Advent Day 8 – We got to do our alma mater

“We want to make good time, but for us now this is measured with emphasis on ‘good’ rather than ‘time’ and when you make that shift in emphasis the whole approach changes.”

Second Sunday in Advent – time for one of the big guns. I’ve written about Zen before and I’m sure I’ll write about it again, so I apologise in advance if I’m repeating myself.

Yesterday’s book was perhaps not really a travel book but this one is doubly eligible – it’s about motorcycle travel and I took it round Europe carefuly wrapped in a paper bag, but this was six years before I had a licence so it was an Interrail tour with a US university acquaintance. We didn’t know each other well when we set out and we were ready to murder each other when we got back, but looking back now, she did me a massive favour by challenging my conditioning that every day and every outing had to be planned to the nth degree. I’m still not totally cool about just going with the flow and seeing what happens, but I know I’d be so much worse if it hadn’t been for 2 weeks riding the trains with Lowrie.

Anyway – Zen. I bought the book before I could ride, but when I knew that I wanted to. And of couse as anyone who has picked it up knows, you get a bit about a cross-contiental US trip, you get a bit about motorcycle maintenance and you get a whole lot of 1970s patchouli-scented philosophy. And then you realise the importance of the trip – that the narrator has undergone ECT or a similar hugely interventionist mental heath intervention and the trip is an attempt to remember who he is and reconnect with his son.

I read it every ten years or so and I find different things in it each time. And although the joke is that there isn’t a lot of motorcycle maintenance in it, I would disagree. Even the start is about maintenance – a retelling of a scene where Pirsig’s travelling companion can’t get his bike started because he’s got it on full choke on a hot day.

“I smell gas like we’re next to a refinery and tell him so, thinking this is enough to let him know his engine’s flooded.

‘Yeah, I smell it too,’ he says, and keeps on pumping.”

Later in the book Pirsig builds on this idea and divides bikers into Romantics and Classics –

“A classical understanding sees the world primarily as underlying form itself. A romantic understanding sees it primarily in term of immediate appearance. If you were to show an engine or a mechanical drawing or electronic schematic to a romantic it is unlikely he would see much of interest in it. Is has no appeal because the reality he sees is its surface. Dull, complex lists of names, lines and numbers. Nothing interesting. But if you were to show the same blueprint of schematic or give the same description to a classical person he might look at it and then become fascinated by it because he sees that within the lines and shapes and symbols is a tremendous richness of underlying form.”

Which I thought was bollocks until I was chatting with a biker friend on twitter and realised he is an archetypal Romantic – he loves to ride but sees no value in getting stuck into maintenance. He can pay someone else to fettle his bike. Working on his own bike is not part of motorcycling, for him, and would actually diminish the joy he gets from riding.

There’s no judgement here. One of the things I learned about myself since buying and reading Zen all that time ago is that I really enjoy taking a bike that isn’t working right and making it run better.   I wish I was a better mechanic. But it is interesting how much of my approach to problem-solving, to doing the best job I can, comes back to the ideas set out by this old hippie. (Though I suppose he was a young hippie when he wrote it.) And my horror of trusting other people to do the work for me – in fact once you’ve waded through one of the heftier lumps of philopsphy there’s a whole section giving reassurance on why you should try complex jobs yourself:-

“there’s a school of mechanical thought which says I shouldn’t be getting into a complex assembly I don’t know anything about. I should have training or leave the job to a specialist. That’s a self-serving school of mechanical eliteness I’d like to see wiped out. That was a ‘specialist’ who broke the fins on this machine…You’re at a disadvantage the first time around and it may cost you a little more because of parts you accidentally damage, and it will almost undoubtedly take a lot more time, but the next time around you’re way aead of the specialist. You, with gumption, have learned the assembly the hard way and you’ve a whole set of good feelings about it that he’s unlikely to have.”

I suppose that’s a lot of words for a simple idea. Here’s the same philosophy in the words of the Proprietor of the Northern Rest Home for Distressed Machinery: “what a man can do.”


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Advent Day 7 – I predict a riot

It had been a bad trip … fast and wild in some moments, slow and dirty in others, but on balance it looked like a bummer.”

More of an anthropological journey today than a physical one, but hey – my challenge, my rules, innit.

