Wheel alignment

Saturday 12 December 2009

Why do we ride motorcycles???

The Blackbird with central north island volcanoes in the background

I've been passionate about bikes since I was 5.  Sure, I love other stuff too like sailing and fishing but passionate is stretching it a bit for all but bikes. Other interests have come and gone but the one constant is motorcycles.  This needs a bit of thinking about...

What follows is a collection of personal thoughts which probably account for the majority of reasons why I ride. Feedback from others who read this will probably reveal a few more. I’ve also come to the conclusion that "WHY” is a moving target and changes as you rack up the years on two wheels. (Note that the word “maturity” has been carefully avoided!) At the end of the day, the “WHY” is nowhere near as important as the fact that we actually DO ride, but it’s fun thinking about it!

Writing this is really difficult, at least to make some sense out of all the things which contribute to a love of two wheels. Perhaps a love of bikes is an unquantifiable sum of a whole load of things which affect the head and heart, rather than being able to boil it down with mathematical precision. And if it’s so hard to quantify, is that really such a bad thing?

I’m inclined to think that there a number of “core” factors which everyone who rides would agree on as being central with respect to why they ride. There are others which will depend on the individual and how long they’ve been riding and what experiences they’ve gone through. As mentioned previously, this means that the “why” will change over time. By way of example, it’s almost as if to become a more complete rider, it’s necessary to pass through the “Ride like a twat” phase first, and even re-visiting various stages from time to time! (But as a friend put it with his tongue half in his cheek - with the confidence and authority which a mature rider brings to such behaviour!)

Is it a particular type of person who has a lifelong attachment to bikes? Do bikes help to shape a persons’ character? Perhaps it’s a combination of both.  Anyway, on to some of the thinking behind the things I’ve identified as to why I ride, not in any particular order of importance. It’s a purely personal viewpoint but sure that other riders will understand my feelings. Would love to hear your comments!

For me, a bike is not a means of transport as such. It’s a means of undertaking journeys, which is a whole lot different than merely travelling from A to B. It almost falls into the area of spirituality. It would be rare to complete a trip in a car and feel uplifted from the trip itself.

Awareness of surroundings. I love the heightened perspective that riding a bike gives in comparison with driving a car. Almost subconsciously noting potential hazards through both visual cues and smells, getting feedback from the road surface, all leading to a greater awareness and appreciation of your surroundings.You feel alive, intimately involved in the journey. Although I love music in the car, I don't wear an iPod on the bike so perhaps with everything else that's going on is more than enough for me.

Risk, challenge, excitement. Few would disagree that riding a bike exposes you to more risk than a car but isn’t living with risk and overcoming it part of the appeal? In today’s largely predictable, politically correct and over-regulated world, isn’t risk, challenge and excitement a worthwhile antidote? Do bike riders possess more of the “pioneer spirit”, enthusiasm and drive which helped shape our cultures than the average person? I’d certainly like to think so.

On your own, but not alone. Whether riding solo or in a bunch, there is always an opportunity to have your own thoughts / headspace. I’m equally at home riding either solo or in a group of people I trust implicitly although the type of satisfaction you get from solo or group riding is often quite different. Most importantly, I’ve never felt bored on even the most mundane of journeys whilst riding a motorcycle – there’s still more than enough to fill the senses!

Camaraderie. Pull into a remote stopping point to find another biker already there will almost always result in a conversation being struck up, irrespective of the type of bike being ridden or any other differences. The same applies to finding another biker in trouble when assistance is given without question. This bond is yet another indicator that riding a bike is special, and has little to do with simply getting from A to B.

Being able to blend rider and machine into one entity on a journey is always hugely satisfying, but why is it sometimes so difficult to achieve? Occasionally, I set out on a ride with great enthusiasm, only to completely stuff up everything I do and not feel in proper control of the bike or aware of the surrounding conditions. On other occasions, I can set off feeling completely out of sorts; yet have a blinder of ride. Why is that??

“Zen state” riding. All too rare for me unfortunately! This is my pet name for one of those magical rides when you are in perfect harmony with the bike and prevailing conditions. Riding fast and smoothly almost seems to be performed at a subconscious level with minimal effort, leaving you time for other thoughts. One of the most wonderful sensations possible covered in a simple paragraph. Hardly seems right somehow but how do you adequately describe such a sublime feeling? The trick for me is to try and increase the percentage of rides when I can slip into this state. I suspect that starting a ride gently and not forcing it is one way of slipping into good subconscious control.

Precision riding. This describes the absolute pleasure gained from riding a bike close to its optimum performance for a given set of road conditions. This can be as simple as executing a perfect passing manoeuvre, or getting through a set of bends with minimal effort through good positioning. It’s not just about knowing your machine, but reading the local conditions. I once had a conversation about reading road conditions with two workmates who drive cars. I mentioned using the Vanishing Point on blind bends to judge safe cornering speed and all I got was blank looks. There is little doubt that riding a bike makes you a better driver overall.

