I would have preferred to turn over and go back to sleep. It was six o'clock in the morning, I had to get from Salisbury to Hereford. It was December and my only means of transport was an old Suzuki GS400 twin. I turned over and went back to sleep for two hours. It was bloody freezing in the bedroom and it became much worse when I poked my head out of the back door. I cursed God and whoever invented the motorcycle.
There was nothing for it but to dress up. Two t-shirts, three pullovers, a heavy pair of jeans and several pairs of socks went on ﬁrst. Then Barbour waxed cotton trousers with a waist up around my armpits and legs a couple of inches too short. I’m not sure what you’d call that kind of style, but the i were warm and waterproof. A pair of Wellington boots were the only way to keep my feet dry. The next part became awkward, I had to pull my pullover sleeves down over my hands then shove on some gloves and then pull on my heavily tarnished leather jacket - all to make sure that there wasn’t any gap between my gloves and jacket. Full face helmet and a couple of scarves around my neck took care of the top end. Over all this I pulled on an old woollen overcoat that was very thick.
Any kind of movement in all this gear was very difficult and any exertion created much sweat. I waggled out to the garage, hoping the GS would refuse to start. but it purred into life first caress of the button. My breath froze solid in front of me, and the engine’s exhaust was white in the brittle atmosphere. I already felt cold deep down in my bones and I knew if I were to stop on route I‘d never have the heart to keep on going.
I live out in the country and the council never bothers to salt the road so my eyes are peeled for black ice. Reports on the radio had conﬁrmed my worst fears. A pile up on the motorway when an artic had gone sideways didn‘t inspire optimism. I had a choice of taking a series of motorways or going down the back roads.
The thought of those endless motorways where there would be nothing to concentrate on except for the cold decided me on the latter, a route that was shorter in mileage but rather longer in time due to its twisty nature and the odd traffic jam. As it was near to Xmas I hoped that there wouldn't be too much traffic on the road.
The first ﬁfty miles were well known, I could hustle through all the short cuts and make good time, save for the presence of the dreaded black ice. I’d hardly gone a mile when the first slide happened. As has been chronicled in these pages before, the GS400 has a very remote ride, although it is basically a reasonably good handler and doesn’t speed wobble. I’ve improved the feel of the bike by sticking on forks off a T140V and Koni rear shocks. Those, combined with the latest Roadrunner tyres (8000 miles and the rear still has loads of life) improve feedback. When it hit that first bit of ice the back wheel spun out a good yard and my heart stopped for as long as it took to shut down the throttle. Luckily, that brought the rear wheel back when the tyre found some tarmac to grip. I proceeded very slowly until I hit the main road which had been salted.
Ten minutes into the trip my fingers have become frozen. I warmed by left hand on the camshaft covers whilst bowling along. The throttle hand was a little more difficult - stick the bike in top and let her run along at ﬁfty, hand off throttle and quick warm on the cylinder head, then grab throttle and wind her open. Oh for a cruise control.
I started counting the cars by the side of the road. There was a Roller that had spun off the road into a telegraph pole that hadn’t given an inch despite the car’s obvious build quality. At one point there were three cars all mashed up, their crumple zones well, er, crumpled. I didn’t gloat, exactly, it just passed the time, if a little frightening to think how easy it was for four wheel devices to lose control. Perhaps I should buy a sidecar and one of those massive fairings, or perhaps I should live in a warm country.
Half an hour into the journey, my right foot began to feel the cold and both my knees, stuck out in the airstream, are complaining. My left hand is almost permanently clamped to the cylinder head (clutchless gear changes are a cinch on the GS) whilst my right hand has gone past the point where it can feel. I begin to love traffic lights because I can embrace the engine with both hands. Despite the layers of clothes the wind has found its way in. The way the velocity of the bike increases the effects of the sub zero temperatures is frightening. The wind chills me right down deep into my bones. Jesus, I’ve only done 20 miles so far...
