After about 350km over 12 hours riding the day before, the bike refused to start. It had tricked me into thinking it would be ok with the 1000 odd km journey from Hamburg to London by starting on the third or fourth kick the week before (I’d only had it a week or so). Now it was taking half an hour of effing, blinding and kicking the shit out of it to get it running (even when the motor was hot). I hurt my foot from kicking the fucking thing so much. Every time I stopped to check the map I was too nervous to cut the engine, so I had to try and work out where I was to the deafening two-stroke din of the baffle-less exhaust. To make it worse, the bike had developed a nasty habit of ticking over too fast in neutral, so every so often I had to put it in gear and let the clutch bite to slow the engine and give my ears a break. I dreaded petrol stops.
I got a message saying I needed to be back in England soon so I decided to try and get the bike on the train and get it to the ferry port and think about what to do when I got back to England. I was in a small redneck town in Holland, near the German boarder called Coeverdon. There was no one to ask if I could take the bike on the train, so no one to tell me not to.
I had to change on to a big double decker intercity train at a station called Zwolle. I had almost managed to push the bike up the two stars at the door of the train when a station guard asked me what I was doing. Apparently it’s a fire hazard or something to take petrol on the train. I offered to drain the tank (the carb is leaky, so it would probably drain itself on the floor of the train over a couple of hours anyway), but no. No motorcycles on trains.
Then I got another message saying there was less time than we thought.
Fuck it. I locked the bike to a lamppost and carried on by train. Hopefully it’s still there.
The ferry didn’t make sense now so I headed for the Eurostar. This was the fourth time I had attempted to make the Hook Van Holland – Harwich ferry crossing and failed.
Almost a year before, I was taking my bike (a twenty five year old Honda, an incredible bike compared to what I was riding on this trip) over to Hamburg where I live and work. The plan was to stop over at Dan’s place in Amsterdam, have dinner, be grown up and civilised and stuff. That didn’t work out.
In my youthful folly, I decided checking ferry times was completely unnecessary. That’s lame man, just turn up and hop on a boat. I turned up on the one day of the week the boat wasn’t running. I called Dan to ask his advice and let him know I might be a little late.
I rode back past London, down to Dover, boat to Calais, got lost around Dunkirk looking for petrol, it was dark, it started raining, I nearly started crying, then up to Belgium. I watched the cities speed by until about three in the morning when I finally arrived in Amsterdam.
I didn’t have a map of the city. It wouldn’t have been much use anyway because I didn’t have an address either. I just knew I could find the flat from Vonel park and I had a vague idea of where that was, i.e. somewhere in Amsterdam. When I finally arrived, Dan greeted me with a strong cup of tea, a joint and dinner in the microwave. He had waited up till around five in the morning for me.
We chatted for a bit about bikes and girls (Dan was actually staying at our friend Sam’s flat, a long weekend turned into months) before we both conked out. He told me with a wink he wasn’t staying in the spare room. Slightly puzzled, I took this to mean he’d got together with Sam. Found out later this wasn’t the case.
The next day he told me about this girl Mirella he’d met and fallen in love with, which is why he’d not gone back to England. We spent the day cycling round Amsterdam, drank a beer in Vondel park, and Dan showed me his favourite place to buy weed, a little café with a racist logo. I bought a couple of little bags and hid them under the seat of my bike. I was very relieved to cross the German boarder without problems that night.
It was such a nice day; I put off the ride back to Hamburg till later in the afternoon. It’s nothing compared to yesterday’s ride, it’ll be easy I thought. It never is.
A few months later I heard about Dan’s motorcycle adventure, a proper one. He’d gone to Vietnam with Mirella and bought an old Russian bike called a Minsk. It was a two-stroke 125 and I thought he was mental. They rode together through Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand.
I think Dan appreciated absurd things, which is part of the reason I am making the trip I am.
The last time I saw Dan was about six weeks ago in London. He had just bought a death trap of a motorcycle. It was a Yamaha XT125 he was rebuilding, he had started by ripping off all the ‘non-essentials’, like mudguards, mirrors and indicators. He pulled the airbox off and put in a K&N pod filter, stripped the paint off the tank and put the headlight from his old Minsk on. The brakes did nothing and it was slow as shit. It was shit. But it was completely Dan, he loved the bike and I could sort of see why. Looked fucking cool and it was loud, fun to ride too.
