Board Stupid - To the Alps on a CD250

London to the French Alps on a 20 year-old Honda CD250. Ridden by someone who only just passed their test a week before. In the depths of winter. And with their snowboard strapped to the side of this rusty shitbox…

The decision to ride to the French Alps on a tiny 250cc motorbike with my snowboard, like most adventurous decisions in life, was a spur of the moment one. I’d never seen it done before and therefore it was good to go in my book. First things first, though. I needed a bike. And a licence…

I spent the requisite number of days sweating over the riding test revision reading “Hells Angels” by Hunter S. Thompson, but I passed anyway. Four days of wearing a yellow vest and trying to remember to cancel my indicator after a corner and I was done. That makes it sound a lot easier than it was but the test centre staff (LMRT) were patient and sympathetic - I thought it best not to mention my plan.

At £200 the bike cost less than a pair of Michelins and was owned by an ex-courier friend. The Deptford Choppers (unofficial name) garage run by Ben and Matt was my local haunt for the next few months whilst I got my Hog up and running. When I say ‘Hog’, I don’t really mean a 1200cc American V-twin. No. This was a 20 year old Honda CD250U. Raw power.

I learnt so much between October and March it’s not even funny; mostly how to get wet and cold in an almost limitless number of ways. And that was before I even thought about how to attach a snowboard to the anorexic chassis of the Honda . The last milestone to pass before a big trip was to have a crash. I popped this cherry by sliding off on a wet road one evening at a princely 25mph. It’s important to get these things out the way.

The fortnight before departure I changed and checked plugs, battery, bulbs, fuses, the seat, tyres, tools, rack, board, oil, cables, chain, insurance and fuel. Everything is hard to do until you know how to do it. Motorcycling was new and alien to me and even the simplest things were total brain buggerers. Stupid things like how many spares to take, how detailed do the maps need to be, can I wear my snowboard boots instead of motorbike boots? I also knew I could pack my board bag, hop in a taxi, jump on a plane and be riding snow within 12 hours and for less than £100. At times it all seemed far too stupid for words.

So after what felt like years of planning I set off south on my little blue Honda. The gear lever had been modified so I could ride in my snowboard boots and I was wearing almost all the clothes I owned; a Helly base layer, two t-shirts, a jumper, leather jacket and a snowboard jacket over the top, a scarf, two pairs of gloves, knee pads, jeans, board trousers and my super comfy boots. I didn’t know about proper bike gear, I didn’t know you could buy jackets that had Gore-Tex, quilted linings and armour all built-in. But at least my feet were warm.

The board was lashed to the courier box on the back and I could just about see over the huge, hideous purple tank bag on the front. Again – it was cheap and I figured that it was so ugly no-one would steal it. Or at least I could see them if they did. At 7am my girlfriend waved me a tearful goodbye and in stark contrast the bin men laughed openly as I wobbled up the road on a very small, cold and over-laden motorbike. My amazing trip had begun. And my visor had already misted up.

The first 20 miles were spent worrying if I’d forgotten something or that the board was going to fall off, but every time I stopped the only thing which was out of sorts was me. There was a French ferry strike on that day so the queues to the Dover docks were over a mile long. Not really a worry for a motorbike and I was on the next crossing available while everyone else was still sat in the jam. Three lads asked where I was going and if I’d done the trip before. It felt good (though I can’t quite understand why) to say that I hadn’t. Maybe I knew it would work and felt smug. Or maybe it was because despite the drizzle and grey skies in the UK, I had enjoyed every second of the ride so far.

150 miles into the journey is the the N43 near Le Cateau-Cambresis. It’s the route of a famous bicycle race called the Paris–Roubaix which takes place over sections of cobbled roads called ‘pave’. As the race is held at the end of winter the cobbles are generally wet and fantastically slippery. These lycra-loving crazies ride at 50mph with an inch-square of rubber touching the ground so I figured I wouldn’t be a pansy and should at least attempt one section. As I was congratulating myself at not going arse over tit, a couple of farmers came up and started chatting in thick French dialects. One was so weather beaten he looked like he’d been lifted straight out of a Richard Avedon photograph.

I’d chosen not to take the easy route and people seemed to react to that in a positive way. After all the cold and the effort I was looking for a bit of human spirit to help me along, and in any case it was good to stop and have a rest – I had to stop every 100 miles for £9 of gas. With an air temperature holding a steady 1 degree it was a shame my tolerance for the cold didn’t stretch that long, otherwise I might have made some progress. Hopefully the snow would still be around by the time we got there.

The following day the weather turned from just grey, to grey, wet and horrible. I was riding into the
teeth of a fierce gale. Within half an hour of leaving my warm bed the wind was so strong and the rain so hard that I couldn’t take a hand from the bars to wipe my visor or I’d have been blown underneath the huge French lorries that were trying to overtake.

I shakily stopped on the side of the road (there wasn’t even a bridge to sit underneath) for 10 minutes until the rain subsided and my nerves had settled enough to carry on. This was one of those situations I’d got myself so far into. There was no way back and I suddenly realised why no-one I knew had attempted a trip like this before. But I’d rather be wet and cold and having an adventure than squashed up in an orange aeroplane plane. Should I ride back to Catford and sack it all off? The thought was there but I honestly couldn’t have dealt with the shame. Besides, I’d eaten fois-gras for the first time the night before – how much more dangerous could riding in a storm be compared to that?

