Missed opportunity

Minding my own business on Friday and trying to write a press release I realised that I was constantly smelling cigarette smoke and made the schoolboy error of googling it.

Yes, smelling things that aren’t there can be a coronavirus symptom. It’s that catch-all, “changes to smell or taste.”

And come to think of it, things weren’t tasting of much either.

Bollocks.

What does a good citizen do? Cancel her planned lunchtime walk and get a test.

I don’t mind testing. I’ve done an HIV test a couple of times, I was getting tested for all the other unpleasant STDs before they’d let me have an IUD fitted and the clinic asked if I wanted the HIV test as well. Maybe there was a special offer or something that week as I really don’t think I’m a high risk group.

But driving to a coronavirus test site to meet lots of other people – the meeters-and-greeters, and the distributors of kits, while I shout my name at them – seemed to rather defeat the point of self-isolation. So I ordered a home kit instead,

But it would have been a government sanctioned excuse to take a motorcycle ride. The fact I didn’t realise this is surely proof that I really was ill.

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Things that I miss

Don’t worry, the Wingman is still fine. But his days are finite and one of the things he and I both love the most is camping, either solo or with friends. He loves new places to sniff and new grass to widdle on, and most of all he loves to meet new people and try to persuade them to give him their bacon. We did get away a couple of times last year in the brief window when campsites were allowed to operate, but we went in the camper as Yorkshire is too far for a 250cc MZ and the big K was still being rebuilt.

Of all the things I hope for this year I hope that camping will be allowed again – proper camping where you aren’t expected to bring your own loo, because that’s really difficult on a motorcycle.

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Nice things that come in the post

Emails are very useful but they are just not as much fun as letters.

That’s kind of all I have to say today!

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Fun things to do in lockdown

You’ve got some time on your hands, right? And you’ve run out of box sets and there isn’t an inch of bike left to polish?

So you’ve got a few minutes to write to your MP about the Government’s failure to either extend CBT certificates or allow training schools to open so that riders can renew them.

I know, you took your test 30 years ago, why do you care?

Well, we’re all getting old and creaky. Biking needs a steady supply of new riders to replace us old gimmers. The more riders that there are on the road, the safer we all are.

And many riders on L-plates rely on them to get to work, or to actually do their jobs, such as food delivery. Yes, there’s an argument that they should move on from L-plates as soon as they can – but with tests suspended that’s not an option at the moment.

My feeling is that we’re suffering more from ignorance than malice – decision-makers in DfT and Government don’t really understand how bike training and testing fundamentally differs from car learning and so we’ve been overlooked.

But if you wanted to put a tinfoil hat on, you could believe that there’s an active lobby pushing for an end to unaccompanied riding on L-plates for “road safety” reasons and we don’t want to give that view any quarter.

Now, you could sign an online petition but I’m very sceptical about them*.

Here’s a better way, that only takes a few minutes more.

1. Head to https://www.writetothem.com/

This is a brilliant website that will look up your MP, let you write a letter, and email it to them automatically – though they will email the address you give them to ask that you confirm it’s really you that wants to send the letter so look out for that in your spam.

2. Put your postcode in and the site will tell you who your MP is and open a window for you to write a letter to them.

3. Write a very polite letter asking your MP to urge the Secretary of State for Transport, Grant Shapps MP, to either extend CBTs or allow testing to resume for key workers who need their bikes to get to work or do their jobs.

Tip 1 – Keep it polite and keep politics out of it – your constituency MP is supposed to help you regardless of whether you voted for them or not, but if you didn’t, probably better not to mention that.

Tip 2 – stick to mobility/the economy/getting low paid workers to their jobs. That’s the sort of argument most likely to influence civil servants and the Conservative government.

Some points you might include-

Precedent: In the lockdown last year training providers were allowed to offer CBTs to critical workers and those with social mobility issues (i.e. getting to work), provided that they followed covid-safe procedures – in April last year the DVSA Chief Executive wrote “I’m incredibly aware that some workers including our NHS staff and those on the frontline will have an urgent need to finish their motorcycle training.”  That urgent need still exists.

Transmission: CBTs were provided in the 2020 lockdown on a 1:1 basis, reducing the risk of virus transmission. So training schools have already proved they can be covid-safe.

Safety: Riding on the roads with a CBT and L-plates is a wholly legitimate way of gaining experience on a small-capacity bike before proceeding to a full test.  The more experience a rider has the safer they are.

