Meet Stephen Cooper, long distance scooter rider extrodinaire, ten times IronButt champ and a gluten for self punishment. Next week Stephen will be setting off on yet another non-stop mission, this time to try and beat his own record of 1250 miles in 21 hours and 30 minutes, with a little ride from Calais down to Irun on the Spanish border and back again.
Again Stephen will be using a Kymco for the trip but has recently bought a used X-Citing 400, it’s standard apart from a flip up screen. He’ll also be carrying a spare fuel can. If you’ve ever wondered how and why somebody puts themselves through such a punishing and dangerous ordeal, here’s Stephen’s story of last year’s 2162 miles in 48 hours attempt…
It’s 5.15 am on a Monday morning somewhere near Calais and I’m in the wrong hotel. The right one is just 1/2 a mile away but it’s shut and even I don’t have the audacity to wake the owner up to claim my room. I have the gait of a constipated humanoid robot and I’ve not slept for about 23 hours. I’m not looking and feeling my best as my feet, arse, legs and chest are soaking wet where my hastily repaired textiles have allowed the elements in. Outside my Kymco Downtown 300i scooter sits exiled on the pavement having done its job perfectly. It’s an ignominious place to leave it when I reflect on the hours of abuse that I’ve just put it through. I’m exceptionally proud of it and if it was capable of understanding words or inflections I’d tell it.
Back inside, Cedric, the hotel manager has taken pity on me after I’d informed him where I’d just ridden from and what I’d ridden through. More coffee than I can drink, complemented with more croissant than I can eat arrive on my table as I sit in my own festering damp miasma. I show my thanks with my eyes as I’m having a few issues forming words.
While I’m tucking in something quite strange happens. Gendarme after Gendarme arrive in reception and unconsciously surround me with their blend of good looks, sharp haircuts and well tailored outfits. It’s not the fact that they are the police that makes me uncomfortable, it’s more the fact that I look like a sack of shit and they look ready for the catwalk that’s concerning me. As even more arrive I start to feel increasingly out of place so I thank Cedric again for his kindness then walk slowly and gingerly back outside to remount the scooter so I can make the short journey to the Channel Tunnel.
Maybe at this point I should tell you how I got here as I feel that I’m going ahead of myself, so lets put this into context. 53 hours and 2162 miles earlier I set out from the hotel Kyriad in Coquelles (the right hotel ) with a plan to ride to Valencia and back within 48 hours to achieve three things:
- 1 to raise money for the Whizz-Kids Charity
- 2 was to add two more “Ironbutt Rides” to my tally of 8 (1000 miles in 24 hours for PTW’s )
- 3 to blatantly promote the Kymco brand as is my want
Granted things didn’t get off to the best of starts when two weeks prior to the attempt in summer 2017 the UK importers of Kymco Scooters, MASCO, went into receivership. Then, to compound things Eurotunnel reneged on a deal to sponsor the ride after initially agreeing to a complementary crossing. For many reasons I had to delay the ride by a couple of weeks but after initially agreeing to move the date they reneged, citing the new date as one of the busiest days of the year. Fair enough I thought, and dutifully bought my ticket, but on my arrival at the train I counted a total of just two bikes in my carriage (one of which was mine) plus another five empty ones behind me. So much for being busy eh? I may well have sulked for the duration of the crossing.
Once I’m out of the tunnel I brim the scooters tank and the spare can that I always carry with me on these events then head for the hotel. As I plan to ride through the night I force myself to get a couple of hours kip then at 11.45pm I get kitted up and walk into the courtyard to mount my steed. I’m so focused on getting the job done I forget to leave my room key at the deserted reception, but more about that later.
Just before I punch the starter I give myself a little talking to. It’s just a small reminder that if I’m given the choice to do the sensible thing rather than the selfish and short sighted, I should choose the first. I leave the security of the hotel car park then slowly amble my way through the village of Coquelles toward the péage. Once I’m on it I get my head down for a short ride to the first toll booth. The toll and fuel receipts will confirm where I was and when which will help me when I submit them all to the Ironbutt Association for certification. I’ll also photograph the scooters clocks and the petrol pump read outs as a backup.
The roads are empty which is just the way I like it. Empty and dry more importantly but that was soon about to change, as within a couple of hours I’m fighting the front wheel which is tank slapping from side to side. The cause is a short contraflow where the road markings have been painted black. Light drizzle has made the road surface slick and greasy which is to say the least, disconcerting. Just outside Rouen I make an early fuel stop as I know from experience that at 2 am all the petrol stations in town will be closed. This is France after all.
