There are lots of speed cameras around Stuttgart. They take reasonably good black and white photos – of which I am frequently the subject. My girls have a laugh when another letter is delivered. I have a habit of stroking my chin like a pretentious lecturer when driving and this has been immortalized on film a few times. I am usually not speeding by too much and am proud to say I have no points on my licence but the cameras are everywhere and I struggle to keep track of the ever-changing speed limits.
The latest camera to catch me out was on my regular route back home from work in Stuttgart. I know where it is and usually treat it as a sort of starting line. It’s on a bit of dual carriageway just as you leave the city and directly after the camera are a series of uphill s-bends which are just begging to be driven “properly”. Everyone knows where the camera is, and so we trundle along at 50 km/h and then put the foot down before attacking the first right-hand bend. Quite often I am alongside somebody and wonder how they are going to drive – steady, to be left at the first bend or “giving it some wellie” and trying to look calm while battling for position. Around Easter, at the start of the lockdown, I was heading home from work and approaching the aforementioned camera when everybody seemed to be going extra-slowly. I pulled out and passed the slowcoaches in front and took the speedo up to 53 km/h (there’s a 3 km/h tolerance) only to be dazzled by the flash of the camera going off in my face. I assumed I had only just tripped the camera and probably wouldn’t get a fine. Wrong. Last week the post arrived, and I was fined 15 Euros for being 10 km/h over the speed limit. I later learned that they had reduced the speed limit to 40 km/h two weeks earlier. I consider this to be grossly unfair. Germans have mastered the art of making their cars sound quiet and feeling slow even when they are going fast. Doing 40 km/h on a dual carriageway requires almost super-human self-control.
The reduction of speed limits is a bit of trend at the moment. We had a big political discussion about whether to put an end to the unlimited Autobahn sections last year, but in the end the motor lobby won, so we can still drive as fast as we want on certain sections of the Autobahn. Perhaps miffed at not getting a national speed limit, the towns and cities now seem to be the target. More and more residential areas have a 30 km/h limit and in parts of Böblingen we are only allowed to travel at 20 km/h. There are lots of led signs around with sad red smiley faces if you are exceeding the speed limit which switch to happy green faces if you dip below the limit. Trying to get below 20 is a real challenge – especially with hordes of e-bikers in your rearview mirror gesticulating for you to unblock the road. In the almost 30 years since I moved here, driving has become more and more restricted and less and less fun. The trend looks likely to continue.
Fortunately, I have an escape route – the motorcycle. Until now the speed cameras nearly always take pictures from the front, so motorcyclists are very unlikely to get caught (no licence plate). I may have inadvertently crept above the speed limit occasionally on my bike, but I have never received a speeding ticket. In reality, I probably don’t actually speed that much on a motorbike. Unlike in a car, you feel the speed more intensely and it’s not much fun doing more than 120 km/h on a bike with no fairing anyway.
I have been out a few times during lockdown. My house is about 20 minutes from the northern edge of the black forest and there are some great windy roads to explore there. Motorcycling is a friendly and I think slightly more relaxed pastime than back in England. The best-selling bike here is the BMW GS tourer which is a brilliant jack-of-all-trades even if it is very large and very ugly. Sport bikes sell in relatively small numbers because people prefer touring to racing I suppose. I have a Ducati naked bike (so-called as it has no fairing) which doesn’t go very fast in a straight line but likes corners – which is for me the best part of motorcycling anyway. When we find a nice curvy stretch of road I am not the fastest but can push on in a reasonably competent manner. I did come off once when I misjudged a corner in the alps and ended up at full-lean with my front wheel on the grass verge. It was an unspectacular “off” but I have a good excuse – I was trying to keep up with my brother who went on to be an Isle of Man TT Racer.
I did have one spectacularly embarrassing moment with a motorbike when I used to live in Bavaria. I had a flat in a quiet village where a lot of the neighbours were elderly retirees or had their second homes there. It was by a lake and I don’t think they appreciated me coming and going at all hours. In summer, I used to get up at 5 am and head into the Alps for an early morning tour of some Austrian passes. The roads were empty and I would be back at 8 for breakfast having had a great start to the day. By this time the neighbours would be out on their balconies in vests and sandals giving me disapproving looks. Once, I was loading up my bike for a week’s tour and had my luggage laid out on the drive. There is an art to loading a motorbike for a long tour and I was taking my time to make sure everything was neat and stowed so it wouldn’t flap. The final touch was covering everything with a bungee-net which had eight clips and kept everything nicely compact. I hooked 4 clips onto one side of the bike and walked around to the other side. Then I pulled on the bungee net to get it nice and tight. Unfortunately I used a little too much strength and pulled the bike slightly upright so that the stand (which was on the other side) flipped up. This gave me a start so I released the bungee net slightly. This wasn’t a good idea because the bike now tipped away from me – with no stand to support it. If you want to stop a fully-tanked and loaded 200 kg motorcycle from tipping over it is best not to use something which is very stretchy – such as a bungee net. Gravity and physics took over and, in slow motion, the bike tipped away from me. It slowly pulled me over as well and, as I didn’t dare let go of the bungee net, I couldn’t even put my hands out to break the fall. I ended up sprawled over the back wheel of the bike watching petrol dripping out of the just-filled-to-the-brim tank. I’ve blanked out the aftermath, but I imagine my neighbours were delighted.
My new bike no-longer has a spring-loaded stand and I haven’t dropped it so far. Fingers crossed. I could be out riding every day at the moment but I’ve also discovered something else about motorcycling. It’s not as much fun if you’ve got nobody to ride with and nowhere to go. Luckily for me, Ariane is doing her bike licence at the moment and the riding school opens again next week. If all goes well we will be able to escape together in the post-lockdown world. And if the lockdown continues, well at least there won’t be much traffic around and I’ll have some company.
One last thing. Now that my readership is in double-figures I am enjoying the glow of stardom. Please leave comments or likes by clicking on the links below – it motivates me to keep writing. Of course if you’d rather I stop, then don’t leave any comments.