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Road Test: Rush Hour

Woke up. Fell out of bed, dragged a comb across my head. Found my way downstairs and drank a cup and looking up, I noticed I was late...




I don't suppose Paul McCartney bothers getting up any more, but for the rest of us that vicious alarm punches into our unconscious, same time every morning, and drags us into the glaring new day, groaning on the outside, screaming on the inside. Well, that's how it is for me.

Then what? The journey to work. Now this part of the morning can be more of the same of that alarm clock-style invasive violence beating up your karma: a packed bus, a car in a jam, a heaving platform, a full train...

Or you can be inside a crash helmet, grinning like a man - or woman - possessed, just you and your route to work. The idea is that if you approach your ride to work properly, it can be an exhilarating and stimulating start to the day, bringing you in to work on a mental high. To achieve this, though, you need the right tool for the job and, as the next few pages show, there is a tool that's right for every job. You can be a biker on the way to work and you can arrive smiling - the rush hour can be a rush.

The gentleman's express

There's commuting and there's commuting. A six-mile dash on your favourite deserted stretch of twisty asphalt to your trendy office (in a converted barn) is not commuting. Nor is heading 1000 yards into town on your lilac Lambretta with matching fashion hat. Commuting is when you have to think long and hard about how best to equip yourself for the killer crawl, with choice of route and vehicle being critical to getting the job done best. It's a very serious business.

Anything above 50 miles to and from work on a daily basis could be considered a proper commute, substantial even - though admittedly actual time spent in the saddle is equally relevant to distance travelled. My 130 mile/3-hour round trip equates to over 30,000 miles and 720 hours of traffic busting per annum. Welcome to the Big League, where commuting is war and each sortie a battle of wits. And the key to success on the field, as any major will tell you, is in having access to the correct armoury.

Two city centres connected by motorway must be dealt with twice daily - a serious job that requires serious equipment. No designer 'Long Way Round' Tonka toys, namby-pamby super-scooters or wrist deforming race replicas. It's not about looking trendy in the latest carbon fibre trousers and Star Wars smock. Class, it has been drilled into me, never goes out of fashion. Allow me now to introduce you to the ultimate businessmen's conveyance - the Honda ST1300 Pan European, where comfort meets practicality and style. The Pan satisfies my needs in a number of criteria. Firstly, having a 1.3 litre, four-cylinder power plant means it clearly has long legs, but it also has the 240-mile tank range to complement its prowess - the last thing you need is the monotony of a fuel stop every single morning.

It has the luggage capacity to easily swallow a briefcase, laptop, business suit and much more if required. It will also keep it perfectly dry, regardless of conditions.

Although the Pan comes with speakers, I'm not oafish enough to actually use them. There are enough boorish louts and despatch riders giving proper motorcyclists bad press as it is, thank you very much. I prefer the discretion of the iPOD combined with helmet-friendly headphones - Jacqueline Du Pre on the way in and Julian Bream while heading home (with Meatloaf on Fridays). It makes for an entirely less stressful experience and adds to the surreal gliding impression that the ST supplies.

Being a Honda it is, of course, well thought out and executed. The build quality leaves BMW in the shade and reliability has never been an issue. It's exceedingly comfortable and has the added convenience of the electrically adjustable screen, absolutely ideal for when the weather turns nasty and visibility becomes an issue. The large frontal area also helps keep the rain and wind off, particularly at motorway speeds when it's essential to press on with confidence. This is where the horror of travelling on un-faired machinery becomes apparent. Being completely exposed to the elements is a misery at any speed, but particularly grim at pace with swirling rain attacking you from every angle.

An upright riding position also helps as you enter the slow crawl into town, there's no weight on your wrists and visibility is as good as it gets. I can't help but scoff at the budding young racers craning their necks upwards in order to see what's going on - why would you choose to commute on a noisy, uncomfortable Ducati? It defies all logic. All that pain for the sake of looking good! There's little to debate. The Pan European is the champion of the commute. It's a big hitter with fine manners and a dash of style. A gentlemen's express, if you will.

The daily grind-your-kneeslider

A half-hour commute from one edge of London to another is hardly the domain of the most overblown of racetrack fugitives like the 749R. Or is it? Well, no actually, it isn't and anyone buying one of these as a town runabout needs beating soundly around the head.

Of course the fact this is the narrowest supersports Duke yet means it is perfect for getting through thick gridlock while the extensive use of magnesium (cam covers), titanium (valves) and aluminium (wheels) does make the 749R very light and easy to push up the kerb into the office car park. But then a C90 manages all this and more with the added bonus of never breaking down and not needing 18 chains, three alarms and a dog on a rope every time you park it.

So really, unless you're a racetrack junkie with money to burn, you shouldn't buy a 749R. Ever. But then bikes like this aren't about rational decisions. Ride one for just a minute and I guarantee that, unless you are utterly dead, you will want one.

