The Virgin Demon…
Damian works for Virgin Limobike during the week, but on weekends, you could find him jetting off to some international circuit. There, he will hop onto a race prepped R1 and fly around in intricate circles for a few hours. I did say hours. He is an endurance racer and a bloody good one, too.
On their website, Virgin say that their service provides
“a passenger motorbike. Based in London, it provides the quickest and one of the most glamorous ways to get from A to B. Celebrities use it, business people use it, in fact people from all walks of life use it, whether it be to get to the airport quickly regardless of how bad the traffic is or to glide from one end of London to the other.”They say that they are “the experts in getting people to their destinations on time” and rightly so as I really can’t think of any faster cooler way across town.
I ask Damian where he has been today and he tells me, very discreetly of course, about a couple of celebrities he has ferried about. In fact, the man is really very much the gentleman and I didn’t take note of that before. He is one of those people that you just “like”: something really important in his line of work, but also something not always a trait in a top class racer. I have a huge amount of respect for this man. To me, he is the biking equivalent of Jason Statham in 'The Transporter'…
Ok, so it might not always be as secretive as all that. He is at least encouraged to talk to his packages. The passenger lid and his both have a radio system called Autcom Pro 7 fitted. He tells me that this is the best system for their purpose and that even though they are no longer made, Virgin get the systems refurbished whenever needed. He rang me from it earlier and I didn’t even realise he was on the bike until he changed gear! When I was sitting on the back, too, the clarity was great and it felt really odd to be chatting to someone without shouting over the engine!
He tells me about these two clients he and a colleague were to pick up from Heathrow. The unadventurous punters didn’t fancy the idea of getting onto the bikes and wanted to go by Hackney ‘cage’ instead, not even giving the idea a look-in.
“When someone new comes to ride pillion, I’ll explain to them how to get on, that the bike will lean from side to side and show them where the grab rails are”.When I was riding with him, having a back to the pillion seat was also very ‘different’ but reassuring. He accommodates each individual client.
“Talking is really important on the intercom. Riding pillion on a bike is very personal. The pillion’s legs are wrapped around me, so you tend to develop a relationship with the client, particularly the regulars”.Oooer missus. I wasn’t expecting extras!
So, has he had any close shaves?
“Over 20 years in London, of course: too many to list. But you learn to anticipate these things and not to put yourself or the client into difficult situations.”Damian is an IAM advanced rider and there are plans to have an annual training session, perhaps abroad, for all Virgin Limobike riders to “keep sharp”.
I ask about his observations on other road users.
“There is the typical ‘Office Warrior’ who jumps gallantly onto his trusty steed and speeds off without a thought for anyone else”.This makes me laugh and we exchange a mutual grin, because I know exactly what he means being an all-year rider, too. He goes on to say that he thinks that there is no awareness or etiquette on the roads any more.
“It’s gone from ‘bikers’ to ‘motorcyclists’ in the last 15 years. It used to be that if I came up behind another, slower, rider, they would move out of the way and let me pass (and vice versa), now they seem to try and stay in front as long as possible: the ‘racer wannabes’. There’s no honour any more – everyone seems to be out to prove themselves. I don’t need to prove myself. I know I’m quick.”It’s that confidence that is warming and in turn gives assurance to passengers that Damian knows what he is doing and has a great deal of experience. I ask him to comment on some of his experiences and ask what the worst driving he has seen was like.
“There was this woman once, she was really something. She was driving round Hyde Park Corner, with a phone to her ear, a pad and pen in her hands and steering with her elbows”.I’m sure there is a Fawlty Towers sketch like that.
He concludes that “particularly in London, but everywhere else you ride, too, observation and awareness are essential tools”.
Ok, so tell me about your kit.
“Well, it’s a Yamaha FJR1300 with hard case panniers for the passenger lid, jacket and gloves and it’s more refined as well as being quicker than my old Pan. I run Dunlop 207s. Actually the 202s were better suited to the FJR but they don’t make them any more”.I get a sense of nostalgia from Damian; a sense that things aren’t what they used to be, as he gives me a distant look, surveying the world over the rim of his coffee cup.
“The worst journey was to Bournemouth and back in the rain”.This, despite the good kit he wears. Virgin were sponsored by Hein Gericke for 15 years and Damian still rates their gear against anyone else’s.
“I do have a couple of other bits from sponsorship deals, but HG is the best kit and most of it is waterproof”.Kinda good for somewhere like the UK.
So what is the difference between riding for Virgin in a taxi capacity and riding as a dispatch rider?
“That’s the only thing that I have in common with the other 6 Virgin riders”. “We are all so different and I couldn’t possibly give you an idea of Bike Limo Rider characteristics. But we are all treated like humans, whereas Dispatchers are not”.Damian started out with Virgin when he met Rhys Boyd whilst he was racing CB500s in 1997. He had been dispatch riding for 10 years before that, met Boyd and never looked back.
It seems that variety is the enviable spice of life.
“Every day is different and that’s what keeps me motivated”.Have you got any plans for circuit scratching any time soon?
“No, I lost a ride this year due to sponsorship issues”.
That’s a real shame, I tell him. As we get ready to go, I can see that he is looking forward to the next challenge. By the time I’ve picked up my bag and turned around, he is ready to go. I get my whirlwind European kiss-on-either-cheek and as I watch him cruise off, I realise that I have caught his wry smile and that for the first time since I started riding solo, I quite fancy the idea of being a pillion again.
To teleport to your meeting via Damian & the guys: Virgin Limobike
To read about Damian’s racing: http://www.damianrowley.co.uk
Words by Gabrielle Burne