The best motorcycle ride of the year

Mark and Wendy with their rented TransAlp this summer.

So there we were in Europe last month on our vacation, about to catch a train from Slovakia to Prague, and the next day would be my birthday. The whole day was free for once, with nothing planned. No walking tours, no museums. “What would you like to do on your birthday?” asked Wendy. Well – duh!

Just out of curiosity, I went online and Googled “Prague motorcycle rentals” and a surprising number of places popped up. It didn’t take much poking around before I found a website that offered a Honda Transalp. I hadn’t expected that. I used to own a Transalp, the 600cc V-Twin that Honda only imported to Canada in 1987, and it was the best bike I ever bought. Whenever I see one, my heart skips a beat.

I called the company directly and next thing I knew, I’d booked a Honda 650 Transalp for the next day. It would cost 90 euros ($137) all in for 24 hours, including insurance and the loan of a pair of helmets. My birthday was ON.

The bike. How could anyone resist?

The rental

Radek Plachy set up his bike rental company,, a dozen years ago because it seemed like a good idea. Now he has a full-time job in Prague as a property contracts lawyer but he still maintains a dozen bikes that he keeps in storage lockers and rents to tourists. It’s a seasonal business, March to November. The motorcycles I saw were well-ridden but well looked after. He usually buys used machines from Germany, where the odometers don’t get rolled back.

His wife Katarina met us at the high-tech lockers the next morning. The 650 was a 2005 model with almost 90,000 km on the clock and a few scratches, but that made it ideal: a few scratches meant nobody would quibble if I scuffed the tank with a belt buckle, or scraped a pannier. Like all Radek’s bikes, it came with a phone mount and a USB charger, as well as two hard panniers and a top box.

Katarina Plachy makes a call in the storage locker, with the Transalp on the right and a BMW F650 GS on the left.

“You need gloves?” asked Katarina, and pulled some well-worn leather gauntlets of all sizes from a drawer. “You’ll need jackets too, of course,” and she offered some pretty decent textile bike jackets from a rack. No extra charge. It was supposed to rain, so the dry gear was welcome; we hadn’t brought any of our own, and thought we’d be stuck wearing our denim jackets.

I’d made the mistake of renting through a third-party, based in Spain. It came up first in the Google search, and as soon as I’d seen the word Transalp, I was hooked. It was only a mistake in that it cost a little more, however: RentalMotorbike is a reputable booking company that works with separately-owned rental fleets in cities across Europe, as well as in the U.S. and Australia and Asia. The process itself was simple and professional and guaranteed, but if I’d booked directly with Radek at MotorbikeVentures, I’d have paid 75 euros, not 90. I wasn’t quibbling though – I’d have happily paid double. It was my birthday, after all.

The old Transalp was his least expensive bike. His company offers different brands and models, mostly adventure tourers but there’s a Yamaha cruiser in there too. The most expensive is a Triumph Tiger 1200 Explorer that rents for 120 euros a day, but the price comes down dramatically with time – it’s 95 euros a day for 15 or more days – and there’s a 5 per cent discount for cash. If I’d rented the Transalp for 15 days, it would have cost 50 euros a day ($74), all in with unlimited mileage.

The 2005 Transalp 650 out on the road, smooth, well-maintained, and everything Mark remembered of his old bike. Well, almost everything.

The bike

Like all good road trips, we had an initial plan and then a possible plan, depending on how the initial plan went. I got to choose the route because it was my birthday, so I wanted to visit Kost Castle for lunch, about 100 kilometres north-east of Prague. It had come up on a web page for the “10 Most Beautiful Czech Castles,” and most important, “Tours of the castle include refurbished rooms and the dark and scary torture chamber, which was used widely in medieval times.” I turned my phone onto Roaming ($12 a day with Rogers), typed in the address to Google Maps, fixed the phone onto the handlebar mount, and we set off north-east.

The Transalp was a total pleasure to ride. The 650 is more powerful than the 41 hp of my old 600, but even so, I was surprised at how slow it now seemed. It worked its way up to speed with thoughtful consideration, clunking into each of the five gears as it pulled gently through the revs. I didn’t care. After all, back in the day, Cycle magazine said that “Transalp comfort is more than suspension-deep. The well-contoured fuel tank and fairing provide adequate neck-to-knee wind protection.” It held highway speed comfortably, and it reminded me of those trips before we were married.

Wendy on the 1987 Transalp, bought new in 1989 from Shepherd Cycle in Alexandria, Ontario, and eventually shipped over to Europe.

Back then, I rode my Transalp to Quebec to learn French, and crashed it in Newfoundland, distracted by icebergs outside of Twillingate that took my eyes off the sharp curve ahead. I spent that night in hospital with a pulled knee and had to truck the damaged bike home. When I moved to the UK for a year, I shipped the bike over for $500 and rode it around France into Spain, and later, up into Scotland. When I eventually sold it because I couldn’t plan on annual European vacations (and influenced by Wendy’s comment, on arrival in Edinburgh now as my fiancée, that “I’m fed up turning up at places looking like a sack of shit”), I sold it for more than the $4,000 I paid for it. And I’ve regretted selling it ever since.

