the radio comes to life and –– this really happened –– blares Steppenwolf's "Born to Be Wild."
More button mashing finds some Taylor Swift, which, along with mariachi, is really the only music that should be allowed from motorcycles. At 70mph, the stereo's sound quality is shockingly good –– better than in many cars I've owned.
But I generally think stereos on motorcycles are dumb, negating some of the Shikantaza that comes from motorcycling. The novelty of being a mobile disco wears off by the time I reach Slough, on London's western outskirts; I turn off the radio and return to my thoughts.
As I leave London's microclimate (always warmer and drier than elsewhere in the UK), the Vision's real value is revealed. The skies open up and I find myself riding through a hail storm. The fairing doesn't keep me as bone dry as tourer owners often claim, but there's no denying it's keeping the worst of the storm off me.
An hour later, the rain has subsided but the flow of traffic remains at or below the speed limit -- highly unusual in Britain. It takes me a while to realize I am the cause of this slowness. The incredible girth of the bike and the fact that I'm wearing a high-vis vest has many road users confusing me for a police officer. The aesthetic differences between myself on a Vision and a police officer on a BMW R1200RT are about as numerous as the differences between a bison and a puma, but it seems the average driver struggles to spot them. A bike is a bike is a bike. And a big bike, they seem to assume, is a cop.
This will become a consistent annoyance for me over the next two weeks, especially in low-light situations, where the incredibly obvious differences aren't as quickly spotted. It will give me an insight into the level of absolute idiocy that traffic officers must witness on a daily basis.
Drivers hang out right in my blind spot, matching my speed and unwilling to venture past. Others suddenly stomp their brakes when they spot me.
Meanwhile, tradesmen and truck drivers (who are almost always motorcycle enthusiasts) drive uncomfortably close as they try to work out what the heck it is that I'm riding. The Vision is not the bike you want if your goal is to be inconspicuous.
An Unhappy Start
The next morning, I tape a French flag to the Vision's windshield. Overnight, 130 people have been killed in Paris with 368 more injured.
I quickly rework my route to ensure I'll be riding through France. I had intended to avoid the country because of its exorbitant toll roads. But now I am willing to throw a few euros for the sake of showing my support. I'll cross Britain today, take a night ferry to the Netherlands, head south via Belgium, Luxembourg, France, stay at a hotel in Switzerland, then arrive in Italy in time for the first EICMA event.
Britain has recently adopted the convention of naming storms. The very first, Abigail, is now pounding the country with heavy rain and winds up to 72mph. Again, the bike's fairing deflects the worst of the wet, but also offers a lot of surface area for the wind to catch. Bridges and open stretches test of my ability to stay calm.
The bike dances far more than you would expect from a 900-pound machine. Add the weight of myself and luggage and the whole package is well over half a ton, but handling in these conditions is positively skittish. Most of the blame for this, I feel, can be placed upon the god-awful Dunlop Elite III tires that come standard on the Vision.
Anything that can unsettle a tire –– wet pavement, standing water, leaves, mud, road markings, expansion joints on bridges, tar snakes, manhole covers, uneven pavement, Tuesdays, singing too loudly, etc. –– will cause these craptacular shoes to kick. They are an insult to an otherwise good motorcycle.
Things are no better the next morning in the Netherlands, a country that is flat and treeless. Powerful wind and rain are hitting here too, and my nerves are frazzled by the time I reach the edge of the Ardennes.
In Belgium, though, things calm down. The rain fades and the sun reveals hills bathed in late-autumn color. South of Liege, the traffic gets light enough for me to play with the bike's cruise control. Setting it isn't easy. The controls are on the right handlebar, meaning I have to hold the throttle steady while stretching a thumb to jab at the too-small buttons.
Once set, the system is not the smoothest –– especially where hills are involved –– but it allows me to relax and take in the beauty of my surroundings. The Vision is an American motorcycle, inherently designed for the American experience, and it is in this space I see how well suited it is to the task. This is a bike for tackling distance, its engine is a tireless workhorse.
Europe On Lockdown
At the border of Luxembourg and France I encounter heavily armed Gendarmes –– assault rifles across their chests, handguns at their waists. They are staring intently into the cars, trying to look at everyone's face.
Brilliant autumn sunshine floods the Saar Valley as I speed from Metz to Strasbourg. I set cruise control and give the radio another chance. I don't speak French, but it's clear people are talking about Paris. After some searching I find a station playing thumping Euro dance music, which carries me through an incredible sunset and on into the evening.
More guards at the France-Switzerland border. Then a starry-sky blast to Luzern, where I spend the night.
The next morning, I pull back the curtains to discover I am surrounded by mountains. Cows loiter in a field nearby. Switzerland is kick-you-in-the-chest gorgeous and I'll spend my morning hooting with joy and taking in gulps of fresh air as I speed south.