Once I’m through the slow fiddly bit of the town I get on with getting to Le Mans where if I’ve timed it right the sun should come up. It does but at the same time it rises it starts to pour with rain. Not your normal rain but fat heavy Matrix type rain which sticks with me all the way to Bordeaux, say roughly 300 miles south. Which was nice. As I reach the city limits of Bordeaux the traffic ahead slows to a halt, so just like any ex despatch rider would, I filtered to the front only to be greeted by a horrid sight. A Ducato van is laying on its side having speared off the Armco barrier while vomiting its contents through its back doors. I’m guessing that the driver was helping someone move house because the accident had left a trail of domestic appliances all over the road.
By the time the bad weather was behind me, much of me was sodden but something else more important was about to happen. My sat nav, which had been resistant to these kind of downpours in the past suddenly died and no matter how many times I pressed the on button it refused to show any signs of life. I made the assumption that water ingress was the cause of its failure but that’s not where that tale ends. There will be a resurgence of this theme later. Granted it wasn’t a disaster as I’d written my list of destinations on the reverse side of my screen in preparation for just this kind of event but it was still very annoying not to have an arrow with a soothing voice to follow.
Taking its toll
The weather became dryer and hotter the closer I got to the Spanish border but sadly so did the frequency of the toll booths. Each time I felt like I was getting somewhere another one would pop up to destroy any momentum I wanted to maintain. Finally I rode into Spain, which just felt like ‘another’ country, which of course it was I guess but let me explain a little further. Gone was the flat nothingness of southern France and in its place beautiful green rolling hills with a flowing highway that twisted then occasionally bored through its mountainous profile. The scenery was so vivid it looked like I was riding into a cartoon or at least an advert for Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream.
Each time I entered one of the many tunnels the temperature dropped markedly then on the exit I was greeted with a blast of hot air. Spain is in the middle of a heatwave so to take full advantage of it I unzip all of the available vents in my jacket, not only in an effort to cool down but also to dry out. I also bungie my saturated gloves to my rear seat in the vain hope that they’ll dry out by tonight. For the record the latter didn’t work but on the up side my impression of a bag of Uncle Ben’s boil in the bag rice improved the further I rode.
The plains in Spain
On the stretch from Pamplona to Zaragoza the hills are replaced with flat plains which stretch out for miles on both sides but it’s in no way boring. It’s truly beautiful. Apart from the myriad of tolls constantly reining me in I’m really enjoying this part of the ride. It’s hot, sunny, and the Kymco seems to be very happy eating up the miles beneath me. It’s what it’s built for after all. The only real concern is the drive belt as heat isn’t very good for them especially when you don’t give them a chance to cool down.
Belt and braces
During routine servicing a belt should be replaced around the 6000 mile mark but I’ve turned one into candy floss at 2500 just because if they are kept spinning at high rpms they will eventually de-laminate as a result of not having chance to “rest”, so the ambient temperature isn’t going help me in my mission. To prevent this issue the nice people at Colwin Motorcycles in Sittingbourne fitted a new drive belt prior to the attempt but even this will be thrown away post ride. It’s a consumable after all!
At Zaragoza I swing South towards Valencia then go looking for my penultimate fuel stop and I find it in the middle of nowhere signposted from the road. It’s one of those automated pumps so it takes me a while to figure it out as English isn’t an option on the keypad. By the time the Kymco’s tank is full I’ve got steam rising up from my chest and sweat dripping down the inside of my thighs. It’s really bloody hot. Still only a couple of hours to go, or so I thought.
At around 7 pm I finally reach the outskirts of Valencia so I top up with fuel then just for a laugh try to re-animate the sat nav. The hot air must have dried it out as it fires up as if nothing had ever happened! I quickly programme in the postcode, count my blessings, then set off in search of the Motel Valle Del Nilo. Even with the sat navs help it was impossible to find so I started to ask anyone and everyone if they knew where it was. The list included check out girls, truckers, random men in Toyotas, even an attractive couple on a scooter but it wasn’t easy going when you don’t speak any Spanish. I even resorted to gate crashing a wedding in search of anyone who could give me directions. Yeah, sorry Mrs Jerez. Finally two police officers parked on the forecourt of a petrol station knowingly nodded at me then pointed me in the right direction.
No wonder it couldn’t be found. It was perched right on the top right hand corner of the industrial estate but it couldn’t be seen from the road for reasons I’ll explain after this paragraph. I think it took a good hour to find it. Finally after 1070 miles and about 20 hours of riding I checked myself in then made my way up to my room. I peeled off my damp clothes and hung them up to dry but by the time I’d ordered some food it was getting on for 10 pm which meant I’d have to get back on the scooter in just two hours if I had any chance of finishing the ride in the prescribed 48 hours. It was simply going to be too dangerous to do, so I sensibly dumped the idea to take the pressure off myself.
