There are few things more exhilarating than rocketing down a country lane on a motorcycle, the hum of a well-tuned machine in your ears, sunshine washing your face and the scent of a mown field in your nose.
If it’s the English countryside on a quality rented motorcycle – then, well, the warmth of that sunshine feels even more magical.
The place to reserve a rental motorcycle in the United Kingdom is Superbike Rental near Brentwood, Essex, about 20 miles northeast of London (phone: + 44(0)1277 366 602. Owners Mark and Trina Coventry run a bustling operation of about 40 bikes and cars, and are so accommodating, so detail-oriented, you come away wondering why can’t the rest of the world be like this?
The array of bikes Superbike rents is astonishing: BMWs, Ducatis, Hondas, Suzukis, (new) Triumphs, Harleys and Yamahas, and not just a couple, but a couple dozen. The bikes are new or late-model, from carbon-component brutes like the BMW S 1000 RR HP4 and the Honda CBR 1000 RR through an array of BMW touring machines down to gas-stingy 125cc machines.
The details of my rental: a 2013 BMW R1200 RT SE with 700 miles included was £700 for the week, or about $1,086 at an exchange rate of $1.55 per pound. It’s not cheap, but it’s far cheaper than anything you can rent in Europe, and it included all requisite insurance, with a £1,500 deductible. Extra miles are 15p. Receipts show I spent about $55 in gas.
The bike was spotless, just 2,000 miles on it, when I picked it up. It came with hard bags and top box, each with soft, zippered, woven-nylon portable liners and soft handles. The liners take up some space; but they more than compensate by making hotel transfers easy. The bike came with factory-detachable Motorrad satellite navigation, motorized windshield, adjustable ride, cruise control, luxurious touring seat, heated grips and individually controllable heating for front and pillion seats.
We picked up the bike on May 31 after taking the commuter train to Brentwood from London’s Liverpool Street Station. Superbike sent a pick-up van to the station to ferry us to their semi-rural location on Ongar Road. There, Mark had me fill out the final paperwork, checked me out on the differences in the machine’s controls from my 1994 R 1100 RS and gave us time to figure out which of our gear would fit into the bike’s bags. The rest we stored in a secure locker inside Superbike’s garage to await our return.
I’d driven rental cars in England, Scotland and Ireland several times but, truthfully, I had grown anxious in the final days of our London stay, worried about touring on a motorcycle on the left side of the with my wife, Barbara, on the back. Also on my mind: enduring the non-stop rain we had worried over, literally, for months.
For all of spring and throughout the week of our London stay, it had rained continuously. Although the two of us had all the cold-weather and rain gear we needed, any touring motorcyclist knows there is nothing more miserable than starting the day in the rain with a forecast of rain, rain and more rain in the days ahead.
But on this day, miraculously, the sky cleared, the weather was warm and the forecast for our week on the bike called for severe clear. Mark and Trina were as welcoming as the reviewers on the BMW owners’ site had led me to believe. Once we were packed, Mark offered to lead us on his own bike on the short ride to the ramp of the nearby M-11 motorway to ensure we were comfortable and competent. Then we pulled over, shook hands and parted ways.
As an old Bonneville rider, where the vibration-free sweet spot for the nuts, the bolts and the nut who holds the handlebars happens somewhere around 50 mph, I am not a fan of interstates, although I did once ride 1,000 miles in a single day and 1,700 across two days on a 1979 T140D. But that was about getting back to New Mexico from Pittsburgh after a badly planned tour through Maine lest I be fired from my job.
The plan after leaving Superbike Rental was for the first leg to be ridden on the M-11 to get out of London’s suburban traffic, past Stansted Airport, and up to the A-11 into East Anglia, facing minimal traffic conflicts or roundabouts. By the time we reached our hotel, the Maids Head Hotel in Norwich, I had grown used to the machine and comfortable with staying left and looking right.
The Maids Head, by the way, is a first-rate, full-service property with full English breakfast, a cozy hotel bar and, best of all, complimentary off-street parking. It’s within walking distance of the best Norwich pubs and restaurants, including great food and service at Jamie Oliver’s Italian. The people of the Maids Head were incredibly accommodating as we extended our stay first by a day and then by another because the town of Norwich had so much to offer (see my previous post on golf in East Anglia).
We had originally planned to take the bike by ferry to Calais and visit the D-Day beaches for Barbara’s birthday, which is June 6, but the truck-heavy slog down the Normandy Coast ultimately became less appealing than riding through dazzling English sunshine and brilliant yellow fields of blooming canola seed.
We stopped or stayed in the East Anglia towns of Cromer, Blakeney, Kings Lynn, Newmarket, Barnham Broom and Bury St. Edmunds. We put 504 miles on the bike – despite the fact that it didn’t move from the Maids Head car park for three days. Most of the trip was conducted at a comfortable 45 to 50 mph on two-lane secondary and tertiary roads.
On the way, we ran into several couples who approached us as we mounted or dismounted. Typically, the man spoke up, saying, “I used to ride BSAs, but she never liked it.” We soaked in the breezy sunshine of Cromer, where we ate seafood. We watched lawn bowling, which lasted half as long as the pre-bowling cocktail hour and team introductions. Outside Cromer, we toured a motorcycle museum loaded with Vincents.
In Norwich, we visited a pub bombed by the Germans during World War II and were served by young tattooed barmaid who said, “I forgive them, I guess.” We sat transfixed in a pub watching the drama of a dart championship. We collected pins during our pub crawls handed out as part of Norwich’s “City of Ales” festival. In fact, it seems there’s a festival of some sort in that town almost every month. Go Norwich!
This was a baby motorcycle tour compared to trips other Superbike renters have listed on the company’s testimonials page: tours the length of the U.K., throughout Europe and as far as the Middle East. But qualitatively, the trip on the Superbike Rental BMW was a delight – even when the bike tipped over during a U-turn and we couldn’t pick it up until a workman in a passing van hopped out and lent a hand. One Herculean tug from him, and the bike was upright. A shake of the hand and he was gone, almost before I could say thank you.
Perhaps the only flaw was of my own making. The GPS was pre-set to maximize use of motorways, while I was keen on dead-reckoning my way via the smallest paved roads I could navigate. So, when we encountered an unmarked village crossroad, when I consulted the GPS, it invariably sent me right back to the busiest road possible. Had I snapped to the need to access the device’s menu to change its settings, I could have eliminated this frustrating battle of man vs. computer.
The return at Superbike was as delightful as the departure. At the garage, Mark politely but thoroughly checked the bike for damage, checked the gas tank level and then we were done. We gathered and repacked our baggage. Superbike employee David, a retired Skoda dealer who confessed he just couldn’t stay retired, drove us back into Brentwood.
Rather than board a train back to London immediately, we checked into the Premier Inn, just two blocks from the train station. From a table at the pub next to the hotel, we people-watched the night away as the good folks of Essex came and went dressed as if it were prom night. The train ride the next day to London and onward to Heathrow was in brilliant sunshine, but we smugly noted as we boarded our British Airways flight, we smugly detected clouds building to the northeast.
A final note on Superbike. You really can’t reserve on a whim. You must commit to your dates well in advance to reserve your machine. Payment up front is required. Canceling because of weather or a change in plans can cost you dearly. A trip to France requires additional insurance. You’ll also be asked up front for a sizeable amount of documentation, including your passport number, a copy of your driver’s license, utility bills – an unnerving amount of information, actually, for anyone worried about identity theft.
But rest assured, Superbike is the real deal for real motorcyclists and the best start to seeing the U.K. on a motorcycle.
– Dan Vukelich