Keeping the economy going: Many young riders rely on their motorcycles to get to their jobs. Some of these jobs will be “essential work”. We are all being urged to avoid public transport, but a rider whose CBT licence expires will be unable to carry on riding, affecting their ability to get to work, or to do their job if they are working in the delivery sector.

4. Finish the letter with a specific request of the MP – don’t just tell them what’s wrong, ask them to do something for you: – something like: “Please could you contact the Secretary of State for Transport on my behalf and ask that the Government think again. Learner riders need either an extension to their CBTs or the ability to renew their CBT with a covid-safe traning provider, as was allowed in the first lockdown in order to allow motorcyclists to do their bit in keeping the economy going.”

5. Make a cup of tea and bask in the knowledge that you’re helping the next generation of riders.

* Boring reasons why I think this is better than online petitions – letters from MPs to Ministers have to be seen by a civil servant and a reply drafted for the Minister to approve. So they are slightly more likely to register on their consciousness as an issue that needs addressing.

Illustration from “The Motorcycle Safety Foundation’s Guide to Motorcycling Excellence.” The MSF trains new riders in the USA.

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Let’s see what you could have won

It’s February and that’s a good month to take part in blog challenges to get back into writing when there’s not much riding to write about.

It’s also the first day of spring in the Celtic tradition – Imbolc – or Candlemas if you prefer the Christian calendar. Lupercalian Goat Sacrifice Day is approaching.

These are all good things. But I’ve got nothing. I’m scraping the barrel for this post. No way in hell have I got 27 more. And I’ve already failed because it’s Feb 2nd not Feb 1st.

When I started this blog, in January 2007, it was on the recommendation of a Web 2.0 trainer I’d taken a class with. Blogging and user-generated content was the path of the future, and all us PRs, campaign managers and lobbyists were encouraged to go forth and give it a try, on our dial-up modem connections.

I lived in London and there was a lot going on in bike activism land, from Kill Spills to bikes-in-bus-lanes (I do love it when baby bicycle lobbyists try to school me on what the TfL reports concluded. I was in the fucking room, Simon) and the first rumblings of charging for motorcycle parking in Westminster. So there was all that to write about. Then there was the Round Britain Rally.

I took a deliberate decision not to try and share riding tips – because I have no skills – and I didn’t want it to become “opinion of the week” (I got paid to go on telly for that). I just wanted to blog about my rides round the UK and other bike and classic car things I went to – like the 2008 Southend Shakedown in the photo.

Newsflash – all of those are now illegal.

The well is dry.

No-one needs a month of me being maudlin about the things I can’t do any more.

So many people have managed this transition – they’ve taken up sourdough making or birdwatching or singing sea shanties.

I haven’t. I’m still stuck in that pit of anger and resentment. The one thing that gives my life meaning is sticking the Wingman in his travelling harness and travelling somewhere. And now we’re all under house arrest on Plague Island.

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What is the true meaning of Christmas?

Billy Connolly does a great skit of one of the staples of late-night 1980s Scottish TV – two earnest men in suits delivering a homily about the Gospel. “Did Jesus play for Tottenham Hotspur, Daddy?”

I was riding back from the Toy Run on Saturday and I thought of a fantastic version of this for hustling sidecar rigs.

Luckily for you, I have forgotten what it was.

So I’m going to talk about the coronavirus instead.

The Government has failed at quite a lot of things recently but one thing they’ve been really, really good at is getting us all to judge each other. Are your neighbours standing in the garden with more than 6 people? Report them on this handy police website. Have your in-laws asked to visit on Christmas Eve instead of Christmas Day? Drag them to the village pond and strap them to the ducking stool. Did your First Minister forget to put her mask back on when she stood up after a meal at a pub? Stick her on the front page of The Sun.

Yes, there’s an argument that people in positions of authority need to set an example. And perhaps not drive to Barnard Castle to test their eyesight. But the rest of us are just doing our best to comply with the ever-changing kaleidoscope of rules, Tiers, guidance and laws while trying to hold on to whatever gives our lives meaning.

I’m sure some people will have seen the bikes go by on the Toy Run and tutted that it was against the current regulations. We don’t think it was, as there are exceptions to the Rule of 6 for gatherings organised by a charity. We all wore our masks and did our best to maintain social distance at the sign-on point. And you’re obviously social distancing when you’re riding a bike!

The event raised more than £4000 and will support children in local authority care and children living in a local domestic violence refuge.

