It’s all too easy to dismiss that thing you do on your bike, as nothing more than a traffic-choked, soul-destroying grind; particularly when you consider that for what seems like forever, there have been major road works on at least one stretch of every main artery into or across the Metropolis. If you’re one of the thousands who currently spend five days a week picking your way through a veritable car park of square-wheeled vehicles, in weather where the only variation is when the rain switches from a steady drizzle to a serious downpour, it can be difficult to take anything positive from your journeys beyond the fact that they get you to work and back faster and cheaper than you would in a car.
However, if like me you are of a mind whereby you search for silver linings, it’s very reassuring to consider the kind of skills you develop every time you ride the capital’s streets and survive. Last time I was speaking to you from these pages, I was going on about a queer trip I’d had back in September with a few Digest associates. I’d said that I was disappointed because, while I hadn’t been planning to allow myself to be dragged into any serious brains-out lunacy, I had been rather looking forward to enjoying a little ‘spirited’ riding. But as you’ll remember that wasn’t quite how it panned out – in fact the boys on the big bikes asked me to slow down before I’d even warmed up.
It wasn’t a question of outright speed, I’m sure that if we’d been on a nice clear stretch of twisting Welsh tarmac I’d have had to hustle my low tech SRX6 to even keep up; but we weren’t out cruising in the Black Mountains, we were in Essex, and we were sharing our experience with a steady to heavy flow of weekend traffic. The issue wasn’t one of sheer velocity, it was my attitude to the threat posed by all the steel boxes that was being challenged because it would seem that it came across as somewhat cavalier.
It was summed up as a problem of proximity; but like I said at the time, after over a quarter of a century dicing with London traffic on an almost daily basis, it’s not something I give a great deal of thought to. Perhaps I should rephrase that though because it’s pretty obvious that I wouldn’t have survived for all those years and all those thousands of miles, if I hadn’t spent the overwhelming majority of that time acutely aware of exactly what was going on all around me. It’s just that after a prolonged period of serious riding in a big city, you can’t help but develop an acute level of insight and an ability to anticipate the ‘unpredictable behaviour’ of other road users.
A couple of weeks ago, I had a few days off and my very good buddy Dave Newman was good enough to loan me his Tiger 955i so I could make the most of them. On the Sunday, I was happily riding along Brighton seafront, carrying a pillion who’d only been on a bike a few times – and never in proper traffic. There were two slow moving lanes in each direction and as we briskly picked our way through the quagmire, I got a tap on my left shoulder. I turned my head slightly, expecting a request to slow down but to my surprise she lifted her visor and said: “You’ve got very good spatial awareness!” I tilted my left thumb at her and said, “Well we’d be a bit cream-crackered in this lot if I didn’t” – then gave it a little extra squirt to show her just how good it was.
Of course I got it completely wrong. I thought she was talking about my peripheral vision and the anticipation of the movements of the cars all round us I referred to above; but good spatial awareness it transpires, simply describes the ability to judge gaps well. Apparently there are people who aren’t blessed with this most basic of talents (which would account for the comic antics you witness from some car drivers when they’re driving down narrow streets or through width restrictions) but if anyone’s going to ride a bike in London – or any other busy urban expanse in the country – and they don’t want to spend as long chugging into town as the herds in their cars, it strikes me as absolutely bleeding essential.
Like anyone for whom it comes naturally, it’s difficult to imagine where the problem can possibly lay. Providing it isn’t one of those blue moon occasions when I’ve drunk so much that I wouldn’t be capable of throwing my leg over a bike, I always know precisely where my fingers are – they’re sitting right at the end of my arms, exactly where they were the last time I looked for them. I can’t say precisely how many inches (or centimetres for anyone who thinks in new money) it is from my shoulder to my wrist – any more than I know the exact distance across the bars of whatever bike I happen to be riding; but whatever it may be, I know that the widest part of any sensible machine will invariably be no more than an inch either side of my tiny pinkies.
There’s nothing like outstretched arms to gauge how big a space is, so it’s possible to get down to some pretty fine tolerances on a bike. Way back when I started out in the despatch business, when ‘good spatial awareness’ and pin sharp reflexes were the only things that compensated for my complete lack of any meaningful skill or roadcraft, I was working on a standard Mercury GT250 complete with its big handlebar fairing. Taking a leaf from the old pro’s, I kept a pad clipped on the sill inside the screen to scribble down shorthand job details. I remember on one occasion, pulling up on the Brompton Road after playing an outrageous game of tag with another orange clad messenger of the gods all the way from Hammersmith; Smelly was in my ear and I needed to get down a Red Star account reference, so I reached for the pencil which I kept stuffed in the end of the right-side handlebar, only to discover a short ragged stump where five minutes earlier a good inch of HB had been sticking out!
