I was supposed to be riding across to Kings Lynn this morning to meet Martin Hopp of Hopp Rider Training, but the weather delivered another 4 inches of snow and, just to make sure I got the message, I also woke up with the flu. So instead of actual riding I have been rooting around in my files to bring you a review of the decade. I realise this is about two weeks too late to be topical but I am a woman and being fashionably late is my prerogative.
Worst bike:- Though I’ve only owned three bikes in the last 10 years, counting test rides and off-road school I’ve now ridden a perfect ten. And the worst of them was the one I started the decade on. Well, technically I started the decade on a table in Homs dancing to Boney M, but I’m actually talking about the Kawasaki W650 – a pretty bike but undermined by one simple flaw. A misguided Japanese attempt to meet clean air standards by mixing air with unburnt fuel in the exhaust had the wholly predictable consequence of a massive backfire every time I came off the throttle. It was the automotive equivalent of having Brian Blessed on the back: “LOOK OUT – IT’S A ROUNDABOUT!!” My nerves couldn’t take it, and it was the only time I’ve ever encountered sexism in my riding life – according to Streetmachine, where I bought it from, “they all do that, madam – it’s a feature.” Oxford Motorcycle Engineering did their best but couldn’t fix it, and that was me pretty much out of options. With a bike in the garage that I dreaded taking out onto the roads, I took the hit and lost about £2,000 chopping it in for the genuine retro beast it was pretending to be: the Triumph With No Name.
Difficult second bike period: (Those of you paying attention may know the Triumph was my 4th bike, but let’s not allow that to stand in the face of a catchy title.) While you’re learning, it’s easy. Why are you taking the bike out? Because I have a test to pass and need the practice. You pass your test, and then what? If like me you have no handy local biker mates, and go to work on the train, the reasons to ride become a little limited. In 2001 there is was so much else that needed doing on a sunny day – the garden needed weeding, next week’s shirts needed ironing and the X-files weren’t going to watch themselves. I had a beautiful shiny bike. I also had RSI, the cure for which involved cutting my throttle hand open from wrist to health line. So I had mitigating circumstances, but they were still no excuse for keeping a bike in the darkness and doing less than 19 miles a week. I should have admitted defeat and rehomed her, but I’d put so much sweat and cursing into learning U-turns so that I could get my licence…. Thousands pass their test and then give up riding. It looked like I was going to become a statistic.
Unlikeliest saviour: In 2003, Ken Livingstone did something wonderful. He cleared the streets of Westminster of cars for a week. Given that I could stand in the road opposite College Green and do a small dance without risk of being run over (or, in those halcyon days, of being shot by the Metropolitan Police), it seemed rude not to bite the bullet and ride to work. Provided that I got used to riding in London quicker than the cagisti got used to paying the congestion charge, I was onto a winner. My other advantage was that I had the use of God’s Parking Space, for in 2003 I was working for the Archbishop of Canterbury in Lambeth Palace. If you arrive at the Palace on foot you approach a postern gate, struggle to lift a large medieval knocker of the sort that brought Simon Groom to grief on Blue Peter, and wait for the gatekeeper to let you in. If you arrive by car or bike, you stop outside the gates, toot your horn impertinently and, if you are recognized as a friend, the sound of bolts being drawn will precede the sight of 2 massive oak doors parting to allow you through onto the magnolia-strewn courtyard tarmac. The Triumph was very sorry when we stopped working there and she had to jostle for space between the scooters like an ordinary motorcycle.
First foreign trip: Also 2003, which was turning into a very good year. My sister bought a BMW 650 from Vines in Guildford, on the understanding that they would deliver it to her. What they actually meant was that they would deliver it to her nearest BMW dealer, which, being Glasgow, was 85 miles and two motorways away from her house. Challenging, but not insurmountable, except that she hadn’t actually passed her test yet. So I took a long weekend and rode it up for her, and after a brief ethical pause, planned a route that took me past my first RBR landmarks – a pub in Piercebridge, and a standing stone in County Durham – and a photocall at the border. In September I went back on the Triumph to bag a few more, and did the trip in one day instead of two, making me feel like a proper gnarly biker for the first time. What puzzles me now is that in 2003 I could fit a week’s worth of gear into one Baglux tankbag, while in 2008 I needed three metal mule panniers and a duffle bag.
Best coffee stop: the Lochearnhead Water Sports Centre and Cafe. Quality espresso, excellent cake and a free bucket of water to wash the flies off your visor.
Best B&B: these days I am a confirmed wigwam camper but in less hardy days I wanted to at least be sure that part of my day would be spent in the dry. This was a close-run contest. The Wigtown B & B had great big fluffy bathrobes, a glass of wine and James Spader on the DVD, but no actual breakfast (host hadn’t managed to obtain the necessary health and safety certificates for cooking). The Bringewood had great coffee and free wifi but was up two miles of slippery, corrugated concrete farm track so once I was there I didn’t dare leave for a day trip and missed a day’s landmarks. The winner is a small hotel on the seafront in Criccieth, for being utterly unfazed when an extremely damp lady biker rang the doorbell and for showing no visible signs of anxiety when conveying said dripping, filthy person into a room of surpassing daintiness. (I realise this part of the story would be better if I could tell you the actual name of the winner, and if the rain hadn’t dissolved the receipt that I stuck into the 2007 RBR album, I’d be able to…)
Longest trip: in 2008 the Round Britain Rally social section decided to do a ride round the Six Points of Britain. Which reminds me that I never did write part three, an omission I had best remedy before May this year, when the usual suspects are embarking on a coastal tour of lifeboat stations in aid of the RNLI. Given that I’m the only RBR (to my knowledge) to have been rescued by the coastguard, I think I’m uniquely qualified for this one.
Kindest words with the most unexpected consequences: On 27th November 2007, Frank on Friday wrote in his Telegraph blog “And now an ad. If you want to read a lovely personal blog, do have a look at one of the DT’s own readers. It’s beautifully written, gentle and warm. I loved it.” When Frank stood down from his column I got to take over for a year. I met lovely people, I rode in the Thundersprint and got to write about it every week on the Telegraph’s Motoring Blog. It’s unlikely that I’ll ever find myself following in Frank’s footsteps by running a massive bike festival in Northwich, but if I do, I hope that I can be as generous, kind and unflappable as Mr Melling.
I finished this decade standing on a plinth in Trafalgar Square as a RBR landmark. The next ten years are going to have to work hard to beat the ones just gone…