A huge thank you to Kevin Williams at Survival Skills Motorcycle Training for his infinite wisdom and fabulous way with words! Hope this helps if you’re planning your European trip, be a seasoned pro or a complete novice….
It's that time of year when people are gearing up for a trip over the water to Europe, so here are some tips mostly about riding in France but the more general advice applies anywhere. The tips are mostly aimed at novice explorers but even if you're a seasoned traveller, take a look - you might find something new!
So first of all we have to get abroad. The Chunnel is relatively straightforward - arrive, queue in the rain, move a long a bit, queue in the rain, move along a bit more, queue in the rain, finally get onto the train then park the bike and sit on the floor for half-an-hour. It's fast, reliable, soulless and uncomfortable.
The ferry is the other option and depending on your planned route, you can either opt for the short Dover-Calais route or drop yourself into a rather more interesting part of France straight away. Dieppe takes a bit longer over the sea but you're straight into Normandy and a rather lovely part of France. Caen or Cherbourg are other options and Roscoff is worth a look if you're heading to Brittany.
If you are travelling on a ferry, the first thing to watch out for are the decks of the ship. Being metal, they are slippery particularly when wet. If you have to climb a steeply sloping ramp, try to let the vehicle ahead of you get all the way up the ramp so you don't have to stop. And if you're riding down the ramp, DON'T start down it until you have somewhere flat you can stop at the bottom. I've seen several crashes when riders tried to brake halfway down. If necessary, don't be afraid to let your passenger get off and walk.
I nearly always pack a tie-down strap. Whilst most of the ferries seem to have sorted out their act, it's not unknown for the straps provided to be worn-out or even non-existent - you might be handed a piece of rope! If you place a glove over the seat you can protect the bodywork. A few have a kind of V shaped affair to run the front wheel into. If not, I prefer to put the bike on the side stand and then a bungee strap or a thick rubber band can be used to pull the front brake on. Leave the bike in gear, then both wheels are locked and that will help stop the bike rolling off the stand in rough weather.
Once off the ferry, you'll be riding on the right. It's easy enough - even at roundabouts which bother a lot of people - but DON'T park facing the wrong way down the road, or turn into a filling station via the 'wrong' entrance. It is all too easy to ride off again and find yourself on the wrong side of the road. Be very careful when you first pull away in the morning or after a stop - parking on the same side of the road as the traffic will help avoid heading down the wrong lane.
Road surfaces are generally good although there are exceptions - Italy for example has generally slippery road surfaces which can be very iffy when wet.
Watch out for:
· White paint - it can be slippery in the dry and like glass in the wet particularly in the south of France.
· Gravel - particularly in the mountains where snow-bound roads are often dressed with gravel to give grip - this lays on the road when the snow melts.
Also watch out for traffic calming in towns and villages:
· Speed bumps which aren't always obvious
· Low beveled kerbs - round traffic islands, these are very difficult to spot at night
You'll also need to find your way around. Off the autoroutes and other main roads, direction signs are at the side of the road and point INTO the road.
Direction signs don't seem to be a French strong point and you'll find that you're following a sign to a particular big town when suddenly you'll reach a junction and that name's missing from the sign. If you get lost, rather than running round ring roads looking for signs off it, usually the best way is to head into the town centre - when you get there signs out again are usually clear.
In France, it's worth carrying the yellow Michelin maps if you're touring a particular area. They cover the whole country at considerable detail and you can usually work out where you are. The red Michelin 'France on a single sheet' map is OK for route planning and autoroutes, but will not help if you are riding on back roads. You'll also miss the best roads! Ditto if you just set the GPS and follow that.
Take your time to get used to riding on the right, and to the different driving and riding styles in each country. Each country has its own driving habits so DON'T ride like you do in the UK and expect others to react the same way! They won't!
Be particularly careful at T junctions- you WILL look the wrong way and into the wrong lane. Don't try to hurry, but stop, put a foot down, and make sure you look both ways until you get the hang of traffic approaching on the 'wrong' side of the road.