See, the 749R is pure rolling seduction and bugger me is it incredible to ride. The precision and feedback in the chassis will put any other bike on the market to shame while the thumping, snarling crescendo that belts out of that underseat exhaust is absolute unadulterated thoroughbred horn.

Obviously the real home for this Duke is the track, but life doesn't let us all become factory racers, and nor does it let us spend our every waking hour on trackdays, which means if you want one of these then you'd better be prepared to get imaginative with it.

After all, who says a school day is a bad time for a thrash? Exactly. Which is how I found myself woken two hours early by the alarm ready to take the pretty route to TWO towers. The first hour was to make space for the ride, and the second was to get out ahead of the 8-9am traffic nightmare that blankets 98% of the South East.

As this unprecedented early start was all in the name of riding perhaps the most exotic bike of 2005 as fast as possible, I figured it was a small sacrifice that could just be very much worth making.

And as the Duke and I burbled through suburbia away from my garage in the clear early morning I knew I'd made the right choice. Just slotting the gears home trundling through the 30 limits as we headed for open country was a pleasure thanks to the incredible gearbox the 749R wears, but when the 30s became national speed limits and I was off the beaten track, the way the bike came alive in my hands was plain old-fashioned bloody marvellous.

Howling our way to 120-odd mph on the clear stretches, then diving through some tight and nadgery sections the bike was incredible. But as the ride brought us nearer the office and traffic thickened even on the least used roads, I had to remind myself that although I was awake no-one else was and some severe self-control was required. Fortunately not enough for me not to take a few laps of the last couple of roundabouts before work just for the hell of it however, knee-down and slaloming through the cars.

To any drivers who noticed between their mobile calls, radio twiddling, screaming at the kids in the back or eating their toast, this may have been a little startling.

To the likes of you, me, and the 749R however, it was poetry in motion. What a motorbike, what a start to the day.

Twist and go bonkers

What's the best thing to use to slice through commuter gridlock? A Ducati 749? Sniff that sickly waft of cooking clutch plates. A Honda Pan European? Too fat to filter, sorry. A Yamaha Fazer? Yes, if you want to spend your weekend in the garage adjusting your chain. A motorcycle with forward-mounted RPG launcher? It would be nice, but no. It is, specifically, a Gilera Runner VXR200. It's the weapon of choice for dealing with the worst commuter traffic jams.

But it's a scooter. Bikers don't ride scooters. Well, actually, you'll find the clever one does. He buys a nice pokey, cheap-to-run-into-the-ground scooter for Monday to Friday. Come Saturday when he's ready to rock, he opens up the garage and rolls out the R1.

The Gilera Runner VXR200 ticks the right boxes: 200cc, 21bhp, four-stroke. That gives an 80mph top speed, total reliability, 70mpg fuel economy, a 170-mile range and it has shaft drive making it a maintenance-free bike between services. It has no gears (well, one) and the back brake takes the place of the clutch lever, something you are instantly accustomed to. In fact the back brake becomes a vital part of traffic-busting, calming the bike without having to back off the throttle or hit the front brake, keeping everything smooth and progressive - good techniques for riding the proper bike at the weekend.

There is a discontinued and highly sought-after 180cc two-stroke version, which might tempt you. It wheelies. It pulls like stink. But you've got an R1 for all that. Do you really want to turn up for work with a blues 'n' twos escort, reeking like a 1970s race paddock?

But how dull is a VXR200 compared to an R1? If I told you one of my most memorable motorcycling experiences was my first flash through the traffic of London on the Gilera, a half-hour rush into town and out again in an evening rush hour, would you believe me? Well, imagine riding a turbo-charged Segway, a melding of machine and man capable of stopping, starting, weaving and swerving through moving and solid traffic queues at will. No, really - it's a completely different riding experience to large motorcycles. The Gilera is so light there's relatively little inertia, so you can accelerate and brake without violent shifts of weight, stressing tyres and suspension and wrists. There's no length or width to consider as you slip through closing gaps like a ghost. Think it and you're there. It's effortless and totally under control. And to every road-user, motorcyclists included, it looks the opposite. Bikers think you're just a young twat, an accident about to happen. Most car drivers don't even see you. It's liberating and it's exhilarating. A total hoot and unique to the Gilera VXR200.

Practically, the Gilera has a few other plus-points going for it. You can hop off it and push its 123kg over pavements or the wrong way up one-way streets. You can squeeze it into parking bays. It has a helmet-sized luggage stash (for a small helmet) under the big, wide pillion-friendly seat. My Roof wouldn't quite fit, annoyingly. But a bulging Tesco bag or a rucksack does.

The simplicity of riding the Gilera with its all-round useability adds up to something unexpected: satisfaction and pure fun.

The do-it-all commuter

My commute is a 20-mile run through just about every kind of traffic, ranging from city streets with grid-locked cars to open country roads to dual carriageways that can be either free flowing, stationary or 60mph rolling traffic jams. It's a veritable smorgasbord of vehicles and roads so I need a bike that does a bit of everything. Versatility is the key.

