If you’re one of TRD’s new readers, welcome. I’ve got to say that it positively cooks my cockles, to think there are now more people utilising my literary efforts to while away their time on the bog. However a rapidly expanding readership, doesn’t come without its difficulties. Aside from obvious considerations like a host of extra critics to snigger at my erratic punctuation, there’s also the feeling that I need to provide extra explanation and justification, for actions that a regular reader would take for granted.
If I’d started this piece by describing how I followed a red-headed stranger for over twenty miles, before stopping her in a quiet side street, a newcomer might consider it a little weird. Whereas if I were speaking solely to the initiated (who are well acquainted with my obsessive and often downright dangerous behaviour when it comes to testarossas) they’d figure it was par for the course and I could’ve launched straight in without any preamble or clarification. Because the only surprise for the regulars, is that on this occasion I didn’t end up eating tarmac.
However it may even raise the odd eyebrow among long term readers, when I add that my dear 74 year old arthritic mum was with me at the time. So perhaps a smidgen of explanation is required after all. First off when I said that I followed a young woman for 20 miles, I didn’t mean that I stalked her (with my old white-haired mum hobbling alongside on a zimmer frame) along the streets of some anonymous city. Alright I did kind of imply it, but in reality it happened quite innocently on the open road. To be precise it happened on the road between Athlone and Waterford.
Me and Ma had flown into Shannon four days earlier and we were half way through a B&B tour around the Republic. It was the realisation (albeit condensed to 7 days) of a promise my father had made her thirteen years earlier. After four decades working as a technician at University College London, my dad retired with a decent pension and they’d both decided to make the most of it. That year they visited my aunt in NZ and the next they stayed with my younger brother in Guatemala. Over the forty years they shared they’d visited most of the UK’s beauty spots, but they had never managed to get to Ireland. While they were in Central America, they discussed taking a month or two to redress that situation the following year; but as they were making their plans they were unaware that my dad was enjoying his last Summer.
So it was that I found myself cruising past some of the most staggering scenery he never had the opportunity to see. Driving sedately in a Focus with my Ma riding shotgun, couldn’t have been further from doing the same journey at a brisker pace on a bike. Nonetheless my brain seems to have become hard-wired for just that task, so I couldn’t help but view every twist in the road or variation in the surface, with a biker’s perspective. With that insight it was easy to drive the Ford with all the poise of a chauffeur, which stopped my mother twitching and allowed me to quietly imagine how I’d cover the same ground on the right bike.
That’s quite a leap for any imagination, considering that at the time I was strapped indoors with me mum and a fella who sounded like Terry Wogan’s younger brother yabbering out of the panels. But bikes are never completely out of my mind; besides I met my mum with my suitcase bungied to the SRX and three hours after setting foot on Irish soil, I was in Tony’s barn admiring his DRZ400. He rode a Divvy when he had a des res near Farnham, but once bought his ‘house in need of modernisation’ in Co. Claire, both the local terrain and his needs were different. Tony, Pat and Finehan are living in a caravan while Tony builds a new wing, because the ‘house’ is largely derelict. It’s barely a rough stone step up from the hundreds of roofless piles you see across the West of Ireland (which provide a poignant testimony to the effects of ‘The Hunger‘ and the years of mass emigration that preceded the recent EU seeded boom). Tony and I had moved in the same circles for years, but typically it was on a trip to Le Mans in ’94 that we really got to know each other.
The next day before the bright sun reached its high point, we were at the Cliffs of Moher and I was making a pathetic attempt to get closer to the precipitous brink. They are absolutely staggering but before I got within ten foot of the edge, I could feel my nuts tighten and my full Irish breakfast pushing at the rear escape hatch. In the end I knelt and managed to get a yard or so closer, but I was reluctant to make a complete prat of myself by laying down and shuffling on my stomach so I backed off until I stopped shaking, then took a few snaps.
There where whole herds of elderly overweight Americans, but they were largely inoffensive and even they couldn’t block a vista on that sort of scale. I wasn’t surprised to see a number of bikes scattered around the car park and I stopped to have a chat with a Danish couple who had stretched out to enjoy a little spectacular static scenery for a change. They mentioned that they had a bike each and sure enough, later as we drove slowly around Claire’s northern coast, we were passed by his and hers six and twelve hundred Bandits with DK plates. I waved but they didn’t seem to see me.
