Protest Run to Brussels
MAG takes to the streets
What did I say to you when we left the ferry ? I asked a disinterested Pete Walker as he plucked a cigarette pack from his bomber jacket pocket. He lit a Marlborough and viewed me with characteristic snake-eyed nonchalance through a rising cloud of smoke. 'What's the matter with you?' he enquired in his lethargic Cod-Head drawl.
'Speed,' I said with some emphasis, pointing at him with schoolmasterly reproof, 'too fast by far, I thought we agreed, no going fast.'
'We never did over 60 protested Pete, who'd been leading on his GPS-equipped GS1200. He lied like a flat fish. I'd seen the needle top 70mph for extended periods during which my visor had swivelled downward, pressing my nose flat and obstructing my breathing as we sped down the E40 from Zeebrugge to the Belgium capital.
Against this frenzy of manic velocity I'd managed to sustain my morale by humming the theme tune to 663 Squadron interspersed with the Flight of the Valkyries while clinging limpet like to the bars as we rocketed through the chill early morning air on a slightly damp arrow straight Belgian motorway.
Slanging match over, we settled into comfy chairs for a caffeine injection while Dave Elrick complained about everything Belgian which bores him.
'I'm bored' he said, 'I'm so bored I've been trying to stay awake by counting boring things, I've counted 135 boring things since we left the ferry. On special days round here do you know what they do for fun?'
'They gather round a bacon slicer and watch it working.' He knows a thing or two does Dave.
Two coffees later we were back up to warp factor 9, topping 70mph in a kaleidoscopic blur of truck overtakes as I vigorously hummed the Dambusters - absolute madness!
And so into Brussels and fifteen GPS - advised U turns later the chrome spheres of the Atomium loomed into view. An outrider from MAG Belgium picked us up here and led us to the meeting place where we ran into a BMF contingent and a reporter from Radio 4 who recorded my views on the issue we were here to protest about.
The licensing proposals were never going to excite the kind of mass protests prompted by the power limit or leg protectors since they won't directly affect those who already have licenses.
As a body which defends the long term interests of motorcyclists however, MAG has a duty to champion this cause. Both the issue and our response to it, do however have implications for the rider lobby in a general sense.
Firstly - bad legislation should be opposed whether it affects this generation of riders or not. Politicians should be able to justify their laws in the face of scrutiny before they enact them and it could save us all a great deal of trouble if they would recognise that responsibility. The series of hoops and hurdles that the proposals will require new riders to negotiate will undoubtedly depress the number of new people coming into motorcycling and our view is that they are ill thought out and undesirable. Statistics indicate that high accidents rates are associated with the first year or two of motorcycle ownership. It makes little or no difference whether the new rider is 17 or 30, inexperience is the critical factor not the age at which that experience begins. Why do the Eurocrats not recognise this point when it has been put to them? The answer is that the mentality of people whose lives revolve around creating legislation is that they tend to think in terms of creating or amending legislation as the solution to all problems, leaving well alone is simply not an option. The other great driver of this madness is the holy grail of harmonisation which is viewed as a natural good for all progressive Europeans, to be challenged only by luddites with a prehistoric attachment to quaint national identities.
Back in the real world, what is clear is that these clowns have concocted a crock of shit that will serve no-one's interests besides those of the car manufacturers.
Besides the naive who genuinely believe that the restrictions proposed will save lives there is a school of thought resting on a crude agenda and that is to get people off bikes and the best way to do that is to stop them getting on two wheels in the first place.
While we don't agree that this package of measures offers any road safety benefits for riders at all, the debate raises an interesting and thought provoking challenge. Where should road safety lie in our agenda? As far as MAG is concerned it certainly is not at the top of our priority list.
MAG is a rights organisation, conceived to restore and protect the liberties of the open road first and foremost.
For governments, road safety may enjoy a higher priority but it should not be above the greater safety of the nation or the human race.
People can still make individual choices about what transport they use, they can't make individual choices about sea levels, and the ocean respects no-one's views.
Road safety is not the biggest issue. If you think you hear the death cries of a sacred cow here, you're right. The safety of the environment on which we all depend for our survival is the big issue and any short sighted politician who can't see that isn't fit to hold office. To be absolutely brutally blunt about this, we can live with road accidents, we can't live under water, as the citizens of New Orleans will testify. The love affair with the car has to end and by obstructing access to motorcycles the European Commission will drive millions more young people straight into cars with all the increased congestion and CO2 emissions which that choice entails. This is what I told the Radio 4 reporter, and I accused the Eurocrats who have concocted these proposals of gross irresponsibility. That is a message on which we have to turn up the volume. By extending the argument in this way we put the Eurocrats on the back foot. Instead of enjoying the smug luxury of being the responsible exponents of safety they must defend themselves against a charge of endangering us all for promoting modal shifts that will increase CO2 emissions.
The power of demos
Many people question the usefulness of demonstrations. Some will point to the fact that the parliament wasn't even sitting the day we rode by as if that is somehow relevant. Let us revisit this old chestnut.
Demonstrations do not, in isolation, change laws, they are part of a campaign strategy that includes, emails, letters, personal visits and direct involvement in the decision making process via committees.
It is helpful however to remind politicians that the people from our lobby represent a groundswell of concern and so if a demo attracts media attention then it achieves this objective. Many MEPs vote in a rubber-stamping fashion on issues that have barely attracted their attention. Against the ocean of political issues, motorcycling concerns are a mere gold fish bowl which may not attract one iota of interest from the majority of politicians and it's important to understand this. An elephant can step on an ant without an ounce of malice and never be aware of it but if ants could roar like lions they'd enjoy a lower mortality rate.