Which is where a middleweight rules the roost. You can keep scooters - small wheels never give me much confidence - keep your tourer for touring as panniers and filtering don't really mix and having a sportsbike in London is like having a thoroughbred racehorse for trots through the park.

Just getting out of my street highlights the first benefit of a bike over a car. It's a one-way system at one end - well, it is if you're in a car; on a bike the bicycle access doubles up nicely as an exit. Probably not legal, but it knocks a few minutes and two sets of traffic lights off the journey.

With the bike still warming up the rat-run through a residential area is always taken at a slower pace. Local kids are waiting for the school bus and while they're deep in conversation about what was on TV last night you're never sure where their concentration lies when it comes to crossing the road.

The first set of traffic lights presents an opportunity to overtake the school bus and escape the stares and 'V' signs from the kids in the back window. The FZ6's huge steering lock comes into its own as the 'keep clear' section of the road provides an access route into the midst of the stationary traffic. Lights green and we're off again.

Passing the next set of lights the familiar figure of the VFR rider is coming towards me from the other direction. I smile at the horrible 50th anniversary paintjob his bike is bedecked in. It's little things like this that you look forward to on the route, and tell you if you're running on time. He's like clockwork, I'm not. Today I see him by the petrol station. I'm late.

The traffic light turns green and the FZ6 clunks into first before I slip the clutch out. Not an easy task on the Yamaha, it isn't the smoothest clutch action but it's light enough to stave off wrist ache and the flat bars make for a comfortable riding position.

That's the town section out of the way, the next ten miles or so are back-roads. It's a 50mph limit but there aren't any cops around and the FZ6 handles well enough to up the pace a bit. It's the best part of the journey, a chance to explore the handling a bit and generally have some fun. Sometimes the traffic is heavy, usually a milk-float holding everything up, which calls a premature halt to proceedings, but today all is well and the last of the morning sleepiness is blown away. A quick check the road is clear and police-free and I'm smiling all the way to the office. It's the five minutes of escapism riding a bike fast offers that breaks the monotony of the day and something to look forward to...

The last few miles are always the worst. Three dual carriageways meet at a roundabout, which creates instant gridlock. The FZ6 nips down the centre of the traffic, its bars inches away from mirrors either side. Cars don't leave much space in London, but the Yamaha is narrow enough for this not to be much of an issue.

Through the traffic, around the roundabout, which is always good for scraping bits and the next three miles are continuous filtering down the side of stationary cars. I tried the trip in my car once - a route that takes 40 minutes at the very worst on a bike took an hour-and-a-half.

Then it's up a side road and into the car park. I'm on time, almost, and ready to go. The bike has done 35mpg, nearer 40mpg on a good day, so that's around £5 a day. Cheaper than a car, cheaper than a train and without the two changes, and a bus isn't even worth thinking about. It's an easy life, this commuting...

... the misery, expense and indignity of jamming yourself into the close proximity of other humans, whether by car or train, just to get to work.

As our four very different protagonists have shown, it doesn't matter how you ride to work. What does matter is that riding is not only cost and time effective, and practical (hmm, the 749R's arguable, we suppose... ) but can also set you up perfectly for a day of hard toil. Which, after all, can't be a bad thing, can it?

DUCATI 749R

SPECS

TYPE - Supersports

PRODUCTION DATE - 2005

PRICE NEW - £13,595

ENGINE CAPACITY - 749cc

POWER - 118bhp@10,250rpm

TORQUE - 60lb.ft@8250rpm

WEIGHT - 192kg

SEAT HEIGHT - 780mm

FUEL CAPACITY - 18.3L

TOP SPEED - N/A

0-60 - n/a

TANK RANGE - 130

GILERA RUNNER 200

SPECS

TYPE - Scooter

PRODUCTION DATE - 2005

PRICE NEW - £2799

ENGINE CAPACITY - 198cc

POWER - 21bhp@10,600rpm

TORQUE - n/a

WEIGHT - 123kg

SEAT HEIGHT - 855mm

FUEL CAPACITY - 12.2L

TOP SPEED - n/a

0-60 - n/a

TANK RANGE - 170

HONDA PANEUROPEAN

SPECS

TYPE - Touring

PRODUCTION DATE - 2005

PRICE NEW - £10,349

ENGINE CAPACITY - 1261cc

POWER - 115.4bhp@7600rpm

TORQUE - 85.3lb.ft@6000rpm

WEIGHT - 289kg

SEAT HEIGHT - 810mm

FUEL CAPACITY - 29L

TOP SPEED - n/a

0-60 - n/a

TANK RANGE - 140

YAMAHA FZ6

SPECS

TYPE - Naked

PRODUCTION DATE - 2005

PRICE NEW - £5399

ENGINE CAPACITY - 599cc

POWER - 87.6bhp@11,600rpm

TORQUE - 42.6lb.ft@9600rpm

WEIGHT - 134kg

SEAT HEIGHT - 820mm

FUEL CAPACITY - 19L

TOP SPEED - N/A

0-60 - n/a

TANK RANGE - 130