The Journey

Charlie Bravo Foxtrot

Cheltenham Spa station

I had been up since 4 a.m., sick to my stomach from nerves. Now, as the train pulled into the station, I was physically shaking with… well, a little bit of everything. Nerves, anxiety, excitement, fear, panic. I thought of the Bad Mod 2 Day. I hadn’t slept well before on that day, either. My stomach had played hell on me in that way of dramatically lowering one’s standards for restroom cleanliness.

The public toilets in Briton Ferry, Wales, on a freezing-cold day. That is when you are reaching the lowest of the low, mis amigos. No no doors and not likely cleaned but once a year. It was like being in a Montana anti-meth ad. Actually, it was a bit worse because the lights didn’t work.
“This isn’t that day, though,” I told myself. “With the exception of just one similarity –– beyond the similarities that exist in all your experiences, i.e., the fact you are a part of them –– this day is wholly different.”
Indeed, Cheltenham, some 70 miles from Penarth, is in England and is gloriously unlike Swansea in almost every way. The weather today was perfect: sunny and about as warm as it ever gets in Britain. And no one was going to test me. The only thing tying the two experiences was the fact a motorcycle was involved.
Things had fallen together so quickly in the week or so prior. The full story of how I got to this point is an improbable tale I’ll save for a future post but the basic gist is this: through incredible luck, the immense kindness of others and hard work, an opportunity to get a bike presented itself. Last week, a possible bike became available, a flurry of emails and phone calls ensued, and now I was stepping out onto the platform of Cheltenham Spa station.
My bag, loaded with helmet, gloves, and Corcoran boots, was slung over my shoulder. I checked the map on my phone and started the 2-mile walk to Pittville Motorcycles. Cheltenham is a nice town; I had never been there and enjoyed wandering its tree-lined streets. It served as another stark contrast to the Bad Mod 2 Day and by the time I reached the shop I was feeling better.

I had only seen pictures of the bike: four basic shots, each only showing the side of the bike, and none so close that I could work out minute details like tiny scratches, corrosion or rust. I had decided to prepare myself for the worst, though this went against an optimism I felt from the fact Pittville Motorcycles has been in business for more than 30 years, serving as the only authorised Honda dealer in Cheltenham.

I know I sound like I’m pitching for Honda here, but their dealer network has a pretty good reputation. There is a certain standard one expects from a motorcycle shop that carries that label. And on top of that, as I walked through Cheltenham I got the feeling that it’s a town of the sort that wouldn’t sustain a dodgy motorcycle shop for three decades.

Once I got to the shop, this optimism turned out to be well-founded. The bike was perfect. Well, far more perfect than any other vehicle I’ve ever bought. It was a 2006 Honda CBF600SA (1), with anti-lock brakes and only 8,000 miles on the clock. For a first bike you really wouldn’t want to get any newer. Walking in and seeing the bike in the flesh I felt a little weak in the knees.

I decided to go with it and dropped down to the floor, instantly deciding I would thoroughly inspect the bike. Brakes: good. Frame: tiny (and I do mean tiny) spot of rust on the swing arm but otherwise spotless. Fluid levels: good and with a shiny new oil filter. Tires: practically new set of Bridgestone Battlax. Bodywork and seat: immaculate. Engine: clean and rust free. Reasonable amount of blue on the exhausts and that was it.

Richard, who is general manager of Pittville Motorcycles, came over and introduced himself. He got the keys and I went through the process of making every check I could possibly think of relating to electricals. Again, everything was ideal. I was feeling I had stepped into a kind of dream world. I mean, really? I was going to be riding back to Penarth on this thing? Surely there’s been some kind of mistake.

Indeed, my adrenaline was now pumping and somewhere in the back of my brain I started to feel like I was getting away with something –– an Ocean’s 11 style heist. Just keep it together, man. Stay cool. Don’t let them know you’re not really the king of Prussia. Just roll with this and get the hell out with the bike before they get wise.

Oh, CBF600. I heart you.

Then out onto the road to take the bike for a spin. Yup. It did what a CBF600 does. I had trained on older models that were sans-fairing and sans ABS, but hadn’t expected any major differences in the ride. No surprises; which is good. If anything, this bike was just a tad more comfortable. The fairing gave me a greater feeling of presence and kept some of the wind off me. Add to this the fact the gearbox was, of course, smoother than an old training bike that’s been dropped a million times.

Also, Richard had adjusted the seat to its highest point which meant my leg wasn’t as cramped as it had been on the training bikes. The bike felt familiar, but at the same time better. I think the seating position on the SA is just a little different. It’s difficult to describe but this bike feels less harried. Maybe that’s the fairing; maybe it’s the smoother gear box; maybe it’s the slightly higher seat; maybe it’s the fact I no longer have a motorcycle instructor shouting over a radio when I ride. Whatever it is, I like it. It feels right. Like, really right.

Notice that in the above sentence the tense when referring to the bike suddenly switches from the past to the present. Because you know I wanted that machine. My mind was jumping. Several hours later Jenn, who used to manage a somewhat famous rock band and would therefore know about such things, said my excitement was causing me to act like I was high on cocaine. Goodness knows what I must have been like back at Pittville Motorcycles.

The staff there must get that all the time: day after day of wild-eyed boys and girls coming in to make a dream come true. We got to work on all the paperwork –– setting up insurance and road tax and filling out ownership forms –– then Richard and David, one of the mechanics, took the time to sit down and go through every detail of the bike with me. This does this. This is how you do this. To make this work, turn it it this way. OK, now you try.

And so on. I didn’t feel patronised in any way and because of that felt comfortable asking all kinds of really stupid additional questions, like: “So, uhm, how do you oil the chain?”

Finally, they helped me secure my bag –– now loaded with my street clothes and a helmet for Jenn –– to the back of the bike and wheeled it out to the front.

“Ride safe back to Wales, mate,” Richard said, shaking my hand.

He stepped away and disappeared back into the shop, leaving me with just my thoughts, my new bike and a 70-mile road trip ahead of me.

To be continued…


(1) Honestly, Honda, what’s wrong with giving a bike an actual name?