Developing better skills. My perception is that most drivers who only own cars tend to think that after passing their test, they are then equipped with an adequate set of skills for the rest of their lives. On the other hand, bike riders in general appear to be more aware of their limitations and are continually trying to enhance their abilities. I’m sure that this is why so many of us beat ourselves up when we do something stupid resulting from momentary inattention. I mentioned in an earlier post that it wasn’t long after I bought a Honda Blackbird that I realised that there was the potential to do serious damage to myself if I got carried away, not to mention terminal damage to my wallet. I decided to put myself through an advanced road riding course which was humbling in terms of ego damage but fantastic in terms of outcome. There is no such thing as having “adequate” road skills. You never stop learning.  I found a video a while back which covers situational awareness brilliantly.  Doubtful whether many pure car owners would "get it" without a decent discussion though, much less finding it useful.  Anyway, here it is: Situational Awareness and Other Skills

Overcoming challenging conditions. This is closely allied to developing better skills but there’s much more to it. My personal belief is that stepping outside your comfort zone is a means of growing as a person. Stepping outside your comfort zone on a bike is a rapid means of growing as a rider. I’ve never particularly liked riding in the rain for its own sake, but have tried to get out in wet conditions on a reasonably regular basis. I'm  still ambivalent about riding in the wet, but think I’m more complete rider for having done so. In a similar vein, taking part in several endurance road rides previously mentioned have also been extremely challenging, as much for the mental aspects of those rides as the actual conditions encountered. They have certainly demonstrated that mental state is more important than the ability to ride fast in short bursts. Ask the people who didn’t finish these rides due to losing the battle with their own mind when things got tough. Another fantastic means of gaining skills and confidence in a short space of time.
Bottom of south island - 4000km in 5 days required to complete the Southern Cross endurance ride

This is a catch-all section for the bits and pieces that didn’t seem to fit anywhere else. Above all else, motorcycling is huge FUN and there’s plenty of room for the less deep aspects of riding a bike!

Knowing that you can blitz virtually anything on the road. Let’s face it, top speed is largely academic in most conditions, so it’s acceleration which is important in the real world. Most bikes will out-accelerate all but a handful of cars and there is joy in taking on a car driver who doesn’t recognise this. Not merely passing, but utterly annihilating their aspirations is way cool! It’s even cooler to do it to an expensive performance car as opposed to a “boy racer” type vehicle. It’s also super-cool to elect not to engage in combat, content with the knowledge that there’s no need to prove anything to anyone. This latter option calls for considerable restraint but attract points in the afterlife!

Pose value. And why shouldn’t you feel good about people admiring your machine and your good self sitting on it? Everyone likes their ego stroked occasionally! Pose value also occurs in traffic when a car driver has done something stupid and you’re able to gaze through their window with a tinted visor and watch them fail to make eye contact. Lovely!!!

Less affected by traffic. It’s such a simple and obvious thing, but one of the real pleasures of riding a bike is the ability to get through traffic with only minimal holdups. I suppose it boils down to that “freedom” thing again, the ability for you to call the shots rather than having them imposed on you by others. Riding a bike has really heightened my dislike of being stuck in traffic when driving a car.

Well there we are..... a heap of musings about why I still ride a bike. It’s been fun doing it as well as discovering a few things that I hadn’t really thought about in much depth. It's interesting that riding a motorcycle, sailing a yacht and flying an aircraft require almost identical skill sets and also give similar feelings about why we do it.  If you read any of Richard Bach's books, you're left in no doubt that his wonderful prose was greatly influenced by his flying experiences.

As a parting shot, one definition of the word SYNERGY is “The effect of two or more agents working together to produce an effect that is greater than the sum of the parts”. I’m not saying that why any of us ride is because of synergy, but it’s irrefutable that riding a bike gives far more pleasure than the individual sum of all the reasons listed here.


Wednesday 9 December 2009

Stunning day on the Coromandel Coast

Rode from Coromandel to Thames and back today to meet up with Paul from Kaukapakapa on his 1200 S Bandit (nicely set up with Ohlins and Racetech suspension).  If there's any time of the year to ride this coast road, it's now, with thousands of Pohutukawa trees in bloom all the way up the coast.  It's so breathtaking that it's hard to focus on the road!

The fishing in the area has also taken off with some very big Snapper and Kingfish being caught so will hopefully get the boat out next week for the first time since buying it.  Riding or fishing......  hard choice sometimes, sigh....

Sunday 6 December 2009

A new direction....

