Sunday, 25 September 2016

Despatches: Hacking Horrors in Central London

In my glory days I used to rush through London traffic on a string of fast, even fearsome, fours. A whole crowd of us used to have fantastic fun whilst earning more than most from despatch riding. We thought of ourselves as real road warriors who could take the worst that the cagers could throw at us. We thought that we were beyond the pathetic laws that tried to restrict our madness and even beyond the harsh realities of the frailty of our bodies

Everything began to fall apart in 1990. when in a short space at time two of our group were killed in road accidents. Then the recession began to affect our earnings. Used to 400 to 500 smackers a week in our pockets, our incomes suddenly halved. It soon became obvious that there was no way we could justify the extreme expense of running the big fours. It was just the question of face that stopped us selling up, no-one wanted to be first to appear on some mundane commuter.

But it had to happen. One guy turned up on an ubiquitous Honda C90. We never laughed so hard, but his running costs were minimal and he'd made a nice pile of cash on the sale of his GT750 shaftie. The next to fall ended up on a GS125, going on at tedious length about its economy. It looked quite neat in its way, so he didn't have to suffer much abuse.

I was next to fall. My much loved and harshly abused XJ900 was sold off for a couple of grand and replaced with a tiny Yamaha RXS100. that had only cost £200 because the front wheel was cracked in a crash - easily repaired with a replacement from a breaker.

The first few days were difficult. For a start, it was so light that every time I'd breathed heavily the little beast veered off up the road. The front brake was pathetic even with so little mass and speed to react against. The main problem, though, was overtaking. The engine only knocked out ten horses, which meant that acceleration was frightening in its slowness. Gaps in traffic that the XJ would polish off without a thought, had me shaking in my boots as the space disappeared whilst the motor laconically screamed away.

It explained the sudden hair loss of the 090 owner, who had to grapple with even more constipated performance. Youth was on my side and after a couple of days I began to change my tactics. The best plan for the Yamaha in heavy traffic was in its narrowness, which allowed ingress into tiny holes in the queue of cars and its lightness meant it could be flipped up on the pavement when necessary. The latter needed a bit of skill, the first time I tried the front wheel hit at too acute an angle and threw the bike sideways. | narrowly avoided having the RXS crunched by a car but damage to the machine was minimal.

After two weeks I rather surprised myself by doing jobs just as quickly across town on the little stroker as I'd been doing on the big four. Fuel worked out at around 75mpg. not as good as either the GS or C90, but better than most DR bikes. The C90 owner wasn't very happy as he kept falling off going around comers and the police kept stopping him - he'd taken all the surplus bits off the Honda and painted it bright pink.

Work was becoming increasingly scarce, earnings dropping even further as 1991 went deeper into recession. There were weeks when I didn't even earn a hundred quid. The RXS kept going, though, just needing the odd part worn consumable from the breaker. Maintenance was mostly checking the oil levels and doing a decoke about once a month. The latter probably down to using cheapo oil. If I'd still been on the XJ900 it would not have been worth turning up at work.

I was forced to get an evening job at a City pub, which at least meant it was an easy saunter from the, office to the local. Rates of pay were even worse than in despatching but after I got the hang at it I found it quite good fun. These days you have to be versatile to survive. When they started having strippers in the evening, things got even better.

Back at the DR scene, the boss decided that there were too many men tor the work available, slashing the workforce by halt, on a last in first out basis. I survived that debacle by the skin of my teeth - l was next in line for the chop if things turned even more serious. Still, it firmed up the work situation, most of us making over two hundred notes a week.

I'd had the RXS about eight months and it now sported 38000 miles. The motor was making some rattling noises and most of the chassis bearings had developed some slop. Time, obviously, to think about acquiring something better. l figured the deepening recession would make finding something decent relatively easy but the hike in insurance rates for bigger machines meant that there was a lot of demand tor sub 125cc motorcycles.

I ended up buying a newish engine from a breaker and putting some new bearings in the chassis, as well as washers in the forks and better shocks. The refurbished Yam smoked a lot more than the old one and wouldn't do more than 60mph. The gearbox wasn't much cop, either, often refusing to change cleanly between first and second. Overall a great disappointment.

I tolerated the RXS for another three weeks then sold her off for a very reasonable sum. I'd found a low mileage GSX250 Suzuki tor next to nothing. A bit of surface rust on the chassis soon cleared up; the bike was looking almost as good as new.

The GSX felt really heavy after the Yamaha, but was much more punchy, actually giving me a kick in the guts when revved out in second or third gear. I was King Rat at the office, just about everyone else reduced to riding mangy step-thrus. There was a standing competition to see who could spend the least money in a month - that was how desperate things had become.

The GSX proved shockingly reliable over the next seven months, needing nothing more than the odd set of spark plugs and occasional oil change. Fuel was good at about 65mpg and it would still put the ton on the clock with a bit of a following wind. Yes, I know they have a reputation for burning out the electrics but mine did not even blow any bulbs, although the horn did fall to pieces - no problem, I had some air-horns left over from the XJ900 experience.

