World’s Greatest Biking Country

 

What is the worlds greatest biking country? Is a question, to be honest, that I've never been asked, but nevertheless deserves to be answered. I've asked the question many times and of many bikers usually in the form of 'where would you like to ride?'. A very similar question really just phrased differently. The answers tend to range from the cliched Route 66 through the various alpine passes – something that should be on every bikers to do list – to the extreme and slightly masochist Kadong La, nestling in in the high Himalayas of northern India and reputedly the highest metalled road in the world. All worthy motorcycling goals but does that make the countries that contain these roads the greatest motorcycling country? Probably not.

 

Route 66 has a certain certain cache after being popularised in the 1946 Bobby Troup song of the same name. And, like the writer of the song, could be something of a surprise. Yes, I thought it was Chuck Berry as well. Route 66, apart from being mostly missing these days, is largely straight, flat for a great deal of it's length, passing through unvarying scenery and has a blanket speed limit of 55 mph. Hardly the stuff of bikers' dreams. I'm not suggesting that it follows that all of the USA would also be dull biking country, not at all, these's no doubt plenty of excellent bikers' roads to be found there, but with such a vast country they must be sparsely distributed. The USA must therefore be ruled out as the world's greatest biking country on this basis alone. The same goes for Australia.

Rather than go through the world's countries one by one and finding fault as to why they can't be the World's greatest biking country, it's probably more productive to list the qualities that must be satisfied in order to fulfil the requirements for the accolade of the World's Greatest.

 

The weather. An obvious place to start, It must be pleasantly warm, sunny and dry, mid twenties Celsius with blue skies and the occasional fluffy white cumulus to give a contrast to the expanse of blue. The scenery must be beautiful, the roads all made from a smooth tarmac flowing with twists and turns, climbs and descents, every bend in the road offering both a interesting riding challenge and offering a new vista on the unfolding countryside. High craggy mountains, green rolling hills and lush verdant valleys must all fall within a couple of hours riding to ensure that the palette is constantly refreshed and never jaded. A coastline of spectacular cliffs and towering headlands also needs to be added to the mix. This motoring paradise must also, paradoxically, be largely free of traffic.

 

This perfect bikers country also needs a well established and fully functioning infrastructure. Petrol and coffee stops should be so plentiful as to require no advanced planning. As soon as the fuel light blinks, or a craving for caffeine surfaces, theses requirements should be sated just a few minutes after either the rider or bike has made the demand. Similarly pubs, restaurants, hotels and guest houses should all be readily available the moment the desire to stop for the night has become apparent.

 

Finally, and here's where we come to the nub of the matter. The should be a high density of these exceptional roads, a high ratio of the great to the boring. In a great biking country there would never be the need to travel to find great roads, all journeys would be great. Hours spent on a motorway to find that one gem of a great biking road would, if not exactly negate the thrill of riding that road, then it would certainly detracf from that countrie's claim to being a great biking country. This latter consideration obviously rules out virtually all of the larger countries. Tavel, involving vast distances becomes a very pragmatic affair motorways, autobahns, interstates and autostradas will always rule.

 

Then there are days which turn out to be perfect. Sometimes the sun shines and the sky is blue. The wind as you ride along is warm and pleasant, not too cold – when your shoulders hunch and your neck squats down into your jacket to keep out the chill. Nor too hot when you sweat under your leathers and your breathing becomes laboured inside your helmet. These are the days when the clear sunlight falls on the countryside giving it a clarity and a depth you've not noticed before, or at least not for a while. The roads are smooth, twisty and largely traffic free, the cars that are encountered are efficiently dispatched and merely add extra interest to the journey. Sometimes the journey begins immediately, as soon as you leave your driveway. This was the case in the late spring of 2013, the ride from Cwmbran to Abergavenny, on to Buith, then Brecon. Followed by a swift dalliance along the northern edge of the Brecon Beacons before delving deeper into the heart of the National Park and then, finally, home as the shadows lengthened and the world turned orange. On such a day I can report that there is no doubt, Wales is the greatest biking country in the world.

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Renaming Islamism

Renaming Islamism

A reply to Ghazala Salam (Huffington Post 1/10/13)

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ghazala-salam/reclaiming-islam_b_4017719.html?utm_hp_ref=tw

Ghazala Salam may have a point in her legitimate objection to the use to the word ‘Islamism’ in her piece in the Huffpost. However, even if her semantic claim to the root of the word ‘Islamism’ being corrupted by the Western media when reporting on the more extreme violence perpetrated by followers of Islam is true, the rest of the article falls victim to the Normal Distribution Curve.

