Monday, November 22, 2010

My biking history (so far)

Elsewhere on this blog you will see that two of my interests are choral singing and drinking beer.  These two are often connected and singing in choirs is a sociable activity long associated with subsequent fluid replacement sessions.  My other main interest, but one that is clearly separate from beer, is motorcycling, and this post relates to that activity, and perhaps to a lesser extent to driving things with more than two wheels.

I've been driving cars, vans and lorries for over 30 years, passing my driving test in January 1980 when I was 17 (the youngest you can drive a car in the UK), but I came to motorcycling late when having been made redundant in July 1995 the nasty company took back their company car, forcing me into providing my own transport in future!  Never having even expressed a passing interest in two wheels previously, on a random whim in August 1995 I splashed out some of my redundancy money on a brand new Honda Rebel 125cc Harley Davidson lookalike, and stuck some L plates on it.

Honda Rebel
Prior to my actual motorcycle test, as I was sitting my CBT (Compulsory Basic Training) about a month after buying the bike the odometer clicked over to 2000 miles, so I had already by then set the tone for doing plenty mileage on two wheels!

The photo on the right isn't actually my bike, but it's identical in every way, right down to the leather saddlebags!

Honda NTV600 Revere
After passing my motorcycle test on 23rd October 1995 I pretty quickly traded in the Rebel, losing a lot of money in the process but gaining a salutary lesson in how much depreciation can happen in 6 months when you purchase a brand new vehicle, and I bought a secondhand white Honda NTV600 Revere with what seemed like a huge barn-door of an aftermarket fairing on it.  In the image on the left you see it fully loaded with a week's worth of stuff when I was visiting a friend in London.  The black binliner on the seat was my low-tech method of waterproofing a large rucksack full of clothes!  And as well as side panniers and a top box I had a tank bag as well.  On that enjoyable trip I had my first experience of riding in central London in the rush hour.  It was an experience!  But I survived and actually started enjoying it!

Another redundancy after 6 months (lucky white heather?) and I decided I'd take some time out of being employed by others, and put my Revere to work instead, so I became a self employed motorcycle courier in Glasgow for a year.  It's amazing the steep learning curve linked to riding approximately 1000 miles every week in all weathers!

The company to whom I was subcontracted, M8 Messengers, had a contract with various local hospitals, so although this meant mainly collecting and delivering patient notes and x-ray films and transferring them between hospitals, I found myself on occasions delivering tissue samples, and on one memorable occasion an orthopaedic surgeon in the Southern General Hospital had just started an operation when they discovered that an apparently vital piece of equipment was missing (or broken, or something) so they quickly contacted another hospital, the Royal Infirmary I think it was, or it might have been the Victoria Infirmary, and sourced a replacement.  So we were contacted and I was despatched to collect and deliver this equipment, all done while the patient was kept in the operating theatre under anaesthetic!  That was one occasion when time really was of the essence, and I really didn't hang about.

As part of the contract there was a daily collection of, ahemm, samples from the department of Genito-Urinary Medicine at the Southern General (the GU Clinic, or the clap clinic to put it into the vernacular) which had to be taken across Glasgow to the laboratory at Ruchill Hospital.  I always tried to put out of my mind the nature of the scrapings within the sealed bag I was given!  Anyway, I wasn't the only courier working for M8 Messengers so I wasn't in there every day, but was in at least once or twice a week.  One day I walked in, dressed in full leathers as usual and with my flip-front helmet opened so the customer could see my face as usual (I think it very rude for couriers to try to speak to the paying customers through a full face helmet) and walked up to the reception desk.  The receptionist, who I'd spoken to several times a week for the past God knows how many weeks, looked up at me and asked me if I had an appointment.  I was mortified that I looked as though I must have syphilis or something and was in to be seen by a doctor!  I know we're often described as dirty filthy bikers, but that was taking it too far!

I lost a lot of money being a courier.  The promised estimate of how much I'd earn if I subcontracted to M8 Messengers failed to translate into pound notes, and in the year I was doing it I spent more than I earned, by a fair amount.  On the bright side, it helped me through a particular bad patch in my life involving amongst other things redundancies, marital separation and deaths of close relatives and pets, and I didn't have to pay any tax because I made a loss!  I also packed a lot of riding experience into a short space of time.

If you consider that generally most motorcyclists probably ride an average of 5000-6000 miles a year and only use their bikes in favourable weather (leaving aside the minority who use them all year round of course) and then realise that I was doing about 1000 miles every week in all weathers, then that puts it into perspective a bit.  The high mileage also contributed greatly to my financial loss.  For me, DIY stands for Don't Involve Yourself.  I just don't do it.  The bike needed servicing every 6000 miles at a cost of a bit over £100.  Tyres needed changing regularly (can't remember how many miles I used to get out of them) at an average cost of £100 each.  This meant that every 6 weeks the bike was off the road for a day being serviced by a garage, and on those days I didn't work so wasn't paid. I believe too that I was one of the very few motorcycle couriers in Glasgow (leaving aside those who rode company bikes) whose bike was actually insured for working as a courier!  This meant another £50+ per month.  I still have my accounts filed away somewhere.  They make for interesting reading!

While on a delivery one Friday (Friday 27th September 1996, which was Glasgow September holiday weekend) I was lucky to survive virtually unscathed an impact with a Renault Clio which jumped a red light very late (two Glasgow Black Cabs had stopped at the red light and she came through it between them, that's how late it was!).

It was in Glasgow city centre at the junction of St Vincent Street with Hope Street at half past five at night on a holiday weekend, and I lay in the centre of the junction stopping all the traffic.  It took the ambulance over half an hour to arrive because of the gridlock in the city centre caused by me lying there, but I was comfortable enough lying on my back while another biker, Bob who was the other M8 Messengers biker (everyone else drove vans) spoke to me and fended off the well meaning but misguided do-gooders who were trying to remove my helmet.

