One of ’em days

 

Once in a while, nothing really works for you. Without warning, without any rational explanation as to why, it’s as if you’d just spent the night in a bad luck bed and it sticks with you all day long.

For me, 28th December 2012 was one of ’em days. A weird succession of little mishaps and pixellation, surprisingly all relating to motorbiking. Or is it to Yamahing?

I was due to play tennis with Mike from my climbing centre, who lives in Bromley. Picked up the Ten and rode off. At the Lewisham roundabout, exiting on the A20, with light green for traffic, two late teenagers decide to cross the street. They’re a good 30 metres away, but as I ride towards them one of them slows down to a near stop, eyeing me down defiantly. His mate is safely on the pavement, and to avoid his cunt of a mate I brake hard and swerve.

Is it me ageing and I’m missing something there, or did he have a death wish, or did he just mistake the Ten for a bull even if he didn’t have a red jacket?

Whatever the reason, it transported me straight to Laos. In Laos as in China and most developing countries I have visited, traffic and pedestrians work to different rules. But for a donkey here or there in Europe, people and cars follow a set of shared standards, there are dos and donts. Out in Laos, my bearings will take a big big beating, and this idiot staring me down acted as a potent reminder: ‘expect the unexpected’ goes the expression, a cliche, but a useful one.

All my senses will have to be on alert from the very start, a bit like when I started biking back in 2010 on my Vanvan.

We had a great hit with Mike, and I can’t thank him enough for that. Also met his wife and kids, who all seem very nice, which one would never believe knowing the man (eh eh).

After a drink at his place after the game, Mike dropped me back off at the club’s carpark and I set to dress for the ride back. The Metal Mule panniers’ locks had been given me grief virtually from the moment I mounted them, and as I prepared to wrestle for another minute or so to prise the pannier open, the bloody key snapped right off. One half in my hand, the other stuck in place in the lock.

G-R-R-R-R-R-E-A-T.

My winter gloves and balaclava were in there. So I rode home with bare hands and my scarf wrapped up tight around my neck. Thank god for the handguards.

Back past the Lewisham roundabout, having been followed by a fuzz car for a few minutes, I elected to turn right at a light. Which was the way I’d come. But just as I got into the road, I saw three painted white arrows pointing towards me on the tarmac, and only three lanes. Oops, wrong way then!

Just as I stopped and started backing off with a big apologetic smile under my helmet, I heard the police car siren. Cue the car in my mirrors. Oh dear…

I turned around, they turned around, and we stopped 20 metres further into a side street for a chat. Luckily they only told me where to go: no paper check (all my papers being somewhere in Wales at the DVLA’s offices), no glove check (in the out-of-bounds pannier), and no fine. I guess the fact I’d already started backing when they turned up put their mind at rest I was not a one-way-street thrill seeker.

‘Alright’, thought I, ‘they come in 3s don’t they’. I was wrong.

Pitlaning home to fetch my summer gloves and necktube, I parked by our flat. Returning with my gear, I tried to turn the ignition back on. And it wouldn’t. I just couldn’t get the key to hit ‘on’, it was stubbornly refusing the turn that wee bit more. So for the next minute or so I fought with the fucker, playing with the handlebars and the barrel until, thankfully, I was able to get back on.

Now I know they might also come in 4s.

Anyway it stopped there, the rest of the day came and went, blissfully uneventfully.

In 6 days’ time, I’ll be dropping the bike at the removal company HQ in Wembley. I’ll spend 3 months or so in a crate, and the next time I’ll see it will be in Vientiane, Laos. No doubt I’ll have a few surprises there, but we’ll see in due time.

In the meantime, I’ll have to get my brains in gear for moving around in that fabulous country.

 

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Bullet-proof, hey?

It’s been four days since Fabrice and I bullied the Ten back into working shape. And every day that passes puts more distance between me, the Ramboy bike, and the life-threatening crash. Still, the days don’t pass fast enough: I am quite tense on the seat, eyes raking every square inch of tarmac for traces of kitchen grease, olive oil and candle wax.

Despite by best intentions, however, I just can’t keep off thomascrowning speed bumps and other obstacles, and once or twice I contemplate punching myself for being so pigheadedly silly. But my helmet is quite recent, the other one got stolen in my private underground car park over the summer, and I don’t fancy damaging this one more than it might have been during the 200 mph crash. Okay, 20 mph. Still.

See, ever since I swapped the R for the Ten, I’ve been quite active on the aftermarket accessories front. And I’d rather spend 300 quid on some Laos-oriented improvement than yet another helmet.