French and Belgian roundabouts need care. Signalling and lane use are COMPLETELY different to the UK The French and the Belgians turn left with NO signal from the right hand lane and go all the way round the outside of the roundabout.
Don't assume a car on the outside of the roundabout won't be turning left - many will. A lot of riders make the mistake of pulling out in front of a car continuing all the way around. Don't try to overtake on a two-lane roundabout either if you joined the roundabout and kept close to the island. Cars on the outside of the island WILL swing across in front of you!
Traffic lights in France and Belgium have very dim bulbs which are difficult to see in daylight. Sequences vary from country to country. In France and Belgium they go straight to green from red, and cars will stop hard on amber. In Italy they have a green/amber combination, and cars turning right will often ignore a red light. In Germany at crossroads you can sometimes turn right on a red light if the signs allow.
In France a flashing amber light at a junction means no priority - take care.
In France, new pedestrian rules mean that cars now stop at pedestrian crossings - formerly, no-one did! You should also give way to a pedestrian crossing the road away from a crossing. Watch out for a flashing pedestrian sign when turning right - it means look out for and give way to pedestrians.
Watch out when turning across cycle lanes - cycles and sometimes mopeds usually have right of way.
If you pass into a village with village name sign just before it, assume it's a 50 kph (30 mph) limit. It's the French urban limit and there may not be a 50kph warning sign - so just assume a speed limit when entering a village.
Stick to the speed limits on other roads too - the roads in France around the ports are heavily policed and many riders and drivers come a cropper. You may not be getting points on the license but you will get a hefty on-the-spot fine. You'll also find speed traps and increasing number of speed cameras on main roads. Fines are not sent to the UK (yet) so you may escape a fine from a camera but if you're stopped by the police later and they check up, you could receive the fine retrospectively.
On dual carriageways and motorways, slip roads often have much tighter corners than their UK equivalents. If you fly into them at UK speeds you will be in trouble!
In general, road signs follow a standard Euro-pattern that is also in use in the UK so you shouldn't have too much trouble spotting a bend, for example. But there is one area you MUST be aware of and that is the Priorite a Droit or 'priority to the right' system.
This is really important. Despite many people saying that it doesn't exist any more, Priorite a Droit is alive and well and operates across most European countries.
In France, you MUST check and UNDERSTAND what the signs are telling you.
On main roads between towns, you'll generally be on a priority road, where any vehicles crossing it must Give Way to traffic on the main road. Here the system is easy to spot - look for a yellow/black diamond sign - it tells you you are on a priority road. When you see the same sign but cancelled with a diagonal stripe, then you will have to Give Way ahead. What usually happens is that as soon as you cross the junction, you'll see another yellow/black diamond sign to tell you you're back on a priority road.
But in many towns particularly in the back streets, and in most rural areas on less-travelled roads, you will NOT see a yellow/black diamond sign and so you are NOT on a priority road. And now you MUST check each junction one-by-one.
The problems happen on the back roads in towns and on faster rural roads. What you need to look for are the TRIANGULAR JUNCTION WARNING SIGNS and ROAD MARKINGS.
If the sign is in the shape of an upright cross so the sign looks like this /+\ then YOU have priority. You can double check by looking at the side turning to your right - it WILL have either a Give Way (Cedez le Passage) triangular warning sign like our own, or a double-dashed or solid line across the end where the emerging driver must give way or stop. So if there are road markings, even if you cannot see a sign, then the road you are on has priority.
But if the sign looks like the multiplication sign so the sign is /+\ then you MUST Give Way to the right. If you cannot see a sign, check for road markings - if there none, then the junction is Priorite a Droit and you MUST give way to vehicles emerging from your right.
Take care - vehicles may emerge suddenly expecting to have right-of-way. Generally, drivers will emerge slowly to check that you are giving way, but you will meet the odd one who simply drives straight out without a care in the world.
We hope that helps you on what we’re sure will be an amazing trip!