As regular readers may know, over the last few years I have used The Distinguished Gentleman’s Ride as an excuse – if one were needed – for an elongated test ride of a motorcycle that loosely fitted the cool/retro/custom requirements suggested by the organisers – and each of those rides took place in London.
The main reason for this was that the bike I had owned during those years was a BMW R1100S, which was a great machine but didn’t really fit in with the DGR look.
So each September I became a borrower (that’s someone who scrounges stuff, not a tiny person – I’ve never been that). The three bikes I had on loan would be described by some as going from the sublime to the ridiculous. I’ll leave you to form your own opinions as to which is which.
The first, in 2014, was a vintage red Ural, a machine originating from the former Soviet Union, with cylinders pointing east and west, à la BMW. It was an interesting machine to say the least; I was given a full set of instructions on how to coax this machine through the ride – the possibility that it would still be running at the end was far from a foregone conclusion. As if to emphasise this, the bike’s owner – Andy Tribble – seemed surprised that it managed to complete the full ride without some kind of mechanical failure, although the rear wheel was wearing a protective coating of oil by the time I handed it back.
The following year, I called in a favour with our friends at Polaris and borrowed the magnificent Indian Chief Vintage, resplendent in ivory and pale green paintwork, with gold pin-striping and acres of chrome, the bike was all flared mudguards and brown leather with tassels.
In 2016 Harley-Davidson had just released the ‘Roadster’ variant of their 1200 Sportster, a classic looking machine with flat bars and USD forks.
While the Ural was collected from and returned to an address in South West London, it required some concentration and experience to ride a machine that was effectively designed to be bolted to a sidecar, and in between stopping it from stalling and avoiding using the brakes it would be fair to say that it wasn’t the best handling bike I’d ever ridden.
The Indian had to be collected and returned to the outskirts of Birmingham, while the Harley lived in Gloucester, so with the return trips from Kent adding up to several hundred miles for the American V-Twins, I felt satisfied that I had made what I felt was sufficient effort to justify the generous sponsorship I received for the DGR from my friends and colleagues.
When I unexpectedly became the owner of a Harley-Davidson Dyna Switchback towards the end of 2016 it presented me with something of a dilemma; I now had a bike that would fit right in with the DGR, but I didn’t feel I could justifiably ask people to sponsor me just to ride to London and back on my own bike.
So I started to think about another ride to take part in; London had been becoming increasingly popular and with well over a thousand machines vying for a place amid the capital’s heavily congested traffic, while trying to follow the route, I felt that an alternative ride could be a more interesting proposition.
As recounted in Issue 194 of TRD, Andy – the Ural’s owner – had tried the Paris DGR in 2016, but with a weekend vehicle ban in the city centre the ride had taken place in the suburbs, which would have been akin to describing a jaunt around Croydon as the London Ride.
I spent an evening checking out a few of the DGR videos on Youtube and decided that I liked the look of the Amsterdam ride; I love this city, and have been there several times over the years, including for my honeymoon almost three decades ago so It seemed like the logical choice.
With that decided I started considering the logistics of the trip and contacted Eurotunnel’s press office. Having given them some information about why ‘we’ (I hadn’t actually asked anyone else about coming along at that stage…) were riding to Amsterdam and the good causes the DGR raises money for, I asked if they would kindly provide return tickets for two bikes and their riders; and after a little to-ing and fro-ing, I received confirmation that Eurotunnel were indeed on board and duly contacted my son Ben to see if he was interested.
At that point Ben was riding an immaculate W reg red SV650S, which I thought fitted the bill nicely. But after agreeing to come along – ostensibly to be a second photographer – a few weeks later he sold the Suzuki and bought a 2014 BMW RnineT, which he later explained as being the bike he needed for the ride.
Well, as excuses go, it’s as good as any.
I then contacted Andy; after the disappointment of the Paris DGR I thought he might be interested and he quickly asked to be pencilled in along with his partner Julia, who rides a Kawasaki Vulcan.
With the crossing sorted out, Julia did some research into the area where we though the ride would start – last year it was at a venue called ‘Pllek’ in the docklands to the north – and so found us a very nice Airbnb in a suburb called Kadoelen, to the north of the city.
