Riding Motorcycles In Britain
(Originally published on Motorcycle.com)
Forget the Frogs, the UK is best for motorcycling
Not too long ago Tod Rafferty wrote a piece for Motorcycle.com in which he intimated that France is the best country for motorcyclists. As a resident of the country that is France’s oldest and closest enemy, I feel I am duty-bound to inform you that, with all due respect to Tod, his assertion is codswallop.
Yes, codswallop. Tommyrot. Poppycock. Flapdoodle. I’m sorry to use such strong language. But if you’re anywhere east of the Atlantic Ocean, it’s Her Majesty’s United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland you want to be visiting. Britain is home to civilised riding. That's civilised with a 'S,' thank you.
I’m from America, but have lived in the UK –– in Wales, specifically –– for roughly a decade. I often pine for Minnesota thunderstorms and Texas cooking, but one thing that keeps me from going back home is knowing how much I’ll miss motorcycling here.
Germany (or possibly the United States) may be able to claim to have made the first motorcycle, but the UK is the country that made motorcycling. Triumph, Norton, Vincent, Brough Superior, and dozens of other great names. The rockers (and mods), the ton-up boys, the Isle of Man TT heroes, and adventurers like Ted Simon, Elspeth Beard, and, of course, Ewan McGregor and Charlie Boorman. Eric Gardner, the man who invented the crash helmet. Geoff Duke, the first man to wear a one-piece leather racing suit. Café racers and streetfighters. It all started here.
Motorcycling runs in British blood. It is a part of the people’s history, a part of their present, and, as roads grow ever more congested, very much a part of their future. Just last month, MO reported sales of commuter-sized bikes are at an all-time high in the UK. That’s not surprising. I’ve driven in Houston, Los Angeles, Boston and Manhattan, and I assure you: no American has seen traffic congestion of the sort experienced in London or Manchester. Motorcycles are allowed to filter (a.k.a., lane split) in the UK, which means they are generally the best way to ensure you’ll show up on time.
Additionally, a motorcycle-friendly culture means toll roads are often free or discounted. In most cities, motorcyclists are allowed to use bus lanes. Parking lots and parking garages usually have allocated free spaces for motorcycles, and many offer locks and helmet storage.
Police enforcement of speed limits is rare, and on the occasion officers do post themselves roadside they take a relaxed view, disinclined to stop anyone going less than 30 mph over the limit. By and large, though, authorities leave speed enforcement to our machine overlords. Around cities, radar cameras are the scourge of British motorways (a.k.a. “freeways”), but the good news is: those cameras are almost all forward-facing. A motorcycle has no forward plate.
Meanwhile, the good ol’ British punk spirit means many cameras will be damaged –– lenses smashed or spraypainted –– by locals who hate them more than you. Especially in parts of Scotland and Wales where nationalists see rules as a form of English oppression.
Outside of urban areas, roads are generally free flowing. Off the beaten path, Britain’s narrow B roads and country lanes make it seem as if it was built for motorcyclists. In truth, it was built for horses and carts by Roman soldiers; it’s simply that no one since has put in effort to widen the roads. In my wife’s native Devon, roads leading to her father’s house are so narrow that hedgerows scrape both sides of a car.
It’s a situation that plays to a motorcycle’s size, allowing you to explore nooks and crannies that are effectively inaccessible to cars. Well, assuming your motorcycle is set up with good suspension. There’s a reason the BMW R1200GS (including the GSA) is the best-selling big bike in Britain. Followed closely by the Yamaha FJ-09 (known as the MT-09 Tracer over here). The country’s best-selling Suzuki (V-Strom 1000) and Triumph (Tiger 800) are also adventure-styled.
That’s not to say all the roads are awful. Routes known as “A roads” are generally in good condition and offer plenty of opportunity for engaging and spirited riding. FYI, “spirited” is British motorcycling code for “in excess of the speed limit.” Especially in Scotland in Wales.
One of the real advantages of British geography is the fact this place is so small. Run top to bottom (John o’ Groats to Land’s End) in less than a day and you’ll still need to ride a quarter of the way back to earn an Iron Butt badge. So, everything is close. Long, boring, tire-squaring rides on the interstate aren’t necessary for great riding.
Okay, it’s true what they say about the weather. It rains. If you’re one of those people who refuses to ride in the wet, you should probably stay in Arizona. The good news is that, except in winter, it doesn’t tend to rain very heavily or for very long. Besides, wearing waterproof gear isn’t uncomfortable because temperatures rarely exceed 75º F. Every few years we’ll get a day in July that hits 90º F and they treat it with the same sense of alarm and confusion as Houstonians do snow: cancelling school, closing offices, panic-buying things from grocery stores, etc.
In the case of Britons, though, the thing they’re buying is booze. This speaks to an aspect of Britain that helps one overcome the wet weather, an aspect that makes this such a great country to ride in: British people. Quirky, irreverent, foul-mouthed and quick-witted, they are a people who know how to have fun. British motorcyclists in particular.
Moto-journalism legend John Burns has written a few times about the feeling of asking oneself: “Why doesn’t somebody take this thing away from me?” The feeling that we motorcyclists are somehow pulling off a great trick on the universe, that we’re getting away with something: “Whee! Somebody’s slapped some wheels on this metal box of explosions and I’m going to sit on it! Ha-ha!”
That spirit is strong in British riders. They are mischievous and silly, and happy in their silliness. We Americans often feel need to make what we do seem more important than it is; we don’t just go on a group ride, we Ride in Support of America’s Warrior Heroes. You don’t tend to see that sort of thing here. Britons possess a sense of adventure that they don’t seek to justify or rationalize. After all, it was a Brit, George Mallory, who said he wanted to climb Mount Everest simply “because it’s there.”
I can give you plenty of reasons to come to Britain. Americans are generally well-liked. Everyone speaks English (though, the Welsh appreciate when you use the greeting: “S’mae”). Drivers are better than those found in California, Italy or Spain. You can’t drop a bike without hitting some historical something or other. The food is far better than some would lead you to believe, especially if you like pork. And the quality of the ale will help you not care either way.
But the real reason, of course, is simply that it’s here. It’s odd and it’s beautiful, but most importantly –– and they’ve fought wars to prove this –– it’s better than France.