In wild and beautiful Connemara, with its occasional, and invariably Gaelic signposts, we got lost all over the place; but as we hadn’t really planned to go anywhere and we bumped into one stunning land or seascape after another, it wasn’t a problem. We stopped in Aasleagh and I came across three bikes from the UK mainland. The laden R1150GS, Kawasaki W650 and 900 ‘Blade provided quite different and distinct means of covering the ground. I’d have been fascinated to have spoken to their riders but they could’ve been in any of the half dozen shops, bars or eateries which clustered at the remote cross-roads. After lunch we travelled to Aughrus More which was far west as we could get in the car; before doubling back through Aasleagh and turning north. Driving through Westport I spotted the GB trio again, but this time they had dozens of hiding places, and all of them seemed to be teeming with vibrant attractive young people.
By Sunday afternoon, although I’d seen loads on the road (and regularly ached to swap the car for one) I hadn’t had a meaningful conversation about bikes since I left Tony’s. I’d travelled through some of the most beautiful scenery I’d ever witnessed, on roads that simply begged to be covered on two wheels; but without another biker to share my excitement and wonderment with, I was afraid it would all slip away and that when I tried to describe it later, I’d question my recollection and wonder whether it was real or simply a drug fuelled wish dream.
As I drove past Stonyford with all these thoughts in my head, I registered a garage on the opposite side of the road and as we passed I was aware of a bike waiting to pull off the forecourt. It was just a peripheral thing, but did a quick double-take before turning my focus back to the Focus. The bike took advantage of a gap in the oncoming traffic and moments later it was growing in my mirrors. I moved over to the edge of the soft verge, sending a clear message that although I was driving a car, I knew it was there and the rider was cleared to pass; and as the bike accelerated through the channel, the rider flipped me the traditional left handed thank you. The XJR slotted in front and waited for another opportunity to leap frog the column. Which presented me with a Brucie’s bonus, because from beneath the rider’s Nolan tumbled an amazing mane of bright orange curls.
At the next overtaking gap she looked over her shoulder, but an Audi was already out there. When she got another shot she came within inches of tragedy. A homicidal lunatic in a BMW, was almost alongside her doing around 120, when her last second life saver did just that. But she was clearly shaken and when it began drizzling, it was obvious she’d had enough drama and decided not to push it on the busy meandering N road. So it was that we ended up trailing those tangerine tangles all the way to Waterford.
Now I’m not a religious man, but I’ve gotta tell you when I saw a REDHEAD riding a MOTORBIKE (and not any woosy little bike either) it did make me wonder for a moment if there was a God and if She was simply winding me up by tossing teasing mirages in my direction. Because the two things in life which are absolutely guaranteed to turn my head, are an interesting bike and bright red hair. In a nutshell, if you could produce Kelly Reilly (the young Helen Mirren in the excellent “Last Orders”) sitting on a 998 and occasionally tossing her copper locks in the sunlight, you’d have my undivided attention.
While aesthetically it was a pleasure to sit behind her for almost half an hour, the possibility she might disappear at any moment made it an extended agony. I hadn’t been planning to write about my travels with my mum and a rental Ford in this mag, but the moment her curls fluttered into my life, sentences containing “Redhead” & “Motorbike” kept running through my mind and I realised I owed it to the regulars to write them down. However I also knew that without speaking to her and getting some pictures, I’d have nothing to hang that lovely pair of words on and all my lyrical rumination would be wasted.
She suddenly made a break for it when she hit what turned out to be home turf in Waterford and it required a few white van style lane changes – and my mother saying “David!” a couple of times in that tone she does – but I managed to hang on; then as I said I tooted her to a halt in a side street. It’s not really in my nature to scare women, especially women on bikes, but I figured that as I had a frail white-haired woman in the passenger seat, she’d realise that I wasn’t a complete maniac (that is unless she’d seen Psycho). Although as I jumped out of the car it was my pale blue shirt that really freaked her. As I stood ten feet away, arms at my side palms outwards, spluttering an apology for my outrageous behaviour, she clutched a hand to her breast and said “Jeysus… I thought you were the Gardai!”.
