Discovering the world on $20 per day ......................

Post 240: London 2012

I remember hearing the announcement back in 2005 - ''The International Olympic Committee has the honour of announcing that the games of the 30th Olympiad in 2012 are awarded to the City of ......... London''. Misery in Madrid, New York, Moscow and Paris. That Wednesday afternoon, the roads of east London had become snarled with traffic as people took to the streets to celebrate the IOC's announcement. People were celebrating the fact that we'd won the race to host the 2012 Olympic Games, but at the time I was only jubilant because we'd beaten the French. I wasn't confident that as a Nation, we had the ability to build the infrastructure and host a successful Games. Recent experiences of government driven engineering projects didn't bode well; Wembley Stadium, Scottish Parliament, Portcullis House and The Dome, all financial disasters that came in well behind schedule. I had visions of athletes running across building sites and of tourist's wandering aimlessly, and possibly quite dangerously, around the east end of London as the promised new transport links failed to deliver them to the new venues.
Progress towards 2012 wasn't exactly smooth. The day after the IOC's announcement we suffered the tragic bombings of 7/7 and celebrations immediately turned to mourning. Then there was the '2012 Logo' fiasco and a minor miscalculation on the costings as the combined brains of Whitehall had forgotten to add VAT to the budget. For a year, nothing seemed to happen. Several times each day, I rode passed the proposed Olympic site in Stratford and it seemed that nothing was changing. Then in April 2008, I left London and didn't return until January 2009.
What a difference a year makes. Over the summer of 2008, Team GB (and NI) had enjoyed their most successful Olympics ever and new buildings had risen form the wastelands along the East Cross Route running north from Stratford. Today, 27th July 2009, it's exactly three years until the opening ceremony and I'm actually quite confident that we'll make it on time. Physically, I think that we'll be prepared for the Olympic games and for once I'll happily give credit to the government for making it happen. OK, the government have made it happen by learning from their previous mistakes and standing back to let the real professionals get on with their jobs, but at least they've had the good sense to avoid interfering. There's still an awful lot of work to be done, perhaps especially in the area of 'Customer Service' ........ but I honestly think that we stand a very good chance of succeeding.

Post 239: Rose Tinted Visor ..... ??

But for a missed shot on the 18th hole at Turnberry, 59 year old Tom Watson would have won the 2009 Open Golf Championship. I don't follow golf, but you've got to respect any senior player who can hold his or her own against the superstars of today.

Cast your mind back to 1978 when Tom Watson was the number one player in the world. Thirty years ago the bikes of the day were the beautiful and sleek Ducati 900SS, the fast furious but often fragile Yamaha RD350 LC and the new class leading Suzuki GS1000. If you were riding at the time then perhaps you were lucky enough to own one of these Superbikes, or if you were a little too young, then posters of them probably sat alongside Farah Fawcett-Majors on your teenage wall of dreams. Barry Sheene and Kenny Roberts were the Prince's of Moto GP and Mick Grant was the undisputed King of the Isle of Man TT. We look back on these bikes with fond memories but as realists, we probably understand that while they were definitely great bikes of their generation, today's Superbikes are in a totally different league .... but just how much better are they?

In 1978, the Suzuki GS1000 was a revelation. It handled like an Italian twin but provided the reliability and power of a Japanese four. It weighed in at a then class leading 242 Kg's and it's 997 cc engine produced a respectable 87 Bhp giving it a top speed somewhere in the region of 140 mph. Today's Superbikes will produce an extra 100 Bhp and weight 50 Kg's less than the GS1000. The Yamaha R1 and Suzuki GSXR 1000 of today drip with carbon fibre, electronic fuel injection, upsidedown forks, radially mounted six-pot brake calipers and tyres that are streets ahead of the Avon Roadrunner's and Dunlop TT100's of 1978. Today's Superbikes are safer and more reliable than their predecessors but are they as far removed from the Superbikes of yesteryear as we're led to believe?

