Last Ride of the Summer

Having been relegated to a ten year-old Ford Escort for the past few months for reasons to dull to go into, I've now realised how much there is to miss when you've not got a bike

All the signs are there - the smoke wafting lazily from chimney stacks, the yellowing leaves drifting across the roads and my own hot breath clearly visible in the sharp morning air. Yep, it's definitely looking like winter's around the corner again...

Conventional wisdom has it that now is the time for smart people to tuck their motorcycles away until the evil months have passed but conventional wisdom can kiss my butt - I've always found the queue less busy in the opposite direction.

Don't get me wrong, I don't derive any pleasure in getting frozen and soaked but winter riding doesn't always have to be like that. No matter how bad it gets there are always some dry, crisp days thrown in which can make for some mighty fine riding.

The do-you-or-don't-you ride all year debate must be the oldest in biking. One camp says you're a raving ponce if you put your steed away at the slightest hint of rain while those who own bikes for pleasure can't see the point in torturing themselves when they have a car in the garage with a heater, stereo and a roof. I fall somewhere between the two camps; I've ridden all year in the past and I'd never wrap a bike in mothballs from October until March but I'd still rather roll over in bed on a Sunday morning than ride a bike if the weather's particularly foul.

But even if the weather was foul today, I'd still be out there because absence has definitely made my heart grow fonder. You see, I've not been on a bike at all for the best part of summer for reasons too lengthy to go into here and I'm bloody downright desperate for a spin.

Summer stitched us up this year but in an apparent attack of guilt, moody mother nature has offered up a bit of an Indian summer now as compensation.

Having been relegated to a ten-year-old Ford Escort for the last few months, I've realised how much there is to miss when you've not got a bike - mostly the ability to cut through traffic. My propensity for road rage is alarmingly high and it was only a matter of time before I assaulted one of the tin box morons.

But I didn't just want to dodge traffic, I wanted to crack a throttle coming off a roundabout and boot my way up a six-speed gearbox; I wanted to blip the throttle down two gears and lay a bike into a tight series of S-bends and I wanted to practice braking hard until my forearms hurt. Hell, I even wanted to wear my leathers again. In short, I wanted to enjoy travelling - something I've not been able to do in a car.

So when time finally permitted and I had two wheels at my disposal once more, a bit of cold wasn't going to stop me firing up the Triumph and heading into the sunrise (yes, it's making an appearance) with no particular place to go - a sort of white, Scottish, Chuck Berry if you will.

The first revelation was I couldn't believe how good it was putting my gear on again. Leathers first (tighter than they seemed a few months ago...), but the satisfactory zzziiipppp as I secured them around my ankles and the rasp of Velcro fasteners at the cuffs and neck was an unexpected joy. Pulling my helmet down tight and securing it at the chin made me feel like the Grand Prix legend I never was and never will be. I feel like Buzz Lightyear and it feels good.

Revelation two - how do you ride a bike again? It's surprising how rusty you can become after a spell out the saddle but eventually I'm set and slam my visor down with a dramatic flourish which is totally uncalled for but what the hell, I'm going to milk this for all it's worth.

I've never been one to pose on bikes so riding round town seeking out admiring glances wasn't my scene but I surprise myself by doing it now. You know the routine - pass a girl and look at her through your dark visor knowing she can't see your eyes (chicken) to see if she's impressed. Chances are she's not but it's always worth a try. I tell myself I'm only doing this because I've got a bike for the first time in ages. Truth is, I'm playing for time trying to get used to the controls again before I hit the open road but I needn't have bothered.

It's true you never forget how to ride a pushbike and the same goes for a motorbike - within three miles it was like I'd never been away and I'm soon cruising through Kettering with my left hand resting on my knee, whistling under my lid and at one with the bike. Happy days.

Revelation three - bikes are fast. No surprise there you'd think but it bloody well is when you've not ridden for a while. Snicking the Triple's gearbox up from second to third I pin the throttle, watch the revs creeping up to seven thousand then shazam! I'm launched into the far horizon. The Triumph's distinct howl-come-roar sounds awesome and as I begin to adjust to warp-speed (or what feels like warp-speed to me), I kick it up another gear with increasing feelings of awe and crazed joy with every change. What a stonking bloody engine those boys at Hinckley build.

No amount of thrashing a 110mph (if you can be bothered waiting 20 minutes to get there) car can prepare you for the speed of a performance motorcycle. And while the Speed Triple isn't the fastest tool in the box, the punch in the higher revs is up there with the best and it's no time before I'm seeing 132mph on the digital speedo and reluctantly back off.

Now, you know as well as I do I can't ride as fast as Valentino Rossi but my brain can be fooled into thinking I can. My brain has no idea what it's like on the limit like Rossi's does because it's never been there. That's the reason you always wake up from a dream just before you die - your brain can imagine pretty much anything except dying because it's got no reference material to draw upon.

