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22nd March 2005

A Dorset Ride At Dusk

Carmen Sheppard takes her Honda CB350F for a spin, and meets an inevitable tractor or ten, avoids White Van Man, and wonders if that was really Ewan McGregor on board his BMW...?

I am back in Dorset visiting my parents for Mother's Day and the weather's reasonable, so it's about time I got the Honda CB350F out for a test ride with the new 4-into-4 exhausts. I've been looking forward to testing them out since we put them on late last year, but since then the bike has been stored and I haven't been around.

It's getting towards late afternoon as I swing my leg over the CB350F. The bike seems chuffed to bits with its new silencers and starts first time with the faintest touch on the starter and very little choke. The engine burbles to life and I notice that it sounds a lot quieter than it did with its 4-into-2 system.

I carefully negotiate the 10 metres of unsurfaced sloping lane between the garage and the farm road leading to the main road though the village. Sometimes it's quite a hairy ride as the lane gets muddy and slippery with a little rain, but today wasn't too bad. I head out of the village and stop for petrol at the local service station. As I get back on the bike a man gets out of a 'Chelsea Tractor' four-wheel drive and comes over to me.

Honda chose the CB350's colours very carefully; they blend in perfectly with the Devon landscape.

'Cor!' he says. 'That's nice isn't it? I've heard of them, but never seen one before, 1973 isn't it? That's made my day that has!' He gets back in the 'tractor' and drives off with a big smile on his face.

I feel good as I ride off, but after about a mile or so the engine dies, I panic for a moment and then realise I had forgotten to turn the petrol tap on! It's amazing how far you can go on four carburettors worth of petrol... So I start up again and head off to Bridport along the main A35.

The first thing I notice is that the bike responds much better to the throttle with the new silencers. It always used to splutter and clear its throat a bit before pulling away, but now all that's gone. There's no huge increase in power but she revs freely right up to the 10,000rpm redline, which helps when overtaking as there's no longer any hesitation. She seems to be telling me she's thankful to be free of the restriction the homemade 4-into-2 collectors gave her. The engine feels a lot smoother and the exhaust note is quieter, although still pleasant. This makes the bike feel - well - more modern I guess. Until, that is, I pull on the front brake lever and the lack of immediate stopping power reminds me that this bike has a 32-year-old, first generation disc brake.

You require strong hands to get any real force on the single pot calliper. Unfortunately mine aren't (strong), though I guess in an emergency stop situation the adrenaline may help. Excellent engine braking helps me control the speed effectively so I rarely use the brakes. The rear drum brake is more effective than the front disc; so far I've not locked the rear wheel yet in a stopping situation but it may yet happen. As a consequence I try to ride defensively and leave loads of space.

Unmistakably Honda FourBeing a four, the bike was always reasonably smooth and fuss-free, but now it's better.

I remember on the classic rallies with British bikes (or when I was within 10 metres of Harleys) I always had to put my ear to the tank to check whether the engine was running, as I couldn't hear it over the loud pop-popping of the bigger Triumphs, etc, and I couldn't see it vibrating either.

Apparently, when the CB350F was released, Soichiro Honda used to ride one and said it was the nicest engine he'd ever produced.

Anyway, enough smooth-talking and back to the ride….

Checking the sky for signs of rain, I turn off in Bridport at the roundabout for West Bay. West Bay is a popular meeting spot for motorcyclists, but this time I decided that, as the time was getting on, I'd miss it out and follow the sign for Abbotsbury, which takes you to the coast road.

The coast road is a popular run for motorcyclists and the scenery is spectacular, it was even named in the top so-many biking roads in Britain by a popular motorcyclists magazine a few years ago.

Unfortunately, this road was always rather hazardous as there are caravan parks all along there and many silly drivers deciding to turn off into side roads at the last minute or stopping suddenly to take pictures of the view.

There were always nutter motorcyclists and boy-racers haring along and many fatal accidents. The magazine article led to an increase in the amount of traffic on the road and consequently even more accidents, so now the road is a 50mph limit all along.

I don't mind this too much as I am taking it easy and only speeding a tiny bit as I take in the scenery, which is gradually becoming dimmer as the sun goes down.

Random 350 Honda Stuff on

A reflective moment for Carmen.I stop to take some pictures of the bike in a lay-by up on the top of the coast road. I leave it running and I notice that one of the four pipes is smoking a bit.

The right-hand pipe always did smoke a little, but now I can tell which cylinder it is, as the smoke is only coming from one silencer. More Redex needed probably, but I need to get the bike serviced and the carbs rebalanced anyway as the set-up will probably be different with the new silencers -- so it can be checked then.

As I'm getting back on the bike, a big, loaded-up BMW trailie comes up the hill and the rider waves. I wave back and I can't help wondering whether it's Ewan McGregor. Other motorcyclists don't often wave to me, so it's nice when someone does (especially if it's Ewan!).

Sports bike riders are the least likely to wave at me and, as the bike is small and looks like it's probably a 125, not many other people do either (is there a law against being friendly to a person who may be learning?). I always nod anyway - if they saw the back end they'd know it wasn't likely to be a 125…..

I get on the bike and head down the steep hill into Abbotsbury, and watch as white-van-man in front of me performs a dangerous overtake on a bend on the 1:4 hill. With the light now starting to wane, I turn up the narrow road that leads from Abbotsbury onto the Ridgeway and meets up with the road past Hardy's Monument. Usually this single-track road is relatively quiet, however, I am following a largish flat-bed transit who kept having to stop in lay-bys for cars. Cars, lots and lots of them…what's going on?

Soon we catch up with a tractor, and the amount of cars using the lay-bys ruins my idea to stop in one and take some more pictures. We get to the cross roads and the police have closed off the main road from the villages of Winterbourne Abbas and Portesham at that point and are diverting everyone down that tiny road, there must have been an accident.

Still got the blues...

The transit turns left and I carry straight onto the road past the monument. I stop in a lay-by there to take more pictures. The light is quite weak now - throwing a faintly eerie blueness onto everything. I'm thankful that there weren't too many cars around and that I am wearing my new flip-up helmet as I take the pictures, as it makes the whole thing easier, it's getting cold and I don't want to be out here for too much longer.

I get back on the bike, start her up again and start off down the hill for home. Just as I go over the apex of the road by the monument a shaft of setting sunlight escapes from the clouds and makes everything look golden. I wish I had waited a few moments before I'd ridden off, as that light would have made a fantastic final picture...

All in all a nice, smooth and relaxing ride from a very refined old bike. I'll just have to burn off the sportsbikes next time!

Anyone else remember the classic '550 Fourk' Honda sidepanel badge?


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