4. You can take the M road

TRD issue 38 – October 2000

Coming barely a year after the horrendous Paddington train crash that left 31 people dead, the October 17th derailment at Hatfield killed another four passengers (all of whom were in the restaurant car) and when it was revealed that the tragedy was caused by poorly maintained track, it prompted urgent calls for charges of corporate manslaughter to be brought against executives at Railtrack and Balfour Beatty. However, although substantial fines were handed down against both firms almost five years later, unsurprisingly no managers or directors of either company did any porridge.

My car pulled away with arms waving from every window, plus the sunroof. Fortunately it wasn’t a bunch of teenage TWOC merchants taking the piss, it was just the family heading off on summer holiday. My partner Becky was driving, while my four kids filled the other seats. I’d told her to go the way she knew best: down to Chelsea Bridge, round the Embankment, A4, M4, bosh bosh bosh, bridge, Wales! Not complicated, none of our usual last minute arguments, just a quick round of kisses and they’d gone.

And suddenly I was alone, sitting on my front doorstep, smoking, while I moved my head to a different space. I wasn’t on any Cinderella trip, nor was I planning to make Home Alone 7; the plain fact is, when it comes to long journeys there simply isn’t enough room for everyone in the car. I was going to join them, I was just taking a little time to drop out and tune in before I began my solo mission.

I’m still enough of a despatch rider to know the quickest route from SE19 to Dyfed, especially in a fully laden Citroën ZX; but I was going on my SRX6 and while the M4 has never been my idea of biker’s heaven, on a 16 year old single with 53,000 kilometres on the clock, it would be a fucking eternity in purgatory. Nope, even though me and the family were heading for the same spot, we were on two completely different trips. If the M Snore had been the only route, I’d probably have settled for a cramped kip on a coach, but just as other despatch companies, mobile networks and ISPs are available, so are roads West.

Any of you who’ve read Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (even the majority who gave up when it started “getting weird”) will be familiar with the concept that when making a journey on a motorcycle, the bit between A & B is more significant than actually reaching your destination. Now I know this doesn’t hold up so well when you’re working. That the average controller, if you tell him to be more Zen, that the trip’s the important bit and he shouldn’t get so hung up on all that “arriving” shit, is likely to get a bit teed off especially if you’ve just delivered Herbert Smith’s Colnbrook half an hour after the last flight. But when you’re on your own time it’s a whole different story – the choice is yours. Forget about work, even David Beckham would get pissed off playing football from 9 till 7 every day, come rain or shine; cast your mind back to biking in its purest, most sublime form, when the journey really was the only point and the destination an incidental, as often as not decided by the fact that it was at the end of a particularly nice stretch of road.

OK on this occasion the finish line was preordained, but the choice of route was all mine. I pulled away from the Palace (that’s Crystal, not my hutch) in the sort of sunshine that made me glad all over I hadn’t bottled out when my half-arsed plans failed to arrange themselves. I’d kind of hoped that as this was my twenty-fifth summer riding a motorcycle, I might have scrounged something a bit sexier than my trusty oil-soaked Yam – something befitting a silver anniversary. But unfortunately I got caught out, forgetting that August follows on so close behind July and never quite got my shit together. As a consequence my work-and-back plodder never got the service it was overdue for either. So on the morning I was setting off on a thousand kilometre round trip, I treated it to a tyre pressure check, chain tighten & lube, and (as if in direct contradiction to the pool that always appears around it) topped up the comparatively fresh oil with a tiny amount of Motul – and that was it. Given the vintage of my bike and my ‘maintenance regime’, it was about the equivalent of me training for a marathon by walking up to the shops to buy my fags, instead of riding like I normally do.

However, in spite of good reasons to question the 600’s ability to maintain its mechanical integrity (i.e. not fall apart in any one of the many areas it would have every right to give up the ghost in), I rode away feeling at peace with the universe. In the balmy sunshine everything felt absolutely fine and groovy – almost too good to be true – and the blast to the Westway was as swift and slick as you’d expect from a bike and rider both on home ground.

The Kamikaze pedestrians in Brixton provided the usual lively sport and MI6 got a great view of the oiliest bit of my bike (plus a throaty raspberry, courtesy of my lovely Supertrapp exhaust) as I swept onto Vauxhall Bridge. At Hyde Park Corner, Marble Arch and Lancaster Gate, I resisted the temptation to shout “Oy! Get out of my city!” to all the weekend drivers up from the sticks; although it was a laugh scaring the manure out of them, as I roared past while they circulated as if they were on tractors.

It was all fun and gently playing with the traffic, right the way to somewhere around Uxbridge. Once past there the steady 75mph cruising speed I was maintaining (a figure I’d negotiated with my bike, when it bravely agreed to attempt the journey) meant I seemed to spend a lot of time looking back at the same old faces in Volvo 440s, Maestros, and Skodas. There was little on the M40 to keep me interested, but I’d allowed for that little bit of tedium. After all there was no point in being masochistic and doing High Wycombe and all the other crap towns on the old A40 just to make a point. If by the time I reached the Irish Sea, the worst I’d had to put up with was a bit of drudgery with the herd between the M25 and Oxford, I’d be on a result.

