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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All trussed up with nowhere to go

The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry. Not wanting the Rune to get wet or even dirty, I had checked the weather forecast for the route between Cape Town and Plettenberg Bay and found that Friday and Saturday would be ideal – and so it proved: blue skies, up to 33 degrees C, cooling wind.

I hadn’t planned on being on the road after Saturday and so hadn’t checked the forecast for Sunday. Hah! Sunday dawned grey and wet, with low cloud and steady rain. It looked as if it would be dry from the town of George eastwards, so the last 90 minutes or so of the trip would be dry.

It’s been said there is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing. There’s a lot in that, but almost all my waterproof bike gear is back in the UK where it’s needed most. There’s a two-piece Rukka suit that cost a fortune 13 years ago but has never let in a drop of rain, a pair of tall Gore Tex-lined boots and some Sympatek gloves. But they’re all 9,000 miles away.

I check out my available gear. TCX boots, waterproof but short, just above ankle height. Riding pants are from the iXS Desert range and therefore unlikely to be waterproof and offer no labels claiming to be so. We’ll have to see. Alpinestars mesh summer riding jacket and shorty leather gloves – you must be joking!

The temperature is due to max out at 21 degrees C but right now at 10 am it feels pretty cold. Ryan Neves, the salesman I’d dealt with from Motorcycle World, calls to say he’s on his way, which gives him an ETA of around 12:30. Maybe the rain will have eased by then. On cue, it stops, only to return with gusto 10 minutes later.

My only concerns about this whole 550km trip had been the last kilometre, which is where the tarmac of the N2 gives way to a dirt road down to Wittedrif. The authorities grade it fairly frequently but the heavy logging trucks that use it to haul timber out of the pine forests soon churn it up again. This past week, it’s been at about its worst ever, filled with ruts, potholes and severe corrugations at right angles to the traffic. I have two sports bikes that I usually ride up there in third, but last week they required first gear in places. Even our Nissan bakkie, which normally handles the surface with ease, squirmed and bucked.

It was down this washboard road that the Honda would have to travel, and then negotiate 190 metres of steeply sloping twin concrete strips to our house. The driveway was built to follow what I think had been an existing game path, and the curves of the concrete strips were designed to cater for the needs of the builder’s trucks; they do not follow a natural line for a motorcycle, let alone one more than eight feet long.

Now to even get to that challenge I had to ride through two hours of rain on a bike with no weather protection and in the wrong clothes. But, hey, that took me back to my earliest biking days in Ireland, where it was almost always colder and wetter and the gear even more inappropriate. So I sat on the covered deck at the excellent Gunners B&B with my Kindle, gazing at the rain and waiting for my battery.

I walked down the hill at 12:20 in readiness for Ryan’s arrival, to be greeted by the sight of a trussed whale in the place where I’d left the Rune overnight. They say a picture is worth a thousand words…

All trussed up

My benefactor Andre Pietersen and his wife Ena had feared for the bike’s safety and covered it in not one but seven blankets, rugs and curtains, secured with what looked like a mile of thick rope. They’d even parked their cars on the wide footpath to offer it further protection. And what protection! It took me seven minutes just to untie the rope. The blankets and the overhanging bush had even kept things dry. That’s Andre and Ena below.

Rune saviours

Ryan arrived shortly afterwards with his young son Migel, pictured below, and within minutes the brand new battery was in place. The Rune roared into life, normal service was resumed and my personal Groundhog Day was at an end. I thanked Ryan profusely for coming all the way from his home in Cape Town on a wet Sunday to help a stranded customer, and Andre and Ena for going to such trouble to help a stranger. The 1960s ads used to say “you meet the nicest people on a Honda” and 50 years later it still proves to be true.

Rune saviours 2

I set off for Bredasdorp 18 km away, so pleased to be back on the road that I could forgive the stinging rain through the arms of the mesh jacket. As I turned left toward Swellendam I saw two things of note: a petrol station on the right, and an automotive parts store in whose window was a wide range of batteries. Well, I figured, they probably didn’t stock a suitable bike battery, anyway, and were probably closed on a Saturday afternoon, like so much else. A glance at the digital bars of the fuel gauge showed two bars still lit, and the N2 main road wasn’t very far away, so I passed the petrol station and headed on through the rain. The bike seemed to handle wet roads with aplomb, and the trousers and boots seemed to be keeping the weather out. It turned out the iXS pants are indeed waterproof.

No petrol stations loomed out of the gloom as I headed north. The fuel gauge dropped to its final bar, which started flashing. The advantage of being stuck in a small town with nothing to do is that you have time to read the owner’s manual! On Friday night I had discovered that the Troubleshooting section had little of value to offer on the subject of not starting (“check that the battery is charged”) but also saw that when the final bar on the fuel gauge starts flashing you are on reserve. The tank holds 22 litres in total and the reserve is just over one US gallon. So I figured that I might have about 50 km of riding left, and as I’ve done many times before in such situations I cut my speed to 80 km/h to eke out the remaining fuel.

The road seemed interminable. With what I calculated was now 10 km of fuel left, I came to the N2 junction and saw a Norton Commando rider stopped by the side of the road. He told me there was a petrol station in Swellendam, which was the way I was heading anyway, so I slowed down some more and eased my way into the town. I spotted a Caltex station on the right and pulled in. The tank took 22 litres, so I must have been running on fumes! My luck was changing.

The rain stopped about 50 km later and when I reached George the air grew warmer and the sun came out. All was well with the world. I found the Rune could hold a steady 120 km/h (the speed limit) with ease if I moved back in the saddle and leaned into the wind just a little. The same stance allowed me to go faster, but I wouldn’t want to do that for hour after hour. The seat itself cause me to wriggle around from time to time, but to be honest most motorcycle seats have the same effect on me.

My only real gripe was the rear suspension. On poor roads, especially those with sudden dips, the impact went straight up my spine and transmitted a short but sharp pain to my neck. I’ve never experienced that before. On perfectly smooth roads the ride was just fine. They’d just re-tarred the previously terrible surface of the N2 going past George airport, but it was clear to me that while the surface appeared flat and smooth it still had mild undulations, as if the underlying material were more like an Irish bog than real hardcore. I’m happy to rent myself and the Rune out to road-builders as the ultimate test of flatness.

Despite the suspension issue, I reached the dirt road in Plett still feeling fresh. The sun had long since dried out my damp jacket and gloves and I was exhilarated by my five-hour trip. The Rune remained composed as I negotiated the ruts and bumps of the dirt road, leaving a cloud of reddish dust in its wake, and it even managed the concrete driveway without mishap.

Next morning, I was out there with hosepipe, bucket, sponge and chamois to remove the road grime and restore the Rune to its pristine glory. The drying, polishing and detailing process took longer than with any other bike I’ve owned, but the result made it all worthwhile. My reward came when I discovered that the municipality picked the next day to regrade the dirt road; it was by no means perfect, but it meant that the Rune could escape from the garage for a cruise up to the Crags and down to Keurboomstrand in the evening.

It’s early days, but my verdict is that the big Honda is the most awesome of the many bikes I’ve owned in a motorcycling life that spans 49 years (I started young, okay?). It’s not the fact that it impresses others; it enough that it impresses me, to look at and to ride. Next step is to weigh the pros and cons of buying a dual seat and passenger pegs so my wife can share the experience.