The curve, which many will remember from school mathematics and looks like the outline of a bell, illustrates a basic truism to all randomly selected populations. It shows that the vast majority of any population falls in the middle, in the tall bit, and very few fall into the extremes on either side.

The central theme of Salem’s piece, that of the 1,6 billion that self-identify as Muslims fall into the middle bit and are nice, easy going, reasonable people, who do normal things; go to work, wear nice jumpers and eat cheese is simple stating the blindly obvious!

The 1,6 billion who self-identify culturally as Muslims covers an enormously wide based group, from violent and psychopathic extremists to atheists. Salem offers us a simple platitude that ignores certain hard evidence – the 9/11 attackers and the 7/7 bombers were, quite undeniably, motivated by the teachings of Islam and its interpretation of a requirement for violent Jihad.

A reasoned argument from Salem as to why the Koran was mistakenly interpreted in this way or why the bombers were completely wrong in this interpretation of the Koran or indeed, how these interpretations contradict the central tenants of Islam itself may have been more interesting.

It may have been more interesting, but it would be pointless – they were motivated by Islam.

To what extent is the extremely repressive, brutal and misogynistic political system in Saudi Arabia – a system about as far removed from civilised values as can be imagined, built upon Islamic values? Of course it’s a question that needs no answer, it was built upon Islamic values, albeit the extreme Wahhabi version of Islam, but Islam nevertheless.

More subtle questions such as to what extent the seven men from Oxford, who were prosecuted in May for serious sex offences toward young women and girls, were influenced by their adherence to Islam; a belief system which actively denigrates women? The same question could be asked of the Rochdale, Rotherham and Telford gangs.

I have chosen these two examples of the negative aspects of Islamic influence out of a vast list, Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia, Iraq, Egypt, the list goes on. To carry on listing situations where Islam is at least an underlying influence, if not a prime mover, would be pointless, my point has already been made; merely pointing out that the majority of Muslims don’t identify with the more extreme interpretations of Islam is not only obvious but pointless.

Islamic countries embracing values espoused in the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, particularly toward women is probably unrealistic. Imams speaking out and interpreting the Koran and the hadiths into a less extreme form of Islam may be a little too much to hope for, for the time being at least, but a more robust condemnation from Islamic commentators on the extremism that’s carried out in the name of Islam would be a welcome start.

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Diana

Diana

 

I'm sitting on the island of Levkas, having just sailed from Ithaca – Odysseus' island and one of my favourite places on Earth. It is said that when you touch Ithacan soil you discover your true self. Well, I've been there many times over the years and I've been generally happy with the person I've found there. Perhaps I'm one of the lucky ones…………

 

I heard this tale from a taxi driver on Ithaca. He was an old guy who remembered the Royal Yacht Britannia being anchored off Ithaca in 1981. On board were Charles and Diana. It was their honeymoon. The plan was that Britannia would be their home for the entire honeymoon and neither would go ashore. But, the old man told me, on one starry night, when the sea was black and the full moon sparkled across the water, he saw a launch leave the Royal yacht. On board were two people, a man at the helm wearing the the uniform of one of the more lowly ranks of the Royal Navy, and a beautiful young woman who sat at the stern trailing her hand in the water. He recognised her immediately.

 

It was one of those hot and sultry Mediterranean evenings that Diana had chosen to sneak ashore. It was such a warm evening that Diana went barefoot – she allowed her foot to touch Ithacan soil and in that instance realised what a terrible mistake she had made………

 

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Motorways, Motorcycles, Motor cars and Me

It's been a while, quite a while in fact. A long while since I got back from Tibet. A long while without planning a new adventure. And, owing to an unusually long winter in Wales, It's been a long while since I last rode my bike. It's also been a long while without writing a blog. Time to amend matters.

Time to get the motorcycling season underway, the weather has relented a bit; temperature almost reaching double figures, the rain's not scheduled to start before seven o'clock tonight and the Bristol Classic Car Show is taking place in Shepton Mallet, a mere 55 miles away – so no more excuses.

