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Motorcycle touring in Spain

By Kev Raymond

Kev's been riding since acquiring half shares in a CZ175 field bike back in the seventies, passed his test in a blizzard on Christmas Eve 1985, and got his first job on a bike mag in 1990. Likes: long distance touring and short-distance twisties. Currently owns a 1987 GSX-R1100, a 1992 Ducati 400SS, a 1973 Honda SS50, a 1978 Honda CX500, a 1988 Honda Bros special, a 1957 Mobylette and a 110cc pit bike. None of them work.



Motorcycle touring in Spain
Motorcycle touring in Spain
Motorcycle touring in Spain


From the Picos de Europa mountains in the north, to the Straits of Gibraltar in the south; the plains of the centre to the tourist traps of the Mediterranean, Spain's got a lot to offer. It's a big country with a relatively small population, and most of that is concentrated on a few big population centres, so the vast majority is virtually empty. Fantastic roads, stunning scenery, and great food. But there are also a few potential problems for the unwary traveller, so here's our guide to the rules and regulations you need to know…

For a full checklist of paperwork and equipment needed to ride in the EU post-Brexit, see our guide here.


Motorcycle touring in Spain

Speed limits are similar in Spain to the UK, but you need to be aware of where they apply


Speed limits in Spain

Quite a few changes here from 2021. The general limit on normal roads (with no central separation or hard shoulder) out of town is 90km/h (55mph) unless signed otherwise. If there's a second lane in one direction (usually a short overtaking lane) that goes up to 100km/h (60mph), and the same applies to roads with a hard shoulder each side. Motorways are 120km/h (75mph) (although that may be increased to 130km/h (80mph) soon).

All that's pretty much as it was before, but there are significant changes to the rules for urban roads, which came into effect in May 2021: Single lane roads with a pavement alongside are now limited to 20kmh (12mph), two-way roads with one lane in each direction are now limited to 30km/h (18mph), and only on roads with two or more lanes each way are you allowed to reach the heady heights of 50km/h (30mph), down from the former 80km/h (50mph). You can expect these limits to be widely ignored by the locals, but you can also expect to be fined heavily if you're caught doing the same.

In small towns and villages there are often speed sensors on the way in. If you're within the limit, no problem. If you're over the limit they automatically turn the next set of traffic lights red, so you're held up for longer than if you'd stuck to the limit in the first place. Simple but effective.

While it’s not speed-related, it’s worth knowing if you have an older bike that you must ride with dipped beam on at all times. Daytime Running Lights are fine (though not at night, obviously).


What’s the law on overtaking in Spain?

Again, some significant changes from 2021.

Experienced travellers in Spain have always appreciated the sensible rule that allowed you to increase speed by up to 20km/h (12mph) over the limit in order to overtake slower traffic. Unfortunately, as of early 2021 that law's been revoked, so in theory you can only overtake if you can do so without exceeding the posted limit. Yeah, right.

New rules are also in place to protect cyclists from other road users. If you have to overtake a cyclist or a group of cyclists, you must leave at least 1.5m of clearance, AND reduce your speed by 20kmh. It's worth noting that you can cross a white line to overtake cyclists if there's nothing coming the other way, but you’re not allowed to overtake at all if there are cyclists coming the other way.



Can you ride in Spanish bus lanes?

In some places (mostly Barcelona and Madrid, but there are others), there are dedicated bus lanes, marked 'BUS-VAO'. VAO is short for the Spanish for High Occupancy Vehicles, which includes bikes, so you're allowed to use these lanes. Watch out for the buses though; they don't slow down for much...


Documents required to ride in Spain

Things have changed a bit since Brexit. You need your driving licence (plus 1968 pattern International Driving Permit if you still have a paper licence or one issued by the Isle of Man, Gibralter or Channel Islands), passport (issued less than 10 years previously and with more than three months left to run on your return date), registration document (and form V103 from your finance company if appropriate) and proof of insurance (you no longer need a Green Card). You must be able to present any of these on demand if pulled over – failure to do so is punishable by an immediate fine. 


Do I need travel insurance?

Just like any holiday, a trip on a motorcycle – be it in the UK, Europe or beyond – can be ruined by delays, lost documents, illness and more. There are plenty of travel insurance options, but you need to make sure you get a policy that includes riding motorcycles, and if it does, that it's for bikes of the engine size you'll be riding (many only cover up to 250cc). At its most basic, you should look for insurance that provides cover for the following: 

  • Medical expenses

  • Loss or theft of personal possessions

  • Lost or delayed luggage

  • Loss of your passport and other documents

  • Travel delays and disruptions

  • Having to cut your holiday short

In addition though, if you’re taking a motorcycle (or you're renting one while you’re away) be sure that your insurer will cover you for any medical expenses, should you have an accident. You must also think about where you’re riding – some policies won’t cover you if you’re trail or enduro riding, or if you’re on a race-track. Remember – this isn’t about your bike being covered, it’s about your medical expenses, should the worst happen.

If you're only going away once, a single-trip policy will likely be all you need, but also consider an annual policy, which could extend to cover your family holidays too (a good insurer should also be able to offer cover for your whole family). 



What about breakdown cover?