Inside the 10.5-mile-long Gotthard Tunnel the temperature rises considerably. The Vision's massive dash tells me the ambient temperature is 28C (about 83F). I suspect the engine is confusing that measurement, but either way it's uncomfortable. Heat from the mighty V-twin pours onto my shins until I'm inclined to let my feet dangle on the outside of the floorboards.
The Gotthard Tunnel is the fourth longest road tunnel in the world, so the conditions within it are unique and not something you're likely to experience often. But it does make me wonder what this bike would be like in summer.
Back out in the open, where the ambient temperature is 10C (or 50F), the bike runs fine and chugs along at 120kmh (75mph) without effort.
Dropping down from the mountains, the weather turns grey and cold. Armed Carabinieri at the Switzerland-Italy border are dressed in heavy grey coats and peak caps that make them look too much like the Stasi for my liking. With fog obscuring the surroundings, I feel like I'm in a Cold War film.
For the first time I get a sick feeling that Europe is changing, that we're losing something.
Not everything is changing, though. Italian drivers remain the worst in the world. But their complete disregard for the concept of speed limits means I am able to hustle to my hotel, shower and change with plenty of time to attend Ducati's press event in the center of Milan.
I leave the bike at my hotel and take the subway into town. As I buy my ticket I am approached by a woman claiming to be a pregnant Syrian refugee. She hassles me for money and eventually I give in, handing her a €2 coin.
"Are you really Syrian?" I ask
"Yes," she says.
"You came on a boat?"
"Was it, you know, was it scary? Was it dangerous?"
Every part of her body language tells me she doesn't want to have this conversation. She politely nods and walks away.
Who knows if she's legit, but certainly her story is believable. Upward of 800,000 refugees are expected to have flooded into Europe by the end of this year. That's the whole of Seattle, plus Lansing, Michigan, on its feet and stumbling away from atrocity. The route from Libya to Italy is one of the most dangerous, but some 70,000 people are expected to have tried by the end of 2015. Many will have died in the effort.
Thanks to the jackasses who attacked Paris, things will now get much harder for those thousands and thousands of innocents. It is not fair.
That night, Ducati CEO Claudio Domenicali pays respect to the Paris victims and we all pause for a moment of silence.
Westbound And Down
After three days of nonstop running around at EICMA, I'm back on the road at 6am, the morning of my return journey. My goal is to cover 685 miles today –– Milan to Hoek van Holland. I need to do it before 9pm, or I'll miss my ferry to England.
Security on the Italy-Switzerland border is about the same, but things have stepped up at the border with France. Dogs and guns. Cars being pulled over. Guards are also at toll booths. At the border with Luxembourg traffic is backed up more than a mile.
It is here that I learn it is possible to filter (i.e., lane split) with the Vision. The bike is 1.14 meters wide (3 feet, 8 inches) at the mirrors, so it's not easy, but the looks-like-a-cop nature of the bike means that many people are good enough to give me room.
By the time I reach Belgium it is dark and raining. My first pair of "waterproof" gloves have given up on me (side note: never buy Furygan gloves) and my back-ups are starting to leak (again: never buy Furygan gloves).
The bike's god-awful tires are god-awful. Water is forming inside my boots. I crank up the heated grips and heated seat to maximum, and try to push my legs close to the engine for warmth. My GPS has a live traffic feature and outside of Brussels it informs me that the whole of Western Europe is trapped in gridlock. It navigates me off-highway and through a maze of narrow city streets.
This is activity for which the Vision was not designed. Rarely getting beyond second gear, riding the clutch, squeezing between cars –– that sort of stuff is not this bike's spirit song. Every gear change is announced with a wrench-in-a-bucket clunk, making it sound like parts are falling off. The bike's weight and crappy tires make it unwieldy on cobblestone roads. All the while, rain pours so heavily that I can barely see. At stops, I can hear the engine sizzling in the downpour.
The Vision is no Vespa, but it does get me through town. Before long I am back on the motorway and making up time. Through pitch-black Dutch night I crank the bike to 100mph. The engine makes a glorious, roaring sound that reminds me of the muscle cars I pined for as a teenager. Suddenly I understand why Victory claims "American Muscle" as its tag line. The sound and feeling of this engine is addictive.
I make it to the port with 20 minutes to spare. I dump my wet gear in my cabin, shower, and am at the ship's restaurant in time to watch the lights of Hoek van Holland disappear into the night.
The next morning, UK border agents are searching every car that comes off the ship. Later in the day, Brussels will go into a state of lockdown –– trains cancelled, schools closed –– that will last for more than a week. And in the United States, several governors declare that their states will refuse Syrian refugees.
Roaring toward home on a motorcycle made for crossing borders, I think of something Nathan Millward once said: "The world is much brighter than we're led to believe."
I hope we can find a way to remember that.