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2nd April 2003
Why ride a Tiger 100 across Canada when there are far more suitable bikes for the job? Why ride a Tiger 100? Why ride, at all? Dave Minton addresses this business of why
The response to RealClassic's first Bendswingin' seems to have aroused curiosity and comment about the reasons why any of us took up motorcycling in the first place. Now, to even remotely compare myself to William Shakespeare would be to reveal five kinds of a fool. However, his unparalleled success as a playwright was founded largely on one thing, which was not, as so many of us believe, in his magical grammar but in his singular talent for revealing universal truths through the personal and subjective experience of his characters.
I had often wondered why so many enthusiasts in conversation ask, after reading a road test report of the brightest and best new bike; 'But what do you really think about it?' And this a whole generation beyond the old days when readers of any wit out of necessity developed a talent for reading between the lines to get at the truth. Pity the poor modern road testing journalist. In the past 20 years the truly bad motorcycle has virtually disappeared and in the past 10 exploring their extraordinary performance parameters on the highways they were designed for has become all but impossible.
To get back to the subject in hand. I have grown to realise that what readers in conversation are querying is not the veracity of the road test report itself. Oh no, but from a personal conversation they feel more able to understand the reality of the machine than the stark figures of the printed page reveal. It's better to read me -- facial expression, voice tone, body language -- than the magazine report.
Of even greater significance, as Shakespeare demonstrated, interpreting my findings about the subject once my character had been assessed, puts the road test readers in conversation fair and square with themselves -- their own feelings.
Therefore I suspect that the queries received about and around the business of choosing a first year T100 to ride across Canada, when quite plainly a modern motorcycle would demand much less, is more to do with the intensely personal feelings that lead to the choice. And this, as you will probably understand by now, was defined by major life-forgings long, long before I even owned the old Trumpet.
So I shall tell you about my discovery of motorcycling. I hope I am correct in the assumption that in my revelation you will discover something of your own love of motorcycles.
On my ninth birthday in 1947 my father decided I was responsible enough to take the pillion seat of his hand-change 1930-something Royal Enfield 350 Bullet. We lived on a north Essex farm and each day he rode the Bullet the 55 miles to work in London. The winters of the time were ferocious beyond anything now yet his protective clothing comprised little more than an RAF bomber crew flying suit remodelled as best possible, a leather flying helmet and gauntlets and his old fire service leather boots. Nothing much better was available then. He would sometimes arrive home in the evening inside a carapace of ice and snow, (which he welcomed for its draught-proofing qualities), so frozen after his two-hour ride that he was unable to speak or unhook his hands from their handlebar clench. My mother, with me more hindering than helping, could not easily release him from his icy bonds. Even now I recall the cocoon of Arctic air that swirled about him as he stood in front of the glowing kitchen range.
Although the distress that my father's winter motorcycling caused him upset me, I also saw in it adventure of the highest sort, easily comparable with Captain Scott's exploits. This, though, happened not in some impossibly far distant place beyond the reach of ordinary folk, but was here and now and of the day itself. Sometimes I would don his huge, black leather boots and in them try to ride my bicycle with some vague notion of emulation, but with feet barely half the length of the boots the attempt caused me nothing but anguish during inevitable crashes half way down the farm's steep, rough driveway.
The early autumn weather of my ninth birthday was blissfully warm. My father gave me a small size leather flying helmet, just like his own, and flared gauntlets (which I later discovered were from an ex-Girl Guide leader), also just like his own, flying goggles so big they almost met around the back of my head and a navy blue battledress-type jacket retailored by my mother to fit me. I clambered onto the pillion seat, gripped the leather belt my father had worn for that very purpose, and thrilled to the wholly unanticipated life I felt in the Bullet as he kicked it into roaring activity.
We went to Bishops Stortford, 25 miles distant. Behind my father's broad back and over the careering, quaking Bullet I flew, my mind in a delirium of pure joy as we bent the whirling world to our will. Much less than the thrill of speed -- for experience in the Sunbeam, Riley, MG and Lagonda sports cars of friends and relations had given me that -- I marvelled at the streams of varying air temperature we broke through: cool shaded woods, burning hillsides, the thin sunshine over hilltops. The smells of the countryside too: the dry-dust of harvesting, the cloying body-reek of dairy farms, the acrid stink of manure heaps, the clean perfume of late hay, the honeyed scent of hedgerow meadowsweet.
The pleasures of riding unmetalled highways across miles of deserted countryside much later in life revealed me to be part of the scene itself rather than, as with a metalled road, isolated me from it. In similar manner as a boy I discovered my father's secret passion. Without words I understood in that first hour's sunny pillioning why my father's winter suffering was so significant, yet so unimportant compared to the better part of his riding. Unlike a train or car, a motorcycle made its traveller part of the world he was in. Therein lay the magnificent drama of the motorcycling.
Two incidents especially made a profound impression, each quite different, each a door into the magical fraternity of two powered wheels.
The first occurred late one Sunday morning as my father pasted the Bullet homeward towards lunch. A few miles from home, he pulled to the roadside and over the idling engine turned in the saddle. 'You know that humpback rail bridge up the road?' I did. 'I reckon if we take it at over sixty we should get both wheels airborne. What d'y think?' What was good for my Dad was sauce to me. I could hardly believe my luck.
