Category Archives: Riding

My own private gulag

Ummed and ah’ed a bit about writing this because essentially it’s just a massive moan, but it’s a moan that reveals some really troubling attitudes so I’ve cracked open the Kronenbourg and I’m going for it.

This morning I went to a Motoring Event billed as the past, present and future of vehicles. Let’s pretend that you don’t know who was organising it, otherwise we’d have to get into right of reply and that would just get tedious.

Why did I go? Because I got an email asking anyone interested in displaying a vehicle to get in touch. I thought an Eastern Bloc sidecar would be an interesting addition to the vehicular gallery, given how sidecars were low-cost family and trade transport at a time when cars were only for the top brass. I got my joining instructions and I rolled up this morning, before 8am, on a day when the skies were grey and the forecast was Deluge.

The cars were being lovingly greeted and arranged in the prime spot on the plaza.

“Where do you want me?”

“Oh, bikes usually go over there by the steps. Just head over there and one of the men will come and talk to you.”

Over by the steps? That’s where bikes park when they’re just …. parking.

I learnt many useful things from Big Chief Polar Bear and one of them was “if other people are being vague, do what you want to do and they’ll probably just agree.”

So I parked about halfway up the plaza, next to a big sign so it was clear I was part of the event, and near a handy concrete feature that I could sit on if I got tired.

Then a nervous chap in hi viz shuffled up, presented a bucket and asked for my donation.

This was the first time it was mentioned that this was a paid-for opportunity. I had been promised a voucher for a free pastry if I bought a coffee. At no point was it suggested that I would need to make a donation for the privilege of getting up at 6.30am on my weekend and freezing my tits off. I expressed this to him, more or less in these words, and he shuffled off again saying “thank you for the feedback.”

More cars came in, and were lovingly arranged.

I remained on the edge of the plaza.

Now, I accept that I am unusually prone to feeling unwelcome. But politically, this was really bad. An event promising to showcase the future of transport has excluded bikes from the main display and left us “over there by the stairs.”

I accosted a BeardedBro in another hi-viz, while a vintage chap on a Triumph put–putted over to join me.

“Oh,” said the Beard. “We always put the bikers on the edge. You’re our security. If people get funny we say behave yourselves or the bikers will sort you out.”

Let’s unpack that.

The problem with that statement isn’t just that bikers aren’t part of the transport mix, not welcome to line up with the other vehicles on the plaza. (Well, eventually it was conceded we could shuffle over once all the cars were in. Like an afterthought).

The problem with that statement is that Progressive Beard Dude thinks we’re just thugs.

I fixed him with my best beady glare and said “Don’t you think that’s a bit of an outdated stereotype?”

“Oh no,” he bearded back at me. “One of my friends is a biker and he doesn’t mind.”

I bloody mind.

Later on the Mayor turned up in his official car. He was met by a rush of hi-viz organisers and ushered straight past the four bikes – two of them built just up the road – to admire the cars.

Maybe I had missed something and it was just a car event? But I sent a photo of the outfit to be sure they knew what I was offering to bring. There was an opportunity there to say “actually this is just for cars but we do plenty of other stuff where bikes can come along.” But they didn’t.

And they didn’t say they’d be asking for money either.

So I finished the coffee I’d brought with me in my thermos, got a push start from the vintage chaps, and huffed off home.

No-one, at any point, said “thank you for coming.”

So I shan’t bother again.

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A brief word about E10

Don’t.

OK, that was probably too brief.

I like to be a good citizen. I recycle, I buy second-hand (when I’m not shopping in skips) and I don’t have children, which apparently makes a big contribution to reducing the strain on the planet.

So when the E10 announcements came out I checked my vehicles – MZ, are you having a laugh, Citroen 2CV, not listed, W650, not compatible, Triumph – compatible.

So I filled up the old girl with a tankful. Big Mistake. Huge.

