The Telegraph reports that "Colombia's security forces have foiled a plot by Marxist rebels to assassinate the prime minister - although its chances of success were probably small as the guerillas had stencilled "policia" back to front on motorcycles they planned to use in the attack."
Monday, 30 March 2009
Friday, 27 March 2009
"It takes 4 hours to build a motorcycle," said Erica, our guide. Sorry - did I hear that right? Some days it takes me 4 hours to get the battery back on. Yes, just 4 hours - one hour to build the engine and three to wrap the rest of the Ducati round it.
The Ducati factory in Bologna is at the heart of a region dedicated to the production of hi-performance vehicles. Ferrari is down the road. Moto Morini isn't very far away. "We have fuel in the veins," Diego told us, welcoming us to the tour. (Sometimes work has its advantages).
The factory is achingly glamorous and terribly Italian - rows of good-looking men machine crank-cases, build engines and fit body parts. A tiny woman in skinny Italian jeans, big hair and bigger make-up spins a bike round on its centre stand for emissions testing. Either you have to send a photo in with your job application or all the ugly mechanics are held in a tank somewhere when visitors arrive - possibly Belgium. We peer through the high-security porthole into the Ducati Corse laboratory and are invited to admire the massive lock, the keypad and the other hi-tech security arrangements. We try and ignore the fact that the door itself is wide open.
From the birth of new bikes to the birth of a brand - Erica takes us upstairs to the museum, which is an unashamed celebration of making very very fast motorcycles. Like Soichiro Honda, Ducati's first venture into motorcycling was a small-cc engine suitable for attaching to a bicycle frame, introduced in the hard days after World War 2 when Italians could no longer afford the electric razors and calculators which the Ducati family also made, but still needed to be able to ride in search of good coffee and say "Ciao!" to beautiful ladies. This engine was called "The Puppy" and I will avoid the temptation to make any jokes about admiring them.
We move quickly through the development of better, more reliable and faster race bikes. Erica explains that Ducatis are lady motorcycles - "La Ducati" - and the rider must have a relationship with her. (Apparently La Ducati is particularly fond of Australians, who understand how to handle her - small capacity but maximum "compresa" and "many many horses power.") Each room has a set of leathers (or, in the early days, overalls) donated by the "pilot" and Mike Hailwood's bike has a replica tennis ball/sponge combo tucked behind the fairing for authenticity. I still don't understand how it doesn't fall out at supersonic speeds though.
Erica catches me out again. "This was my father's bike." Did he donate it? No - he raced it. Ermanno Giulio was "inspector for work, pilot for passion" and raced the bike to a number of significant victories. I thought it was amazing to have such a personal link to the history on display, and to me it really summed up Ducati's place in the heart of their community. On race days, the factory puts up a big screen and fans and Bolognese can wander down, sit and watch if the passion moves them.
Wednesday, 25 March 2009
Monday, 23 March 2009
Join me, for a minute, in my comfort zone. It has a squidgy armchair, a good reading light, a regular supply of espresso and is close to a purveyor of French pastries. In fact, it looks a lot like a cafe in North London. This weekend I have been so far outside it that I might as well have been in island of Whalsay. The BMW Off-Road School is, I think, the hardest, most challenging thing I’ve ever done.
But it started well. I picked up keys for a 650 X-country, which came up to my kneecaps, put on my tasteful motocross pants and gnarly boots, and rode up in convoy to the Walters Arena where the course is held: looking like a Hells Angels funeral (if their colours had been 100% polyester.)
If you were less nervous than me you’d have admired the 4,000 acres of mountain, pine tree and gravel, laid out under a hazy blue sky for our off-road pleasure. If you're me, you're looking at the gravel and thinking, you want me to ride on that…?
I handicapped myself from the beginning by answering yes to the question, have you ever done any off-roading before. I did a day in Cambridgeshire in 2007, which apparently entitled me to be in the same group as someone who’d completed a 5-month Globebusters TransAmerica run, and someone who’s spent both the last two winters riding overland to The Gambia. Which left me wasting rather too much energy thinking I'd given the wrong answer and should have been in the proper novice group. But that group had Julia Sanders in it, so the definition of novice is clearly one with which I am not familiar.
The first few exercises broke me in gently by being familiar from 2007. Laying the bike down and picking it up (still couldn’t do it on my own, but Fil - the rider with the map of Africa on his helmet - came to my aid (the first occasion of many)). Walking the bike round under power (and trying not to have it hack my ankles with the footpegs). Slow-riding slalom (and you know how much I love that!). Full-lock circles (first crunch of the day) – standing up. By this point I’d swopped the midget X-country for an X-challenge, which was a lot more comfortable but is at least 7 foot tall. Lock the back brake (eek!) and then the front (eek eek!). And then the most terrifying bit of all: “It’s a lovely day,” said Gwyn Barraclough. “So let’s go for a ride.”