But I digress.

Kost Castle, which dates from the 15th century. “Kost” means bone in Czech, because the structure was believed to be as hard as bone.

The castle

Google Maps took us the most direct route to Kost Castle, on slower secondary roads where the Transalp is most at home. The weather was perfect; the day was warm and the rain stayed away. We bumped through small villages, past churches and fields of wheat; after a while, the XL-sized Airoh helmet that I’d borrowed from Katarina started digging into my forehead, effectively limiting the ride to an hour at a time, which was about how long it took to reach the lunch stop.

There was no disappointment at Kost Castle. We took a guided tour that showed us the dungeon and the torture chamber, though it was all in spoken Czech so we had to guess at some of what we were shown. When the guide took a set of old thumbscrews or a Spanish Boot and then chatted away about something, and the entire tour group sucked in their teeth and winced, we pretty much got the idea.

Part of the dungeon, with some instruments of torture. Don’t ask.

The ice cream

The Czech attitude to motorcycles is very different from most regions of North America. Cars move over in the lane to allow you to pass; on the motorway, traffic separates to opposite sides of adjacent lanes to ease your filtering. There’s never a charge for parking: at the castle, the lot attendant spread her arms wide to indicate that we could park wherever we liked, though cars had to pay.

It was early afternoon by the time we’d had our fill of whips and chains, so we stuck to the possible plan and headed north to Poland. There’s a strange Polish promontory that pokes down through the northern border of the Czech Republic, so that’s where we went. Again, Google Maps took us on the pretty route to get there, about an hour away, and the route was very pretty indeed.

Out on the road, the Transalp was a constant pleasure to ride with its wide bars and comfortable suspension.

At least, it was until we got to Poland. There was no customs post, no welcome sign, not even an indication that we’d crossed into another country. A huge quarry scarred the landscape, and the houses and buildings looked a little less attractive – meaner, even.

My head was starting to hurt again as we neared the town of Bogatynia. Strangely, too, so were both of our butts. The Transalp’s seat was a fair bit smaller than we remembered; Honda must have started making the seats about 10 per cent smaller soon after producing the 600 that we’d enjoyed. That must be it.

We were happy to stop for an ice cream in the old downtown area of the town. We weren’t entirely convinced we’d crossed into another country, but sure enough, the scoopery’s server didn’t speak a word of English and wouldn’t accept either euros or Czech crowns. She was happy to accept Visa though, and I bought two cones with no idea of what they actually cost. My bank statement eventually showed they’d cost just $7.38. Phew! She could have rung them through at $100 each and I’d have been none the wiser. In any case, the break from the seat and the helmet was worth it.

In Poland, the ice cream shop was doing a roaring trade.

The big moment

From Bogatynia, it was just a 10-minute ride west over to Germany, still north of the Czech border. It was momentous, too. Somewhere beside the huge quarry, the Transalp’s odometer turned over to 88,888.8 kilometres. Those who remember my road trip story of Lining Up The 8s know that this is important. When this Transalp showed me the numbers – only the second time it’s ever happened – I knew this trip was going to be alright.

How often does this happen? Not often enough.

And so it was. We crossed a small bridge over a river with far more international fanfare. No checkpoints or customs points, but a welcome sign, at least. This area used to be East Germany and there were still indicators of the more drab architecture and utilitarian housing, but the country seemed immediately more prosperous. And our euros were welcome.

The ride

It was starting to get late, though. Katarina had told us that the roads north of Prague, coming down from Germany, were the best in the country for bikes, but Wendy was tired. “Can we just go the direct route?” she asked. Of course, I told her, and followed the direct route south, which stayed off the main motorway and took a couple of hours. I think she’d wanted the fastest route that would have saved 30 minutes, but who was I to argue?

Wendy’s looking a bit tired on the back, here in Germany, but Mark’s still buzzed. Must be the helmet crushing his brain.

Katarina was probably right, because the curving country roads through the gently rolling northern Czech hills were just wonderful. Well paved, well cambered, well signed – what more could you want? Well, a comfortable helmet and a larger seat would help, but the roads themselves were glorious. And after all, as Cycle said back in 1989, “if chasing the horizon down seldom-traveled roads, paved or not, is your picture-perfect weekend, the Transalp is a first-class ticket. It unearths the old idea that a motorcycle ought to do a lot of different things well, rather than just one perfectly. So what is it? In the end, that is up to you. And to us, that’s the best part.”

We called Radek and met him at the lockers at around 7:30 pm after topping up the gas tank. In fact, we could have kept the Transalp until the next morning, for a full 24 hours, but there was nowhere safe to park at our downtown AirBnB and we were done for the day, ready for a beer. We’d ridden just 300 km but it seemed far more – not because it was arduous, but because it was so filled with memories. A castle, a dungeon, a head-crushing helmet, three different countries, a mysterious ice cream, a momentous odometer, and mile after mile of warm, welcome, meandering roads. I’ve gotta say: it was my bestest birthday ever.

Radek Plachy with the Transalp outside his storage lockers. We’ll recommend his business to anyone looking to rent a bike in Europe.


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