Saturday October 9th, 2021
I am not, by nature, a particularly competitive person – at least against other people. I am a little bit inclined though, to compete against myself. I get a kind of thrill, I suppose, about more or less obliging myself to do things beyond what I would prefer to do. I remember once, in the mists of time, riding my BMW (!!) all the way from Luton in England, via Ostende, to Split (in the then, Yugoslavia) without a stop, apart from the ferry and petrol. This was all because I had a vague idea about a humorous photo involving a banana …
That was a distance of over 2100 kilometres (about 1400 miles) and it was in the days when there was a “proper” border to Yugoslavia, which you only came to after negotiating miles of twisty roads near Klagenfurt in Austria. That ride took me a few minutes shy of 24 hours and I was fighting with myself for at least half of that distance. The reward (if such it was) for my efforts, was a poor quality snap of something so brown it looked less like a banana than something much more distasteful, perched upon the screen of the BMW beside the sign for Split.
That is me. My fighting is usually against myself !
In the Czech Republic, there are a few so called “endurance” events which would suit me better. However, such is my resistance to so called “Social Media” that I usually hear about these things long after they have happened. This applied, for a number of years, to an event called the “Sportster Challenge”, which is organised and run by the Harley-Davidson dealership in Plzeň, about a hundred kilometres from Prague. Even when I did become aware of it, I paid little attention because, let us face it, I have a Fat Boy and a Heritage Softail, not a Sportster. In 2021, HOG Prague circulated an invitation from Plzeň to compete and which stated that ANY motorcycle was welcome to come and play, it did not even need to be a Harley. It is fair to say that my interest was piqued. I registered.
The day came and I set off early because, according to the weather forecast it was going to be foggy. It was still dark but at least clear outside my garage, but no sooner did I come to the highway than I encountered the fog.
This was not a light fog but the heavy, extremely moist kind that gets onto your visor and will not go away. In those conditions, visibility is a matter of metres. I plodded almost the whole way in the slow lane because at least the lumbering trucks has large arrays of bright lights at the back and, hence, were visible. Occasionally some psycho in a car would flash past on my left side going far faster than the visibility dictated and, on the hills where I had to overtake, I did this with extreme caution. So thick was the fog that I only knew the sun had, at least theoretically, risen was that the display on my SatNav changed from night mode into day. Of course, as soon as I left the highway, a few kilometres from the dealership, there was no fog at all, but after taking two hours to travel one hundred and ten kilometres, I was damp and cold and looking forward to a coffee.
Which I did not get, at least not immediately, because at the dealership there was no sign of life at all.
There was a group of workmen, felling some dead trees on the opposite side of the road, but not a biker in sight !
I had run the instructions through good old Google Translate ™ so I was naturally worried it had somehow mistranslated something and I should have been somewhere else. In the end it was quite a few worrying minutes before a van, emblazoned with Harley-Davidson logos appeared and the gates were opened. Phew !
Registration was quite easy – just a simple form that I could manage even with my very bad Czech language skills, but the shop manager, Monika Váchová, had quite good English. With Monika’s help I was also, to my great joy, able to “bag” my “lucky number”, 55, under which to compete.
Eventually, as departure time approached, we all gathered outside and the Event Organiser, Jiří Kolář from H-D Plzeň, gave us a welcoming speech and outlined what we had to do. At least I suppose that is what was said because, in the quick-fire Czech in which it was delivered, I could not distinguish a single word that I recognised …… Luckily, another member of the Prague HOG was in attendance who did have a little English and he put me straight. One lap in column formation, to show us all the route and then we were on our own.
Considering how drab and far from warm the weather still was, it was a very long column indeed that set off out of Plzeň and into a long circuit of the countryside to the south of the city. I set my SatNav to “Record Route” and was ultimately very glad that I did. It was a very interesting route and well thought through. It managed to combine almost every kind of road type that a motorcyclist could expect to encounter. There were towns of varying sizes, express-ways, “normal” roads, lanes, an industrial estate and even a section of motorway, all on a neat ring of just under ninety kilometres. I would never have remembered it all, but thanks to the wonders of technology I did not have to.
