In Mustn’t Grumble, columnist and writer Joe Bennett’s wonderful romp around Britain, he recalls a gang of motorcyclists “buzzing up the lane like flies” and clustering around his borrowed Audi convertible in their black leathers as if it were rotting meat.
He returns anxiously to the car only to find the motorcycle gang consists of a group of middle-aged and extremely polite Dutchmen.
I know Joe doesn’t like motorcycles and motorcyclists. Nor, I imagine, do most people. Motor bikes are usually noisy, recklessly fast on open roads and menacing in large numbers.
Seeing a motorbike in your rear-vision mirror is like spotting an enemy fighter plane on your tail. One second the road behind was empty. Now there’s a blowfly coming at you fast.
Motorcyclists on the open road are like avenging robots, swooping out of nowhere to shatter the calm of drivers cocooned in their cars. The rider inside the helmet is as anonymous as The Stig. Hunched over the machine like a sprinter crouched at the starting blocks, it could be a robot. You can’t even tell what sex it is.
Then it’s gone, roaring past in a burst of noise that makes you flinch. In seconds the blowfly has flown away down the highway, diving in and out of the traffic until gone from view.
I’m not a Dutchman but I am middle-aged and often polite. And beneath my tinted visor, I am one of them. Mild-mannered father of four who secretly slips into his super-protective armour and becomes Super Blowfly. Yes, that was me who passed you on the Napier-Taupo Road the other day.
I haven’t been a blowfly all my life. In my teenage bluebottle years I cut my motorcycle gearbox teeth on an Italian Vespa, named after the buzzing wasp. I spent hours polishing its paintwork and painting the word Vespa on its rear mudflap.
Laughing in the face of wind tunnels, the same basic Vespa design has been on the road since the end of the Second World War. Its high metal front, designed to protect the rider’s legs, has the aerodynamics of a small front-end loader. The high front acted like a steel sail, adding another 5kmh to your top speed in a strong tail wind but halving it in a head wind.
Despite its vague suggestion of the hippie lifestyle being enjoyed by teens everywhere else in the world – except Hastings – in the l960s, my Vespa was never cool.
Another bike I owned was a two-stroke Suzuki 90cc twin, a bike with pistons the size of cotton reels and a shrill engine note that was beyond the hearing of dogs. It eventually died in various sheds as we moved houses and I eventually gave it away to someone from Central Hawke’s Bay who had ambitious plans to resurrect it. I’ve never seen it again.
My current bike is the mid-life crisis one, so non-bike riders tell me. They say it with a barely concealed note of disapproval. They think I should have spent the money on a sensible Honda Civic sedan, with airbags and ABS braking.
My bike is all chrome, metallic paint and grunt. I chose it because it was one of the few I could sit on and touch the ground with my feet. I didn’t think trainer wheels would be cool.
And I’m a paid-up member of a bike gang. I have a badge with my name on it, possibly in case I get lost. And when the rest of the gang have finished terrorising motorists and stop for their flat whites at a roadside café, they take off their helmets to reveal a lot of polite, middle-aged people. A couple of them are Dutchmen.
Out on the road, there is a curious culture that determines whether a motorcyclist will be acknowledged by fellow riders. Harley Davidson riders ignore everyone else. So do the hard-core motorcycle gangs with their open-face helmets, long grey beards and black scarves. But couples on touring BMW machines always wave to you, and so do those on enormous Honda Gold Wing tourers with their heated seats, intercom, satellite navigation systems and heated handle grips.
At the other end of the pecking order, nobody waves to the poor souls on their Nifty Fifties, trundling along the cycle lanes in their fluorescent jackets hoping sleep-deprived truckies won’t run them over.
Getting ready for a ride is rather like a medieval knight putting his armour on for battle. There are thick protective plates inside your jacket and trousers, the boots are padded and the helmet encloses your head like a soft vice.
You waddle over the gleaming bike, swing your leg over and balance its hefty weight with your legs. No endless kick-starting sessions these days. A single turn of the key, a press of a black button with your right thumb and the gleaming beast rumbles into life.
It’s time for Super Blowfly again.