Not until years later, while I was recovering from injuries received while trying hard not to lose a downhill race through a beech wood's bracken on an air-head Beemer, did it occur to me that in 1947 my father was then younger than myself on the Beemer, and no more sensible.
I clung to the belt as the Bullet thundered to the bridge. For all his brave attempts to prove otherwise, my father never squeezed more than 65mph out of his Enfield. Even this modest velocity, I was to find out, was quite enough to hurl us free from the safe and nurturing bosom of good Mother Earth. At the peak of the bridge's sharp hump the bike gave a lurch and for few seconds the engine seemed to run in silence and the ride was silken.
We crashed to earth with such violence it stunned me. I remember the metallic screech of the unhinged rear mudguard tail section as it scraped over crumbling asphalt, and this hauled me back to the world of the living sufficiently for me to become aware that I was no longer sitting on the pillion seat. I was instead hanging diagonally down the right side of the Bullet, both hands with a death-grip on my father's belt and both feet scraping along the road.
Not 50 yards ahead was a T-junction, the approach thick with yellow gravel. Confused by the shock of the landing and barely in control of a motorcycle upset by the lopsided lurch of its pillion passenger, my father gripped the Bullet's brakes with what must have been demonic strength. Across the loose gravel under the fading bite of their puny brakes the wheels locked and we slid sideways.
One instance all had been chaos, in the next the world was still. Clinging to the belt I realised we had stopped moving. Instead of the roaring engine and yawping metal was nothing more than the faint clangour of a distant ridge roller across a field. 'All right Son?' Still seated, my father turned and with one arm hefted me upright. The sun felt warm and welcoming through my jacket. Somewhat subdued, I helped to haul the motorcycle from the centre to the side of that empty country lane in Constable's elm-studded countryside.
After he had refastened the rear mudguard section and made sure all was well with the three of us, my father kicked the bike into life. It needed a good many lunges. I clambered up behind him and over his shoulder the man who in my eyes could do anything and everything, said, quite unconsciously, to his wondering son. 'Eh, don't you tell your mother.' His voice was low and easy, lacking emphasis. It was, I knew, my entry into the world of men and kept the pride of it to myself.
A year later one Saturday we were returning home from a hospital visit in Chelmsford, where my interest had been riveted to the sky by an aerial defence exercise between attacking Meteors, the new jet fighters, and defence by the last of the Spitfires. As we left the hospital a flight of 'our' Spitfires howled vengefully after a group of 'their' fleeing Meteors. My Father volunteered the information that the centre of the action would be around North Weald, a major RAF aerodrome in the south of the county. How would I like to go there?
We sped west for no more than 12 miles along the A122. I became aware that this ride was different to all others because we slowed for nothing, neither village nor the very occasional car. The road was a bumpy one and at what was plainly the uttermost reaches of its performance the Bullet slammed into a sunken repair patch, its girder fork bottoming with a hammer-like blow and the solid rear end socking me briefly from my perch. I heard a clash of metal and a jangle of breaking glass and my father reached forward to knock the swinging headlamp light unit, now bereft of its vitals, which lay behind us in on the road, back into its empty shell. The Bullet's engine note remained at its bellowing maximum.
A few minutes later something hit my leg, then again. I peered down to see the gaping toolbox shedding its contents. 'Dad, Dad.' I yelled around the big body in front of me. 'The tool box is open and...' My father's arm turned behind and patted me reassuringly. But he said nothing at all and the Bullet thundered onward. I understood, I really did, and loved every mad, blissful, moment.
In this modern world there is nothing remotely comparable but then, in a Britain made haggard by the fight for survival and warmed by the afterglow of victory, the Spitfire beyond and above all else was our symbol of all that was good and great and free. On that day my father knew that we were witnessing the ultimate test of its survival, something far more deadly than a Messerchmidt -- a new age jet. This too, though less clearly, I also saw. We were not hurtling mindlessly but in the hope of grasping a final vision of Britain's glory before it was swept aside by progress.
Once at North Weald we actually saw very little of course. I was as transfixed by a flight of Meteors fuming distantly overhead as I was by another of Spitfires landing. My father refastened what was left of the gaping headlamp then shoved a whittled stick through the catch of the empty toolbox, and he grinned at me. 'Enjoying yourself?'
We turned homeward in the afternoon sunshine, sober now. Somewhere along the road home we stopped to watch a village cricket match. Miraculously during those days of national bread-and-scrape, someone was selling ice cream. It was the first I had ever tasted and we sat together under the chestnut trees licking our fingers and laughing over the mess. Behind us the old Bullet ticked to itself.
Allan Aspel was my editor when in the period of the latter Sixties and early Seventies I worked with him on the old magazine Motorcyclist Illustrated. One day, on some long-forgotten escapade with BMWs, we stopped for lunch at a pub high on the Cotswolds. There we fell into conversation with an old chap who on his Rudge had toured the Continent in the late 1920s. We stayed all afternoon. As we were preparing to leave Allan murmured in his quiet way, 'You know what I love about motorcycling? It's not so much the bikes, it's what they lead you to.'
He was right of course but so am I, surely. It's what I was led to all those years ago that has given me my love of motorcycles.
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