Getting back on the Blackbird after the accident made me realise that I'd become a bit gun-shy. The seat height and high centre of gravity had always been noticeable at low speeds because I'm a relative short-arse at 5'8". The fact that our house is at the end of a steep drive with off-cambers only served to accentuate the issue. Then there was the age question with the imperceptible ebb of muscle strength. Some of the thrill of riding had quietly slipped away - what was I going to do?

Jennie was pretty sympathetic to the problem as she knows how passionate I am about riding and didn't want any repeat accidents. I'd like to think it's because she loves me, but I'm pretty handy round the house too and wasn't about to get into the real reasons, haha. I got the provisional nod to get something a bit lower and lighter but what? Suddenly, the choices and permutations seemed endless. I wasn't ready for a cruiser because I'd have to grow a beard, wear a patch and spend more time parked outside the pub than actually riding so that was out. A tourer? Nope - does nothing for me. The process of paper shortlisting went on for weeks, culminating in visiting a dealer in Hamilton to look at various makes and models. Some which I thought would hit the spot left me cold (particularly the Thruxton Bonneville) and suddenly, there was one that fitted me perfectly and also had that elusive emotional "WOW" factor - the Triumph 675 Street Triple!
The dealer let me go for a decent ride and I was totally hooked. It may have a smaller engine than the Blackbird but its power to weight ratio and manoeuvrability is amazing! I WANT IT - I want it NOW!!! It's at this point that I should confess that Jennie's recollection of events and mine differ ever so slightly. I put this down to the difference between sexes and what constitutes a discussion. Now I thought that once the broad principles had been discussed, it was all done and dusted. Women like to pick over the detail and I must say that cost was one aspect that I may have accidentally omitted to discuss to her exacting standards. A good bollocking was followed by a fair bit of contrition on my part, with the Blackbird going to a most deserving new home in Auckland, followed by a jet black Street Triple being ridden home to Coromandel. Jennie is a real gem!

What a revelation! The Triumph is much more suited to the twists and turns of the Coromandel Peninsula and can easily hold its own with bigger bikes. Its light weight and lower height is also a colossal boost for my confidence and it's been so easy to dial into, coming from a bigger bike. There's something else too... people might question how inanimate objects like bikes can have distinct personalities, but they do! The Blackbird was a sort of "I don't have to prove anything because I can" type of bike, whereas the Street Triple is a "Who you lookin' at?" sort of bike... it's true!! Going to have to watch my behaviour on it.

Sitting indoors during a downpour a few days ago, I had one of those insidious, dangerous musings creep in. It started off like this: "Wonder what it would be like to do 1000 miles in 24 hours on an unfaired bike?" Before I'd realised what was going on, a few fuel-distance calculations had been mentally processed and it seemed quite a good thing to try, probably because the pain of previous 1000-milers have faded over time. However, the body is certainly not in as good shape as when I did it in 2003. A sensible backstop would be to email my mates to see if they wanted to enter the 2010 event, with a good chance of an "out" with them telling me to get stuffed. Big mistake.... an enthusiastic response from a few of them, a mix of innocence from potential first-timers and not wanting to be seen as wimpy by those who have done it before.

Well, guess we'd better get thinking about sticking applications in as entries are strictly limited. Also better do something about getting together for a chat and some practice rides - watch this space!

Retirement and a whoopsie!

I'd worked 50-60 hour weeks for over 30 years for my company in a number of challenging roles and after talking it over with Jennie, the decision was taken to retire at 60 and enjoy life before I was totally knackered. We decided to move permanently from the central north island to the beach place in Coromandel we'd owned since 2003. Jennie thinks we bought it for the views, boating and fishing. My cynical mates think it's because the famous motorcycling road, the Coromandel Loop, is right on our doorsetep. Personally, I'm saying nothing! Photos taken from our front deck and immediately behind the house.

Dawn from the front deck

House and part of harbour

We moved in April 2008 and apart from a bit of consultancy back to my old employer, it's been non-stop riding. (Yeah, right!) Jennie had other ideas and the biggest effort was getting the house and garden straight for permanent living. Between jobs, I was let out to play if I'd been a good boy! I also got to formally evaluate various tyres for the NZ importer which was a really enjoyable addition to the pleasure of riding. Skipping domestic chores to the words, "Honey, I've got to knock off 1000 km a week on the bike for the next month or two" seemed a pretty fair excuse although one member of the household failed to see the strength of this argument.

It was whilst riding back home from a conference in Rotorua on behalf of my old employer that things came a bit unstuck. It's probably fair to say that I was still thinking about the conference when I overshot a country-road turnoff. No problems, just do a U turn. What I failed to notice was pea gravel where I planted my boot, resulting in me losing balance and the bike falling on my leg as I tried to save the paintwork. What a dumb move!!! Adrenaline from the shock of decking it made the process of picking the heavy monster up fairly straightforward and it was only half an hour or so from home that my leg started to become pretty painful. Enlisting Jennie's help to get my leathers off revealed a swelling leg with rainbow hues appearing due to internal bleeding.


