Saturday, 29 July 2017

Loose Lines: Running Out of Luck [Issue 20]

I find it highly ironic that I fell off the bike when I was on the way to buy a new crash helmet. Thee Great Crash Helmet Saga started when the lining of my twelve year old full face Griffin began to come apart.

Riding around with great wads of material hanging out was seriously damaging my street cred, so l thought I’d rush down to the local store to pick up a new 'un. I knew exactly what I wanted. It had to be plain white to complement the white fairing on the bike, not because of image, clear, but because a slab of white rushing up behind car drivers tended to make them throw their cars out of the way thinking the plod were about to pounce.

There had been times when car drivers had slammed on their brakes coming out of side roads under the fear that they were about to crunch the law, and when I rolled past they were hunched over the wheel with dismayed, irritated grimaces on their faces as the mistake dawned on them. I made damn sure I cleared off pronto to avoid retribution...

In fact, such is the timeless appearance of the old Griffin, that I would have been more than happy to buy a new one in white had they still been in business, although taking a side tour down to Swansea every time I wanted a new visor was not my particular idea of fun.

I knew I had hit trouble when I arrived at the first store in Cardiff. The owner appeared to think it highly amusing that anyone would want to purchase a white crash helmet. For sure, there were plenty of lids with some white hidden in them, but it was usually mixed with garish shades of red, blue and green.

Out of civility, I tried a few lids on and quickly found the second problem. Some manufacturers evidently make just one shell, fitting different thicknesses of lining for different sizes. This is fine if you have an extra large head, but anything less ends up with the wearer looking like a refugee from an Apollo mission. What a bunch of morons! I wonder if each size is tested to get the kite mark or if they send off the one with the optimum lining thickness? As these were usually the most expensive type of heImets, this was all the more confusing.

I quickly left this shop before the owner collapsed onto the floor in hysterics after viewing these huge helmets on the Fowler head. Cardiff has always been lacking in serious motorcycle shops, but there were a few places worth visiting, but not, I soon found out, if you want to buy a plain white lid. Another problem with many crash hats is that the side lining clamps the cheeks with enough force to distort the face into a hamster grimace.

I soon gained the impression that the perfect customer was someone with a huge upper brain who had spent six months in a concentration camp and then had his cheek bones attacked by a mad plastic surgeon.

I was also less than amused to find that the sizes quoted by different manufacturers varied enormously. Even helmets identical in everything but colour had different fits, even though they were supposedly the same size. I tried on one small helmet that clamped my head so tightly I had a headache for the next ten minutes, even though I had tom it off within a matter of seconds. Whatever you do, don't buy a lid mail order.

The sun was shining, I was onl a minute from the A48(M) which left Newport but ten minutes away, a place where there were at least two serious motorcycle shops and surely a white lid or two. This is normally a 120mph race track, just so long as you keep glancing up at the bridges to make sure there aren’t any witnesses of the wrong sort, but had been thrown into chaos by an excess of repair work.

A diversion along the heavily policed A48 proper was enlivened by a race with a Ford Granada, a car of huge proportions and power that, par for the course, tried to stay ahead by overtaking two cars occupying the correct two lanes on our side of the road, by running across a double white line into oncoming traffic. I had pulled way back by then so as to avoid the debris, but he just got away with it, amid much blaring of horns.

In Newport I found a helmet that was more white than black, but had a cut that left my ear lobes exposed and the small size had enough excess lining to fit out a padded cell. Another helmet that fitted OK and was only ruined by a few flashes of red, which could probably be scratched off if I was feeling energetic, had but a two inch slit that l was supposed to see out of and, I was told by the bored salesman, a visor that flipped up if you went above 40mph. I also learnt that the market in big bikes, which had been doing so well earlier in the year had all but collapsed and, yes, they would give me a huge discount if I wanted to buy one, something unthinkable but three months ago.

Then, in a small shop, I saw three plain white helmets on a shelf. Unfortunately, two of them had wedges buit into their tops, which despite protestations from the salesman that they were the business, looked pretty dreadful from where I was slumping in disbelief. The third was only available in extra large as it was old stock. I almost accepted his offer of a free Balaclava.