I was out yesterday on a run with a few friends and I genuinely thought I had a blockage in my fuel line. Symptoms – wouldn’t pick up cleanly in any gear when rolling on; wouldn’t idle – if left without revving, would splutter to a halt in about 10 seconds.

So I started looking for E5 to start filling the tank with something more to the bike’s liking, and friends, I can tell you now that “widely available” is already a lie.

By the end of the day we’d burnt through most of the E10 and the idle is just about back to normal.

But I’m pretty devastated. That’s three motorcycles that are now on the fast track to obsolescence, and my car.

How does it benefit the planet, and its limited resources, for these four beasts to go to the scrap yard, and for me to scrape together the cash to replace them with something new?

It bloody doesn’t.

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“Did you tell them about the tiffin?”

Last night I made a teenage boy’s dream come true.

Not like that, you perverts. (TM @motonutjob)

By riding in a prom escort.

There are many advantages to being old. The first is that no pictures of my youthful indiscretions, from terrible haircuts to the aftermath of a bottle of mezcal, are on the internet.

(A brief diversion into the mezcal story. Wibbly sounds, wavy screen. Welcome to 1989, when a thrifty university acquaintance was notorious for shirking his duty to contribute to parties by bringing this revolting bottle, which may even have had a worm in the bottom. See, I have brought booze, he would say. It’s not my fault if no-one drank it. Then he would reclaim the bottle at the end of the evening, take it away, and bring it back to the next one. After a few episodes of this I spiked his guns by drinking it. Friends, it is a miracle that I am still alive.)

The second is that Prom was not a thing when I left school.

It seems that making an entrance that will be talked about for years to come is the goal, and the pressure of that must be extraordinary. The young lad’s mum explained that in recent years someone arrived in a tank, and four girls chartered a helicopter.  This particular young man had been promised a Ferrari but the offer fell through at the last minute.

If you can’t arrive in a Ferrari then arriving at the head of a motorcycle club run is, it seems, an acceptable substitute for the “will everyone be talking about this tomorrow?” test. But that’s not an easy thing to organise at short notice.

MCs aren’t everyone’s cup of tea but it’s times like this that I think show the community in its best light.

At 6pm, a handful of us “99 per centers” were waiting with mum, dad and offspring, cheerfully chomping on some truly excellent rocky road, and having a lovely chat but you could see that dad was anxious that 2 sports bikes, a Ninja and a ropey old Triumph weren’t quite the dramatic force he’d hoped for.

At 6.25pm the roar of open pipes preceded the arrival of about 8 of one of our local Outlaw-affiliated clubs.  Looked the part, sounded the part, formed up around dad with son riding pillion, in splendid vintage gear, and about half an hour later the Spectacular Entrance of Prom Requirement was duly made.

An hour out of my evening, but hopefully a life-long happy memory for one teenage boy and his family. Isn’t that what biking should be about?

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There are storms we cannot weather

I was going to write a couple of happy posts about how brilliant it was to be out in the sidecar with my Wingman camping in the sunshine.

But on the way home from Wales I had a sinking feeling that all was not well with the hairy boy.

I’m prone to “borrowing trouble” so convinced myself that I was just catastrophising and all was well, he was just a bit tired after three lovely days with new things to sniff and widdle on.

But on Friday, halfway up the country to an MZ Club camp in the Forest of Bowland, when we stopped for a photo he was singing his unhappy song. And when we got to the camp he was a miserable and grumpy hound.

Of course I felt like shit. By being so slow on the uptake I had inflicted pain and discomfort on an elderly, arthritic dog, and worst of all, he would have to go through it all again to get home.

In my defence he used to love riding in the chair and he used to love camping and scavenging bacon off friends and strangers alike. So I had been really looking forward to us being able to resume.

But the sad truth of doge life is that the year and a half we have been in lockdown is more like five years for him.

And the bitter reality is that with the help of friends I built a magnificent camping rig and the Wingman is now too frail to enjoy it.