My point is that Rossi has spent so long travelling at incredibly high speeds they don't feel fast to him any more. Any racer will tell you they soon get accustomed to speed and that frees up the cognitive processes to concentrate purely on race tactics. My brain isn't used to those speeds though so it's fooled into thinking that I'm travelling a lot faster than I actually am and that's why it's so much fun. Riding at 90mph through bends creates more of a sensation of speed than 180mph does anywhere for Rossi so in that sense, I'm having more fun than him - and so are you. If you don't believe me, take your gran out for a 60mph run on your bike and watch her fill her incontinence pants with terror... The perception of speed is just as susceptible to Einstein's Theory of Relativity as size and time is.

But apart from being shocked at the power of a motorcycle again, I'm also gladly reminded of their traffic-busting abilities. For the first few hundred yards of my comeback I sat like a twat behind cars, so accustomed was I to doing it in my own car. But with a dawning realisation akin to the moment when man invented the wheel, I pulled out of the line and exercised my right to be free, no matter how much it pissed off white van man who tried to knock me off at the roundabout.

Road rage doesn't exist for bikers; we're above it. One twist of the throttle and whatever was annoying you is a speck in your mirror. Sure we have every right to be pissed off with drivers who don't see us but they're so depressingly predictable for the most part it's easy to avoid them and always satisfying predicting what some daft twat's going to do before their own primitive brains have considered it.

Over my recent car months I've developed an obsession with Sally Traffic's traffic reports on Radio Two. They can mean the difference between me attempting a journey and not when all I have is a car. I will go to excessive lengths to avoid traffic. But now I'm once more able to laugh at her tales of traffic terror each morning. "The M25 is down to a single lane anti-clockwise," I don't care. "The A14 is at a standstill east-bound." I don't give a shit. "Expect to add one hour to your journey if you're travelling on the A6 between Market Harborough and Leicester due to an overturned lorry." No, I won't Sally, I'll cruise past anything in my way or I'll ride through it or I'll take a twisty B-road and still be where I want to be on time. Bikers don't need travel reports any more than helicopter pilots.

Another thing I'd forgotten about riding is how alive it makes you feel. I'm not talking about that 'ride and be free' type bollocks, I'm talking about a real natural phenomenon here. In no other pursuit in my life do I concentrate so intensely it becomes like meditation. Triple world 500 champ Wayne Rainey described periods of intense concentration in races like out-of-body experiences and I know where he's coming from.

When you're riding, you're so focused on what you're doing there's no room for any of the normal shit that preoccupies your brain; it's a cleansing experience and as close to meditation as I've ever got. It's the essence of Buddhism where the ideal is to remove all wants and desires from your brain and 'just be'. Whatever you wanna call it, it feels good.

It is nippy today but I only feel it when I stop. On the bike I'm too busy to notice, too busy lining up the next corner, too busy concentrating on perfect upchanges as I accelerate down a straight and too busy employing my peripheral vision to monitor potentially lethal car, van, bus and lorry drivers while scanning ahead for 'safety' cameras.

And weather or no weather bike clothing is now amongst the most sophisticated technical gear in the world - thermal undersuits, Gore-Tex suits, specially designed fleeces, waterproof gloves and boots, the list goes on. Yup, the 'It's too cold' argument can no longer be legitimately used in the 'do-you-or-don't-you-ride-all-year-round' argument.

Winter may require a different riding style but that adds to the challenge and makes you a faster and safer rider come summer when you can really go for it using all you've learned by riding smoothly on wet and greasy roads.

It still takes a lot to encourage me out of a warm bed on a weekend but the Speed Triple had a greater effect than frying bacon. A famed lie-in merchant, I actually found myself setting my bloody alarm clock to go for ride-outs as soon as I got a bike back rather than spending my weekends moving sloth-like from bed to sofa, nursing a vodka and coke as I went, all prompting me to think that bikes should be available on the NHS for their enlivening properties.

Symptoms: depression, stress, fatigue, elevated fascination with alcohol. Treatment: weekend on Triumph Speed Triple or machine of similar nature. Repeat all year round please.

The way I saw this weekend was like when you need a piss (bear with me here...) so bad that every drip of running water is torture and every bump threatens to open the floodgates. A need so great that when you finally let loose it's the greatest feeling in the world. So satisfying in fact it was almost worth the three hours of pain just for the pleasure of relief. I can assure you abstaining from riding bikes for a few months is comparable. I would almost recommend you put your bike away until 2004 just for the sheer, fresh joy of riding again after your self-inflicted temperance - it's like starting out all over again.

But then, why deprive yourself? Why give up what you already know is the business just because the weather turns? What you really should do instead is laugh at those mugs in their cars at least once in a while as they bobble along, cosy but more frustrated than a busload of eunuchs on a weekend trip to Amsterdam, as you sail on by unhindered by traffic, unhindered by anything in fact, even the elements.

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