The UK’s longest continuous rail journey is Crosscountry Train’s Aberdeen to Penzance – one train, no changes, over 40 stops, covering 774 miles in 13 hours and 15 minutes. That’s a cool cross-Britain trip stat.
But first thing any self-respecting motorcyclist will think is, how far and how long does that take on a bike? And the second thing will be, can I beat it?
Good question. According to Google Maps, the quickest bike journey between Aberdeen station and Penzance station is 11 hours and 30 minutes, covering 688 miles. So, yes, easily. Admittedly, it’s not a very exciting riding route – almost all motorway, and much of it through average speed cameras. But, even so, it’s more fun than sitting on a train – and the bike should beat the train by an hour and 45 minutes.
So the bike wins. No contest. Give me something harder please.
But hang on; a bike – say, something like Suzuki’s GSX-S1000 GT+, as a consummate expression of sports touring endurance and performance – will need to stop for fuel at least four times. Add on more precious minutes for refreshments, a bit of food, toilet breaks and the necessities of making a video – which you can watch it below – and suddenly the competition is about equal. Four stops at around half an hour each add two hours to the bike’s journey – taking it to 13 and a half hours’ travel time; if so, the train wins by 15 minutes.
Ah-ha. This sounds like a challenge for the GSX-S1000 GT+ – especially considering strict adherence to speed limits on behalf of Lord Bennetts, who neither encourages nor condones such behaviour.
Battle lines are drawn. Let the challenge commence!
Which is how BikeSocial’s Mr Michael Mann and myself come to be standing outside Aberdeen station at 8.00am on a midweek morning, surrounded by commuters scuttling to work. Michael has drawn the short straw and is Mann On A Train for the day – settling in for his 13-hour 15-minute ride, first class (costs vary but it’s around £422). He’s recording his trip on a GoPro, and noting down stops and timings. It’s a hard life. His toughest job will be staying awake; I’d be tempted to sleep for the entire journey.
Not much chance of that because I’m on the bike – and Suzuki’s GSX-S1000 GT+ is the perfect tool for this kind of job. Fast and focussed, the ex-GSX-R K5 motor and plugged-in riding position are ideal for maintaining a dedication to distance across 13 hours in the saddle. It’s also agile, comfy and convenient, with space for cameras, kit and caboodle. The 19-litre steel tank lets me use a magnetic tank bag, the panniers are full of waterproofs and clothes, and my camera rucksack straps easily to the pillion seat. Happy days!
I have three on-board cameras – a GoPro clamped to the right mirror stem, one clamped to the radiator exit hose looking at the front wheel, and another mounted to my helmet chin bar. A remote recorder is mounted on the top of the tank bag in case I say something pertinent during the ride (but it turns out the stuff I think about while I’m riding is total nonsense).
Michael’s train route is all over the place – a proper loco locomotive. From Aberdeen, the train runs down Scotland’s east coast to Edinburgh, then stays on the east coast as it heads around to Newcastle before crossing inland to York, then Sheffield, Derby, Birmingham, then down to Bristol, Exeter – and then a last leg along the south coast via Plymouth to Penzance. Along the way it makes over 40 stops and, according to Crosscountry Trains, uses 1850 litres of fuel to do it.
My route is more direct – A92/A90 Aberdeen to Perth, A9 to Stirling, M9/M80/M73 to Glasgow, then M74 to Gretna Green, M6 to Walsall, M5 to Exeter, A30 to Penzance. I plan to stop four times, at predetermined filling stations, roughly 130 miles apart. The Suzuki will go further on a tank, but not enough to reduce the stops down to three so it makes sense to space them out evenly.
One final thing to consider before we set off – the weather. Unless the train leaks, Michael will stay dry and warm. I might not be so lucky – rain is forecast for a stretch on the M6, with the possibility of showers later in the day in the south west. My Furygan summer jacket is showerproof, but a long way from waterproof. However I also have on a Keiss heated liner, which – if you keep it wacked up to max – has shown itself surprisingly waterproof in the past. I think the rain basically boils off before it gets through!
So, at 8.10am Michael heads for the train, while I make a couple of final checks, stick the lid on, buckle up and knuckle down for the next 13 hours...
Leg 1: Aberdeen to Glasgow
Can’t beat the thrill of the first few miles of a long ride; a sugar-sharp tang of adventure, the intoxicating thrill of horizons and a pulsing excitement at what the day might hold. Happiness is the road, a metaphor for life. Keep it light Si, got 13 hours to go.