And with that we were all set. Except that this was still April/May sort of time, with six months to go!
As well as needing a bike that fits the bill, there is an expectation that the riders (and pillions for that matter) will dress ‘dapper’ on the ride; something that comes easier to some than others.
Unfortunately, I’m one of the ‘others’. I’m no clothes horse, preferring a ‘Clarksonesque’ look to a sharp suit any time. Last year I made the effort on the London DGR and went for a black shirt with a silver bow tie, which matched my (then) new Davida Jet lid and the Harley Roadster I’d borrowed perfectly, finished off as it was with a black leather waistcoat and leather bike jeans and boots.
No ‘plus fours’ for me.
It must have worked reasonably well though, as when I bumped into Charley Boorman prior to the ride, he told me I looked very smart, and presuming he wasn’t being ironic I decided to stick with that look for 2017, albeit with one or two tweaks.
There are a couple of things to bear in mind when deciding what to wear for the DGR; the first is that while you ideally will have chosen something reasonably presentable for the ride, you still need to get to and from the starting point, which may involve motorways or fast ‘A’ roads, for which tweed is not only unsuitable, it would be positively foolish.
So unless you have a place where you can store your ‘normal’ riding gear, some sort of luggage will inevitably need to be involved.
The ideal ‘risk assessed’ plan of action is of course to be based fairly close to the start of the ride, so you can ride straight there on urban roads at low speed in your chosen DGR outfit.
Also – without exception – the Distinguished Gentleman’s Rides I have participated in so far have been slow and hot.
All the bikes I’ve ridden in the London DGR have been air cooled twins and in heavy traffic, when getting above second gear is a novelty they get very hot, as do the riders.
For that reason – and the fact that you’re mostly riding slower than most cyclists – I usually arrange to have somewhere to put my ‘ride to the starting point’ jacket, and then do the ride in shirt sleeves and a waistcoat or blazer. But *always* with decent gloves.
I wanted to let the locals know that we’d ridden across from the UK for the ride, so I decided to get a rather natty Union Jack waistcoat – just like the conductor was wearing for the finale of The Last Night of the Proms a few weeks earlier.
Fast forward to September and in the days leading up to departure it seemed after a few emails and texts that Andy and Julia were already in Holland and would be staying with friends in Breda the night before, so it would be just the two of us on The Shuttle.
We (Ben and I) set off for Folkestone early on the Saturday morning, accompanied by the customary shower of rain on the motorway.
Throwing caution to the wind we decided to top up with fuel at Tesco in Folkestone, as we were unsure where the first decent fuel stop in France would be. Having worked at the Channel Tunnel some years ago I was aware that the on-site filling stations were not known for being cheap.
We were proved right, as all the fuel we bought on the trip was considerably more expensive on the continent, and a tankful allowed us to get comfortably into Belgium before needing to refuel.
Travelling with Eurotunnel is so quick and convenient, I’ve done it dozens of times in cars and vans but never before on a bike, so this was quite a novelty to me.
There was no need for strapping the bikes down, it doesn’t matter what the sea conditions are. We boarded with a number of other riders, my bike right next to another Harley owned by a guy from just down the road from where I live.
Then in less than an hour you’re in France, setting up the phone-based satnav on Ben’s bike (he used the Tom Tom app – with great success) and with the weather having taken a turn for the better we were on our way to Holland.
The initial motorway sections on the A16 and E40 through France and Belgium were rather dull and uninspiring, only becoming more interesting once we’d turned off the motorway at Loppem in Flanders; skirting Bruges while we stayed roughly parallel to the coast, passing signs for familiar sounding names such as Breskens and Vlissingen as we headed for the broad Scheldt River towards Zeeland.
These names were familiar to me as I had previously become acquainted with these parts when Ben was just a small boy; my late father-in-law was a keen boatman, exploring the waterways around the coasts and inland waterways of the UK and mainland Europe for several weeks at a time each summer aboard his pride and joy – a 40’ Princess motor yacht.
Each summer I would get a pass for a week or two and join the crew for part of their voyage before returning home to be reunited with my family and return to work.
I had fond memories of such places as Breskens Jachthaven and will always remember cruising the canals into the charming town centres of Middelburg, Veere and Goes.