The Motel Valle Del Nilo is a very interesting place to stay. Not only can’t it be found, once you’re there no one can find you or see your vehicle so it’s ideal if you are going to go missing with someone you shouldn’t. There’s also an Egyptian theme going on outside and inside. Try to picture two rows of town houses facing each other with the room above and a garage below. After you check in a shutter door will open and you ride or drive in. Once the door closes behind you you’re pretty much anonymous. I’m not suggesting that it’s a default knocking shop but if you’re that way inclined it’s ideal. Just to fuel my suspicions once I’m in my room I spot the ‘Catalogo Erotico’ laying innocently by the phone. Inside it every conceivable kind of marital aid is beautifully presented and available for delivery to your room via a hatchway. Nice.
I’m awake by 4.30 am, feeling surprisingly good after the exhaustions of the day before. Maybe it was the power of the pyramids that were situated just above my head? At around 7 am I roll the scooter back into the light then after an oil, coolant and tyre check I put on my jacket and trousers. Even though the sun isn’t properly up yet the heat in the narrow courtyard is making me bead up with sweat, so to prevent me from bathing in it I programme the shortest route to Calais as quickly as I can. 1023 miles via Paris it suggests. That will do I thought. I punched it in and left.
Leaving Valencia is a whole lot easier than arriving but as I retrace my steps to Zaragoza I’m feeling a bit stupid as I can see hotel after hotel that I should have booked as they are easily visible from the road. You live and learn don’t you? Just before my first fuel stop of the day a police car slowly overtakes me while the passenger scrutinises me from the off side window. Just when I think I’m about to get pulled over he gives me a big grin supported by a huge thumbs up. I nodded back in appreciation.
During the first fill up of the day the petrol station attendant is sullen, which clouds my mood a little after such a positive start. Soon after fuelling I went in search of the toilets where I came to realise one of life’s truisms. You only realise there’s no toilet roll after it’s too late. No matter, I remount then press on for Zaragoza where the reborn nav decides to send me around the houses until I ignore its unhelpful banter and transfer my faith to a road sign directing me to Pamplona.
Apart from this hiccup in my direction the ride back to the French border was bliss. The flatness of the scrub lands slowly morph back into the twisties of the mountains and I am in my element. The cold brightly lit tunnels seem to encourage me to ignore the posted limit for reasons I can’t fully explain but boy it’s fun. I can feel the belt loading up on the uphill sections, which acts a small reminder to be gentle with it as there was still 700 miles to go.
Keeping the throttle open for hours on end was starting to take its toll on my right hand. To take the pressure off it I replaced it with my left. I quickly found out something very interesting. I’m very bad at riding with my left hand. Before I knew it the Downtown was on a collision course for the central reservation. As quickly as I could I reverted back to factory settings to regain control. I won’t be trying that again.
Wet, wet, wet
As I cross back into France the clouds start to gather, then they dutifully dump their contents on me in the form of a heavy drizzle. The further I ride north the worse it gets until it’s become a consistent deluge. It was coming down so hard the road and the rain blended into one – a kind of slate grey with no discernible horizon to focus on. In an attempt to lessen its impact on me I tuck myself behind the screen but it’s too late as the rain is already finding its way in… again. I can feel the coldness of it spreading against my skin like a bruise across my chest and arse. My ‘waterproof’ gloves soak up the downpour like a sponge. I’m not very happy at this point in case you wondered.
To compound my mood the screen on the sat nav does a brilliant impression of a last message left by the crew of an abandoned spaceship. The screen fizzles, cracks then dies, this time forever. So I was faced with a dilemma – should I carry on riding towards Paris to navigate the Peripherique without spoken or visual directions, or head west into the weather towards Le Mans where I could either get a hotel until the storm blew over, or press on to Calais along a route I knew well?
Don’t stop me now
I chose to head for Le Mans but each time I decided to call it a day the rain backs off enough for me to change my mind to keep riding in the direction of Calais. It was during one of these dry spells where I passed the point of no return which was the slip road for Rouen. No matter how wet and pissed off I was I couldn’t bear the thought of failure so I took it and committed myself to another 270 miles plus and another four hours of riding.
Soon after taking that decision the rain re-started and straight after that I took a slip road directing me toward Abbeville. As I rode under the sign Captain Paranoia paid me a visit. He convinced me I’d taken the wrong turning, so to ensure I wasn’t heading back south I parked the scooter, dismounted and ran back until I could clearly see my destination. Yes there were some horns blaring at me, headlights being flashed with some added French swearing thrown in for good measure but making an assumption at this stage would cost me dear so I had to know. I distinctly remember the sound of my boots sloshing through inches of water as I walked back to my forlorn looking scooter.
