After my rather disappointing 6th place in the Brit Butt Rally that was due to losing points at the scoring table and an unprecise planning of my route, I thought it would be a good idea the get some more rallying practice before the big 5 day “European Tour” Rally in September 2014, so I enrolled for the first time for the BBL2014. The biggest difference to the BBR: only 11 hours instead 35 hours of rally time. And the rally book is provided one week before the rally. Enough time to plan a route.
This year I will guide the last XBR-Alpentour during 9 days. I prepared my newly acquired XBR500 for this big trip, but as I had no experience with it (only 5000 miles on the clock), I needed a dress rehearsal for that trip. So, I went to Britain for the second time to test a XBR! But this time without a fairing, an additional fuel cell, many Sat Navs, hyperbright auxiliary lights etc…Only one GPS and my customized Russell day-long seat.
The start and finish of the rally was in Stoke-on-Trent and the rally theme was “In Stoke…no one can hear you scream”: all kinds of locations linked to astronomy and space. My planned route was quite ambitious:
I had two locations that were optional: London and Cambridge. Depending on my timing, I could skip them if needed.
On Friday noon I headed for Calais. The plan was to ride to Penkridge in Staffordshire on that day. John Young had kindly invited me to stay at his house on that weekend. My first stop after the Tunnel was at the petrol station in Folkestone. It was a bit cooler here, not as hot as on the continent. I continued on the M25 around London and before turning on the M1, I entered St. Albans in the North of London, for a good reason. In the rally book, Rick the rallymaster announced that he’d fancy a bottle of beer. It had brought a bottle of my own home-brewed beer for him, labelled as ‘Rallymaster’s delight’. But this wouldn’t give me 200 points. I needed to buy a beer during the rally that was related to the theme of the rally and bring back the beer and the receipt. I had looked for speciality beer shop that close to my route. And I found one, in St. Albans. I passed by the shop to check if the beer I had spotted on their list were actually on sale in the shop. Well, I couldn’t find them there, but I found a beer called “spaceman” with an astronaut on it. This should do. From past experiences I knew that 200 points, as little as it may seem, can be decisive in a rally. I continued my trip to Staffordshire where I arrived before sunset. On the last two miles I had to switch the tap to reserve and the the bike stuttered a lot, this happened already the second time on that day. But after one mile everything was back to normal. I was welcomed by Sonia and John and we chatted for a while. Then John took me to a place not far from their home that I never had heard of. We went to the nearby Cannock Chase and visited the German war cemetery. Well, we looked from the outside as it was already closed. At this place, 5000 Germans who died WWI and WWII in Britain were buried here. I was not aware that such a large German cemetery existed in Britain. It was a special moment – totally quiet, just before sunset. We reflected that we are a lucky generation that was not drawn into this madness.
Back at Pottal Pool House, I was invited for the most British dish possible: fish and chips. WITH mushy peas :-). We discussed next day’s rally and John made me aware that the last two locations on my route were actually time restricted and I could not visit them. Oops, this would have been a big disappointment. I prepared my stuff for the rally and it was time to get some sleep. Not easy, as it was still quite warm.
The next morning I realised immediately, that the weather forecast had been very precise. Rain. Rain. Rain. Great. We three left for Stoke. In the rain. In a petrol station I said to John: “the weather will change!”. And immediately, the rain switched from ‘heavy’ to ‘torrential’. We arrived damp at the “Pack Horse Pub” in Stoke, where Rick the Rallymaster welcomed everybody and announced the twists everybody was waiting for: there was a call-in bonus from 1 to 1:15 p.m. and a compulsory bonus very close to the start. So this would be my first stop, I had learnt my lesson from the BBR2014. At least this additional point did not affect my route. We went to the parking and after taking the odo reading, we all set off. When I closed the visor, I couldn’t see anything. No problem, just open it a bit. We were in the warm pub, so it fogged up. Should go away in a minute. But it didn’t. Panic. There was a small fogged triangle right in front of my eyes. The problem was: it was between the visor and the inner pinlock, so there was no chance to wipe it away. Damn. Rob Roalfe was in front of me so my brain told me: “follow him!” In blind flight, I tried not to leave him out of sight.