What is it about motorways that makes them so loathsome? It not really practical to get from south Wales to Shepton Mallet without using at least one of them as the River Severn has to be crossed. Although I'm hugely impressed with the engineering masterpiece of the bridge, and who wouldnt be, I'm sorry to report that that's about it, I really don't like motorways. I have, at best, a feeling of pragmatic acceptance and in exceptional cases of engineering masterpieces such as the Severn bridge, of gratitude.

There's just no avoiding it, motorways are boring. Their sole purpose of moving traffic from A to B swiftly and efficiently comes at a heavy price: boredom. If it was just boredom then I would more readily accept motorway travel, however, it's not. With the boredom comes a deep feeling of dissatisfaction. The rhythm of the ride doesn't arrive, the scenary changes slowly or not at all. Your brain dwells on the cold – motorways are always colder. The wind noise is more intrusive – motorways are always noiser. So much so, that the only thing to look forward to is arriving. The destination is not only more important than the journey, it's the only thing which has any importance. The journey has been relegated to a process, something that has to endured to achieve a goal.

The car show was excellent in the way that these things are; wonderfully snippets of overheard conversations, “……the Mk III was such a disappointment after the promise of the Mk II's adoption of helically cut primary transmission gears” or “……her bottom end was largely intact so I just had her head skimmed.”

There were also some wonderful examples of motor cars, going right back to the thirties and even earlier, right back to the dawn of motoring and the modern internal combustion age. There were also plenty of beautifully restored cars from the sixties, in fact most of the cars on show were from this age. lovingly restored, pampered, polished and preened, they were proudly displayed for all the world to see, overlooked by their devoted and adoring owners. A few of the cars, a very few it has to be said, were that rarest of the Classic Car sub-species, the intact original. The car that has been kept in working condition, often by just one family, for over fifty years. Never having gone through the cycle of disuse, abondonment, deterioration and rebuild, they lack the, slightly false, to my eyes at least, 'showroom fresh' look of the rebuilds. But they have a patina, a careworn look to them, a look that at once conveys all the love that the owner has lavished on them over the years in keeping, what is quite frankly, an outdated and impractical vehicle on the roads for so long.

This period, the nineteen sixties, really was the dawn of the motoring age, at least it was the dawn of motoring for the masses. It was the period when the modern motorway network was being built in earnest. It was the period when the, now familiar, British road sign was designed. It really was the dawn of the new Elizabethans – of the new Motorists' age. The cars from this period, were mostly beautiful and varied, to a degree that has now largly disappeared. The cars were shaped to the designers whims, engines were installed either in the front or the rear according to individual manufacturers' preference; after all, at this time nobody really knew which would prove to be the best, thus inspiring sharply polarised adherents to both schools of thought. Whether the front wheels should be driven or the rear, was again a matter of fiercely divided opinions and passionate loyalties.

As the modern motor car configuration had yet to be finalised It was the journey to this that mattered. It was the journey that inspired such passion. Whether it was the journey in terms of the physical configuration of the car or the real journey that one undertook upon the road, it didn't matter. Without the reliability of the modern motor car, the journey was under taken in a spirit of adventure. It was undertaken because it mattered. It was important and a spirit of adventure and enthusiasm was needed to see it through.

Now I have no wish to decry the modern motor car it has a level of comfort, performance, reliability, safety and fuel efficiency that were only dreamed of in the sixties. However it has achieved this through a bland uniformity – we now know what works. The modern motor car has been reduced to just an other consumer durable, inspiring as much passion as the purchase of a refrigerator. Likewise the modern transport network, has, like the modern car, made the destination the sole focus of travel. Travel now exists only in the form of reaching a destination by the most efficient manner possible. Anything else is an anathema.

The return journey through the minor roads of Somerset sparkled. Despite the glowering, threatening sky and increasing wind strength the journey delighted, as I wound through villages and small towns that I'd not visited for a while. By the time Bristol arrived the sky was noticeable darker, it was much windier and there was a distinct threat of rain, heavy rain, in the air. By the time the Severn bridge came into view it had already started to rain. “It's just a short ride from here”.' I allowed myself this comforting thought as I rode over the bridge. 'In the nineteen sixties, before the bridge was built', I reflected, 'this would has involved a seventy mile detour through Gloucester or a choppy crossing in an open car ferry across the river'.

You might not have to enjoy, but you do have to marvel and be grateful.

 

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