To cut a long story short, blood thinning injections for a week to reduce the risk of clots forming were administered daily by an all-in wrestler masquerading as a District Health Nurse (only joking in case she reads this), followed by 2 months off the bike until the swelling went down. Little did I know at the time that this accident would be the trigger for re-evaluating my motorcycling career!

Jennie wasn't about to be eclipsed in the motoring stakes and for her 60th birthday, got a MazdaSpeed-tuned MX 5 to replace the old one which was getting a bit long in the tooth.  She's pretty handy at making it shift too!

The million dollar shot with a P-51

Touring NZ's South Island...

One of my Blackbird-owning mates, John Pritchard, suggested a 2 week tour of the South Island in 2007 and was just about flattened in the rush! John's partner Karen also wanted to come as did Jennie but not on the back of the bikes. This was happily resolved by Karen and Jennie sharing the driving of J&K's people-mover loaded up with luggage whilst John, Martin Blandford, Dave Easey and me were free to misbehave on our Blackbirds, meeting the girls at various locations for lunch and in the evenings!

Overseas riders who visit the south island say that it's the best riding in the world with challenging roads and stunning scenery. Don't think there would be many Kiwis who disagree either! As well as riding through all the fantastic mountain passes, we covered a few touristy things too - whale and dolphin watching at Kaikoura, Jet-boating and helicopter glacier flights near Wanaka and the famous Milford sound to name just a few. I had an alternator failure part-way through the holiday but charging up 2 batteries overnight and running total loss ignition was a great way of getting round the problem.

There are far too many great pictures to post so here's a very small selection. Also, here are to links to YouTube videos of parts of our tour: (best watched in the High Quality option).


It was a breathtaking holiday and we'd all do it again tomorrow. We were fortunate to get back to our homes in the northern half of the north island when we did as the following day, State Highway 1 was closed for much of the day as a precaution when the active volcano, Mt Ruapehu, finally discharged millions of cubic metres of lahar from its crater. What an exciting place we live in!!!

Saturday 5 December 2009

Waxing philosophical....

What is it with me and new challenges? Maybe to convince myself that I'm not really getting any older, maybe because you only get one crack at life and should live it to the full - heaven knows what the reason is! It will be a sad day when life doesn't hold the prospect of doing something both challenging and enjoyable. I still like riding fast but that alone simply doesn't give satisfaction any more. Just trickling along enjoying the scenery gives an equal buzz. The common factor about riding at both ends of the spectrum is the absolute pleasure gained from riding with precision - getting lines through corners right, being smooth and anticipating potential hazards. I like to call this "Zen State" riding where riding well becomes effortless. The challenge is to drop into that state more and more.

There's something about riding bikes that transcends mere words and borders on the spiritual when done properly. The riding itself, the cameraderie between perfect strangers, the inner glow at the end of a great day of riding, either shared with great friends or solo. All I know is that I would have been much the poorer for not having experienced any of it.

More long distance events....

In 2003, the lure of a fourth 1000-miler Grand Challenge started to surface for the most stupid of reasons. The previous 3 events on the BMW had been fairly painful experiences, even with the upright riding position. Hmmmmm.... wonder what it would be like on the Blackbird with it's almost racing crouch and greater load on the wrists? Could I last the distance? Bloody hell, it hurt all right but we got through it with about 5 hours to spare. Riding the 160-odd km home from the finish was a nightmare. The pain in the wrists was so bad that the journey had to be mentally divided up into 20 km distances to get through it. Get through one, watch the odometer for another 20 and so on until reaching home in Tokoroa!

Ride report: 2003 Grand Challenge 1000 miles in 24 hours

Bluff - starting point and the southermost point of State Highway 1

You'd be forgiven for thinking that the Grand Challenge was quite enough of an ordeal on the Blackbird but the need to step outside the comfort zone again surfaced by entering the 2005 Southern Cross endurance event. Covering both islands from the most northerly and southerly points, plus the most easterly and westerly points in the north island right on the edge of winter - about 4000 km in 5 days is a big ask in anyone's money, especially in bitterly cold conditions! Riding in the company of two outstanding companions in all weathers, seeing some of the most spectacular scenery in the world and finishing it on time was an unbelievable experience. It has been the highlight of 4 decades of riding. The top photo was taken at the southernmost part of the south island, where State Highway 1 runs into the sea!

Blackbird firmly lashed down on the inter-island ferry!

Below freezing, middle of the night and multiple layers of clothing!