Of course I can give up sidecar riding. I can even give up camping if I have to. But what’s been on my mind all weekend is what they tell you about how to judge whether your dog is suffering – if he stops enjoying things he used to enjoy then he’s one step closer to the trip over the rainbow bridge.

I am grateful for the luxury of time. Too many friends have lost their beloved dogs suddenly. But I lack the courage to make the call. We will go back to the V.E.T. for a painkiller review and have some gentle rides in the 2CV over the next few weeks, and then take stock.

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I saw your husband with the dog in a sidecar the other day

Now this declaration came as something of a surprise to me because I haven’t had a husband since 2010, and I’m fairly sure he doesn’t have a key to the garage. In fact, after the divorce went through he got married again and now lives in Tom and Barbara bliss somewhere near Bristol growing vegetables and planting trees. As his life is devoted to minimising his carbon footprint I’m fairly sure that he’d rather cut off his right hand than use it for the sin of opening a throttle.

About a week later another of the dogwalking ladies said something very similar – “your dog was out on a motorcycle the other day.” As if he’d sneaked down to the garage, kickstarted it and hit the road without my knowledge. Changing gear without a clutch paw would have been a challenge but the Wingman is a sagacious animal and if there were sausages at the end of the ride he would have found a way.

And it just makes me a bit sad.

When I did have the husband and lived in London men used to walk past me washing the GS down at the garages behind the flats and say “blimey, I wish my wife would wash my bike.”

20 years on and people are still making the same mistake – riding motorcycles is something men do. Or dogs. But definitely not women.

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Eye eye!

At the risk of tempting fate again, it seems we are in the fine-tuning stages of the Big K (swiftly touches wood just in case).

I’ve rotated the cow-horn bars a smidge (that’s more than a baw-hair but less than a tad, for those who were wondering) and can now see behind me in the mirrors, which is progress.

I’ve fettled the front brake caliper and fitted a power cable for the sat-nav.

This was all in aid of heading north yesterday for what would have been our first camping trip.

But last Friday, the last day of our compulsory-bonus-post-Easter-annual-leave, after my happy day in the garage doing all these little tweaks, I suddenly felt like I’d been kicked in the kidneys and had to take to my bed for a week.

So no camping. But the goal remains plenty of touring miles this year and that means sometimes it is going to rain.

In the Lomax the Wingman and I had a well-developed system where I put bike waterproofs on and he huddled under his half of the tonneau cover. I needed a similar plan for keeping him dry in the chair.

The Velorex came with a pram hood that didn’t quite fit, so I consulted David Angel and after following his instructions it fit a bit better but one of the grommets pulled out of the material and a couple of the others looked a bit sketchy.

This Would Not Do.

One of the lessons I learnt from the Proprietor of the Northern Rest Home for Distressed Machinery is, if in doubt, go heavy-duty.

I bought a set of stainless steel, fanged, 5/8 grommets from J Clarke Marine – great website, easy to order, usually turn up the next day. But while the pack of grommets was about a fiver, the Special Tool to fit them was 70 quid.

“Look for a cover maker or a sail maker near you,” said the helpful chap on the phone. Three times, because I was caught out by his splendid brogue and failed to tune in quickly enough. Sorry.

I emailed a few likely candidates, and P and B in Northampton came up trumps. A young man with a big hammer interrupted something important with sails to knock them in for me for less than the price of a pint.

I fear I am not likely to ever be an actual customer of theirs but if you are a sailing type, do please consider giving them some of your business. They seem like good people.

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Happy place

A little late – the Round Britain Rally started on Sunday, though “started” may be overstating things as the coronavirus restrictions on travel were still in force. Except in Wales. Lucky Welsh! – but I’ve finally got all my landmark locations into MapSource and onto the Garmin.

Yes, that is a Windows 7 logo on the laptop. I like MapSource. I don’t like BaseCamp. I’ve tried it, but I can’t get the hang of it. I keep the laptop for this One Job. But every year it gets a little bit more difficult to use MapSource for RBR planning. Until recently you could drop your Waypoint in MapSource and then fly to it in Google Earth to check that it was in the right place. For nearby LMs it’s overkill but for something in the remoter parts of the Highlands it takes a bit of risk out of the journey. Except now you can’t. Google Earth 7.1 doesn’t work at all any more, and the last version that talks to MapSource has had Streetview withdrawn.