We eventually came back to the dealership where our competition numbers were recorded on a large board – and then we were on our own.
A lot of people did pull over then and go into the dealership to chat (and warm up) over a coffee. Sadly, chatting in Czech is one thing I cannot do and riding a motorcycle is one thing that I can, so I reset my SatNav and began at once. A few others did the same, but I am not one to rush about and my hands were quite cold, so I took it nice and steady and was soon, to all intents and purposes, riding on my own.
I was truly glad that I had recorded the route because, without being in the column, it did look very different and I would probably have got lost ! Another Harley sat about one hundred metres behind me for the whole of my first circuit, so I guess I was not alone in my uncertainty.
The objective was to complete six circuits, a distance of approximately five hundred kilometres. Doing all six was not obligatory, some recognition would be granted for lesser numbers, but I had not come there to go home halfway through. It was still fairly cold and it soon became obvious that not everyone thought like I do and that the numbers were dwindling a bit. During my third and fourth circuits, a handful of bikes did pass me, but I hardly saw any others on the road and I had no idea which circuit the others were on.
In my youth, I often used to go to the Isle of Man for the T.T. Races and I wondered then how anyone could “learn” a circuit that was over thirty-seven miles (about sixty kilometres) long. I rode it countless times, mainly on my BMW RS and once did a lap in a time that, although slow by modern standards, would have actually have won the TT in the early 1960s. However, there were a couple of deceptive corners on the island that I never once got right. So it was on the circuits of the challenge. There was one left hander, seemingly innocuous but with a slightly odd camber and no real marker points, that I contrived to get wrong all six times – even on my final circuit where I was determined not to ! Ah well !
The scenery itself was quite pleasant albeit a little on the bleak side when there was no sun on it. A watery sun did, eventually, decide to put in an appearance and the pleasantness coefficient rose immediately and markedly. With the aforementioned corner excepted, the route was challenging enough throughout to remain interesting and take my mind off of my rather cold fingers. Sadly, I only took one picture as I rode around, so you will need to imagine it.
As is my way, my brain is ever (over) active and, for some reason, I found my brief passages through the small town of Merklín increasingly hilarious. Regrettably, asking a Czech person “What do you think of Merklín ?” would be unlikely to elicit what I consider to be the “correct” response (“I do not know, I have never Merkled”), but it made me laugh (in my head) every time I passed the sign !
I did stop, after four circuits, to refill my tank and the miser in me was very pleased at the comparatively small amount of petrol I needed. My steady and unhurried progress was paying off. I also ate a Snickers ™ bar (a personal weakness) and, maybe aided by the “sugar rush” the final two laps seemed to almost fly by – although my time for each was pleasingly similar to all of the others.
In the end the merry recorders chalked up my number for the sixth time and I was done. Strangely, I had no great feeling of elation, just the satisfying feeling of a job “jobbed”, but I was very hungry. Luckily, there were grilled pork steaks and hot tea available in the outdoor refreshment area at the dealership and I was able to allow the inevitable shudders from released tension to dissipate in (relative) warmth and comfort.
Eventually, it was obvious that people had stopped circulating and those in the cafe were the only ones there were going to be. There were actually quite a lot, but nowhere close to the number that had been there in the morning. This was the cue for Jiří and Monika to appear with a collection of certificates and a few little trophies.
I knew that I was in line for a finisher’s certificate but, just imagine my amazement when the very first name to be called out was ….. MINE !
It seemed that I was the first one of all those people there to complete all six circuits. Luckily, no speech was needed, but I felt totally stunned. Slow and steady, it appears, really can win the race.
We all posed for a group photo. the organiser, Jiří Kolář can be seen, horizontally, at the front.
Then, after a bit of all round back slapping and a number of what I assume were positive comments but which I did not really understand, I set off home. The motorway was as drab as ever, but it passed in a rosy blur and I was soon amazing my lovely wife with my little golden cup. If only she had got (or even laughed politely at) the “Merklín” joke, it would have been a perfect day !