There are a lot of books about travelling, but not all of them are good, because the skills necessary to successfully ride round the world and the skills to write a good book about it don’t necessarily overlap.

Similarly, there are many books about the Hells Angels. Some of them written by senior Angels like Sonny Barger, some by the law enforcement officers tasked with infiltrating the club – and this one, by one of the best writers about motorcycling there has ever been.

Hunter S Thompson set out to discover the truth about the Angels at a time when the USA loved little better than a good old moral panic – of which today’s second book is an excellent example!

Hunter is famous for drink, drugs and excess but at heart he was a journalist of the old school. How do you find out about a biker subculture? You hang out with them – and Hunter devoted the best part of a year to his research.

“For nine months I had lived in a world that had seemed, at first, like something original. It was obvious from the beginning that the menace bore little resemblance to its publicised image, but there was a certain pleasure in sharing the Angels’ amusement at the stir they’d created.”

The stakes were high – the Angels took a robust attitude to feedback.

“I remembered a night in my apartment when one of the Frisco Angels had said, with a beery smile, that if they didn’t like what I wrote they’d come over some night to kick down my door, throw gasoline into the hall and put a match to it.”

It’s a great book, and for me, an honest attempt to write about the Angels without buying into the hype.

And it ends with another affirmation of what we all know to be true:-

“The edge is still out there. Or maybe it’s in. The association of motorcycles with LSD is no accident of publicity. They are both a means to an end, to the place of definitions.”


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Advent Day 6 – actually it was my motorcycle

There’s a small subgenre of motorcycyle travel books inspired by or responding to The Motorcycle Diaries. Alberto Granado, owner of the motorcycle in the diaries and road companion to Che, first published his version of the story in 1978, though it didn’t come out in English until 2003.

In many ways Alberto was the more committed activist of the two. The bike he and Che travelled on was called Poderosa II “named after Poderosa I, the bike I’d used day in and day out during my student years for distributing leaflets at demonstrations and then eluding my police pursuers.”

His account of their journey is well worth a read, if only to prove that for any story there are three versions –  yours, mine and the truth.

Since Che and Alberto wrote their stories there have also been any number of people retracing their route or using their travels to inspire new own adventures. Patrick Symmes is one of them. This book must have really annoyed me because I have written sarcastic notes in it. I never write in books – or break the spines, or fold the corners, for these were childhood crimes that would get you seriously punished. But I wrote in this one to take issue with Mr Symmes’ North American, capitalist perspective on my two favourite Marxists.

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Advent challenge Day 5 – for now just our t-shirts cry freedom

I am trying to peer back to the start of the path that took me to Cuba for my 30th birthday. Did Cuba or motorcycling lead me to pick up Che Guevara’s Motorcycle Diaries?

I’m pretty sure it was motorcycling. I took my CBT in 1995 and was working towards my test in 1996 when the paperback edition of the Motorcycle Diaries came out. Many more people know about it, and about Che’s story now, thanks to the excellent film, but it is well worth going back to the book itself, because as well as being a rugby player, a motorcyclist, an asthmatic and a revolutionary, Che is a very very good writer.

He didn’t start life as Che. That’s a nickname Argentians get when they are outside Argentina, much like Jock or Paddy. His college friends called him Fuser, the mad one. And this book – and Back on the Road, which has less motorcycling and more politics – in very large part is about how Fuser, the son of genteel but impoverished parents, became one of the CIA’s most wanted men – how travelling through poverty and inequality led him to decide that a quiet life was not an option.

It does occasionally shade into People’s Poet territory, but didn’t we all write like pompous twats when we were 23?

I know Che is a controversial figure, especially if you’re reading this from the USA. This is a blog about motorcycles, not politics, so I shall only say that my opinion is based on more than a striking poster and I admire him. Not least because Alberto Granada, the friend who shared the journey this book is about, remained a loyal friend of Che and supporter of the Cuban revolution until he died. More about him tomorrow.

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Advent Day 4 – Investment Biker

There was a time when I experimented with the kind of jobs that required tailored charcoal skirt suits, a full face of make-up and a power handbag. I tried to read books by chaps that had made a lot of money, to get into the right mindset. And then I saw this – a book about business and motorcycling! What could be better?