Two guys on huge BMWs came over to offer support. They’d been riding in the sun in Spain and Portugal for 2 weeks and were keen to tell me how nice it was and how many miles they’d done. They’d been blown over in the wind, too – their (spurious) tip for avoiding the wind was to “power through” it, although my 55mph (top speed, downhill, wind assisted) didn’t really cut it. The tiny Honda was at an advantage on a fearsome day like this thanks to its diminutive profile, although the snowboard on the side acted like a spinnaker.

It had seemed all right on the test ride around Blackheath Common before I left, but then the winds weren’t exactly gusting at 50mph. I dropped the bike three times that day. One time I completely forgot to put the side stand down and just stepped off thinking I was on my bicycle (which to be fair, isn’t much bigger). It must have looked good – everyone loves laughing at an idiot. Funnily enough there aren’t a lot of photos from this day. All I remember seeing, from the time I left the hotel in the morning until the time I arrived at a hotel in Oyonnax was rain, tarmac, petrol pumps and hot chocolate machines. My humour gland had run dry and I was convinced I was going to die in Northern France that day.

Blue skies, glorious sunshine and dry roads were the order of the day heading up to Val D’Isere via Annecy and Albertville. The storm had cleared the skies for the last leg to the snow and I was as happy as Ewan McGregor must have been when his Davidoff adverts coughed up. As I was wheeling the bike out of the hotel car park that morning I dropped it (again) although this time it wouldn’t start up. The fuel was on; the choke was on, lights off but no spark.

I almost went mad trying to find out what was up and after an enormous amount of time I realized when I dropped it I’d knocked the kill switch which was hidden under the bar muffs. It fired right up first try and I looked for the first lorry to throw myself under. Only the owner of the hotel, a cleaner, a passing Frenchman and his wife and 11 guests who happened to be looking out of their windows saw me so I nearly got away with it.

In contrast to the awful start, the riding could not have been more perfect. The roads were quiet and the sun was bright. It felt colder but the good conditions hid that fact very well. As the passes over the top of the mountains were closed for the season there were fewer routes to choose from. I found myself on motorways in places, so at least we could be overtaken easily and there wasn’t a snaking queue of campervans and trucks behind me for the first time since the trip began. Somewhere near Bellegarde Sur Val a car with British plates overtook very slowly, filming me all the while on their mobile and honking their horn enthusiastically. I’ve scoured YouTube but no joy. After spending the first couple of weeks of bike ownership wobbling round Lewisham and Blackheath in the rain this was nirvana.

On one petrol stop I begged for some oil for my chain from a garage next door. I’d been told that oiling your chain was important, dunno why but it seemed like a good idea. The owner looked puzzled at this request but as soon as he saw the bike he was very keen to help out. It was probably out of fear for my safety; like Eddie The Eagle at the 1988 Calgary Olympics, when the other athletes donated their spare kit as his own equipment was so bad he would almost certainly have killed himself.

The views, so often seen from the window of a coach, were stunning and panoramic - being on the bike was definitely the best way to experience them. Lake Annecy was so gorgeous that when I stopped for a photo I left the keys in the ignition. That would have been a royal pain in the arse if it’d been stolen but the chances of my Honda being nicked were, I admit, slim. The arteries to the resorts became clogged with tourists and as I slipped past the queues I was willing to bet my thermals that every driver wished they’d thought of sticking a snowboard to a motorbike.

Lac Du Tignes crept into sight. It’s an incredible reservoir where the road forks to Tignes on one side and Val D’Isere on the other. The road up is amazing and a couple of riders on far sportier bikes than mine (not hard) waved as they blasted past – at least they understood my trip. As I staggered into Val d’Isere I honestly couldn’t believe I’d made it. I turned the bike around at the top of the road, a French ski instructor pointed, laughed and asked, “pourquoi pas en l’avion?” - why not by plane? “C’est mes grandes vacances” - this is my big holiday, I replied. My friend who was working in a chalet came and met me and we dined on huge hamburgers and well-deserved beer.

No-one could believe I’d made it there. Or indeed had such a dumb idea in the first place. But the fact of the matter was that I’d got there in three days, on a motorbike which cost less than my snowboard and the next day we were out riding on the legendary Alpine snow. If you’re thinking of undertaking such a trip then don’t let a halfwit like me put you off, just get it done and worry about ice, hypothermia, wind chill etc later. All those issues just make good tales down the pub as nobody really wants to hear how amazing it all was – they just want to know how much you suffered. What I learnt was how much faster my snowboard went after it was covered in chain lube.

Talking of which, the board did go fast. Being squashed up on a tiny bike for three days was all the excuse I needed for riding as hard as I could when I finally got there. In contrast to motorcycling, I actually know what I’m doing with snowboard. It snowed for a fortnight when I arrived and dried up the day I left. I visited five resorts in two weeks, rode hundreds of kilometres in snow up to my knees and had the best holiday in the mountains I’ve ever had.