Like most motorcyclists, I don't like riding on the back of a bike. In fact, I outright hate it. Maybe it's because, after years of two-wheeling, we've seen the damage even a minor riding error can wreak. Perhaps it's that we've seen enough rubes who claim to be competent bikers to seriously question licensing standards. Or maybe it's just because all motorcyclists are control freaks, the reason that we love biking so much is that we are in command of our two-wheeled adventure against nature, tarmac and ill-piloted automobiles.
Whatever the case, I haven't been on the back of a bike in … well, to be honest, it's been so long since I've ridden pillion that I've completely forgotten the circumstances. And until recently, I couldn't imagine what circumstance would ever entice me onto the back of a bike again.
Until I met Parisian traffic. Rush hour in Paris is to understand automotive paralysis first-hand. Narrow streets, an absolute maze for a roadway system and the typical Gallic propensity to never give an inch, even when it's in your best interest, results in traffic where the horn sees more use than the accelerator. In other words, if you absolutely, positively need to be on the other side of town quickly, you'd better own a helicopter.
Or ring up a motorcycle taxi. Here, in Paris, where traffic makes Sheikh Zayed Road seem postively free-flowing, motorcycle taxis proliferate. Traffic in Paris is indeed so congested that the locals would rather sit on the back of a motorcycle, yes often in their business suit or very stylish jupe, rather than face what is the slowest traffic crawl in the entire developed world.
The advantage is obvious; while four-wheeled cabs idle in traffic, their two-wheeled competition squeezes and meanders through traffic like a hot knife through butter. My conducteur, Franck Bougaud, estimates that, while it takes a Renault about an hour to trickle from Orly Airport to downtown, his Honda Gold Wing (his company, La Francilienne du Taxi Moto, uses nothing but Wings) can do it in 20 minutes.
Speaking from experience, I can see how. It does take a couple of minutes to get suited up. Bougaud - and I assume other cabbies - hands over a helmet (with hairnet), a Gore-Tex jacket with armour and a state-of-the-art Spidi air bag vest (which he tethers to the bike; don't get off till he tells you to). There's even a bike-mounted, lined Gore-Tex blanket to protect your legs from the elements (and beskirted ladies' legs from prying eyes). But once ensconced in the hedonistic-by-two-wheel-standards confines of the Wing's rear seat, time, with Bougaud its master, flies.
The 20-year-veteran proves a masterful hand at wielding a fully laden Gold Wing on the cobblestones and alleyways of Paris. And, indeed, we arrive at my destination in half the time that it had taken a day earlier. Nor was the time savings a result of hare-brained riding. Bougaud was fairly conservative, generally taking no greater risks than I would have myself, although there were a couple of instances where I might not have levered between cars quite at Bougaud's speed.
It doesn't seem to bother Parisians. Although most of Bougaud's clientele is male, females now make up almost one quarter of his passengers, and the number is growing.
Still need further convincing that European motorcycling is mainstream? Unlike safety-obsessed North Americans, Parisians obviously value time over protective steel cocoons and creature comforts because, as Bougard happily writes out my receipt, I see that motorcycle taxis cost about 25 per cent more than the four-wheeled variety. And business is brisk.