Motorcycling in Europe

Arrived in Frankfurt, rented car, drove to Colditz, toured Colditz Castle, “escape proof” detention area for RAF and American pilots shot down in WW II. The inspiration for the great 1961 flick “The Great Escape” featuring a cast of big league actors, including Steve McQueen. 144 successful escapes and 30 home runs to Switzerland and home to England. The castle is interesting and the museum of escape attempts is fascinating. The tunnels are long since collapsed, but many of the artifacts are preserved, including a two-man glider built behind a false wall that never flew because the camp was liberated before it had a chance. Subsequent models actually flew successfully. The Steve McQueen character is said to be modeled after real life multiple escapee Michael Sinclair ultimately shot dead by Colditz guards during an escape attempt.

Back to Frankfurt to meet pal Gil Ross and pick up rental bikes. Mine was equipped with a GPS system, the Tom Tom “Rider”, specifically designed for bikes, removable and weatherproof. I was able to dial in locations down to street address. Trust me, there is no longer any alternative to GPS for riders. Tank bag maps are simply too difficult to interpret and require too much attention while negotiating roads. Occasionally we were sent on a wild goose chase, usually because of my inexperience in reading the screen, but in the aggregate, it was irreplaceable. I will never again tour without one.

Off to Andermatt, Switzerland for some riding in the alps. That involved riding on the Autobahn, an interesting situation. My rental bike was a BMW R1200RT, a magnificent beast, engineered like a SR-71 Blackbird fighter. All weather, all conditions, high speed touring bike that delivers total performance without compromise. Then comes……the autobahn, in retrospect, a terribly frightening and dangerous experience. Three lanes. The far right lane for a steady stream of trucks and slower vehicles averaging about 60 mph. Middle lane is inhabited by “moderately’ faster vehicles cruising along about 80 – 90 MPH. Then the infamous “left lane”, inhabited by Porsches, big Beemers, Audis and the occasional Ferrari and other exotics. These guys are seriously fast. At least 120- 140 miles per hour, up to what I estimate around 160 mph for the exotics. All these denizens co-existing, more or less. As much as a 100 mph closing speed between the fast and slow lanes. Getting in the left lane requires thought and planning, as does getting back to the middle lane.

This situation is radically different than the “usual” American highway scenario with housewives yakking on cell phones and swatting at kids in the back seat, rubber-neckers and lollygagging idiots in the left lane at 50 mph. I think European drivers are “better” than American motorists because they have to pay attention to what they’re doing. Driving on the Autobahn is like a video game, where making a mistake not only takes you out of the game; it takes out at least ten outer vehicles in your area as well. It’s like a concert in which each player must know his role and play it flawlessly. There aren’t many accidents on the Autobahn but when one does happen, it’s a doozy.

Motorcycling in Europe is much more pervasive and creative than here I think. Usually circles of friends traveling in packs. Full leather. They all look like “The Gimp” in “Pulp Fiction”. Bikes packed to the rafters with camping gear. Long distance riders, two weeks at a time. I met one group on its way to tout Dracula’s castle in Transylvania. It’s a culture and when we all meet at stops or rest points, its instant bonding, with any kind of help or advice needed. We tangled with a group of about ten of them who had inside information that a high pass over one of the Alps was closed, so we followed them to a train passing through a tunnel under a mountain, 20 miles as I recall. Back end of the train opened up, riders and a few cars lumbered on to flat beds, then 100 mph open-air train ride beneath the mountain holding on for dear life. Front gate opens and we’re on our way. Back up to Munich and we toured Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial, which was an intense experience to say the least.

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