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Dirty Weekend: 250-mile pillion test

It's a twos-up knees-up as the team goes pillion crazy

On the face of it this wasn't a good idea. Riding 250 miles up the M1 and M6 - a pair of motorways so tedious even hardened round-the-world riders have been known to veer into the Armco to alleviate boredom - in the middle of a Baltic February, with pillions. For the bike-hardened it would be tough, but for passengers with little or no experience of bikes the trip had the makings of a harrowing event.

Still, at least I had a carrot to tempt my colleagues and their loved ones out into the frozen north because at the end of our arduous journey lay Blackpool. Omitting the small fact that out-of-season Blackpool packs all the charm of a punch in the face, I would woo everyone with the promise of jolly walks along the Golden Mile, the bracing sea air and all the chips they could eat. They'd be putty in my hands.

Having now talked myself into this being 'a good idea', I set about assembling the team. The girlfriend got the call up first since I figured, being Italian, she'd have no idea where Blackpool was, so wouldn't realise how awful the trip could be. I was right. Buoyed by this success I called Whitham, who said yes immediately, roping wife Andrea in and ending the call shouting he couldn't wait. One more pairing needed.

Sadly, the rest of the office fell into two camps: those with very pregnant spouses or those in the middle of acrimonious divorces. Then Jon Urry called and before he knew what had happened I'd talked him into it along with his special friend Liz. Things were turning out right nicely.

Representing the spectrum of machinery people may want to take pillions on, we had a BMW R1200RT for dedicated tourers, a ZX-6R for the sportsheads who've told the missus it'll be great two-up so she'll let them buy it (and are hoping to God she'll never actually want to get on the back), and a Triumph Sprint ST as perhaps the best sports-touring compromise on the market.

There were a couple of points to sort out, though. Bundling a poor girl onto your bike in an ancient lid to get her to the station of a morning is morally dubious, but taking her to the other end of the country in the same is morally bankrupt. For serious pillion action their gear needs to be as good as yours. That's all there is to it. 

Clobbering the other half up may be pricey but comes with its benefits. First they'll not lose half their skin should they keel off the back, so you'll not have to worry about sleeping with the Elephant Woman for the rest of your life; second, you can be all caring and masterful helping them get to grips with the zips, toggles and fasteners. Thirdly, they'll be warm and comfortable so far less likely to strop as the icy cold cuts into them, thus guaranteeing a warm front in the bedroom on arrival rather than you being frozen out on the sofa with no chance of a thaw before Christmas.

A call to Hein Gericke had the missus dolled up in the bird's version of my winter gear in no time, which not only meant we could do a cheesy line in 'his and hers' jackets, but also meant that, being cut for girls, it didn't make her look like a bloke. Always a plus. Having a bike, Liz already had her own gear, while Whit's sponsors were sending a boxload of gear for Andrea, which you'll find out more about later.

Before that though, it's time to saddle up and head north. Deciding there was no point in power if you don't abuse it, as the organiser of this jaunt I also 'organised' for the BMW to be in my garage before we left. With perfect panniers for a weekend away for two, a fairing the size of a small country and heated grips and seat, this bike should be the governor for churning out the motorway miles with company.

And that's exactly what it was, although once packed up it was no lightweight and I did nearly drop it at a standstill when the missus leapt aboard while I was still fiddling with a glove. Fortunately my gangling legs saved the day and we avoided the embarrassment of being pinned under the behemoth of a Beemer in the middle of London's Edgware Road.

Had I been riding alone I would have charged up to Blackpool as quickly as possible. But two-up it's a whole new ball game because, rather than riding for yourself, you have to ride for your passenger. Bikes are a very unnatural environment for anyone not used to them; you're exposed, windblown, isolated inside a crash helmet and, without the benefit of any riding to keep you awake, on the back you can easily become very bored. Regular stops on a long trip as well as plenty of morale- boosting coffee can banish these woes. 

