Bikers slice through the congestion on Cape Town's N1 freeway. File picture: David Ritchie / INLSA
Cape Town – Recently She Who Must be Obeyed and I went out to an industrial area north of the city at around mid-morning (all right, 8:30am) on a Tuesday to fetch a part for the show-bike.

We were travelling against the flow of traffic; the rest of the world was on its way into the CBD to go to work. Nevertheless, we wound up having to lane-split through stop-start traffic at little more than walking pace for more than 10km and, had we been in a car, it would have been time to turn around and go home before we reached our destination.

Cape Town is admittedly the worst, but every every major city in South Africa is gridlocked in one or the other direction for part of every working day, with hundreds of thousands of cars, buses and taxis belching fumes into the air we are supposed to breathe, going nowhere slowly.

Which is why I’m increasingly being asked about the pros and cons of getting a motorcycle or a scooter to commute on - but before you go out and finance another vehicle, here are eight factors to consider that you may not have thought about.

Are you ready to be scared sh*tless?

Every day on my way to work, somebody in a car changes lanes on top of me without looking; every day oncoming car drivers turn into the path of my big, noisy, white motorcycle without seeing it (and yes, the same drivers will admit they don’t see traffic cops on big, noisy white motorcycles either, until the blue lights start flashing).

Because we don’t have the protection of sitting in a metal box, riders are vulnerable to the slightest mistake by a car driver, and we always come off worst in a collision. Riding in traffic is at best at best intensely focused, at worst downright scary - but it can also be enormous fun on a bright spring morning, when the air is as crisp as fresh lettuce and the traffic is flowing smoothly, so you can slice through it without being baulked by lane-dodgers.

Are you ready for the negative comments?

Everybody and his auntie (especially his auntie) will bend your ear about how dangerous bikes are, and how inconsiderate you are to risk depriving your family of their breadwinner. They’ll retell horror stories of outlaw biker gangs and ask you if you want to project that kind of image.

They’ll conveniently forget that you don’t need to join a club to ride a motorcycle (fewer than half do) and in any case bikers are the most community-minded people there are, especially when it comes to children and animals.

Are you ready for a lifestyle change?

Commuting on a bike means wearing a bare minimum of protective gear – helmet, gloves, armoured jacket and boots that protect your ankles - and finding somewhere safe to put it while you’re at work. This is no problem if your normal workwear is jeans and a clean shirt, but can be an issue if your corporate uniform is made by Armani.

Fortunately bikewear manufacturers are aware of this; there’s a wide range of discreetly styled biker boots that won’t raise an eyebrow in the boardroom, while most scooters and and at least one motorcycle model have onboard storage for your helmet and gloves - and those that don’t can easily be fitted with a lockable top box for the purpose, if your work environment isn’t biker-friendly.

It’s also worth noting that most biker jackets these days are made of smart, hard-wearing textiles; the traditional leather ‘lummies’ are now too scarce and too expensive for everyday wear.

Are you ready to get wet?

And I mean soaked to the skin; commuting on a bike inevitably means riding in the rain - either in winter in the Cape or in summer in the rest of South Africa. No matter how expensive your brightly coloured rain-suit is, if you ride in heavy rain for more than half an hour you are going to arrive looking like a drowned rat.

You’ll need to carry spare pants, socks and underwear in a dustbin liner, and keep a guest-sized towel in your desk drawer at work.

Are you ready for the extra expense?

Motorcycles are expensive; a mid-sized commuter capable of carrying two people safely will cost about the same as an entry-level hatchback, and will use about the same amount of fuel; insuring them is even more expensive, because motorcycles wear their engineering on the outside and even a minor fall will result in huge insurance claim.

There’s a famous case of a luxury sports bike that was written off after a minor crash because the cost of the parts need for the repairs was more than half the insured value of the machine - even though the damage was so slight the bike would still pass a roadworthy inspection!

Are you ready to be stereotyped?

The rest of the world sees motorcycle riders (note that I’m not using the cliche’d term ‘biker’) as young, male and blue-collar, whereas the major demographic is in fact 35-49 and professional, with a rapidly growing percentage of women.

But nobody can see who you are under your helmet; to some car drivers you are not a real person, merely a cartoon image, so it doesn’t matter if they knock you down. Car drivers are often profoundly shocked when the helmet comes off and they realise they’ve injured somebody just like themselves.

But that cuts both ways; bikers are non-sexist, non-racist and non-ageist; it’s part of the deal, because your first impression of a rider is formed before you can see their gender, ethnicity or generation - sometimes with hilarious results! 

Are you ready to have a blast?

Motorcycling is a roller-coaster ride; commuting to work on a wet winter morning you’ll ask “What am I doing this to myself for?”, but at its best it’s the most fun you can have with your clothes on.

It’s the closest you can get to flying a fighter aircraft – with performance that will put any hot hatch to shame – and the physical pleasure of feeling the wind on your face, the sun on your shoulder, the slight prick of danger to sharpen your senses, makes this the realest thing you can do, the very antithesis of today’s virtual world.

Are you ready to be a biker?

This is perhaps the most insidious risk involved in commuting on two wheels; soon or later you will need a bigger scooter, or a mid-sized motorcycle so you can ferry a partner as well; then it’s a sports-tourer for Sunday morning rides, a group of like-minded friends and before you know it, you’re a weekend warrior with a patch on your patch that says “Road Captain”.

Resistance is futile; you will become a member of a world-wide brotherhood. Bikers wave to each other, they stop to help each other along the road, they make lots of noise and they pour enormous amounts of time, effort and money into charitable causes. What’s so bad about that?

IOL Motoring

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