PART ONE: Here at Bike we like an adventure.
We like North America too. Put the two things together with a Suzuki Hayabusa and ex-editor John Westlake and only good things can happen...
Filtering is illegal in New York – it’s a ‘moving violation’ apparently – so I sit obediently in the morning traffic heading to Manhattan, peering down a tantalising gap bisecting the queue crawling along Interstate 495. Beneath me the Busa cooks my thighs while the sun bakes my back – it’s 26°C already and it’s only 7.30am. I look at the sat nav again: still eight miles to Wall Street, time to complete: 51 minutes. Sweat trickles down my back. Feck this. I pull out and the Busa purrs down the queue, both of us loving the 10mph breeze. Several of Bike’s American readers warned me some drivers hate lane splitting bikes so much so they pull over to squeeze gaps. Never one to ignore a stereotype, I suspect they’re all tooled up too so I decide to be more polite than usual.
No mirror twatting today. Progress is good though – I’m only trickling, but I’m the fastest thing heading through Long Island City this morning. Where are the flocks of banzai scooters and all the other bikes? I only see six bikes all day long. As ever, trucks are the filtering jokers in the commuting pack, their vast arses blocking potential gaps. But here there is more to think about than in the UK – some of them have 3in chromed spikes on top of their front wheel nuts. They’re like those scythed chariots gladiators used to tool about in. It’s yet another cracking American contradiction: on the one hand make it illegal for motorcycle riders to filter to keep the little lambs safe, on the other allow lorries to have death chariot wheels. Brilliant.
THE BIG IDEA
The plan: prove that you don’t need a soppy tourer to ride coast to coast across America. You can do it on the almighty Hayabusa. We hope.
The route: start in New York, head south west through Pennsylvania, Virginia and North Carolina to the Tail of the Dragon. Then head west across the southern states to Los Angeles. 3400 miles.
The bike: a brand new 1300cc Suzuki Hayabusa with Yoshimura pipes, a gel seat and touring screen.
And then I see Manhattan, floating on the Hudson river like a monumental raft, the skyline shrouded in early morning haze. It’s a vision. Who’d have thought the temple to global capitalism could be breathtakingly beautiful? I filter on, slack jawed, picking out the Empire State Building, still holding its own among a forest of anonymous upstarts. All that money, all that greed, all that power... and this morning Manhattan looks as serene and stately as a Giza pyramid. Then into the Queens Tunnel (the one where Will Smith drives along the ceiling in Men in Black) where I get stuck. It’s all but grid-locked and you’d struggle to get a CG125 through those gaps nevermind a Busa with a baby rhinoceros on the back (top luggage, but it looks like I’ve been poaching).
With nothing else to do beside sweat, I contemplate the day’s plan, which as of last night is a tad loose. The New York fashion photographer we’d hired has mysteriously disappeared, leaving me without a snapper or guide. Perhaps something serious has befallen this trendy young dandy, but I suspect a hangover, in which case I hope it makes his cock fall off. Oh well. I’ve plugged some landmarks into the sat nav (more difficult than it sounds due to Garmin not being aware of such oddities as the Empire State Building) and aim to ride the Busa next to as many as possible. Bylaws schmylaws.
Queens Tunnel eventually spews us into Manhattan where it’s not the modern skyscrapers that impress – London does them with far more imagination – but the 1930s equivalents which look like they were designed by the commercial arm of the architects who did Lincoln Cathedral. Vast stone edifices soar on either side of almost every avenue, some with curiously Gothic influences and others going for a more art deco look. They’re a mesmerizing mixture of handsome and awesome, much like the Busa (really – the locals love it). It’s difficult to concentrate on the architecture though because the roads are shocking, with vicious potholes and unfinished road works. Most evil are the manhole covers, some of which have sunk a good 6in into the road surface, enough to bottom the Busa’s forks out and smash my plums into next week.
Honestly, it makes the roads of London, Birmingham and Manchester look like sumptuous Alpine passes. Perhaps it’s the road quality that dictates the New York cars. As I get closer to the financial district the Busa is crowded by giant luxury 4x4s called Suburbans. They’re the size of a short wheelbase Merc Sprinter and make the occasional Range Rover look like a Golf. I peer into one at the lights and wave at the gorgeous orange woman with jewely fingers holding a jewely iphone to her jewely ear. She ignores me. This is New York baby. I should be thankful she didn’t shoot me.
Finally, the Wall Street bull sculpture hoves into view, surrounded by flocks of Japanese and Chinese tourists. It’s fenced in by angry road markings and some bollards but these are clearly to deter motorists. I weave through, park next to the bull and get my camera out before the armed response units arrive. Instead, a young woman with a huge teddy bear asks if she can sit on the bike and can I take a picture? Er, ok. Then a French man asks if I want him to take a picture of me with the teddy bear on the bike. Sure. Provided it won’t provoke an armed response unit, I’m up for anything. He suggests we move the Busa closer to the bull’s enormous bronze bollocks which his girlfriend is currently being photographed fondling, saying ‘it would be funny, no?’ Excellent idea. But there’s a big kerb in the way so we can’t.
While I’m chatting to my new friend I spot a police car approaching and assume our fun is over. The driver checks out the Busa and cruises by. Weird. Next stop, Times Square – New York’s Piccadilly Circus – at the intersection of Broadway and Seventh Avenue. Buoyed by my bull success I push the Busa across the pedestrianised square, past a crowd cheering some celebrity coming out of an ABC news interview and park up next to a neon American flag the size of four Suburbans. I get a few shots then two police women arrive. ‘You know this is totally illegal,’ says one. Not just illegal, but, like, totally illegal. I see. ‘Well, I guessed it was,’ I say sheepishly, using my best Hugh Grant voice, ‘but I wasn’t sure.’ ‘Please finish your photos and go.’ New York’s roads may be dreadful, but the cops are turning out to be extremely chilled.
‘This is New York baby. I should be thankful she didn’t shoot me’
Even with my lax grasp on New York’s geography I know the Empire State Building should be nearby, but the sat nav is taking me over the Brooklyn Bridge and beyond. I stop and check, but it definitely says it’s heading for Fifth Avenue. Intrigued, I keep going until it announces we’ve arrived at the location of the fifth tallest building in the USA, the 443m-tall Empire State Building. We are outside a two-storey Cat Clinic. Hmmmm. I surmise there are two Fifth Avenues and I may have selected the wrong one.
Back across Brooklyn Bridge, a gentle filter up Madison Avenue and down Broadway and I’ve had enough. To get more from New York without a guide I’d have to go on foot, which means dumping the Busa and my riding kit and I don’t want to risk it. Also, after a day of dawdling in 30°C heat, the Busa is becoming difficult to start when hot, as if the battery is flat. The temperature gauge has hardly moved from normal – itself deeply impressive – so perhaps the battery is boiling. Time for some speed. Or indeed not. The Holland tunnel should whisk us out of Manhattan and into New Jersey but it’s jammed solid with commuters. I sit trapped for 45 minutes, not wanting to switch the Busa off for fear it won’t start, so I get hotter and hotter. Eventually a gap opens up and I filter through, leaving the poor saps to stew.
I stop for petrol, can’t start the Busa, wait for 20 minutes for the battery to cool, then join the Pulaski Skyway, soaring 41m above the river for three miles. It’s the sixth most useless road in America apparently because of all the traffic jams on it, but it’s working well tonight and the view across the Passaic and Hackensack rivers has me weaving. With the sun in my eyes, a full tank of gas and 3000 miles ahead of me, I’m living the American dream on a Japanese headcase and couldn’t be happier. Next stop: the ‘best road in the world’, the Tail of the Dragon.