It's that time of year again...

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...when the road is calling... the tarmac is generally dry and it’s warm enough even at high speed not to shiver. Being cold is bad as it affects your bike handling... at least, it affects mine anyway, stiff muscles mean I can’t relax and so the ride doesn’t flow, apexes are missed, and the experience is poor. Possibly even unsafe.

I did ride a bike through one winter. My first bike, a Suzuki 600F otherwise known as a Teapot. The yacht I was racing, Abrasive, was based in Ramsgate, a fine yachty place and handy springboard for the French and Belgian coast, with Calais being only 4 hours away. On one occasion our new flash lightweight rudder snapped at the water line, leaving us bereft of steering. Actually, you might think that, but of course you can steer a sailboat by trimming the sails; the headsail takes you away from the wind, and the main spins you up into the wind, but this isn’t the most precise method of steering. 

As it happens, fair stood the wind for France and Calais was an easy hop, and a sailing challenge too, being rudderless, but alas we wanted to get back into Ramsgate which was less of a challenge, more of an against-all-known-laws-of-physics-impossibility, so we resorted to the time honoured tradition of calling out our mate, the harbour master in his powerful RIB, and buying a round when next in the clubhouse... although we did, we really did valiantly try the RYA recommended “emergency tiller” of lashing a wash board to the spinnaker pole and using that as a steering board by lashing that to the starboard rear quarter.... not a great success.

Back to the winter on two wheels. It’s a nerve jangling experience, or can be, as you tiptoe your bike around frost covered corners, fearful of the off that’s unlikely to damage you much, so although the NHS body shop may not be troubled with a busted arm or leg, it would generate expensive bike body shop bills. Motorways don’t have sharp corners on them, which makes them so dull to ride, but in winter this lack of a requirement to lean over can be quite re-assuring.

But there’s no such thing as a free lunch and there’s a compromise to be reached; to get the journey over quickly you have to speed up, but that increases wind chill factor so you freeze; alternatively you slow down to reduce the chilling effect of wind and consequently stay out longer and freeze. And your bike and you get covered in salt too.

So I’d been on an ice-breaking early season round the cans event outside of Ramsgate and chugged back on Suzy the Suzuki with my sailing gear all stowed in my kit bag bungied to the pillion seat and had reached a “steady state”; speed vs frozen assets, occasionally warmed gloved hands on the engine, the bike’s fairings kept most of the Arctic blast off me. But even so after two hours, I was an immobile block.

Manoeuvred down my drive and onto the patio at the back, and killed the engine. Cocked my leg over the back of the saddle to dismount, only, as I was so bleeding stiff, and my kit back was on the wide side, hanging over the side quite considerably, my heel caught the corner of the bag and my momentum was unstoppable... over I went, landing on my side, in the dark, alone, with warm bike lying on top of me, pinning me to the floor.

Bollocks, as Roger Melly the Man on Telly would say.

On the plus side, I was alone and it was dark, so no immediate embarrassment, but on the other hand it was dark and I was alone... and it was going to be a cold night and I didn’t really fancy cuddling up to Suzy for the night, besides who would ever find me? I’d be a frozen corpse or if left long enough only my bones would occupy my helmet and leathers... I could see the headlines in the local rag already and wondered whether I’d be entered for the Darwin Awards.

Must be all the rock climbing or something as with a deal of grunting and shoving and not a little swearing, I managed to lift Suzy off me, pick her up and get her back into her lodgings and I haven’t ridden through a winter since.

Grandad's Day Out

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The excitement is palpable and despite my best efforts, everyone knows I am looking forwards to Sunday, The weather forecast is, unsurprisingly and predictably, for a warm, if not hot June day; possibly too warm. 

All the paper work was done, the bureaucrats for the time being at least, sated on the necessary gorge-fest of data. All the correct boxes had been ticked on seemingly endless, Byzantine web-pages, sometimes conflicting with each other and of course no-one to speak to for guidance... apart from the “consultants” who scavenge for work here and there, guiding people through these tortuous websites, and charging a whopping fee for so doing; the only guarantee they make is to get you to the “Submit” button; there is of course no guarantee that you’ll get the result you want.

At least not with the amount of money I have available.

But it was done, the sky was blue, the sun shone, the brown tundra-like grass in my “garden” swayed gently in the breeze, air-conditioned Wimbledon was on TV and if you’d got solar panels you could watch that; the plunck-plunck-grunt “Out” soundtrack taking me back decades to a childhood in a different world.

Sunday morning and I begin to fret. It’s my fault of course; always one to wake up early and get up, I could never sleep in without it making me feel ill. On tenter hooks, I fuss around in the garage; I check and recheck my cell phone is fully charged; but still no tell tale “bleep bleep” for the message I crave. Tyre pressures are of course fine, oils levels fine, though it cost a bob or two to make it so. A full tank of petrol! That’s 120 miles worth. Or smiles worth.

I also have a small metal flask of extra petrol, just in case.

Just as I’m beginning to think all the effort of dealing with the Department of Transport had been in vain; a frustrating hell of cross-examination, exposing details about my private life – what private life? – the message comes through. I nearly drop the phone as I fumble with the tiny keypad, and there it is: the barcode I need for my day of fun. My turn. To relive the freedoms of my youth, to be free – or at least enjoy the illusion of freedom. For 120 or so miles.

