(2007) The Six-Mile Adventure

Zürich, March 23rd, 2007

It’s 32 Fahrenheit out there, with 4 inches of snow. Today must be the perfect day to have your motorcycle inspected at the DMV. The bike is almost six years old now, and they want to check whether it’s in good shape, safety-wise. I don’t think that they can be persuaded by telephone, so I might actually accept the invitation they sent me two months ago.

The streets don’t look that bad, and by the time I need to go, I think they will have cleaned it all up, those Swissies. Besides, my bike is parked in a garage at a main through road, so I bet they’ve cleaned that one already. I’ll go, and I’ll take one hour extra to get there.. if it’s not the snow that’s bothering me, it could be cages in traffic jams. A five-year old could have figured out that it’s not a good idea to let the freeway traffic plunge into the city directly, without any way to drive around it. Unfortuntately, five-year olds are not allowed to vote in this direct democracy. Anyway, instead of getting too political, I get dressed and head out.

The bike starts like a charm and I ride out of the garage to find a foot-high snowbank between myself and the road. Right.. the snow plows cleaned the road, but the snow had to go somewhere. Carefully, I drive through and I’m on my way. There is some snow on the road, but it’s melted to a slush and I keep my wheels in the tracks left by cars. That’s cars indeed, because no one in his right mind would ride a motorcycle in these weather conditions. At least, not for fun.

The fun, however, starts only a few miles later, where I encounter a traffic jam that’s moving along at walking speed. Normally I would split lanes, but there’s no margin for error in these conditions. Well, there is a margin actually, but it’s the bicycle lane on the right, which is covered in a quarter-inch layer of.. ice. No stress.. I’ve got plenty of time to enjoy myself in this wonderful traffic jam.

A couple of hundred feet later, I see that the left side of the road is also getting a bit too icy for my liking. As we come to a stop again, I notice the lack of grip under my boots. This is not good.. the icy surface starts two inches left and right of my feet. It’s snow that’s been packed to ice by the cars, who are now actually driving on ice with all their wheels. I imagine a billboard with a car ad, saying “New! Now with four-wheel slide!”. The thought that the road is not icy between the tracks is not very comforting. All I ‘need’ is a one-wheel slide, either back or front, to bring me down. Did I mention that my bike has no anti-lock brakes? What’s the difference anyway in a zero-grip situation?

I’m halfway now, and turning around is as stupid as moving on.. ‘Yes, I could park the bike, take a train back home and try another day’, I ponder, but I don’t find a good place to park, as the traffic jam resolves itself slowly. The situation improves a little over the next mile or two as I ride into town. Aargh, another traffic jam, and more ice on both sides of the road! Car drivers and their passengers give me odd looks. Rightfully, I have to agree. I’m used to those stares when I ride in cold weather, and I would also wave at them this time if I only dared to let go of the handlebars.

A lane change! Woohoo! That’s a no-brainer in any other weather condition, but today a lane change is a slush-ice-slush-ice-slush change. Add in a few slippery tram tracks and you can imagine my sheer enjoyment. The trams aren’t even driving and they have 24 wheels! Wussies!

Ah right, the DMV building is up there on the hill! And higher means colder! It’s only three-hundred-or-so feet, but today that can be the difference between grip and no grip. Plus, this street is apparently not important enough to be cleaned as frequently as the streets I’ve been riding on until now. ‘Captain Slow’, the nickname for Top Gear’s presenter James May, is the name I adopt as I am easing along at 2.5 miles per hour, with my face shield flipped up to see where the best traction is, hopefully. If I were the seemingly patient driver behind me, I would have developed a profound feeling of hatred against me by now. Riding — if you can call it that — on this day clearly isn’t one of my best ideas so far.

Ok, I’m almost there. I need to turn left at the last intersection. For the first time in my life I am pleased with a red traffic light, as it gives me some time to scrutinize the road surface and find the best path between banks of snow and the tram tracks. “Oh cock!”, I say with my best British accent, when I find out that there’s no way to reach the DMV premises directly without crossing a snow bank that is as high as my front wheel. It’s really bad up here, but there’s also no way that I am going to park my bike here, and tell them DMV guys to “go get it” across the street. I’ve come all the way and I will not stop before I either park my bike in their inspection lane, or drop it on its side here in the snow, whichever comes first.

I don’t turn left at the intersection, but use a U-turn bus lane a hundred feet ahead. There are big lumps of packed snow here, and I literally inch along, concentrating on which direction the rear wheel will slide every time I twist the throttle, so I can catch the bike. Needless to say, my heart is beating at twice its couch-potato rate, which I can tell from the pounding in my ears.

Why didn’t I have knobby tires with spikes mounted last week? They would definitely come in handy now! I know they’d look silly on a sport-touring bike, but not as silly as my pathetic attempts to make this darn U-turn. A friend’s wife once called me “a skier” when she caught me riding with two feet off the footpegs, which complicates keeping the bike balanced. Right now, my feet are all the balance I can get on my Japanese snow scooter. While waiting for another red light, I figure I’d do a grip check. I engage the front brake and nudge the bike. Have you ever moved your motorcycle three inches forward with your crotch? I have! Grip check completed.

One right turn and a slushy downward slope later, I stand in front of the drive-through reception booth. It’s 9:05am. Swiss manners of punctuality must have rubbed off on me by now, because that’s exactly the time of my appointment. The lady in the booth gives me a quizzed look as if she’s wondering where the rest of my car is. In ANY weather, baby! Although embarking on this adventure an hour ago was a very stupid thing to do, this triumph gives me a warm and fuzzy feeling inside. I think it will take a bit longer for my half-frozen clutch hand to thaw this way, though.

I’ve made it to the indoor inspection lane in one piece. The inspector tells me, superfluously, that I am not obliged to be there in this weather. Well, thank you! He and his colleague check the bike. The test ride that they normally perform outside is now even shorter because it’s done inside. I take pleasure in seeing how Shorty tries to maneuver my bike out of a tight spot. At the same time, I hope he doesn’t drop it on this deceptively grippy concrete floor. The bike, including its steel-braided brake lines and aftermarket suspension is approved! I told you so!!

So, now what? Ride home? Are you crazy? I think I’ve used my luck for today, and a fair portion of next week’s luck, too. I park the bike on a dry spot and take the bus home. I’ll pick it up later today if it gets above 40 degrees as they predicted. All right, I’m a quitter.. but a quitter with a shiny unscathed bike and a good story to tell.

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