There are, as has already been observed on twitter by @MichtyMike, certain tropes that dominate round the word motorcycle literature. One of them is that the plucky protagonist has usually only passed their test in the last few months before setting off.

Another is that funds are usually in short supply.

Jim Rogers is a little different. He’s rich. Filthy rich. His valets probably have valets. He was friends with George Soros and went into business with him in the 1970s. He’s worth about $300 million. He retired at 37 and set out round the world in 1989 after finally securing permission to travel in the Soviet Union.

His book is a bit of an insight into how the other half live (though maybe I am leaping to conclusions and one or more of you are also worth hundreds of millions of dollars. If you are, may I be the first to make it clear that I am single and happy to be a trophy wife. Though possibly the wooden spoon, not the shiny kind).

Most tales of border crossings usually involve a guard solicting a bribe and our hard-up hero declining, either on principle, or on the pragmatic grounds of not being able to afford one.

It’s quite a long time since I’ve read the book but I’m pretty sure that at one point Jim’s bike is impounded and customs suggests a small admin fee might help grease the wheels.

Jim tells them to keep it and gets another flown out to continue his journey.

(I may be making this up as I’ve had a quick flick through and can’t find it).

He’s a great writer and the book is really entertaining. And he travels for the same reason we all do: “the best way to go is by motorcycle. You see sights and smell the countryside in a way you can’t from inside the box of a car. You’re right out there in it, a part of it. You feel it, see it, taste it, hear it, and smell it all. It’s total freedom. For most travellers the journey is a means to an end.When you go by bike, the travel is an end in itself.”


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Advent Day 3 – 10 Years on 2 Wheels

Hang on, what happened to Advent Day 1 and Day 2? Well, I’m glad you asked me that and I’ll come up with a good excuse in a moment. It’s probably Jeremy Corbyn’s fault. Everything else seems to be his responsibility at the moment, it must be an election or something.

Or maybe it’s that I’ve only today decided that, in the spirit of Iceland’s Yule Book Flood, and inspired by the many different advent challenges friends are undertaking across the web, I’m going to post a different motorcycle travel book from my bookshelves every day. Advent is about journeying, after all. I hope that some of them might be new to you – though I’m sure Ted Simon and Sam Manicom might make an appearance.

So today’s book is “Ten Years on Two Wheels” by Norwegian traveller Helge Pedersen. Helge started his round-the-world ride in 1982, riding from Norway down through Europe and into Morocco. I just about remember 1982 – there’s an actor in the White House, unemployment in the UK hit 3 million, we were at war with Argentina, and Channel 4 made its debut, bringing us naughty movies, Brookside and Countdown. Like Ted Simon’s 1970s travels, the world Helge moves through has gone – it’s almost a history book as much as a travel book. Apartheid South Africa is no great loss, though!

Helge is famous not just for his beautiful photographs but for being the first overlander to take a motorcycle through the Darien Gap, between Colombia and Panama. With a set of hand-drawn maps, a machete, a pulley and a German backpacker called Joachim, he drags a BMW GS through 80 miles of rain forest.



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Acts of Kindness

It occasionally troubles me that I seem to need more looking after than a normal person. I do try to be self-sufficient, mainly because the Wingman lacks opposable thumbs and is rubbish at holding ladders, but when things go wrong I sigh, I dry my tears and then, incurring the wrath of all the efficient and effective women in the world, I ask a man for help.

Sometimes it’s even a man I know, though one of my more narrow escapes was when I had to flag a passing driver down to help me pick my Africa Twin up off the garage floor and he was most concerned that I should take his phone number and that he should come back on his way home from work to make sure I hadn’t dropped the bike again.

It’s World Kindness Day today. I’m not a very kind person. In fact I’ve recently been declared the most offensive woman someone has met in 50 years of rallying. But I do know lots of kind people and so I thought I would tell you about all the people who have helped me cure the MZ of all his various ailments. But that’s more stories than will fit in one post. So here’s just one of them…

Back in September I loaded up the tent and the dog and set off to Yorkshire for the MZ Riders Club Pheasant Camp. I didn’t get any further than Hayfield on the Friday because the bike stopped running in the rain, but that was OK because Hayfield has a brilliant camp site with a pub within the Wingman’s event horizon so we took an early bath and dried out in The Sportsman. Yorkshire was achieved the following day, and we had a lovely week trundling about, apart from the days it rained solidly which is a bit rubbish when you are stuck in a small tent with a wobbly dog.

