Uneasy Rider: Travels Through a Mid-life Crisis (Paperback) by Mike Carter

Kindle version, I think, is here.

It was partly good reviews on the Amazon site (though I returned in early 2011 and found a great many very negative reviews) that made me buy this book and partly a holiday to Croatia in 2008 (one of the places visted by the author). The holiday and the travelling (sleeping on a bench at Gatwick on the night before the really early flight to to Split) turned out to be tedious, in fact a holiday from hell for a number of reasons I won’t go into so the book became a trusted and fond travel companion.

Others have said they laughed out loud at this book and I did too – at about 2am at Gatwick for example. I think the funniest parts are where the going is toughest – in Finland where we hear about the seductions of the Leprosy museum (or was that in Norway?) At first I was uneasy (to coin a phrase) at the mid-life stuff because it created one of those all-too-easy-to identify-with personas that in some ways can be unhelpful (like grumpy old men) but as we hear, near the end of the book, about another reason why the author visited some of these countries and some of these locations, I found myself very moved. I wouldn’t be suprised if many readers of this book have experienced some of the same life events as the author and can identify with the desire to revisit locations that have, to put it simply, bad memories.

I really recommend this book. It is intelligent and hugely funny in places and has redoubled my determination to take my bike to some (definately not all – Albania for instance) of the countries visited by Mike Carter. (2021 – I’m considering Albania and other Balkan countries…)

Many reviewers on Amazon call the author a big headed buffoon whose trip and bike was paid for by the Observer newspaper (how do they know that?). I don’t agree (well, I can’t comment about who paid for the trip because I don’t know). If you get into the zone of his self-deprecating but not entirely original humour, the book is really enjoyable. Some reviewers complain that he’s not ‘a proper biker’ which begs the question of when can you call someone riding a motorbike ‘a biker’. Some have suggested that he made up half or even all of it. I do doubt that but I must say I did wonder whether he embellished quite a few of the encounters he recounts. But the geography is real and I’ve used it as a reference for my upcoming trip around Norway – the highlight will be the trip to the Leprosy museum. I just hope its raining when I get there.

Finally, I wish the book had included a map of the journey.

The Road Gets Better from Here: A Novice Rides Solo From the Ring of Fire to the Cradle of Civilisation (Perfect Paperback) by Adrian Scott 2008

Available from Abe Books here.

This is probably the best motorcycle travel book I have read. It manages this impressive feat in a number of ways. First, the story it tells is one of incredible toughness – both physical and mental on the part of the author – in the face of a bad accident on day one of the trip. The worst start any biking traveller could imagine. Less than ten pages in and the narrator is sitting by the side of a remote road eating a mess of his mangled food, mixed with gravel, nursing a broken ankle on the easternmost tip of Russia.

What follows is three months of usually gruelling riding. Also moving is the sense of humanity we get at just about every turn of the journey. Scott is taken in by incredibly generous and hospitable folk throughout, people who have unimaginably tough lives, living on very little by Western standards, with almost unbearable occupations, but who share what they have with him – and with real pride and nobility (usually).

Adrian Scott’s writing is impeccable. He must have spent hours each day with his notebooks. He describes, for example, the nuances of changes in facial structure of the people he meets as he journeys westward across Asia. His accounts of architecture, particularly of his extended stay in Samarkand, are vivid and detailed. He is a traveller who has done extensive research before he left (or maybe he added it afterwards – I doubt it somehow) and his book gives us detailed but readable political and social histories of many of the newly independent countries he visits. He also seems to have taken the trouble to learn Russian in preparation. His intelligent but deeply-felt engagement with the cultures and individuals he comes across puts this writing in a different class to some other authors who seem to have gathered a few superficial impressions more for merchandising reasons than to do justice to where they have been.

But the book has some oddities. First, we are told nothing about the traveller/writer. Even by the end of the story, we don’t know why he undertook his journey, what he did before he left – was he a journalist, an academic, a traveller – or how he got home? We are given absolutely no information apart from the fact that he is unnaturally tall. (As evidence of this, a small cover photo appears to show his head wedged against a ceiling somewhere.) And for the biker reader, he assiduously avoids telling us the model or make of his bike though we get plenty of fascinating detail about his relationship with his much patched together vehicle. From one of the photographs you can make out it’s a Kawasaki. And the photographs, as well as the map of the journey (the Silk Road plus) are very low quality, though strangely this adds to the believability of his story. They are often very moving, showing people in pretty grim circumstances.