The sun was still shining and the pundits were predicting a drought, and hose-pipes had been banned, and Bristol was only half an hour away. Cutting right through what I hoped was a short cut back onto the A48, I could only look longingly at the white full face worn by the plod biker - he even smiled, as we passed. The short cut took me in a huge semi-circle back onto the wrong road, and I only regained the A48 out of Newport after passing through Carleon and doing a circular tour of Gwent, but the roads were snaky and the weather brilliant, so didn’t really give a damn.

The bit of A48 between Newport and Chedpstow is a wonderfully fast road only spoilt by the odd police car seeking a refuge from the motorway madness. Unfortunately too many artics also use it as an alternative to M4 traffic jams, tend to overtake everything in sight and don’t give way to bikes even when it’s the artic that's on the wrong side of the road. Nevertheless, I made pretty good time, until I hit the slip road onto the Severn Bridge, which had cars moving at 30 to 40mph, and a side wind that needed at least 60mph on a motorcycle to avoid being blown all over the place.

Although this was nothing compared to the time I had to ride a CD175 at a 45 degree angle against what seemed like a Force 10, it was a very strange feeling indeed to just ride through the toll on the bridge without having to pay, as they finally worked out that a motorcyclist fiddling in his pocket for loose change, after half disrobing, takes up more time than the money’s worth. But free passage must irritate the hell out of fuming cagers.

All was well with the world until I hit the M5 into Bristol and turned off the motorway heading for the town centre. I whizzed around the outside of an attic waiting to get on a huge roundabout, with hardly any loss of momentum rushed the bike into a gap in the traffic, leant Over into the curve of the roundabout and gave it a bit of throttle on line or the second exit. The next thing I knew I was rolling along the tarmac with a vague awareness that my right knee was in pain.

I rolled over three times, started to go against the momentum, changed my mind and rolled over another four or five times, with my arms and legs well tucked in, until the velocity was almost down to zero and leapt up straight away, dazed but with enough awareness to know it didn't pay to lay about in the middle of a busy roundabout.

In fact, I’d made it into the gutter where the bike was about a foot behind me, facing the wrong direction and still ticking over. A car driver rushed over and expressed surprise that I was still alive, let alone able to stand up. There was a four inch tear in my trousers at the right knee where I could see that the skin had been removed - blood mixed with grit - and I could feel some pain in my left arm but nothing serious.

I turned off the ignition of the bike and looked back up the roundabout. What seemed a long way back there was a huge diesel or oil slick that I hadn’t noticed because I’d been too busy fitting the bike into the gaps in the traffic. What really surprised me was that there was absolutely no warning - I blame Jap Dunlops and 16" wheels.

The car driiver helped pick up the bike - the damage was confined to the right side, the brunt of the crash taken by the handlebar and the rear brake lever, but both still usable, even if the brake lever stop bracket had sheared off. The mirror was shattered and an indicator lens missing, although the indicators still worked. I still don't understand quite how I and the bike ended up in our relative positions. 

There was a huge chunk taken out of the inside of my right boot and my right knee must have hit the deck first. I was obviously flung clear of the bike as soon as it hit the tarmac and sent rolling off from the roundabout, but the bike ended up facing the wrong way with damage to only one side. By the time I'd jumped up the artic was well gone so how close I came to being run down I don't know. The knee was hurting too much to closely question the car driver...

I wobbled off into Bristol, not to buy a helmet - I wasn't that obsessed - but to find a hospital with a casualty ward. I eventually found Southmead hospital, parked the bike and then had a ten minute hobble, cursing modern planners for laying out hospitals horizontally instead of vertically. I then had to wait four hours to be seen, four hours of wondering if the cure was going to be more painful than the cause.

It wasn’t, and the injury wasn’t as bad as I'd imagined, just in a bloody awkward place to put on a bandage. I suppose I'd had a lucky escape - it could have been much worse - but as I haven’t fallen off for a long, long time it came as a rather rude shock in reality, and the fifty mile journey home was taken at a relaxed pace, not helped by having a bent bar that was in a clip-on position and a rear brake that meant I had to take my bandaged leg off the peg to operate it. And I still haven't bought a new lid. 

Bill Fowler

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