No matter how hard I study the map, there really doesn’t seem to be much alternative. There are a gazillion East to West roads criss-crossing the Pennines, the backbone of England, but what I really need is a North South route. Alas there isn’t one, these arteries are confined to the lower strips of land either side of the central, ancient beyond belief, mountainous mass, which I’d tried to walk the length of years ago with my good friend Andy Steel, but we were beaten by unrelenting sunshine, heat, dehydration.
Now I’m doing a steady 80 heading south down the A1, regretting the lack of more interesting roads that would have lifted the last day of my Edinburgh Fringe epic. When the opportunity arises, I peel off the A1 and take the tarmac’ed graft surgically joined, seamlessly, to the M1, Britain’s first motorway, a strip full of memories of travelling to The North to see my dad’s best friend, Uncle John, in Leeds where they speak with funny accents, and I’m the youngest of the collection of boys, the eldest being another Neil who preferred to bury himself in electronics and Ham Radio than talk to people. When I change the battery in my Roberts radio, it’s full of the pungent aroma of electronic bits and bobs, of solder and solenoids, and capacitors and resistors, that take me back to the impossibly tall other Neil.
Ghosts from the past.
Red lights come on in front of me, urgently signalling for my attention; something’s happened and it’s almost certainly not roadworks; more likely a sleepy head or a mobile phone user not noticing a change of pace. I use the gears as well as the brakes to slow down, the Harley’s two massive cylinders provide enough compression for engine braking to be quite effective, enough to lock the back wheel, so it has to be done gently. I’m checking my rear view mirrors, which despite the outrageous vibration when the bike is stationary provide very effective rear vision when on the move. No one’s tailgating me, cars behind are slowing too.
I wait for things to settle down, for the opportunistic “Walter Mitty Hamiltons and Schumakers” to make their pointless strategic lane changes before I start to filter. What’s the point? You’re not going to go anywhere, so you may as well sit back and enjoy the multi-changer CD, or iTripped iPod, rather than pose more risks to other road users. We don’t actually come to a standstill, just a slow moving, rubber shod, chrome, glass and steel snake at about 20, so I do 25, giving drivers plenty of time to see my headlight in their mirrors.
All the action is on the other side of the road, three hatchbacks in the outside lane. Bang! Bang! Screech… terror…. injury, death. The road to dusty death. What a ghastly way to go. Undignified, maybe not your fault, just an innocent powerless passenger. Sirens and blue lights. Dirt. Trying to make sense of it all. Telling your family. Telling their family. Was it worth it? Well, was it?
We’re clear. We only slowed because of the gawping rubbernecking. It’s human nature. Build a big wall down the central reservation so people can’t see. We’d all be safer.
Back in the groove. The road surface alternates between black top tarmac and glaring white concertina’d concrete with razor-sharp ridges that would shred skin off bone like a cheese grater slicing through cheddar. Hmmm… hope I don’t have a blow out, not at this speed.
I start to ponder a recurring theme. Why do I love the two wheeled experience so much? What is it that brings me back time and again? Bikes are hard work; you get sweaty, dirty, damp, soaked, hot, cold; there’s no climate control, so safety belt, no air bag; arms ache, joints get stiff, falling off is inevitable, at best embarrassing, at worse deadly. I’m sure that statistics can prove shortened life expectancy; but that’s just numbers and numbers are irrelevant because everything’s about emotion.
Maybe part of it is all of the above. Modern cars are not involving, as a general purpose form of transport. Driving them to extremes takes skill and specialist tracks; as indeed is the case with motorbikes, but you don’t have to drive them to within an inch of your life, or that child’s life, to enjoy the visceral thrill of the machine. But it’s not about the speed, though that’s part of the equation for sure.
I have a vivid memory and a small black and white photograph. In both I have a bike, a purple bike with fat balloon tyres and rod lever brakes. Well at least on the front anyway, the rear wheel may have had a free wheel single speed cog or it may have been fixed wheel. The frame was a simple step through youtube, sorry, U-tube shape. It was my first bike. In the photo I’m wearing 1970’s kids’ clothes. Frustrated with stabilisers, I need them off my bike, which superhero Dad does in an instant. Mum’s all “Don’t go near the road” worry as Mums are.
I almost do it.
But a car comes down the road and distracts me, so I have another go and I get half way up the drive. Then I give it another go and I’m at the top of the drive. I’ve done it! Freedom beckons. Independence. Speed. Exhilaration! I can go anywhere and do anything. And I do. Me and my mates get to “the Bumps” near Sanderstead pond and the huge wilderness of Sanderstead Woods across the road provides years of unfettered exploration.
