7 Apr 2012

Ride report: Wiltshire

Saturday following Good Friday was a bit of a gamble. About 8am I crawled out from under my duvet and had a look out of the window. While there was some sun peaking out now and then, on the whole the sky was filled with ominous and unfriendly dark clouds. But I had my heart set on getting out on the bike.

I like to use premium petrol in my bike (even back to my scooter days)—it doesn't amount to a lot of difference to the bill when the tank only holds between 12 and 14 litres, and in my experience it keeps the engine running at its peak.

Unfortunately everywhere had been sold out of premium for about a week thanks to an extremely irresponsible minister who suggested that there would be a tanker strike in time for Easter, and sparking public mayhem.

He even went so far as to recommend people fill jerrycans and store extra petrol at home, which is illegal in the UK—jerrycans are 5 litres and the law states that only 4 litres of petrol can be store at a residence, distributed between two 2-litre containers.

Filled with regular petrol, I set off to Wiltshire to ride some byways near Salisbury. I'd plotted my route using Google maps cross-referenced with the Wiltshire County website. I plugged the starting point into the TomTom and heading down the M3, over towards Stonehenge where I briefly ended up in convoy with an R1200GS and another F800GS, and finally to Salisbury.

When I rode up the last bit of tarmac I came across a pensioner, who appeared to be about 90 years old, tending to his garden. I stopped briefly to find out if the byway was open and he said "Yes, but that bike is far too good to take there—it's awfully narrow and rough."

I thanked him and said I'd have a look. It hadn't rained for quite some time so the byway was hard packed dirt. I switched off the ABS (which is useless off road)—it was indeed rough but I took it slowly and eventually it smoothed out. The byway went parallel to Salisbury Race Course and carried on over several crossroads.

Towards the end, it descended steeply downhill, with logs buried to keep the dirt from washing out in the rain. Standing on the pegs, it was a good workout for both me and the bike going over the logs, dropping up to a foot each time. The weather kept threatening to rain with a light drizzle here and there.

Out the other end I headed about a mile south where I could carry on taking another set of byways back towards Salisbury. This is where I noticed an odd thing with the exhaust note of the bike. All the way down, I'd had earplugs in, but had removed them when I entered the byways. Now, back on 60mph roads, I could really open up the bike and around 5,500rpm I noticed that exhaust went from a fairly subdued note to a full on roar. The best comparison I can make is how mid-90s Honda V-TEC engines used to sound when the cams switched over.

In retrospect, and after flagging it up on a few forums, it could have been a combination of the regular grade fuel being sucked up from the bottom of the tanks at the petrol stations, and the newly broken in exhaust system. Nothing was out of place with the drivability—indeed the engine has bigger balls than I ever would have expected. To the Starbucks-cruiser GS crowd—you're missing out on an absolutely cracking engine, get out there on the open road!

I got back on the byways in the hills near Ferne Hollow. These were a bit more challenging with several washed out areas where the ruts were more than a metre deep. I stopped for a few obligatory photos overlooking the rolling countryside. The showers were coming down more frequently now but I continued on.

Somehow I lost my way when I was meant to get on the regular road for a few miles. I was in a rare spot with no mobile reception and the built-in maps didn't provide any detail about the byways. I mistakenly carried on up another byway which, in retrospect, I'm not certain was open to vehicles. There was no signage prohibiting this, however.

Out the other end, and now lost, I discovered I was now in Tollard Royal, a charming little fairytale village in the middle of the hills. Out of byways, and with more rain coming down, I figured it was a sign for me to start heading back to London.

I programmed the TomTom to take me home and rode along the back roads for as long as I could before getting on the motorway and the inevitable downpour. The thermometer was showing a balmy 7.5°C and I had the heated grips on full power. After 45 minutes of rain chucking down, it subsided just in time for me to exit into a motorway services area to have a coffee and warm up.

Here I discovered an oddity. Waitrose, our somewhat posh supermarket chain, have 'Welcome Break' branded shops in many of the services areas. I don't know why this struck me as odd, perhaps that it seemed out of place in these unsavoury surroundings to see aisles of gleaming groceries in expensive, well-designed packaging, begging to be bought at inflated motorway prices.

I say 'unsavoury' because there always seem to be multiple copies of the same noisy family at all of them—mum in a shapeless jumper, dad in trackies, skinny son pissed off about something and hollering about it, and chunky daughter hating the world. Everywhere I've been in the world, I've come across this same clone family in these surroundings. Perplexing.

While drinking my coffee, I came to another realisation. Apart from my helmet and a couple patches on my outer sleeves and lower trouser legs, I was completely bone dry. After nearly an hour in a down pour. Whomever designed the airflow on the F800GS has my respect for mastering the rider's 'bubble'. Truly a machine designed for long distance travel.

Getting back to London, I began to wish I'd delayed my journey home a bit longer. Back to the same old traffic and inattentive drivers. Familiar but loathsome. London was not designed for motorbiking pleasure.

It's funny how the memories of the cold and rain were nearly forgotten by the time I got home, replaced by a sense of accomplishment for actually having got out of the flat for a thoroughly enjoyable and fantastic day.

What a waste it would have been if I'd subsided to the dodgy sky and gone back under the duvet.