Monday, December 13, 2010

Paris by Wing


Just touched down at Paris Charles de Gaulle airport, and having secured an over-priced coffee and croissant your intrepid reporter goes in search of transport to the city.

There, framed in the doorway from the arrivals lounge, a suave local proffers his card: "motorcycle taxi". In halting English, the raffish blade echoes the cards dangerous message: "motorcycle taxi?".

I think I was in, from the part about the motorcycle.

Right outside the door to the terminal, in the dedicated motorcycle parking are not one, but four Honda Goldwings. The presence of the 'wing - the flagship of japanese motorcycle touring and a princely investment for most motorcyclists - in these numbers indicates not just some lone wild entrepreneur in the niche market of one-up travelling light passenger transport.

Turns out its a local custom.

I was interested to see how this could possibly work, with my roll-aboard and laptop bag, but now I started to see that all the issues had been worked out.

Next to me a gallic-looking gentleman off the same flight was loading his considerably larger suitcase on to the luggage rack of an already running 'wing. I had always thought those things were just for decoration - but with some webbing (ocky straps to you Aussies) and a few deft twists the top-heavy looking load was secured and they were off.

While my driver - errr rider - was at the handle-bar mounted GPS punching in the address of my hotel I donned the thick jacket, gloves and helmet. My laptop bag fitted easily in one of the capacious panniers.

Hmm - what was I thinking, part of me said, thinking now of how the pilot on the plane had announced -1 degree celsius temperatures on the ground in Paris as we landed.

No problem - not only did the 'wing turn out to have a heated rear seat, but it was also fitted with a nifty windbarrier for the rear-passenger. Secured to the bike down the frame where the passengers legs go, and then over the seat, this heavy-duty gore-tex style piece of kit effectively covered the whole lower half of my body once on the bike. Nice and toasty!

In a minute or two we were off. I soon saw what the attraction of the bike taxi was for the locals - dealing with the congestion on the motorways, in classic European driving style.

If you've ever been a rider, you'll know what lane splitting is. Also called filtering, or sharing, the practise is a bit hair-raising when you first try it, in the relatively safe slowness of stop-go traffic. There's a little thrill of the slightly illicit, when you cruise between stopped cars to take up a position on the front of the grid at traffic lights. Narrow waisted sport bikes, and scooters are ideal at this sort of thing.

Now take that, and multiply it by 1000.

You have a Honda Goldwing - six cylinder highway beast, at least a meter wide, plus mirrors, travelling along at 100 kpm (that's about 60 miles per hour) between cars and trucks with an inch to spare.

Strangely I was not scared. Dumb-founded. Amazed. Didn't have time for scared.

How the hell was he doing it? Without us dying?

At one point we passed a large Fiat van on one side, and on the other a Citroen was backed over as far as it could toward the barrier and as the 'wing passed thru a gap that I didn't think was there a "clack!" annouced that we'd tipped something against the van on the way through.

I think in engineering circles they call that an interference fit.

It was a feat that was being accomplished in equal parts by skill and split-second judgement, by some sort of Nietzsche-esque nihilism, and by a lot of co-operation with other Parisian road-users.

After we'd been on the choked up highway for some time, I noticed that my rider had both blinkers going, and was using his headlight to flash traffic in the fast lane. I say "fast lane" tho' the traffic was doing around 50 kph in the congestion - but we were doing twice that. Occasionally he would use his horn when the expected gap didn't open up.

Most motorists were completely aware of what the light show coming up behind meant - in the fast lane (the left most lane in Europe) cars would hop to the left, and the next lane over they'd squeeze a little to the right.

The pilot of the 'wing would gun the big six and surge thru just as the gap opened up.

The fact that I'm typing this is a testament to the fact that I survived.

I'm still not sure how.

But I want to do it again anyway.

Vive la différence!