It was over a dinner of lamb noisettes from the local butcher, new potatoes, and those perfectly symmetrical asparagus spears that you get from M&S that the current Mrs P told me that we would be going up the Eiger.
My initial shock gave way to a certain relief as it was explained to me, over the course of the meal, that we wouldn’t actually be climbing it. Rather, the plan was to ride down there on bikes, stay at the famous Bellevue des Alpes hotel in Kleine Sheidegg, and then take the train that runs up through the Eiger to the glacier on the Jungfraujoch.
There was a four day window in early September, and so the wheels were set in motion.
Mrs P would ride her Triumph Tiger 800. Theoretically, there were a number of old bikes in the warehouse that were capable of making such a trip, but few that I felt particularly confident taking beyond the Surrey/Sussex border!
So I put the feelers out to see if there was a manufacturer prepared to loan me a bike.
Honda came up trumps, and on our intended day of departure there was a lovely, shiny Crosstourer parked in the yard, with a full complement of equally shiny luggage.
On the Tuesday evening that we were due to take the ferry from Portsmouth to Caen, we were still hard at it in the office. We walked out at eight o’clock, which gave us about an hour to get home, pack our gear and get on the road.
Arriving at the port at around ten, we drove straight on the boat and were asleep in our cabin before the last of the cars had been boarded.
By 6.00am we’re on the road. The weather forecast is good, but for an hour or two the north east coast of France is clouded in a sea of cold and damp mist.
We set off gingerly. As has become our custom, Mrs P rides in pole position.
It’s a protocol that was agreed upon after another ride in northern France some years ago. On that occasion I was in front and failed to notice that Mrs P had hit some diesel on a roundabout, thereby parting company with her mount. Unfortunately, it was only after some 25k that I realised I was riding alone. Opinions were exchanged, and now she rides in front.
As the sun starts to break through, there’s time to develop some views about the Crosstourer, basically Honda’s entry in the hotly contested ‘adventure’ arena.
Initial impressions are mixed.
First, this bike is one heavy mother. If I drop it and I’m underneath it, it’s going to hurt. And if I have to lift it off the floor, it’s going to put my already weak lower back into a muscle spasm that’s not going to release until Christmas. I make a note to try not to drop it.
What does surprise me is that the bike doesn’t come as standard with heated grips, which would be much appreciated on a chilly morning like this.
Doesn’t Honda realise that the old boys who buy bikes like this are usually already on at least one Aspirin a day to keep the blood circulating around their creaking bodies? Frozen fingers aren’t going to help us, I mean them, one little bit.
My final initial impression concerns the luggage. It’s gorgeous. With its brushed aluminium Zero Halliburton briefcase look, it’s the most stylish set of bike panniers I’ve ever come across. It looks so much more grown-up than those Tonka Toy boxes that appear to be almost ‘derigueur’ on most adventure bikes.
They work really well too, and I fleetingly wonder whether Honda will notice if the bike comes back without them. I’m sure they’d be accepted by the airlines as hand luggage.
At times, it’s difficult to harbour positive feelings for our continental, next door neighbours, but boy have they given us some great biking roads.
We’re in no real rush. We have 350 miles to cover, but all day to do so.
Yet before long we’re covering ground at a rate that would be unheard of back in Blighty. The surfaces are immaculate, there are no hedges, and Napoleon’s plane tree lined roads provide plenty of opportunities for safe overtaking.
Even car drivers seem to want to assist you make progress, pulling over to the side of the road to give you more space when they think it might help. The only time I’ve seen anything similar is in south London, but there the aim is usually to squeeze you off the road, or push you into the face of oncoming traffic.
By mid-day, the temperature is up in the thirties. We’ve seen little traffic, and although we slow down to an appropriate pace through a whole host of deserted French villages, we’re making great progress.
For a big bike, the Honda is pretty agile, and even though the satnav occasionally takes us down roads that barely seem wide enough for a bike, the Crosstourer always inspires confidence.
To slow matters down a little, we break every hundred miles or so, and take a Perrier Citron at a likely looking bar tabac.
But our enjoyment of this simple pleasure is hampered by a law that has recently been passed by France’s new socialist President, François Hollande.
In a spirit of liberté, egalité and faternité, it is now mandatory for all French twelve year olds to take up smoking. Everywhere we stop we appear to be surrounded by preening adolescents blowing smoke all over us as they perfect their Serge Gainsbourg and Brigitte Bardot impressions.