The Suzuki slips anchor and eases through Aberdeen traffic onto the A92, and dual carriageway loaded with average speed cameras. Last night the lady in reception at the hotel pointed out not all the cameras are active all the time, but who knows which are on and which off? Deeply unsporting if you ask me.
But the weather is good, the sky blue and temperatures are rising nicely. The Suzuki skates over the distance, 150bhp inline four simmering at way below optimum performance with a silent, smooth purr. I fiddle with throttle settings a while, seeing if mode C uses less fuel than mode A. It doesn’t. So I stick cruise control on and just sit and watch the Cairngorms pass by on the right, like a rollercoaster in the distance. I wish I was going that way. The GSX-S1000 GT is just the tool for the mountains, too – it was launched up here, post-Covid but before the world opened up properly, at the end of 2021. Now that definitely was an entertaining ride.
At Dundee we hit the first roundabout in 60 miles. It’s a revelation to actually lean the Suzuki over a bit. And we also hit the first traffic – threading the slim GSX between cars and vans is no problem. Soon after, the tower on Kinnoull Hill comes into view, perched high on a ridge overlooking the Tay – always seemed to me to be a sight you’d be more likely to see on a river in Germany or Luxembourg; turns out the builder, Thomas Hay, 9th Earl of Kinnoull, based it on castles he’d seen on a visit to the Rhine sometime in the 1700s. We wind around the base of the ridge, then over the tall bridge over the river, skirt around Perth and head off towards Glasgow and the first fuel stop.
Michael’s train follows the same route as far as Dundee, but he crosses the Tay way before us, and by the time we roll into the fuel stop at the Shell garage on Castlecary Road, 131 miles and 2hrs 17mins from the start, he’s already into Edinburgh. Spookily, in terms of latitude, we’re both level-pegging – and we’re both on schedule too.
After a quick catch-up chat, during which time I discover a first-class ticket on Crosscountry Trains doesn’t entitle one to croissants and cappuccino for breakkie – Michael’s had a single coffee so far – we’re back on the road again.
The Suzuki takes 11.29 litres of unleaded, giving a fuel consumption figure of 53mpg. The fuel gauge still shows a good quarter of a tank left. Hmm, maybe we could have done it in three stops after all...
Leg 2: Glasgow to Tebay Services, M6, Shap
The weather forecast is looking a bit grim for the next leg of the ride, so I chuck a waterproof cover over the tailpack to protect eye-wateringly expensive camera gear. I don’t bother chucking one over me, though.
As we beetle around Glasgow, eventually picking up the A74/M south towards the England/Scots border, the skies are still blue. But that soon changes as we approach Gretna Green – the skies cloud into a leaden grey and rain trickles down dolefully in that horrible wet way, precisely metered into an infuriating sustained splattering rather than a shoulder-shrugging, hapless deluge. It matters not; as I hoped, the Keiss heated liner keeps me warm and dry under my jacket. And the Suzuki is as surefooted in the wet as they come – I’m not exactly checking out the wet side-grip, but there’s nae bother crossing slimy strips of road-repair mastic in the wet.
The English border comes and goes, and we’re suddenly on the M6, weaving our way south down past Carlisle and Penrith, then through the Vale of Eden with the Lakes on the right and the Pennines away to the left – both are great biking playgrounds. The weather clears up again and it feels as though we’re through the worst of it. We climb toward Shap summit – I know it’s high, but it’s not quite the highest motorway in the UK – a section of M62 beats it. But Tebay Services, the next fuel stop, must be the highest service station (I Googled and couldn’t find out so, if you know, please leave a comment).
The time is now just gone 1pm – it seems to have taken a long time to only get to the second stop; we’re not even halfway. We’ve covered 267 miles in total, in 4hrs 46mins – an average speed of 56mph, including stops. To get to Penzance before Michael, we need to be averaging over 52mph so we’re ahead of schedule. I fill the Suzuki – it takes 11.82 litres, giving 52.1mpg.
It’s gone midday and I’m peckish – the only thing with green in it at the services is a bowl of lemon garlic chicken with Bombay potatoes. It sounds much nicer than it looks. And it’s a good job I’m the only person inside my crash helmet. A can of VR46 Monster negates any of the goodness in the salad bowl, but it’s good stuff.
I call Michael to find out where he is – he’s left Darlington five minutes previously and is 17 minutes from York – putting him slightly ahead of me, north to south, but over on the east side of the country still. His train is on time though, so we’re basically still neck-and-neck.