This feels just petty spite.

So instead of getting stuck in to plotting, I had to spend several hours installing, deleting and reinstalling Google Earth 7.2 until it decided to work. I got very used to seeing this message.

Of course, all this technology isn’t really necessary. I have the grey hair now and the lack of knowledge of who any of the celebrities in I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here are and sometimes I revel in my Old Gimmer status and think about how much the world has changed, even in my motorcycling lifetime.

My first rally was 2003. I don’t think Google Maps existed. There was StreetMap, which just showed roads, and there was a brilliant Ordnance Survey site called GetAMap which sort of still exists but you have to pay for it and that was great for memorial cairns, chapels and other things that there are OS map symbols for. My phone was a Nokia 5510, which could send text messages – actual text, no emoji. My rally route book was full of printouts and photocopies of maps.

These days I do my research, write down the OS grid reference or the postcode, feed them into the Zumo, and job’s done.

Is that progress? I suppose it depends if you see the point of the rally as the riding, or if the research is part of the challenge. I think I miss the days when, for the really obscure landmarks, you might end up telephoning a local Tourist Information office, or emailing a local history group to ask about a memorial plaque.

But it’s important not to look back with sadness for things gone but to look for happy memories too. The LM list – top secret so I have redacted it in the spirit of the Scottish Government’s evidence to the Fabiani inquiry – changes every year but Britain isn’t so big that the same places don’t pop up on a slowly- turning rotation.

In these days of no travel it is a privilege to think back to miles ridden on sunny roads, or bloody damp ones ending with a borrow of the tumble dryer in Scrabster’s Seaman’s Mission. And in these days of isolation it’s also wonderful to be able to think of the RBR friends I have ridden some of them with.

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All things made new

I’ve already failed at the Oily Smudges Silhouette Quiz tonight so I thought I had better make good my promise and tell the picnic basket story – but made the hideous mistake of trying to post it via my computer – what the fuck is this new Block Editor and why can’t I turn it off?

Anyway.

Picnic baskets.

I have (had) two vintage Sirram cases which I’m trying to sell on Marketplace. My great weakness and one that I’m really trying to tackle is that I can’t create a difference between “that is a lovely thing” and “that lovely thing needs to be in my house.” One vintage picnic set would have been sufficient. Two is a pointless extravagance, especially when they just live under the stairs. But they don’t just have tins for sandwiches, they have kettles and spirit burners and bottles for meths and canisters for tea and sugar….a whole Arthur Ransome novel in a small blue cardboard case.

But they deserve better than my cupboard so I listed them both and one of them has sold to a chap who has a vintage Ford and wants to display it on the back seat, which I think is a much better life for it. But the overall number of picnic sets in my house is still two (bugger, it’s three if you count the 70s plastic one in the loft).

I have an excuse.

I was searching for the Sirram listing to make sure it came up when this one caught my eye.

Not for the loveliness of its tupperware nor its interesting floral mugs but because I was pretty sure it used to be mine.

For proof that I am not hallucinating after the isolation of the latest lockdown, here is me and my picnic basket in Days of Yore, some time around 1992. The future ex-husband is wooing me somewhere in the Highlands.

I gave it to a colleague for a charity auction in 2017 when I was divesting as much as I could of my worldly goods so that it would cost as little as possible to move to Scotland. But then I had to move back and start from scratch all over again, and some of the stuff I had given away I really missed.

Here it was, looking all lovely and still complete and just down the road, saying “buy me back!” It was a metaphor – it was time stop fretting over lost things, buy this one back and look forward to fruit cake and lashings of ginger beer. The charity would have made the money from the raffle, the person who had won it was getting some money for selling it, and the basket was coming back to its rightful home. Everyone gains something.

