This is going to be a long, probably tedious, autobiographical post. I suspect nobody will read it.
I’m not sure when my interest in motorcycles started. Certainly I was interested that my cousin, Richard, had a bike that he rode around his parents field, and later others.
I first recall really getting interested in my mid-teens, when I started plotting how I would get a bike when I turned 16. I started to save the money I earned in the holidays and pocket money and dream about owning a bike. My mum wasn’t able to discourage me too much because I knew she had ridden a Honda C90 when she was younger.
I bought a few copies of Back Street Heroes and ogled over the custom bikes (the girls draped over them didn’t hurt, either). I read an opinion piece bemoaning the rise of young riders and wrote a letter describing how I yearned for the day I turned 16 when I could finally ride. I received a letter from the magazine with a request from a girl named Rof (nickname for Ruth, if I remember correctly) to correspond. It’s a measure of my fantastic skills with girls that, when she requested a photo, I sent a passport-sized copy of my school photo, specs, centre parting and tie/blazer. I didn’t hear from her again. Crushing…
When the time finally arrived (a bit before I turned 16), I went to our local motorcycle dealer, Ron Edwards and agreed to buy a spiffy little motocross-style Yamaha DT 50 MX. If I remember right, it was an F-registered model, so 1989-ish. I think it cost me £575, which was all the money I had in the world. I never considered what I understood as a moped, a step-thru. I wanted a proper bike. This was before scooters (other than Vespa and Lambretta) were really popular with young males. I guess there’s something masculine about being astride something, rather than perched with your feet neatly together in the footwell, like nice girls do. Now, swarms of teenage boys whine about the place on nasty little scooters. I still wouldn’t consider riding one.
While I waited to be old enough to ride on the road, I would ride that thing up and down my parents garden, and along their drive. When my birthday finally arrived, my parents gift was to pay towards my tax, insurance and CBT.
The CBT was actually a lot of fun. Ron Edwards took my bike up to the training site on an old runway at Dunkeswell where we did the initial off-road training. Then the on-road portion took us through Honiton and the surrounding area. At the end of the day, we all rode back towards Cullompton together before I peeled off and hacked across country back home.
Now, the thing about that bike, that I didn’t realise when I bought it, was that it had been fitted with an expanded front pipe, which derestricted it significantly so that it could just about top 50mph. At age 16, in the UK, you are limited to a 49cc vehicle with a top speed of 30mph. Doing 50mph felt like flying. The first chance I got, I filled up and headed off up to Exmoor, just bombing around the moors. I ended up at Tarr Steps, and then accidentally went offroad down a track.
I loved that bike. I had one minor tumble on it when I braked on wet leaves turning into my parents driveway. The front wheel went out from under me and I panicked when I couldn’t change gear afterwards. The gear shift had got slightly bent and caught on the engine case. I bent it straight with a claw hammer and replaced the snapped clutch lever.
I have never been very mechanically-minded. My Dad is not a tinkerer with cars and I didn’t know anybody else who did. Something about practical electrics makes my head spin. Having my own vehicle did make me more likely to tinker a little. I had some problems with the carbs, with water getting into them, and I bought the Haynes manual and did some fiddling with them before taking the bike back to the dealer to get it looked at. The only other thing I recall doing is that the speedo stopped working and I traced it to a knackered worm gear, which I somehow managed to replace myself. I also, for some unknown reason, deciding that the paint on the tank looked bad, chose to do a half-arsed job of respraying it with a rattle can, leaving the decals intact. The result, naturally, looked much worse than before.
The end came when I was going around a roundabout and suddenly the front pipe blew out. The noise was incredible (to me). I don’t think I knew about gun gum at the time. It would probably have done the job. I replaced the front pipe with a pattern version and the magic was lost. Suddenly I was restricted to 30mph and it was unbelievably frustrating. I sold the bike to a kid for £425 and bought a guitar, an Epiphone SG in Cherry Red.
I never lost the desire to be a biker, though, and although I couldn’t afford to get a bigger bike, I still vaguely plotted about it. During my year out, between A-levels and starting university, I reasoned that if I took my full bike test then, by the time I was in a position to buy another bike, all restrictions would have been lifted (if you take your test under the age of 21, you have to do it on a 125cc bike and after passing you are (or were) limited to a particular power to weight ratio for 2 years). I spent a few days riding around Taunton in the pouring rain on a training course, before taking my test and passing first time (I already passed my driving test, also first time, earlier the same year).
That was the end of my biking for nearly 4 years! I still can’t quite believe that number. I finished my gap year, went away to university where I had no need for transport, changed courses and then spent an “industrial year” in Winchester working for IBM. It was at that point that I started to seriously think about biking again. My girlfriend and I were planning on moving in together in Birmingham while I finished my final year in Nottingham. The most sensible option for commuting seemed to be a bike, and with her encouragement I started looking at bigger, commuter bikes.
After doing some research, I settled on a Suzuki GS500. I had compared it to the available options (Honda CB500 etc) and had looked at what was available at the time. I found one on Auto Trader that was £1200 and included hard luggage and a sports fairing. I trundled out to look at it, breaking all the rules of inspecting a used bike, turning up when it was already dark and not having anybody with me etc. I had got there by a mixture of train and buses, and foot, getting horribly lost in the process.