All of which meant we arrived at Blackpool just as the sun went down (which handily masked how grotty a lot of it looked), and were kicking back in the hotel bar with thoughts of dinner on our mind as the Whithams walked in.  I say 'walked', but 'stumbled' would be a better description, and with plenty of swearing thrown in. They'd not had the ideal bike in the ZX-6 but, as they'd had the least distance to travel coming from home in Huddersfield, this made sense. Surely it hadn't reduced them to this on its own?

It hadn't. In fact the bike "hadn't bothered me at all," said Andrea as she banged her fingers on a radiator in an effort to bring them back to life while James scraped frozen snot off his top lip. "It's this jacket," Andrea explained. The offending item was a nicely cut ladies' affair but closer inspection showed it was more of a casual summer piece, not a multi-layered winter beater like hubby James had thoughtfully kitted himself out with.

Needing to head off any imminent mutiny  I ran to the bar and returned with a couple of very large glasses of wine, although I needn't have worried as they were both laughing by this point. James had put in a swift call to his sponsor with a clear request for, "some very warm stuff" to be posted to the hotel. Problem solved.

With the others arriving the following morning, we headed out for a warming curry in a restaurant that could only be described as a health hazard - we didn't need to read the menu because most of the dishes were plastered across it, while any that were missing appeared to be on the waiter's tie - before retiring to our rooms and hanging out the 'do not disturb' signs in time-honoured Blackpool fashion.

Fry-ups rinsed down with pots of tea the next day and with a full complement of riders and bikes we headed out.

Swapping bikes, the girlfriend and I started the day on the ZX-6. It's a small bike anyway, but after the BM it felt like a toy. That said, the light weight was a relief since I didn't have to keep balancing it at low speed the whole time and the sweet,

precise handling, braking and throttle response all made for easy smooth, swift progress without unnecessary headbutting. 

The Whithams weren't enjoying the BMW quite as much. "This thing's massive," moaned James, "I can hardly touch the floor. Do you want it back?" Andrea wasn't entirely in agreement though, since the heated seat was clearly getting to places the ZX's minimal perch previously hadn't.

Meanwhile, happily minding their own business among all this kerfuffle were Liz and Urry aboard the Triumph. Sensing they were keeping schtum to hang onto it as long as possible I realised I may be missing a trick and commandeered it.

What a beauty. For once it appears someone has designed a sports tourer with pillions in mind as much as riders. From the perfectly simple single grabrail across the tailpiece to the sculpted twin seat, which is not only long-distance comfortable but also neatly stepped so your passenger gets a clear view over your bonce, this is a very versatile bike. And that's before you've even ridden it anywhere. Try this and you'll find agile handling that's not overly affected by a passenger, plenty of throaty shove from that motor and a fairing that'll keep the worst off you on the motorway. The only let-downs were the solid, crunchy gearbox that needed a good boot to avoid lurching about in no-man's land between the first three ratios, and brakes that only really bit a second or so after you hit the levers. 

Pulled up later for a breather, James stole the Triumph while I was distracted by the girlfriend pointing out some sheep (very English, apparently) and hared off into the distance leaving me with the ZX and Urry with the BM. Giving chase down the now dry country roads in the Trough of Bowland, we dipped into a small valley around a blind bend to be confronted with a hump-backed bridge and not enough time to slow down. One Triumph Sprint ST and two Whithams promptly took off, while the missus and myself followed suit seconds later. The BMW-mounted pairing of Urry and Liz had no such airtime worries however, since the BM's natural girth kept them on terra firma.

This was the last straw for young Liz who now officially declared the BM 'boring', adding that she really wanted the ZX-6 back before she 'fell asleep'. And I could see her point because to really feel like part of the action on the back of a bike it's hard to beat a good sportsbike. However, being over 30 these days, I can also see that for anything other than a short, sharp thrash, either of the other two bikes here have the ZX licked when it comes to two-up riding. 

But the real point of this trip hit me the next day as we ran a whistle stop tour of Blackpool's beautifully tacky seaside attractions. We'd been up the tower, nearly stumbled into a phalanx of blue-rinsers mid-waltz inside its cavernous ballroom and were just tucking into a pile of fish and chips when I saw the difference a spot of two-up riding can make as a holiday atmosphere bounced around our table - done solo this trip would have been good, but every now and then it's nice to share the experience.