So what did he do next? I have no idea. Web searches turn up nothing and the book doesn’t seem to have nurtured a cult following though in my mind it deserves to, no less than Ted Simon’s first book (OK, Ted did it thirty years before). In fact this possibly cheaply produced book (it could have done with some editing – its full of typos) is refreshingly free of celebrity endorsements. For anyone interested in travelling, biking or Asia, this is an absolute must read.

Riding with Rilke: Reflections on Motorcycles and Books (Paperback various publishers) by Ted Bishop 2007

Available from Abe Books here

This had to be the book for me: written by someone with a love for bikes and literature (like me) – and the snippets I had read on the net were excellent: ‘It wasn’t a mid life crisis that got me on the road, but mid life money’ (well something close to that). This book has lovely aspects – that self-deprecating, unassuming Canadian tone (it reminds me of the (now defunct – whatever happened to it?) One Wheel Drive people on YouTube), some insights into the personal politics of major literary archives, some fascinating information about T E Lawrence, some nice moments of humour. However, somewhere in the book Ted says he is looking for a way to link biking and literature but he can’t find it. And for me this is the book’s weakness – his sometimes laboured attempt to find unthought of connections between these two worlds and sensibilities. And trying to wind these two together seemed to result in a book that did neither very well. I also had the feeling that there wasn’t quite enough material for a book and that Ted had dived into some subsequent research to fill out various parts (mind you, knowing that 11 North Americans are killed every year in incidents involving vending machines is priceless).

The North American editors must have been nervous about the readership: surely even a biker who has never left Edmonton (the one in Canada – only marginally nicer than the one in North London – I’ve been to both) doesn’t need it explaining that ragu is an Italian pasta sauce or that when Albert Camus wrote ‘je voudrais m’acheter une motorclette’ that he really meant ‘I want to buy a motorcycle’.

For me the nicest part is near the end when the author hobbles back after breaking his back in two places in a bike accident. We’re prepared for the ultimate anti-climax – that he decides never to get on a bike again – but instead in a couple of sentences we see him reunited with the beauty of his Ducati Monster – and of course he has to ride it home from the mechanics – and at over 100mph.

Review TCX Drifter boots

I bought these from what is quickly becoming my favourite supplier of motorcycle goods, Sportsbikeshop and I’ve worn them on one two hour in-the-rain trip to Suffolk.

Sizing: reviewers are advising prospective purchasers to go for their usual shoe size when buying, unlike Alpine Stars for instance where you really have to buy one size up. So, I went for Euro size 45. In the house these were certainly not sloppy. My left toe (half a size bigger than the right) was pretty snug against the toecap – but comfortable. I’d describe the fit as rather narrow or you might consider it a supportive design especially around the ankles (more on ankles later).

Buckles: there are three buckles that, once you’ve worked out which way the clasps move, and adjusted the length, are surprisingly smooth to use. Along with a small area of velcro near the top, they give a very secure feeling. I see they are replaceable but I’m not sure of the material.

Comfort: like most pairs of new shoes, I think there is a brief honeymoon where you are astonished that they do not hurt or dig in. During this time they feel super comfortable. But then, somehow, you start to notice the pressure in unpredictable places. So after nearly two hours of riding and some walking comfort, these boots suddenly became exquisitely painful mainly around my ankles where it felt like some of the protection had decided to make its presence felt. This led to some desperate leg manoeuvres on the bike as I got nearer to my increasingly longed for destination. I am hoping that this will pass. It might be that I had crammed, successfully I thought, my leather trousers into these boots.

Looks: maybe this should have come first. I think they look great. A year or so back I would never imaging wearing brown suede motorcycle boots but these have changed my mind. See this web page for some beautiful product shots of these boots.

Build quality: these are very rugged. Everything is double stitched and the protection feels strong. I can see that they are not as tank-like as my Alpine Starts old Tech 3s but they are an improvement on my disintegrating Spada cheap boots which I bought these to replace as those head into the bin. They are made in Romania which is refreshing when everything seems to have been made in China.

Waterproofness: during my 100 mile plus rides the heavens opened. I did not notice my feet being wet or cold so I presume their waterproofness, aided by a part elastic top, is pretty effective.

