I had always wanted to ride a motorbike. But the moment you mention it, whether you’re 10 or 61, everyone tells you you’re crazy and are going to die. They all mean well. Ignore them.
What pushed me was letting go of the editorship of Business Day after 14 years. I took a three-month sabbatical and decided to try to do something totally unfamiliar. I’d been reading bike magazines and drooling over machines parked around Rosebank and Parkview for years. My new boss at Times Media, Andrew Bonamour, sometimes comes to work on a Triumph cafe racer. Could anything be cooler?
About two months before my tenure was due to end I had already started pacing wistfully around Johannesburg’s dealerships. I loved the Triumphs and the BMW enduros. I would sit on them. Feel the weight. A BMW 1200GS is an awesome thing to bestride, trust me, even when it isn’t moving. I initially scoffed at the Harleys and the Japanese pretenders.
One of my strategies for making sure I do something I’m a bit scared of is to tell everyone I’m going to do it. I blathered so much I got riding gloves as part of my farewell present. The boss said to try Corne Saayman as a coach. He owns his own business, Learn to Ride (you can find it online) and teaches at Kyalami, inside, not on, the track. Having sat, petrified but with intent, on a bike for the first time under his watch I can’t recommend him too highly.
He made me walk with the now moving bike with the motor running, first gear, clutch out. Provided you have at least successfully ridden a bicycle, once you do that for a few metres and lift your feet up onto the pegs, nothing is ever the same again. You are riding. If you’re me, you’re on the road to addiction. Not, in my case anyway, for speed. But a powerful sense of freedom.
Saayman spent a lot of time teaching me good habits, checking mirrors, two fingers on the front brake lever, go where you’re looking rather than looking where you’re going. And he was meticulous about stopping safely and pointing more or less in the direction you’re about to go. You don’t want to be turning and starting at the same time. By the time he took me out into the suburbs around the racetrack I was feeling very comfortable on his Honda 250 something or other, a delivery bike. In all, I must have taken about 15-20 hours of tuition, which is a lot.
So I got my learner’s (interestingly, a computerised test which passed or failed you immediately you had finished — an uncorruptable system) and the next big thing was what bike to buy? You can ride on a learner’s. You just can’t carry a passenger. By this time I had sat on a hundred bikes and fallen in love with them all. I had also ridden (very slowly) a Harley Sportster around the training field. Now I wanted a Harley, too.
To cut a long story short, I ended up buying a Honda NC750X. The manual version. It was really well priced (about half of what a BMW 800GS would have cost me) and much, much less than the Harley- Davidson I was keen on — the 1200 Custom. It’s a great bike. I drove the Honda dealership on William Nicol mad taking it out for rides. What I liked is that it seemed to forgive all my mistakes (it still does). It also has a cool compartment where you’d expect the fuel tank to be. It can take a bit of a Woolies shop and you don’t have to put on one of those luggage boxes that, I think, often spoil the lines of a beautiful motorbike.
So, now I try to ride as often as possible. The NC750X is a commuter bike, and I ride mine like the old man I am. Slowly. I come to work through the suburbs. I invent errands and chores on Saturday and Sunday. Whenever I approach home I long to ride a bit more. Just a quick sweep through Linden perhaps? Or the top of Barry Hertzog where the curves are gentle and the tarmac smooth and true. At 750cc my Honda is no slouch, and when the road is good and clear I confess I’ve tested the speed limit. But it’s more fun mooching around at 60km/h with the visor up than hurtling at 120km/h with it down.
I look like a moving traffic signal. Bright yellow helmet. Bright yellow vest over my jacket. My headlight is on bright and I may go out and buy a more noisy exhaust. That’s because as I was idling my way through Parkview a few weeks ago (sans vest and with a black helmet) a woman in a large new Range Rover stopped at the intersection as she should have, then, as I approached, looked at me and simply took off. She had either not seen me or she had and didn’t care. Oh, and she was holding a phone to her right ear.
I accept that this is a dangerous way to get around. But I’m sure that you can minimise the risk to the point where other drivers or riders cannot threaten you, no matter what they do. You can get past indecisive drivers in an instant. Of the lessons I learned, one core thing has saved my bacon more than once. Look where you want to go rather than where you are going. It is amazing how that works every single time. If you take off at the stop street aiming to turn left and you are looking right in front of you, you’ll climb the kerb on the other side before you’re done. If you consciously look up or down the road 100m to your left, that, it turns out, is where you’ll go.
If this is boring to experienced riders it is all still miraculous to me. I got my bike at the beginning of August and every ride is a thrill. I have what I am told is a typical regret of not buying the bike I really wanted, the BMW 800GS, but my Honda is nonetheless my pride and joy. It looks great and it rides like a dream. I’ll upgrade when I have the money.