This was scary; this foggy spot was right in front of my eyes! The only way to see something was to turn the helmet a bit or to lift the head. For the next hours, these uncomfortable positions accompanied me. As the foggy spot was in equilibrium with its surrounding, I hoped that this would get better when the rain would stop and the temperatures would rise. I asked myself if Rob would go to the same location and I checked my GPS. Actually it told me to exit the dual carriageway. Two minutes later I was the compulsory BP location: the Man in Space pub. While the other riders were still arriving, I already had finished my picture and I was the first to leave the place. Good. To be ahead of the pack is never a disadvantage.
I continued my way south in the rain. I reached my second BP location only two hours later, in the Westcott Venture Park. I rode in the wrong direction into the village first, but then I realised it was in a separate area….behind barriers?? I asked the gate-keeper where the café was located. Lucky me, it was a part of this entrance building and I could quickly take my picture. The rain had finally stopped, but masses of water had found their way into the rain suit so everything was damp. At least the temperature was OK, so the wet gear was not that terrible. I did not take it off, not until it was nice and sunny again.
I passed by the Culham Science Centre south of Oxford and took a picture of a sign indicating the organisations that are located there. Soon after, I had to stop for my first petrol stop. I took the opportunity to go to the loo and to dry my visor under the hand dryer: finally I could reduce the foggy spot to a minimum so I did not have to ride anymore with a stiff neck. On the road to Swindon, I had a close encounter of the third kind: wasn’t this an oncoming John Young? Why did he come from the West? Did I make a tremendous mistake…or he?
In Swindon, I had to find the UK space agency in Polaris House. The problem was that the sign on the picture that had to be taken had changed, so it took me a while until I was confident enough to take the right picture. My route lead me south now towards Amesbury. There, a picture had to be taken of the test pilot school where UK’s first astronaut had graduated. I encountered the same problem: the sign seemed to be different. I didn’t bother to approach the gate too closely as it appeared to be a military installation and I thought it would be better to keep a low profile. What’s next?
The next stop was only in Guildford, some 50 miles away. The weather was dry now, but still no sunshine. I enjoyed the country roads and the XBR was in a good condition as well. Compared to the big BMW and the black XBR with the enormous fairing, this little bike felt like a small midget, little but mean, hehe. In Guildford, the Sat Nav sent me through the parking of a hospital because the route was apparently 10 m shorter (but not faster, of course). I arrived at the Surrey Research Park at a quarter past one, took my picture, had a quick ‘pit stop’ (if you know what I mean) and had to make a decision.
To enter or not to enter the city centre of London. I was right on time according to my planning and the weather seemed to stay dry. So let’s risk it! If there was a chance to move in stuck traffic, it was possible with this bike! The only thing that puzzled me was that the GPS calculated a lot of time to get there. I had noticed that I was a lot quicker than what my new Zumo 590 believed what I was capable of. But this time, I could not beat the calculations. First, it all was fine. I approached the centre, only 17 miles to go to the next location….what could possibly go wrong?
Well, the glory stopped when the A3 turns from a 6 lane highway into a normal small city road at Putney Heath. A massive traffic jam, basically a standstill. I still could filter between all the cars, but this slows you down tremendously. And then the red lights. Suddenly it was sunny and hot and I was still wearing my eye-catching yellow rain suit. People were running around in their shorts, tops, miniskirts, T-shirts…..and then this…yellow appearance sailing through the masses of tin boxes. What a sight. The clock was ticking and slowly my arrival time moved more and more backwards. Most of the remaining 17 miles was basically a gigantic congestion, interrupted by some short normal parts.
Finally I arrived at St. Margarets Church in Lee Green where Edmond Halley (you know, the comet) was buried. The rally book required a picture of me in front of the church and a picture of Halley’s grave. The rally book said: ”Halley’s grave is located in the south‐east corner of the churchyard, by the road”. I saw Giel’s Harley parked in front of the church and I was prepared to walk to the other side of the churchyard when I saw Giel coming out of the church with a lady. He told me that he had been looking a long time for the grave but couldn’t find it. The lady was leading him to a smaller graveyard across the road north of the church. I thought I had spotted the grave but we were not sure as there was no name on the tomb.
