First off… to explain… when you ‘pilot’ a sidecar you ‘drive’ it! Seriously, not ride!!! News to me when reading the info at the depot in Cape Town. Perhaps a bit of background...
Spannende Spritztour im Gespann - deutsch (pdf)
Several years ago I attended a ‘tourism expo’ at the International Convention Centre (ICC), where I met Tim, the owner of Cape Sidecar Adventures (CSA) and had a short friendly chat about his business. Cape Sidecar offers chauffeured tours around the Cape and its environs, ranging from two hours to a half- or full-day-tours.
Jumping forward over 4 years, we have relocated to Bloubergstrand across the bay from Cape Town. I made contact with Tim and a few days later was sat enjoying great coffee and a short chat at the depot. Well, he requires ‘drivers’, I in-turn have flexi-time so can always ‘make a plan’ to assist.
My first ‘drive’ took place with ‘Fannie’, all the sidecars have names. Ivan is my instructor, an old hand and regular driver for CSA. My orientation was spent on a quite service road a few kilometres from the depot. We swapped seats on arrival at this quite spot, he now in the sidecar and I in the ‘driver’s seat’. I almost instantly head for a tree… man… that was a weird experience! Everything in my being wants me to ‘ride’, riding requires counter-steering, which all riders do instinctively, whether they are aware of these inputs or not. Our time was somewhat limited, 25 minutes or so later I start to get the hang of the bike with the sidecar doing a few figure eights, turns, stops and gear changes. Drum brakes, 750cc flat twin, and very little road holding to speak of… it takes some getting used to!
Now… these bikes are very old (classic CJ750s). Their DNA harkens back to the 1938 BMW R71. The fleet consists of ex-Chinese red army bikes built in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The bikes are designed to carry three troops and about 100 kg of kit, light-weight and hardy. And now... very old…
A few days later I pitch up at the depot to continue orientation. Diana agrees to act as my ‘guinea pig’, a very brave lady indeed. Well, the bike does require a passenger to properly orientate myself after all... I decide to take the more difficult route of riding through the CBD of Cape Town, this assisted in getting in some good practice with the throttle, brakes, sidecars width and gear changes. My riding boots are not ideal for these gear changes, way to ridged, I’ll use plimsolls from now on (we call em takkies, South African colloquial for sneakers) much easier to feel the gear changes and rear brake. Riding through Camps Bay feeling a bit like a celebrity, the usual Saturday morning coffee shop and beach set throwing appreciative glances, the occasional wave or thumbs up. Onto the open stretch heading up towards Llandudno, we ‘speed’ along at 50 km/h … These bikes are not designed for speed but rather a practical military application, 50 km/h has never felt quite so fast. A quick few pics at a layby before heading back to the depot. Return trip uneventful, until the main fuse blows. As we head into a multiple exit roundabout, within a few kilometres of the depot, a motorist ahead of us decides to hit brakes in the wrong lane and shove himself across to the missed exit… I brake firmly, bike stops fine… but now dead! Diana directs traffic around ‘Fannie’, who is now stuck in the circle. Fortunately, I remember Ivan’s comprehensive orientation and mention of the spare fuses. We fire her up within a few minutes and back to the depot. My thoughts when riding back home on my bike are twofold: (1) Modern bikes make riding so bloody easy and, (2) What a unique privilege to experience this piece of motorcycling history.
I asked Diana what the ride was like from the perspective of the passenger (because in a sidecar, you are a passenger, not pillion). She said it was “unlike anything she had ever experienced before”. When questioned a bit further, she gave me the following, more comprehensive review:
First, it was a bit scary. In the sidecar, the passenger is seated quite low to the ground, so driving in city traffic makes you feel surrounded by a sea of metal. The clunkiness of the ancient gear box and the reluctance, with which the brakes perform their duties, are some of ‘Fannie’s’ technical features that added to the novelty of the ride, sorry, drive. I got bumped around a little, and I could not help pressing my foot down hard whenever we needed to slow down or stop. But all was forgotten when we made our way along the coast. It was really pleasant to be able to lean back, enjoy the glorious views, and wave graciously at pedestrians and onlookers. The sidecar itself was surprisingly comfortable. The virtual absence of the suspension was more than outweighed by the softness of the seat. Despite it being a sunny day, the headwind was quite strong, especially as we hit the coastal road. So I was thankful for the rubber blanket that is fixed to the sidecar and provides shelter from the cool. Speaking of cool: While we had shown up with all our motorcycle gear, we decided to swap our contemporary crash helmets for the vintages leather caps and goggles that Cape Sidecar Adventures provides. After all, when you travel in a classic vehicle like ‘Fannie’, you want to make sure to also look the part.
Our little breakdown in the middle of the busy traffic circle only added to the distinctiveness of the day. Even though we were in-fact obstructing the flow of traffic, we got nothing but friendly waves, smiles and amused looks from the drivers avoiding Fannie’s somewhat sizeable rear end. When we got back into the depot, I could not believe more than two hours had passed since we had started our drive. We said good-bye to Fannie, promising her we would be back for more.
When in South Africa and especially in the Cape, make sure you look us up in order to facilitate this amazing experience. If on a motorcycle tour, it would be a grand idea to hook on such an experience when flying in or before flying home!!!
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