Back in the saddle

I’d be a 365-days-a-year rider if I could. I used to be, back in the days when a bike was my sole means of transport, in British rain, hail, snow or occasional sunshine.

Things changed. I let it happen. First came the company car, which was so warm, dry and convenient. Then came the crazy work schedule that made bike riding a luxury. You can get into a maelstrom of frenetic work in your 30s, 40s and even 50s that becomes the norm. Work, eat, sleep, repeat. Finding time to ride can get a little tricky.

But wait! Like a swimmer caught up in a rip-tide, you can break out of the cycle – eventually. I did, about five years ago, and it was truly great. I had amassed a small collection of bikes over the years and now I could make time to ride them.

Fate, however, can be cruel. Four of those bikes resided with me in Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates, an oasis of calm and relative civility in the Middle East. However, instead of rain, hail, snow and occasional sunshine came endless sunshine. Be careful what you wish for, they say – you may get it. In summer, the bikes gathered dust in a shaded car port as temperatures hovered in the mid-40s Centigrade with occasional forays into the low 50s.

That gets into the danger zone. I had to ride for an hour at midday in 47-degree heat from Dubai to Abu Dhabi for an urgent and unexpected business meeting. I could feel the blood get hot inside my head; my legs actually burned through my black jeans. When I eventually stopped, I felt faint and had to consume several bottles of chilled water before I felt even vaguely human – dizzy, but human.

Desert summers may be the polar opposites of British winters, but for motorcyclists the two have too much in common; they can be miserable. The solution came from spreading my humble stable of bikes between the UK and South Africa, where I also have a home, and forgetting about the Middle East as a biking base. The roads are generally too straight, too boring and too dangerous, anyway.

But life and work still keep me on the move between all three places, and this year that meant that my last spell of motorcycling was in Europe in July on my cherished Valkyrie. So, when I made it down to South Africa last week, my garage promised a feast of biking pleasure: the Honda Rune, Ducati Sport Classic 1000, Suzuki TL1000S and Suzuki V-Strom 1000 all sat there, batteries fully charged and raring to go.

Some unseasonably wet weather and the state of my local dirt road meant they stayed in the garage, sadly. The road is used by heavy logging trucks and becomes like a motocross track unless it is regularly graded. The surface is so rough that it has already fractured the rear light unit of my Ducati, created a couple of small stone chips on the Rune, and caused various bits of my Nissan bakkie (pick-up truck) to get loose or fall off.

When it rains, the red dirt conspires to latch on to every crevice, nook and cranny of your bike, compounding your misery. So, I had to wait five days until the graders appeared, the weather dried out and I could get back in the saddle – at last!

First up was the Rune, because it never fails to instil in me a wonderful sense of occasion. It growls in a civilised way; it oozes power, even though there are many more powerful bikes out there; and the riding position is nigh-on perfect if you are into the cruiser thing. It never fails to put a smile on my face.

Next up was the Ducati, now fully restored to pristine glory after its tank-slapping hissy-fit 18 months ago. The replica Termignoni silencer did its usual Ducati thing, sounding for all the world like a ‘70s racing machine. The contrast between the two machines couldn’t be more pronounced – one laid back and relaxing, the other bent forward and intense – but on this warm, sunny November day they both spelled fun.

The TL was next in line, but its Chinese battery – newly installed 18 just months ago – was devoid of life, despite being on trickle charge like all the others. So, it was on to the V-Strom, an excellent bike that somehow seems to exist in the shadow of its more glamorous siblings. It started instantly, as always, and felt like an old pair of boots as I sailed down the dirt road: smooth, comfortable and agile.

With its tall seat and totally upright riding position, it felt completely different to the low, laid-back stance of the Rune or the forward-leaning placement of the two sports bikes. Its 1,000cc V-twin doesn’t lack useful grunt, and it handles well on the road. Off-road, apart from over smooth-ish dirt, its weight hampers its ability.

Different bikes, different styles, but after a gap of almost four months, it felt great to be back in the saddle. Now I just need to find a decent battery for the TL…


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