Okay, I know this means I’m becoming a grumpy old man. I also concede that no 12 year old will have heard of either of these cinematic icons, but I’ve made my point. And also why aren’t they at school on a Wednesday afternoon in September?
We arrive at our hotel in the heart of Burgundy country dead on time. It’s been a great day. I’ve ridden all over the world, but for fast, safe, tarmac riding, nowhere beats the rural hinterland of France.
The hotel is not the ‘B&B’ I had been expecting. Mrs P has excelled herself. It’s a former winery; there’s nothing ostentatious about the decor, but it’s ultra stylish and very comfortable.
Dinner that night is exquisite. The best boeuf bourguignon this side of Chez René in Paris.
Mrs P is very attentive and makes sure that my glass is always topped up. But I’m on my guard and adopt my own counter strategy, topping up her glass at every opportunity in the hope that she’ll fall asleep before making her move.
As it turns out, it’s me who falls asleep over coffee and cognac in the lounge. First rubber to me!
The next day we cross into Switzerland.
I read somewhere on the internet that it’s not worth buying a permit for the Autoroutes as there’s normally an alternative route that follows the toll road.
Well that wasn’t our experience. And whilst the scenery was often chocolate box pretty, the riding was tedious. Rarely did we appear to get away from the towns and their suburbs, where the speed limit was usually no more than 60 kph.
Despite this, we arrive at the railway station at Lauterbrunnen pretty much on schedule.
We’ll be without the bikes for a couple of days, so we park them up and carry our luggage to the platform to catch the 16.07pm train up the mountain.
As the second hand hits the twelve at the top of the clock, the train pulls away.
The hotel itself is like a heritage site that has been dedicated to the world of early mountaineering. It would make a great set for an Agatha Christie movie. All oak panelling, dark wood furniture and tapestry carpets, it is much as it would have been in the very early part of the 20th century, when heroic climbers such as Hinterstoisser, Kurz, Angerer and Rainer strove to ascend the north face of the Eiger.
Dinner is served at seven. This doesn’t, it becomes clear, mean that dinner becomes servable from seven. It means that dinner is served at seven. On the dot. There are two choices. Meat or Fish. But it’s all very well done, so we go to bed tired but sated.
The following morning we are back on a train, but this time it’s the train that runs from Kleine Scheidigg up through the Eiger mountain to the highest railway station in Europe, at Jungfraujoch.
The train stops twice inside the Eiger to allow passengers to look out from the viewing windows that have been carved into the side of the mountain.
It was at one of these very windows that rescuers tried to reach a dangling Toni Kurz in 1936. Some 60 feet above the window, and with no more rope to lower himself, he eventually froze to death, despite his rescuers getting close enough to touch his crampons.
The engineering involved in creating the tunnels that take the train to the Jungfrau glacier is truly awe inspiring.
The brainchild of Swiss industrialist, Adolf Guyer-Zeller, the tunnelling took 16 years to complete. Given the basic equipment that was available just over a hundred years ago, one can but conclude that London’s Crossrail project is a walk in the park by comparison.
Once at the top, Mrs P thinks it would be nice to trek across the glacier to the mountain retreat that lies some 4km away, hidden behind a snow covered ridge. In my best Church’s chukka boots I feel under-dressed, but the sky is blue and clear, and it makes for an interesting diversion.
We get back to the station, and I’m wondering what we might do for lunch. Predictably, Mrs P has other ideas. She’s found in a guide book a walk that takes us along the base of the north face down to Grindelwald in the valley.
With nothing more than a piece of Apfelstrudel to sustain us, we set off, finding ourselves back at the hotel, totally exhausted, some four hours later.
We retire to our room before dinner. Mrs P, spotting a momentary weakness in her opponent, evens the score.
By 9.30am the following morning, Saturday, we are back on the bikes; this time departing Switzerland by motorway.
The idea is to get back to Caen in time for the overnight boat to Portsmouth. In fact, it’s more than an idea. We’ve got a booking, and we don’t want to miss the boat. Returning from a short break is never as much fun as going on one, and we grit our teeth for the long hard slog.
We dodge in and out of the rain, stopping only to insert our cards into peage machines, fill up our tanks with petrol, and wolf down a sandwich, cake or cup of coffee.
Around Paris there’s a build up of traffic and we have our closest brush, with an aggressively driven Peugeot that manages to create a fourth lane on the périphérique.
