Friday, May 15, 2009

Twenty years in the saddle - Part II

At the end of Part One, I was safely back in the UK with my GS650, and hard at work studying Civil Engineering. Except for Tuesday nights of course, when PPMCC’s worshippers of the Reckless Right Wrist were allowed out unsupervised.

Back to a Kwak

Thanks to six months of salaried sandwich course industrial training, the Suzuki GS650 was traded in for a Kawasaki GT750 in 1984. Once again a shaftie, only this time with a huge fuel tank and no fairing. The much-used panniers found their way on to this machine too. Incidentally, the much-ridiculed leather trousers are featured in the photo.

My GT750 was on the whole excellent apart from a warranty issue that required a new cylinder head. There was apparently a batch of dodgy cylinder heads whose valve seats had been inadvertently made of Japanese liquorice. While that was being fitted, I borrowed a Honda VT500 to tour Europe with a friend on his GPz750, and we followed the motorcycle endurance-racing circus. I think it was on a motorway in Belgium when my luggage slipped and immolated itself on the exhaust pipe. I was reduced to using a black bin-liner for waterproofing as all my wet-weather clothes had given themselves a Viking funeral. Belgium, man. Belgium! One weekend we were at the Nürburgring Eight-Hour race, and a week later at the Circuit Paul Rockhard for the Bol d’Or vingt-quatre heures.

Biker behaving badly

‘Shadowfax’, the GT750, did some motorcycle courier work over the summer and autumn of 1985. Having graduated with an honours degree in Civil Engineering, gainful employment was not to be had, and dispatch riding paid marginally better than being on the dole. Six years into my motorcycling career I received my first speeding ticket. I remember it well: 86.8mph in a 70 zone that cost me £35 The policeman didn’t see fit to pull over the Renault 5 Gordini that I’d been following. Serves me right for not checking my mirrors enough. Clearly I hadn’t got the message, getting caught at 110mph a year later on the A3(M) and fined a whopping £120. Yowch! What made this worse was the protracted ribbing I received from my friends. Playing Iron Maiden’s ‘Hallowed Be Thy Name’ the morning of the court appearance was really appreciated. Thanks guys.

During this period I couldn’t understand why my Dunlop Arrowmax tyres which had been really grippy seemed to have deteriorated. Until one day I was going around a greasy and diesel-slicked Charles Church roundabout in Plymouth in the pouring rain and one of the footrests touched the ground. Ah, cranked over at 45 degrees in the wet and still not sliding. Those Dunlops were good. The lesson was nevertheless to slow down a bit. That close to the edge was probably asking for trouble, something that motorbikes are fully capable of delivering in spades.

That same bike went to the south of Spain and back two-up in 1986. “Never again,” was one comment from my pillion, and “Ouch my bottom.” Even the comfiest bike seat becomes uncomfortable when you do over 1100 miles in under 20 hours. I very much doubt that I could repeat that feat of endurance no matter how much café solo and/or Red Bull I consumed.

Another regular pillion was my mother. Astounding, or what? She had every confidence in me, although I was required to keep the speed down and cranking the bike hard over in corners was a definite no-no.

Naughty Ninja

I traded the GT750 in October 1987. In another ‘Paths of Wrongtiousness’ moment, I bought a used 900 Ninja: a GPz900R, along with matching racing leathers and a new helmet. Chuffed to bits with this amazing machine, I was gutted when some prune in a Peugeot sent it flying two days later in a hit-and-run. The bike was parked and the perp left the scene leaving his radiator grille behind. But what a machine! Immense power; a real 150mph missile, and precision handling even if the Automatic Variable Damping System never worked properly. Why they couldn’t simply call it ‘anti-dive’ is beyond me.

I came a cropper on the Ninja the following summer. Not paying attention, I realised way too late that the car in front on the open rural road somewhere in northern France was burbling along at about 15mph. I grabbed a massive handful of front brake, locked the 16-inch wheel and went skating down the asphalt into the back of the car. The Krauser panniers saved the bike from major damage, and my racing leathers ensured that I stood up without a scratch. L’automobiliste français and le pillock motard anglais exchanged details, I kicked the bike straight at a little workshop, and I was soon on my way again.

About thirty miles down the road it occurred to me that I’d left my passport, money and return ferry ticket at the little workshop. By the time I got back the place was locked and there was a sign on the door advising that the proprietor had gone en vacances for a fortnight. Should I call the police? How about breaking in and grabbing my stuff, which I could see through the window? I decided to call the authorities. I rang the doorbell of one of the row of terraced houses opposite the workshop and explained the problem in my rudimentary French to the little old lady who answered the door. It turned out that she was the proprietor’s mother, and went and fetched the key. At last some good luck!