I checked in to a cabin in a New Plymouth camping ground after the event around mid-afternoon.  The intention was to walk a few hundred metres to the Game Fishing club for dinner.  Whoops - I fell asleep on top of the bed, still in my leathers, door wide open and keys in the ignition.  Woke up at 7 the next morning, just about frozen solid with a massive hunger headache! A quick shower and shave plus some Panadol, then ride an hour up the road to where the region's famous whitebait fritters are served.  Breakfast has never tasted so good before or since!
Ride report: 2005 Southern Cross round NZ Endurance Ride

A slight lapse in behaviour....

The responsibilities which go with owning one of the fastest bikes in the world began to dawn with the realisation that serious harm, either to my person or to my wallet was likely to happen if I wasn't careful. I decided to enrol on an advanced course run by the ex-chief instructor for the Ministry of Transport. It was pretty stressful (not to mention ego-damaging) in places but it was also one of the best things I'd ever done as he picked up a few less than desirable habits and proceeded to work on them with me. The most outstanding part of the course and also the scariest, was learning high speed emergency braking skills. I had visions of going over the bars or following the 'bird down the road on my arse but he improved my technique to the extent I was braking so hard that my elbows and wrists were creaking and wedding tackle was being painfully squashed into the rear of the tank. As the instructor correctly pointed out, knowing how to brake properly from high speed may well make the difference between serious harm and walking away scot-free from a hazardous situation. The course undoubtedly changed the way I ride and observe the surrounding environment, very much for the better.

 Blissfully oblivious of what was about to happen......

Ahhh... with one exception, that is! There was one subsequent occasion when some monumental stupidity nearly lead to tragedy. A number of us were out for a ride and a friend had borrowed his daughter's little RGV150. At fuel stops, we'd play "tortoise and hare", sending him off a few minutes ahead and then chase him down. Along a straight in the countryside, we spotted him in the distance and decided to go past at warp speed, which we duly did. What we had neglected to remember was some very bad ripples in the road and at an awful lot above the legal speed limit, our mate was treated to the sight of a Hayabusa, a Blackbird and a GSX-R 1000 showing a lot of daylight under the tyres. Time slowed down into a series of freeze frames and there was no fear at that moment, just a feeling of regret that I'd buggered things up completely and that tomorrow was never going to come. However, the Hayabusa and Blackbird came back down arrow-straight with the slightest of shimmies but the GSX-R was all over the road trying to buck the rider off. After stopping shortly to scrape out our leathers, we let another mate on a Harley Davidson lead us home. A lucky let-off and a serious error of judgement on our part.

 The caption says it all!

Playing with the seriously fast stuff....

The great thing about Jennie getting an MX-5 was that it signalled a possible quid pro quo in the shape of a new bike after 7 years of enjoyable BMW ownership. The opening gambit was a few casual visits to various dealerships with a non-committal Jennie in tow. Various machines were sat upon, with the Chief Executive declaring that the narrow seats on pure sports bikes made her eyes water!

Now as it happened, we found ourselves in Auckland to celebrate our wedding anniversary and by sheer fluke (haha) we found ourselves in that street again! In the window of the Honda dealer, there was a candy blue Honda Super Blackbird and it was quite simply love at first sight. A few weeks went by of dropping progressively less subtle hints and some equally unsubtle grovelling before Management allowed a phone call to see if it was still available. It was indeed and an appointment was made for a test ride.

 CBR 1100XX Super Blackbird - deceptively wicked performance - absolutely effortless

If I'd thought that the BMW was impressive, the Blackbird was literally mind-blowing. The test ride up the motorway left me quite rattled due to a glance at the speedo and realising that I would have been without a license had the Boys in Blue been about. A deal was done and a few days later, an absolute missile graced the garage at home. The first couple of weeks did not go smoothly. A friend was standing outside his house and as I pulled up to show off the new acquisition, my boot caught on something in the road and the bike toppled over with me underneath stupidly trying to protect it. Despite the shock and embarrassment, watching my mate trying to keep a straight face whilst lifting it off me was something to behold.  Not a good start to owning a superbike!

A new Millennium dawns...

In early 2001, the last of our kids trundled off to university. Jennie celebrated her freedom from not having to run young parasites around any more by getting an MX-5 convertible sports car and we took off in it for a month of touring the south island. Whilst we were in the Queenstown area, I saw an advertisement for riding Quad (ATV) bikes in the foothills of the Remarkables mountain range. I thought it would be great fun although Jennie wasn't at all keen. However, a bit of sweet-talking about how easy it was to ride farm quads plus a droopy bottom lip on my part saw her reluctantly agree.