Fortunately for me, my bike, safety and emissions record mean I didn’t have to have one of those wretched on-board computers that won’t start the engine without first being synced with the road-tax barcode. I smile as I remember sportsbike riders taking the piss out of my Harley – a genuine unaltered, uncustomised, Centenary edition Dyna Wide Glyde. Those plastic pocket rockets are now banished to the track, never to be seen on the roads as they are deemed too dangerous, and of course represent a too frivolous use of scarce petrol.

But my old Harley has historical interest – it is a classic, vintage, almost antique machine, so I’ve got away without modern day electronic GPS-based real time location tracking tags. All I need to do is to wave my cell phone at the hated Traffic Wardens and I’ll be OK. Or at least that’s the theory.

It’s 9am and already warm. I turn the ignition switch, a solid, clunky, chunky affair; lights come on, headlights glare in the garage, red, blue, green engine management lights blink on the odometer. I press the Start button and she starts first time; the whole machine throbbing, vibrating, pulsating, alive in an organic sort of way. She wants to be ridden. Even the garage floor vibrates in harmony with the old, old V-twin internal combustion engine.

My neighbours gather to watch, genuinely pleased for me. I wheel the machine out onto the drive, side stand down, get on and blip the throttle, the noise in this sleepy suburb seems to increase by a few hundred decibels, the heat from the engine ripples the air around me, the machine really wants to go, wants to shake off the tether to the energy grid, keeping it’s heart alive. I reach forward, all the way forwards, a very long way forwards with my left leg, engage first gear, increase revs and the massive steel and chrome monster roars down the road, the warm wind blasting my face, tears blurring vision.

Those old brakes, kept in working condition by winter-evening fettling, bring the half ton two wheeled behemoth to a well-controlled stop, which is just as well as I’ve reached a T-junction. Wait for the all clear then, in a roar, a blur, a tooth-clatteringly wild acceleration, felt deep within the pit of the stomach, the 1450cc Harley Wide Glide takes off again, the enormous torque making the rear wheel spin, the whole ecstasy barely under my control.

But I’d better be careful, better get into the groove of riding again; it has after all been two years of public transport, I eschew the battery-powered bikes, even those with “authentic” ride effects, and I’m feeling a bit rusty at the controls. Counter-steer into a bend, catching the apex just right. Feels great!

A lovely straight and smooth road, just wrench that throttle back, up through the gears, the torque just doesn’t stop, the wind pressure builds and builds on this unfaired bike, trying to push me off the back and push my feet of the pegs so very far in front of me.

I spy it before it spies me. I’d been keeping an eye out; the word on the net, the forums that matter, was that Speed & Safety camera patrols were in the area. This one had just been dealing with someone who’d exceeded some limit – maybe speed, maybe CO2 emissions – his vehicle had been clamped. I manage to slow before the radars lock on to me and I keep my speed an even 29mph. But even so they wave me down.

Bloody traffic wardens. Spoiling an old man’s pleasure. And for what? Jobsworths the lot of them. Anyway, arguing is useless, not stopping would result in a fine, prison, banning from the roads and quite probably confiscation of my bike.

So I stop. I prepare my cell phone so they can blu-tooth it into their handhelds; but all they want to do is check out my Harley; admire it even; and within a few minutes I’m away; the nerve-induced sweat chilling and cooling as the warm dry air flows over and around me again. They were probably over quota – who knows? I keep a check on the speed though, just in case.

It must’ve been my lucky day. No more interruptions, amazingly enough. The bike performs flawlessly; like a horse allowed to run free having been cooped up in stables for too long, she just doesn’t want to stop.

Finally, back on to the A404 Marlow bypass, more space-shuttle acceleration to 70, then 80, then 85 and at 90 I’m fighting to keep feet on the pegs, body on the bike and the bike on the road. Still only doing about 1000rpm, the lazy, lazy engine thrusts the cam shafts around and around pretty much as fast as it wants you to go. The deep step in saddle between rider and pillion position keeps me from sliding off, the open face helmet splats a few bugs onto my glasses lenses; drivers of smoothly quiet electric cars look aghast as I blast past. I’m sure one or two reach for their phone to report me, but everything’s legit.

Then it’s back home, back to the stables, to prison, for this beautiful beast of a bike. I reluctantly shut down the engine, patting the near-empty tank as I do so, thanking the bike for looking after this old man, and as the revs die away, the pinging of the engine as it cools slows and fades, the silence becomes deafening.

As I sip a genuine fully-caffeined cappuccino sometime later, I’m still out there. I can still feel the pulsating heartbeat of the bike; I’m still there, flying inches off the tarmac. “Let Grandad rest” says my French daughter-in-law as my just arrived grandchildren pester to know what it was like, their eyes shining with excitement and the genuine inquisitiveness of the young.

But how to explain to this generation; this generation whose lives are de-risked, checked at every stage and age; this generation whose lives are digitised, computerised, webinised, Googlised, terrorised; this generation who have not experienced snow, or frost for that matter, at least not in the South East corner of England.

What has my generation created?

If only we’d…

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First published 2006

Copyright Neil Fairbrother