The GS400 engine seems happy with the temperature, the thing just runs and runs. I sit on the machine repeating and occasionally screaming to myself that I’m warm, I’m warm. But it doesn’t seem to work. I increase speed to get the business over with as soon as possible, one way or another. The effects of the cold seem no worse at eighty than fifty. I feel most reluctant to back off for slow moving cars. The road is wide enough to overtake with no great problem and there are some nice long straights.
In an hour I manage ﬁfty miles, including a stretch where I was down to a miserable crawl because of the sudden descent of a thick fog, so thick that I had to tailgate a lorry for five miles. That mist was so cold I was shivering for a good ten minutes. I knew I was in a dangerous condition, that I was at the point where I really didn’t care if I fell off, I just wanted to knock off the remaining miles.
Ten miles to Gloucester, the stretch of A46 between Bath and Gloucester is usually one of my favourite roads, a lovely combination of straights and curves, only spoilt by loitering police cars, but my usual joy was dissipated by the misery of the cold.
Three miles out of Bath there was a long queue of traffic and no easy way of overtaking it. Then things turned really nasty when it started pouring down. One thing I’ve noticed about that area is that if it’s going to rain anywhere it’s going to rain there. This wasn’t a light drizzle that I could easily shrug off. It was one of those fierce downpours that are just short of hailstones. With the slow trafﬁc there was no way I could ride with my visor down so I had a face full of icy cold water to add to my list of grievances agaist mankind.
Once the traffic started moving I had the choice of riding with my visor down with limited vision or with it up, and still limited vision because I had to screw up my eyes against the force of the cold, cold rain, so I chose the former, with the hope that there wasn’t any black ice around.
It took about half a mile for the water to completely soak through the leather gloves, and I dared not try to heat them up on the engine whilst in, motion; it was enough riding half blind without tempting fate by riding one handed. I guess those ten miles or so to Gloucester will remain etched in my mind, talk about self inflicted agony.
Just before Gloucester the rain stopped and I had to stop to try to revive my right hand which was throbbing like it’d been run over by a forty ton truck. I took the glove off and was horrified to see that my hand had turned black. Thoughts of terminal frost bite were only kept under rational control by remembering that I only need really worry when I couldn’t feel any pain. I wrung out the glove and stuck the soggy mass back on, holding onto the engine with both hands amid clouds of steam and the smell of burnt leather. I had enough logical thought left to work out that the dye in the glove must have run out and stained my hands.
Only thirty miles to go. I shot straight through Gloucester - it’s quicker than the ring road if you know the way. Again the road was littered with traffic. The next ten miles were a bit of a fantasy, the only way I could keep going was to ride on autopilot and send my mind off elsewhere, trying to concentrate on the most beautiful girl I ever met. The pain in my hands had spread to my feet and knees. I just left the bike in fourth gear, rolling the throttle on and off to control speed, ﬁnding seventy a reasonable compromise between wind blast and the need to get the trip over with as soon as possible.
Twenty miles to go, the rain comes again in a massive release, the sky turned black over the whole horizon. God definitely doesn’t like me anymore. The machine keeps running on the edge of going out of control, all my actions have become clumsy - too much throttle, too much brake, progress degenerates into a series of near misses. Fifteen miles left, too near to stop, I’m soaked through and the engine has started missing. Five miles later I turn on reserve and it runs OK again.
The last ten miles were hell, but I kept going because I could feel the warmth of a heated room and a dry set of clothes. I arrived a soggy, shivering mass that waddled into the front of a gas fire, threw all the damp clothes to a far corner of the room and wrapped a dressing gown on.
Then the real pain started. My fingers and toes began to thaw out and I was near screaming with the pain of it. I leapt round like a madman to distract myself. As the circulation slowly crept back into my extremities I wanted to take a hammer to that damn motorcycle. Never again I thought. Half an hour later I had recovered and full of a job well done. The TV said snow was due soon...