Rest assured, there is most definitely value in the adage that he who shouts loudest gets heard.
In gauging public concern on an issue, politicians interpret every letter as reflecting the views of at least 100 voters. For every voter who gets on a motorcycle, crosses the sea, and rides several hundred miles at great expense to make a point, that factor rises to at least 1000. Now there will never be a shortage of cynics eager to defend their own idleness by questioning the value of efforts like the Brussels run - sod 'em. Everyone who made the run to Brussels should give themselves a king-sized slap on the back for voting in the most emphatic way for the defence of motorcycling and the defence of common sense. Thank you all for making that commitment.
Meanwhile Swindon MAG members were bringing up the rear in 600 miles round trip to protect the interests of future bikers. Let's hope they're grateful.
Six am found us sitting in the dark at Coate Water petrol station waiting for a couple of late sleepy heads. I had been wondering what the Hell I was getting up that time of the morning to ride six hundred miles for a demo' against a set of proposals that (being a full licence holder) would never affect me anyway. Somewhere along the M4 with the sun just coming up, the big vee twin crackling away at about eighty, Julie behind me on the pillion and a bunch of good mates peeling away into the near distance ahead I knew exactly why I was doing what I was doing. Julie knows the point at which this happened as she reckons I just leant back and squeezed her knee...sometimes we just need reminding of what we're fighting for. About half seven we rolled into Clackett Lane to fill up before the last section of motorway to the ferry, everybody seemed to forget that we were behind schedule and disappeared for coffees, breakfasts, room for the night etc. so it was over half an hour before we hit the road again. But hit it we did...and rolled along a fairly empty road gloriously lit by the early morning sun.
Boarding the ferry was the usual formality but we investigated the option of upgrading our day returns to allow us to camp overnight in Belgium. Unfortunately P&O wanted a further forty pounds each so we declined, meaning that we had to be on the eight thirty sailing that evening. On the advice of the young lady at the enquiries desk we hurried over to the boarding point only to be told that they couldn't fit us on the ferry that was just leaving and that we would have to wait for the next one. Oh well, never mind. Time for a cup of coffee we thought. Except while waiting in the coffee queue they started to load the bikes...however once on board there's a chance to relax for an hour and a half.
Our arrival time gave us about thirty minutes to cover the one hundred and twenty or so miles to the Atomium at Brussels. Good job two of us were on Harleys then.
Disembark at Calais and John took the lead on his Superglide setting up a cracking pace that soon saw us overhauling most of the cars and other 'bikes that had left the ferry before us. Hmmm...I'll write that again. Two hours later we were at the Atomium. Us, that is a few members of Swindon MAG. Some tourists. A lot of Belgians. No other bikes. No demo'. We'd missed it!
Over the next quarter of an hour or so most of the 'bikes we'd overtaken started to turn up. We all looked at each other in various states of bemusement then a sort of agreement was reached on riding to the Euro Parliament building. We all tucked in behind a bloke on a Pan-Euro who said he'd worked locally and if we couldn't find the demo' he at least knew a couple of good bars or maybe a lap dancing joint!
Somehow whilst blatting through the centre of the city causing mayhem and more than a couple of double takes, we managed to get split up. Apparently some of our crowd had their own little demo' outside the EU Buildings. Eventually we ended up with our original group at the services on the E40. Now, continental services aren't like our beloved British institutions with their overpriced crap food, sullen staff, and preponderance of "Do not" regulations (you know, "Do not smoke", "Do not breathe", "No sex on the tables" etc.). So it was we found ourselves sitting on a sunlit veranda sipping cold glasses of Leffe Biere, and munching on custard do-nuts. Very civilised.
After that we had a gentle run back to Calais, this was carried out at the same rate as the previous run but this time into a head wind! Some way from the port I was forced to slow down by a sudden torrential rainstorm. The rain was so heavy that I was quite honestly unable to breathe in it. I dropped back to about fiftyish, watching the others completely disappear into the spray and rode for the next few miles with my left hand over my nose and mouth trying desperately to deflect some of the rain from my face, all the while being overtaken by tour coaches and forty four tonners towing trailers. Admittedly though this was the only real bad weather of the run, and overall, conditions were far better than we had any right to expect this time of year. We caught up with the rest of the crowd just outside the terminal where they were comparing tales of leaking visors and waterproofs that weren't. Wimps! I don't know, in my day blah blah blah...
Shortly after that it was onto the ferry and relax with hot coffee and sticky carrot cake. There were quite a few other bikers on this crossing, some I recognised from earlier and some new faces, none of those I spoke to had actually made it to the demo' though. Some said they were too late, others that when they got to the Atomium there was no one there. So it wasn't just us.
We (Julie and I) decided to head back to John's place at Wycombe so we said our goodbyes and parted from the others at the petrol station in Dover. We later passed them on the M25 unaware that Alan's immobiliser had switched itself on and disabled his GPZ...oops. We arrived at John's at about midnight, relaxed with a bottle of beer and a bag of nuts then gratefully crawled off to bed.
Eighteen hours on the road, six hundred and thirty one miles - good crack - shame we missed the point of it all. Thanks to Motorcycle News for organising the discounted ferry tickets but can we have weekend returns, and a bit more notice next time please?
Oh, and finally, apparently the Brussels Police forced MAG Belgium to move the demo' assembly point right at the last moment causing untold problems for the marshals, and throwing a bit of a spanner in the works for those of us who arrived late.C'est la vie as they say over there.