One of the things I enjoy about riding a blood bike is the dichotomy between it, and ‘normal’ biking. At an objective level – seen from afar – there’s little difference, but up-close-and-personal, the two have little in common save for the fact that the bikes have two wheels. With the cargo we carry, and the urgent nature of each run, I don’t have time to sit back and enjoy the ride. Riding on blues and twos through heavy traffic requires 100% focus leaving little or no spare capacity for me to take in the surroundings, or mull over some of the more philosophical sides of biking. Besides, on a blood bike, there’s no anonymity – we’re noticed every time we leave the sanctuary of our base – so we have standards to uphold and an example to set in terms of how we ride and how we dress. The workload is pretty high-tempo too, so it does us all good to take a break every now and again.
I’ve just done exactly that so I’ve only recently returned to blood bike duty following a three-week hiatus, a combination of work commitments that took me to the mainland, and a chance to give some of the newer volunteers to our group the opportunity to get a ride. The corollary of that though is that it’s given me an opportunity to ride with no regard for a ‘uniform’ with all the rules that entails, and to simply enjoy the anonymity of being just another bike cutting a lane through heavy traffic again. And it’s that – the sheer joy of being on two wheels – that I want to share with you this month.
Days like a recent Saturday are priceless. Summer may be packing its things away and living out of boxes, but it ain’t prepared to vacate the premises just yet. There’s a definite chill in the air come sundown now, and I sense a deep well of ennui ready to consume me as the nights draw in, but that’s just over the horizon; it isn’t here and now. Who cares about the night-time chill when there’s warm sunshine on your skin during daylight?
Despite the forecast rains and attendant deep and impenetrable cloud cover, Saturday dawned gloriously sunny, which cheered me somewhat given that I had to ride down to Epsom; no great distance, but a bit of a trek all the same from the southern fringes of Hertfordshire where I was staying on a recent trip back to the mainland. I had BMW’s 1250GS sitting outside and a new battery for my Nikon D7000 waiting for me in Surrey, courtesy of a friend of a friend who had flown in from the US just hours earlier with it.
It was a tough call to make; M25 from northern most tip to southernmost, or straight through the middle? With golden light and a temperate feel to the air, it was no contest. There’s no shortage of motorway or twisty, sticky tarmac back home in NI but to be honest, it’s traffic that I yearn for. I’m an urban boy; a Londoner by birth, I’m most at home in built-up environments, riding the canyons of concrete and glass. I cut my biking teeth in central London and worked it’s streets as a despatch rider. Consequently, my slow speed skills are razor sharp and it’s filtering that gives me a buzz, not knee down corners and twisting ribbons of tarmac. I gunned the bike’s Boxer engine into life and hit the A1, down the A41 and then on to Finchley Road. The West End beckoned…
I was jacketless as I rode, clad in leathers, tee-shirt and Sidi boots. Yes, it might be construed as reckless, but it’s another hangover from my despatching days when I’d be crossing the central postcodes during summer and wearing a jacket and gloves was likely to herald heat exhaustion. It was a qualified risk – and my decision to make.
It’s gorgeous feeling the sun on my bare arms and hands, riding through temperature pockets and sensing the cold turn warm turn cold turn hot. I’m loving this ride; the GS is so well balanced, and its bars so wide, it dances through traffic. Its elevated riding position means I look over cars instead of through them and the bike’s sheer size has cars parting before me like the Red Sea. Sat aloft on its high seat, I love the view from behind my blue iridium visor, and the golden hue and high contrast view that it gifts me.
The traffic wasn’t heavy at 11:00 in north London, but it was building, presenting me with no end of mobile chicanes to negotiate, and errant motorists to leave in my mirrors. I had a grin on my face a mile wide by the time I hit the West End and, just 40 minutes after setting off, I was across the water and passing the Elephant and Castle, Stockwell bound. Tooting came and went – the Bec, then the Broadway, with its predictable Saturday nightmare of a single thread of cars running the length of the A24, all stationary, the frustration building for drivers desperate to be somewhere but heading nowhere. My adrenaline was on fast feed as I scanned between vehicles for lemming-like pedestrians and brain-dead Saturday shoppers looking for bargains, not bikes cutting a new lane on the offside of the broken white line.