Traveling quickly through heavy traffic is a very specialist skill, but when you study under the tutelage of the Grand Masters of the courier business, you tend to pick up some interesting tricks that might not necessarily find their way onto the curriculum at Hendon Police College. For instance after one particularly balls-out dash from Hyde Park corner, where our rapid progress through the solid eastbound traffic on Piccadilly had relied almost entirely on cigarette paper gaps, I remember pulling alongside Milky at the lights outside the Ritz and measuring the mirror height on my orange Mercury GT alongside his identical yellow Express Despatch mount. They were exactly the same; so how comes I kept clattering Transit mirrors that he’d sailed fluidly past just moments ahead of me? Never being one to allow the fear of appearing dumb to get in the way of the acquisition of a little knowledge, I deferred to his wisdom and sought enlightenment on the true path through London traffic.
“Easy peasy,” he said with a knowing smirk. “Just when you’re about to smack the Ford’s fly swatters, you simply brush the front brake and hey presto, the front end ducks under the mirrors and up again with no noticeable effect on your overall speed.”
Beautiful – almost Zen like in its simplicity. Of course for anyone who’s already unhappy with the whole idea of proximity, I can see that the idea of exploring the extra inch or so of clearance provided by your fork travel, might seem ridiculous; but for a rider who feels comfortable and on top of the situation, a miss of a millimetre is as good as a mile and once the hazard’s behind you – disappearing rapidly in your mirrors – it’s no longer a threat.
Nonetheless I can understand why there are many seasoned motorcyclists who simply cannot get their head around the idea of ‘filtering’. They’re on the M25 staring at miles of slowly shuffling traffic, but when they look between the lanes, the only thing they see is a randomly shifting, lethal metal canyon. Whereas your average full-on London courier in a hurry would perceive the same gap as a useful way to maintain a reasonable average speed.
So which one is right? The simple answer is both of them are – on an each to their own basis. One man’s meat can be another man’s murder and what’s good for the goose, might just amount to buggery for the gander. If someone believes that filtering at a high relative speed is suicidally dangerous, I can respect that, I’d only ask that they extend the same courtesy to me and not presume to judge my sanity nor my sense of responsibility, if I have a different take on the risk presented by lane-splitting at high relative speeds.
I’d be interested to know how many of the “non-splitters” would condemn me for bopping quickly down the middle on the M4 elevated, but at the same time would think nothing of exploring the upper speed capabilities of their R1, Hayabusa or ‘Blade on a motorway near them. All I can say is with the exception of a few very short, licence-threatening blasts on clear roads and borrowed bikes, the fastest I’ve ever travelled consistently would be the low one-thirties on my Ducati 900SS. That was way back in the infinitely less congested early eighties, but when I described the experience later in the Digest I said: “130mph on an M road is (pedestrians aside) the equivalent of racing through Asda’s car park at sixty. You have to be absolutely tuned in to everything: your immediate surroundings (including your periphery and your mirrors,) the middle distance, and a horizon that’s constantly rushing to meet you.”
Any unapologetic speed freak reading that is likely to respond along the lines of: “Damn right – and ain’t it just the greatest buzz!” I’m not even going to get into the morality of it, because, aside from my entire argument coming from a position of judge not lest you be judged, I really wouldn’t want to leave myself open to the sort of back-lash that might invite. Instead I’ll confine myself to an examination of the reality as I see it.
Any motorcyclist who has ever travelled seriously faster than the ambient speed on a public road, knows that the greater the difference between their speed and that of the surrounding traffic, the less room for manoeuvre they have. 150mph in a clear outside lane may feel like wide open spaces at warp speed, but as anyone who’s even approached that sort of velocity knows, your anticipation of the metal blurs that are flashing past in the next lane needs to be absolutely spot on, because your margin of error disappears very quickly when you’ve got the throttle on the stop.
It’s no different when you’re doing as it tells you on all those forms – tearing along the dotted line. You are constantly scanning for exactly the same warning signs that you look for when you’re riding with your chin on the tank, ready to take defensive action at the slightest threat of a menacing twitch anywhere around you. Splitting lanes 30 to 40mph faster than the drones, with lethal danger just a few inches either side of your mirrors may seem more claustrophobic, but when you consider what would be required to avoid a sudden impact when a car going 70 to 80mph miles slower than you suddenly swerves into your lane, it’s difficult to argue that it’s any more inherently dangerous.
But like I say it’s each to his or her own, so I’d just like to finish by echoing a sentiment I’ve heard and read all over the place recently. Like I say there’s absolutely nothing wrong with looking down that channel and saying, “sod that for a barrel of monkeys”, but if you’re not going to use it, please move aside and leave it for someone who might appreciate it. My friend Carlito has a “MOVE OVER YOU WANKER” sticker (printed back to front) on the screen of his Daytona and he swears that it embarrasses quite a few blockers out of the way when they spot it in their mirrors.
I can see how it might but generally I prefer to fall back on the reasoned approach. You know that you wouldn’t be overly impressed if as soon as you got a clear opportunity to let rip on your megabike, I started weaving all over the outside lane simply because I was travelling at a speed that felt safe for me and I was determined to slow down anyone who was ‘mad’ enough to want to go faster.
So if you are one of those riders who has a tendency to block the space between lanes of slower moving traffic, please don’t. I’d never consciously impede your progress so I would appreciate it if you’d offer me the same courtesy and either piss or get off of the pot.
Be careful out there (and keep an eye on your mirrors)
This article first appeared in issue 64 of The Rider’s Digest in January 2003