Maybe I’m guilty of arguing that the end justifies the means. But what’s the big picture here? The goal of all the restrictions we’re now living under is to limit the opportunities to pass on the virus, and as grown-ups we can make a decision about whether our actions achieve this.

Just like when we ride, our goal is to enjoy ourselves and not die.

I achieve this by strapping a sidecar to my bike to limit my opportunities to fall over. Others by taking to the track and riding in circles very very quickly. I don’t judge them for not motorcycling right. I hope they don’t judge me.

So what’s the true meaning of Christmas?

This year it’s “wind your neck in.”

Or, as Jesus put it, (though presumably a few years after being wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger) “Do not judge others, so that God will not judge you. God will judge you in the same way you judge others.

Did Jesus ride sidecars? Well, you know, in a funny way, he did.

(Photo by Kingy Tony)

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Staring at the sea

Two figures are pushing a shopping trolley across a bleak, sunless landscape. The woman is looking listlessly ahead in the hope of spotting Viggo Mortenson. She remembers that afternoon, in the Good Old Days, when he stood in front of her at Fortnum and Mason buying an extraordinary amount of tea.

Tea. If she thought very hard she could remember tea.

“What did you do during the Great Coronavirus Lockdown, Highwaylass?” the child asked.

“Well, Ambulatory Foodstuff, I did what I always do. Bought a vehicle that seemed like a brilliant bargain and then had to take it to pieces because there was a problem.”

The wheel fell off the shopping trolley.

The woman sat down in the road and searched her pockets for an allen key. The wheel would go back on, they would lurch forward, and the next day would be just like this one.

Yes, gentle reader – the Coronavirus Special is still in pieces. After lengthy research into the best places to attach the clamps to the W650 frame, including asking a Very Kind bike dealership in Wales to take some photos of the W650 outfit they had innocently listed for sale on eBay, Operation Refit the Chair began last Friday and ground to a swift halt.

A sidecar wheel should have a camber towards the chair.

Not be leaning drunkenly about 5cm towards what would be the kerb if we ever get on the road again.

The internet reveals that this happens a lot on Velorex chassis as the factory were a little slapdash in their welding and weren’t too careful about fixing the shock towers perpendicular to the tubes.

I have Chassis B that I got on a day trip to Basingstoke. Chassis B has different problems than Chassis A but it does have a more upright shock tower. I took it to the workshop that does all my wheel bearings as I am too feeble to do my own. The plan was new bearings, fresh paint, carry on from where we left off on Friday. Martin had a good go with hammer and drift – even pausing to get a bigger hammer – but they are rusted solid. A quick swop was not, therefore, in order.

I tried a halfway house of just swopping the swinging arm. This didn’t start too well either.

Although the nut came off the lower shock absorber bolt quite easily the bolt itself refused to push through. I am less daunted these days and spent a determined half hour with PlusGas, a vice, and a socket big enough to go over the bolt but not so big it couldn’t go in the jaws of the vice as a sort of erzatz puller. A pusher, to be more precise. With a few turns of the screw it reluctantly yielded and the Frankenchassis is now assembled.

I will take the small victories while the large ones elude me.

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If it was easy, lawyers would do it

It’s fair to say that not everything has gone to plan with the W650 coronavirus special. Back in May I posted, with foolish bravado, that the only job left was to patch up the seat covers.

Oh, how the gods laughed. Here’s the current state of play.

I went to buy a rear mudguard and a bike seat off a chap who had found them surplus to his requirements for the W650-based bobber he was building, and on the way back I went to see Ken-who-knows-everything to ask if he could see why there was an unpleasant sounding clunk at low speeds.

Because the joints were loose, that’s why.

In a puzzling achievement, the joints holding the chair to the bike were both welded and loose. So it all had to come off.

The good news is that, contrary to Ken’s worst fears, nothing is actually cracked. So the tasks have been dismantling, de-rusting, taking off the now-surplus welds, and deciding how to reattach the eyebolts so they don’t work loose again.

Also painting.

I don’t know a huge amount about attaching sidecars but I’m lucky enough to know a few men that do. We’re currently debating how best to attach the upper rear mount – I want it a bit further back than it had been to improve the triangulation. (See, it’s almost as though I know what I’m doing).

In theory, setting up a chair is straightforward.

But then everything is, in theory.

I have the advantage now that I know what a well-set-up rig should handle like. So once we have reached consensus on where the eyebolts are going to go I am going to bravely attache the chassis, set the toe-in, the lead and the lean-out, and see how we do.

