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21st February 2005


A Brit Abroad

You think it's tough riding a classic bike in Britain? DC Slowcoach takes to two wheels in the American capital, and risks imminent incarceration every time he blips the throttle...

I'm an English biker currently living in the United States. I thought I'd write and tell you what it's like here, where classic bikes are admired by the discerning few (including the owner of my local off-licence, whose window display this summer was a rather nice classic Norton racer).

Motorcycling in Washington, the often infuriating capital of these United States, has difficulties you wouldn't dream of in Britain. For a start, the clerk at the feared Department of Motor Vehicles told me that I would have to get an English translation of my UK driving licence. In due course a more senior official told her that the document was in fact in English and eventually I got my American licence. The DMV is apparently much improved these days, but since it is still referred to in terms reserved for the seventh circle of hell. I don't like to think what it was like before.

Woodward and Bernstein not shown.

Next step was to get a bike.

Not so easy as the District of Columbia has apparently been red-lined by the entire US insurance industry. The message, as far as bikes are concerned, was: forget it. Why don't you buy a mini-van? Eventually, Nancy at one of the local Harley dealerships found someone who could help. He turned out to be a man called Sid, who looks like the late Robert Morley and sits in a dingy office in the shadow of the US Capitol building.

With a promise of insurance cover, I bought myself a 2004 Harley Sportster Roadster. Since the Sporty has been in production for about 150 years (steam-powered prototypes helped the Union forces win at Gettysburg, just down the road from the Harley factory at York, Pennsylvania), I think it is as much a classic as an Indian-built Enfield.

Cleopatra not shown. (Yes, I know, I know...)Next step was to pass the motorcycle road test, which was a surreal experience. Drive through those cones, I was told.

What cones?

Well, we don't actually have any cones, so if you could just imagine they are there...

I passed.

Sid reduced my premium by $200 when he heard I was married, but insisted that I keep the bike locked up, given the US capital's reputation as a sink of crime.

My friend the admiral allows me to keep the bike in his garage, located in a slightly more salubrious neighborhood a few blocks away from my house.

Donald Rumsfeld's place is just around the corner from the lock-up, and a big, black SUV full of armed secret service agents guards the Secretary of Defense (and, with a bit of luck, my Sportster).

Riding round Washington is, frankly, a bit of a chore. The roads are awful, there are stop lights at every block and car drivers are far too busy with their cell phones and buckets of takeaway coffee to pay any attention to anything on two wheels.

Outside the city are the country back roads and the Blue Ridge mountains, where on a summer weekend you will see more Harleys than you have ever seen before in your life (unless you have been to the annual Sturgis rally in South Dakota). The road across the mountains from Sperryville to Luray is one breathtaking curve after another, even on a Harley.

Sportsters on eBay.co.uk

Karl Marx not shown. (Marx. Das Kapital. I'll get my coat.)Even the big hairy bikers tend to pootle along in a manner that can only be described as slow, but I discovered there is a reason for that. One friend of mine was stopped for speeding in his car. He was put in handcuffs and dragged off to the cells for the night.

Another made the mistake of ignoring a speeding ticket. When the Virginia State Troopers stopped him again for speeding, he was informed there was an arrest warrant out for him and he ended up spending four days in the county jail.

Having always had European bikes, the 1200cc Harley was something new for me. Apparently older Sportsters vibrate badly enough to bounce your glasses up and down on your nose. But now, after more than four decades of development, they have come up with rubber mounts for the engine, which seem to do the trick.

The old slowcoach has also been given a few Buell engine parts to perk it up, so it's now not a bad bike at all. It has been given double discs on the front and it looks very handsome in a stripped-down
way.

It was also not very expensive, given the weakness of the dollar, and the master plan is to bring it back to England when my stint in the United States is over. If anyone who has done that would be kind enough to contact me (bikeidea@yahoo.com) with any handy tips, that would be nice.

DC Slowcoach shown.

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