Leg 3: Tebay Services, M6, Shap to Hilton Park, M6, Wolverhampton
The first section of this leg is fairly picturesque, as the M6 glides around the edge of the Lakes and Pennines – but it soon gets monotonous, dragging south steadily towards Lancaster and Preston. The GSX-S is flawless – I start wondering if I’d be more happy on an adventure bike or a tourer, but the Suzuki works so well at these speeds, over these distances, it’s hard to imagine anything better. My arse, wrists, knees, neck and wrists are happy, my fingers are vibe-free, and only a war wound in my right shoulder twinges from time to time – which, to be frank, is way better than some adventure bikes I’ve ridden lately; high, wide bars exacerbate the ache.
The screen is non-adjustable but puts the wind blast so low on my chest my head is perfectly still. We’re not going fast enough to seriously bang it about anyway.
The miles roll on. Eventually Hilton Park services appear, a few miles north of Birmingham and not far off the junction with the M5. I pull into the complicated services slip road maze – they don’t make it easy to go straight the pumps, trying instead to guide you ‘accidentally’ to the shops so you’ll spend more cash. Greedy sods, it’s not as if the petrol prices aren’t high enough on the motorway.
Final score for leg three is a total of 7hrs 17mins since leaving Aberdeen – it’s now 3.37pm – and we’ve covered 413 miles. The GSX-S has drunk 12.32 litres of E10, costing £20.81 – £1.69 per litre. The first stop in Scotland cost £1.44 per litre. Explain that to me again in a way that doesn’t make me think petrol prices should be regulated. Anyway, that’s 51mpg.
I phone Mann On A Train, half expecting to rouse him from an afternoon nap; it’s that time of day. Instead he sounds bright eyed and bushy tailed – a bit like a squirrel, then. He’s at Birmingham New Street, in the centre of Brum. That’s good going – it’s further south than I am. He’s still on track – literally – but so far I’m averaging 56.7mph, still well ahead of the 52mph average I need to beat Michael.
In fact, we’re so relaxed about time I manage spend a whole 50 minutes at the services, messing about with cameras and generally taking it easy. Bit risky, considering it’s a race – sorry, challenge – and we’re only just past halfway.
Leg 4: Hilton Park, M6, Wolverhampton to Taunton Deane
Traffic builds up as we join the M5 – it always gets snarly around there. There are roadworks too, so a bit of filtering is called for. The Suzuki happily splits lanes; it’s a slim bike even with a pair of boxes on the back, and agile enough to steer sweetly when the moment calls for a bit of swervery to avoid dozing drivers.
I don’t know why but I quite like the top half of the M5 – there’s something a bit grim and repetitive about most of the M6, especially the bit around Birmingham, but the M5 has something going for it. Bristol’s chokepoint where the M5 crosses the M4 comes and goes, and we zip high over the Avon. It always feels like you’re nearly there, even if there are still miles to go to Exeter.
As we skirt the Mendips and head down to Bridgwater, the skies darken ominously. You know that sinking feeling when you realise the sky has just had seven pints for lunch and you’re the toiled freshener at the bottom of the porcelain; you’re about to get very, very wet.
The rain is one of those summer downpours the Met Office get excited about – stair rods bouncing back up off the motorway, with a sliver of bright sky in the distance and the sun still out behind you. It’s actually pretty cool – riding through extreme weather can be fun, and at least after nine hours on the road, something’s actually happening. The Suzuki ploughs on with a relentless momentum, parting the waves like a blue Moses.
Before long, the final fuel stop at Taunton Deane lumbers into sight. It’s 6.34pm, we’re 10hrs 14mins in the trip, and covered 556 miles at an average speed of 54mph. Still ahead of schedule. The Suzuki takes another 12.34 litres at £1.68 per litre. Consumption has dropped a bit to 53mpg.
I place the by-now expected phone call to the Mann, but all I want to know is where he is – no time for small talk, just in case. He’s still south of me, at Exeter – but I’ve got a straight run through to Penzance – he’s going round the houses (of Plymouth).
Leg 5: Taunton Deane to Penzance station
I check Google Maps before setting off, and it says arrival at Penzance will be 8.59pm – beating Michael by a good half an hour. Excellent – let’s get this last 140 miles nailed and we’re the comfortable winners: Suzuki beats train. What can go wrong?