 Jennie and me, with the Remarkables in the background

On arriving at the venue with the instructor, I could have bitten my tongue off! Farm bikes my arse, they were Polaris 2 stroke screamers - oh shiiiit! The instructor saved my bacon and was a wonderful teacher, coaching Jennie over the gentler terrain and she soaked it up like a sponge. The saying "Ignorance is bliss" was never more appropriate than when on a really scary steep downhill section strewn with boulders, Jennie left me for dead and was giving the instructor a heck of a run for his money too! I was so proud of her and it's an excellent example of how self-imposed mental limits have such an impact on riding.

Jennie and her Mk1 MX5 outside the Warbirds at Wanaka

A sucker for punishment....

After 3 years of enjoying BMW ownership, some mates and I saw an article in a New Zealand bike mag about one of their staff having taken part in something called the Rusty Nuts Grand Challenge 1000 miles (1600km) in under 24 hours ride. It's an annual event which starts and finishes at the same place but the organisers vary the route. The other thing they do to make it real fun is set most of the course on narrow, twisty back roads miles from anywhere which is quite daunting, especially during the night. The author just missed the 24 hour cutoff and was hallucinating with pain during the latter part of the ride. It was obviously one heck of a challenge so we sent in entries for the 1996 event whilst clearly in a deranged state of mind.

The weather was shocking with horizontal rain and gales for much of the ride, it was scary and we were in an awful lot of pain at the finish and for some days afterwards. However, the feeling of finishing within the 24 hours was indescribable and we had every right to feel proud. Whilst the physical challenge was bad enough, the battle with one's own mind not to give up was equally strong. Everyone swore that they'd never do another one but in this comfortable and largely predictable age, challenging oneself becomes addictive. Two more Grand Challenges were undertaken on the Beemer in 1997 and 1999, one of them being completed in 18 and a bit hours. However, because the weather and route plays such an important part, all everyone can hope for is finishing safely within 24 hours.

 2am, still 700 km from the finish and apprehensive....

Are we getting a bit old for this, chaps?

Ride reports:1996 Grand Challenge 1000 miles in 24 hours , 1997 Grand Challenge, 1999 Grand Challenge

It was whilst owning the BMW and becoming accustomed to riding reasonably fast that I did my one and only runner from the law. The exact circumstances are better left undocumented but I got away with it, having scared myself witless in the process; shaking so badly when finally stopping that it was difficult to hold the bike upright. A salutatory experience and never to be repeated.

A confession to Jennie (in case my number plate had been more visible than first thought) brought forth a bollocking of truly biblical magnitude. This was followed up by another one from our daughter who takes after her mother. I'd like to think that our two sons were secretly chuffed although nothing was said because they know full well who rules the household.

Getting the family in on it....

Our eldest son Lyndon was keen to learn to ride and had permission from his mother and a couple of off-roaders were purchased so that he could learn some handling skills in relative safety. A Suzuki TS100 was a perfect learning machine for him. The Yamaha IT 175 most certainly wasn't for me, with the bastard trying to kill me on every outing. The narrow power band was completely unsuitable for slower speed work in the forests around Tokoroa and muddy facials and large bruises were a common occurrence. "Mature" bodies definitely don't bounce as well as younger ones and my off-roading career didn't last all that long.

Lyndon with the Suzuki X7 and my K100RS

We managed to find a Suzuki X7 250cc 6 speed "screamer" in good condition for Lyndon to ride on the road and whilst it was well-mannered for normal riding, it could fair fly when thrashed further up the rev range. When Lyndon departed for university, the Suzook got a fair hiding at my hands round the Waikato back roads. Nothing quite like a 2 stroke for behaving badly on!

The GB 400 provided a happy partnership for a number of years but it was underpowered for 2-up riding and the road in Auckland that I bought the GB from entered the story again in 1993! A perusal of the bike shops in that road revealed a nice BMW K100RS complete with panniers. I wasn't contemplating getting anything this big but the price was right and it was in lovely condition. Learning to ride a big, heavy fast bike was quite a mission and it took about a year to push it along at speed with complete confidence. Countersteering was an absolute necessity with the old girl.  I was beginning to learn that big bikes requires large amounts of respect!

Family responsibilities....

Joining the staff at Cranfield University left little time for anything else and besides, it wasn't long before I fell hook, line and sinker for a local teacher. Jennie and I married in 1972 and a substantial mortgage put paid to any thoughts of two-wheeled toys. Nonetheless, I vividly recall a few days when our car was out of action and a close mate kindly loaned us his Triumph Tiger 110. This was the age of micro-mini skirts and the sight of Jennie on the pillion being dropped off at school must have had quite an impact on the hormones of the little spotties loitering at the school gates!

 3 days before our wedding

Nearly 3 years after getting married, a good job in industry was on offer so we moved Down Under, a decision never once regretted. Yacht racing became the new hobby, particularly as it enabled the growing family to come and play at the beach or lakes whilst their father was trying to drown himself in various scenic parts of the country. Now you might think that I'm getting off track here but stick with it as it was sailing that got me back into motorcycling!

