For ten years I commuted through London on a motorbike. I went through seven bikes, had three crashes, and one busted rib.
This is a pretty good run, considering just how dangerous riding a bike in London is. You remember the original Star Wars movie where at the end they had to fly down a trench while being shot at by laser cannons and chased by tie fighters? That’s an average day commuting in London.
Owning a car in London is a waste of time and energy, it’s like swimming with lead weights, or applying a cheese grater to your wedding tackle, painful and pointless. Whereas owning a motorcycle in London is great, zooming past all the idiots in their metal boxes and arriving early wherever you go is exhilarating.
My morning run into town would start in South London; from there it’s about seven or so miles to central London. Depending on where I was working that year there were a number of different routes I took. The first mile or two would be quieter and give me and the bike a chance to wake up and warm up before we hit the traffic. Once on the main arteries heading into London the traffic would be very heavy. Nose to tail cars along all the main routes into town. Bikes weren’t allowed in the bus lanes back then so you had two choices: sit behind a car and wait or filter down the middle of the road.
Filtering through heavy traffic on a big bike is where the death star trench run comes in. Wing mirrors fly straight at you before veering aside at the last moment. Your eyes narrow, scanning the path ahead, searching for the next corner, the next opportunity, the next hazard. You’re only rolling along at a piddling ten or twenty miles per hour. This is slow enough to manoeuvre but fast enough to break bones if you make the slightest mistake. At twenty miles an hour your hands are six inches from the cars on either side. The slightest slip will crush your little finger between the bars and a passing wing mirror.
I really feel sorry for the hapless autocommuters as I zoom past them. No wonder some of the more aggressive ones want to try and kill me. I’m free and they’re trapped. And don’t think that they didn’t try, the number of times my progress has been blocked at the last moment by a taxicab or BMW driver deliberately swerving to close a gap is innumerable.
Primate survival instincts perverted by metropolitan life, surrounded on all sides, going nowhere, the average car driver is the slightest provocation away from all encompassing rage. No wonder then that they see the average biker as a suitable target to vent their frustration on. They’re in an anonymous armoured box and the biker is naked and vulnerable in comparison. The biker is not one of them; the biker is _other_, a rule breaker to be punished. Crush him with the car, drive him beneath the wheels, and hear the lamentations of his women. These are the best things in life.
There are so many hazards to watch out for: grit and rubbish on the road that will make you slip, suicidal pedestrians trying to cross the road in between vans where they have no line of sight, cyclist veering left and right without warning. The most deadly of all are cars doing sudden U turns without warning or indication. A car will pull out of traffic and block your path in a second or so, leaving you a mere fraction of a second to see it coming, react, and hit the brakes before you run into them.
If you’re lucky they’ll see your lights at the last moment and stop before they’ve completely blocked your path. You can’t veer around them because that will send you straight into the oncoming traffic and certain death, all you can do is brake as quickly as possible.
Filtering in heavy traffic is about as dangerous as it gets on a bike. You have to be supremely alert and aware of every potential danger. I did that for an hour or so every weekday, for ten years.
The journey in would leave me alert and ready for work, fresh air and adrenalin doing the job of a dozen cups of tea. The return to home in the evening was simply a reverse of the journey in. Starting with heavy traffic and then gradually easing off, by the time I got close to home I could blast the bike a little on the quiet roads. My head would be clear again and I would be free of work worries. Those clear Zen moments at the end of the working day would more than compensate for the danger and difficulty of riding a bike in London.
The first bike I used for commuting was a Honda CB650, which was a UJMC, short for Universal Japanese Motorcycle. A UJMC is a normal motorcycle, not readily distinguishable from any number of other similar bikes; it has no fairing, little styling, and is just a plain sit up and beg motorcycle. It drove very nicely though, was reliable, cheap, and got me around and about.
I can’t understand what it is with some people, they spend their entire lives in boxes; born in a box shaped hospital, taught everything they know in a box shaped school, living their lives in a tiny boxy house, working every day in a big boxy office, and travelling to and from each of their big boxes in the little metal box with four wheels! They’re never outside for more than the time it takes to transfer from one box to another, they never see the sky except through a window, never feel the air, and never smell the atmosphere.
I soon upgraded to a Suzuki GSXR750R (1985 version) which I bought from Bat Motorcycles in South Norwood. It was a Japanese import which meant it had a speedo in kilometres per hour and a special light that came on when you went over the Japanese national speed limit of 60mph. On my test ride before buying the bike and blasting up South Norwood Hill the light came on and I panicked, thinking the engine was about to blow up. That little light annoyed me throughout my ownership of the bike because it would blink on and off as you travelled on the motorway.