While sitting in Middleton-in-Teesdale waiting for a bicycle race to come through I realised my lovely new whitewall tyre had stripped all of its tread. This was Not Good. I’d bought it in July because the previous tyre also had no tread in the centre. To have one bald tyre could be old age but to make another bald in about 200 miles of gentle 2-stroking – well, that wasn’t good news.

Yes, said the wisdom of the Fed. This is probably a set-up problem. They said things like “My narrow car is .5 toe in level sidecar frame and wheel at 90deg until I lean bike out 3 degrees then the sidecar frame has .187 to .250 rise on bike side so both cycles lean 3 degrees out and car tire ends up leaning opposite direction of m bike wheels the that’s done unweighted then when I sit on bike both my sidecars wheels are at 90 with only bike leaning away.” (It helps to read this in the voice of the recruiting sergeant from Alice’s Restaurant).

I needed a man who knew what that all meant. And by immense good fortune I knew one and he lives about 20 minutes from me.

Sure, said Matthew. Bring it along when you get home and I can look at it.

I didn’t much fancy 200 more miles on a bald tyre. But the north is a practical place and if you need a high-speed trailer tyre then the nearest garage will tell you where you can get one. After declining an invitation to swop the outfit for a Ducati Monster I sat with a cup of tea while a couple of highly efficient chaps refreshed my rubber, though in 20 minutes rather than an F1-style 4 handful of seconds.

And on a sunny Friday morning a week or so later, instead of setting out north for the Haggs Bank Adventure Bike Weekend I headed south for my induction into the mysteries of toe-in.

You need a washing line prop, a tape measure and a BFO hammer. You also need a lot of experience of setting up sidecars and a good eye.

It turned out to be only a one-cup problem.

The washing line prop and the tape measure revealed that my toe-in was immense – less camel toe, more moose knuckle. There was brief contemplation of removing the 8-inch wheel and fitting a big ten inch, but that escalated too quickly into needing to cut and weld the frame, so ambition was scaled back to deploying the BFO hammer to adjust the alignment so that the sidecar wheel was pointing in more-or-less the same direction as the bike.

It’s always a bit worrying watching someone take a hammer to your bike but the MZ is made of sterner stuff than me and raised no complaints. One quick lap of the village later to check for handing problems and we were done. I trundled home and Matthew got on with whatever he actually had planned for the day.

If you don’t have the good fortune to live near Matthew you can buy his book. And if you buy the book you will get to admire a picture of the Bishop illustrating one of the finer points of sidecar geometry.

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The small package good things come in*

2FD5AFDB-8504-4224-87BA-32841B73D36BStrictly has started and that means two things to look forward to – endless rounds of “but it’s a dance contest not a popularity contest” at work, and the slathering of our roads with a toxic brew of salt, molasses and grit that sticks to bikes like glitter to fake tan.

I could park Bishop Brennan up for the winter but I’ve just endured 2 days without a bike and it’s a safe bet that 6 months without riding would see me in an institution. Possibly prison.

So there’s only one way forward – it’s time to apply protection. For the past 5 years maintenance has been an existential battle, involving top end rebuilds, carb refurbs, exhaust decokes, caliper overhauls and welding. The idea of doing something planned in advance – the stitch in time that saves nine, if you like – is a rare novelty.

Like many aspects of biking, asking about the best means of protection from the horrors of winter reveals a community split on tribal lines. Are you Team ACF50, Team Scottoiler, or somewhere on the wilder shores of Cover it in Diesel and Wait Until Spring?

It could be argued that one of the advantages of riding a 2-stroke is that it generates its own oily shroud. But this winter I’m trying the new pocket-sized bottles of Scottoiler’s FS 365 bike protection spray.

FS 365 has been around for a while – in fact I should hang my head in shame and admit I’ve got a litre of it in the garage which I’m fairly certain I’ve moved through six house moves without ever getting any on a bike. It’s big and a bit awkward to use and life has been about lurching from emergency to emergency for too long.

The new bottles are a much more comfortable 250ml, designed with the aim of encouraging new users to pick one up and give it a go.

