Biking, for many of us, is about freedom. The freedom of the open road, freedom from traffic jams, and the freedom to take our ever more capable bikes just about anywhere on the planet we wish to go.
I’m all for this freedom: it’s part of what captivates me about life on two wheels and, like most of South Africa’s biking brotherhood, I revel in the slightly lawless air that seems to attach itself to any biker. I’m as law-abiding as the next man, but if any of that Marlon Brando-esque cool from The Wild One sticks to me and my sensible, middle-aged motorcycling persona, I won’t complain.
The Wild One is about the outlaw biker gangs that came into existence after World War 2, when returning servicemen who didn’t, or couldn’t, settle back into mainstream society, became the self-professed one-percenters — the 1% of the population that lives outside the normal rules.
In real life, these were often dangerous people, but that didn’t stop them being admired by some. Biker gangs like the Hells Angels and the Mongols are the modern equivalent of these antiheroes — and whether you like it or not, an undeserved sliver of that “outlaw-cool” sticks to you, even in your colour-coded riding gear on your sensible commuter bike. I’m drawing attention to this link between rule-breaking and motorcycling, and freely admitting that I approve of it, otherwise what I’m about to argue will seem like something from a do-gooding journalist who has lost the plot and is nothing but a government toady. A “bloody agent” as one of our better known MPs is fond of saying.
And what I have to say is this: motorcycling in South Africa needs more rules and regulations. There, I’ve said it; although I do feel as if I’ve betrayed my fellow bikers. Allow me to explain myself, before the hate mail starts stacking up on the editor’s desk. In South Africa, anyone over the age of 18 can take an easy multiple-choice test on the rules of the road for their learner’s licence, and then jump onto a superbike with double the power-to-weight ratio of a Bugatti Veyron — a machine that can accelerate from 0-100km/h in under three seconds and hit a top speed on the far side of 300km/h.
An 18-year-old with no riding experience — or any novice, for that matter — equipped with nothing more than a learner’s licence and having never been checked by an examiner driving any form of motorised two- wheeled transport, is now loose on the roads. A similar thing happens in the car world, but in the specific case of bikes, I’d say there are a couple of issues: two wheels are more difficult to master than four, and Bugatti Veyron-like performance is available, second-hand, for under R100 000.
When it came time for me to get my bike licence, many moons ago, I was living in the UK. The written test (which limited me to a 125cc bike) was followed by a tough riding assessment that involved an hour on busy public roads, being followed by a bike-mounted examiner who radioed instructions to me. Only after passing this pretty stringent examination was I able to get a bigger bike, and since then the laws in the UK and much of Europe have got even tougher. There is now a kilowatt and time limit for beginners, which means a novice is restricted to bikes with 30kW or less for the first two years. Sounds harsh, but it’s probably a good thing. Obviously, if the rule had been around when I was getting my licence it would have been stupid and unfair; but as an older biker, who definitely rode his luck in those early years and has the scars to prove it, I can appreciate the benefit of being so restricted.
Even if we don’t go that far, the learner’s licence really should limit you to 125cc, a capacity that will also keep biking newbies off the highways. If the government did go down this route, the number of potential motorcyclists might be further restricted — which is not good for the industry as a whole. Perhaps, but a simple amendment to the licencing laws could prevent that problem: a full car licence should also be a motorcycle learner’s licence. That would mean anyone qualified to drive a car would also be legally able to ride a bike with a capacity of up to 125cc. In theory, this could encourage many more people to investigate the com- muting benefits of a scooter or small bike.
Here endeth the lesson. Next week I will tackle the arms deal and peace in the Middle East — from a biker’s perspective of course.