Daily Express, 26 February 2006
Mother-of-two MONICA PORTER on her mid-life transformation, swapping the supermarket run for thrills on the open road
I never would have believed it in my twenties and thirties, when I was trundling along in my lawyer husband’s fuddy-duddy Volvo, that in my post-divorce forties I’d be tearing around on the back of a motorbike, all leathered up and feeling like something out of that Marlon Brando movie, The Wild One. It really has been the mother-of-all-reinventions. Literally. I’m the mother of two sons in their twenties, who – in a peculiar case of role reversal – are more sedate road-users than me. You must be wondering how it happened.
It all began seven years ago, when I met my partner Nick. He’d been a keen biker for decades, and to be honest, that was part of his appeal (if you’ve ever spent a lot of time around lawyers, you’d know what I mean). During the week, Nick would look every bit the serious businessman he was, in suit and tie. But come the weekend he’d don his red leather jacket and jazzy helmet, hop on his Honda CBR 600 and roar across London to visit me. Naturally, it wasn’t long before he persuaded me to climb onto the pillion.
They were just short trips at first. Out to a country pub for Sunday lunch – that sort of thing. Nick didn’t hang about. He sped exuberantly down the motorway, and when you’re doing 85 mph perched on the little pillion seat of a sports bike, it actually feels like you’re riding on a ballistic missile. You’re totally exposed, with nothing to hold on to except the small handle behind your back…and the guy sitting in front of you, of course. So every muscle in my body would strain to hold on and I’d stare fixedly on the road ahead, adrenalin surging, as we overtook towering lorries and zoomed along winding country roads.
On a terror scale of one to ten, it came in at about 12. Returning home from these outings my muscles ached so much I’d have to crawl up the stairs on my hands and knees.
But that was in the old days. A couple of years ago Nick swapped his sports bike for a big, comfortable touring bike – a 1300cc Pan-European. It has a roomy pillion with arm rests, a moulded top-box to rest my back against, and with its motorised windscreen, Nick said it was ‘like driving around in a conservatory’. Perfect.
Now we could go on proper touring holidays abroad. Nick had been on several with his born-again biker mates, and explained the importance of knowing how to pack a pannier so that you had everything you needed – both for daytime riding and night-time wining and dining in the smart hotels you stayed in en route. ‘You’re sticky and sweaty in your leathers all day,’ he explained, ‘and you check in at the hotel looking like an oik. But then you come down for dinner in your immaculate evening gear and everyone gawps at you, like you’ve turned into Cary Grant or something.’
Our first trip, that summer, was to be a nine-day, 2100-mile tour all the way down through France and back up again. The bike had his-and-hers panniers, a top-box and tank-bag in which to cram our necessities. For me, that meant a couple of fetching dresses and skirts of the non-creasing variety, a jacket, several tops, a selection of shoes, all the usual toiletries and hair products (well, I can’t let my standards slip, can I?), a handbag and brolly…and a pair of knickers for each day, naturellement.
Nick showed me how to roll clothes rather than fold them, and how to make use of every little corner of my pannier. Somehow, I managed to fit it all in. In my brand new set of leathers, I must say I really looked the part. I was raring to go.
‘Look after my mum,’ pleaded my son Adam a tad nervously to Nick, as we took off for the Euro-tunnel. ‘Be careful!’ he called after us. I felt like some teenaged bad girl, with Adam as my anxious parent. Weird.
Nick had thoughtfully installed an inter-com system in our helmets, so we could chat as we rode along. He also wired the i-Pod up to it, so we could listen to music as befits the backdrop: Elgar for the rolling countryside, Elton John for the urban sprawl. Ah, mid-life biking – you just can’t beat it. Lookin’ groovy, but with all the mod cons and comforts of home.
There is an appealing camaraderie amongst bikers which is the polar opposite of the rudeness and aggression so common amongst car drivers. When they pass each other on the road in Britain they give a courteous nod, while on the Continent they put out a hand or foot in fraternal greeting. Nick told me this convention dated from the old days, when bikes broke down a lot and the far smaller number of bikers around formed a sort of clubby, mutual help society.
Young or old, bikers have a real bond, often admiring each other’s machines. Queuing up for the Tunnel beside us was a couple who must have been in their seventies, decked out in studded, tasselled black leather, sitting on a gleaming Harley Davidson. The old gal riding pillion had a shocking-pink Mohican attached to the outside of her helmet. Forever the rebel, eh? We gave each other a cheery wave – two biker chicks off on their adventures.
And so we journeyed through La Belle France, seeing chateaux on the Loire, medieval villages, volcanic mountains, forested gorges and miles of glorious vineyards. No longer having to cling on for dear life, I could lean back and enjoy the scenery. You engage more with your surroundings on a motorbike, as you’re not enclosed in a vehicle but sitting high up, looking over the tops of the cars. Through your visor you view the landscape in panorama, while the fragrances of the wildflower-filled countryside whoosh straight into your helmet.
In Marseilles we met up with another biking couple, Martin and Sarah. Like me, Sarah was relatively new to it. We compared notes. ‘I used to be very nervous on the bike,’ she admitted. ‘But I’m more relaxed now. In fact I’ve even nodded off once or twice at high speeds. Now I’m worried I’ll go to sleep one day and fall off, and Martin won’t even notice until he stops for petrol and I’m not there.’
‘Not very likely!’ laughed Martin. ‘You have to try hard to fall off a pillion.’ I resolved to stay awake at all times, nonetheless…
We had only one mishap during that trip. Leaving our hotel one day, we rode slowly up a slanting driveway, pausing momentarily to check for traffic before turning onto the road. Nick put his foot down, but there was a pot-hole where there should have been solid ground. As if in slow-motion, the big, heavy bike keeled over. We weren’t hurt but it was pretty embarrassing. Nick needed the help of three men to pick the bike up. It had some scratches and a bent side-mirror.
‘I knew we shouldn’t have over-loaded the top-box with those bottles of Chateauneuf-du-Pape,’ Nick grumbled. Luckily, the precious cargo was intact…
Last summer our two-wheeled adventures took us to northern Spain, where we rumbled up and down the scenic Pyrenees and stayed in some sensational ancient-castle hotels. By then I was feeling rather seasoned as a fair-weather ‘pillion princess’. Needless to say, Nick and I confine our motorbiking to the summer months. The rest of the year the Pan-European hibernates under a dust-sheet in the garage. No self-respecting mid-life biker will go riding when it’s cold and wet – that’s what cars are for.
Happily, summer is almost here again. The flowers are coming out, and so is the bike. This time we’re heading for Italy – all the way down to Rome. We’ve spent days poring over maps and guidebooks – working out the best route, finding hotels. Planning the journey is part of the excitement.
It won’t be long now before I’m back in those familiar leathers, clunking around in biking boots and seeing the world through a visor. Mild-mannered mum the rest of the year, but come June I exchange the supermarket run for the open road and turn into the Wild One. Well, wild-ish. I wouldn’t want to worry the kids…