By this time it will be 2021 and the dog will probably be in Valhalla, but it’s good to have a project.

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It’s just a jump to the left…

I have taken a version of this photo most years since 2000. As a baby biker living in Buckinghamshire Jack’s Hill was just far enough away to be an adventure and you could get a cheese toastie while you were there summoning up the courage to ride home again. After a few years it became one of the places I stopped for breakfast while heading at speed up to the Scottish Borders.   The wheel of fortune turns and once again it’s just far enough away to be an adventure and get me home in time to placate the dog. Even better, it’s now got a tat emporium in one corner of the car park so I can usually find a small treasure to take home with me – on this visit, a cooking thermometer so I can have a go at slow-cooker-Greekish-yoghurt.

The give-away that this was 2020 – though of course these days you never need to stare at a photo thinking “when the hell was this taken?” because it’s right there in the metadata- is the gazebo and the red plastic lane dividers. Two households or one bubble per table, please. There is always something that makes me sad at the moment and the “new normal” is top of the list – no-one has invited me to “bubble up,” so I sat at the table on my tod and ate my cheese toastie.  In the jacket that I bought when I bought the bike, 20 years ago. I am nothing if not loyal…

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the 900cc solution

PeaceThe Wingman had another wobble about a month ago, and it looked for a few days like he would be packing his bags and making his final journey.  Mainly due to failure of my courage, he’s still here, but while I was trying to think about all the things that would need to be done, and all the ways that life would be different, I realised that I had two motorcycles with sidecars attached for the sole purpose of transporting my hairy life companion, and one Triumph that had done 500 miles on its own wheels since 2015 and about twice that in the back of a van up and down the country before descending into the vicious circle where every time I took it out something went wrong – last year, that was fuel pouring out from the air box drain hose – so I took it out less and less for fear of getting stuck miles from the dog and it got less and less reliable.

Of all the unbearable things that would have been life post-Wingman, the worst would have been taking one of the outfits out with an empty chair so I thought after he had gone I would get the Triumph sorted and return to solo riding.

Then I thought, why wait until after he’s gone? Now that I’m at home with him all the time, there’s no reason why I shouldn’t be able to sneak out on my own now and again. Apart from his wobegone face when he sits right behind the door so I can’t even open it, that is.

Who do you trust with your favourite motorcycle?

There’s only really one answer for the Triumph and that’s Steve and Caz Hutchins of Raceways Motorcycles in Stevenage. A very long time ago I started out on IAM training and the first thing you do is walk round your bike (or maybe that was just the first thing my observer made me do…) – anyway, I was in a Tesco car park in Hitchin looking at my bike thinking “that front end is squint.” Turns out when you smack into some diesel-coated tarmac on the way to your sister’s wedding things don’t quite stay lined up. Steve and Caz took a huge amount of care getting it all straight again and became my workshop of choice until poor life decisions took me to the Fens. So I gave them a call, and they said “bloody hell, are you still alive?” and said of course they would sort the bike out.  So a man in a van did a covid-busting run down and last Saturday was time to go and get her back.

You need to know that I’m a terrible pillion. I hardly ever ride behind people because I’m a lot bigger than most women (and in truth, than most men)  and it upsets the aesthetic of the bike. I’m also a total coward. About this time last year I went pillion to the bike night at Jack Hill’s Cafe and genuinely thought I was going to go arse over tit off the back as Meerkat opened the throttle.  Fortunately in Shoei no-one can hear you scream.

“I’ll put the top box on for you this time,” he said.

Didn’t help.

It’s not that I don’t trust him. I just don’t trust everyone else on the road. So for the first half of the trip down I remembered the advice of Big Chief Polar Bear, closed my eyes, sang show tunes and tried not to throw up.   I quite liked the motorway because the speed was just in a straight line but then we were on the rollercoaster which is the Baldock to Buntington Road, my nemesis as an IAM learner – it’s fast and sweepy and then there’s a tight, tight set of esses which we piled through without hesitation or deviation but in complete terror.  It’s just not dignified at my age to be trying to velcro myself to the leathers of a younger chap like some sort of novelty backpack while whimpering.

I had been a bit worried about piloting the Triumph after so long on tiny bikes. If you add the MZ and the W650 together, you’ve only just matched the Triumph for capacity. But after 75 miles of white-knuckle adventure, there was no adrenaline left in me.

When life got dull, Sherlock Holmes would turn to a seven per cent solution of cocaine to stimulate his brain. He would have been better off with motorcycles.

 

 

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