I passed my motorcycling test in July 2008. I did it down at Exeter after finishing my degree, spending a harrowing five days cocking up, dropping Kawasaki ER-5s, snapping off brake levers, braking too much when the lever was attached and generally just…..well, cocking up. All under the watchful stare of my masochistic instructor, who was a former Canadian mountie. And yet somehow, on the fifth and final day, it all came together and I passed, and very elation-inspiring it was too. I still remember being told I could ride back on my own to the training centre, and getting that 500cc Kawasaki onto the road and opening it up solo for the first time. As any biker will attest, that moment of freedom is pretty unique. A car wafts you along, with you sat down in an armchair with the radio on. You could have your slippers on and a cat on the passenger seat if you so desired. But a motorbike is just a machine designed specifically so that everything falls to your necessary extremities and then propels just you (unless you have a passenger, but essentially just you) along. It is a motorised horse in the true sense, and its openness and the visceral aspect of riding the bike arouses some definite Neanderthalic impulses in me.
Another thing rarely mentioned is the way in which a biker experiences the landscape. Smells waft in through your helmet; if I go past a road side stand selling bacon sandwiches, I smell the bacon strongly. I smell women’s perfumes as I ride down a high street. I even smell the cow shit as I ride past a farm. In some sense, being a biker is like being a very low-flying bird: you waft along at incredible rates interacting with the world around you, and you feel fully exposed to that world.
Now every person to whom I’ve mentioned that I ride a bike to has trotted out a horror story to me about biking. This got amputated, that got broken, life escaped thusly from his body blah blah blah. No need. My cousin experienced the landscape so strongly whilst once on the back of a motorbike that he flew over a hedge. My uncle, who now lives in Douglas on the large race circuit they call the Isle of Man, crashed his bike so badly that he had to have that horrible metal scaffolding through his leg. My own dad went under a bus in Trafalgar Square whilst working as a motorcycle messenger in the 1970s. So I know it’s dangerous. The other day I had a stark reminder of this. Cutting through traffic during rush hour I slipped to the front of a queue at a big two-laned roundabout, only for the van in the right hand lane to then pull past me and begin turning into me, whereupon I gesticulated wildly at the driver and suggested through the medium of mime that he might do well to look in his left-side wing-mirror occasionally.
It is strange, as you stand there with the bike ticking over, wrapping your scarf, pulling on your helmet, fastening your gloves, thinking “This could be the last ride I ever make” – it tends to make a philosopher out of you, having an existentialist conundrum every time you go down to the shops. You don’t get that in a Vauxhall Insignia. And I think it’s why most bikers you meet feel such a camaraderie with each other. I make the comparison between being a biker and being on a rugby team. A rugby team has a camaraderie because it knows that individual players could take a massive hit at any time in a match and that it could be any one of them who gets it. Without getting too macabre, I think you understand the comparison. Hence why as a mark of respect bikers will often doff their helmet as they ride past one another. And so it may be dangerous, but until you’ve been alone on a B-road at 6 o’clock in the evening on one of the the last days of summer, with a motorbike to play with and no traffic to slow your progress, you won’t quite know what I mean.