Why you should never travel two-up to Italy on an old ‘Blade

A 1665-mile round trip isn’t something an old Honda Fireblade is cut out for, which I found out the hard way

A 1998 Honda Fireblade loaded up for a road trip

About eight years ago, one balmy summer evening in an East London pub, my wife - of all people - suggested it’d be fun to ride to Italy on my elderly Honda Fireblade. My initial reaction was to snobbishly explain why travelling two-up on a ‘98 ‘Blade wasn’t a good idea at the best of times, but to attempt the 1665-mile round trip to and from her hometown of Brescia was pazzesco.

Cut to the French coast a month later, finally on the E15, we’re passed by a Street Glide, the pillion’s helmet bearing a skeletal hand with a rigid digitus medius directed at my face as they smoothed passed me. I’d never considered a Harley-Davidson as a credible tool for touring. As far as I was concerned they were the (cliché) preserve of bald divorcees suffering catastrophe or the recent influx of young bearded blokes with chequerboard Vans. 

I was already dimly aware that, apart from the Street Glide, all the other bikes on the Eurostar travelling from England were one form of a BMW GS or another. Come to think of it, my bike looked a little out of sorts listing in the train carriage, encapsulated with sausage bags, bin liners and bungee cords. And that Harley looked dead comfortable…

After a couple of hours into the trip, stuck in a straight line at a constant speed of 130km, my bum began to hurt. It began as a dull ache that rapidly progressed into agony that, if it wasn’t for the pain-derived endorphins, threatened to jeopardise the entire project: at every petrol station my wife and I alighted the bike as if we’d been examined by a myopic proctologist with digits the size of fork stanchions, with my gait enhanced by my poor arms flapping off my shoulders like wet bedsheets. This sequence of pain, ride, agony, stop, pain, ride, agony, stop etc., went on for what seemed like millennia, by the time I missed my exit on the outskirts of Dijon, my fundament was Wagyu beef. 

Missing an exit in France isn’t a matter of jumping off at the following one a couple of miles away - you just suddenly find yourself winding through an unwanted idyll, unable to rectify the cock-up. The refurbished Garmin sat nav I’d got from eBay had conked out before we’d even crossed the M25, and as a result, it took us almost three hours to get back to the place where I had taken the wrong turn. By then, it was 9pm, dark, and the royal we were still two hours away from our hotel in Beaune. 

What followed was another three-hour ride populated with wrong turns and tears then, out of a dark forest, as if by magic, a small village square populated by a cluster of brightly lit bars suggested that all may not be lost. I was informed by a squeak of delight from behind that, opposite one of the bars, was our hotel: a lovely hotel with secure parking for the bike and a real bed with real pillows, not one made out of wet sphagnum moss and freezing animal droppings. I saw a person on the pavement.

“What time do those bars shut!?” I screamed through my visor, jabbing a gloved fist at the clinking glasses and red faces across the road.

“Erm, some at two…”

“Aaaah!”

The experience of eating a small plate of cheeses with rich red Bourgogne and liquoricey Ricard as our derrières fizzled on the barstools was almost enough to delete the misery of the last thirteen hours. But the following morning, within an hour from starting the bike, that familiar ache, heralding the pain that was to come, began. I thought of the Harley, the spectral appendage mocking, laughing at me. 

Then suddenly, somewhere around the border of France and Switzerland, there were mountains scraping the azure sky yonder with glaciers hanging precariously over rising slopes. This wonder was briefly compromised by a lengthy sojourn through the Montblanc tunnel before exiting into blinking light and, before us, a road laid out like a grey bootlace tossed over a massive baked Alaska. 

In every direction, mountains stretched as far as the eye could see. It was spellbinding. On the Italian side of the Alps, we swept for over an hour over chasms and ravines, in and out of arcing tunnels - some through rock, others cut into their sides - until the road fell and widened and the silent mountains watched us from behind: the mental image of the derisive, bony finger, replaced by its bearer screaming for his mother for fear of toppling into the abyss as his pilot awkwardly manoeuvred the peg-scraping Hog around yet another hairpin bend. 

Apart from one occasion in Italy (why don’t Harley riders nod?) we never saw another Hog on the trip: most of the bikes we greeted on twisting bends and in gas stations were gentle folk on R1s, Ninjas, Gixxers and, of course, contemporary 'Blades with less practical considerations than mine. There was a kind, septuagenarian couple on the inevitable GS, a lost kid on a DT250 and even some crazy sod on an MV Agusta F4.

Apart from racing around Lake Garda in the week, we spent tearing through North Italy, the Alps were undoubtedly the highlight of the trip. On the way back we headed slightly East towards Domodossola and wound through the Simplon pass which included a ludicrous succession of hairpin bends before delivering us, gurgling in delight, onto the little rattling train at Brig and, ultimately, back into France, the literal pain in the butt.

In hindsight, doing the trip on a 98 ‘Blade doesn’t seem so mad, and trips to Holland and Belgium were to follow until a child halted immediate plans for more. But sitting here now, a single mental image from the road trip still haunts me. It’s one of being flipped by a phantom hand from the back of a Street Guide… Just before the missus and I scream past on our trusty ‘Blade, arses ablaze.