The moment I rolled off the M40 at Oxford, the bike seemed tighter and more urgent, and although it’s dual carriageway right the way in and around the ring road, the roundabouts helped to blow away any motorway fuzziness long before I hit the old A40 proper. From the edge of the city on down towards Gloucester, with the exception of the odd bit of by-pass, the road is very much as it has been since long before the first bridge was built to allow a more direct route between the Capital and South Wales. I travelled it regularly in the fifties & sixties with my family (back when bench seats meant you could get two adults and a shit load of kids in a car).

It was on one of our holidays in Swansea that I had my first bike ride, aged ten, on the back of my eighteen-year-old Uncle Paul’s cafe racer. I still have a child’s eye memory, of roaring up and around the hills and hairpins of Townhill. It was along the A40 that he and his friends used to thunder on Gold Stars, Triumph 110s, Venoms, Dominator 99s, or any one of another dozen or so (British) bikes and hybrids, that were up for a serious 200 mile blast. I sent Paul an e-mail, asking what sort of times they expected on the Swansea to London run and got this back:

“Individual times from the bottom of Wind Street, to the Ace cafe on the North Circular close to Hanger lane were always bandied about and I personally completed that run two-up on several occasions, with the time of two and a half hours always being the decent time to match. This always discounted a stop at the transport cafe in Gloucester which was sorely needed given the rough rides of that day. I’m talking here of 1965-ish on (the bikes listed above). Hard ride with one half-hour break. 3 hours, done by many, bettered by few…”

Funny when you think that now, a cafe racer is normally a bike which is mass-produced in Japan, tarted-up with plastic and sold to wannabe racers – who then use it to tear from KFC to the McDonald’s drive-through and back again. Thirty-five years ago it was very much an individual machine, stripped down, tuned up, and usually drilled and wired to stop it shaking itself apart. Cafe racing was exactly what they were doing then and is therefore the perfect example of the ride as the whole point. Paul and the other ton-up boys (and girls), didn’t race to the Ace because it served the best all day breakfast within a 200 mile radius, they did it because it lay at the other end of a testing ride (by the way, anyone who’s unimpressed with the times quoted, ought to bear in my mind that although there wasn’t the traffic then, by extension, there weren’t any by-passes! So they had to go through Cardiff, Gloucester, Oxford, High Wycombe and a host of smaller towns and villages on the A40 and 48 en route to their egg, bacon, bubble and beans).

However on my trip, I was more interested in sharing their feeling of freedom than taking a tilt at any licence-shredding, pre-national speed limit, records. The 75mph which had been such a drone on the motorway, was a good pace on the pleasantly undulating A road; and a short blast to 85 or 90 was plenty to turn a trio of posing R1s into blurred history in the bar-end, as I rolled past the traffic and round the sweeping bends.

I pulled into Northleach well on reserve, and failing to find a petrol station I stopped for a Tango, a fag, and a Boost before heading back to the A40. But I didn’t even make the quarter mile back to the main road before the bike, going uphill on full throttle, coughed twice and trickled to a halt. As I looked up and down the road pathetically a Land Rover pulled out of the dairy farm opposite, and when I shouted across to the driver he told me the closest petrol was a bit less than a mile back down the hill and up over the other side. What had been a glorious sunny day looked like turning into its downside: a long sweaty push.

Fortunately the farmer turned out to be a genuine “milkman of human kindness”, because as I took off my lid and started to push, he spotted me in his mirror and did a three-pointer. He apologised, saying he hadn’t realised I was already dry and told me to wait there for a moment. I wasn’t desperately disappointed at not having to push the bike, so I lit another fag and waited.

He was back from his farmyard with a can before I’d finished it and I gratefully tipped in the 5 quid’s worth of unleaded he informed me was inside. It was no surprise when he said he rode a bike and as I gratefully handed over a fiver and waved him off, I couldn’t help reflecting that considering I was trying to be very Zen about this journey, I had to be sitting on some seriously good karma. I’d gone from a severely burst bubble (i.e. the prospect of pushing my bike uphill under the hottest sun I’d felt all summer) to back on the road rescued, in less time than it takes to suck a Silk Cut down to the butt.

After topping the bike up, I stayed on the A40 right through to Abergavenny and although it was dual carriageway all the way from Ross-on-Wye, it had the occasional roundabout and was never tedious with Monmouthshire as a backdrop. In Abergavenny I considered stopping at the cafe by the river, where there were thirty or forty bikes fanned around the car park; but I’d have felt like I’d turned up at a white tie and tails do in Bermudas and sandals. Someone must have slaughtered lots of very shiny multicoloured cows because everyone, bar none, seemed to be wearing coordinated leathers, complete with knee sliders. I wasn’t unduly ashamed of my jeans, lace up copy Caterpillars, black leather jacket and cheap black crash hat, but I didn’t want to embarrass my trusty bike by exposing it to all that garish plastic.