The rest of that particular holiday passed without incident apart from when I had my camera, passport, ferry ticket and cash nicked out of my friends’ rental car in the car park at Puerto Banus. My feelings were spherical and in the plural.

During a different holiday in 1993, my girlfriend at the time and I had agreed to meet someone in Paris. GF had earlier that year passed her bike test and was the owner of a Honda CBR600F. While we waited at la Place de la Concorde wearing our precisely matching leathers, an elderly gentleman approached. “I like your bike gear,” he announced in a thick accent. “Red, vhite, und bleck. Exectly ze same colours as ze old Tcherman fleg…

The ideal machine

Despite the obvious charms of the 900R, I was never entirely happy with chain drive. Modern, sealed-for-life O-ring roller chains are good, but despite the additional weight, complexity and power loss I still prefer the cleanliness of a maintenance-free shaft. Thus early in 1989 a decent part-exchange offer created the conditions necessary for my next motorbike. I bought a 1000 GTR, yet another Kawasaki. This one came with factory-fitted hard luggage and huge barn-door fairing as well as Kawasaki’s tried and tested Ninja engine bored out to 997cc. At 110 horsepower this may not have been the most powerful bike to date – that accolade goes to the 900R - but it nevertheless went very well indeed with more power than I ever found it necessary to use. The GTR ended up being called ‘Idris’. It had become fashionable among some of my motorcycling buddies to name our motorcycles after dragons. The 900R was called ‘Smaug’ after the dragon in The Hobbit; ‘Idris’, as everyone over a Certain Age will recall, lived in the firebox of Ivor the Engine.

Any motorbike is inevitably a compromise, but the GTR was the closest I had yet found to my own personal ideal machine. The luggage was cavernous, the fuel tank an enormous 28 litres, and the fairing effective at keeping bad weather off. It was a tall and heavy machine though, and needed to be treated with care especially at low speed. In the eleven years I owned it, I never dropped or crashed the GTR. Clearly as my bag of luck was emptying the corresponding bag of experience was filling.

Idris went to northern Scotland, west Wales, all over France, Benelux and Germany, although it never got to Spain or Italy. I only got caught speeding once on the GTR. At 98mph it cost £35, the cost of a fixed-penalty way back in 1993. The policeman said he reckoned that I’d been doing in excess of 120mph (a likely tale) but he couldn’t get close enough for an accurate measurement until I slowed down. He also said that he’d have let me off if he’s been alone; as it was, 98mph was an invented figure just below the magic ton that would have involved a court appearance and disqualification. “I see. Thank you, Officer.”

Motorcycle clubs

A local chapter of the Institute of Advanced Motorists enabled me to pass the advanced motorcycle test. Training involved a series of rides with a volunteer observer. The test comprised a thirty-mile ride on lots of different roads, being followed and examined by an off-duty copper. Apart from getting an IAM ticket, the group offered social rideouts on Sunday mornings, treasure hunts, and similar bike club activities. Hopefully this crowd would be a somewhat calming influence! Promises about cheaper insurance because of passing the advanced test turned out to apply only to policies that cost more in the first place. As usual.

As a result of the IAM group, I also joined the Kawasaki GT Club, which provided yet more excuses for camping weekends and long-distance rides. Being a member of the Motorcycle Action Group (MAG) as well meant that I got involved with yet more socials and charity rides. The local MAG group considered me something of a Captain Sensible for reasons that in retrospect now seem unclear.

My original inadvertently fetishy jeans had long since gone the way of old clothes – into Fancy Dress along with that daft studded belt, and my original leather jacket was stolen one evening in a pub. I’d been using the one-piece racing leathers, but ‘exectly ze same colours as ze old Tcherman fleg’ didn’t match the GTR’s rather more sober colour scheme. In May 1996 at the BMF Rally where I was manning the KGT stand, I bought a two-piece black-leather touring suit, with plenty of armour and ‘Farmer John’ trousers that zipped to the jacket. It was brilliant. I wore it twice before parking the bike in my garage, locking the door of the house and jumping aboard a Doha-bound plane.

Between bikes

The GTR was swapped for a disappointing wad of cash in late 1999 when it became apparent that I wasn’t permanently returning to the UK any time soon, if indeed at all. I had planned to get 120,000 miles on the clock and then sell it as ‘low mileage but tatty’. However, circumstances dictated that the machine went at ninety-something thousand miles.

