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24th March 2009


A Honda CB160 Abroad
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Back in 1968, Roger Harrold took on a winter trip to the infamous Elephant Rally. It all started with a Simple Plan, which very quickly started to unravel...

I'm sure that most of us have one particular ride or journey that stands out in memory when we look back across the years. It may be as short as a good lap of a race circuit or as long as a round-the-world epic. This is mine…

It was late 1967 and I was a 19-year-old student suffering from a mixture of boredom and late-teen angst. My year consisted of six months at Rugby College of Engineering Technology and six months working in the electronics industry. While the latter was (slightly) more lucrative it was considerably duller, particularly as it included the winter months.

Leafing through 'Motorcycle' one week I saw mention of the forthcoming Elephant Rally at the Nurburgring. I knew that the event had been started by Ernst Leverkus in the immediate post-war years to bring together the relatively few motorcycle enthusiasts around at that time, but I'd never before considered that I might attend. It looked like just the sort of thing I wanted, and I decided that this would be my winter project.

My motorcycling friends were much too sensible to be interested so it was going to be a lone venture, which actually suited me as I've always felt that while riding in company is OK, motorcycling is essentially a solitary pastime. I always find that someone else is either a little too fast or, rarely for me, too slow, and even a small discrepancy can become wearing after a while. So, the die was cast, and I studied maps and ferry timetables, booked accommodation at Nurburgring and nipped over to Lewis Leathers at Birmingham on my MAC Velo to get some decent boots.

It's *a* Honda CB160, but not *the* Honda CB160 1965 Honda CB160

Not that the Velo was my chosen mount for the rally; that was to be my trusty Honda CB160 twin. It had already carried me around Europe as far as Switzerland and I had no qualms about its ability to tackle a 900-mile long weekend. As subsequent events were to show, I should perhaps have studied the maps a little more closely.

The plan was: Leave Leicester early Thursday morning, catch the afternoon ferry to Ostend, stay overnight in a hotel there, ride to the Nurburgring on Friday, spend two nights at the 'Ring and ride all the way home in one hop on Sunday. Simple. The words 'plans', 'mice' and 'men' never so much as nudged their way into my thinking.

I carefully prepared the Honda, making sure everything was well water-proofed and lubricated, including dunking the chain in hot Linklyfe (remember that?). Luggage consisted of an old leather hold-all strapped to a carrier. Things were much simpler then. All you needed for continental riding was a bike, any bike, and a passport. No hard luggage, no GPS, no mobile phone. 16bhp and a pudding basin helmet and I was ready to take on the world (well, Western Europe anyway).

Departure date arrived and I set off from Leicester very early armed with an afternoon ferry booking and accommodation reserved for that night in Ostend. It was intensely cold, and by the time I stopped for a coffee on the M1 I was convinced my knees had frozen solid. Slightly thawed, I crawled round the North Circular Road and sped (all right, 60mph) down the M20 to Dover docks where I found several Elephant-bound sidecar outfits but hardly any solos. Hmm, I wonder why?

One notable vehicle was a BSA Bantam fitted with a sort of third-wheel-on-a-stick arrangement to create a rudimentary baggage sidecar. How I would come to envy that Heath-Robinson contraption over the coming days...

The ferry journey was one of the few uneventful episodes on the trip, and I spent a comfortable night in Ostend, which must have a fair shout at the title 'Least interesting place in Europe in January'.

I left Ostend early on Friday morning and bounced along the notorious Ostend - Brussels motorway that had been built badly in the 1950s and had deteriorated since. I negotiated Brussels and its lethal wet tramlines and as I set off toward Louvain and Liege I spotted a broken down Vincent outfit beside the road. I pulled up and offered assistance but the rider was sure the magneto was dead and there was nothing I could do.

My route took me via Liege and then south-eastward through the high Ardennes region. That was my Big Mistake. Parts of the route rose to an altitude of over 2000 feet and there was a heavy covering of snow. Progress became very slow and not a little dangerous. I was literally fighting the bike the whole way, kicking my way through drifts here and slithering on hard packed snow there.

This is *the * Honda CB160 1965 Honda CB160 opposite the Spa-Francorchamps pit lane.
Similar sized old Hondas on eBay.co.uk

As I ran onto a steep downhill section near Francorchamps I suddenly became aware that I was on the start-finish straight at the Spa-Francorchamps GP circuit. By now thoroughly cold and tired, I parked right there, set up my primus stove in one of the pit garages, brewed up a cup of tea and contemplated my situation.

One particular memory I carry from that time is how deathly quiet heavily wooded areas are when covered in snow. That silence felt like more than the mere absence of sound, more like the forest sleeping. It was a silence you could hear, rather like being in a cathedral.

'How deathly quiet heavily wooded areas are when covered in snow...' The Spa-Francorchamps grandstands seen from pitlane.

All I could do was press on and see what happened, but when I came to restart the bike I found that a passing lorry had thrown slush over the bike and soaked the plug lead on one side of the engine, and it would only run on one cylinder despite my efforts to dry the lead. Coasting down toward the famous Eau Rouge kink on one cylinder I prayed for its reluctant partner to fire, lest I find myself at the bottom of two steep snowy hills with half an engine. And fire it did, exactly where the gradient flattened out, the heat from one cylinder having dried out the other. I still can hardly believe my luck at that point.

In rapidly fading light I struggled on through ever-deeper snow and slush, round the famous high-speed right-hander at Burnenville where I traveled somewhat slower than the works MVs and Hondas, on through Malmedy and past the site of the infamous Malmedy Massacre of December 1944. It was now abundantly clear that my chances of making Nurburgring that day were nil. I pretty much ground to a halt in the village of Waimes and any decision on a course of action was short-circuited when a bus passed by, soaking the left-hand cylinder and converting the Honda once more into an 80cc single.

Clearly, my simple plan was unraveling quickly…


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