The initial suspicion of broken neck, broken ribs, and fractured skull in fact turned out to be concussion and bruised ribs (as well as various other sore bits too trivial to mention).

When I got to the Royal Infirmary (as a patient this time, not collecting anything) and they had confirmed that my neck was unbroken and I could move my legs so wasn't in imminent danger of being paralysed, the nurse offered to contact someone to let them know I was in hospital.  I initially declined, living on my own and not feeling the need to let anyone know, but I suddenly had a panic about who'd feed my cat if I was kept in overnight, so I asked her to contact two friends.  She called them from the same room I was in so I heard her side of the conversation which went along the lines of:

Hello, it's the Royal Infirmary Accident & Emergency Department here, do you know Layclerk?

To which my friend obviously replied in the affirmative

Well he's had a motorbike accident and has been brought to the hospital

By which time, I discovered later, my friend was having thoughts of funerals, wheelchairs etc

And only then, in response to a direct question, did the nurse say, yes he's fine.

I used this experience later in life when I worked for Strathclyde Police for a while as a Turnkey and when I had to call someone to let them know a friend or relative was in custody (this was always at the request of the prisoner of course) I always started the telephone conversation with the words "hello it's Strathclyde Police here, there's nothing to worry about, but ....."

So, back to the Royal Infirmary.  I was lying on a trolley in a side room with my friends, who had by now arrived, and the police traffic officer who had been at the scene of the accident and was now looking for a statement from me.  Once that was done he explained to me that the Transport Research Laboratory (TRL) was conducting a study into motorcycle accidents, looking at damage to bikes, equipment, clothing, rider etc, and now that I wouldn't be needing my helmet again would I consider donating it to the study.  What?  He was telling me I would never ride again, I thought.  I queried this.  He looked at me in mild surprise and asked me if I'd actually seen my helmet.  I hadn't, but it was on the shelf under the trolley on which I was lying.

Now at this point I should explain that during the accident, which, as these things do, happened in slow motion, I was aware of traffic lights being fully green (i.e. not red and amber) and releasing the clutch.  Then I remember seeing a car directly in front of me driving across my path from left to right.  I braked hard but couldn't avoid my front wheel striking the rear offside of the car (a split second either way and she'd have T-Boned me straight into a coffin, or passed me before I reached her).  I then saw sky ground sky ground sky ground as I flew through the air, and landed sort of on my left side just as though I'd tripped and fallen over.  If it wasn't exactly a controlled landing, then it felt close to it.

The police officer reached under the trolley and picked up my helmet.  I then saw that it had a 3 inch split in it, running vertically just behind where my left ear would be.  I was not even aware that my head had made contact with the ground.  If I had not been wearing a helmet, then the split would have been in the equivalent place in my skull.  That, dear readers, is why I will never ever ride a motorcycle without wearing a helmet, even if I'm somewhere that it isn't a legal obligation. And I urge you to do likewise.

So I contributed my helmet to the study, and to my surprise and delight was given in return a voucher for an exact replacement.  A BMW System 3 helmet at that time cost about £300, so that was a bonus!

Honda Revere post-crash
In the photo of the bike on the right the only obvious damage is to the screen, mudguard and clutch lever, but look at the way the front wheel's pointing, and then consider the fact that the handlebars are actually pointing straight ahead!

So that put paid to the Revere and to my career as a courier.

My next bike was a red BMW K75RT (this type of BMW engine, the K series, is known as the Flying Brick, because of the shape of the engine block) which I had for a few years and put a lot of miles on it travelling from Glasgow to Turriff (in Aberdeenshire, some 180 miles north of Glasgow) at every opportunity to see my then girlfriend.

Much comfiness, with ABS, heated grips, and a radio cassette.

It had one or two adventures, including more than one occasion when some drunken bastard pushed it over on the street.  I only hope they had tried to sit on it and it overbalanced, hurting them in the process!

 A year or two later, and a different girlfriend having become a new wife, I then sold it when we needed a car and couldn't afford to run both.

After a gap of about 5 or 6 years, in September 2006 I bought a BMW R1100RT (this type of BMW engine, the R series, is known as a Boxer, because of its horizontally opposed engine, I believe), which is a fantastically comfortable bike which does everything I want it to.  It also has ABS, heated grips, radio cassette, and an intercom so that I can speak to a pillion passenger, listen to the radio or my MP3 player, and answer my mobile phone if I choose to do so.

In the photo on the right the bike is stopped in a passing place (naughty!) just above Rest and Be Thankful in Argyll.

It's the first time in my 12 years (so far) of motorcycling that I've had both a car and bike at the same time.  In the past as long as I could dig it out the snow and make it to a major road I'd ride it!  Now?  Well lets just say I've turned into more of a fairer weather biker, although to be fair I do use it to travel to work most days.

In late 2007 I decided that it was time I got round to doing something I've been meaning to do for a long time, which is to become an Advanced driver and rider, so I joined Glasgow North Group of the Institute of Advanced Motorists.

I passed my Advanced Motorcycle test on Sunday 2nd December 2007, and my Advanced Car driving test on Saturday 19th January 2008. I then went on to pass my Qualified Motorcycle Observer test, so I could help others towards passing their own Advanced Motorycle tests, but recently I decided to take a break from the IAM local group so 2010 will be my last season with them.

So that's my motorcycling history up to the present. Right now the bike's off the road with a badly slipping clutch that needs replaced at a hefty cost, but plans are afoot to get that rectified and by early 2011 with a bit of luck and some help from a colleague I should be back on two wheels, hopefully.

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