Motor Show 1993: Cut through the jams and beat the train: Motorcyclists are often treated like modern lepers. Russell Bulgin looks at the realities of Nineties biking

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The Independent Online
IF YOU'RE reading this while stuck in a traffic jam or sitting on a train, just think: it's quicker by bike. But is biking for you?

Among motorcyclists the line goes: 'There are people who are bikers and there's the rest of the world.' And as a biker in Britain, you are often made to feel like a second-class citizen. Arrive by bike at a hotel - booked in advance by credit card - and you feel the warmth of a welcome reserved for the Nineties British equivalent of a leper.

It does not matter that the clothes you are wearing would cost the average British worker a month's salary, or that your 150mph superbike costs the best part of pounds 10,000. In contrast, go to the continent and you will find a warm welcome, and jealous admirers, in every town.

Two outdated misconceptions concerning motorbikes are still prevalent in this country: bikes are a cheap form of transport; and they are driven by spotty teenagers who scream around city centres for a cheap thrill. Some memories extend back to the Sixties bank-holiday clashes between Vespa and Lambretta-borne mods and Norton or Triumph-toting rockers.

Kevin Kelly, director of the Motorcycle Retailers Association, is quick to dispel these notions as blasts from the past. 'Some bikes are still sold as congestion beaters but there is a move away from these by both buyers and manufacturers,' he says.

'The interesting trend is that sales of bigger bikes - 750cc and more - are on the increase. More mature riders - 35 to 45-year-olds - are buying them for leisure reasons - for fun.' Just over 52,000 bikes were sold last year, compared to more than 100,000 in 1986.

Findlay Macpherson is typical of the Nineties Biker breed and an outspoken proponent of twowheelers. Aged 43, a banker in the City of London, he returned to biking two years ago, and rides a 130bhp-plus Honda after cutting his teeth on a Triumph Tiger Cub in his youth.

'The hooligan element has gone out of biking,' Mr Macpherson says. 'Changes to the laws in the early Eighties saw some seriously hot 250cc tackle outlawed for learners and the beginning of the end for teenage tearaways. It's hard to be a rebel on 12bhp. Nobody can afford to buy a machine for pounds 5,000- pounds 10,000 and then pay pounds 1,200 for insurance, just to throw it away by chucking the bike down the road.

'Nowadays the only riders who possibly give biking a bad name are couriers; they are under so much pressure to deliver stuff from A to B quickly that they take risks - and often lose.'

Only occasionally does Mr Macpherson use his bike to get to work. 'It's too nice and I don't want to scratch it squeezing between cars,' he says. But he reckons he could save money if he bought another, smaller bike to commute on. His annual British Rail season ticket from south London to the City costs just over pounds 1,000. But the real reason he's thinking about it is convenience. His journey takes about an hour and a half; the bike cuts that in half and he can travel when he wants to.

'During the one-day stoppages on the trains this year, I travelled to work (a distance of about 15 miles) by motorcycle or on my mountain bike. They both cut through the jams and beat the train but the Honda is quicker over the ground once you get clear of the traffic.'

However, the disadvantages and dangers put most people off bikes, outweighing the fun and the freedom. 'Driving any vehicle can be dangerous but put yourself on two wheels and it's much more demanding - that's part of the fun,' says Graham Sanderson, spokesman for the British Motorcycle Federation, which has 110,000 members.

Small comfort if you are lying bruised or worse in the gutter, surrounded by bits of expensive machinery.

Mr Sanderson knows a senior Leicestershire traffic policeman who has seen many accidents involving bikes. Given the chance to change just one law, he would make all car drivers learn to ride a bike before passing the driving test. Percentage-wise few car drivers have a bike licence but most bikers over 21 can also drive cars.

Training has had dramatic effect on the gory statistics and technology has helped save lives too. All holders of a full car licence can drive a moped - 50cc with top speed governed to 30mph - possibly the best way to get about if you live in the inner city. But before you can go on the road even on a small learner-bike up to 125cc you must have Compulsory Basic Training at an approved training centre.

Once out on the road, danger is inherent in commuting through busy urban areas. Add the winter factors of darkness, cold and rain and the risks increase many fold. Rain makes roads greasy, increases braking time, steams up helmet visors and car windows. Cold slows response times and the dark makes you hard to see.

Good clothing eases a lot of these bugbears for bike commuters. Thanks to materials such as Goretex and Kevlar, gear offers accident protection and proof against weather and is a lot easier to put on and take off.

However, you still have to cope with car drivers. If a car cuts you up just once, and it will, it sharpens you up forever. You come to treat every car as a hazard, its driver tuned into the radio and oblivious to the world outside his windows. But look on the bright side; if three people have tried to kill you on the way to work and you survive, when you get to the office you are more than ready for the corporate cut and thrust.