The very nice lady seller dropped it round the next morning on her husband’s low loader, which was nothing if not thorough, and it turned out it wasn’t my old one, as it’s still got its original tag on it. It’s just one from the same supplier.

But that’s OK. Because really, making progress shouldn’t be about getting your old life back. It should be about getting the things you used to like back, but better.

Here’s the old one on the back of a 2CV of happy memory – I’ve redacted my friend’s face in the spirit of the Holyrood Alex Salmond inquiry. Soon its shiny cousin will be on the back of the W650.

We will be allowed picnics from next Monday and I intend to picnic like it’s 1992. But without the getting married bit. And with more three-legged dogs and motorcycles.

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This sequestered nook of story

It’s one of the paradoxes of lockdown that with all the time in the world to do it, I can’t seem to get stuck into anything that requires even a modicum of concentration.

But a tweet about someone looking forward to a lovely afternoon of reading has encouraged me to give it another go so I have invested in a history of Scotland by Magnus Magnusson.

As we’re seeing at the moment with the culture war over Britain’s colonial heritage, history can be intensely political, so I thought it would be really interesting to see what an Icelander, albeit one who grew up in Edinburgh, makes of Scotland’s story.

As a Brucie Bonus (a Robert-the-Brucie-bonus, perhaps?) Magnus has chosen to link history and landscape in his re-telling with a really strong focus on archaeology and the physical traces of Scotland’s story, so even though I’m only at Chapter 5 – Malcolm Canmore and St Margaret – I’ve got a list of things that I really do need to go and see, from the Pictish stones of the North East to the hill fort of Dunadd in Argyll.

I’ve shied away from making plans for journeys once the lockdown lifts. Like John Cleese’s character in Clockwise, it’s the hope I can’t stand. But this tiny list – which I’m sure will grow as I get through the book – might give me something to look forward to after all.

Update

Like everything I start in lockdown, this endeavour has ended in failure with the disappointing revelation on page 65 that Mr Magnusson (and his editors) can’t tell the difference between Henry I’s wife Matilda and Henry I’s daughter the Empress Matilda. If you’ve watched (or read!) Cadfael or The Pillars of the Earth – the daughter is the one fighting King Stephen for her right to the throne of England. So it’s not exactly a trivial mistake.

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Am Luthier now

No, not Luther. I’m not wrestling my inner darkness to solve crimes. I’m wrestling nuts and saddles to make my ukulele sound nice.

One of the most important lessons that I’ve learned about fixing stuff is that Sometimes It Didn’t Come Right from the Factory.

It’s really easy to assume that the source of the problem isn’t the Thing Itself, it’s you.

Example.

I’ve had my rather posh ukulele for a few years now, and I’ve never been able to get a nice sounding G chord out of it. I assumed it was my bad technique, because it’s a good brand and cost me quite a lot.

Then last week (ish) I bought the banjolele and a book of technical exercises, because Lockdown. And everything on the banjolele sounded great. Scales were in tune, G chord didn’t sound horrible.

It wasn’t me. Which always comes as something of a surprise.

To the Internet, Batman. Apparently it’s a common issue with plastic fun ukes that the strings go sharp as you head up the frets. I’m a tad tetchy that it’s also an issue with a mahogany concert uke. But once you know what’s gone wrong you can start finding out how to fix it.

How do you fix it? You take the saddle and the nut out and file them down, really really carefully. And then you cut an Anchor plastic butter tub into little bits and shim them back up again because it’s surprisingly easy to overshoot. Don’t ask me how I know.

Relaxing into the idea that actually, it is broke and you should try and fix it has been a big challenge for me but it’s also a total liberation. “What a man can do,” remember?

You’d think that a musical instrument would come set up correctly out of the box, but I suppose when you work in a factory chucking them together on a production line the niceties get lost. So have a go yourself. Fine tune it. Get it a bit wrong and rescue it. And revel in the beauty of your G chord once it’s done.

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