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The (Ride on the) Right Stuff
If you are venturing to Europe for the first time, you'll probably be a little nervous. Don't be. It's actually much simpler than most riders realise so long as you understand that there are different laws, things like traffic lights work differently, and there are different driving habits. Motoring organisations usually cover most of the technical stuff so check before leaving, but also - and I'll stress this - watch was the locals do. Don't try riding the same way you do at home and don't get upset that the local drivers don't drive the same way we do at home. Blend it, don't stand out. But let's start with the ferry crossing - don't forget to take a tie-down. You'll see why.
Although Eurotunnel is quick and convenient, many of us will make our first trip on a ferry. The decks are metal, they get wet and they are slippery!
When board, it may be necessary to ride up or down a ramp. Be cautious if it's steep either way. Try to do it in one hit. If necessary, wait for other vehicles to get out of the way. If you're not feeling too confident two-up, you can always get a passenger to walk. Once on board, some ferry companies will secure the bike for you. On some ferries it's entirely up to you, and some only provide lengths of oily rope. If knots are not your thing, the tie-down will be very useful. I'd recommend placing the bike on the side stand rather than the centre stand. Whilst most crossings on the bigger ferries are quite smooth, in very rough weather, secured bikes do move and it's possible for the bike
- to roll forwards off the centre stand
- to rock sideway off the centre stand
If the machine is on the side stand there are three points of contact (the centre stand is too narrow to count as more than one) and if the bike's in gear, you have parking brake to help prevent it moving. I wrap a silicone wrist band over the front brake lever and handlebar, which now locks the front brake on. If you use the tie-down to secure the bike downward on the stand, you can get a pretty secure position. If you can secure the wheels front and rear too, you're pretty secure. Use gloves and / or waterproofs to protect panels and paintwork from ropes and straps. DON'T secure a strap to or over anything plastic or bendy - it WILL snap.
Leaving the ferry involves the ramp again, and there will probably be a queue. Don't do what one rider did. As we were on an upper deck, I'd paused at the top to make sure I had a safe flat area to stop down on the main car deck. But he got impatient to follow the queue of cars which were stopped halfway down. He pushed past me, and had to brake. Down went the bike which slid to the bottom. Once off the ferry, watch out for slippery surfaces and trucks moving around the dockside, but once on the open road you'll find driving on the right is surprisingly easy. Basically, we're following everyone else!
The time to watch out is after a stop. It's incredibly easy to ride off on the wrong side of the road. The sort of places we get this wrong are:
- first thing in the morning
- after any stop that involves leaving the road
- leaving a filling station, particularly if we've ridden in the 'wrong' way and are at the pumps facing oncoming traffic - it's easy to exit onto the wrong side of the road. Turn in so you're facing the direction of traffic at the pumps - you're far more likely to come out riding on the correct side again
- turning out of a one-way street
Take a moment to hit a mental 'reset' button. Some people attach some kind of reminder to the key fob, or put a sticker on the bike somewhere. When moving, a good clue we're on the wrong side of the road (apart from finding a car coming towards us) is to find that we're looking at the reverse side of road signs. Don't ask me how I found that out.
In terms of where to be careful when riding, my experience is that the biggest chance of error (after pulling off on the wrong side) is at a T-junction, yet I never actually see this mentioned as an issue. We're so heavily cued to looking to the FAR side of the road when we look left and to the NEARSIDE when looking right that abroad we forget we MUST reverse this. If we don't we're looking on the WRONG SIDES of the road. This is a major cause of collisions for UK drivers abroad (and for Europeans in the UK too). Until we used to looking in the 'wrong' place, my advice is always stop, even at a Give Way junction, and take much longer to look both ways.
Here's another problem which is totally underestimated. Much of Europe operates under the Priority to the Right system - it's called 'priorite a droit' in France. DON'T BELIEVE internet articles or any 'experienced traveller' saying "it's disappearing" or "it's rare". It's real, it's common in rural areas and urban centres, and drivers DO drive straight out of what appear to be side roads because it IS in operation.
So it's absolutely essential to understand how it operates and how to recognise it.
In simple terms, when priority to the right is in operation, we MUST give way to a vehicle to our right, even if we appear to be on the 'main' road and the other driver seems to be emerging from a 'side' road.
On the open road priority is fairly easy to spot. Firstly we need to know if WE have priority. As soon as we turn onto a new road or leave a town look for a yellow and black diamond-shaped sign - this means that WE are on the priority road. At ALL the junctions ahead until our priority is cancelled, we WILL have priority. Whilst major routes often have these priority signs, it's easy to overlook the fact that most less-important roads DO NOT, and so if we DON'T see this sign, priority to the right will be in operation.
If we are on a priority road, then the sign that CANCELS our priority is a similar yellow and black diamond-shaped sign but with a diagonal stripe through it. From this point on, we MAY have to give way somewhere ahead:
- we may be coming up to a major road - look for a STOP or GIVE WAY (Cedez le Passage in French-speaking countries) and either SOLID or DOUBLE-DASHED LINES across the end of the road - so the signs and markings are the same as they are in the UK.