Even though the instinct was to carry on riding for as long as possible I knew that there was no point in getting to Calais with any urgency as the hotel would be well and truly closed by the time I arrived, so rather than crack on I paced out my fuel stops and extended my rest periods. I’d walk around a bit more to relieve the ache in my legs and arse. A local newspaper journalist had been covering the ride so it was at one of these extended stops where I called her initially to let her know I was still alive. It also served as a connection to something real, rather than the totally surreal state I found myself in.
After the call I adjusted my clothing to move around the few remaining dry bits that were left but as I did so I could feel eyes boring into the back of my skull. I looked over my shoulder to see a couple leaning against their Citroen just staring at me. Even when I nodded in acknowledgement their expressions didn’t change. They just carried on smoking and staring.
As I reach the outskirts of Rouen the rain has reduced itself to a drizzle but it’s still heavy enough for me to have to run with the visor up and my head down. The Kymco’s screen has done a great job of flicking the worst of it over my head but my eyes have paid the price and they are as sore as hell. Time slows down as I retrace my steps around Rouen. I try to remain patient as riding along the bypass feels painfully slow compared to the flowing emptiness of the last 900 miles.
As I climb out of the valley in the direction of Calais an unladen HGV overtakes me and a light bulb goes off in my head. I tuck into its slip stream to take the wind off the nose of the scooter, and me of course. I’m not getting so close that I can’t stop if he does but I’m placed well enough to feel removed from the headwind I was riding into. I don’t recommend tailgating but in these circumstances I can totally justify it. I was getting more fatigued by the mile so if I could find a way to make the remaining miles a little more bearable I was going to take advantage of it.
Just as I start to settle in to being sucked all the way to Calais the driver pulls over to refuel. Dammit. It didn’t take long to find another truck to parasite myself to and this one towed me all the way to the next major incident.
Between Rouen and Abbeville there’s an unmanned toll booth which is roughly 1000 miles from Valencia. As I waited for the machine to process my credit card I felt that this would be a good place to stretch my legs and get some blood back into my tender arse cheeks. As I dismounted I spotted a little fissure of blue light on the edge of a black cloud which told me the majority of the rain had blown inland. My enemy now would be the cold wind which would strip away what little body heat I had left. I unzipped my jacket to see the tide mark of damp on my sweatshirt was now nipple high. I have nothing to complement that last sentence. As I walked around aching from every limb I gorged on my last remaining energy bar then washed it down with some luke warm Lucozade, mmm tasty.
It was a pointless act to adjust my clothing to make myself more comfortable but I gave it a go regardless. Each attempt to mate either side of my jacket’s zip ends in failure. As I pull the zip up towards my face each side does the opposite of what it’s designed to do, which was to head in the opposite direction. With each attempt my language became a little more colourful, then after the 15th try I attempted an especially ginger approach. This time the sides finally mated. I really didn’t need this kind of malady with just one hour to go. No matter, back on went my soggy helmet and I rejoined the péage for the final stretch to Coquelles.
2162 miles later
At 5am I finally get back to the hotel where it all started just over two days and 2162 miles ago but as previously stated its doors are shut. Regardless, I photograph the Kymco in the courtyard then the bike’s clocks to confirm my arrival time. I push my room key through the door in the hope that someone will find it but as I’m doing that it hits me – I’ve done it. I’ve completed what I set out to do, albeit in a bit more time than planned.
Granted I’ve ridden through the night twice and through all kinds of shit to do it, but I’ve done it. I’m actually too tired to be elated, just pleased that my partner in crime – my Kymco Downtown – has remained stoic throughout, as it has done during the previous three 1000 mile plus events I’ve put it through. It’s done me so proud. Just before I ride off in the search of an open hotel I pat its screen while mouthing the words “well done” and I’m gone.
The blue neon sign of the Novotel draws me in and we’re back where we started, among the beautiful people feeling like the only sober person at a wedding. I briefly thought about getting a room but by 5.30 am I’d gone past the point of sleep so off I made the short ride to the Eurotunnel to see if I could blag my way on to an earlier crossing. By the time I got home I was barely conscious, so into the garage the Kymco went and onto the couch I went, only to wake up the next day.
Famous last words
Before I planned this ride I decided that these two Ironbutts would be my last as I felt that 10 was a good number to finish on, plus I had nothing else to prove. Looking back it was a good decision as even after a week had passed I still felt terrible. Terrible enough to know that I don’t want to feel that terrible again so retirement from this endurance malarkey beckoned. Sure, if an opportunity came to ride across the USA or Canada I wouldn’t think twice but until then my endurance helmet will remain firmly on the shelf.
The words have now dried, unlike my trousers and I’ll be setting off again next week.
Words and photos: Stephen Cooper
Additional images: LW Media and Photography
Story first told to: Bike & Travels Magazine
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