With this in mind, on this cold and sunny Friday afternoon, I whistle and jump on the eager Ten. Like Zorro. On we go. Today’s climbing centre is the one where it all started, Mile End Climbing Wall. The Rotherhithe tunnel is doing a good impression of a heart about to have a stroke, so I elect to not play any part in this and decamp to Tower Bridge.

Slightly ashamed by the agricultural cacophony of the Ten, amid all these tourists, I look down as I cross the Thames. Or is it to watch out for grease?

On Whitechapel Road, after filtering at the lights, I happen to notice that the digital screen has dropped the digital part: it is blank as a baby’s bottom. Now, I wonder, is it bad if I look at myself in the mirror and can’t see my face? I gather it is not a good sign. And sure enough, 20 seconds later the thumper starts coughing, hiccuping, even air puking.

It thumps so hard and weakly and inconsistently that, for fear of losing a wheel and god knows what else, I decide to stop here and there. Hic et nunc, as Julius used to say in these situations.

5 days after my first crash, the second one. This one is figurative, but it’s actually worse: it’s a metaphorical accident, a standing crash, the worst kind, the kind that happens for no fucking reason. The heart stopped. Not in the Rotherhithe tunnel, but right under my bum.

I’m starting to seriously question the general assessment that Japanese bikes are reliable. I mean, SERIOUSLY. The thing is a joke, but not a funny one. Like a French joke maybe – you know the kind. It’s one that makes me laugh with an undertone of voodoo and death metal and Hitler.

Who to blame, I wonder as I stand like a cucumber, my helmet in hand, in the bus lane? Nothing doing, the aggravating Japanese refuses to hear anything. Each turn of the ignition produces a whining sound under the seat, like a pack of lethargic bees trapped in a cybernetic straw.

In a moment of clarity, I decide that the dealer is at fault. He KNEW it. He sold me a dud. I took pains to explain to him that I was buying the Ten because it is a RELIABLE motorbike that I will bring to Laos where there is NO dealer, no TRAINED mechanic, and I need the bugger to not give me ANY trouble. Because trouble there means being reduced to the sorry state of a walking being. A scary prospect.

In a second moment of clarity, I decide that the first crash may have caused a slow-to-show malfunction. Which one, I have not a clue. But clearly my bike just died on me after riding it 20 minutes, and I’m as disbelieving as I’m pissed off.

Fuck. Fuck and double fuck.

Trying to figure out what to think or do as the dodgiest scooters whizz past – Chinese, Nigerian, French, even Japanese – an uncomfortable witticism flashes in my head: I bought the Ten to have a great adventure in Laos, and all it’s giving me is a shitty time in bloody London. Needless to say I notice the uncomfortable part much more than the witticism.

Honestly, I try very hard to find a solution that doesn’t involve my go-to man for all things motorbike. So it takes me a minute to finally call Fabrice. Poor guy. True to form, his first instinct is to jump in his car and rescue me out of my Japanese misery. But for the first time ever, he listens to me and stays home, where he’s got a bucketload of things to do before he departs the next day for Almeria and a few days of track riding. He’s got a BMW S1000, you see, them Germans actually work when you need them to.

Suddenly, on the phone to him, I have the idea of renaming my Ten: it is now officially called the Yellow Peril. Yeah yeah, not PC. I’ll be PC when the bastard stops being a cunt, that’s what. Give me a good reason, and I’ll be bloody polite. Until then, fuck off or get going.

After much deliberating, calling the dealer, thinking of getting AA cover on the spot (for 2 months!) and convincing Fabrice to stay bloody put, I decide to finish my journey on foot. With the unbelievable Ten in tow. Zorro on his zero.

As I start pushing, the epitome of kindness and you-don’t-know-how-much-I-wish-you-hadn’t-stopped comes to a halt by my side. A 60-something man, with a helmet on.

On a 1200GS.

I mean, how cruel can life really be?! A BMW, the same as my R but in trail guise, stops (at the man’s command) to enquire what is going on with my fucking reliable Japanese trail toy bike. God, if you exist I truly hate your sense of humour.

I thank him dearly for his concern, explain the situation quickly, and start banging my naked head on the nearest brick wall as soon as he’s opened the throttle again. Yeah yeah, go, you rich stuck-up German buying crowd follower.

Nice guy. Not enough though: you can’t do that to me man, not on a BMW. Anything but that.

Half and hour later, having lost a few stones in sweat, I finally push my bike into a stop at the end of the climbing wall car park. I squeeze it between a rubbish tip and the temporary cabin. Hidden from view. One way to see it is to say that potential thieves won’t see it. The other, and truer way, is to say that I’m so ashamed of this good-for-nothing twat that I’d like to forget it ever existed. Hide, Ten, hide.

