All sorts of warning signs announce the start of the road. “Narrow Route, Severe Bends”, “Cars and Lights Vehicles Only” they state. It’s claimed to be the steepest in Europe and one of the most challenging in England. Let’s see if me and my Tiger can do this.
In the middle of being on tour with Edelweiss in the UK, I scouted the Hardknott Pass in an afternoon, hoping to make it back in time before the customers get to the hotel.
It definitely stuck as one of my favorite moments of the past 3 weeks. One 75-year old customer stated he felt like a new man once he reached the top (and something else which his wife doesn’t want me to repeat!). I think he’s on to something there.
The Lake District, where that pass is located, was definitely one of my favorite areas of the two trips. I’d heard before how beautiful it was, but didn’t know what to expect from it.
One thing that was definitely still like I remembered it from my one-and-a-half years living in the UK, is the size of the roads. Endless rows of hedges border the majority of roads, you’re always on your toes for oncoming traffic and unfortunately sometimes it can lead to being stuck behind a slow vehicle for miles without an opportunity for safe overtaking.
I rode on and off guiding the group on a motorcycle, which is definitely the most challenging aspect of the job. I set off with very good intentions on my first day, only to have the majority of customers unhappy with the pace, highlighting a big gap in expectations (and skills) of the first group. Not even the training prepared me for dealing with that.
Eventually things sorted itself out and the next time I rode worked much better. When on the second tour I guided much more on the bike (nearly half the time, compared to under a third), it became very clear this dynamic is always different for every group. Where in the previous group spirited riding was the norm, now steady, safe and on average well under the speed limits worked best.
What I had not known when I set off for this tour, and became obvious most customers did not know very well either, is that this “Celtic Tour” is one of the tougher ones Edelweiss offers, with high distances (there’s no day under 250 km), small roads and tricky passes as I mentioned before.
I don’t mind that at all, in fact I prefer it, but with customers with differing paces it often became a struggle to arrive at hotels in time, requiring guides to creatively take shortcuts. This was probably the most challenging aspect of the last three weeks.
One real highlight for me and I think most customers, were some of the hotels we stayed at. A few places, like in Betws-Y-Coed, Llechryd and Lynton were very memorable, with an atmosphere and history behind them that you can only get in the UK.
I worked with two different people on both tours, both experienced with many years with Edelweiss, both called Michael. It was interesting to see their differences in dealing with people and situations. Looking back at how things went, I also feel like I was decently prepared to handle things thrown at me, and never felt like I was a complete novice with a lot to learn (save perhaps for that very first riding day).
Part of both tours was to visit the Isle Of Man and witness the Tourist Trophy street races, as well as ride the circuit itself before the races took place. Due to the popularity of the event, ferry tickets to the Isle are in high demand, and I’d heard before there was a high chance I’d not get to go at least one of our two visits.
I was ready by the ferry terminal to join the group when I was informed an earlier mishap meant I had to backtrack and deal with the aftermath of it, foregoing my visit to the Isle. While missing the highlight of the trip might seem disappointing (most customers booked just for this), I didn’t mind so much in the end, it took some creative problem-solving which I guess was a good test for me.
Now it might sound like there was a lot of riding, but truth is I did spend the majority of the time driving the support van. Taking luggage from hotel to hotel might not seem so glamorous, but the van is comfortable and it’s all relatively easy and quiet compared to being out on the bike, with the direct responsibility of the customers on your shoulders.
Driving the van does involve a lot of motorway, and the UK has a lot of traffic. During summertimes this can lead to some pretty congested situations. Above a selection of what I ran into on one of the worst days; overturned caravans, rolling traffic jams behind extremely wide loads, and completely blocked motorways due to burnt-out roadside snackbars were all part of the game!
Most of the sightseeing and stops for photos I did was while in the van. Just being able to pull over anywhere and walk around looking for a good angle just isn’t possible when you’re a group of 10 motorcycles.
I would never have been able to visit a place like KnightsHayes if it wasn’t for easy days in the van. I used to visit places like this very often during my time in the UK, some 4 years ago. While I might like abandoned places and rugged forest tracks, I still really appreciate a well-laid out landscape garden like this, especially if it brings back memories.
Another advantage of van-driving is that if you carry a spare motorcycle, there’s often a good reason to unload it and do some quick exploring of the area, or try out part of the route for the coming days. It’s especially welcome if the riding pace with customers isn’t necessarily the one I enjoy myself.
In the end, I had a great time though. I got along well with almost everybody on both tours, we shared great moments riding together, saw wonderful sights, stayed in some of the nicest hotels and had great food. Everybody went home happy, some even proclaiming it to be “The best ride they ever did”, which was very satisfying to hear.