Finally a man showed up and confirmed that this was Halley’s grave. Back to the bike, I asked Giel to take the picture of me, and I quickly left this place. Giel was close behind, but when we got immersed in the London congestion again, the traffic separated us. If there are 90 cm of space between two London busses, there is still enough room for a slim XBR, but not for a Harley…
I moved westwards again, crossing most of London again. But it got really bad when I crossed the Thames and turned on the Chelsea Embankment on my quest for the Westway. Now, the traffic wasn’t moving at all. After some miles, the situation became so tedious that I decided to look for parallel roads to be able to move faster. It somehow worked and it had to. I still had my rain suit on and I felt I was being cooked alive.
Aha, so this is Hammersmith….where am I?? Slowly I struggled my way towards the A40 and finally I could ride again freely. Earlier than expected, I had to change to reserve again. Hm, there would be a station along the M25, for sure. But first I wanted to bag the Pinewood Studio location.
I got there on some single track back roads, but it worked. I took my picture from the entrance and looked around if there was a Star Wars poster. The next Star Wars movie was filmed there and for a picture with an actor I would get extra points. But there was none. OK, let’s get to the M25 and find a petrol station.
When I was on the motorway, I consulted my GPS and was shocked: there was no station on the M25 in the next 25 miles! I had to take the M40 and to go some miles in the wrong direction to the services in Beaconsfield to get the petrol. Finally, I took off my rain suit, the sunshine was too convincing. Some quick sandwich, water, oil check and I was prepared for the last stint on that day. I inserted the remaining three locations into my GPS, calculated and the arrival time was…19:15! Fifteen minutes too late! And I had already left out the detour via Cambridge as the London point had cost too much time. Well, I could arrive after 7, put this would result in a penalty of 25 points per minute. But maybe I could catch up a bit? Up, up and away!
I took the M25 and soon I arrived at the Uranus Road in Hemel Hempstead. Arrival time 19:12. Now I needed to get the few, but maybe important points for the bottle of beer. St. Albans was not far away and I had the advantage that I knew now where the shop was. The way to St. Albans was quick, but crossing the town was….slow…motion. There were only three red lights, but passing them took ages. I rushed into the shop, grabbed two bottles of “Space Man” and approached the counter. Can I have a ticket? No problem. It was 16:30 now, two and a half hours to get back to Stoke-on-Trent and one more location to go. Soon I was on the M1 heading north. Luckily there was considerably less traffic than one day before and I did not encounter any jams. About an hour later, I exited the M1 and entered the small village of …..where was it again? Ah, doesn’t matter. There was a picture of the Red Arrow pub to be taken. And back to the M1 and turning on the A50. Meanwhile, the GPS calculated an arrival time of 18:43, plenty of time left! I knew that there was one small bonus point location near Stoke, worth some 100 points. A tiny number, but I had not won some rallies because of a very small difference. So when you want to be in the top, 100 points can make a difference. Especially in such a short sprint rally. I included the point in my calculation and…the potential arrival time was 19:05. Maybe I should try again when I was closer to Stoke.
To my surprise, I had to switch to reserve after 254 km and this time the bike almost stopped before it received enough petrol again. Hm, this could be very close if I’d take the detour. What about the arrival time? Hmmmm, 18:59! But I’d have no time to refill petrol. A voice in my head tried to convince me that I should call it a day, put some petrol and arrive relaxed at the finish. But I had done this so many times! And so many times I missed a better ranking because of my “play-it-safe” attitude. No, not this time, I’d put it all on one card! I left the A50 and rode to Keele University, west of Newcastle-under-Lyme. Predicted arrival time was 18:55 now, but there were many red lights ahead. I had to get to the observatory – this place was really hard to find! Picture taken, arrival time 18:56. Only ten minutes to go. This should work. I tried to save petrol, this was getting very tight now. How bitter would it be to run out of petrol just before the finish line? I calculated…it would be OK if I’d have to push the bike for a quarter of a mile and still I’d arrive on time. And if I’d run out of petrol earlier? Well, then I could still push it make it until 20:00 without DNF. Three miles left, two miles left….careful, careful….there! Did the bike start to sputter?? No, just my wrecking nerves….One mile left…this looked good. And there was already the turn to enter Stoke! I was almost there. And there was the Pack Horse Pub! But where was the finish? Wrong turn! Check the GPS. Ah, it’s a side gate next to the pub entrance….and there I was at the finish, welcomed by timekeeper Phil, IBA UK president.