In Motorcycle News, Superbike and Bike Magazine, writers wax lyrical about the latest Yamaha R1. It's so much quicker than it's slightly older brother and the improvements that Yamaha have made in the past twelve months are apparently earth shattering. We're almost made to feel that if we're riding last years models then people will instantly think that we're somehow lacking in the penis department. I can't deny that year on year Superbikes have improved, but sometimes I'll read a test report in a magazine and start to believe that Yamaha, Honda or Suzuki have just discovered a new primary colour. My personal opinion is that such hype is 50% bollocks and 49% marketing spin. Any reported benefit from an updated bike probably owes more to the continued sale of advertising space in the magazine than it does to any distinguishable improvement in the bike itself. Usain Bolt holds the world record for the one hundred meters sprint, but that doesn't mean that Carl Lewis was a snail.

Back in 1978 at the Isle of Man TT, a real-road circuit that has changed very little over the years, Mick Grant lapped the Island at an average speed just short of 115 mph. He was riding a three cylinder Kawasaki based on the aging KH750 and using the best tyre technology of the day, which lets face it wasn't particularly good. There was no carbon fibre, no mono-shock suspension, no upsidedown forks, no titanium trinkets, no tyre warmers and certainly no radially mounted brakes. Mick Grant was a great rider, but certainly no better than the stars of today and he didn't even wear knee-sliders. Thirty years after Mick Grant's 115 mph lap, on the same circuit, John McGuiness set a new record of 127 mph on a Fireblade derived 1000cc Honda. John McGuiness rode a truly amazing lap, but it was still less than 10% faster than Mick Grant's lap of thirty years earlier. Assuming that improvements in tyre technology accounts for at least half of that increased speed, then the benefits from thirty years of technological advances have delivered a real performance improvement of slightly less than 5%.

I'm not suggesting that a Superbike of thirty years ago is as good or as fast as a Superbike of today, but if somebody like John McGuiness can only squeeze a 5% improvement from thirty years of Superbike development, ....... then should we really be in any great rush to trade-in our current Superbikes for next years models?

Post 238: London Congestion ..... it's nothing new.

‘’Passenger traffic within London has reached a stage where not only are the existing means of transportation totally inadequate, but any increase in traffic can no longer be dealt with through the extension of existing means. Suburban trains are overcrowded during rush hours, tube trains are full to the point of suffocation and buses, although now so numerous that all road traffic is reduced to little more than walking pace, are already unable to carry the crowds who wish to travel on them’’.

As a despatch rider in London, congestion is a way of life. In fact, if it wasn’t for congestion then despatch riders probably wouldn’t exist. I often look back through my rose tinted visor and dream of how beautifully quite the capital’s roads had been when I first began riding on them. Thirty years ago, London's roads seemed to flow freely, trains were a pleasant means of travelling Inter-City and there was always a seat available on the Tube. The report above reads like a recent consultant’s analysis written for Mayor Boris Johnson and the London Assembly ....... but it’s not.

I was sorting through a dusty leather suitcase full of old family papers and photographs. Amongst the memories and documents, I found an official report entitled "Summary of Proposal for Elevated Mono-Railway System". The report’s author was my maternal Grandfather Mr. H.W. Fright, and was written way back in the 1920's. The proposal talks of 'Central Stations' with radial arms that would serve the developing suburbs. It states that providing trains with a more rounded frontal area would vastly reduce their resistance through the air. He calculates that given the electronic engine technology of the day, such trains would be capable of achieving speeds of up to 150 mph. He suggested the introduction of the 'Soft Closing', centrally operated sliding door, a system that would allow a train's guard to safely operate all doors from one point and thus dramatically improve time-table efficiency. He talks of the inconvenience of and cost of building such a Mono-Rail system but suggests that failing to tackle London's congestion problem would be far more costly in the long run. In today's terms, this all sounds so familiar ...... but this 'Proposal' was written more than eighty years ago.
Since the days of H.W. Fright (Military Cross & Bar), transportation in London has enjoyed some massive capital investment. Countless litres of paint has been used to designate 'Red Routes' and drivers now pay a daily fee to enter the Capital's streets. London clearly decided against the idea of building a functional Mono-Rail system but they did eventually develop the Docklands Light Railway. I wonder if there is a timeframe for the expiry of patents under UK Law?

