Travel: World: Simon Calder column

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Indy Lifestyle Online
GRIDLOCK. A burst water main on London's North Circular Road caused traffic chaos in the capital on Monday this week. Any fool in the absurd position of being in White City at 9am, with a flight to catch from Heathrow at 9.45am for a meeting in Manchester at 11am, was clearly never going to make it.

Unless Adrian got involved. This ex-Military Policeman is one of a dozen riders who provide the "taxy bike" service in and around London; the correct spelling of "taxi" is not used, to avoid inflaming the cabbies who are left trailing in the wake of a 1,100cc, V4 Honda motorcycle. You also have to book in advance, by phone (to Addison Lee, 0171-387 8888), rather than hailing a bike whizzing around town.

Unlike some minicabs I have used, Adrian appeared ahead of time (having already left a message suggesting we set off a little earlier than planned). He provides a helmet, jacket, gloves - and a briefing about how to be a good passenger. A summary: sit back, stay still and enjoy the ride.

At 9.03am we joined the rush-hour traffic on Wood Lane. It wasn't rushing anywhere much, but within seconds the advantage of a bike was obvious: you can be at the front of each set of traffic lights. And on roads full of frustrated motorists all late for work, you can accelerate out of trouble rather than braking into it.

Roadworks meant we spent the first five minutes heading directly away from Heathrow. Anyone unversed in the ways of big, powerful motorbikes will get an instant lesson in their fiery characteristics when looping around the Shepherd's Bush roundabout; "sit back, stay still" is not an easy mantra to chant when you feel that the laws of physics are being seriously challenged by the collective angular velocity of you, Adrian and three-quarters of a ton of Honda.

The last time I tried this sort of thing was when no other transport was available from Phnom Penh airport. The trip into the Cambodian capital on a Honda 70, a bike both over-populated and under- powered, was one painfully long wobble. Not this time; I was quite clearly in the safest of hands.

The nervous passenger can express any concerns easily, thanks to a two- way talk-back link built into the helmet. The system provides for more articulate conversation than can be achieved by yelling through the glass separating a taxi-driver from the passenger.

Chiswick came and went with a well-judged swerve or two; it was a treat to be a passenger on a machine driven by someone in the manner normally reserved for cycling, yet at many times the speed.

Conversation ceased once Adrian got into his stride on the M4, straddling both the middle of the fast lane and the speed limit.

This gives you the chance to notice two things: first, the amazing field of vision that a motorcycle trip permits you, much broader than you get from a car or a train; second, the way that car drivers seem blind to bikers, pulling out with never a first glance nor a second thought.

We pulled up outside Terminal One at 9.25am, where I discovered that I seemed to be wearing the most terrible smirk. The taxy bike experience is similar to a first-rate theme-park ride that also happens to get you to the airport impossibly quickly.

"That's pounds 30," said Adrian. The same price as a cab, but twice as fast; 10 times the cost of the Tube, but a million times more fun. I tipped him a fiver, and five minutes later was sitting on board a Boeing. W12 to BA 1388 at T1 in 30 minutes; on a day when the North Circular isn't submerged, it would be even faster.

Then reality set in; the most mundane of delays (caused by a hold-up loading the meals for the inbound flight) made the plane 10 minutes late. The taxy bike service has yet to reach Manchester airport, and the most ambitious cab driver can't reach the city centre in under the quarter- hour. I was five minutes late for the meeting, but still smiling.