The copper’s face was deadly serious. He was grumpy, but not angry and I had an inkling that this might be my lucky day.
“Do you know how fast you were going?’ I looked down and mumbled apologetically that I hadn’t been looking at the speedo. It was 6am east of Leeds on the M62, which was deserted. I was due in Newcastle at 9am, the cops were on the bridge where the A19 crosses the motorway. By the time I’d seen their Day-Glo Vauxhall Omega (visible from space) they had a reading on the radar, engine started and heading for the slip road to pull me over.
‘We clocked you at 129mph and you were slowing down.’ Gulp. Now what? They’re either lying or their equipment is out of calibration. I know this because we’d speed-tested the BMW R1150RT I was riding a week before and it had only done 127mph flat-out. I hadn’t been flat out when they clocked me.
And then the magic happened. ‘We could and should throw the book at you, but you were in the correct lane, your riding appeared to be considered, you look like a sensible chap and there is no other traffic around. I’m guessing you have a clean licence (I said nothing about the seven points) so I’m going to issue a fixed penalty – three points and £70 fine.’
We’ve all had them – the let-off of a lifetime. I’m convinced that if I’d been riding a sports bike in leathers more Day-Glo than their Vauxhall, instead of a brand-new BMW R1150RT in black textiles and a plain white helmet, I’d have been banned. I also knew they were exaggerating my speed, but not by that much. And the key thing is that, being actual, experienced, police officers they were able to make a judgement and let me ride off in full knowledge of just how lucky I’d been.
Fast forward to 2020 and there are hardly any traffic cops left outside of London. These days it’ll be a camera that catches your indiscretion and increasingly, that camera could be mounted on the dashboard of a private car.
There’s a database run by the company that imports Nextbase dashcams where drivers can upload dashcam footage of what they consider dangerous driving. The process is straightforward, and the police are increasingly using it to build evidence to prosecute. Mostly it’s the absolute nutcases who deserve everything they get who are getting caught. And mostly we should be pleased because, in the event of us being the victim we’ll be very grateful for the footage. But as riders we should be aware of how reckless our riding can appear when you filter between or outside-of a queue of tin boxes. My biggest worry is that should some reckless idiot knock me off my bike, there will be dashcam footage from a few minutes previously that apparently shows me riding like an idiot through traffic. Because from the dashboard of a bored BMW, constipated in traffic, most motorcycling looks reckless and dangerous.
I was thinking of this on the way to work this morning. Funnily enough it was about 6am, on a motorway (the M11) and coming towards me is a BMW R1200RT police bike – blue lights flashing, clearly in a hurry, going around a gentle left-hand curve absolutely flat-out. I’m guessing he was doing close-on 140mph and yet he couldn’t have looked safer and more in control if he’d been doing 40mph. For a second or so I watched, transfixed and then it hit me. As riders, our ambition should not just to be that good, but to make it look that easy too.
What this guy was doing was being a very fast and very capable road rider. He didn’t need to be hanging off the bike because he wasn’t racing. He didn’t need to be out-braking anyone because he wasn’t racing. And that’s the point. Racing fantasies play such an enormous part in mainstream motorcycling that most of us – even dinosaurs like me – forget sometimes that playing racers on the road is a bit like wearing stilettos to go skiing. Wrong time, wrong place, and by the way, you look bloody stupid too.
Not pretending to be a racer doesn’t make motorcycling boring. I can guarantee the copper I saw earlier wasn’t bored with his ride this morning. Instead it lets us ride like grown-up adults…because these days, that’s what we are.
What frustrates me most is that I know how to do this – I’m lucky enough to have ridden with a lot of motorcycle instructors, many of them either serving or former bike-cops. And it really isn’t rocket science; go a teeny bit more slowly, look a lot further ahead and use your bike’s controls smoothly in plenty of time. It is the absolute opposite to how our MotoGP heroes ride. Their focus is all about accelerating until the very last moment, stopping on the edge of a five-pence, turning as late and hard as possible and firing out of the corner as aggressively and quickly as Our Lady of the Divine Triple-compound-Michelin will allow.
Funnily enough I learned a lot from that morning on the M62 back in 2001. When I’m riding in a way that I know I ought not to, I try and be as smooth, polite and inconspicuous as possible. My view is that if any other driver’s journey is affected in even the slightest way by my riding, then I’ve failed. Something inside of me believes that riding considerately gives me half a chance of getting away with it. Moving to a house 150 miles from the BikeSocial office last year means I’m spending a lot more time in traffic than before while trying to get somewhere a long way away in the shortest time possible. If I don’t get smarter, faster I have an awful lot to lose. And as winter misery turns to spring-time opportunity, I’m genuinely looking forward to the challenge.
So, if you spot a bloke on an Africa Twin, wearing black textiles, a white helmet and riding considerately, while making progress, please bear in mind that he’s almost certainly on-the-cusp-of-being-early for his 8.30 meeting, hasn’t blinked since Dartford, is desperate for a pee but would rather wet himself than stop at Birchanger Services and is desperately trying to ride as politely as possible, despite how it looks.
Whether the dashcam vigilantes will see it that way is another matter, of course.