Post 237: Tigers & Cows

I received some sad news today. Tassaneeya called from Thailand to tell me that her Granddad had died. I liked Granddad, he always made me laugh, he made me smile, but more often than not he enjoyed making me squirm by asking awkward questions about my relationship with his Granddaughter. I knew that he was teasing me, and he knew that I knew .... but it never stopped him.
He was an old man, nobody is sure exactly how old, but in a village where official documents are no more than garnish, such minor details never seemed to matter. He was a rice farmer who should have retired many years ago. Every day during the growing season he'd be out in the paddy fields tending to his crops and every night throughout the year, he'd sleep out in the fields where he could keep a close eye on his favourite cow. I’m not sure if the cow was ever in any danger or whether it was just the traditional thing for an aging Thai rice farmer to do. I’m sure that an illicit bottle of fortification was involved somewhere ..... but Grandma didn’t seem to mind. Granddad knew that I came from a farming family but he never quite understood why I didn’t still own a cow. Perhaps something got lost in translation, we were fluent in two totally different languages and the conversations that we shared were always accompanied by liberal quantities of laughter and Kao Lao, the local rice spirit.
I’ll miss Granddad, I’d promised to one day take him for a ride on my bike ....... but I think he’d have been far more impressed if my Tiger had been a Cow.

Post 236: Future Plans ... Minor Problems

I couldn't quite work it out, every option that I considered just seemed to come up against an impenetrable bamboo wall. The problem was Vietnam .... the rules seemed to suggest that without prior Government approval, it was going to be impossible to temporarily import any bike with an engine larger than 150cc. That restriction I could happily live with, but reading deeper into the current situation it appeared that the size of the bikes engine might be totally irrelevant. No matter what the official rules stated, crossing into Vietnam with any foreign registered motorbike seemed to be a general and insurmountable problem. It reminded me of Russia where they seemed to have one universal set of rules ...... but a hundred different versions of the rule book. Thailand, Laos and Cambodia seemed to be quite straight forward but Vietnam was starting to look like a problem too far.

I considered deleting Vietnam from the itinerary but that would be cheating or at the very least, admitting defeat. Besides, Vietnam was the country that I most want to explore on a motorbike, it's wild, it's beautiful and it's still amazingly cheap. I thought about buying a bike in each country, touring around and then selling it at the next border crossings. That would probably work, but the bike is really a major part of the journey and chopping and changing bikes would be a total pain in the arse. Then it came to me, ...... the problem was always about getting a foreign registered bike across the border into Vietnam, so why not start the journey by buying a Vietnamese bike in Hanoi? .... Simples.

Problem solved. I can probably beg a 'free' return air-ticket to Bangkok and from there travel overland by bus to Hanoi in northern Vietnam. Once there, for around £300, I can buy myself a ''Minsk 125'', put in a new spark plug, have it blessed at the local temple and then ride down the coast to Ho Chi Minh City in the south. Across the border into Cambodia, up to Angkor Wat and then cross into Thailand. From there I can follow the Gulf of Thailand down to Hat Yai and then turn around heading north along the Burmese border. From Chiang Mai in the north of Thailand, I can cut across into Laos and then complete the circle by returning to Hanoi and selling the Minsk.

So far, I've bought maps for the four countries, made a connection with my chosen charity 'SOS Children's Villages' and started the big 'Sell-Off' on ebay. Anyway, that's the plan so far. Three months touring SE Asia spending no more money than I would ordinarily spend on just Rent and Council Tax if I stayed at home in Blighty for the Winter. Of course it wont be as exciting as sharing a student house in Braintree for three months ....... but I'm sure I'll find something of interest to fill my days.

(If you're wondering about my fascination with Minsk's and Vietnam .... see the You Tube link)