Breakdown insurance is highly recommended. Read the small print though; many policies insist you buy cover for the entire journey, so cover must include the day that you leave home and not just begin as you land overseas, or you may find you have no cover at all. You should also carry a Global Health Insurance (GHIC) card to avoid potential expensive medical bills (existing EHIC cards are also still accepted while in date), but it's also recommended to take out separate medical insurance including repatriation (see above). 



What you must take with you to Spain

  • You must carry a hi-vis gilet or jacket at all times, although you only need to wear it if you're actually stopped by the side of the road.  

  • If you need glasses for riding, you must carry a spare pair as well (look on the bright side - if you lose one pair, the second pair will help you find them).

  • You need a UK sticker on the bike.

  • Some sources say you are required to wear gloves at all times, and anecdotal evidence says you might be stopped for riding without them. However there doesn't actually seem to be a law in place to that effect, and we've seen Guardia Civil officers riding gloveless...

  • You must ride with a dipped headlight / Daytime Running Light during the day.


What you must NOT take with you to Spain

Until recently you were allowed to use radar detectors in Spain to give you warning of speed traps; not any more...

Depending on who you ask, you'll be told that Bluetooth headsets aren't allowed; that's true for the kind of unit designed to act as a hands-free set for a mobile phone (any kind of mobile phone use while riding/driving is forbidden), but a Bluetooth adapter relaying your GPS instructions, music or the witterings of your other half are fine so long as it uses speakers in the helmet, not in-ear buds.

One oddity; you're not allowed to use your horn in built-up areas. Naturally, everyone does.



What are the police like in Spain?

The Spanish police are mostly very similar to the French set-up, with three separate forces with overlapping responsibilities (the Basque, Navarre and Catalonia regions have a slightly different arrangement). 

The Guardia Civil are part of the military - they're the ones you're most likely to see out in the country and they're the ones who man the speed traps and roadblocks. They carry guns and they're quite prepared to use them, so be polite.

The Policía Nacional are civilians, based country-wide but concentrated on the towns and cities, so you're unlikely to have dealings with them unless you're unfortunate enough to get your bike stolen, in which case you need to report it to them. 

Policía Local are just what they sound like – locally employed by towns and cities, with some responsibility for local traffic offences. You shouldn't fall foul of them unless you park on a narrow pavement (less than 3.5m wide), or chain your bike to a lamp-post, or wash your bike on the street, or do a burnout or a big skid – all of which are illegal. Or unless you run one of them over, which is also frowned upon.

Away from main population centres you don't see a heavy police presence, but if they do stop you for speeding, they're usually pretty unforgiving about it – fines go up to 600 euros for serious offences. On the spot fines are the norm, and they can impound your bike until it's paid.


The roads are generally great, but there can be rough surfaces…


What are the roads like in Spain?

The road surface in Spain vary hugely. At their best they're smooth, flat (usually no camber) and grippy. At their worst it's like the surface of the moon just after a meteorite shower. They often go from one extreme to the other with no warning, usually at the borders between different administrative regions (and sometimes even just different local councils). 

In summer, in the dryer areas (which means most of Spain) there's a gradual build-up of dust that can make the surface very slippery indeed – the later in the year, as a rule, the slippier it gets, waiting for the heavy rains of winter to clear it off again. So exercise caution. 

In towns, there's a similar build-up of rubber and oil residue, which doesn't get washed away, so it can be just as dangerous. 

And then there's the white lines. Spanish white lines really are something special – they must be 99% Teflon. Absolutely no grip to them at all, even in the dry, and in the wet you could spin the rear up on a push-bike, let alone anything with an engine.

Be very, very careful of white lines in Spain, okay?


It’s no surprise that the majority of the world’s motorcycle press launches are held in Spain


Other things to be wary of in Spain

Out in the country, wild or feral animals can be a problem. Especially stray semi-wild dogs, but you might also come across horses, goats, cattle and sheep wandering about, usually just around a blind bend. If you're really unlucky you might even come across a camel in the road; remnants of a herd imported from the Canary Islands 200 years ago and left to roam free in the south.

Back to more mundane hazards, traffic approaching from the right needs careful watching – in some instances it has priority (like the French Priorité à Droite rule), and as is usual in such situations, the locals will exercise that right without even looking.

On a similar theme, roundabouts are a fairly recent arrival in Spain, and it's fair to say that the Spanish haven't entirely got the hang of them yet. Be very careful, especially if you're on the roundabout and there's traffic approaching fast from the right – you've got priority, but that's not a lot of help if you've also got a SEAT front grille embedded in your kidneys.

The biggest danger in tourist areas though is other Brits. Whether they're permanent residents, half-and-halfers wintering in the sun or short-term holidaymakers venturing out in a hire car, they have a nasty habit of forgetting they're supposed to be driving on the right and crashing headlong into whatever comes around the next corner.

Since even the locals tend to drive in the middle of the road on smaller roads, it makes a lot of sense to take a very wide line on the way into blind bends.

Don’t be put off by all this – we’ve rounded up everything that could go wrong, and Spain is one of our favourite places in the world to ride. The stunning roads and scenery are why the majority of motorcycle press launces are held in Spain, and with Brittany Ferries running down to Santander and Bilbao, or BikeShuttle getting very close with Toulous, you don’t have to ride through France to get there (though if you take the back roads, it’s well worthwhile, then get the Ferry home from Spain at the end).