Between agreeing to buy it, and actually collecting it, I travelled to Southampton for a 1-day “Back to Biking” course with Motag as it had been so long since I had last ridden anything, and I’d never ridden anything bigger than 125cc. I spent the morning riding a 125cc bike around, before graduating to a 400cc bike (I forget the model). It gave me a lot more confidence and was well worth it.
When I went to pick it up, I took (then girlfriend) Hannah, despite never having taken a pillion before. I decided to avoid dual carriageways and motorways for that ride home to Winchester, and we got horribly lost again, ending up passing a sign for Reading and deciding “sod it, let’s go to your parents for the night”.
That was the first time I really felt like a biker. It was my, indeed our, only form of transport other than public transport. I rode it to work, I rode it up to Birmingham to see Hannah. When we moved in together in Birmingham I rode it to Nottingham for my lectures. We rode down to visit my parents in Devon, to Anglesey with tent and camping gear and to the New Forest for a mini-break. Hannah was obviously very comfortable with my riding as she would often fall asleep on the back. The first I would know was when her helmet would hit me in the back. Thankfully she nearly always stayed upright, although occasionally she would slump over to the side, triggering frantic poking in the leg from me.
I read Motorcycle Roadcraft: The Police Rider’s Handbook to Better Motorcycling at the time, which is highly recommended. It didn’t stop me getting complacent and having my first accident, however.
I was riding through Winchester and a car pulled out in front of me from a car park, from behind a car parked on the road. I failed to stop in time, glancing off the front of the car and ending up lying in the road with the bike on my leg. Somehow, both the bike and I escaped serious injury. Her fault, but I blamed myself for failing to observe the risk and slowing down. The policeman who interviewed me at the scene seemed to agree :-/
I also learned something about servicing, MOTs and big dealers. Here is a quote from my blog at the time of the bike’s first MOT:
On top of having my bike cover stolen, my worst fears over Storm’s service were confirmed. I rode down to Chichester, and was given a complete hunk of junk of a Honda CB500 to ride back. “It’s got some petrol in it, apparently”. I took that as “it’s not got much petrol in it” and went off, hoping to find a petol station fairly soon. Of course, nothing. I missed the only service station on the M27, foolishly, and ran out of fuel between Portsmouth and Southampton. Suffice to say that I had to make a red-faced call to the RAC.
I then got a phone call from the garage, saying that Storm’s forks are bent. Bad enough news in itself, but as they say “and there’s more”. They didn’t have the parts to fix it, and they couldn’t book me in for a month. They also quoted Â£750 just for the forks to be sorted. Ouch. I phoned up a more local Suzuki dealer, and they quoted pretty much the same. I was not in the best of moods by now. Anyhoo, I spent the rest of the day alternately sweating, feeling sick, and phoning other alternatives. I finally found a small local garage who basically said “how much?!”. Which made me feel better. I’ve taken Storm there, and they reckon the forks can be straightened, rather than replaced. Phew. I still got stiffed for £120 for a change of oil and spark-plugs, though. I’ll be avoiding the big dealers in future. Stick to the small, independent garages.
The upshot of that was that the small garage had the forks rolled straight, new rear tyre, front disk, service and MOT for £280. Lesson learned.
My experience of motorcylce mechanics was elementary, and illustrated by my attempt to change the oil filter. The filter was retained by a faceplace with studs and nuts. I failed to replace the o-ring, and when I added the new oil it started to leak. In my naivety, I tried tweaking the nuts tighter, shearing off one of the studs. There was no bike shop anywhere nearby, but thankfully a scooter dealer not far away agreed to take a look and was able to sort it out for me after I pushed it there. Dodgy studs has been a recurring theme, unfortunately.
The time came to “upgrade” to a car, and I sold the Suzuki.
My reintroduction to biking came with the need to commute daily from Reading to Farnborough. The traffic was extremely painful by car, and a bike seemed like a better idea. Funds were extremely limited so, scouring the local ads, I found a Kawasaki GT550 for sale. I duly went to see it, rode it a short distance and bought it.
That bike served me well. It had a surprising turn of speed, and I loved the fact that it had a shaft drive and I didn’t have to mess around with chain lube. It was a real workhorse, which I believe they are known for. It got superficially smashed up when I braked on ice at the bottom of a hill, the headlamp cowl mostly. Essentially, I rode it into the ground, to the point it became unviable to get everything fixed and I sold it for parts/repair on ebay.
To replace the GT550, I bought another Kawasaki. Not quite so practical. A 1985 Kawasaki EN450 LTD.
It’s a crazy little belt-driven, cruiser-styled thing that has insane acceleration for its size and age. I used it to commute until I changed jobs and no longer needed it. It was becoming harder and harder to start, and sat unused for over a year when it plain refused to start. I had it looked at by a local garage, and they got it starting. I planned to ride it to Wales for our family holiday and had it idling on the drive while I suited up, when it suddenly cut out, having lost all electrics. One time, the dash lit up again after turning the handlebars, but nothing since. I have now decided to make it a project bike and am in the middle of a complete teardown to get it into the shed. In the meantime, I have bought a full-power 1991 Yamaha V-Max from a friend, which we are wrestling with to get the old exhaust off (more broken studs) and get it MOT-ready. This has become a saga in its own right, and will be the subject of a post of its own.