As an experiment, possibly inspired by Evil Kneivel, I rigged a parachute brake to the bike which, alas, was a complete failure. Not only did it not provide any braking power whatsoever, but one of Mum’s headscarves was sacrificed as the string and it wrapped itself impossibly and permanently around the rear wheel. This brings me to my first bicycle shop experience (Geoffrey Butler’s in Croydon), an Aladdin’s Cave full of mystic wonder and magical machines, spoilt only somewhat by the grumpy frightening man which I later came to know as Bert.
That first bike gives way to a Chipper (the baby brother of the famous iconic Chopper) which gave way to a 5 speed red “racer” with chrome forks and Weinmann 500 alloy brakes which the cycling proficiency man told me were really good. This same man turned out to be my mentor when I joined the Anerley Bicycle club and father to my first girlfriend Jackie, now living in France with her own family.
The red Austrian Puch did in fact lose a fight with a Mini when I was about 12. In a fit of unheard of generosity my elder brother donated his Carlton to the cause and I sold them both to get a Viscount Aerospace Sport as recommended by Richard Ballantine in his Bicycle Book. Then I met Norman outside Allin’s bike shop and joined the Anerley.
Bicycles and motorbikes offer similar experiences in that you are in the landscape, the environment, part of it. Here’s what Robert M Pirsig says about it his landmark book “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”:
“You see things vacationing on a motorcycle in a way that is completely different from any other. In a car you’re always in a compartment, and because you’re used to it you don’t realize that through that car window everything you see is just more TV. You’re a passive observer and it is all moving by you boringly in a frame.
On a cycle the frame is gone. You’re completely in contact with it all. You’re in the scene, not just watching it anymore, and the sense of presence is overwhelming. That concrete whizzing by five inches below your foot is the real thing, the same stuff you walk on, it’s right there, so blurred you can’t focus on it, yet you can put your foot down and touch it anytime, and the whole thing, the whole experience, is never removed from immediate consciousness.
Chris and I are travelling to Montana with some friends riding up ahead, and maybe headed farther than that. Plans are deliberately indefinite, more to travel than to arrive anywhere. We are just vacationing. Secondary roads are preferred. Paved county roads are the best, state highways are next. Freeways are the worst. We want to make good time, but for us now this is measured with emphasis on “good” rather than “time” and when you make that shift in emphasis the whole approach changes. Twisting hilly roads are long in terms of seconds but are much more enjoyable on a cycle where you bank into turns and don’t get swung from side to side in any compartment. Roads with little traffic are more enjoyable, as well as safer. Roads free of drive-ins and billboards are better, roads where groves and meadows and orchards and lawns come almost to the shoulder, where kids wave to you when you ride by, where people look from their porches to see who it is, where when you stop to ask directions or information the answer tends to be longer than you want rather than short, where people ask where you’re from and how long you’ve been riding.
It was some years ago that my wife and I and our friends first began to catch on to these roads. We took them once in a while for variety or for a shortcut to another main highway, and each time the scenery was grand and we left the road with a feeling of relaxation and enjoyment. We did this time after time before realizing what should have been obvious: these roads are truly different from the main ones. The whole pace of life and personality of the people who live along them are different. They’re not going anywhere. They’re not too busy to be courteous. The hereness and nowness of things is something they know all about. It’s the others, the ones who moved to the cities years ago and their lost offspring, who have all but forgotten it. The discovery was a real find.
I’ve wondered why it took us so long to catch on. We saw it and yet we didn’t see it. Or rather we were trained not to see it. Conned, perhaps, into thinking that the real action was metropolitan and all this was just boring hinterland. It was a puzzling thing. The truth knocks on the door and you say, “Go away, I’m looking for the truth,” and so it goes away. Puzzling.”
So maybe it’s the truth of the world that opens up to you on two wheels. Why did the young guys take a photo of me as I headed North on day one? Was it because they couldn’t believe I was there, in those conditions? Did they think I was mad? Or brave? Was it that they wanted to be there too? Did they want to share my experience vicariously? Did they really want to be out of their little box? Experience the world?
On a bicycle, you’re non-threatening to anyone. You use less of the earth’s resources and clean the air with your lungs as you go by. Strap a motor to the frame and the dynamics change, but the experience is the same. I prefer open face helmets as it exposes me more to the three dimensional and multi-sensory experience of the world, but it also allows others to see my face, unlike those tinted visors favoured by the brightly coloured humpbacked insect-like sports bike riders.
Maybe it’s one of those indefinable things, the meaning of which is lost as soon as you try to pin it down. I don’t know. I ride because I do.
I ride, therefore I am.
I shut the engine down, and the bike pings as it starts to cool. For the last time, this time, I unburden the bike of all my gear, close and lock the garage door as the bike’s alarm system chirps twice to let me know it’s alive and on. Coffee. Shower. Relax. Bed.
The adventure ends.