The specific kit you need for riding a bike through London is fairly simple; although it took me a number of years to get it right and the exact requirements are different for every biker. I wore the mandatory helmet, a leather jacket, ordinary jeans, leather gloves and motorcycling boots. When it got wet I had two pieces of waterproof clothing to add to the ensemble: a pair of thin waterproof over trousers, and a thin waterproof over jacket that only came out for serious deluges. As I needed to carry all this around I used a magnetic tank bag to put it all in. Later on I got a top box to store things in.
For a helmet I always chose Arai, they’re expensive but worth every penny. I preferred boots that were short and tough and with a Gore-Tex lining. The specific choice of glove is always difficult. You want thin and light gloves so that you have the best feel through the bars and sensitive control of the levers. At the same time you also want warm and waterproof gloves with plenty of protection in case of a spill. In summer you want gloves that won’t leave your hands dripping with sweat after a ride and in winter you want gloves that won’t leave your fingers numb with cold. Gloves are a problem. Trying to find the right pair I went through more pairs of gloves in the early years than anything else. Eventually I settled on Hein Gericke ‘turtle’ gloves in winter and expensive racing gloves for summer. Alternatively, you could get those big handlebar muffs and look like a complete wanker.
A couple of years later I upgraded again to my first big bike, a Suzuki GSXR1100WR. A serious bike with a lot of horsepower. I bought a purple one and named it the Purple Monster. I rode this bike for years, getting it tuned, fixing the suspension, and supplementing it with a couple of others until I had my first crash.
My first crash happened because I was in the wrong place. I should have been at Santa Pod enjoying the drag racing but instead I was in central London doing some shopping because the friend who I had meant to be going to go to Santa Pod with had changed their mind at the last minute. I was going down a one way street following a completely lost tourist. They stopped in the middle of the road and I started to drive around the side. As soon as I got alongside the car the driver set off again, swinging into me and pushing the bike into a post, smashing the front end.
Crashing a bike is not fun. Before you know what’s happening a car is in your way. You hit the brakes hard. Suddenly the world flips over and the road hits you like a wall. For a moment, sliding down the road, there’s nothing but dread. What’s coming is going to hurt like hell. The pain rushes in seconds later. The world is disjointed and shattered. Staggering upright to find out what’s happened to the bike. Vision comes in snapshots, freeze frames of destruction. Your pride and joy is battered and broken, lying the wrong way up in the middle of the road. Somewhere a driver is watching, his car pristine. Other cars rush by heedless of danger.
As you start to piece together what happened the pain comes on in waves. Fractured ribs prevent you from breathing fully just when you most need the air. Scraped knees and elbows scream in protest as you lever two hundred plus kilos of bike to vertical. A distant sense of detachment comes in as if you are watching the world from the sidelines. People speak and you hear them seconds later. The air feels like water as you sink to the bottom of a deep pool.
You don’t want an ambulance. You need to get the bike back home. So you climb back on the bike, arms and legs protesting, and set off again. Fear fills you before you move. You might fall over straightaway. There’s a terrible pain in your stomach. There’s no way you can ride the bike like this. A deep primal instinct to get home drives you on. Slowly and carefully you kick the bike into first gear and let out the clutch. The bike rolls forward and an eternal moment later you’re riding again.
Later on, when the insurance details were being worked out the driver claimed that he never hit me at all. That’s when I learned that if you ride a bike, no matter what, you need a witness to get a fair deal on insurance claims. Riding a bike means that, as far as insurance is involved, you are in the wrong regardless of circumstances. Then again insurance is such a scam, they’re always keen to take your money and then they always come up with a dozen reasons why they can’t pay out when something happens.
The Purple Monster was never the same again, I had to strip off the fairing, trash the lights, and replace them with crappy aftermarket parts. I eventually sold the bike to a Scouser who drove a hard bargain. From that I learned not to deal with people who want to bargain.
I had gone through a couple of other bikes at the same time. After I’d paid off the Purple Monster I picked up a cheap Yamaha XT600 which is an off-road style bike, very tall and with long suspension. I commuted on this a few times but stopped after realising that people didn’t give way to it the way they did to the Purple Monster. The twin headlights and low stance of the GSXR were much more intimidating than the single light and spindly profile of the XT.
So I swapped my XT and a bit of cash for a Yamaha Drag Star in black and chrome. This was a custom cruiser type bike, long and low with comfy seats and wide bars. It got dirty real quick and took a lot of washing to get looking good. It was so low that the foot pegs would scrape the ground on almost every corner and I soon wore down the heels of my boots when riding it. It looked great and sounded cool thanks to some custom pipes and other chrome accessories. A bit wobbly at low speeds and the wide bars made it difficult for commuting too.