She was so relieved that she wasn’t nicked for speeding that she accepted my lame story about being a bike mag columnist, who’s travelling with his septuagenarian mother and only writes about bikes and redheads. She introduced herself as Annie O’Sullivan and graciously allowed me to take some snaps while she explained that she’d returned from a bike rally early because of work. When she told me that work was behind the bar in “The Old Ground” and how to get there, adding that I’d see her bike out front, my night was sorted and this story begun.
I tucked Ma up at the B&B with a TV remote in her hand and headed for the pub. I’d expected music and a young biker crowd, but it was actually a regular local. The punters were mainly men, but my entrance caused a ripple of interest, rather than any OK corral silence and Annie appeared looking scrubbed and fresh, before I had a chance to feel uncomfortable. In between meeting the alcoholic, conversational and quite likely emotional needs, of some fifty odd people, she answered some questions.
She started riding bikes when she was 18 and in the seven years since then she’s become completely hooked. Starting with a TS100, she progressed to her XJR400 via a TS185 and a CBR 250. Ultimately she’d like the 1200, but at the moment she’s constrained by her license. We chatted about all sorts while she waited for Guinnesses to do their thing, but she was at her most animated when she spoke of the things that biking provides. Annie summed up everything that is good about her generation of Celtic Tigers. She is young, fresh and optimistic and is convinced that life is for living and enjoying. Riding a bike in Eire, she believes, guarantees she can feel that way whenever she wants.
She pointed me at the best biking roads between Waterford and Ennistymon, but in reality as soon as we set off we strayed off route and aside from the occasional town she’d mentioned like Kenmare or Killarney, we went our own way. All I can say is if hers were the best bits, I’d love to see them, because by sticking close to the coast we saw some amazing sights and followed some wonderful biking roads. Annie certainly didn’t mention that if you take the very squiggly N71 north, you leave Co. Cork through a dramatic tunnel, which is rough hewn through solid rock, before exiting to a complete change of scenery and a sign declaring a “Welcome to Co. Kerry” in Gaelic and English. The road continues through the Killarney National Park and what a smashing writhing snake of tarmac it is; but please, not too fast, because there’s a serious danger you may round a bend and be confronted with a scene of such awesome beauty, that you’ll completely forget about slowing down for the next one.
With breathtaking scenery around every other rock, comparisons with my mother’s Welsh homeland were obvious. But with a shore line which has been absorbing the full wrath of the Atlantic for millions of years, there’s no question in my mind that although they share spectacular geography and geology, Ireland’s ocean coastline is something else again. That said, from a bikers perspective, Irish roads generally don’t come anywhere near the billiard table smooth, beautifully surfaced ribbons, bikers have come to expect (and abuse) in Wales. But don’t let that put you off, even a street boy like me knows there’s more to biking than predictable surfaces.
In reality the worst the Republic has to offer is no worse than you need to expect in the UK and the average is plenty good enough for touring on a bike. Looking at the road casualty figures which are prominently displayed all over the main roads, I decided that Eire wouldn’t be the place I’d visit to explore the limits of a 998, but if I could scrounge up a Triumph Tiger (or a R1150GS – anything of that ilk) and grab a couple of mates and a few more days, I reckon we could have a right crack.
I hope my mum enjoyed her trip; and the company provided some of the things she had hoped for.
Minutes before Annie whooshed into my live, when I was strolling around a picturesque churchyard smoking and reading some heartfelt inscriptions on grave stones, it occurred to me that as he was cremated (and his ashes spread on a public golf course in the Gower) my father never had a permanent inscription to his memory. He also never saw anything I wrote, because I started after he died; but I think he might have enjoyed this – and I’m certain he would have liked Annie. So I’d like to dedicate this piece to him.
Tom Gordon Gurman
3 Aug 1922 – 6 July 1990
In a contradictory and confusing world, He taught me the importance of reliable information. When he told me life is to be enjoyed, I heard his advice and studied his example and found no reason to doubt his sincerity or his wisdom.
This first appeared in issue 59 of The Rider’s Digest in the summer of 2002.