Imagine how you’d feel if the massed bagpipe band of The Scots Guards struck up a tune outside your house at 9am on a Sunday morning? And then The Dagenham Girl Pipers with their rendition of Born to Be Wild come along a few minutes later. The Black Dyke Mills brass band that followed would seem like a lullaby in comparison, as would the Droitwich Ukulele orchestra, arriving just before the local church bells started ringing. And then, at 11am, after two hours continuous racket when the American marching band, The London Philharmonic and Glen-flipping-Miller all turned up at once, my guess is that you’d have had enough.
Now imagine the above scenario but with all the musicians careering around on motorized skateboards, out of control, almost crashing into everything in your street.
This is what motorcycling looks like to the residents of the small towns and villages we ride through every Sunday and, it seems that many of them have had enough.
You (and I) might love the sound your open-piped BMW twin, GSX-R or Harley Road King makes. But the residents of the Cotswolds, Dales, Peaks or Downs have had enough of hundreds of us disturbing their weekends and summer evenings. While many of them are still observing some kind of Covid lockdown, a squadron of superbikes noisily on their way to exercise in the countryside is even harder to bear.
There’s no point us being arrogant or acting all hurt. We know the law about exhaust noise and speeding and yet, when someone complains about it we act like entitled brats who have some unwritten right to make a racket, ride too fast through villages and view every national speed limit sign as a challenge to drop down a couple of gears and ‘gas it’.
That kind of thing might have seemed ‘cheeky’ or ‘mischievous’ when we were 25 and stoopid, but in 2020 we’re middle-aged men (mostly) who spend our lives being grumpy about everything else while playing the victim when the grumps are directed our way.
Last week I saw a news story about a task force being set up by Petworth Town Council in the South Downs to tackle motorcyclists who ‘Break the law through excessive speed, noise and reckless driving’.
Gillian Keegan, MP for Chichester said, “Primarily it is a safety matter to combat reckless and dangerous driving but it’s also important to ensure we all stay sane on Sundays.”
So far, so reasonable – no MP is going to condone speeding or reckless driving. But then fellow local MP Andrew Griffith got a bit excited and upped the emotion by suggesting, “This should be treated by Sussex Police as a risk to life, just like assault or worse”.
Er, excuse me… did I hear that correctly? Speeding on a motorcycle on Sunday is comparable to assault or worse? Firstly, I never realized the law allows speeding and noise offences to be dealt with differently depending on the type of vehicle you are driving. And secondly, classifying those offences as assault is going to make serious criminals of several thousand car and van driving offenders every month because thumping someone with a 4x4 or people carrier is going to do a lot more damage than tickling them with a motorcycle? The vast majority of participants on the speed awareness courses I’ve been on are very ordinary car drivers who would be distraught to discover their slight indiscretion now makes them eligible for stripy pyjamas and shower-related soap fear.
Maybe it only becomes assault on a weekend and speeding on Tuesday in your enormous Audi 4x4 will still be deemed a relatively minor traffic offence. And if you happened to miss the 30mph limit sign because you were too busy checking Facebook, please be more careful next time vicar.
Away from Mr Griffiths’ ill-considered comments, the reality here is we are as dumb for continuing to behave like idiots as they are for trying to escalate our behavior into a hanging offence. We’re all in the wrong and should remember that the definition of a crimewave in these small towns is two people crossing the road while the green man is flashing. It doesn’t take much to get them angry.
The stretch of road causing last week’s outrage is the A272 between Billinghurst, Petworth and Petersfield. It’s a well-known biking road, that I hadn’t ridden since 1985 on a misfiring Suzuki GT380, about to hole a piston (again). So, this afternoon I went back there to see for myself. And, to be fair, I was disappointed. It’s ok in a few sections, too busy to be enjoyable, but really, nothing special. I can think of at least 20 roads within an hour’s ride that are better, have less traffic, fewer villages to annoy and much safer too. If the A272 is your idea of a great biking road, then a trip to the Yorkshire Dales, Lincolnshire, Wales or Scotland will be like taking chocolate-coated LSD, with extra fries.
And that, for me is the answer. The simple way to avoid threats to biking from local hatred is avoid these cliched ‘Britain’s 20 best biking roads’ and ride somewhere else. How ironic would it be if the thing that killed biking – which we love because of the independence and freedom it brings – was our refusal to be independent or free and always riding the same ‘great biking roads’ list that some bored journo wrote a feature on in 2003?
What makes a great road anyway? Many of those supposed great biking routes are revered mostly for their challenging corners. If you’ve been lucky enough to ride in Northumberland, Wales or Scotland (admittedly a long way from Petworth), you’ll understand why the A272 isn’t all-that special. My take on a great biking road has evolved to include eye-popping scenery, memorable landmarks, maybe a hill-top or two, a lake and plenty of toilet breaks these days. Corners are important, but biking is much more than that.
As much as I love the A684 to Hawes, the Helmsley TT, the B6047, B1190, A153, A537 and all the other legendary biking routes, there are dozens of others I can think of that are equally stunning, hardly ridden and would annoy almost no bike-hating locals. If the A272 doesn’t want us, let’s just go elsewhere.
On the way back from Petersfield this afternoon, I avoided the A272 and crisscrossed the area in a giant sine wave up and down the country lanes. Traffic was non-existent, with only a few small hamlets to slow down for and the scenery and experience was stunning. It’s a part of the world I don’t really know and it’s beautiful to ride through.
Ok, I was on a Yamaha Tenere 700, not a Fireblade and most of the corners were slow, challenging and funnier on a high-rise adventure bike than a WSBK refugee. But fewer of us ride sports bikes anymore; why have an adventure bike and not make every ride an adventure? Maybe we should re-brand them as ‘a bit set-in-my-ways-but-I-only-had-a-couple-of-hours-to-ride-and-didn’t-want-to-waste-it’ bikes? The worst that can happen by turning left occasionally instead of the usual right is that you waste half an hour stuck in the Coventry one-way system and even that can be fun if you’re in the mood.
I know that being a Sunday rider is hard. By the time the grown-up weekend chores are done there isn’t much time to enjoy the bike and so the temptation to ride the old favourite routes to the same old places that we know we’ll enjoy is enormous. But if those places don’t want us, then let’s go somewhere else and find our own new favourite roads.
And if you get lucky there might be an Iron Maiden bagpipe tribute band playing to drown out your noisy race pipe.