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30th August 2005

Back To Biking

Kim Porter rode British bikes back in the 1970s. How would it feel going back to biking on a modern machine after all those years away?

I have recently returned to biking after a short interval away (a mere 28 years). Not with a classic bike I'm sorry to say, but one of those new-fangled Japanese things. Back in the early seventies (when I and my friends looked down on 'Jap-crap' with the narrow-minded, vociferous snobbery of which only motorcyclists are capable) I used to ride a few machines that might be termed 'classics' today but in those days were simply 'old bikes' - Velocette Viper, BSA A50, BSA A10.

Of course back in the seventies, everything was hand drawn.

I used to fiddle around enough - with a bit of help - to keep them on the road but never became really adept as a mechanic. Having said that I did manage to rebuild the top end of the Viper in the summer of 1972 when it seized after unexpectedly dropping all its oil (although, remembering the bike, perhaps the oil episode shouldn't have been that unexpected!).

Anyway, back to the present (can you go back to the present?). Being slightly vertically challenged I was concerned about finding a modern bike that would fit me. Visiting the BMF rally in 2004 I tried the new Honda CBFs with the adjustable seats, bars etc, which fitted great. These are specifically aimed at new and returning riders. As Honda put it themselves: 'The choice of bikes available can often be limited by the daunting reach to the ground on many midsize and larger machines, especially to those still gingerly gathering the experience needed for confident control.'

The CBF600 has an adjustable seat and handlebars and a detuned Hornet engine, all nicely packaged in a style perhaps best described as modern-retro. The CBF500 is built to the same frame but the seat and bars are fixed at the lower settings.

Another 12 months went by before I took the plunge and bought a year old CBF500 last Easter. I did a day's refresher course with Cooper BMW in Reading just to get enough confidence to pick my new bike up and ride it home. Great day - it was one-to-one training they gave me a BMW F650 GS, a sort of 'enduro' semi-offroad thing. The engine was single cylinder and reminded me a lot of my old Viper (apart from the electric start, disc brakes, indicators, heated grips etc!).

I spent most of the day doing low speed control exercises around a car park before going out on the road later in the afternoon. I was amazed how it all came back to me, the trickiest thing was getting used to the gear pedal and back brake pedal being on the opposite side to the old British bikes. Incredibly, after all these years my instinct was still to stab the gear pedal when I was trying to brake.

BSA stuff on

It took about six weeks to two months to get full riding confidence back, but now I'm having the time of my life! I work from home so I don't have the opportunity to use the bike to commute, but I get out on it as often as I can - family commitments permitting.

The CBF loaded to the gunnels - looks like I planned to be away a month instead of three days! (Now that would be good...)

Back in the seventies I toured completely around Scotland on my BSAs which was wonderful and was something I was determined to repeat on my new steed. I got a long weekend a few weeks ago and cleared off on the Thursday evening with all my camping gear strapped to the bike. I stopped overnight with the mother-in-law in Northallerton, up early the next morning to cross the Penines to Penrith, up to Carlisle and then onto the A74 to Glasgow. Except the A74 no longer exists as it has been superceded by the M74. However, they seem to have left the original A74 in place and simply renamed it the B7076.

The result is that for the 60 odd miles between Carlisle and Glasgow you have the original old A-road, with its good surface and broad sweeping curves, running parallel with the new motorway but completely empty of traffic. 200 yards away you can see all the lorries and cars ploughing up the motorway while you have this superb, forgotten road all to yourself.

Once through Glasgow I was free, following the road by Loch Lomand and on up as far as Oban. My plan had been to camp on the isle of Mull, but it was really too late, I only had two nights so I decided to base myself in Oban and go over to Mull the following morning and spend the day there. Nice, spacious campsite just outside the town.

The bike has a well earned rest at the campsite at Oban.

The following morning I rode down to the Caledonian Macbrayne booking office to sort out a return ferry to Mull. Rather than travel there and back from Oban which would be relatively expensive for the short time I would be there, it being a Saturday, I took the decision instead to take the ride round to Lochaline for the shorter ferry-ride across to Fishnish on Mull.

This involved a 70 mile journey north by Loch Linnhe, taking the short ferry across it (5.00 for bikes) and back down the other side of the loch on the A884 to Lochaline. For an A-road it was more akin to a country lane a single track winding through wooded hills for thirty miles or so with hardly another vehicle in sight.

Reaching Lochaline I had another delightful ferry journey to land up on Mull at last.

Near Ballachulish on the day out to Mull.

As a student I spent that hot summer of 1976 working behind the bar of the Glenforsa Hotel on Mull, living in a caravan with my A10. That BSA was brilliant until the return journey home to Leicester. The fine weather broke and it tipped it down the whole way. Somewhere north of Leeds the gearbox jammed in fourth. It's a testament to the torque of those old twins that I could still stop for petrol and get the bike rolling bump start it and pull away with much clutch slipping, obviously - all in fourth gear, to eventually get it home.

Arriving home from Oban, late evening after 14 hours in the saddle.This time around I only had a couple of hours, so I sped onto Tobermory, parked up and wondered around the delightful bay, bought a few souvenirs for the family before riding across the island for the ferry back to Oban.

The following day, Sunday (this is now, not 1976 - do stay awake) I did the return home in one day again. The bike was fine - no jammed gearboxes this time - but I wasn't God, those years have taken their toll!

I was really dangerously knackered by the time I got onto the A1 and eventually had to stop about every thirty miles to get a coffee and stretch my seized up limbs.

My wrist was almost paralysed with the ache of keeping the throttle open - and of course with six gears instead of four it had to work that much harder. I should really have stopped for safety's sake, but I had to be back for a meeting the following morning.

The roads in Scotland were as fabulous as I remembered. When I left Oban at about 7am on the Sunday morning to take the A85 it was raining. For the forty mile or so between Connel and Crianlarich I must have seen no more than about three cars, and this was a majestic sweeping A-road through the most awe inspiring scenery you could imagine. Honestly, it was almost a religious experience - the rain seemed to add to the magic - it was still warm and the mist and clouds over the mountains and on the lochs was so beautiful. And because it was wet you could really smell and feel part of the landscape.

On the A884 to Lochaline.

It was worth getting back into biking for that stretch of road alone!

Well, if you've got this far thanks for reading. Sorry I don't have a classic! I just wish I was one of those people who could afford more than one bike - then I might consider getting hold of another BSA A50 - I think that was my favourite. But then again I would probably have to get the spanners out - perhaps one of those nice looking W650s would be easier...

If you're wondering what happened the A10, I'm afraid it came to a sorry end. It was stolen from outside my parents home in Leicester at Christmas 1976, thus marking the end of my first phase of biking. I don't know how long this current phase will last, but long enough to get away on a few more mini-adventures I hope.

The ill fated A10. I did this illustration, based on a photograph, while at art college in 1975. The gaunt, hairy, ghost faced individual is supposedly me, although I can't see much resemblance when I look in the mirror now. You can see the bike wasn't entirely standard, the oil tank and tool chest were chromed, as were the forks and headlight. Wish I had it back now.


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