Another excellent day riding one-handed round the villages of Wiltshire while high-fiving local schoolchildren.
I didn't have to make the silly-o'clock start that I had to make last year as my start time was at a very civilised 11 am. I left home at 8 am, fuelled up and set off up the M4. It was a cold and wet day, but as it was the first really long ride on the Sprint I was keen to see how it performed, whatever the conditions. I stopped at Leigh Delamere services to kit the bike out with Union and Welsh flags, as I did last year:
My plan was to meet blog commenter Conniesdad on the airfield - basically, turn up and hit the phones until we made contact. In the end I rode right past him, as he was waiting for me at the entrance gate and had left me a voicemail to say that was where he would be. However, the iPhone, inaudible at the best of times, was in the bike's topbox and I didn't get the message until about five minutes ago.
In the end, I parked up and waited for him to arrive on his 'rather camp' (his words, not mine) teal-blue VTR Firestorm. It was a great-looking bike, and with his rather minimalist exhaust can, it sounded good too. Like a civilised Ducati, if that's not a contradiction in terms.
We had a chat and a burger and then our group was called. Of course, I was over by the bins getting rid of the coffee cups and couldn't find the bike in the crowd. Amazing how many red 955 Sprints you can find when you don't need them. I counted three before seeing Conniesdad's hand waving over to my left, guiding me back to the correct one.
Numbers were slightly down on last year. I think last year there were 10,000 bikes, and this year the BBC estimates 4,000, although it is too early for the final figures to be in. Guessing at one pillion passenger per three riders, that would mean £50-60,000 for the military charities that benefit from the ride. Not bad, all in all.
This will be the last Ride of Respect, as the fallen servicemen are no longer repatriated through RAF Lyneham. The repatriations were moved to RAF Brize Norton some time ago, but apparently the organisation of this year's event was too far gone to cancel, so the Police agreed it could go ahead. The purpose of the ride is threefold: to show respect for the servicemen killed or injured in their country's service and raise funds for military charities, to congratulate Royal Wootton Bassett on its 'promotion' from plain old WB, and to thank the people of the town for their extraordinary decency and dignity in lining the streets to mark the return of the fallen, at a time when the government of the country seemed to be turning its back on them.
I waved goodbye to Conniesdad at the end of the ride, and watched him do a cheeky snap overtake of a white van before turning the Sprint's nose towards home. It was good to meet up, and we established during conversation that this was the first time I had met one of my blog readers 'in the flesh'. All those friends I have never met! (There is one regular commenter that I have known for 40 years and even shared a house with, and he knows who he is, but that sort of doesn't count.)
An unremarkable ride home along the M4 on drier roads ended the day. I was very pleased with the way the bike performed. I kept the speeds sensible - cruising at 85 or 90 (that's in kph if any policemen are reading this) and the bike achieved just over 50 mpg. That's just a little less than the XT returns, for speeds half as fast again and a lot less drama. I had a slight ache in my wrists and forearms for the last 50 miles, probably down to the fact that I am not used to the leaning-forward position yet. But the double-bubble screen gives a quiet and non-blustery ride, the fairing keeps the worst of the wind and weather off, and the riding position is way less cramped than the Bonnie's was. My knees didn't trouble me at all today - last year, I could hardly walk after two hours on the Bonnie. Changing to the Sprint was a good move.
All the magazines rave about the Triumph triple engine, both in 955 and 1050 manifestations. I can see why. It's very eager, and has more power than I can safely use. There is useable power from 2000 rpm onwards, so you can be lazy about changing gears, but dropping two and letting it howl to the redline is quite addictive. Cruising at 80 sees the engine turning at 4500 rpm, which is just less than half the maximum on the dial, so it feels unstressed but still lively. It just wants to keep going, which makes for a relaxing and fatigue-free ride. Apart from the slight ache in the arms, I got off after 300+ miles feeling as fresh as a daisy.
Not only was this an opportunity to do a bit of bonding with the bike (it has spent most of the 7 months I have had it in the garage, as the XT is still my daily hassle-free choice, and I have only ridden it about 2500 miles), but also I got to find out the results of my mechanical playtime over the last few weeks, when I replaced the head bearings, refreshed the forks, and fitted new pads to the front brakes. One, nothing fell off, which is always the first definition of successful spannering. Two, the bike now steers as sweetly as it did when new - I can't believe how I dared to ride it in the condition it was in before. And three, EBC HH pads have transformed the braking from 'fairly good' to 'bloody hell!'. A two-finger squeeze on the lever stands the bike on its nose, just like the comics said it should.
Oh, and I have finally found a place to put the 'Team Bike' sticker that I have had hanging around for a couple of years. It was free with an edition of the magazine back in the mid-70s (I remember getting one, and then losing it) and I found this one in a pile of old magazines that someone was throwing away a few years ago. I also have a 'GB' sticker with 'Bike Magazine - Invasion Force' on it, but I couldn 't find anywhere on the Sprint's slim and shapely arse that would take it. Maybe another day.