Half an hour later, after another summer shower on the A30, dusk is falling – and so is my mirror-mounted GoPro. The plastic bracket has had enough of wobbling around all day and decides to fall apart; first thing I realise is the GoPro hitting me on the right arm before disappearing behind – it takes a split second (several actually, it’s been a long ride) before I realise what’s happened. I spend another few seconds contemplating simply carrying on – GoPros are often a casualty of modern motorcycle journalism warfare, and this one is an old Hero 7 so I could just let it be. It’ll be knackered now anyway. Then I remember how much cool footage there’ll be on there, and how I’ll need it for the inevitably monster video edit. The pain of knowing what I’ve lost outweighs my desire to keep going, so I pull up.
We’re about 70 miles from Penzance station, and I’ve got about half an hour in hand over Michael. I reckon I can spend 15 minutes looking for the GoPro – if I haven’t found it by then, tough.
One problem – where the effin’ jeff is is? I look back up the A30, which is fairly deserted. I’ve stopped at the side of the road on a long downhill slope – there’s no hard shoulder, just a concrete gully, with deep grass at the side. Not only do I not know how far back the GoPro is, I also don’t know which side of the road it’s on. Is it in the central reservation? Did it cross the road into the opposite carriageway? Or how deep has gone into the verge on my side?
I jog a hundred yards – the GoPro will be further back than that – then slow down around a quarter of mile and start scanning the verge, sweeping the wet grass with my feet.
It’s amazing when you’re looking for a smashed GoPro how much plastic there is scattered along the roadside that looks exactly like a smashed GoPro. But none of it’s my GoPro. I sweep on, occasionally glancing up to make sure I’m not going to be run over. At half a mile, I turn round and pause, out of breath. Probably should’ve taken my helmet off. I cross to the central reservation and have a look – but it feels well dodgy, even with a car only every few minutes. Central reservations are no places to loiter.
Ah balls, let’s walk back to the bike, taking another sweep of the verge, scanning back and forth as I go. I’ve been at it for about quarter of an hour. I’m just about to give up when I spot the rear case clip. Aha! That means I’m on the right side of the road, and – thinking about it – the heavier body of the camera must’ve bounced a bit further on. I double down, looking harder. And, about a quarter of a mile away from the bike, hazards on, I spot the errant GoPro. I don’t even check the SD card, just jog back to the bike, stick it in the tankbag, check Google – says an hour and 15 to Penzance, eta now 9.12pm – still ahead of Michael, but it’s getting a bit tighter and we can’t afford another problem.
Back on the bike, I spend the rest of the ride glaring at the remaining GoPro mounted down by the front wheel, willing it to stay attached.
Arrival at Penzance!
Penzance appears as the sun goes down. I peel off towards the station – over a low wall, I can actually see the railway lines and station terminus. There doesn’t appear to be a Michael Mann anywhere in sight.
As I pull round into the station, I spot his platform, minus a train. My clock stops at 9.04pm – that means I’ve gained a few minutes back, ahem... so that’s 139 miles in 2hrs 32mins... an average of 55mph since we left the M5 services... and the last 70.1 miles since the GoPro incident at an average of 48mph. Which doesn’t too illegal, so we’ll leave it there.
I even have time to nip into the nearest pub and buy a bottle of Asti – no cheapskate, me – ready for Michael’s imminent arrival. When his train appears, we’re ready and waiting to meet him. I’m slightly frazzled by 13 hours on the go, but it’s testament to the Suzuki’s immense capability I’m not completely hanging. I’ve ridden further, for longer, before – but never adhering so scrupulously to speed limits, and I think it’s the concentration of doing that for 13 hours that’s really worn me out. Which is as good an argument as any for riding the way your brain works at its optimum, in your comfort zone – it might not be entirely legal, but it’s your best chance of surviving.
Meanwhile, Michael is all chipper and full of energy – which you would be after 13 hours sat on a train. He’s made new train fwends, some of whom have shared his journey – but the promised wi-fi on the train was pants. But he didn’t get wet or lose a GoPro.
And he didn’t win. The real winner is the Suzuki – boundless capacity for eating the miles in classic, sports tourer-style comfort. The next day I have to ride 300 miles back to Milton Keynes to return the GSX-S, and I’m looking forward to it. Michael has to get the train back to Peterborough, and it’s fair to say he’s less than enthusiastic.
And for a final note – in fact, Michael and the train weren’t just beaten by one Suzuki GSX-1000 GT+ – he was beaten by two of them. And I was beaten too – because photographer and videographer Jason Critchell had also ridden the 13-hour trip, and to get footage of me pulling into the fuel stops, he’d had to get ahead. So he’s the real winner!
Suzuki GSX-S1000 GT+
Crosscountry Train 5-car Voyager