Out and up, on the fire road, over the gravel into the tree line. Standing on the pegs is hard work until you do it right, then it's as easy as standing at the bar (Gwyn promised this to us earlier in the day and wasn't wrong), but the bars keep kicking up into my hands and my thighs burn from trying to hold the bike upright, which is a big mistake. The bike needs to do its own thing and I need to learn to let it go. As a control freak, this is not an easy task.
I can't tell you much about how spectacular the setting was, because most of the time I was focussed on the rut ahead in terror. Gwyn had inexhaustible depths of patience and got me driving forward through deep gravel, riding down steep hills, and splashing through (tiny) puddles - until after lunch, just when I was starting to sing showtunes, it all went wrong and I was upside down on the trail with the BMW's exhaust burning a hole in my leg. Invalided back to the van I learnt that I wasn't the first casualty of the day, the previous crasher being taken to hospital as a precaution. Having crashed before on the road, I am apparently at an advantage as I'm less outraged by the discovery that sometimes the shiny side goes down.
I drop my trousers in front of off-road goddess Linley Sullivan-Pavey and get plastered, then sit in the van with a cold drink nursing my wounds while the final riding of the day takes place.
Dinner on Friday night at the Abercrave Inn was full of travellers tales and stories of crashes endured and injuries overcome. I would have stayed longer but had to get back to Swansea (left it too late to book any of the nearer accommodation) and was falling asleep, so I was a lightweight back on the road by 9.30, and out like a light not long after.
Saturday morning was not so good. Maybe I was tired from the first day, maybe I was anxious after the crash, or maybe my slow learning curve had caught me out, but I was all over the place and simply not coping. More of the same as Day One, but more adventurous - we got to a muddy corner with two big puddles and a right-hand bend, and even though I watched everyone else ride through quite happily I came to a dead stop and couldn't go on. Talked through that obstacle we rode on to a long muddy rutted track.
"How are you doing?" asked Gwyn
"I'm utterly terrified," I had to say. Every second and every inch and every wobble of the wheel and every buck of the bars was making my nerves shriek and my stomach turn. And it was only 10.30.
As a mercy killing I was taken back to the van for a break, where Linley patches up my head this time.
Take down the sign that says "can't" and throw it away.
Linley tells me I am good road rider (which is nice) and the problems I am having are all in my head. I think that's what this course is really about for me - facing that barrier and trying to overcome it. If you'd shown me the gravel I rode through on Day One I would have said no way. I looked down the hill and thought, that's not going to happen. Linley says I must ban "can't" - it's OK to say, "I need help with this," or "I find this difficult," or "I struggle," but "can't" is a closed door which ends all negotiation. I have another go on the slalom and - well, "I struggle." Lunch comes early as one of the guys who was moved out of our group this morning is brought back with a possible broken ankle. I feel sad that everyone else is covered from head to foot in muddy water and grinning like loons. Falling off for them isn't the end of the world, it's part of the fun.
At lunch I wonder whether there's any point in going out again. I don't want to give up, but who am I trying to be brave for? Why worry about losing face, I've already been seen "all snot and tears" stuck the wrong side of 2 big puddles and swearing as the bike folds up beneath me and sinks in the ruts.
After lunch it's "try a different bike." I think about what Caz told me at Cadwell - that I've paid as much as everyone else and if I need to go round in second gear and at walking pace, well, that's what I should do. So I do. I ride an 800 and then a 1200 like Ruby, which feels calm and relaxed and reboots my brain. I tell Gwyn I don't want to go out again and then instantly regret it - so catch up and say, no, I've changed my mind, I want to come. And I'm struggling, but I'm not afraid any more. In the afternoon sun we ride tiny tracks and big long hills, through deep gravel with the bike fishtailing under me. I get stuck on a hillclimb and require rescue, but handle a downhill stall where I locked the back wheel and slide down with it trying to overtake the front. I start to have a tiny bit of fun, then we ride another long, long rutted track, me in second gear, Gwyn on my left shoulder shepherding me safely along, and I run out of bravery - but it's the end of the day and the only difficult bit left is riding back to the road. I sit down because my legs have turned to jelly.
Why do I put myself through it? Because I refuse to believe that I'm this strangled, terrified creature who can only cope if the world is entirely predictable and safe under my feet. Because I enjoyed feeling righteous tiredness, earned by doing something terrifying and difficult and new. But mainly I do it to challenge myself, hoping I'll find that place within where "can't" has been banished and I don't limit myself because I'm afraid but ride forward and drive hard all the way to the top of the hill.
PS - the best biker crash story of the weekend? "I was hit by a pheasant"..."I was hit by a chicken.."..."my mate was taken out by a sheep that jumped on top of him from behind a dry stone wall." Don't worry - the sheep got up and walked away.