The latter was to be our destination for lunch, a quick scan of the map for an achievable destination made Goes a no-brainer; with its picturesque harbour surrounded by 16th century buildings housing bars and cafés.
But before we could get to Goes, we had a river to cross to the peninsula. This meant either a lengthy diversion via Antwerp, or a ride through the impressive 4-mile-long Westerschelde Tunnel, for which we had the pleasure of paying a €2,50 toll. We opted for the tunnel.
The childish novelty of opening the taps on the Harley and the Beemer eventually wears off in such a long tunnel, this would be at about the time that the feeling that ‘it’s never going to end!’ sets in.
But of course, the tunnel did end – eventually – and we were once again out in the sunshine and trying to find our way to the aptly named ‘Bierkade’ – the street at the end of the harbour where the bars start.
Unfortunately, Ben’s satnav app hadn’t taken the fact that it was market day into account, so our initial south western approach to the harbour was blocked by barriers, shoppers and dozens of market stalls as we neared the cathedral.
After a re-think we followed the ring road round to the north-eastern side of the city and made our way to Bierkade alongside the canal on which I last entered Goes all those years ago.
Parking up against a low rail alongside the picturesque harbour, we sat down at a nearby table outside the historic Restaurant Karel V, where a leisurely lunch break was in order, knowing that time was on our side.
With lunch done and dusted, we headed out of town, stopping to top up with fuel that would take us to our destination just over 100 miles away, via the spectacular Zeelandbrug – a three-mile-long single carriageway bridge consisting of 48 spans of 95 metres, 2 spans of 72.5 metres and a 40-metre lift bridge across the Oosterschelde estuary. My previous encounter with this remarkable bridge had been on the boat, some 20 years previously.
The remaining leg of the journey consisted of dijkes, bridges and urban streets before leading once again to motorways as we neared Schipol Airport on the outskirts of Amsterdam.
We arrived at Kadoelen late afternoon, discovering that the Airbnb we were staying at had a garage easily capable of taking four bikes; the only downside being that you needed to reverse down a long slope to get in if you didn’t fancy turning your bike round near the bottom. I didn’t – my bike weighs about a third of a tonne including luggage.
With Andy sitting in the afternoon sun reading a book, and Julia taking a nap, we quickly became accustomed to this easy going way of life at our weekend hideaway.
After unpacking and freshening up, plans were discussed for the evening meal, initial thoughts were of going to The Five Flies Restaurant and culinary museum (Restaurant d’Vijff Vlieghen) near the Centrum, but with prices of between €50 and €80 a head it kind of blew the weekend’s ‘shoestring budget’ out of the water.
After several circuits of the Centrum area looking for a suitable space to park four bikes – not easy when the entire city seemed to be crammed to capacity with cars, bicycles and scooters – we ended up dining alfresco at The Chocolate Bar, where the menu – initially off-putting due to the frequent references to the name – was actually quite good, with sharing planks being the order of the day, and very enjoyable they were too.
Throughout all of this, I had attempted a number of times on this trip to use my phone as a satnav, but for many reasons (mostly my phone being well past it’s sell-by date) this proved to be unsuccessful so it really was a case of making sure you didn’t get left behind at the lights – although Ben later told me that with the easy to spot LED headlight fitted to my Harley it was easy to check that I was behind him.
Andy and Julia had an intercom; and they are also seasoned international riders so they were used to all this. It was quite exciting riding around the city during the balmy evening, although I did have one road rage incident with the driver of a huge 4×4, who carved across me at one point, shouting at me in his native language at the next junction. Of course, as I didn’t understand a word I just silently stared back at him. You should never, ever engage with another driver.
He then took off like a scalded cat, I’m not really sure why, but I was glad he’d gone. Apart from this one guy we found everyone we met friendly, welcoming and helpful.
The next morning, we were up and ready early, staring in disbelief at the heavy mist that shrouded the city. This was going to be a chilly one.
Fortunately, as most of us had panniers we were all able to layer up for the fifteen minute ride to the starting point, the Skatepark Noord, situated in the docklands to the North-East of the city centre. Just as well, for it was decidedly parky.
