Sunday, 2 March 2014

Motorbike freedom... and safety

One of the most important things I did a while back was to get a full motorbike licence. It's given me real freedom on the road. It's given me something else, too: confidence.

You don't need a full licence to rent a bike in many countries. For instance in India, no one is going to check your licence if you rent out a bike. And you can get a moped in Thailand with just your passport. (I don't know whether or not that's legal, but you can do it.)

But with a full licence, I know I can do it anywhere in the European Union, where motorcycling laws are quite tight. I can get an International Driving Licence that shows my motorbike entitlement, and that will work pretty much across the world.

I also know I've been pretty well trained. Emergency stops; check. Swerves: check. Countersteering: check. Which all helps when you're not a great biker, and not a very experienced biker (outside the UK), and you're confronted with the following traffic hazards:
  • Cow in the road. (India)
  • Flock of goats crossing the road. (Pyrenees)
  • Potholes. (England. As well as plenty of other places.)
  • Huge lump of ice falling on to the road. (India.)
  • Twisty mountain roads.
  • The Thai road designers' obsession with U-turns.
  • Crazy traffic .(India, Thailand, Cambodia.)
  • Road made of mud. (Cambodia).
  • Road made of loose gravel and mud. (France.)
  • Kids playing in the road. (All over, including a complete 22 boy cricket match at one place in India.)
So why bike? Why not rent a car? Why not rent a moto with its driver, which in Cambodia - with few road signs and many of its most interesting sights stuck somewhere in the jungle with little or no signage - is definitely a good move?

Quite simply, it's the freedom. Stop when and where you like. Go fast or slow. Take the high road or the low road, or the little lane shaded by high hedges and tall trees. Roads not suitable for cars are open to you. Parking is easier. And you are in the elements, not divided from them by doors and a windscreen. (Besides, in many places, car hire is next to impossible. Less so in Europe, but certainly in Asia and Latin America.)

In particular, the motorbike gets you out into the middle of the country. If you're travelling mainly by bus and train, it's just too easy to get stuck in urban mode, going from city centre to city centre. A motorbike gets you to villages, hamlets, isolated huts, mountain passes, tiny gompas stuck up side valleys. It gets you off the main road. It's the internal combustion equivalent of hiking.

There are the friends you make. Chatting to a biker with a Tamil Nadu registration plate while waiting for a bridge to be rebuilt on the Manali-Leh pass (I wasn't biking that time, but he was, and he had interesting stories to tell me about the ride up to Srinagar and along to Leh). The Sikh guy with his young son in front of him who grinned broadly when I praised his Enfield - "Best bike in the world," he said.

And there's the sheer pleasure of biking. The first time I ever rode a motorbike, I remember taking a series of nice easy curves between green English hedges, and feeling how much I was leaning the bike, and how the tyres were gripping the road, and suddenly realising my grin was wider than my visor. If you see a dirt track as a pleasurable challenge rather than a failure of the road traffic department, you are already on the primrose path that leads to the Khardongla Pass.

Still, hiring a bike is not without its dangers, so here, in the interest of safety, is a bit of advice based on my own experience. Even if you're going to hire a moped without a full licence, I'd recommend getting a good bike school to take you through the basics. (In my view, there are two things you really, really need to get right. One, emergency stop. Two, helmet.)

And you need to do a bit of a teach-in every time you hire a different bike, since in my opinion most bike hire companies don't take you through the bike properly. They rattle off at very high speed, "here's the gear and here's the brake and here's the speedometer and this is the horn", and then they set you loose. Before you ride off, do your own checks.
  •  Check you know how the gears operate. South-East Asian bikes tend to have 'rocker' gears where you use your toes to go up a gear and your heel to go down, as opposed to the UK/Indian style where you use your toes to hook the lever up and down. It takes a bit of practice to change your habits.
  • Just in case... check that the brakes are where you expect they are. Older Enfields have a different configuration from UK bikes, with the front and back brakes on opposite sides of the bike (so you brake diagonally rather than with both brakes on the same side).
  • Before you take the bike out, make sure you've identified some relatively traffic-free, easy streets to put the bike through its paces and get used to where the gears are speed-wise, how forceful the braking is (or isn't),  how noisy the bike is (I've had some that roar even in neutral, others that are totally silent at traffic lights), how sensitive the clutch is, how much acceleration you've got.
  • And get the mirrors set up so you can see the road behind you properly.

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