The departure of Idris saw what might have been the end of my motorcycling career. In Doha I toyed with the idea of having a bike, but such aspirations were rejected on the grounds of temperature, humidity, and every spare waking moment being fully absorbed with scuba diving or the Doha Players. Moreover, there seemed to be no motorbike culture in Qatar. How would I obtain spares such as tyres, brake pads and oil filters? “Not coming in Doha, sir. Have you tried Dubai?” Nevertheless, riding a motorbike was something that I missed a lot.

A couple of years ago I was contacted by an old friend in the UK who was seeking advice on starting to ride. Of course all of my knowledge and expertise was woefully out of date. UK motorcycle licensing has become a lot more complicated than when I did my basic training back in the early 1980s. But the gleeful stories of the fun my friend was having got me looking into bikes again. I checked out the BMWs and Harley-Davidsons on Sheikh Zayed Road, but ultimately decided to give motorbikes a miss on the grounds of cost.

Present and correct

A year later I was flicking through the Gulf News small ads while waiting for the Goatmobile to be serviced, and I noticed that Kawasaki’s new 1400 GTR was now available and indeed affordable. Checking for realistically priced insurance, obtaining consent from Beloved Wife and procuring appropriate gear I covered in a previous blog post, so I’ll not repeat myself here. Suffice to say that the final price was even better than the budget I had in mind. Not that any of my old bike gear would have fitted me anyway, I was disappointed to learn that all my leathers had somehow grown legs and run away whilst in storage in the UK. The new stuff is a lot lighter weight to cope with the hot climate, and has rather more body armour than my old stuff. There has been a marked improvement over recent years in the quality and quantity of armour now available in mainstream motorcycle apparel.

I’ve really enjoyed my first three months back on two wheels. ‘Born-Again Biker Syndrome’ is a known phenomenon where a middle-aged ex-motorcyclist gets back in the saddle and is extremely surprised (in a bent metal and broken bones sort of way) by the phenomenal power, weight and traffic differences from the Olden Days. I am at least aware of the phenomenon, and awareness is fundamental to avoidance.

It is also interesting how much I’ve slowed down since mis-spending my youth. “The older I get, the faster I was” as the ancient scrolls say. There’s nothing wrong with the bike. It’s very much at the sports end of sports-tourer, with decent suspension, huge grippy tyres and an incredible motor. My continuing inability to throw it around corners with my knee on the ground and the footrests throwing up sparks is entirely in my head. I have become what might be described as ‘sensible’. Or possibly ‘a boring old fart’. One thing is for sure: I am not one of the ‘Fast Old Gits’.

As June approaches, the weather is now getting too hot for biking, even while wearing hot-weather gear. My previous experience, which has included falling off and bouncing up the road, has taught me that not wearing proper protective gear is for idiots. I am an ATGATT biker.

Upon reviewing my text, it seems to read like a litany of crashing and getting nicked. Three speeding tickets in sixteen years of regular riding doesn’t seem excessive to me. The last time I was even stopped by the police while riding my bike was in 1993. No, I tell a lie: it was 1994 when I, like absolutely every other motorcyclist in the area that summer’s evening, was pulled over on suspicion of riding with intent to visit a public house. As for prangs, I seem to have learned my lesson since the 1988 incident in France. Since then I had eight years of regular riding without even dropping a bike. Part of the incentive is my pain threshold, another factor is the prodigious expense of replacing all that plastic. Half of my bike crashes resulted from the idiocy of car drivers and were perhaps unavoidable from my point of view. SMIDSY, therefore ATGATT. The other half were of course caused by the nut holding the handlebars.

The bike is going under a dust sheet in the next week or two. It can hibernate in the back garden until September or October when the weather decides to cool off.

Incidentally I still need a name for the machine. ‘Connie’ is what the Americans all call it because the bike is a Concours 14 over in the States. ‘The Black Beast of Aaarrgh!’ is Pythonesque. How about ‘Goatmobile II’?



Gnomad said...

I remember Herr und Frau Matching-Leders, black white and red did look good :)

If you wanted to continue the dragon theme, these are the other four named dragons from Tolkien;

Chrysophylax (Chrysophylax Dives in full)

Grumpy Goat said...

I'd considered 'Ancalagon' "the Black". Thank you for some independent corroboration; let's see if the name sticks...

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