The Mild One Writes – Why do I ride motorcycles?
I was never a biker as a youth, which is good and bad. Good because that is the time you’re most likely to kill yourself, bad because that is the time you best hone the athleticism necessary to really ride a bike naturally. I’ve owned bikes since I was 30, except for a period when I sold a cherished bike in a fit of self-punishment and held off replacing it for several years. I still don’t really think of myself as a ‘biker’. That term involves a bit more commitment I guess – and also a desire to wear luridly striped leathers and a crash helmet that offers free advertising to Dietrich Mateschitz. I’m just a motorcycle rider.
Bikes are anathema to many car people. I’d never even wanted one until a friend bought a Honda SS50 ‘sports moped’ in the mid 70s and asked me to collect it for them on my driver’s licence. After a tentative ride round the dealer’s car park in Tottenham to master gear changing, I took to the road. By the time I reached Camden Town I was fully converted but then spent several years considering how to afford to buy myself something suitable – meaning larger. Planning ahead I rented a bike and passed my test (a pretty easy thing to do back then) so that, with a full licence, I was of course ready for anything. A couple more years passed until I was left some money in my uncle’s will. Shortly after, I was walking past a car dealer in Bayswater Road and saw a secondhand red Moto Guzzi V50 in the window. The next day I rode it home.
I have very fond memories of that bike. Having a small version of Guzzi’s ‘legendary’ (the words they’d use, Japanese bike-tech fans would say archaic) OHV V-Twin, it had respectable but not outstanding performance It was quite small for a 500 with the upside that it was nimble. It was however large enough to take my partner and I and our luggage to France twice, the second time being my downfall when it was stolen from outside Samaritaine in Paris.
Its replacement was a larger Moto Guzzi and, if you disregard the Benelli scooter I bought 13 years ago, all my motorcycles have been Guzzis. The average Guzzi is an acquired taste – a very distinctive, relatively slow revving, torquey engine, not a Japanese screamer, with a shaft drive resulting in an unfashionably long wheelbase. As such, you tend to ride them slightly differently from most other bikes. Once at the forefront of bike technology, much of Guzzi’s output over the past 30 years has been relatively staid or retro, aimed probably at the demographic I’ve grown into but, apart from an LAPD type California I owned, this has never really appealed to me.
My current bike though is a Griso, a hard to categorise bike (naked .. sports .. tourer?) which, like most Guzzis, has now been in production for a fair time – 10 years. It has aged well though. It’s fast enough and, although its V-Twin burble has been neutered somewhat compared with previous bikes I’ve owned, a lot of my riding is done in town, so I haven’t ‘improved’ it. The wheelbase and mass means it’s not at its best around slow city junctions, but once on the move, it’s supremely tractable and a fine ride. But it could be argued that I’m in no position to be objective since, apart from a few borrowed rides on Japanese bikes, the only experience I’ve had of anything that wasn’t a Guzzi Twin was a Guzzi Single.
My reasons for owning a bike are twofold. First, it’s easier to get around London, but I could get around just as quickly on the 125cc scooter I used for a while. Second, of course, is because I enjoy it, though I have a puritanical streak that means I never ride just for the sake of it; I must have a chore and a destination.
I don’t just enjoy the riding, I enjoy the mechanical layout of the Guzzi – the V of the cylinders set symmetrically across the frame, the gearbox and the driveshaft housing holding the rear wheel – I like the idiosyncrasies of it, the way the torque of the engine makes the bike bend over to the right slightly when you apply throttle, the need to blip the throttle on downchanges to avoid a jerk from the heavy flywheel and the fact that Guzzi lore says that an engine isn’t really at its best until it’s done 20,000 miles.
The need to often carry stuff around means that I don’t ride it nearly as much as I’d like, though I do use the bike all year round – but I generally draw the line at riding in snow, an admission that quite a few hardcore bikers would guffaw at.
Motorcycling is perverse. I’d find it hard to drive off in a car without fastening my seat belt, but I can sit on a bike with nothing between me and whatever might be thrown at me, and not be at all concerned. It is a different perspective and it does make you more aware of the reality and consequences of driving anything. I’m a reasonable rider, but by no means a highly skilled one. I can watch Hamilton racing against Vettel and I know what’s happening and, rightly or wrongly, I can imagine an alternative life in which I could do that. I’ve watched Rossi racing Marquez and I’ve no idea at all how they do it. And as for the Isle of Man TT…..
There are reasons for this. I started too late. I’m not a natural athlete. I have a bad back which restricts my movement. Too much of my motorcycling has taken place in London. But more than all that, I know that there are various things involved in riding a bike (punctures, seized engines, diesel spills) that can catch even the best bikers out when they are on the limit and, at that point, they become 80 or so kg of flesh and bone heading for a random destination at high speed. I also know that can happen to me at lower speeds, however much care I take.
At some time, you are probably going to come off. But still the knowledge of that doesn’t stop me from biking. Years ago, a friend was badly injured after a Russian diplomat did a sudden U turn in front of her bike. The next day I was walking along thinking about this and generally moping about the Frailty Of Life when I daydreamed off the pavement in front of a car. Unlike the Russian, this was a good driver and they avoided me but, as I was reminded that day, it can happen to you anywhere and anytime.
Motorcycling is really nothing like driving, I don’t prefer one or the other, they are so different. True there are bikers who try to do those things that you do in cars. Riding big Harleys or Gold Wings in a comfy seat with the speakers blasting out MOR rock and a ciggy in their mouth but, generally, motorcycles demand your complete physical attention. This is nice, as is the intimacy with your surroundings, until it becomes too intimate.
The desire for this not to happen makes you better at reading other drivers, or it should. Some bikers are, admittedly, suicidal arses who ride self-righteously as if all drivers are aware of them – presumably when they discover otherwise they will sit around in biker purgatory with their heads on their laps waiting for the car driver’s turn to come so that they can have a word. As a sensible biker, it’s best to assume that all car drivers are singing along to Radio 2 with a Starbucks squeezed between their thighs whilst they unwrap a Danish pastry as they try to book cinema tickets on their mobile and placate the screaming child in the seat next to them.
And when you’re back in a car, this means that you are more aware of what life is like outside your cocoon. So, although I’m not as good a motorcyclist as I’d like to be, I’m a better driver for being a motorcyclist.