Instead I chose the Abergavenny pizza, burger, kebab, fish & chips, Indian and Chinese take-away. I went for the burger and took it away to sit on the bike outside. There I had a great chat with the old guy whose wife cooked everything inside. “There’s lovely the A40 is on a bike like that.” he reassured me, while I dropped tomato and mayonnaise onto the flies that spattered the front of my jacket. When I was leaving, he told me to make sure I checked out an obelisk, which I’d find alongside the road just before Llandovery. It was erected in 18 something or the other and commemorates a mail coach crash where around a dozen people died. I promised to keep an eye out and reverberated out of town.

Of course he was right about the road, but then I knew that. The Romans thought they were real clever bastards, what with their baths and straight roads that go on forever; but what good are either of them to a biker? The Welsh have got it better sussed. They looked at the mountains and said, sod knocking that lot down, let’s follow the rivers and chip a bit off the edge. A few years ago the Chief Inspector of some County in Mid Cymru was complaining in the press about bikers coming to Wales and treating it like a racetrack. To which my friend Mark replied: “Serves them right for having such lovely roads and so much breathtaking fucking scenery running alongside them.”

I pulled into Brecon to fill up, exhilarated by the ride but had a nasty start when I saw an excessive number of yellow jackets and blue pointy hats at the edge of town. It turned out they were there for the Jazz Festival rather than any sweep against bikers; but that didn’t stop me from freaking a bit when I got caught in a diversion and went on a long Stephen King type loop, which, after two or three miles, brought me back to ride noisily past them again. I got it right second time ‘round and headed off in a light drizzle that looked like it might pass. By the time I reached the monument I’d been advised to check out, it seemed like a good time to put my waterproofs on. I read an inscription warning against the dangers of insobriety while driving and reached in my pocket for a smoke… Which was when I noticed the gap where my wallet should have been.

I’d used it in the petrol station, I remembered carrying it into the bog with my gloves… Shit! I scrubbed round the waterproofs, kicked the bike back to life and shot off back in the direction I’d just come from. The rain got heavier and I passed a number of bikes with a lot more rubber, but clearly less sense of urgency. I slowed down as I pulled into Brecon because the police had already had two opportunities to make a fuss about my exhaust and it seemed silly to push my luck. I’d ridden all the way back with all thoughts of happy hippy karma dissolving in the rain, but half a dozen words with the young guy behind the counter saw me beaming all over my face, not even pissed off that it required another £4.10 to restore the tank to where it had been three quarters of an hour earlier.

There was no point in putting my waterproofs on by then, my nuts were as wet as they were going to get and I didn’t see much benefit in sealing everything in plastic. I waved to the obelisk as I passed it and waved goodbye to the A40 shortly after, when I headed up the A482 towards Lampeter. As I followed the river route, I couldn’t help reflecting that if I hadn’t listened to the guy in Abergavenny, I’d have been miles further, perhaps at my destination, before I discovered my cock-up. The thought of that kept me buoyed as the sun, which had been around throughout the rain, finally outran me.

When my headlight fell off, I was well and truly in the dark. One minute I was riding along with rain plopping through the canopy of trees and the river on my left; the next, there were a serious set of chevrons ahead and a road narrows sign, indicating I needed to peel off a lot of speed fast to swing over a humpback bridge and switch banks. I compressed the forks, hit a few bumps and my headlight, minus retaining bolts, leapt off its casing and dangled like a glow worm near the front wheel. Inwardly I screamed “Shiiit!!!” but I’d been riding at such a pitch due to the conditions, I managed to stop without dumping it or shearing off the cables that provided my lifeline.

I’d hit a rhythm that had allowed me to ignore the seeping dampness, and the night ride on unfamiliar wet roads had become perversely enjoyable. So I hooked the light back on at the top and pushed it back into place. With nothing to secure it, I decided I’d keep it on by the power of positive thought. I didn’t do too bad either. After it had fallen off a second time, I realised it gave a wobbling warning flicker before it dived for the floor; and three or four stops to push it back into place saw me in Fishguard asking directions from a quartet of young lovelies outside a pub. They stood there in their teeny dresses, oblivious to the steady rain, and directed me to my journey’s end with their gorgeous Cerys Matthews accents.

Ten minutes later I was dripping at my destination – almost against the odds, but never against the grain. I could have taken the motorway and saved myself a load of time, but I’ve never understood that concept. Where do you keep the time you’ve saved? And when do you get to use it? Half a day spent stimulating all your senses, meeting people and following the course of ancient roads and even older rivers on a willing bike is like Alka-seltzer for the soul! Why would anyone want to foreshorten the experience? People pay good money on drugs to get to that sort of place. Three hours of mind numbing M4 is an eighth of a day pissed away, with absolutely nothing to show for it. Why waste any of your life? You never know when the odd eighth could make all the difference.

Nah, when it comes to a trip on a bike: You can take the M road; I’ll take the Zen road.

Be careful out there – take it karma!

Carin’ Sharin’

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