It was 1987 and I'd headed up to Barrys Pt Road in Takapuna to pick up a new yacht sail. When I arrived, it wasn't quite ready so went for a walk. Just up the road was a Honda dealership and in the window was a midnight blue GB400TT and it took my breath away. It was reminiscent of my old Tiger 100 from years gone by and I stepped inside for a closer look. Fatal mistake.... The salesman had clearly recognised a sucker and worked his charms on a willing victim. A week later, it was safely tucked up at home. Jennie was ummm... rather unhappy with this impulse purchase and she subsequently squared the account by buying a piano which was significantly in excess of the GB400 cost! Learning to ride smoothly again after a long absence from bikes was surprisingly difficult but the pleasure of being on two wheels again was indescribable.

 The much-loved GB400TT

 A "slight difficulty" was encountered soon after acquiring the Honda involving an expired UK motorcycle license which required me to re-sit each stage of the test, albeit with no delay between each stage. I could hardly turn up on the 400 and the only machine I was able to borrow was a 50cc Yamaha step-through, complete with shopping basket. It was downright embarrassing turning up on the hideous thing but at least a full-face helmet hid the blushes! Having passed the test, the GB was used at every opportunity and was subsequently equipped with a full fairing and single race seat which made it look very nice indeed.

 Ohhhhh... the shame!

Conclusions from this period: Grown up, great job, fantastic wife and family but the "boy" in me sneaked out when I least expected it.

Growing up a bit - drag racing

Road bike ownership was replaced by an old Wolesley 6/110 car as the main form of transport. Bikes certainly weren't forgotten though because mechanical engineering studies awakened an interest in engine development. The decision was taken to build a drag bike, partly because of the outrageous horsepower achievable with a supercharger and nitromethane but also because riding in a straight line would not expose my inability to go round corners at a fair lick without falling off.

My first ever drag meet - Santa Pod Dragway, UK

 The Mk1 supercharged 3TA 350cc drag bike, circa 1967

The first attempt at building a hot motor consisted of sticking a supercharger on a nearly stock Triumph 350cc twin motor and running it on methanol. Optimisim was soon replaced with pessimism when piston crowns regularly separated at the oil control ring as a result of high revs. A few calculations were done and a short-stroke crankshaft was built in the engineering labs and mated to a modified 500cc barrel and head to make a very over-square 350 to reduce mean piston speed. A whole load of other mods were carried out at the same time and a prolonged cycle of "blow it up, fix it, improve it and blow it up again" was entered into. The engineering work during this period would fill a book by itself.

The short stroke Mk 2 bike, Santa Pod UK, circa 1970 (courtesy Pete Miller)

Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear.... the hairy 1970's (courtesy Pete Miller)

The photo of me above shows a buckled alloy pushrod, one of the many engineering problems to be overcome and was fixed by replacing them with titanium. A friend recently commented that I looked like an extra from the TV series "The Avengers", which I thought was a bit uncalled for! The photo below is of me hanging on grimly at Santa Pod raceway.

 Nice hole shot! (courtesy Pete Miller)
Mk2 short stroke Icarus ready to go on the starting rollers

Eventually, Icarus became extremely competitive at a national level over the quarter mile and at world level over the standing start mile but the time and money to go further was beyond my means, interest waned and racing was abandoned.

As a footnote, the engine languished for many years in the shed of a friend,  John Hancock, who went on to become R&D Director at Cosworth Engineering, the race car engine builders.  It may still be there!!

Conclusions from this period: A happy marriage of engineering theory and practice by actually using my education to have fun! Worrying signs of maturity appearing.

The passion really starts to get a hold....

A century or two ago when I was 18 or 19!

The replacement for my Triumph 3TA was yet another Triumph - a 1955 tuned Tiger 100. It was immaculate with chrome everywhere. At this point in time, big bikes fell into one of two categories: cafe racer or Marlon Brando Wild One lookalike. The Triumph fell into the latter category with raised bars, spotlights and mirrors on long stalks which folded back and trapped you at speeds greater than 80 mph! Dropped "Ace" bars were subsequently fitted which gave a significantly more comfortable ride on the open road. To be really cool, the silencers were occasionally removed for a good blast round town on straight pipes. I intensely dislike noisy "boy racers" which is a fair pointer to how the rest of the population would have felt about me at that time!

Owning early Triumphs certainly honed both mechanical and electrical skills which was quite handy for someone who was en route to becoming a professional engineer! Patience was a prerequisite, although not always in evidence. On one infamous occasion whilst fitting a new centre stand spring, the screwdriver slipped and I ended up punching the concrete floor with great force. There was an explosion of light and red mist. When it cleared, I found that I'd stabbed the seat several times with the screwdriver. It was a good insight with respect to how crimes of passion occur!

