Escape into the smooth blue yonder

Dusty dirt road 1

The other day I wrote about living down a dirt road in South Africa’s Western Cape and waiting for a rare visit from a road grader to make it passable for road bikes (the image above hardly does justice to the rutted, potholed surface). Rarely has something as prosaic as a grader brought so much joy, such eager anticipation – but today that’s exactly what it did to me. It signalled freedom, the first chance to escape in two weeks.

Earlier this year my wife Peter and I made Plettenberg Bay our home. We still spend part of the year in Dubai, part in London and part in Jo’ burg, but Plett (below) is now our base; it’s where we have all our stuff, all in one place for the first time in years.

IMAG0635_BURST002_COVER

Part of the pleasure in all this was to be the fact that most of my bikes are here, and now so were we. The fly in the ointment has been that dirt road. It’s used by ultra-heavy logging trucks and trailers, and they churn up the dirt surface into deep corrugations that are misery to navigate in anything other than a tough 4WD or on a proper off-road bike.

I’ve banged on about the damage the road has caused my bikes, and I’ll stop now, but even our Tonka-toy-tough Nissan bakkie has lost bits along the way; one neighbour had a shock absorber fall off his Land-Rover, another lost his exhaust pipe, and another has been pitched off the road in his Suzuki Jimny three times in a week because of this surface.

They grade the road maybe once every four or five weeks, and for perhaps the first 24 hours it becomes a usable dirt road. Then the trucks come and carve their contemptible corrugations all over again. So three of my bikes have had to stay in the garage pretty much full time since our move south, apart from a few joyous moments on the Day The Grader Came.

Well, today was such a day, so I abandoned all other plans, such as they were, and headed for the highway on first the TL, which has had the least road time of late, then the Ducati, and finally the Rune. The V-Strom has seen more regular use in all weathers since it seems best able to withstand the abuse, so there wasn’t the same compelling urge to ride it.

The weather was perfect: dry, sunny, clear blue skies, maybe 23 degrees C, with a cool breeze that swept through my mesh riding jacket and felt fresh and invigorating. The newly graded dirt was by no means perfect, but it was passable, and the Suzuki felt wonderful once out on the tarred main road: stable, smooth, grunty. Every time I ride the TL it reminds me what a superbly balanced package it is and why I fell in love with the breed the first time I rode one in Hong Kong (and bought it on the spot).

The SportClassic was next up, and I treated myself to a new route blessed with a mixture of smooth, fast bends and long straights – perfect Ducati country. The Termignoni racing exhaust filled the air with its music, and God was in his heaven. Even the light traffic seemed to melt away.

Finally, out came the Rune, and my grin went to its widest setting. I’ve sung this bike’s praises before, many times, probably ad nauseum, but it just feels so right. Then standard Gold Wing isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but its engine is a legend, and in its heightened state of Rune tune it combines utter turbine-like smoothness with a sporty near-wail and great throttle response. The riding position suits the bike so well, and it makes street-legal speeds of 100 to 120 km/h feel like fun. When the fancy takes you, just wind open the throttle in top and the bike thrusts forward.

The controls feel like they were designed by a top engineer at Rolls Royce, so smooth and precise are they in operation. The whole ensemble just works. It’s way off being perfect, mind: rear suspension is way too stiff, the riding position is not a long-distance charmer except for the ultra-tough, and the single seat prevents me from sharing the experience with my wife, or indeed anyone else. But the combination of the way it looks, the way it feels and the way it goes just adds up to one of the most superb bikes I’ve ever ridden. So by the time I trundled the Rune back homeward, I too was in heaven.

We’re looking into remedies for the road: getting heavy trucks banned on safety grounds, persuading the authorities to grade it more often, and investigating why the tarring has been postponed for four long years and whether it might be brought forward a bit. Some other road projects clearly jumped the queue, and I’m keen to know how and why.

I’m not hopeful, though, which is why I’ve just rented myself a secure lock-up storage garage 15 minutes from the house, on a farm, accessible via a tarred road and just a little stretch of short grass. The V-Strom will remain at the house to serve as a shuttle to the storage garage, and hopefully all four bikes will finally get ridden whenever the fancy takes me.

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