Overall: I will be very happy if the pain I felt after a day’s riding eases off. This kind of pain that only sets in after a couple of hours of riding is a killer. It adds to fatigue and just makes you want to stop riding. My otherwise lovely leather trousers from Hideout Leather are the same. After a while the armour on the left knee becomes really uncomfortable and distracting. I have some good quality textile trousers on my shopping list and these might solve both problems.

return journey via A1120 – the tourist route

Charley Boorman – Race to Dakar (DVD)

I saved buying this DVD (I see I bought it back in 2010) till the evenings had got darker and my son finally left home leaving me to the guilty pleasures of watching motorcycle vids in the empty house. Overall, this is a powerful documentary. The Dakar is not for the faint hearted and you have to take your hat off to anyone who dares enter it, Charley Boorman included. The characters are nearly all men in this and they pretty much conform to a stereotype of driven, inarticulate (there is a huge amount of effing and blinding), self-obsessed and in the early episodes this gets annoying; for example how they seem ready to blame eachother when things don’t go to plan. But when they are in their element – actually roughing it on the race – they become more likable and admirable. The series is well edited, it keeps up the tension (without the stupid staged ‘fallings out’ of the Long Way documentaries) and the end is very moving. If you like this kind of stuff, you will love it. (I’ve recently copied it to my iPhone for those late evening winter train journies home after work).

If you don’t have it already its still available from Amazon here.

As a note from 10 years later, the Dakar moved to South America in 2009 after being cancelled the previous year because of an apparent security threat. From 2020 it moved, controversially, to Saudi Arabia.

The Africa Eco Race started in 2009 as a rally designed to return to the return to the spirit of the original race. Lyndon Poskitt has put a range of impressively produced videos of this race on line.

Red Tape and White Knuckles: One woman’s motorcycle adventure through Africa: Lois Pryce, 2008, Century Books

‘Her light-hearted account almost disguises the grit’ There are always two reactions to motorcycle travel books: one is to the journey itself – usually awe inspiring in some way – and the other is to the writing. Lois Pryce’s second book about motorcycle travel (I haven’t read the first one yet) is a nicely written, easy-to-read contribution to this genre. But it tells a tale of almost unimaginable nerve and endurance across some of the most difficult terrain and politically frightening countries you could think of.

In our patriarchal world men not only take centre-stage but manage to convince most people that the male way of being in the world is some kind of norm. For example, Ted Simon’s accounts of riding around the world seem, mostly, to be the story of a person’s adventures rather than specifically of a man’s. But Lois Pryce’s books remind us that riding a motorbike, like everything in life, is gendered: in Muslim Algeria the man pumping petrol into her motorbike looks away from her and does not acknowledge her greeting once he realises this is a woman out in public, in other places she has to pretend that it’s a man and not her who is riding the bike in order to be given permission to travel, and in the Congo when she is stuck on the back of a train for a whole day with her strapped-down bike and surrounded by stoned Congolese soldiers touting Kalashnikovs the defining feature of this astonishingly tense passage is to do with gender – and power.

Lois is not afraid to be critical and poke fun at some of the tedious characters she encounters or travels with (she mentions the fantasy of parts of the German motorcycle industry to have the world full of identically dressed middle aged men advancing on bikes – in some latter day colonialist aspiration) but she also writes movingly about some of the positive and generous spirited people she meets in war-ravaged countries like Angola, some she considers her ‘guardian angels’. The middle chapters, mainly dealing with the Congolese and Angolan parts of the journey are genuinely scary and had my pulse racing.

Overall the style is light and humour is never far away. We don’t get the personal introspection nor the lingering political and social analysis of Ted Simon, so the book feels less serious than some but Lois is skilled at telling the story and the ending, which in this kind of book always runs the danger of anti-climax, is moving. Strangely, Lois is still in deep shit in an Angolan mine field and you notice there are hardly any pages left. Uneventful Namibia and South Africa get just a dozen or so pages.

As Ted Simon’s book jacket comment, used above to introduce this review, points out the book and the journey are in some ways at odds with each other, though not in any problematic way. As the jacket says elsewhere, the author is equipped with formidable strength of character and an immense passion for life. I’m not the first to say this, but it is a good read. Having finished it, I do wonder why the seriousness was kept at bay so much. I would have thought that an experience like this gave any author the right to offer some more extended reflections on life, humanity and the puzzle of the drive behind this kind of undertaking. Its available second hand from Abe Books here.