Dress for the slide, not the ride

When it comes to motorbiking, the expression “Bob’s your uncle” may as well refer to Roy Bowman, known as “uncle Roy” to all bikers with the unique job titles of brand ambassador and stock controller at BMW Motorrad in SMG’s flagship showrooms in Umhlanga.

KZN n5 Roy Bowman with clients

Dealerfloor met up with Bowman to learn how he became an uncle to everyone. It turns out it is partly because Bowman’s working life has been long and full of blessings — his next birthday will mark 78 still-cruising strong summers — and partly because he is a fixer who operates on the principles of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, but if it is broke, then fix it right the first time.”

He started this second career with Motorrad in 2002, two years after he retired from a manager’s corner office at Telkom. “I started here a year after salesman Shaheen Bayat and between all the members of the team, we have managed to take this department basically from zero to what it is today — riding the crest of sales and on top of BMW’s list of B classification dealers.”

The ‘kakhulu’ of riders, Roy Bowman with fellow bikers at the recent reveal of the new R18 Cruiser at BMW Motorrad Umhlanga.

Bowman’s 46 years of experience as manager at Telkom earned him his title as stock controller, but it was his uncompromising demand for safe biking that earned him his title as brand ambassador for BMW motorbikes. For when it comes to organising leisure bike tours, Bowman literally wrote the book: a much-thumbed, ring-bound collection of photos and rides that has pride of place on a display table in the showroom. In it, the photos show what Motorrad means with the slogan, “make life a ride”.

“I also wrote manuals on safe riding and planning trips. We used to do two a month, but lockdown took the wind out of our sails. We’ll be getting back on track at the end of the storm season in November,” he says.

“…on the ride, as in life, learning where the pitfalls are and then preparing for a fall, is the most important part of not falling.”

When Bowman says track, he means a “twee spoor”, preferably over a mountain pass far “from the madding crowd”. A typical trip entails 1,500 km of scenic riding on all types of road surfaces, always to places with fascinating histories and good food. Paging through the book, he pauses over a blurry photo that at first glance looks like the chef had shaken out tins of beans in tomato sauce onto a plate and added a scoop of sour cream on top. A last-supplies-in-the-box breakfast solution?

“Nope, those were cakes built up with tiny koeksisters that we had in Bergville. Delicious.”

His desk is tucked into a corner of the busy dealership that leads SMG Group’s vision to not just sell mobility, but a lifestyle. At the entrance, the busy La Dolcé Voita Café welcomes all bikers who visit, as much to chat with other blokes with worn leather jackets and a lust for life, as to be surrounded by the latest gleaming models from Bavaria.

Between the café and the vast windows framing views of the Indian Ocean, cars, bikes, boots and jackets are on display. Bowman is a stickler for getting the best boots and jackets money can buy, and he does not mince his words for riders who don’t. “My definition of an idiot is someone who wears shorts on a bike. I always tell people, a hospital is ten grand a night, a proper jacket is ten grand once off.

As he talks, he plays waiter, passing coffee and muffins to three grey-haired bikers. They agree with him. “If you want to have both grey hair and to ride, the dress code is always ‘sweat and survive’,” says Dolf de Bruin, who dropped in to say goodbye to Bowman.

Bowman makes the introductions. “Dolf was one of my first customers, I am going to be sad to see him go to Australia.”

Riders learn advanced riding tricks at one of the courses presented by BMW Motorrad Umhlanga.

We talk about the growing problem of pedestrians who walk straight into traffic while staring at their cell phones, and Bowman tells us of the advanced driver training he received in 1967. The course was presented in a new Jaguar by Metro police officers who were flown in from the UK.

“They would ask you to recall a road sign you passed a mile back, or to describe what clothing the pedestrians you passed 10 minutes before was wearing. They really drilled us to observe and notice everything around us while controlling a vehicle and I still apply those lessons. I even kept the little badge we got,” says Bowman.

His love for motorbikes goes back to his boyhood. In his twenties, he competed on observed trials, (foot-ups) and trails, “on Jap bikes”. Back then, he says, technology was much simpler. “We’d change the sprockets and tune the two-stroke carb and were ready to race. Today, it has all become a lot more advanced. Now you can no longer buy a custom sprocket from your mate and chains by the metre. Instead, we have a workshop of over 200 square metres. As we say on the website, it's big enough for the perfect service and neat enough to know each bike personally.

We offer all the usual servicing as well as tyre installation, including balancing.

It may be a matter of old dogs and new tricks, but Bowman does not see electric bikes taking off in SA anytime soon. “It misses the crackle and pop of the engine that we all love,” he says to nods from the other bikers.

He says the next trip will be over one of the “magnificent seven passes” with a few breakfast runs to pass the time while thunderstorms still preclude long rides. A keen amateur meteorologist, Bowman keeps his own record of weather patterns. “Based on the patterns on my records, I predict we (on SA’s eastern coast) are going to see cyclones in 2021,” he says.

This takes the conversation to wet roads and tricks to ride through sand or mud. De Bruin says of the various courses presented by Bowman, the off-road course is a must. “You learn to sit and stand and enjoy a whole new aspect of riding,” he says.

Clients before the Ntegna Foundation Charity Bike Ride in 2019.

We end our talk asking what is the main challenge in selling motorbikes? “It’s getting customers to realise they also have to buy protective gear. I urge people to get Euro-standard protective pants, jackets, gloves and boots. Finance the cost of good gear if need be. The boots must save your ankles from being crushed, the gloves must protect your fingers — kangaroo leather or shark skin is best. Then, you also need to learn how to fall.”

As ex-paratrooper, Bowman trains his riders how to tuck and roll, “because on the ride, as in life, learning where the pitfalls are and then preparing for a fall, is the most important part of not falling”.

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