It was 18:55 and when I knocked against the tank, I could only hear a hollow “bong, bong”. Was there any petrol left at all? This was a close shave! But I had made it! A great performance of the XBR! This bike was definitely the right choice for the Alpentour. Now let’s score properly, without losing any points this time. The bad scoring at the BBR and the disastrous scoring at the Scandinavian Rally were still a fresh memory. I prepared my papers and received all my points at the scoring table! Also for the “Space Man” beer. Good! Finally we could enter the buffet, some food was really welcome now.
I tried my bottle of Space Man with it and I found out that…it was from Italy and had an IBU value of 70. 70 IBU! IBU is called “International Bittering Unit” and is a parameter to describe the content of alpha acids extracted from the hop in a beer, which is equivalent to the bitterness. A dry German Pilsener may have between 30 and 40 IBU, but this very bitter Indian Pale Ale had 70! Whoa!
Well, in the end it was time for the ceremony. It started with place 14 and the points slowly kept growing. I had a feeling that I’d end up around 4th/5th place, after all I had participated with the smallest bike of all and I surely would have been quicker with a bigger bike…..except in London. 8th…7th…6th…I had not counted my points exactly, I only knew I had roughly more than 12000 points. 5th place was a 12073 points…(that’s me, that’s me)….Martin Buck. Fourth place…12225 points…(must be me)…Rob Roalfe! What? Rob is not on the podium? Poor Rob had mixed up two locations and was at the wrong place at the wrong time. Sounds as improbable as watching a total solar eclipse….That meant…there were only three left! Third place…12691 points….(ouch!)…John Young!…John? I expected him to be the winner?! And this meant that there was only Giel and me left…Rick mentioned the bottle of Rallymaster’s delight (that had of course nothing to do with the final standing…er….really….I SWEAR!) and Giel’s successful Butt Lite Rally….it was close, very close! I had forgotten to make the call-in bonus, but luckily it was only worth 50 points…..
Second place was Giel with 12839 points, first place me with 12885 points! Wow! Speechless! In the end by bold move was successful and brought me the first place. Or the bottle of beer, if you prefer that. Giel had bought a bottle, but received only 100 points as he didn’t have a ticket for it. Either way, this was f***ing close, argh! But…no risk, no gain. The first three positions were so close, either of us could have won, but today it was my turn. Wow! What a result. After receiving the felicitations and chatting a lot, it was time to get back to John’s place. After a lot of good byes, we were back on the road.
I had told John that I urgently needed some petrol. There was a station close, but it was shut down. Just before entering the A500, the bike stuttered and stopped without petrol. About 300 m from the finish…..[…]……John went to get some petrol for me. When I was waiting for the rescue, I realized how close this was. I had literally arrived at the finish with the last drop of petrol….John came back with some petrol and we arrived late at his place. The next day, I found John in a frustrated mood….he had realized that he’d won the rally if he hadn’t passed by the bonus at the small village…Lutterworth! Ouch! That hurts! S**t happens…
I chatted a lot with John in his Triumph museum…or should I say….sanctuary? I had the possibility to write a small text over John for the largest touring motorbike magazine in Germany. Let’s see what comes out of it.
On my way back John took me to a classic motorbike show in Stanford Hall. Lots of old and very old motorbikes, spare parts, devotionalia…I even found 2 XBRs! One of a visitor and one for sale. Very interesting, especially the location. A nice end for this trip. I continued my way back to Belgium and returned home without anything worth to report.
Thanks to Rick for organizing this nice rally and a big hug for Sonia and John for having me as a guest. I know I owe this good result to two people: to John for making me aware of the timed bonuses and to Giel for saving me the time to find Halley’s grave. Thanks, mates!