Friday, 20 March 2009
I'm in Swansea about to head up to Ystradgynlais for Day One of the BMW Off-Road School - it's going to be a lovely day weather-wise (not so sure about the riding, bit nervous about that!): the light has that quality you get first thing after waking in Paris or Murcia - the sun hasn't quite burnt off the early morning mist so it's bright but still soft, it's quiet but there's a rising background noise note from the traffic as other people start their day, and it's fresh but not cold, and going to get warmer. In other words, a day full of potential...
Last night's trip down was mostly full of BMWs. This morning I shall be looking for someone with a map of africa on their lid (passed on the M5) and someone with ally panniers but no stickers (passed on the Heads of the Valleys road, presumably still in training ;).
Sunday, 15 March 2009
No, not for their decision to slap 50 mph limits on all the interesting parts of the A6, but for winning this year's Fresh PR Grand Prix. So many road safety campaigns are just poorly thought-through rubbish - the memorable Kent and Medway of 2003 suggesting that all bikers will end up in wheelchairs, the smoking wreck of a crushed motorcycle on display at the NEC - so when I saw this in MCN last year, I thought it was excellent, and it's great to see it getting recognised with an award.
Wednesday, 11 March 2009
I went to Malvern last night to Wait for Godot. I'm saddened to discover that I am such an intellectual lightweight that despite Gandalf and Jean-Luc Picard giving it their all, I fell asleep not once but twice, and thus missed Simon Callow entirely. But all was not lost, because this morning the Malvern Hills were mist-wrapped and beautiful, it was cool but not chilly, and I wished that I was riding rather further than Clarks of Lickey to finally get my fuel gauge fixed.
That was the first small joy.
The second small joy arrived at 5pm when I set off home again with a new visor - being able to see really does make this motorcycle lark so much more fun...
Apparently a BMW helmet is guaranteed for 2 years, so if I can find the receipt I can claim a free visor. I knew I had a blog post about it,but doubted that would suffice as proof of purchase. So the third small joy came at around 6pm when I looked in my bike file and found the paperwork. Being OCD sometimes has its advantages!
PS - This week's loan bike was small but not a joy, the new 650GS has a seat as hard as Samuel Beckett's prose at a height which made me feel like a frog on a matchbox.
Friday, 6 March 2009
It must be true - Dr Kawashima says so!
TOKYO (AFP) — Riding motorcycles helps keep drivers young by invigorating their brains, the scientist behind popular "Brain Training" computer software said Wednesday, citing a new scientific study.
"The driver's brain gets activated by riding motorbikes" in part because it requires heightened alertness, Ryuta Kawashima said after his research team and Yamaha Motor conducted a string of experiments involving middle-aged men.
"In a convenient and easy environment, the human mind and body get used to setting the hurdle low," he warned. "Our final conclusion is that riding motorcycles can lead to smart ageing."
Kawashima is the designer of "Brain Training" software, which incorporates quizzes and other games and is available on the Nintendo DS game console under the name "Brain Age" in North America.
A self-professed motorcycle fan, 49-year-old Kawashima cited a new study conducted jointly by Yamaha and Tohoku University, for which he works.
One experiment involved 22 men, all in their 40s and 50s, who held motorcycle licences but had not taken a ride for at least a decade.
They were randomly split into two groups -- one asked to resume riding motorcycles in everyday life for two months, and another that kept using bicycles or cars.
"The group that rode motorbikes posted higher marks in cognitive function tests," Kawashima said.
In one test, which required the men to remember a set of numbers in reverse order, the riders' scores jumped by more than 50 percent in two months, while the non-riders' marks deteriorated slightly, he said.
The riders also said they made fewer mistakes at work and felt happier.
"Mental care is a very big issue in modern society," said Kawashima. "I think we made an interesting stir here as data showed you can improve your mental condition simply by using motorbikes to commute."
Copyright © 2009 AFP. All rights reserved
Thursday, 5 March 2009
Wednesday, 4 March 2009
Tuesday, 3 March 2009
The universe keeps putting tempation in my way. When I took Ruby in for her service they were selling BMW Winter jackets at 25% off. I haven't bought a new winter jacket since 1997 so bird-maths means that it will only cost me about 20 quid a year. Plus I canvassed opinion at work and got a full house in favour of purchase. So now I have a very lovely red jacket to match my red bike, but it does have that rather squeaky new feeling about it.
This morning I opened my copy of Camping & Caravanning at the back page (doesn't everyone?) to find a review of the tentipi safir. It's a proper tipi. You can stand up in it; you can hang your clothes on a drying rail, they sell stoves that you can light in the middle of it (inside!); and accessories include reindeer hide for lounging on and double-headed throwing axes. How can I possibly resist buying one? (actually, the price will probably prove an insurmountable obstacle - cracking on for a grand, that's an awful lot of camping needed to make that economic...)