The wind, the fear and the ridiculous
You know that advice they always give about riding with a passenger? "Take it easy," they say. "Make everything as gentle as possible. Don't frighten your passenger."
They have obviously never met my wife.
"YAHWOOOOOOOOOOOO!" she screamed against the wind as the two of us zig-zagged down the A449 Saturday.
We were flying down the dual carriageway ("freeway" for those of you playing along at home) at 90 mph with crosswinds kicking us around in our lane. In curves, the wind would occasionally push us upright and I'd have to fight to drop us back into the lean. At other times it would punch so hard it felt almost tangible, as if an animal had jumped out and headbutted us. Leaves and sticks and all manner of things swirled in the air and plinked against our helmets. Jenn was having the time of her life.
We had ridden that morning to the Farmer's Boy Inn, a pub 10 miles west of Gloucester, which I had spotted during one of my many Staring At Google Maps sessions. I spend hours staring at Google Maps, imagining various road trips, from the practical (e.g., an afternoon ride to a pub) to the overly ambitious (e.g., a multi-day peregrination through Ireland and Scotland's western islands).
We had travelled to the pub through the Forest of Dean, an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty that borders England and Wales. The roads had been wet and curvy and leaf-covered and gravel-strewn, and I had struggled to take them at anything other than a snail's pace. In terms of actual experience I am still pretty green and still haven't worked out how to hit curves with full confidence even in the best of conditions. Add the weight of a passenger on these roads and I was a jumble of nerves.
Cars lined up behind us and I could feel drivers' frustration mixing with and exacerbating The Fear. British drivers have the patience of cocaine addicts with hemorrhoids. If you hold them up they become panic-fixated on the NEED to get past you. Never in their lives has anything ever been so singularly important as getting past you; and they will risk everything, particularly your safety, to accomplish that task. They are not the people you want behind you -- right behind you -- when you're gingerly making your way around yet another blind hairpin.
On top of this, I could sense that Jenn was miserable. She was too cold. This was the first time she had ridden with me since early autumn and she had not worn enough layers. I just wanted to get her to the pub, wanted to get away from these angry drivers, and away from these crappy roads.
One of the less-enjoyable aspects of riding is that sometimes -- not often, but sometimes -- all these little pins-and-needles frustrations build up in you and you find yourself wanting to pitch a fit. As we rode along, I half-fantasised about just stopping, pushing the bike to the ground and throwing a tantrum, like a toddler who's simply had too much Christmas shopping.
I didn't do that. We made it to the pub safely and I felt a deep sense of happiness in shutting off the engine and putting the bike on its stand.
The Farmer's Boy Inn is a ridiculous place. It reminded me of Johnnie Fox's in Ireland, a place with so much tat on the walls it makes you dizzy. Farming equipment, mugs, bits of brass, a million things for which you cannot even begin to guess the purpose, and a great superfluity of "hilarious" apothegms such as: "The day I stop drinking is the day I stop breathing, and the day I stop breathing is the day I stop drinking."
Appropriately, the Farmer's Boy Inn is run by an enthusiastic Irishman who cheerfully and rapidly banters with everyone in the pub at once. There was a roaring fire and after a mug of tea and some wine Jenn felt more herself. I had a boar and cider pie, she had a burger. Jenn noted that it was a proper inn, i.e., a place that has rooms for the night, and we briefly entertained the idea of just staying there and getting drunk rather than venturing back out into the cold and wet.
Practicality won over, though, and we geared up to head home. To help keep warm, Jenn wrapped each foot in 3 feet of toilet paper before putting on her boots.
I decided to take a quicker route home and soon we were opening the throttle on the straight and wide of the A449. A road that runs down a mountain valley it is always windy, but it was particularly so on this afternoon. Sharp gusts jabbed at us from all directions and the bike danced its way toward the M4. In my head I kept repeating the mantra of gyroscopic effect: a motorcycle at speed is naturally inclined to stay upright. Effectively all I needed to do was stay on the bike -- keep loose, don't over correct -- and physics would see us home.
According to the internets, wind was gusting at 60 kmh (37 mph) that day and I'll admit that I wasn't really enjoying being bullied by Mother Nature. That is, until I heard Jenn whooping and cheering. She was having a blast. With her shouting above the roar of wind I started laughing.
"That was like being on a motorcycle," she said afterward. "Usually it's just, you know, sit there and look at stuff. But that was like a real motorcycle."
I can't say I'm not a little hurt by that remark. It suggests to me Jenn feels I take things a little too easy. The cliche is that wives always complain their husbands are reckless, mine seems to think I'm over-cautious. Perhaps she should be the one steering and I should be the one holding on.