The undoubted highlight of ownership was going to the 1969 Isle of Man TT with friends. A dawn blast round the circuit in Practice Week is fondly remembered, especially for getting the drum brakes so hot that the grease in the wheel bearings started running past the seals and smoking furiously! Meeting two Scottish girls who were holidaying in the IOM was also memorable, but best left at that. The photo taken at the IOM shows the gorgeous Anne McGregor who either liked me or was colour blind as my taste in casual clothing was appalling - green knitted cardigan, orange T shirt, twill trousers and suede boots. Aaargh....

 The shame of it....  not my best look

Conclusions from this period:
Rode like a complete pillock, far in excess of my minimal ability and was lucky to live through it. Started to realise that girls weren't turned on by riding pillion in a freezing British winter and that I'd better start thinking about 4 wheels if I wanted to score or at least losing my manhood to frostbite. Moderate signs of maturity appearing although debatable from a parental viewpoint.

The intermediate years....

Passing my test and leaving school saw the acquisition of a Triumph 350cc twin because of the need for a larger commuter vehicle. It was my main form of transport in snow, rain and everything else that nature had to offer. I think that's why I'm fairly relaxed about riding in all weathers now. The bike was a charmless old pudding with a restrained 20 bhp or thereabouts, but was faster than the Suzuki. Speed meant everything and I'm ashamed to say that I rode everywhere like a complete twat! The lack of good riding skills was soon demonstrated when a car did a U turn in front of me and I was travelling too fast to stop. The resultant impact threw me over the bars, but not before my wedding tackle snagged on the rather prominent friction steering damper on the way past. The bike wasn't badly damaged but I ended up walking like John Wayne for the best part of a week due to the large purple plums in my trousers - yowwww! Lesson 1 about being aware of one's surroundings and riding to the conditions forcibly driven home.

Triumph 3TA (file photo)

Ownership of the 3TA coincided with the period when Japanese bikes were becoming a more common sight on British roads and they were also developing a deserved reputation for performance. This was demonstrated in humiliating fashion one day by a 100cc Yamaha sports twin that I picked a fight with. It simply buggered off into the distance and I knew right then that the Triumph's days were numbered. I suppose it also demonstrated a typical young male's preoccupation which might be described as a "mine's bigger than yours" approach to life!

Getting started....

My first bike came almost out of the blue after a couple of years of moping and desperately wanting one. To the complete surprise of my family (and myself!), I passed my national school examinations with flying colours. My grandparents must have been really impressed as by way of reward, they funded a brand new Suzuki 50! It was one of my proudest moments - I was a "real" biker at last!!! The fact that my grandparents had ordered legshields and a huge windscreen to protect me from the elements, bless 'em didn't detract at all from the thrill of ownership; despite it having the aerodynamics of a small house which soaked up most of the meagre horsepower.

 Wellingborough Technical Grammar School, circa 1963/4

Three other old school mates got bikes at much the same time in the shape of a Triumph Tiger Cub, a Lambretta Scooter and an Ariel Arrow. We were the height of cool and imagined our social status on par with the bikers at the local coffee bar. In hindsight, it was a good job we couldn't see ourselves through the eyes of the bikers!

Conclusions from this period:
The Suzuki 50 was the most wonderful thing in the world and conferred god-like status (in my own mind). Regrettably, it didn't help one bit in pulling the lovely Christine Olney whom I'd worshipped from afar for years but despite this crushing disappointment; I was a happy lad having achieved mobile independence for the first time. Thank heaven no photos exist from this period, my school photo was bad enough!

Friday 4 December 2009

A bit of background.....


This is me in the helmet - excruciating, isn't it? The photo was taken when I was 5, which coincided with the start of my motorcycling career. Dad owned a James 2 stroke which he used to take me for short runs round the UK Northamptonshire village I grew up in.

I've just turned 62, although my long-suffering wife Jennie says (on numerous occasions) that I struggle to get past 5 in terms of maturity. Wives are known for skipping the niceties! From that young and innocent age, I've been hooked on bikes.

The real trigger for this life-long obsession came about in my early teens, regularly going with a few school mates to the local coffee bar which was a hang-out for the local bikers on their British Iron - mainly Triumphs, Nortons and BSA's. We thought that they were absolute gods when they put a record on the juke box and tried to do a lap of town before the music finished. In turn, they undoubtedly thought that we were complete jerks, turning up on our pushbikes with apehanger bars with tassels hanging out of the bar-ends - talk about embarrassing!

Anyway, grab some popcorn and read on for a light-hearted account of my riding experiences....