- we may be entering a zone where we have to give way to the right.
Once we know we're in a town or in a rural area where priority to the right operates, we MUST assess EVERY junction for priority. It's easy enough. The clue is in the design of red and white triangular junction warning signs:
- if the sign is a + shape, then we HAVE priority. Double-check by looking for the paint markings at the end of the joining road - we should see the SOLID or DOUBLE-DASHED LINES
- if the sign is an X shape, then we do NOT HAVE priority over vehicles emerging from our right (although we do over vehicles to our left). And checking the 'side road', we'll also see there are NO PAINT MARKINGS ACROSS IT. This means priority to the right, and we MUST give way to an emerging vehicle. Whilst relatively few drivers simply drive straight out - most emerge cautiously - every now and again someone does pull straight out.
- in town there probably won't be a warning sign. Check any road ahead to the right and if we can see either double dashed lines (Give Way) or a solid line (STOP) across the road, then the road WE are riding on has priority. If there are NO markings, then it's priorite a droit - we must be ready to give way.
The good news is that priority to the right roads are often blind or awkwardly angled - that's why the driver has priority. Most UK motorcyclists are either blissfully unaware of this system. I took a group ride over to France for a day trip some years back, and carefully briefed all the riders on the train. There was some sceptical looks, and one or two outright didn't believe what I was telling them.
We were only about thirty minutes out of Calais when a tractor pulled straight out in front of the rider behind me, who had fortunately slowed down. Over lunch he told me that despite many years of riding in Europe he'd never given much thought about priority to the right and was one of those who thought it didn't exist anymore, thanks to inaccurate internet articles. But having listened to my briefing, he'd spotted the sign, noticed junction was blind and was looking for emerging vehicles when the tractor pulled out. He confessed he would have expected the tractor to stop if I hadn't covered the issue on the train.
What about roundabouts? Whilst they often worry riders, as the lane feeds us in to the right side of the island, it's actually very difficult to go the wrong way round.
But we do need to watch other drivers - particularly in France and Belgium - who may be turning left and crossing our path. They will go 270 degrees around the island with NO signal and they WILL make this manoeuvre from the outer lane on the island. In the UK, we'd probably assume the driver's going straight on, but not abroad. We risk being wiped out. For the same reason, don't use the INNER lane to go straight ahead to pass slower vehicles on the island. You'll liable to find the car on your right turning left straight across you. I nearly got taken out this way many years ago. And be on the alert for cycle lanes that go outside the roundabout - cycles and mopeds often have right-of-way.
Motorways are reasonably straightforward, but watch out for confusing on- and off-ramp designs (I've left an autoroute only to find myself riding straight back on again) and in Germany, some are very tight corners indeed - they were built before the Second World War. Fly into them at UK speeds and they're trouble.
Keep your eyes peeled for traffic lights. Firstly, they're not always in the same place as we'd expect to see them in the UK, and it's possible to ride straight through a red light. Traffic lights in France and Belgium are dim and often difficult to see in bright sun. Learn the sequences too. French lights go straight from red to green and drivers DO stop on amber, whilst a flashing amber light means they are switched off with no priority. In Italy there's a green/amber combination, and drivers often turn right on a red when they shouldn't. But in Germany this is legal IF other signs allow. In France, a flashing pedestrian sign means pedestrians are crossing even though we have a green light - we should give way. French rules on zebra-style crossings changed some years back and now cars DO stop for pedestrians.
Find out what the speed limits are. Whilst urban limits are usually well-signed, in France anywhere where you pass into a village with a red bordered sign, the urban 50 kph applies. There ARE speed cameras around and in Germany they often enforce limits in very odd places - I got flashed turning a corner on a 100 kph road, where a cycle lane crossed the road. Going back up the hill an hour later, the speed limit was 30 kph but I'd not seen the signs. Whilst it's unlikely you'll be pursued back to the UK (although increasingly there are stories of debts for unpaid fines being placed in the hands of UK bailiffs), if you get stopped by a police patrol and it's found there are outstanding fines, you could be arrested. Be aware that roadblocks are employed on autoroutes in France and you could be clocked on average speed over a section. And if you are way over the limit, fines are huge and the bike could even be seized and crushed.
Road surfaces are generally good in the dry, but in my experience the further south we go, the more slippery the surface is when wet. Watch out for:
- white paint - often slippery in the dry and like glass in the wet
- gravel - particularly in the mountains - icy roads in winter are often dressed with gravel
- polished surfaces - slippery dry, lethal wet
- beveled kerbs - round traffic islands and traffic-calmed areas and very difficult to spot at night
- speed bumps - can be vicious
Finally, learn a few common words that you'll find on signs. 'Umleitung' and 'Route barree' are useful, as you'll find out. Have fun!
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