When we arrived, we were shown where to put the bikes by a chap wearing a beret called Steve (that was his name by the way, not the beret’s…) who seemed surprised and impressed that we’d ridden from England for the ride.
Being among the first bikes in the vast parking area, we had plenty of opportunity to get a good look at the incredible array of machinery and outfits emerging from the chilly morning mist, but you can feast your eyes on those pics by checking out my ride report here.
By the time the ride started we’d enjoyed hot food and drink, photographed dozens of bikes and chatted with their riders, collected our riders’ packs (including a rather natty DGR armband – you don’t get those in London!) and prepared for the off. By then the mist had lifted a little, and temperatures were starting to rise, although it was still a bit nippy.
But as we hit the city, helped by the warm air wafting up from the Harley’s 103 cu in motor, things were becoming really quite bearable. Outriders stopped the traffic at every junction and we were allowed to ride smoothly though, like a presidential motorcade, stopping every fifteen minutes or to regroup and cool down.
As we passed through the city into the suburbs, and then riverside parkland, I began to reflect that this was absolutely idyllic, riding with my son in perfect weather through beautiful scenery with more than 700 like-minded souls.
Once the ride was over and we were back at base, we decided to depart the awards ceremony for two reasons – it was all in Dutch, so we couldn’t understand any of it, it was by then early afternoon and we were starting to get hungry. Who knows, we may have even missed out on an award for travelling the farthest!
Part of the DGR route had taken us alongside the Amstel River, where we’d spotted the Amstel Boathouse, an inviting looking hostelry. So once we’d found our way back there, we once again picked an outside table in the warm sunshine and sat down for a late lunch, later joined by Amsterdam based Rider’s Digest contributor Ricardo Rodrigues and his girlfriend Catia.
Several hours and a number of coffees later we made our way back to the house, led by Ricardo and Catia (seemed silly to rely on satnavs when we were riding with locals…) before bidding them a fond farewell.
As the evening drew in we went off and filled the bikes ready for the return journey, and Ben and I went for a wander around the neighbourhood, grabbing a coffee at a local hostelry.
The following morning, Julia and Andy left early, heading across country towards France. We’d discussed at some length where to stop for lunch, but while the though of meeting up with our fellow travellers in some random town was appealing, we were also aware that we had an evening booking on the Shuttle and more than 500 km to cover, so we once again opted to take the scenic route to Goes and try another restaurant I’d last visited some twenty years earlier.
Miraculously the weather stayed fine, and after what seemed like incessant motorway miles out of Amsterdam we were once again enjoying the Dutch countryside, crossing that long, long bridge and enjoying lunch to the gentle ringing sound of yacht halyards slapping against masts as the water lapped the harbour wall just a few feet away.
After lunch at the Restaurant de Goese kade (it had changed somewhat since I’d last visited) it was time to get a few homecoming gifts, which included a small wheel of local cheese and scented candles, all gift wrapped free of charge.
Having once again passed through the mammoth toll tunnel we were soon heading back towards France. We could tell when we’d crossed the border into Belgium, as the driving standards seemed to deteriorate (could of course be my imagination…) and then after a fuel stop at a soulless motorway service area we eventually found ourselves getting coffees with our last few Euros in the French Eurotunnel terminal building before boarding the evening train for another effortless channel crossing.
Sitting on the floor of the carriage by the bikes, we reflected on our travels over the previous couple of days.
The distance covered had been comfortably achievable, the pace just right. We’d enjoyed the company of Andy and Julia, Ricardo and Catia, and apart from a brief shower on the way to Folkestone the weather had been pretty well perfect for riding.
The DGR in Amsterdam had been impeccably organised, with a lot of attention to detail and spectacular surroundings.
And from my point of view, while I’d had the odd ride-out with Ben for a few hours, and we frequently see each other, I hadn’t really spent a serious amount of time with my lad since he left for university, about ten years ago.
Plus of course I raised more than £400 in sponsorship for The Movember Foundation and Prostate Cancer UK.
We’ve since discussed where to go for the 2018 DGR, and despite considering France, Belgium and Spain – as well as other parts of the UK, I’d say there was a serious chance that we may well be going Dutch again.