I have one of the shittiest climbing sessions. I thought the anger would power me to onsight a few V13s, but I struggle on V3s and anger quickly turns to frustration to the-world-hates-me and finally to extreme tiredness with life and motorbiking and climbing and pizza-eating and even reading on the loo.

Fuck’s sake man. All because of the Yellow Peril.

How I came to the sad conclusion of the XT660Z

Laos…

Yes, Laos: one of the poorest countries in the world, and by far the least well-off in South-East Asia, on a par with Myanmar.

Truly amazing place. My wife and I had spent 10 heavenly days there while living in China: the food, the natural environment, the people, the architecture, the tranquillity – everything about Laos is awesome.

Until you start thinking of taking your R1200R with you, that is. A bit of research quickly turned up a never-ending list of flaws to the luminous idea:

– the roads are terrible, and when not so they get flooded or muddy or swept away by the monsoon, or are very dusty in the dry season. The best road in Laos links the capital, Vientiane, to Luang Prabang in the north (which is, btw, the way God meant Paradise to look like). It is approx. 390 km long, or 240 miles. It takes, at best, 11 hours.

– ruts, cracks, potholes, roadkills and other bumps are as common as CCTVs x roadsigns in London.

– the nearest BMW dealership in 400 miles – or 10 hours – away in Bangkok.

So, reluctantly, I came to realise that keeping the R1200R wasn’t a wise move. I DID try all sorts of arguments to convince myself otherwise: could fit longer-travel suspensions… Raise the mudguard… Until a moment of sanity hit me and I rushed to a dealer to part-exchange it.

The question was: for what? Well, the prerequisites for the new bike were – when looked at it objectively – pretty clear. I needed a trail bike.

I’d always loved the looks of the 990 Adventure, although I never tried it. By the nearest KTM dealership was blah blah blah. Denis, NO! Hands off.

Okay, thought I, so I need a trail bike that doesn’t require riding it 11 hours to Bangkok when it is broken down and needs fixing.

For a while, I toyed with the idea of buying a Triumph Scrambler, which I have also always loved. But it didn’t meet the ‘no Bangkok pit stop’ box. Shit. Shit shit shit.

Reluctantly, painfully, the answer finally dawned on me: I had to go for a Japanese trail bike, and the simpler the better. That meant one thing, and one thing only: the Yamaha XT660Z, aka the Ten(ere).

Sometimes, life enjoys to smear one’s face in dog poo. A few months after taking ownership of my BMW, I testrode the Ten, from Yamaha Clapham. I HATED it. It was the most awful fuel-powered experience I had ever had. For awfulness, it even beat the 1.0 litre plastic joke of a car I hired in Brasilia that did 0-62mph – I am not kidding – in 22 seconds. T-w-e-n-t-y t-w-o seconds. Well, that car gave me more joy than the Ten, even after one of the tyres burst and we got stuck in the middle of nowhere in the blazing sun.

Riding the Ten made me want to swim to Guantanamo Bay. Really. Yet, now I was faced with the ironic conclusion that, of all my options, it was the least worst.

After all, the Ten’s engine uses a single cylinder, it is mechanically simple, but more importantly still it is famed for its reliability. Bullet-proof, they say.

Until today, I still haven’t tried to find out how far the closest Yamaha dealer is to Vientiane. As Bartleby put it very aptly for me, ‘I would prefer not to‘. I don’t want to discover the inconvenient truth that the Ten or the 990 Adventure are, in the end, in the same boat dealer-wise. Oh no.

Because you see, the biggest cc one can legally sell or buy in Laos is 250. So my Ten can’t be serviced in Vientiane by a trained mechanic. Not in that big an engine, even if it is only an extension of a 250cc single cylinder one.

It’s all right though, because the Ten is uber-reliable. Bullet-proof, innit.

Anybody in their right mind would have concluded that the best option, really, is to buy a local 250cc, and be done with all those stupid quandaries. Yeah, but who wants to tackle long distances on a loaded 250cc? I mean, come on. Okay, the critically minded could point out that I have never tried and I should shut up. But I can’t hear you.

Oh of course it’s possible. But I’m not talking long distances in Laos, where speed is never great and better not be, but other countries around S-E Asia. Sure, it’s possible to bring a fully-loaded 250cc on a Thai motorway, but how enjoyable is it? And say you want to ride back from Laos to France or the UK one day, would you rather do it on a 660cc or 250cc?

So the die was cast: my R1200R would make way for a used Ten. 2010 model, 3000 miles on the clock, topbox. Laos was 3 months away: plenty enough time to customise it for Asia, and plenty enough time to sort any teething problems, if there were any.

The two days before the swap were truly awful. I was so sad I was close to tears. The last time I had felt like that, I was 8 and I’d just lost the cowboy costume I’d got the previous Christmas. As I said: awful.

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