Somehow he managed to get it through an MOT so we went off for a ride. We felt like a motorcycle gang, tearing up the traffic, hooligan as fuck. We were even wearing the same jackets. I took him to the Ace Café on the North Circular. We looked at the old bikes there, ate bangers and mash and talked the usual bollocks: girls, bikes, music and planned for the future.
One of the things we planned to do was buy a bunch of old denim jackets, Dan would paint cool stuff on the back, rude words and things, and sell them. I was going to be Dan’s first customer. I sent him a jacket, and was going to give him twenty quid to paint something on it, but couldn’t decide on anything that wasn’t completely lame, or totally offensive.
I think at that point Dan knew he wasn’t well again but he didn’t tell me. I think I’m glad he didn’t because he had such a lovely day together. Maybe he knew it could be the last time I’d see him because he asked me to stay over. We stayed up most of the night smoking joints and talking bollocks.
About three weeks later some arse stole Dan’s bike. Dan was heartbroken. Around a week or so after that I bought my Simson S51 Enduro, an East German 50cc (mine is slightly illegally bored out to 60cc) two stroke. Completely shit bike, nothing really works, but they’re funny. There’s no oil tank so you have to carry a little bottle of two-stroke oil in your jacket pocket to mix with the petrol every time you fill up, the front brake might as well not be there, but it looked cool, was very cheap and it was loud. Dan would have loved it.
I was working on persuading him to get one. They’re impossible to find in England though so I was thinking I’d pick one up in Germany and bring it back for him.
About a week after that Dan stopped replying to emails and messages, he ignored the stupid stuff I sent him. This was very unusual for Dan, but I didn’t really realise what was happening. I just thought he was busy; I’d leave him to it.
Then a week after that I got a call saying it looked like Dan only had weeks to live.
I decided I had to ride my little 60cc bike back to London to show Dan. I thought it might cheer him up so see an obnoxious motorcycle. Maybe he could even ride it. It was a completely stupid thing to do, but after you’ve read a bit about the relationship we had maybe you understand why. I just wanted to make him laugh. He would have done it if he was in my situation. I learnt a lot from Dan, one of the main things was do stupid shit, have adventures.
I was supposed to be Dan’s knight in oily canvass, making a heroic journey in his honour. Instead I’d ended up stuck in Holland, tilting at windmills.
The day I left the bike in Zwolle, in Holland, I managed to get a series of trains to Brussels, intending to catch the Eurostar that evening. I missed it. I had to stay in a fleapit hotel in what seemed like one of the roughest places in Europe. It felt like a disaster.
The next morning I was about to buy a Eurostar ticket when I was approached by 70-ish lady with an American twang, she asked me if I was heading to London. As a Londoner my default reaction was slight annoyance, I was in no mood to deal with a stupid lost tourist. It turned out she was offering me a free first class ticket to London because her husband couldn’t make it. He told her to give the ticket to somebody nice looking, which was even stranger because I looked like I belonged on the sex offender’s register. After two days travel I was looking rough, unshaven, un-showered, my scraggly moustache, filthy canvass jacket and baseball cap Dan gave me all combined to make me look like somebody I would have avoided.
We sat and chatted the whole journey. Her name was Wendy, a retired therapist, she even said think of me as a guardian angel. She also gave me tickets back. I’m not sure if I can make it now. But if you read this Wendy, thanks, it meant a lot.
When I got into London and through customs I couldn’t quite believe it. My bag was full of two-stroke oil, spark plugs, spanners bungee ropes, and three bottles of Schnapps I had carried all the way from Germany, but they let me through with no problems. After three days travel it was surreal to suddenly be in King’s Cross.
I spoke to our friend Sam on the phone and she told me it was looking like Dan only had a couple of days left. We weren’t sure if he could see anyone, but we at least wanted him to know we were there. We decided to go down to his house and drink a can of beer outside. Maybe he could wave out the window to us, maybe we could talk to him.
We got to Dan’s at 5:45. Mirella came out to talk to us. She seemed upset but it took a moment before we realised Dan was gone. He had died half an hour before we got there. He was smoking a joint and said he needed a lie down and that was it. He went peacefully.
Sadly I didn’t manage to get the bike there, but in the end that didn’t matter. At times during the trip I questioned whether or not it was the right thing to do. Maybe I should have jumped on a plane. But his mum told me he’d been laughing about the journey, and Mirella said he loved getting the updates. He said I was a fucking idiot but he loved it. So in the end it sort of made sense.
Dan was one of the coolest guys I’ve ever met, so generous, kind, mischievous, adventurous and smart. I learned so much from him and feel a better person for knowing him.
Cheers Dan. SAFE.