Passing between my right pannier and a stationary line of traffic, he must have had inches, nae centimetres, to spare, but luckily Honda’s lovely luggage remains unscathed.
We make it to the port in good time; in fact, we’ve been able to take it fairly easy, elongating our rest stops the nearer to our destination we get. But whilst the Honda has been exemplary in its calm, poise and stability, it’s been a deadly dull ride.
The only excitement comes at a service station at Mulhouse when Mrs P’s alarm on the Triumph goes off and won’t stop. We can’t start the bike, or get rid of the wailing siren.
Luckily, a roadside recovery vehicle is passing through the service station. The problem, the driver explains, is the nearby 3G phone mast. Wheel the bike 100 yards down the road and it will start again, he informs us. And so it did. A lucky escape and a warning to Triumph owners. Apparently, it also affects Harleys!
Having boarded the ferry, we celebrate in the bar with a well deserved bottle of cider and a packet of Kettles crisps. It’s been an action-packed four days. 1300 miles, a number of spectacular train rides, interesting hotels, terrific food, amazing views, sore backs, sore shoulders, sore legs and sore arses. We sleep well.
So what about the Crosstourer that Honda so generously loaned to us?
However, when you’re on tour, boring is good, boring is a virtue. The last thing you want is to be worrying, or even thinking, about, your bike. It’s there to do a job, to get you and all your gear from one place to another. It needs to operate in thewidest possible array of terrains, and in all conditions. It has to be robust and reliable. It’s not about the glitz, it’s not about the speed, the angle of the lean that is achievable, or about the sonorous delight of the exhaust system.
When you’re touring, the bike is a beast of a burden, a beast in which you have to have total confidence. Well, if this is what you’re looking for, then you can’t really go wrong with the Honda.
I’m not a full-time journalist, and I haven’t ridden all those bikes that might be deemed the Crosstourer’s competitors, but this is how I see it.
BMW’s GS is the obvious candidate in this market sector; it’s the easy choice to make. It’s a good bike certainly, and there are few risks involved in buying one.
But for me it is the bike’s sheer ubiquity that lessens the appeal.
There are simply too many Charley and Ewan wannabees on the road for my liking. They all wear the same BMW two-piece touring suits, the same BMW System helmets, and equip their bikes with the same spotlights and carry boxes.
For this reason alone, I would find it difficult to buy the BMW.
The Honda doesn’t set out to play the ‘adventure’ game in the way the BMW GS, and even the Yamaha Super Tenere, does.
It seems to me that the Crosstourer is a more grown up and mature option.
It is a bike for those who are prepared to look beyond the appeal of the badge. Of course, the Honda also wears a badge, but in this market, right now, the BMW logo appears to be the invitation to join a certain kind of club. Personally, I’m not allthat keen on joining clubs.
The other concession, or admission, that the Honda demands of its buyer is that he honestly acknowledges the kind of riding he is going to be undertaking.
The GS comes with the allure of fighting through verdant South American jungles, trekking across impenetrable African deserts or voyaging into undiscovered Indian valleys.
But like the Range Rover that rarely leaves the borough of Chelsea and Kensington, most BMWs hardly ever see any surface other than tarmacadam, (although on the roads around Surrey that can still be pretty intimidating, I admit).
The Honda is the bike for those who can separate reality from fantasy. Yes, the Crosstourer can probably cope reasonably well with the odd rutted track. It may even be able to ford a small river, but it’s a bike for those who are prepared to acknowledge that most of their riding will be on the public road; be it commuting, weekends away, holiday trips, or Sunday morning rides out.
For this kind of riding you don’t need huge suspension travel, knobbly tyres, bash plates and the like.
What you need is a thumping good, tough as old boots, road bike that will carry you and all your gear for miles and miles in the greatest of comfort.
For this the bike you need, just maybe, is the Honda Crosstourer.
Of course, my time with the bike was small, but in just a couple of days I did get to know it rather well, and it impressed me greatly.
The statistics, it seems to me, are not all that important. I don’t know how fast the bike is, how long it takes to get to 60mph, how much fuel it consumes, and at what point in the rev range it develops its highest level of torque.
All I can say is that it did everything I asked of it and, as Rolls Royce used to say of its engines, the power is sufficient.
I have also read that BMW’s quality is not what it used to be and that, with the Honda, you can expect unmatched levels of reliability and trouble-free riding.
If you get a chance, swing a leg over a Crosstourer. I simply couldn’t fault it.
Well, heated grips as standard would still be nice though!