It’s a warm late summer’s evening. I have maybe three hours of daylight left after work. There’s a beautiful cloudless sky and the world is bathed in sunlight. The Peak District is outside my door. I have to do it. I wheel my partner for the evening, my Suzuki Bandit, out of the garage and pat the tank. She’s dusty, but tonight she isn’t going to get cleaned. We have a different plan. She starts first push of the starter. She’s as ready as I am to enjoy the ride. Ten minutes for her to warm up, and for me to don helmet and gloves, and we’re on our way.
I ride carefully amongst the traffic until I’m clear of the commuters. I know where their heads are at because usually I would be one of them. Tired, distracted by tea time radio news or loud music. Thinking more about their day at work, getting home, that night’s television, an argument they’ve had with their partner or boss. In fact thinking about almost anything more than they are thinking about driving. They can be erratic. Virtually blind. Driving on auto pilot.
Soon, though, all of that is behind me and I’m out in the countryside. I take my time, I have nowhere to be and no desire to get anywhere quickly. I revel in the quiet evening roads and the noise and vibration of the bike as she eats up the miles in a lazy, effortless, low rumble. For no reason other than I want to I change down a gear and open up the throttle on a long straight. She responds with a purr and a surge of speed, then equally quickly slows down and leans into the bends as if she knows where she’s going and all I’m doing is providing her with an excuse to take me there. I let her lead me for a while, taking random turns that look interesting. Turning off before I catch up with any traffic. Skirting around rather than riding through villages and towns. Finding new roads and new horizons. I enjoy the warmth of the sun in my face and keep heading vaguely west so that I can keep it there. Even so I am pleased when it hides behind a stand of trees briefly rather than shining in to my eyes.
We ride like this for nearly an hour, but my age causes aches to catch up all too soon and I recognise that I need to stretch. The next road sign points to nearby town where I can stop for a quick break before heading home. I start to ride more purposefully with the thought of a favourite coffee shop in mind. I am back on roads that I know. Long fast straights, flowing bends. I watch for lorries and tractors and try to time my riding so that the momentum takes me past them in safe overtakes rather than catching them on bends. I watch for suspicious white vans, speed traps set for the unwary. I am not travelling at illegal speeds, but sometimes to overtake safely I have to accelerate over the limit only to slow again once safely past. A quick blast on these roads and I catch my first glimpse of the town down in the valley. I slow, turn, and wind my way on to the main street. It’s quiet now, only a few late night tourists like me searching out the few open shops or heading for an early doors pint. I see plenty of parking spaces big enough for the bike but instead of pulling in I glance at the town hall clock and decide on a whim that, given I have another hour or so of daylight, I’ll turn my face back to the sun and carry on out of town. It’s one of those nights when I’m enjoying the journey more than I’d enjoy the destination, so the aches can wait.
A few miles further on I crest a hill. The sudden effect of the sun in my eyes makes me look away momentarily from the road. The views take by breath away. I stop, turn off the engine and take off my helmet so that I can breathe in the clean air. I hear the countryside properly for the first time; cows, sheep, birds and in the distance a tractor. I take fifteen minutes to enjoy the peace. I am glad I came here to stop instead of a coffee shop in the town. This is truly beautiful countryside. I am blessed to enjoy it at its quiet best. My mind wanders, aimless and free. I think of friends, holidays, of other great times in the countryside I’m riding through, of family and of stories I should write. I ponder making a note of some interesting phrases, and ideas, then am distracted by the next thought and the next and nothing gets noted, although some may be remembered.
As I watch the farm buildings in the valley begin to turn gold and their shadows lengthen. I have to accept that time really has caught up with me. I mount up again and finally turn for home. The sun low, behind me now, catches me out. I curse as I turn around and it reflects in my mirrors into my eyes. I move my head to adjust the angle, and set off again. I am riding with more purpose now, less meandering and more directly to my destination. As I reach an open stretch of road I notice that I am following my own shadow. I crest and then descend the dips in the road. My shadow shortens then lengthens. I wave to myself, first an arm then both legs. The road is empty, fortunately. Anyone seeing me would think me a fool. I laugh aloud at that thought, the sound strangely echoing inside my helmet. The road curves and my shadow is riding alongside me rather than leading the way. I open the throttle a little, but then decide to resist the all too real temptation to race my own shadow, a race that I know in my head could only lead to disaster but surely one every child on a pushbike has tried at least once. Instead I glance across to see the shapes it makes in the hedgerow and in doing so am lucky enough to see a bird of prey dive and strike, but at this speed I am gone before I see if she has taken her prey.
I take the next turning, heading downhill and into the shade. Trees overhang the road, still with their leaves at this time of year. It’s dark on this road, much darker, like entering a tunnel or the sudden onset of night. The temperature drops what feels like ten degrees. I shiver, but quickly reacclimatise. The road is narrow. It curves and bends back on itself down the steep valley side. The bike comes alive again, back in her element. She accelerates out of each bend, brakes, leans into the next one and then does it again and again as we weave down the valley side. I am wary of damp patches, mud on the road, anything that could make me skid and slide. But my bike is sure footed and she seems to steer herself around any obstacles with just a thought from me. Trusting her instincts I take in my surroundings. A brook crosses and re-crosses my route just below the road, rushing in its urgency to feed the mill ponds and the river in the valley bottom. Lush grass grows along its banks. I smell the wild garlic that grows like weeds in the un-mowed verge. That smell reminds my stomach how long it is since I last ate. My thoughts turn to food and home, only twenty minutes away. I emerge into light and turn back in to the traffic and boring busy roads. The fun is almost over, we’re like everyone else now, chasing the fading daylight in the hope of getting home before darkness and real cold descend.
I recently heard someone say that the car is a modern hermitage, a place of seclusion and thought. I beg to differ. My car has far too many distractions. I have music, radio, satellite navigation, passengers who can talk to me. It is a tool. A machine designed to do a job. A job it does well, but a job nonetheless. My hermitage is my motorcycle. Within a crash helmet I am, in a very real sense, alone with my thoughts. And when the only limit is a self-imposed time limit and therefore endlessly flexible, I have time to think. Not about work, not about the jobs I have to do at home, not about money or my problems. None of that enters my mind. I am truly de-stressed and relaxed.
People ask me why I ride a bike. This is my answer.
(C) Chris Johnson 2017 & 2020