Aliona likes the road. The smoother the tarmac the better, thank you very much. I suppose that’s not terribly surprising; the Honda CBF600 is really just a detuned CBR600RR, the supersport stalwart that for many people is the very definition of a sport bike. Aliona has been modified to offer a more natural seating position and a throttle that won’t make me pay dearly for learner mistakes but she is still, at her core, a bike that was intended to never stray too terribly far from track conditions.
That can be a challenge if you live in the Land of Song. Most roads here in Wales leave quite a bit to be desired. Mother Nature spreads mud, farmers spread manure, and some roads are so pockmarked you’re inclined to believe the local council simply hasn’t gotten around to fixing it since its being bombed in the war.
I live on the corner of two roads that are riddled with potholes, ruts, and half-assed quick fixes (just throw some tar at it). The plus side of this is that anyone who doesn’t want to lose the suspension of his or her vehicle can’t drive these roads any faster than 25 mph, so it makes for a more peaceful living space. But it is hell on my bike. I weave down the road as best I can but still usually manage to hit at least half a dozen frame-rattling bumps every time I ride. Away from my neighbourhood things are often not much better — especially in the beautiful spaces I want to go.
Case in point: Llanilltud Fawr. It’s a seemingly unimportant village on Wales’ south coast that 1,500 years ago was a major hub of activity. It was effectively a college town back then — a place where a number of big names received religious instruction, including St. Patrick (patron saint of Ireland) and St. David (patron saint of Wales). These days it’s mostly a feeder community, serving as a place to live for people working at the nearby Royal Air Force base. But it also has a nice (albeit pebbled) beach and serves as a good starting point for hiking a section of the Wales Coast Path. And it is home to the Old Swan Inn, a 900-year-old pub that is one of the best to be found in these parts.
The weather was good a few days ago and I decided to take a quick ride down to Llanilltud Fawr after work. I hadn’t ridden since before the wedding and it had been even longer since I’d taken the bike out without Jenn, so it took me a nervous mile or so to adjust to Aliona’s agility. It helped, too, that I stopped to put air in the tires — something I probably would have put off had it not been for an article I’d read that day on RideApart. Each tire was a little low and the difference in handling was notable once I got back on the bike. Check your tires, mis amigos; it’s not just manufacturer BS.
I opened up on the smooth, long curve of the B4265. Being a good boy, I never ride faster than the posted speed limit, but there is a long stretch where there are no speed limit signs, so I decided 80 mph was appropriate. While sailing across golden farmland I achieved that fabled motorcycle zen in which the bike and I are no longer so much physical entities but congruous elements of the environment: the reliable Honda engine drone, the rhythm of steady movement, the taste of the air, the glint of sunlight, and on.
At Aberthaw the landscape takes on for a moment the familiar gentle roll of the American Midwest but to my left it was broken by the gunmetal blue of the wide Bristol Channel. The previous days’ rains had turned the trees and hedgerows a vibrant green. Everything was right.
Aliona makes the blind corners of Llanilltud Fawr’s narrow medieval streets easier to navigate, but I still moved through town at almost walking pace. Then slowly down Colhugh Street toward the beach. The road is potholed and there are speed bumps every hundred feet or so. The bike was not happy. The folks at Thunder Road have promised me better service next time I head in there; and with each bump I imagined myself getting to find out whether that’s true by having to come in with rattled-loose fairing.
When the speed bumps stop the road turns even more potholed and muddy. Then, finally, a turn onto a pockmarked gravel parking lot. I brought Aliona into first gear and had a sudden memory of Steve Johnson talking about the extreme nerves he felt when navigating gravel for the first time on a Harley.
“How hard could it really be?” I thought.
The bike moved off the last bit of tarmac and immediately jerked left. “Ah. Well. That’s an interesting sensation.” I quickly thought of a YouTube video I had seen of a bloke riding in the snow. His main point of concern was trying to brake as gently as possible, and only with the rear. I took to this method and crawled slowly forward to a spot of concrete where I was able to park the bike and finally take a breath.
“Well, mental note,” I said, looking at the bike. “We won’t be taking you off road.”
But at least she got me to the beach.