Harley to the Fringe: Part 4

Harley 4.jpg

Corbridge is a strange village. Pottering in, you enter what would presumably be the market place and find you can’t exit; you can check in but you can’t ever leave. At least not without doing a “U-ey” and exiting by way of the entrance, as what would ordinarily be the exit has “No Entry” signs splashed all over it and an incessant stream of cars coming through. But from where? Very Alice in Wonderland. So I take the opportunity to park up and study my OS map of Northern England to decide what to do next.

I’d left Edinburgh after a high-carb breakfast of Belgian Waffles and Maple Syrup, washed down with two double-espresso cappuccinos. Loading the bike has become routine; just so you know, my gear is all stowed in a bag that fixes on to the back of the bike, sat on the bob-tail rack, all velco and rucksack strapped into place. To ensure everything stays dry I use a water-impermeable rucksack liner, a bag-within-a-bag system. The only downside is that button-down casual shirts need to be ironed after a couple of days. Once the routine of “saddling up” becomes, well, routine, you know you’re into the rhythm of the road.

The A68 is just as much fun going North to South as it is South to North, and I’d made good time to Corbridge. Good in all senses of the word. I’m staying at Laskill’s Farm again, and to go straight from here to there will get me there early afternoon. Whilst the North York Moors National Park has excellent riding, I didn’t really want to trundle around just for the sake of killing time. So a study of the map reveals a longer way round. The Long Way Round. Try it on a Harley next time, Ewan!

The A69 to Haydon Bridge then the A686 towards Penrith, gateway to the Lake District, one of my most favourite places on the planet. Deciding on a route for a bike ride is the same as for a bicycle ride; the more squiggles and arrows, the more interesting and challenging the road. Corners and hills make for fun and give a road life. There are squiggles aplenty on the red snake that winds its way over the North Eastern corner of the Pennines.

It’s a very civilised meander between dry stone walls and summer flowers. Adrian Miles, our gardener in Through the Garden Gate, would delight in naming the flora and fauna; all I can tell you is that there is a blur of pinks, purples, greens as I relish the dappled coolness of the tree covered tarmac. There’s a temporary “Police Accident” sign in the verge just before a 90 degree left hander, and as I emerge the other side there’s a bike with a European plate parked up on the wrong side of the road, sans rider, and a police 4×4. Oops – someone overcooked the turn here, methinks, and hope the foreigner is OK. Maybe he (or indeed she) forgot we drive on the left here. And we will do for quite some time, regardless of the faceless burocrats in Brussels.

As we gain altitude, the quaintness becomes more baron. The colour gives way to the flat browns, dull summer greens, and purples of heather and fern moorland. Also beautiful, but in a starkly different way to the English country-cottage picturesque-ness of the lower slopes. The road commands more attention here, the open stretches are faster, deadly seductive with lethal twists and turns. Even a party of cyclists, parked up whilst a puncture is fixed, has a police escort!

A pause in Alston. Left down the A689, a wonderful looking road, which fulfils all the criteria for quality experience, or straight on to Penrith? I decide on the latter and pull away, leaving a trail of dust in the air. There’s a viewpoint at 1900 feet (580 metres if you’re that way inclined), which must be the local bikers’ mecca. Tight 180 degree bends, to the left, to the right, dropping steeply, it’s a real test whether going as quick as possible on a sports bike, or negotiating a languorously handling Harley.

The thing with turning corners on a bike which confuses newbies, and dumfounds non-bikers, is that the whole process in counter intuitive. Indeed I tried to explain this idea once to a confirmed car driver and the look of disbelief on his face cracked a big grin on mine, which lent an even more “taking the piss” air to what I was saying.

But it’s true. To turn a bike to the left, you push the bars to the right with your left hand. To turn to the right, you push the bars away from you to the left with your right hand. This is called counter-steering, and like I said, sounds as improbable as it is counter-intuitive. But you don’t steer a bike around a corner; you lean a bike around a corner. And to get the bike to drop into the lean, you counter-steer. Once it starts to go over, you control the lean angle, and the tightness of the turn, by using the throttle, clutch and bars.

Not convinced? OK, picture a speedway race, with those bikes going around an oval shaped gravel track. See how when the rider is leaning the bike over to the left, the back end of the bike is sliding sideways but to the right of the bars? That’s counter-steering to the extreme!

The thing with Harleys is the very low ground clearance either side; the lean angle isn’t great, which limits the speed at which you can go around corners. Sports bike riders love to lean over so far they “get their knee down”, like Leon Haslam and other pro racers do on track. If I had my knee down on my Harley, I’d be in serious trouble! Either way, when you get it right, when you nail all the combinations and judge the apex of the curve just so, it’s heaven; especially when you do it turn after turn after turn. Leaning to the left on these hairpins and I’m over so far the heel of my left boot is trailing along the tarmac, a nice gauge of angle of dangle! Leaning to the right and the lower exhaust pipe slides along, grinding itself away and sending up a shower of sparks.

With the distraction of the gorgeous Lake District mountains in the distance, it’s a very testing section of road, and a couple of signs aimed directly at bikers asks “To die for?”, which perhaps makes some think…

Through the village of Melmerby, home of the famous “The Village Bakery”, a sneaky minor road to avoid Penrith town and I’m heading west on the A66, our very own Route 66! Traffic is chocka and I’m back to earth with a bump. A mix of holiday traffic, commuter traffic, lorries and roadworks makes this a snarled up road to hell. Even on a bike, progress is limited, with opportunities to filter past safely few and far between. A horrible experience.

Eventually things free up, and the dual carriage way takes me upwards, upwards, on top of the Pennines, following the course of an ancient Roman road. What would they make of modern road systems? I suspect they’d approve. An accident on the other side of the road has left a car, incredibly, wedged under the wires of the central reservation fence. I guess that’s spoiled their day.

I’m hurtling along at 80, 90mph, really enjoying this stretch of road. It’s easy riding, fast, on the roof on England, almost flying. I play tag with a car, but as the traffic starts to build I leave them behind, even though I’ve had to slow down. Then we’re filtered over to the left and into a contra-flow, with plastic batons stuck into the road to separate the opposing flows of traffic.

Glad not to be in a car, I start to filter down the tiny unofficial invisible lane between vehicles and plastic batons. Mostly drivers are awake and alert and kindly pull over to let me pass, especially big artics. A few are asleep, not really paying attention, I force the issue and take out a couple of batons as I squeeze through, mindful not to take out the bulbous colour coded, electrically operated wing mirrors which these drivers don’t seem to be using. Just occasionally there’s a driver that is determined not to let me pass, so I over take anyway, skirting around the outside of the traffic separation scheme.

I’m getting low on fuel and becoming worried I won’t make it to Scotch Corner. This jam seems to be going on forever, but at least I’m making progress. I make it on fumes and my Harley gratefully gulps down another drink of BP’s finest. I chat to a guy and his wife on a VFR800, the new model with the variable valve timing. He loves it and has done an amazing 100,000 miles already on it, so I guess it must be OK. They wonder whether they should take the A1 or M6 routes to Edinburgh, so of course I recommend the A68.

Final leg into Helmsley. I park up hoping for coffee, but everywhere is shutting down early. I chat to a couple of other Harley riders, they’re out for an after work bash, having left early, enjoying the first evening of the Bank Holiday. I enjoy a quiet night in, with mug of cocoa and my knitting, before going out as quickly as the bedroom light.