There’s something delicious and indescribable about riding a bike; it’s not the speed for a lot of bikers in the Capital and England’s more congested cities; there are neither the roads, nor the conditions for that kind of adrenaline buzz, and besides, I prefer the track for my race face – less likelihood of street furniture severing arms or legs should the worst happen and I go surfing the tarmac. No, it’s the involvement that riding a bike gifts you, the interaction with your environment that makes each and every journey so memorable.
A car journey sets you apart from your surroundings, making you a mere observer, viewing the world about you as if it’s a movie. To a degree, the sense that you are watching a film is heightened by your view through the windscreen. It frames the scene and mutes the soundtrack; you’re an observer, not a player. You know the road is there beneath your wheels, but you don’t see it. Besides, you’re not going anywhere – you’re immobile, a cog in a great machine, part of a thread of rubber and metal that runs through London like the line in a banknote.
Compare that to riding a bike. You are your environment, distorting time as you arrive at destinations far quicker than your brain allows you to consider when driving. Traffic proves academic; through London, you ride on the offside, toward oncoming traffic, and travelling at your own speed. It’s an adrenaline rush, gap chasing, switching back and forth for a better view, despatching hesitant motorists with a twist of the wrist.
The road is there under you, you’re aware of your speed courtesy of the blurring tarmac that strips rubber from your tyres. Your senses are overwhelmed; you feel the road surface transmitted through feedback via the handlebars and tyres; you hear snippets of conversation from passersby, and your nose detects the note of a favourite perfume from the woman who crossed at the lights in front of you; you taste the environment, that sense of identity and character that defines each of London’s primal areas. To outsiders, they’re just post codes, mere names on a map – it’s London isn’t it, a big, homogenous, impersonal place that sprawls across the south-east eating everything in its path…
No. To its inhabitants, and those who think of it as home, it’s none of that. In fact, it’s like nowhere else on earth. We love it because we know it intimately, know all its secrets. We know what makes each area unique; the village atmosphere and social structure that changes from postcode to postcode, each with a history that reaches through the years to colour its character.
Each road, each town is an adventure in itself, every ride a montage of threads drawn together and remembered. Riding through the city makes each journey a three-dimensional memory like interacting with a piece of conceptual art. The bike needs your input otherwise it falls over so every movement you make, every subconscious twitch results in cause and effect. You dance all over the bike, leaning into corners, throwing your weight forward, back, as you accelerate, brake. Balance is all, as you anticipate light changes, never quite stopping but maintaining just enough forward motion to stay ‘feet up’.
The challenge in London is ‘no dabs’ – just how far can you get on a journey without putting your feet down? I managed Potters Bar to Liverpool St., EC2 once, Friday morning rush hour. It took a massive effort, forward thinking and plotting out the dynamic as it morphed and changed shape, anticipating light changes; there was no little luck in there too, but what a feeling at the end; that’s what constitutes riding in London.
Arriving at the house in Epsom, the door is opened by a diminutive Sikh; late fifties, with white hair and a flowing beard. He is serenity itself, barefoot and chilled, welcoming of this stranger. He is merely the courier, but in inviting me into his home, becomes more.
I sit, and as we talk, I discover a man of great feeling and passion. A short while later his wife arrives home. She’s Spanish, an artist. She too is passion, empathy and feeling personified. We discover shared loves and likes and I’m bemused and happy at the turn of events. A trip to collect a new battery for my camera; it’s been two hours since I set off on this journey, but I feel alive, reinvigorated.
The ride home is no less eventful. A short time after setting off, at a set of temporary traffic lights, I’m joined by two fellas on little 250s – screaming two-stroke race reps. They fancy a race; in a feint, I rev the bike hard for the Traffic Lights GP and then, as red and amber cede to green, I pull gently away as they drop their clutches and shoot forwards, hard on the gas. Matey on the R250 shows off with a vertical stoppie as I approach the next set of lights; it’s not big and it’s not clever, but he really comes up trumps as we pull away. In his eagerness to race, he overcooks it and I see the back wheel of his bike coming round to meet the front before gripping again and sending him skywards. He saves it, but I suspect his underwear went straight in the bin when he got home. Another cockwomble candidate for the Darwin Awards attempting to benefit humanity by removing himself from the gene pool. Twat.
Yeah, autumn beckons – the TV schedules and endless adverts for the tired old hag that’s the X-Factor give the game away just as obviously as the shortening days and paucity of sunlight. But with weekends like this one to ease the transition, I might even be able to smile as summer relinquishes its influence.
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