23rd September 2016
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Famous Last Words 40: The Eternal Optimist
For some classic bike riders, a misfire is a temporary inconvenience, a problem that will surely pass. Frank Westworth pays tribute to a rider who has always looked on the brighter side...
Are you easily pleased? Are you an eternal optimist? Do you feel deep down that things are utterly fabbo and can only improve as time passes? Me neither.
But I do have at least one pal who is that way inclined. Does that mean he walks on a slant? Who knows. One rider of enormous impossible speed and cornering excellence is inclined in the incurably optimistic direction. I know this because at one time we would ride together a lot. Dozens of whole miles, sometimes ever more. It was an exhausting experience. I cannot recommend it. In fact, I cannot recommend riding with others at all. They either act like insane persons with a pressing deathwish or they have the dynamism and reaction speeds of a comatose sloth. Maniacs or mainly asleep. The only rider who rides at a proper speed is me. Riding with my pal always confirmed this within yards of setting out. The rest of the endurance was just a purgatorial self-punishing experience, like admitting to a passion for Velocette twins. Best kept quiet.
He was astonishing to follow. And although those of us of a democratic bent would probably swap the lead rider rôle during the trip, if only to inflict revenge upon our companion, there was never any point with my pal. On one particularly gruelling ride he’d passed me within a hundred yards of setting out and I didn’t see him again until I rolled up to the appointed lunch spot, sweating hard and more than a little nervy after scanning every hedge, tree and ditch for his remains. He was sitting chatting coolly with a delicious waitress while she was refilling his coffee mug. The engine of his pre-war Triumph twin was cold to the touch. The engine of the Yamaha V-Max I was riding was boiling.
It was always the same. We would set out, aboard machines of every kind, sometimes of similar performance, but more often not, and he would wave amiably and vanish to the far horizons. I think I started to believe in Star Trek wormholes around that time. And if his riding was terrifying, then his optimism was enough to induce suicidal tendencies.
We’d shared a convivial evening, and it was time for him to ride the hundred miles or so back home. Darkness was all around, it being after midnight, and the rain was relentless, its ferocity matched only by the driving gale. Only a madman would venture forth on a motorcycle – especially a 1930s twin whose only saving grace was a bronze cylinder head – on a night like that. He didn’t care. He needed to be back home that night so he could get off early in the morning to be somewhere else. The distances involved were impossible in the time. During daylight. On dry roads. I suggested that he stayed over. Or borrowed the car. Not a hope. Not one. He tucked his cavalry twill trews into his golfing-patterned English socks with a tiny grumblette that his stout brogues would fill with water. He turned up the fur collar of his Swedish policeman’s riding coat against the howl of the night, snapped the strap of his pudding basin helmet tight and hauled on a pair of gauntlets of the kind last seen in a 1927 movie about the trawlermen of Arran. Then he was gone.
He returned within a minute to ask whether he could borrow a torch. A torch? Of course he could. But why?
‘Wretched lights have failed, Frank. I replaced the battery in 1981 but the damned thing’s flat. I should have kept the Lucas regulator, these solid-state ones are just junk.’
‘But…’ I tried, but he was gone. I wondered how he was holding the torch while riding.
I know – and I know that you know too – that the misfire on the twin will only get worse and then the engine will stop. Miles from a cell phone signal and in an inconvenient place. He knows, and he is never wrong, that the same misfire will clear after a few miles and that the sun will soon come out. We are both correct. How does this happen?
When he does break down – even the gods have a sense of humour – it is always outside a friendly café whose owner refuses to take payment while my pal drinks limitless coffees and awaits an angel in a yellow van. Or a friend. Or, more likely, a passing expert in 1930s Lucas electrics who happens by, pockets jammed with voltmeters and spare voltage control units. There’s a brush salesman joke there somewhere.
Not so long ago, this friend of mine sold not one but two terrifyingly expensive super-rare classics for much less than you might expect. I have no idea why. He has replaced them with an unremarkable not particularly modern machine of distant easterly extraction which is worthless.
‘Far better bike!’ he exclaims. ‘I love it!’ He always talks in exclamation marks. And if he claims that the bike is brilliant, without flaw or fault, then it will be. This is the power of optimism. I wish I knew how it worked.
Regular RC readers will know exactly who ‘he’ is, of course…
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