A year or so later, flush with a new well paying job, I bought my one and only brand new motorcycle, a silver KTM LC4. This was a serious bike, a supermotard capable of racing straight out of the box. This made it he best handling motorcycle I have ever owned and really improved my riding by allowing me to push the envelope, something that my other bikes just didn’t allow for. It came with only one tiny problem, the vibration. The vibration was so strong that after twenty minutes in the saddle my crutch would go numb and the numbness would start to spread from there. Long rides were out of the question. But brilliant for commuting!
Because the KTM was useless for long journeys and the Purple Monster was no longer the fine bike I had originally owned I traded the Drag Star, and a couple of grand in cash, for a nearly new silver Kawasaki ZZR1100. I chose the ZZR because I’d read about one in a novel and it was exactly the sort of bike I liked: long, sleek, fast, and powerful. This was a most excellent bike, I named her Anastasia, after Dan Dare’s spaceship, and she took my on long journeys and even worked well around town, although a touch cumbersome at low speed thanks to her size and weight. Like with the Purple Monster I spent some money on improving the suspension and replacing the exhaust when it rusted through. The ZZR lasted me for a number of years as my fortunes declined. Meanwhile I had to sell the KTM to buy a digital camera and the Purple Monster to get a laptop so I was back down to just one bike.
At night, London sleeps. This is not a brash young American city running twenty four crushing hours a day. London is an old city and she needs her rest. In the darkness, while she sleeps, there is a chance to really ride. Free of traffic the city breathes easily. With room to manoeuvre riding the bike changes from constant sharp motions to a single flowing move. In traffic you stop and start, left foot touching the road to balance the bike while stationary. At night, once you lift your foot from the road, it will not go down again until journey’s end.
Cool summer nights riding home from a friend’s place are magical times. After midnight the traffic in London has disappeared and the streets are free for your personal use. The engine thrums with contained power. Tyres whisper on tarmac, counterpointed by drumming over white lines. Traffic lights turn green by mystic processes, waving you on. Each roundabout is a chance at the perfect corner. Line up the approach, pull the outside bar to tip the bike in, find the right angle, and squeeze the throttle to launch you out of the corner towards the next. With effortless grace corner after corner leads you along an illuminated path. Zen calm settles and every moment is perfection. Nothing exists other than the rider, the bike, the road, the journey. This is the ultimate peace in motion.
My second crash was another situation where I was out of place. I was running an errand for the club, fetching a box of flyers from the printers, before heading to work. A guy pulled out in front of me and I braked heavily causing the front wheel to lock up, skid, and pitch me over. I landed on my side and fractured a rib. A busted rib means six weeks of sleepless nights and constant pain until it heals enough to be able to get some rest. This time I remembered to make sure I had a witness, fortunately a friend of mine happened to be sitting in their van and saw the whole thing so I got the bike repaired on the insurance.
Soon after getting the ZZR back from the repairers another incident occurred when I was visiting a friend. The ZZR was knocked over by a couple of idiots brawling in the street, smashing the tail end. I chased after one and got his details after he admitted knocking over the bike. Later on I managed to get him to pay for some of the dmaage he did but the ZZR was never pristine after that.
The only time I simply dropped the ZZR was the day after my grandmother died. I had gone to work as normal, preoccupied with thinking about the conversation I’d had with my mother the day before. When I arrived at work I got off the motorcycle as usual and lowered it onto the side stand as usual. The bike fell over on its side because I’d forgotten to put the side stand down.
I eventually sold the ZZR so that I could pay for my wedding. For a year and a half I was a pedestrian, taking the train and bus to work. What would have been a twenty minute bike ride turned into an hour long commute on stuffed trains and sweaty buses. How the average commuter coped with this day in and day out for years on end I have no idea. Finally I saved up enough to afford a cheap bike and bought a ten year old black Honda CBR1100XX, the infamous Blackbird. It was basically the same as the ZZR and the Purple Monster, a long sleek speed machine. The CBR handled better than the ZZR at low speed and knifed through the air at high speed. It had fairly good suspension but was well worn as the bike was ten years old. I just needed to save up enough to get the suspension sorted but circumstances have a way of turning out differently than you expected.
My last crash happened on the day we discovered that my wife was pregnant. A quick test in the morning confirmed that we were going to have a baby. I went off to work feeling great but my journey back home was interrupted. A French idiot in a left hand drive car pulled across me as I was driving down Park Lane. I hit the brakes and the front wheel skidded, flipping me and the bike onto the road where I landed on my side fracturing the same rib again and bringing back my old injury with a vengeance. My knee was badly scraped as well. Fortunately the police came and took statements and a witness had seen the whole thing. It took a year and a half but I eventually got paid for my broken bike, broken rib, and loss of a lifestyle.
I never rode again after that. As I tell my friends, it’s not the age, it’s the mileage. There’s a saying amongst bikers that there are either old bikers or bold bikers. Ten years of bold riding in London traffic was enough for me and I’d like to be old enough to see my daughter grow up.