So on Monday I spent my brucie bonus day off giving the Bishop a bath (and yes, I did need to spell-check that carefully) and then covering him in the special brew of mineral oil, surfactant, anti-corrosion additives and water. The idea is that the water carries the spray across the surface of the bike and then evaporates, leaving a protective barrier between your bike and the winter.

First impressions? I like the colour. Teal is very on trend for 2019 and apparently stands for trustworthiness, reliability and spiritual advancement.  The smaller bottle is really easy to use, especially when you’ve got a sidecar blocking access to one half of your bike. I found there was a fair bit of run-off – it’s possible I was spraying with a little too much enthusiasm – but as the product is water-based and biodegradable I didn’t feel too guilty about sluicing it off the drive into the gutter. And – another shallow one, I’m afraid – even after application, the bike still looked clean, and not like something that had just had a layer of oil spread over it.

The key areas of concern for me are the MZ’s spokes and rims. Stainless spokes aren’t recommended for sidecar outfits as they’re too brittle, so I need to be sure that rust is being kept at bay. So I’ll be keeping a close eye and reporting back.

  • Scottoiler are giving away a FS 365 Complete Bike Protector 250ml Compact Spray with all Chain Oiler Kits and Scorpion Dual Injectors bought from their online shop between now and 9 October; or the spray bottle can be bought as a standalone item from bike shops and online. Normally it’s  £3.99 but until 9 October there’s a 25 per cent discount on all FS products in the online store so it’s yours for a bargain £2.99!

* One of the best lines from The Big Bang Theory.


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Into the Valley*

It always adds a little something to a trip when you set off in the teeth of a Met Office “risk to life” warning. On their website the whole of England had been covered in a yellow puddle labelled “wind,” which isn’t great when you’re planning on camping.

I compromised. I spent Friday night in a curry house with a hot date (yes, further proof that the end times are upon us) and set out on Saturday morning, doing my best to time things so that the Wingman and I would emerge from under the rain cloud lightly drizzling on our home city and head to the Tern Valley Vintage Machinery Trust Annual Show under dry skies.

It nearly worked.

When I say nearly, we arrived in the sunshine but that was the first we had seen of it.

Now, I’m not a wimp about riding in the rain. My ability to charm water from a clear blue sky is in fact legendary. But it’s the Wingman, you see. He’s getting on a bit and getting rained on isn’t great for his arthritis. I have provided him with a screen but Bishop Brennan didn’t come with a tonneau cover or hood. So I wrapped him in his Scruffs thermal dog jacket, the one that makes him look like Emperor Palpatine, and tried to explain about lying down so only his nose got wet. And we duly trundled up Watling Street to Shropshire.

There is something uniquely lovely about heading to an event and knowing your friends are already there. The Wartburg-Trabant-IFA Club UK were representing not just with The World’s Worst Car (TM) but also a selection of Eastern Bloc scooters so Bishop Brennan needed to join the throng and fly the flag for MZs.

We even did a bit of evangelism among small children. I totally respect that many bikers don’t want the littlies clambering over their machines but the MZ has two advantages – it’s not going to topple over, thanks to the chair, and it’s pretty robust (or already battered to f***,  take your pick!). So when two small boys and their little sister ran up and looked hopeful I asked dad if they would like to sit in – or on! – and the grins on their faces made up for all the soggy miles.

And then two little girls proved once again that girls will rule the world once they realise their power.

“Can we go for a ride?”

Now, I’ve never taken human passengers so this was quite a step up. Mum and dad didn’t mind, they’d already been happy for the girls to have a lap of the field standing on the running boards of a Simson Schwalbe. So I loaded one in the chair and one on the seat and off we went.

It sounded like this:


“Can we go again?”


“Can we go again?”


“Can we go again?”


“Can I hold the bars myself?”

Very briefly and in a straight line was the answer to that one!

These days we don’t have Kickstart on the telly to get kids into riding so we all have to do our bit. I think they enjoyed it…




*no, not the MAG one


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Welcome back to the age of jive!

It is time for a new tyre on the Wingman’s chair. It had a small tour of Warwickshire yesterday thanks to an erratic delivery person but got here safe in the end. Wasn’t expecting the white wall!

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