The end came in an almost classic confrontation with a black cab. I was riding along the gutter, minding my own business, when some nutter decided I did not exist and rammed his cab into the curb. Not content with throwing me off, he viciously turned the cab into the pavement flattening the GSX in the process.

He was a near midget, so I was going to smash his head in, but was restrained by several pedestrians until the police turned up. They were all for booking me for using threatening behaviour and attempted assault. They were also demanding insurance and MOT docs, not too amused when they found out that I had not bothered to register the Suzuki in my name. The cab driver was also claiming I'd jumped off the pavement into his vehicle.

Luckily, some old dame came forward to back up my story. The police began to lose interest in me when it became apparent that the cabbie wasn't licensed and was probably an illegal alien.

None of that helped any with salvaging something from the crushed Suzuki. It looked so wrecked, and I had no insurance, that I decided the best thing to do was to quietly walk away whilst the plod interrogated the shaking cabbie. The boss nearly sacked me when I told him I'd had to abandon a parcel. Doubtless if the police wanted to trace me they could have done so. but I heard no more about It.

I was forced to borrow a C50 for a couple of weeks until I found something more suitable. Ambling along at up to 30mph this decrepit device was fine, but going any faster had the shot suspension all hot and bothered, giving the Honda the directional accuracy of a horse and cart.

I was well relieved when an MZ150 turned up for fifty notes - a measure of my desperation. To be fair to the Iron Curtain stroker, stability was as good, if not better, than any other commuter on the market. It was the horrid engine that drove me into such desperation that I used to dread going to work in the morning. The gearbox was diabolical, only matched by an engine that would refuse to start or cut out for no apparent reason. This made commuting in the crazy London traffic incredibly dangerous - the lack of braking from the SLS drums did not aid my peace of mind one tiny bit!

After about two weeks (and five crashes) of this anarchy, the engine seized solid whilst I was bouncing along at 50mph. I saved the skid from turning serious by grabbing the clutch lever like my life depended on it, which it probably did. Rather than throw the MZ under a bus, I pushed the heap home and went looking for a replacement engine, ending up with a much newer 125cc version.

In normal times I wouldn't have bothered, just thrown a match in the petrol tank. But, these were not normal times, 1992 turning out to be much worse than 1991 as far as work went. My income was hovering around the £150 mark, only my night job letting me keep up with my commitments. Amazingly, the deeper the recession got the more popular the strip shows had become. degenerating into the odd bit of live sex. Decidedly unsafe sex, if you ask me, but no-one did and I wasn't going to turn my nose up at the tips offered by the slick city types.

The 125 engine turned out to have a gearbox that a normal person could operate. most of the time, and although starting was dubious there was none of the disturbing cutting out on this one. I almost began to actually enjoy riding the Iron Chicken, although the smokescreen proved a rather mixed blessing — useful for obscuring the number plate but liable to send cagers into a homicidal frenzy.

This machine saw me through three months. For a while work picked up again, the week I made 350 notes a cause for great celebration, but it didn't last and by mid-year l was back to spending long periods in the office. Still, by cutting my personal costs to the bone, and spending most of my time working rather than frittering away my income, I managed to save a few thousand quid over the years of the depression. I had enough to buy a decent bike again but had no faith in the future of DR work.

When a chum's son wanted a 125 to learn on I off-loaded the MZ on him. The replacement was another RXS100. For all the abuse these ignominious commuters attract, low mileage ones are the business if you're after low running costs and longevity. This one had only done 3200 miles and was in pristine condition. I couldn’t believe that it was only five hundred notes and was waiting for some serious fault to turn up, but it never did.

This machine saw out 1992 and was still running fine in early '93. I had decided I‘d had enough of despatching, started applying for some jobs in the catering trade, itself badly hit by a lack of tourists, but I felt that my bar experience and a completely false CV could turn up some interesting possibilities. It passed the time in the DR office when there wasn't any work to do, anyway.

I found that in early 1993 I kept having accidents. Either the cagers had become especially crazy or my concentration was all shot by too many hours in the saddle and the long nights in the pub. Or a combination of the two. Either way, I had a couple of serious accidents, nearly losing a foot in one and wrenching my neck something chronic in another. I didn't stay around to argue the toss, not having my documents anywhere near being in order; even continued working whilst in great pain.

In February another friend was killed, this time by an oblivious delivery van running straight across a junction. I'm not against taking risks but not for the silly money we were turning over. The weather was dull as well, really depressing my spirits. I was close to blowing my stash on a holiday in the sun, but the thought that I probably wouldn't find any work on my return restrained me.

April eventually came round, the RXS running as well as could be expected, given that I could not be bothered to do anything to the machine other than wring its neck all day, I'd started taking outrageous risks in the traffic, as if to defy the reality of what had become a really miserable way of earning a crust. There were enough down and outs around London to remind me that I had a lot further to fall.

The end of April a letter plopped through the door demanding my presence at an interview. I got all dolled up, put on my most brash and bright demeanour and had one of the best interviews of my life. Desperation and persistence finally paid off, a few days later I was offered the job as a steward on a cruise ship if I could leave within the week. Like yesterday!

T.H.K.

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