22nd October 2012
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Ian Caswell cut his motorcycling teeth on moped mayhem at a place called The Paddock, and recalls his teenage tearaway days...
Bikers tend to congregate. In every town there is a natural meeting place where tyres will be kicked, friends made, deals done and adventures planned. Back in the day, our place was known as 'The Paddock', and was a place of myth and legend long before I finally got my Fizzie onto the road. It's long gone now, sacrificed on the altar of increased town centre parking. As Joni Mitchell said 'They paved paradise…', except in this case the Council took one parking lot that had character and significance for at least a few residents, and filled in the space between the piers with rubble to make a huge innocuous tarmac slab. Oh well.
On day one of my road legality, the rain poured as a saturated wretch, too broke from buying the bike to have afforded waterproofs, rode falteringly into this lion's den. Then courage failed me and I promptly wobbled out again. I could almost feel the derision of the hairy leather-clads behind me. Many of you will know how it goes, I'm sure?
In the first few days of exhilarating, town-circulating freedom, I spotted a similar bike doing a similar thing. There followed a slow motion pursuit where no ground was given, no quarter asked. With moped throttles wound to the stops, we were Hailwood; Sheene; heroes of our own personal racetrack. Riding similar mounts, our exhausts screamed, teeth were gritted and chins pressed to fuel tanks to extract the last morsel of the raw power available. Yet, our relative positions changed excruciatingly slowly as milk floats and Zimmer-framed little old ladies sailed past, but it didn't matter.
There were no winners and no losers until eventually a traffic light changed to red, bringing us level. Acknowledgements were nodded and we pulled in to the side of the road to talk. It was like making first contact with an alien world for me, a call to arms from which I have never either looked back or recovered.
The Paddock, the most westerly of three piers in Bangor, Northern Ireland, was roughly divided in two. An increasingly neglected funfair occupied the sea end, the inner half was land bound on one side, with a small beach on the other. It was laid out for car parking on the beach side, with a rectangular, flat roofed 1940's public building opposite that. In it was a small pay booth for the putting green laid out around the town clock, public loos, and an area of sheltered seating that was invariably occupied by the local bikers on summer evenings and weekends. Late on race days at the nearby Kirkistown track, or after the annual Carrowdore road races, the whole of the pier would reverberate to the sound of open megaphones and expansion pipes as those returning to Belfast or beyond stopped off to chew the fat. Entering on a moped could be dangerous.
One friend, Fred Blair, an apprentice at the local VW dealership, was foolish enough to leave his Fizzie there unattended on a day when an outlaw bike gang had taken up residence. On his return, there was no sign of his much beloved steed until a search revealed it had been launched over the seaside railings, its bars and pedals on one side stuck into the fortunately soft sand, but covered by six or seven feet of salty water. Only hours later when the tide eventually receded was a rescue possible. Happily after a good hose down and cleaning of all the important parts, it didn't suffer much damage, but its fate was to forever after be known as 'The Yellow Submarine'.
That first biking summer was spent hanging out at a local country park, the Paddock a revered utopia to which we must yet graduate. And there were girls. They came from the big houses nearby, or on day trips to the park. Girls too inexperienced to realise that the chat-up lines of the thick adolescents wooing them were far from eloquent. The results could be hilarious.Yamaha FS1 DX
I remember watching from the wings while one of our number tried his best with a local beauty. As his confidence gained in strength, they separated from the crowd and walked quietly off, disappearing from our view behind bushes before bridging a stream. Merciless wretches that we were, a number of us soon followed to see how he got on. From cover on the other side of the stream we watched as he turned solemnly to her, reached out to hold her hands and came off with the immortal line, 'Dearest darling Belinda; with your hair; will you go out with me?' Long before she could give answer to his attempted romance, the bush on our side of the river erupted with laughter, while on their side skins reddened and retreats were rapidly made. Strangely, she never did go out with him after that, and disappeared from our company soon after. I wonder why?
The summer was spent extending the boundaries of our world. Petrol was expensive (it crossed the £1 per gallon barrier that summer), so often our trips were limited by the funding available, but when possible we buzzed around the countryside always attempting to ground our pedals on any half-decent corner. We tried off-road riding on a horse exercise track, wheelies and loads of other stupid stunts. The learning curve on maintenance was equally steep. While chains could be relatively easily adjusted by following the instructions in the bike's handbook, more complex tasks often led to a dangerous communal pooling of adolescent minds. Bodging would be a compliment for some of what went on, and if this was the case nationally, has surely led to the relative sacristy of these 1970's mopeds now.
One owner of an exotic Italian bike wanted to change its points and so went off to the local dealer, coming back with the correct part. So far so good, but like many of these bikes the points were located behind the bike's flywheel, and there were only small windows in it to allow adjustment. Things went downhill when, aided by screwdrivers stuck into inappropriate engine orifices, he eventually locked the crank enough to remove the flywheel nut, leaving war scars on the engine's alloy. The audience were duly impressed by progress to date until he was asked how he planned to remove the flywheel from its taper without the necessary puller.
'No problem', said he, promptly kicking the bike to life and holding the throttle against the stop. After several seconds of this barbarity there was a loud crack, as a couple of pounds of spinning metal shot off across the driveway, the garden and the road beyond. Only a 16 year old mind is capable of even considering a technique like that, and worse yet, of congratulating its ingenuity after searching through the neighbouring hedges for the resulting wreckage.
Next episode: the boys turn 17. Big bikes (well, a Black Bomber) loom…
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