James May

Motorcycle in the rain illustration

Rain of terror

From where I’ve been sitting, which is on a motorcycle, it really is hard to believe that there are parts of the world where water is a bit short. There’s enough in my socks to grow rice for 5,000 people.

It’s enough to make me wonder if those agencies charged with combating global drought and the subsequent famine are missing a trick. Next time some desperate farmer in Africa is struggling to irrigate a field, they should just fly me out with my motorbike. ‘May is here,’ they will cry. ‘As soon as he’s ridden around for a few minutes, it’ll rain like buggery.’

These days, I seem barely able to sit on a bike without being soaked through to the marrow. I can wheel it out of the garage in perfect and stultifying sunshine, but within a couple of miles I seem to have ridden into the Fountains of Rome. For this reason, I now become quite cross with people who advertise second-hand motorcycles as having ‘never been used in the wet’. How can this be possible in Britain? Show me a man who claims to have owned a motorcycle for 10 years and 20,000 miles without once being caught short, and I’ll show you either a card-carrying pork pieist or the long-awaited replacement for Michael Fish. Of the last five motorcycles I’ve owned, four of them have been ‘used in the wet’ on the way home from the showroom.

There are two things I want to say about this. The first is that, in the old days, I used to like a ride in the wet, especially once the rain had stopped actually falling. Wet-road riding requires a particular and stimulating set of skills: smoothness, anticipation, avoidance of potential treachery from manhole covers and the white bits of zebra crossings. The world smells great after a good dousing, and, providing you dry it off afterwards, a rinse is actually quite good for the bike. At least it gets rid of that difficult baked-on crud at the front of the crankcase.

However, I’m now getting on a bit, and I’m ready to admit to being a fair-weather motorcyclist. Riding in the rain means wearing waterproof clothing, and since I find it hard enough to summon the energy to put normal clothes on, I really can’t be bothered. Also because I’m ageing fast, I find I always need a wee-wee as soon as I’ve done up the last zip or press stud, and that the bike key is still in the pocket of my normal trousers underneath.

"'Waterproof motorcycle clothing’ seems to be one of the world’s great oxymorons" 

Consider this. My current set of protective waterproofs requires that they be zipped together once on, around the waist, and in order to achieve this I have to adopt the stance of one inviting a swift mounting from a bull. It’s worse than watching a woman do the ‘tights dance’. Then there are boots and gloves and inner gloves and a balaclava thing, and the whole business can put your back out. In the time it takes me to put this lot on, I could be 100 miles away in the Fiat Panda. I can barely move dressed as a middle-aged mutant ninja turtle, so how I’m supposed to operate the sensitive levers of a big-bore bike I don’t know.

And the second thing I want to say is this. ‘Waterproof motorcycle clothing’ seems to be one of the world’s great oxymorons. It doesn’t matter how thoroughly I do everything up, water comes in somewhere. It only needs to be a trickle down the neck or up a sleeve, but after an hour that’s a bath. Arriving anywhere soaking wet is bad enough, because then the sofa/office chair/doctor’s waiting room becomes wet as well. It’s even worse an hour or so later, because you start to smell like a damp dog.

Motorcycling is a hobby, not away of life or an assertion of my masculinity. People who ride around in the pouring rain imagining that it makes them more of a man should go and live in a windowless bothy.

Things are either waterproof or they’re not, and now I think about it, hardly anything is. Watchmakers seem to have cracked it, but why the hell does a mobile phone pack up as soon as it’s used near someone wearing a slightly moist sweater? Same with digital cameras, laptops, and anything made in Italy involving wires. Put these in a ‘waterproof motorcycling rucksack’, and the problem is simply compounded. I’m beginning to wonder if it’s all a plot. Waterproofing is still in its infancy, so the idea that a man can be kept dry in a 70mph driving headlong squall is ridiculous.

Strangely, confirmation of my fears comes from no less an authority than the Australian army. They wear that type of cowled overcoat known as a Drizabone. Apparently, it’s also known as the Wetzabastard.

 

James May, Column

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