The Mild One Writes – Why do I ride motorcycles?

Griso £

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.

The bike that started it for me : Honda SS50
The bike that started it for me : Honda SS50

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.

Guzzi V50
Just like this one. Still missed 30 years on. If you see it, please phone Crimewatch.

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.

Guzzi TwinMy 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…..

Rossi v Marquez. I could do that - if I was better with Photoshop.
Rossi v Marquez. That could be me – if I was better with Photoshop. Image : http://www.sportrider.com

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.

Guzzi Griso

8 thoughts on “Handlebars”

  1. Motorbikes scare the hell out of me. They seem to occupy a dreadful zone between the speed of the car and the vulnerability of the cyclist. I would prefer to be in a car or on a bike, thanks. What really scared the bejesus out of me was that time 20 years ago when a colleague did not come into work for six months and when he did finally return it was minus his lower legs. He was maybe 23 or 25 years old and up to that point seemed to be doing very well in his career. Any interest I had in bikes stopped right there.
    That said, if you want to get on a bike it probably is, as you say, a good way to learn how to drive properly. Cyclists might make the same remark about using bicycles though.

  2. I’d not want to end up looking foolish by making any confident comments about how my personal risk relates to statistical risk. As is well known, many plane passengers fret about flying, when the most dangerous part of their journey by far is the car ride to and from the airport.

    Statistics are interesting. I’m about to drive to France where my chance of meeting death in a transport accident will almost double. And if I factor in my age, over the years I’ve grown far less likely to die on my bike and far more likely to die at my desk.

    There are risks I certainly avoid, like smoking, because I feel that there is not much that I could do to lower my statistical probability. My work has involved me working at heights in the past and, although I know how to minimise the risks involved, this is something I will never like doing.

    Personal experience certainly colours risk perception. I happily rode a pedal cycle without a helmet until I met an acquaintance who had been knocked off his bike by a carelessly opened car door and suffered horribly life-changing injuries. Now I tell his story to anyone I know who doesn’t wear a helmet.

    1. You raise a good point about inconsistency. I don´t wear a bike helmet for various reasons despite knowing people who have been injured on bikes. The reasoning depends on a dull dig into statistics which I won´t bore you with.
      And I smoke occasionally, reasoning that the costs and benefits are favourably weighted (at the moment). Risk is a strange parameter which blurs the boundaries of the objective and subjective.

    2. My attitude towards statistics cuts both ways. I will never buy a lottery ticket. Despite the fact that my ‘chance’ of winning leaps infinitely if I actually buy one, and although I don’t believe that any unseeable agencies are judging and dictating my life, it would seem to be acknowledging the likelihood of winning. And if I looked forward to that, I might just as well look forward to other statistically unlikely things, like a flowerpot falling onto my head … or falling off my bike.

  3. Sean. Although I don’t consider myself a motorcyclist (by far!), I very much enjoyed your piece and found some parallels to my experience as well. I got my licence on a 125 ccm Yamaha enduro (actually, it was my brother’s, and 125 ccm was the limit for the first level motorcycle licence at that time in Switzerland). Then I had a 125 ccm Vespa for over ten years, one of the latest examples that still had manual gearshift, no electric starter, and ran on two-stroke mixture. I used it quite extensively since I couldn’t afford a car during my studies. Later I also used my dad’s BMW K100 RS for the “big” licence, but I never rode it much and didn’t really feel all that confident with higher speeds.

    What is true is that you learn to much more observe the traffic around you and anticipate other drivers’ behaviour. I had situations where my little Vespa was just overlooked and I was glad to see it coming.

    Thinking of it, despite the risk, I’m starting to regret again that I didn’t buy this wonderfully orange Vespa Rally that was offered to me last year…

    1. Well Simon, a lot of Switzerland is fine motorcycling country – assuming you have second-sense for spotting speed traps! And there I am talking like a biker. Actually it’s fine country for riding in even if you keep to the limits.

      You mention the Vespa being overlooked and it is a fact that I’ve had more people pull out in front of me on my scooter than on my large motorcycle. Speed doesn’t seem to be the issue – I mentioned this previously when I wrote about the Cube. Many drivers just seem to have preconceptions that certain vehicles are fast and certain vehicles are slow based entirely on their looks, rather than any perception of the actual speed they are travelling.

    2. Of course I enjoyed a lot of the nice Swiss roads on the BMW – and I even rode the Vespa in the alps, which is a great thing if you’re not in a hurry. One of the benefits of being a local is that you know at least where the permanent radars are.

      The issue of perceived speed is something that isn’t limited to two-wheeled vehicles, as you experienced with the Cube. I too know this from several of my cars. The tiny AX as well as my GS and CXs, which people see as old = slow (a CX Turbo? really? And even the GS can be driven quite ambitiously over curvy roads). The point with the Vespa is, I mostly drove it in urban (or semi-urban) settings, where speeds are usually limited to 50 or 60 km/h. So I normally was among the faster half of traffic participants.

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